Your RDA of Irony

Waterloo or Lieu

On this day in 1815 General von Blucher won the battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington took the credit, and the Prussians pretended not to mind.

Wellington was willing to share his victory–with his alumni association:  “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” In other words, the elan of upper-class twits was a more decisive factor than French incompetence or the timely arrival of that friendly Prussian army.

In fact, Napoleon should have won Waterloo.  Wellington’s forces were a dubious compiliation of third choices: untested British troops, German forces more likely to desert and Dutch soldiers more likely to defect to the French. (The best British troops–Wellington’s veterans from the Peninsular War–had been shipped off to America, where they burned Washington but then had been decimated at New Orleans.)  By contrast, Napoleon’s army was larger and comprised of veterans; the ones who survived Russia had to be indestructible.     

Although Wellington had placed his forces in an excellent defensive position, the French army should have been able to ground them down and rout them.  However, that day Napoleon seemed to have already exiled himself  to St. Helena’s.  The Emperor who usually supervised every detail was abdicating all the decisions to his generals, who seemed intent to do everything wrong.  The French attacks are pointless or uncoordinated; the infantry gets bogged down while the cavalry is squandered.  The arrival of the Prussian army simply ended the French farce.

But what if the French had won Waterloo?  It would have ruined Wellington’s perfect record, and the innkeepers of Brussels would have been accepting Francs instead of Pounds that night; yet, Napoleon still would have lost eventually.  However much Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain quarreled and undermined each other at the conference tables at the Congress of Vienna, they were not going to tolerate the return of Napoleon.  They would keep raising armies against him until they finally had defeated him.   ABBA eventually would have had a song.

Did Napoleon think otherwise?  He certainly must have overestimated his charisma.  Perhaps he expected that America would break the Treaty of Ghent, and that Andrew Jackson would lead an amphibious invasion of England.  (“One thousand canoes landed in Cornwall this morning….”)  No, Napoleon obviously was a gambler.  Any of us would have been content with his achievements in 1807: ruling France and Italy, and dominating Germany and Austria. We wouldn’t have invaded Spain or Russia, and eventually ended up an exiled pariah.  But then, none of us are Napoleon and we wouldn’t have overwhelmed Europe–and history– in the first place.

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