The Battle of Waterloo

You, whose greatcoats were lithely streaming,
Reminiscent of broad sails,
Whose voice and spurs were gaily ringing
Like silver bells,

Whose eyes, like diamonds, were leaving
On hearts their delightful trace,–
The charming fops of vanished being
In time and space.
(Marina Tsvetaeva, To the Generals of 1812)

“The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815, near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.”

Two hundred years ago two very ambitious generals met in the battlefield.

Napoleon Bonaparte, former Emperor of the French, and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had a lot in common: both were forty-six years old, born only a few month apart; both had very little interest in education, but could make rapid and precise mental calculations; overconfident and dictatorial, both were unhappily married yet loved by many women. The difference between them was one — but a major one: Wellington was born noble, while Napoleon was not… That defined their characters: almost “supernaturally balanced” Wellington was not vain in any sense, treated everyone equally, with the same directness, from monarchs to soldiers; Napoleon admired pomp, power and attention; treated people as inferiors, including kings and princes. Wellington cared for his soldiers, never sacrificed his troops for a quick victory; Napoleon was his complete opposite, could not stand rivals and claimed all credits for victories for himself. He never learned from his failures, in which he usually blamed others.

The battle of Waterloo was one of the bloodiest at the time. More than fifty thousand men and countless horses were left dead on the field at the end of the day.

It seems that fate was not on Napoleon’s side this time. It had been raining the whole night before, and by the dawn the battlefield turned into a bog. Napoleon’s cannons got stuck in the heavy mud up to the axles; Wellington’s smaller troops were positioned uphill, so Napoleon’s cavalry could not effectively attack; while Wellington was athletic and exceptionally fit, Napoleon’s suffering from hemorrhoids that day was also seen by historians as the reason for his failure; both sides were exhausted in the five hours of fighting, when Blucher with his Prussian troops arrived and decided the outcome of the battle in favor of the Allies. This ended Napoleon’s military career and the war which was going on and off since 1805.

big-book2Here in Special Collections we have a very beautiful book, A Summary of the Life of Arthur Duke of Wellington: from His First Achievements to the Decisive Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815, by Robert Southey.

Known mostly as one of the finest poets of the so called “Lake School”, Robert Southey (1774-1843) was also known to his contemporaries as a biographer of John Wesley and Lord Nelson, and to the majority of us as the author of “The Three Bears”.

The book in our collection is bound in a crimson morocco leather with gold tooled borders. But the most delightful secret lurks in its fore-edge paining. Practically unnoticeable to the unsuspecting reader, it suddenly reveals a battlefield when edges are squeezed properly. You can then see charging soldiers, explosions… And if you look long enough you might even hear a distant rumble of cannons!

foreedge1

wellington

Salamanca, Wellington’s Masterpiece

Portrait of Wellington from Baines' History of the Wars of the French Revolution (London, 1817). The word Wellington is a facsimile of the General's signature.July 22, 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Salamanca. While Napoleon was in the midst of his Russian campaign, other generals were busy consolidating France’s position in Spain against a combined force of English, Portuguese, and Spanish rebels.

Though Wellington is probably best remembered for the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the battle at Salamanca is often called his masterpiece. On the afternoon of July 22nd, after a full day of fighting, Wellington recognized a weakness in the French army lines. His decisive orders for attack led to a rapid victory for the British forces.

The relative quickness of the British success following this action inspired friends and enemies. The French general Maximilien Foy famously declared “Wellington defeated an army of 40,000 in 40 minutes” when he wrote about his experience at Salamanca in his journal. Robert Southey’s account of the battle from his book Life of Wellington emphasized the dramatic moment Wellington gave his orders.Page from Southey's "Life of Wellington" (Dublin, 1816) describing the moment when Wellington gives the orders that will lead to victory at

“Lord Wellington was at dinner when he was informed of this movement [of French troops]: he saw at once the advantage which had been given; he rose in such haste as to overturn the table, …and in an instant was on horseback, issuing those orders which won the battle of Salamanca.”

While these accounts might not be strictly true, they do reflect the quickness of this stage of the battle and the strategic skill shown by Wellington.

Up to this point, Wellington had generally been regarded as a defensive general. Salamanca established his ability as a skillful soldier and tactician. This statement from Baines’ History of the Wars of the French Revolution is characteristic of many of the tributes to the battle and to Wellington:

Page from Baine's History of the Wars of the French Revolution (London, 1817) describing the battle of Salamanca.

“The battle of Salamanca was distinguished from all other battles hitherto fought in the peninsula, by several important circumstances: it was more masterly in the design, more gallant in the execution, and followed by consequences of far greater importance.”

In retrospect, observers recognized July 22, 1812 as a turning point in the Peninsular War, not only for Wellington’s reputation but for the morale of French army on the peninsula. British forces eventually drove the French armies from Spain and invaded Southern France in 1814. If British officer William Napier is to be believed, Wellington was aware of the shift on the afternoon of the battle. Napier recalls seeing Wellington late in the day at Salamanca “…alone, the flush of victory was on his brow… With a prescient pride he seemed only accept his glory as an earnest of greater things.” Those greater things would culminate in the Battle of Waterloo, and the final defeat of Napoleon.

Map of the Battle of Waterloo from Southey's Life of Wellington (Dublin, 1816).
Robert Muir’s Book Salamanca, 1812 (Yale University Press, 2001) is a source for more information about the battle and its’ importance.