Waterloo has long been a cornerstone of English/British nationalist mythology.(1) The dust had hardly settled on the field of battle and the bones buried before tourists started to arrive to witness the scene of the nation's great triumph over Napoleon.
.. the fame of all the past will for ever be overshadowed by the lofty image of Britain as she now exists, seated on the summit of an era destined to be supreme over all others in the world's annals. .. It would absolutely seem as if Bonaparte had returned from Elba only for the purpose of elevating still higher than it was the renown of Britain. (2)
In Went the Day Well David Crane has disassembled the mythology and provides a snapshot of a Britain which had "the most barbaric penal system in Europe" whose soldiers put up with "the gallows the lash and the firing squad" for "the freeborn Englishman's right to be hanged for stealing a sheep, and a Britain in which the great mass of people were worse off in 1815 than when the war had started in 1792." (3)
It was a Britain whose army officers were a caste, commissions were bought and there was an "atmosphere of privilege, deference and noblesse oblige," which contrasted with the French "liberty, equality and fraternity" (4) A surgeon who attended the wounded on the field of battle was struck by the "defiant, impenitent anger of the French wounded and dying". (5) The British army by contrast was driven less by patriotism and a defence of high ideals, but was "a world of its own, its own rituals, its own codes of honour, and its own loyalties" (6)
Crane devotes much attention to the fate of poor Eliza Fenning , a servant girl whose execution in June 1815 shortly after Waterloo became a cause célèbre, with 10,000 attending her funeral, and whose name was blackened by a Government which saw "every protest as part of a wider conspiracy". (8)
In June 1815 as the battle with France approached, thousands queued in Piccadilly to see Lefèvre's portrait of Napoleon. On the day that news of the victory arrived in London, Charles Grey, future Prime Minister, was apparently telling everyone who would listen that the world needed the genius of Napoleon. In public the Whigs who had been critical of Government conduct since the beginnings of the Peninsula war were silenced, although privately not reconciled to the restoration of the Bourbons and the defeat of the forces of liberalism on the continent.
Across the country celebration was subdued because of sorrow at the number of casualties. The soldiers themselves did not share the elation of the propagandists: "what three days have I passed, what days of glory, falsely so called and what days of misery to thousands" wrote one officer; another wrote regarding a query about the conduct of the cavalry in battle "I have not been able to collect all the particulars .. I am sure it will be said or sung by all the partisans of the British Government and all the Tories of the United Kingdom for months and years to come, for further details, therefore, I shall refer you to the Gazette. " (7)
Also here are opponents of the war: Hazlitt who hated Tories, their placemen and pensioners, and "the mental servitude into which the nation had sold itself"; John Cam Hobhouse, one of Napoleon's greatest admirers, waiting on the Swiss-French border for news of his brother, who as he feared was killed at Waterloo; the British soldier who thought it strange that "two of the most civilised nations, ranked foremost in every department of knowledge, science and art, found no other way of settling their differences." (9) Then there is the army officer serving in Paris after Waterloo, who wrote that the French people well knew that any who insulted their king would be bayoneted by the British army, "and this will account for the sudden change in their loyalty ..from their Idol Napoleon (properly named) the Great to an old bloated poltroon.(11)
Crane's final chapter provides a discussion of the myth itself:
A profoundly Protestant sense of 'election' had lodged deep in the English psyche for centuries, and Waterloo came as the ultimate confirmation of that belief, the triumphant demonstration .. of Britain and her Empire's special place in God's unfolding purpose .."
1 . In fact a later Briton might almost be forgiven for not realising that Blucher and the Prussians were even there, let alone that they made the decisive intervention in the battle. Only 36% of Wellington's troops at Waterloo were British (and that does not include the Prussians under Blucher's command), and the majority of the British troops were Scottish and Irish. See The Independent article on the myths of Waterloo.
2. Chester Courant , 1st August 1815
3. David Crane Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo (London 2015) p. 94, 306
4. Crane pp 63
5. Crane p. 254.
6. Crane page 301
7. Crane pp. 229, 255
9. Crane p. 113
10. Crane p. 309