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       How the French Won Waterloo - or Think They Did, p.1

           Stephen Clarke
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How the French Won Waterloo - or Think They Did


  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Stephen Clarke

  Title Page





  1. Napoleon Was a Peace-Lover

  2. At Waterloo, Napoleon Also Had to Fight God and His Own Generals

  3. Napoleon Didn’t Lose the Battle (Everyone Else Did)

  4. ‘Merde’ to Wellington, the Loser

  5. Napoleon Flees … to Victory


  6. Absence Makes the (French) Heart Grow Fonder

  7. Constructing the Idol

  8. Napoleon’s Glorious Afterlife

  9. France Won Waterloo, Even if Napoleon Didn’t


  Picture Section

  Appendix 1: Napoleon’s verbal salvoes

  Appendix 2: Contemporary views of Waterloo


  Picture Permissions



  About the Book

  Two centuries after the Battle of Waterloo, the French are still in denial.

  As soon as the cannons stopped firing on 18 June 1815, French historians began re-writing history. Napoleon had beaten the Duke of Wellington, they say, but then the Prussians jumped into the boxing ring, breaking all the rules of battle. In essence, the French cannot bear the idea that Napoleon, their greatest-ever national hero, was in any way a loser. Especially not against the traditional enemy – les Anglais.

  Modern France is still a profoundly Napoleonic country, and most of the institutions he created 200 years ago still live on. Napoleon’s image in France is at an all-time high – one of his hats recently sold at auction for almost two million euros, and there is even a Napoleon theme park planned to open in 2020.

  More than this, though, with the economy in tatters and distrust of politicians rife, the French are in desperate need of heroes – which is why, today more than ever, even non-Bonapartists can’t bear the idea that their greatest warrior actually lost at Waterloo . . .

  About the Author

  Stephen Clarke lives in Paris, where he divides his time between writing and not writing. His first novel, A YEAR IN THE MERDE, became a word-of-month hit in 2004, and is now published all over the world. Since then he has published four more bestselling MERDE novels, as well as TALK TO THE SNAIL, an indispensable guide to understanding the French, PARIS REVEALED, his insider’s guide to his home city, DIRTY BERTIE, in which he reveals the glamorous and sometimes shocking details of the future Edward VII’s parallel French life, and 1000 YEARS OF ANNOYING THE FRENCH, in which he investigates what has really been going on since 1066. A Sunday Times bestseller in hardcover, 1000 YEARS OF ANNOYING THE FRENCH went on to become one of the top ten bestselling history books in paperback in 2011.

  Also by Stephen Clarke


  A Brief History of the Future

  A Year in the Merde

  Merde Actually

  Merde Happens

  Dial M For Merde

  The Merde Factor


  Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French

  Paris Revealed

  1000 Years of Annoying the French

  Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France


  Annoying the French Encore!

  For further information on Stephen Clarke and his books, you can visit his website:

  or follow him on Twitter @SClarkewriter

  How the French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did)

  Stephen Clarke

  To everyone who makes my books possible –

  with their thoughts, words, deeds and cups of coffee.

  ‘It wasn’t Lord Wellington who won; his defence was stubborn, and admirably energetic, but he was pushed back and beaten.’

  – Captain Marie Jean Baptiste Lemonnier-Delafosse,

  French veteran of Waterloo, in his Souvenirs Militaires

  ‘This defeat shines with the aura of victory.’

  – France’s former Prime Minister Dominique

  de Villepin, in a recent book about Napoleon

  ‘John Bull was beat at Waterloo!

  They’ll swear to that in France.’

  – Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802–39),

  British politician and poet


  ‘L’histoire est une suite de mensonges sur lesquels on est d’accord.’

  ‘History is a series of lies about which we agree.’

  – Napoleon Bonaparte

  EVERYONE KNOWS WHO lost the Battle of Waterloo. It was Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. Even the French have to admit that on the evening of 18 June 1815 it was the Corsican with one hand in his waistcoat who fled the battlefield, his Grande Armée in tatters and his reign effectively at a humiliating end. Napoleon had gambled everything on one great confrontation with his enemies, and he had lost. The word ‘lost’, in this case, having its usual meaning of ‘not won’, ‘been defeated, trounced, hammered’, etc.

  No one seriously disputes this historical fact. Well, almost no one …

  Let’s look at a few quotations.

  ‘This defeat shines with the aura of victory,’ writes France’s former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in a recent book about Napoleon.

  ‘For the English, Waterloo was a defeat that they won,’ claims French historian Jean-Claude Damamme in his study of the battle, published in 1999.

  A nineteenth-century French poet called Edouard d’Escola pre-empted this modern doublethink in a poem about Waterloo, prefacing it with a quotation to the effect that ‘Defeats are only victories to which fortune has refused to give wings.’

