The Battle of Waterloo and its strategic context


The Battle of Waterloo is a military victory well worth commemorating, even celebrating. The brilliant generalship of the Duke of Wellington and the fighting skill of his coalition army (with its German, Belgian and Dutch as well as British troops) together with their Prussian allies achieved a famous victory. It deserves its place in the historical memory of the Army and the country, as well as providing a fine example of multinational European cooperation. The events of 18 June 1815 and the few days preceding it provided a fitting finale for the Napoleonic Wars. There is always a need, however, to combine attention to individual battles with awareness of the wider war within which they had their context. For Britain, the Battle of Waterloo was the culmination of a successful maritime strategy – indeed, the road to Waterloo went through Trafalgar.

British strategy in the Napoleonic wars, like most wars before and some since, was maritime rather than continental. Britain could not plausibly seek to replicate the large armies of the great continental powers such as France, Prussia or Russia – and because of the priceless advantage of the Channel, she did not need to. Rather she could embrace what Julian Corbett took care to stress was a maritime strategy, not purely a naval strategy. This approach represented the judicious combination of naval and land operations, with each other and also, crucially, with the diplomatic and economic instruments of power. These last two were central, not least in underpinning British naval power and the coalitions in which allies provided mass land power.

The Royal Navy was at the heart of this strategy. It ensured that Britain could not be invaded, thus denying the continental enemy the swift victory that was his only hope of strategic success (and also making a large, expensive army unnecessary). It defended the trade that provided the vital economic foundations for strategy, while at the same time attacking that of the enemy to weaken the sinews of his wealth and hence his military power. It also provided the ability to use Britain’s Army, relatively small by the standards of the continental powers, in such a way that it achieved returns disproportionate to its size. While this was initially a strategically defensive stance, it involved offensive action at sea and in peripheral theatres – if limited action in the latter proved unsuccessful, it could be ended without major strategic damage, while if it succeeded, it could be reinforced. Crucially, however, this approach laid the ground for the shift to the strategic offensive by keeping Britain in the war and wealthy enough to fund coalitions, by wearing away the enemy’s strength, and by tempting him into errors that could then be exploited. Clearly this strategy depended on having continental allies. Yet any would-be hegemon was likely to alarm the other European great powers as much as it did the British, making such coalitions a realistic prospect. The maritime strategy then made these alliances possible, preventing Britain from being knocked out of the war and ensuring that she had the wealth to subsidise her allies.

Viewed from this broader perspective, the truly decisive British battle in the Napoleonic Wars was not Waterloo but Trafalgar. The strategic impact of the latter is often misunderstood and underrated, due largely to the failure to appreciate that the effect of naval battles on the wider war tends to be slow to become apparent: those who overlook its impact suffer from the common strategic affliction of a short attention span. The British victory in October 1805 did not entirely end the threat that Britain faced at sea and further campaigns and engagements were necessary to keep in check France’s still formidable navy. Yet the physical, and even more the moral advantage that it provided had a number of vital long-term effects. First, it meant Britain would not be forced out of the war by invasion as the continental powers could be and repeatedly were; she would remain a formidable thorn in Napoleon’s side. Second, the naval superiority the victory ensured gave Britain an increasing advantage in the ability to fund her war effort and that of her allies, while undermining that of the enemy. Third, it allowed Britain to take advantage of any strategic errors that Napoleon might commit thereafter – and also, crucially, pushed him into committing some huge ones in search of a way to defeat Britain now that he could not invade. The first of these was the Peninsular campaign, aiming to firm up the ‘continental system’ of economic warfare against Britain. It presented the British with a peripheral theatre in which her army could be deployed to its best advantage – inserted, withdrawn and reinserted, then supplied and supported by the Royal Navy, in exactly the sort of campaign level partnership that the maritime strategy envisaged. The result for France was ‘the bleeding ulcer’ of a long, costly campaign. The second great strategic error committed by Napoleon was the invasion of Russia, again seeking to defeat Britain indirectly by weakening her diplomatically and economically. The casualties suffered against Russian geography, climate and land power were too great even for France to absorb and replace.

In the subsequent land campaign, the latest powerful coalition gradually closed the net around Napoleon; despite winning several victories in individual battles, mere tactical success could not save him and he was defeated and deposed in 1814. He was undermined above all by a flawed strategy which sought to achieve hugely ambitious aims that France simply could not sustain – not least because they repeatedly stirred the other European great powers to pick themselves up after a defeat and return to the fray against him and alongside Britain. Napoleon was undoubtedly a military genius but his methods could be emulated by his opponents. Moreover, he proved quite unable to defeat those who declined to play the game as he understood it, whether that was the hybrid campaign in the Iberian Peninsula, the resilience of an invaded Russia, or, crucially, British sea power.

Napoleon’s continued hold over the hearts and minds of many Frenchmen was amply demonstrated in his last encore of the Hundred Days. Yet the military power that the Seventh Coalition amassed against him was too great even for him to master. Even if he had won at Waterloo, the outcome of the war would not have been any different; a bloodied, weakened Napoleon would sooner or later have been run to ground by the other approaching armies. The tactical victory at Waterloo formalised the defeat of Napoleon that was achieved by broader and longer-term strategy.

British maritime strategy is often misinterpreted, not least the straw man version sometimes presented that portrays it as an isolationist, blue water delusion, or when it is stretched past all plausibility to suggest an alternative to deploying troops at all. It was a maritime, not a naval strategy, that did commit land forces but did so selectively and in a way that Britain’s relatively small army could exert disproportionate strategic leverage. At its heart were limited objectives – essentially the negative aim of preventing a hostile great power from dominating the continent. It would not have sufficed for a more aggressive aim of British dominance of Europe but as an island power with its gaze turned overseas, this was not necessary. Of course, the scale of commitment on land required to ensure success would vary depending on the threat. British involvement in the First World War can be seen through this lens, since the ‘minimum necessary’ land commitment, as the only alternative to a disastrous strategic defeat, was of a hitherto unprecedented scale. This continental commitment, of course, applied on the only continent where involvement is not discretionary for Britain. When the early years of the 21st century have seen a dalliance with a continental strategy far overseas, where such commitment is a matter of choice, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we might usefully revive this judicious maritime strategy, based on restrained ends to avoid the need for means we cannot afford or ways we cannot sustain.

So, while Waterloo is deservedly marked this week, it is highly appropriate that when the defeated Napoleon finally surrendered, he did so on a British warship, HMS Bellerophon, one of Mahan’s ‘far distant, storm beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked, [but] stood between it and the dominion of the world’. The Battle of Waterloo may or may not have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the winning strategy for the war was put in place ten years earlier, in the waters off Cape Trafalgar.

Image: The Battle of Trafalgar, October 21st, 1805 by Bernard Finnigan Gribble from the collection of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

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