Why the British elite loves Waterloo

For the British ruling class, June 18, 1815 was a high point: most battles since have been disastrous.

Harry Blain
26 May 2015
Waterloo painting

"Gentlemanly" warfare. Flickr/Frans de Wit. Some rights reserved.

Last year’s commemorations of the First World War were largely predictable. Politicians “coming together” to honour the sacrifices of those who fought; misrepresentation of the war’s causes; dissenting voices disgusted by the sanitisation of history; even a petty dispute over which party leaders could add a personal message to their wreaths. 

There is scarcely anything more political than a nation remembering war. For those in power, commemoration is an opportunity to obscure divisions like class and gender beneath a narrative of unity, to valorise history’s “Great (white) Men”, and to remind citizens of the need to remain vigilant and fearful in the face of lingering threats to their democracy and liberty. The pageantry and mythology also distracts us from the very real and current links between weapons manufacturers, elected representatives and public institutions – which have long historical lineages. As Paul Rogers powerfully wrote, we see the spectacular poppy display, but not the war-makers who stand behind it.

“Won on the playing-fields of Eton”…

In this sense, it is not surprising that many of us feel uncomfortable seeing our Prime Minister in one breath solemnly declare “Lest We Forget” and in the next defend “legitimate” arms sales to our autocratic “allies.” To a large extent we’re used to such moral hypocrisy, and well-acquainted with the cynical use of phrases like “honour” and “sacrifice” to describe mechanised and impersonal killing. It takes a great deal of imagination and distortion to make the First World War “honourable”, and we often see right through it. 

Waterloo, however, was very different from the wars of the 20th Century. The battlefield was decorated with bayonets, linear formations and Crown Princes (unfortunately, if you want a fuller picture, the bicentenary re-enactment is sold out).  It was a decisive battle – not an inch-by-inch struggle – fought in line with old aristocratic codes: Wellington even had a chance to kill Napoleon but ordered his men to hold fire.

“Total War” had not arrived in Europe. Young men were not conscripted en masse to fight Napoleon – though many were “press-ganged” into the navy – and multilingual, “gentlemanly” officers in the King’s German Legion led a professional and efficient campaign. War is never clean, and Waterloo was undoubtedly brutal. But it did not engulf society in the same way as from 1914 to 1945. Eric Hobsbawm captured the contrast well (see page 15):

Jane Austen wrote her novels during the Napoleonic wars, but no reader who did not know this already would guess it, for the wars do not appear in her pages, even though a number of the young gentlemen who pass through them undoubtedly took part in them. It is inconceivable that any novelist could write about Britain in the twentieth-century wars in this manner.

Waterloo, which led to the “Concert of Europe” and cemented British hegemony, was not only an elite affair, but an elite triumph. No wonder so many have believed the phrase (probably falsely) attributed to the Duke of Wellington claiming that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

No wonder, also, that our aristocratic Chancellor (who, for the sake of accuracy is not actually an Etonian) was so keen to “make sure the site of the Battle of Waterloo is restored in time for the 200th anniversary” in order to “celebrate a great victory of coalition forces over a discredited former regime that had impoverished millions.”

…“But the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there”

George Orwell’s 1941 essay, England Your England, began with the famous line: “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” In his lifetime, he had seen Europe’s self-destruction and the unravelling of its great confidence in peace and progress after the Napoleonic Wars. He – and so many others – had seen modern warfare: machine guns, tanks, carpet bombing, mass conscription, poison gas. He also saw – and indeed physically fought against – the rise of Fascism; while his fellow socialists saw (or, in many cases, denied and apologised for) the extraordinary brutality of Stalinism.

Above all, what Orwell documented was the remarkable incapacity of Britain’s “ruling class” to grasp the changing nature of war and society. “The higher commanders”, he noted, “drawn from the aristocracy, could never prepare for modern war, because in order to do so they would have had to admit to themselves that the world was changing.” Not to mention how the Chamberlains, Hoares, and Simons “dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.”

The disasters are well-known: “appeasement,” Gallipoli, the Somme. We may justifiably regard Churchill – an aristocrat who did not go to university – as a great wartime leader, but he too had his share of embarrassments: Gallipoli, of course, but also the terrible decision to put Britain back on the Gold Standard in 1925 and his praise for Mussolini’s “victorious struggle” against Bolshevism in 1927.

Looking at this record, Orwell quipped: “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”

“An act of statesmanship”

It is undoubtedly impressive that Britain emerged from the “Age of Catastrophe” intact, thanks in no small part to the masses of poor men and women deceived and manipulated by their “superiors.” But if our political leaders of the 1920s and 1930s were unable to understand the currents of change spreading through Europe, they have since, if anything, shown an even more dangerous level of incompetence.

Those involved in the break-up of empire have illustrated this clearly: from the 8000 Malayan guerrillas who immobilised 140 000 British soldiers and policemen from 1948-1960; to the ill-armed Mau Mau fighters in Kenya who were only suppressed through a “gulag” of concentration camps; to the Irish Republicans who terrorised the SAS in South Armagh.

The lessons from these “counter-insurgency campaigns” were then applied to Iraq, where the “British model” (which is supposedly based on “minimum force” and “winning hearts and minds”) was constantly discussed by generals, academics and policymakers. In fact, the real “lessons” could have been learned from Britain’s 1917 occupation of Iraq: a quick military victory followed by a protracted insurgency; a promise that “we come as liberators, not conquerors”; and a horribly naïve expectation that “we shall be received with cordiality.”

As we look at the continuing calamity in Iraq, it is difficult not to see our current crop of rulers in the same way Orwell did 74 years ago: delusional, archaic, inept.

Now, we’re also having to face up to a devastating humanitarian crisis on the edge of “Fortress Europe”, one which has forced our current Etonian Prime Minister to defend “regime change” in militia-ridden Libya. As the Daily Mash – satirical news that is often scarily close to reality – put it: “David Cameron has insisted bombing Libya and then forgetting about it was an act of statesmanship.”

Waterloo, then, might have been, in Wellington’s words, the “nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” but it’s no surprise that the Camerons and Osbornes are so desperate to remember it. For Britain’s ruling elite, it was a rare success to be followed by a long record of bloody and costly failure. 

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