  Astonishingly, it is obvious that in some French eyes, where Napoleon is concerned, losing can actually mean winning, or at least not really losing. This despite the fact that after the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was ousted from power, forced to flee his country, and then banished into exile on a wind-blown British island for the rest of his life. The only victory parades in France in the summer of 1815 were those by British, Prussian, Austrian and Russian troops as they marched along the Champs-Elysées, past Napoleon’s half-built, and rather prematurely named, Arc de Triomphe.

  And yet today, visitors to Waterloo, just south of Brussels, might be forgiven for thinking that the result of the battle had been overturned after a stewards’ inquiry, and victory handed to the losers. The most spectacular memorial there is the Panorama, a circular building that houses a dramatic 110-metre-long painting of the battle at its height. It is a wonderful picture. You can almost hear the sabres rattling, the cannons firing, the horses snorting, the roars and screams of the fighting men. But there is something very strange about it: Napoleon is in the distance, calmly watching the action, while Wellington seems to be trapped in a corner by a thundering cavalry charge, in imminent danger of having his famous hooked nose hacked off by a French blade. Can this really be the painting that is meant to serve as an official memorial of the battle?

  The answer is yes – or rather oui, because the painter, Louis Dumoulin, was a Parisian brought in by the Belgians just over a hundred years ago to commemorate the centenary of the most famous historical event that ever took place in their country (apart, perhaps, from the invention of the waffle). This French cavalry charge was the image Dumoulin selected as being representative of the battle as a whole. Napoleon himself could not have chosen a more Bonapartist scene, and yet it was approved by the Belgians. Needless to say, Waterloo is
in Wallonie, the French-speaking half of Belgium, where Napoleon has always been hailed as a liberating hero.

  Similarly, in the old Waterloo museum next to the Panorama, visitors hoping to watch a (French-made) film about the battle enter the video room beneath a portrait of a defiant-looking general. No, not one of the victors – it’s Napoleon again.

  A huge new museum is currently being built at Waterloo in readiness for the bicentenary. It will probably give a more balanced, and historically accurate, view of the battle. But one thing seems certain: the new gift shop will be just like the old one – that is, selling ten times more souvenir statuettes, medals and portraits of Napoleon than of anyone else involved in the battle. French revisionists seem to have taken possession of Waterloo, and Napoleon’s image is everywhere. He has been turned into the icon that represents the events of 18 June 1815. He lost, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

  It is a beautifully French contradiction that provokes two main questions: Who exactly is behind this rewriting of history that has been going on ever since the battle ended? And why do they feel the need to indulge in such outrageous denial?

  Luckily for me (and, I hope, for you, dear reader), the answers are fascinatingly complex. But let me give a brief introductory summary before going into much more detail in the book.

  First of all, Napoleon has an army of fiercely loyal fans. They have been around since he was Emperor of France, and they are as fanatical today as they ever were. These are the people who dress up in Napoleonic uniform and shout ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ at battle re-enactments, who give generous grants to Napoleonic research (as long as the thesis flatters Napoleon), and who paid 1.8 million euros for one of his famous black hats when it came up for auction in November 2014.

  Among these fans is a belligerent battalion of French historians who refuse to associate Napoleon’s name with anything as shameful as defeat. To achieve this feat of historical acrobatics, they will use any argument they can muster: at Waterloo, they contend, Napoleon might have lost to Blücher but he beat Wellington; the British cheated by choosing the battlefield; Napoleon’s generals disobeyed him; traitors revealed his plans; the French government prevented him from mustering another army and fighting on; etc., etc. Anything to have Napoleon emerge as a winner of some sort.

  In any case, these fan-historians constantly remind us, Napoleon was France’s greatest ever champion: he won far more battles than he lost, and during his short reign France was at the peak of its influence in the world, with most of continental Europe under the Napoleonic yoke. To these determined and highly outspoken Bonapartists, Waterloo is nothing more than a minor blemish on Napoleon’s glorious record.

  And in a way, the whole of modern French history revolves around, or has its roots in, Napoleon. Even historians who see him as a dictator and are relieved that his imperial regime was toppled will readily acknowledge Napoleon’s greatness and the undeniable influence he exerts on present-day life in France. After all, most of the laws he drafted are still in place (minus a few of his more sexist clauses); he invented France’s education system; and all modern French presidents model themselves on his autocratic style of leadership – they even live and work in his former palace, surrounded by his furniture.

  Which brings us to the question of why exactly all these people are in denial about Waterloo, the battle that – like it or not – ended Napoleon’s political and military career. Is it a classic emotional blockage, patriotism gone mad, or is there something even more subtly French at play?

  Well, yes to all those rhetorical questions; but the central reason seems to be that, ever since 1815, it has been vital for the French national psyche to see Napoleon as a winner. If he is a loser, so is France. And if there is one thing the French as a nation hate, it is losing – especially to les Anglais.

  This is why even those French people who acknowledge (at least partial) defeat at Waterloo are determined to extract some form of triumph from the debacle: they will say that the outnumbered French troops were defending the nobler cause, that their glorious defiance made them the tragic heroes of the day, and so on. There is no end to the evasive action they will take.

