On June 18, 2015, people around the world who either admire or despise Napoleon Bonaparte will pause to remember his greatest loss, the Battle of Waterloo.
Two hundred years later, endless arguments continue. Did the French Marshal Ney betray Napoleon? Or was it Napoleon’s reluctance to send Ney reinforcements that caused the loss? Why didn’t the French general Grouchy, when he heard the distant sounds of battle, rush his troops back to the site of the fighting? Why did Napoleon attack so late in the day? Was the Emperor sick or at forty-six years old already past his prime? And which general was responsible for Napoleon’s defeat, the British general Wellington or the Prussian general von Blücher? I’ve seen people get red in the face over these and a hundred other details about the battle.
A few things are clear. The Allied victory was, as Wellington himself said, “a near-run thing.” The count of dead and wounded for that one battle amounted to an astonishing 47,000 men, about 55% of them on the French side. And in the end, when a valiant charge of Napoleon’s revered Imperial Guard failed, the French army fled in disorder, as word spread that “La Garde recule! Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating! Every man for himself!)
Certainly, the Battle of Waterloo destroyed any prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remaining ruler of France. While his enemies, if defeated, could have gone on to fight more battles, Napoleon’s position was so precarious and France so weak that one great loss was enough to bring him down for good. Thus, the name Waterloo became synonymous with resounding defeat.
A few months ago, I was amused to hear the battle mentioned at (of all places) the Kennedy Center during a revival of Lerner & Loewe’s musical, Gigi. In the play, a young Gigi sings Say a Prayer for Me as she prepares to go out on her first assignation with the man she loves. Here’s a charming rendition by Julie Andrews who was originally going to sing the song in My Fair Lady.
In case, you missed them, the lyrics are:
On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart
Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte