Usually I like Hillaire Belloc, and this book was no exception. Still, Belloc needs approached with caution. His marvelous intelligence and delight in iconoclasm sometimes led him astray. Thankfully, this short book, while not spectacular, highlights hints of Belloc at his best.
His best observations center on the political aspects of the struggle, and not the battle itself. He asks two pertinent questions:
1. How significant was the Battle of Waterloo?
Sir Edward Creasy ranked Waterloo as one of the 15 most decisive battles in the history of the world. Others wouldn’t go that far, but argue that a victory for Napoleon at Waterloo would have established him securely in France and perhaps led to a fatal fissure in the alliance against him.
Belloc disagreed. Had Napoleon won, he would still have had to face many more armies, who could ultimately outnumber him by a factor of five. England, Austria, Prussia, and Russia had staked their entire identity on stopping him and would not be deterred by one loss, just as they did not back down despite many defeats from 1801-1809. However romantic Napoleon’s comeback seems, it had no chance. Napoleon sealed his fate in Russia, not Belgium. Two can play the iconoclasm game, so I’ll and suggest that maybe Napoleon sealed his fate in Spain in 1808-9. His ruthless policy of repression there destroyed his image and came back to bite him terribly.
Belloc probably has a better argument, one that today, further removed from Napoleon, is not even particularly controversial.
2. Did Napoleon Lose the Battle, but Win the War?
The other major European powers lined up against Napoleon and France. They feared all that the French Revolution represented, partly out of fear for the social disruption it brought, partly out of self-interest. Napoleon had little to recommend him as an individual. As a symbol and lawgiver, he brought death to the old feudal era whose political institutions no longer had mass appeal. This other heads of state instinctively knew and feared. They opposed him.
Napoleon’s favored target was the well-ordered, precisely drilled Enlightenment style armies of balance and proportion. He knew just what made them tic and how to exploit their weaknesses. His conquests destroyed the armies of the old order, but his impatience and pride led him to establish puppet regimes that could never gain the loyalty of those he ruled. Thus, in destroying the armies of Europe he created the same kind of national identity that fueled his own rise to power. This new national identity created new armies, mirror images of Napoleon’s own.
Belloc asserts that the Napoleonic struggle went on for too long after the creation of these new armies for the kings of Europe to avoid the consequences of creating these new armies. By 1848, many countries had, via revolutions of their own, adopted many provisions of Napoleonic law.
Who had the last laugh?
Belloc has a similar to point to Toynbee, who explored similar ripple effects in his magisterial work on Hannibal and the 2nd Punic War. Was the 2nd Punic War really just a battle, and not the war itself? Was the same true for the years 1797-1815 in Europe?