  To illustrate all this historical escapology, I have concentrated mainly on French sources – Waterloo veterans, nineteenth-century French novelists and poets who experienced Napoleon’s regime, French historians writing from 1815 right up to today, and of course Napoleon himself, who had time while in exile to relive (and rewrite) every second of the battle.

  Exploring their original words and impressions has given me a vivid insight into what the French have been saying about their beloved Empereur for the last two centuries, and what they’re still doing to defend his iconic image.

  English-language commentators seem to spend a lot of time reworking the old argument that Waterloo was purely and simply a hard-won Anglo-Prussian victory that got rid of Napoleon and changed the course of European history.

  But Napoleon’s admirers, past and present, show that the Battle of Waterloo and its 200-year-long aftermath have been a lot more complicated – and a lot more French – than that.

  Stephen Clarke, Paris, February 2015




  ‘La paix est le vœu de mon cœur, mais la guerre n’a jamais été contraire à ma gloire.’

  ‘My heart wishes for peace, but war has never diminished my glory.’

  – Napoleon Bonaparte, in a letter to England’s

  King George III in 1805


  FIRST, THE CONTEXT. Why exactly did Napoleon Bonaparte confront the Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Blücher at a crossroads in Belgium on that rainy day of 18 June 1815 – aside from the fact that Belgium was conveniently central for all three?

  The main reason is, of course, that Britain and France had been at war virtually non-stop since 1337. The Napoleonic Wars were more or less a continuation of the medieval Hundred Years War, and in 1815, things had come to an ugly head. As the nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet, author of a nineteen-volume Histoire de France, put it: ‘The war of wars, the combat of combats, is England against France; all the rest are mere episodes.’fn1

  French Bonapartists insist that Napoleon didn’t want war with Britain. Napoleon himself said so. He was a peace-loving man, much more interested in modernising his own country than firing cannons at his neighbours. All he wanted to do was write new laws, create new schools, and turn beetroot into sugar (all of which he actually did, as we shall see in a later chapter).

  The Prussian ambassador to France – not a man instinctively favourable towards the French – confirmed this as early as 1802. Marquis Girolamo Lucchesini (he was an Italian in the service of Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia) reported to Berlin that Napoleon was talking convincingly of ‘canals to complete or dig, roads to repair or build, ports to clean out, cities to embellish, religious institutions to found, and educational resources to pay for’. According to the Prussian-Italian diplomat, Napoleon wanted to ‘devote money to agriculture, industry, business and arts that would otherwise be absorbed and exhausted by war’. In the circumstances, it was impossible, surely, to imagine a single French franc getting spent on cannons, muskets and cavalry helmets?

  A more cynical diplomat might have asked this peace-loving version of Napoleon why, after seizing power in France with a military coup in 1799, he had continued the war against Britain and its allies the Austrians, Italians and Russians, or why he had invaded Italy in 1800, confirmed the annexation of Belgium, and maintained a puppet pro-French regime in Holland.

  Napoleon would have replied – with some justification – that he had just been finishing off what was started during the French Revolution, before he even came along. He had simply fought a few battles, discouraged the country’s enemies from invading, consolidated his position as leader of France, and built a platform from which he could oversee his grand peacetime pl
an for the nation. Put like that, it sounds convincing, and the Prussian ambassador clearly believed it.

  So too does modern French historian Jean-Claude Damamme, one of Napoleon’s most fervent defenders. He blames Britain (or ‘England’ as he calls it, like any Frenchman with an anti-British axe to grind) for the Napoleonic Wars. France, he says, was too dangerous a competitor, ‘a threat to the ascendancy that England has always considered a divine right’. With France united behind their glamorous young leader, Monsieur Damamme asserts, it became obvious to the Brits that their only hope of European domination was to eliminate him.

  Damamme even accuses the English of being behind the so-called ‘attentat de la rue Saint-Nicaise’ (the rue Saint-Nicaise attack) when, on Christmas Eve, 1800, a wine barrel packed with explosives was ignited as Napoleon’s carriage drove past, demolishing forty-six houses, killing twenty-two people and injuring around a hundred, but leaving Napoleon miraculously unscathed.

  The Emperor had been on his way to the theatre with his wife Josephine to see Haydn’s Creation, and had fallen asleep in the carriage. The explosion not only woke Napoleon up, it also aroused a fierce desire for vengeance. He had a group of ‘conspirators’ executed despite evidence proving that they were innocent, before begrudgingly accepting that the true guilty parties were royalists who wanted to restore the monarchy. Jean-Claude Damamme, though, blames the British, whom he accuses of stirring up virtually all the anti-Napoleonic unrest on the continent over the next fifteen years, and paying the Belgians, Dutch and Prussians to turn against the French (an accusation that was largely justified, as we will see).

  Faced with this endless British troublemaking, Napoleon was, in Bonapartist French eyes, like a kung fu master, meditating peacefully on his prayer mat about progress and democracy while a gang of irritating English boys threw acorns at him, finally forcing him to get up and give them a slap.

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