“Nothing so Melancholy…” The Repercussions of Waterloo


The repercussions of the Battle of Waterloo were many and varied. Principally, it was a victory for the peace treaty obtained at Vienna and secured the balance of power in Europe. It also gave Viscount Castlereagh the opportunity to propose the Concert of Europe, on which I have written about elsewhere. For the British Army, Waterloo would become its greatest victory. Along with Trafalgar , the victory secured Britain’s reputation as a pre-eminent military power.

This has led many historians to conclude that the British Army rested on its laurels in the years succeeding Waterloo. In fact it was Wellington who held development back. Despite impressive localised reforms that illustrated progressive thinking on systems of discipline and professionalisation, Wellington prevented any attempts to render these peripheral developments in the centre. The army itself remained unreformed, whilst its regiments, away on colonial garrison duty across the globe, frequently in contact with unpredictable and culturally diverse enemies, adapted at varying speeds to the emergence of new ideas and thinking.

Whilst operational, tactical and administrative thinking and reform occurred unevenly and sporadically, thinking and reform in these areas was at least happening. Perhaps more egregiously than his failure to foster centralised tactical and administrative reform, is Wellington’s failure adequately to ensure sufficient articulacy in the art and science of strategy. Considering that Wellington’s success in the Peninsular War, and to some extent at Waterloo, was partly the result to his ability to link the political and military levels, his reluctance to engender a similar understanding in his subordinates and successors is particularly sad.

This resulted in an army that at least had the ability to fight, but lacked the ability to convey in a convincing and authoritative manner to politicians, when and where it should fight. Military thought occurred in Britain in the years after Waterloo, most of it focussed on the process of fighting rather than strategy, and most of what was conducted was done so by middle-ranking officers at Waterloo who had gone on to greater success and recognition in the empire. They published their thinking in monthly or fortnightly publications such as the United Service Journal (founded in 1827), the Naval and Military Gazette and the United Service Gazette (both founded in 1833).

Of the foreign military theorists, it was Baron Antoine de Jomini, avidly read and promoted by the Francophile William Napier, that dominated British military thinking in the first half of the nineteenth century, with his focus on getting military forces into action and achieving the desired effect. Although Clausewitz gained traction in Germany by the 1830s, it was not until the 1840s that German-speaking English enthusiasts emerged, whilst the Prussian thinker’s Vom Krieg was not translated into English until 1873.

Whilst he remained the preserve of German-speaking English military officers, Clausewitz’s important ideas on strategy failed to gain any substantial degree of understanding. Indeed, British interpretations of Clauswitzian principles were at best, simplistic, at worst, dangerous. ‘Even the greatest of the Continental battles lasted entire days,’ wrote one, Lieutenant Colonel John Mitchell. ‘They were fought for the possession of posts or villages on which the world’s fate seemed to depend… one bold onset would have been worth all this strategy a hundred times over.’

Mitchell’s interpretations of Clausewitzian principles suggested that he believed the primary aim of an army, as suggested by Clausewitz, should be to fight, and do so with all available resources. In essence, a decisive battle should be sought and joined as rapidly as possible. This was emphatically not what Clausewitz held to be the key to strategy. Mitchell, along with other thinkers and writers in the period, British, Prussia and French, overlooked Clausewitz argument that policy, means and national character were intimately linked in the development of a national strategy. Mitchell, and the army at large failed to recognise, as they failed to recognise throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, that the British Army was, in essence, an expeditionary force; in the words of Admiral Lord John Fisher, ‘a projectile to be fired by the navy’.

Wellington had recognised this during the Peninsular War, when, despite repeated arguments with his naval counterparts, he acknowledged that he would have been unable to fight without the continued support of the Royal Navy. This knowledge governed his actions in the days before Waterloo, as he sought to prevent an outflanking manoeuvre by Napoleon that would cut the British off from their lines of communication to the sea. When Napoleon attacked the central position between the British and Prussian forces, Wellington was hard-pressed to bring his widely dispersed forces into action at Quatre Bras on 16 June 1815.

Wellington, then, understood it. And there is some evidence that others understood these principles in the years prior to the Crimean War. In an Aide-Memoire to the Military Sciences, an attempt was made to define a ‘British way of war’. Strategists could either adopt a continentalist view, which ‘leads to operations of immense armies and objects which menace the very existence of states’, or adopt ‘the insular position of the empire and local conditions which resulted from it… Principally defensive measures at home, assistance to an ally abroad, and offensive expeditions to distant countries; mainly depending on the superiority of the Royal Navy, and with land forces in no case amounting to more than 50,000 national troops.’ Here, then, was the closest approximation to an accurate view of the British way of war that was encapsulated before the Crimean War, but it was a book written for sappers and engineers, and therefore unlikely ever to be read by anyone in command.

It certainly was not on the bookshelf of Wellington’s military secretary, Fitzroy Somerset, who, as Lord Raglan, commanded the British expeditionary army during the Crimean War. British grand strategy during that war was primarily aimed at eliminating the Russian naval presence at Sebastopol, and with it Russian naval superiority in the Black Sea, and beyond. This accorded with the strategic vision Britain had followed for at least one hundred years. What Raglan lacked was Wellington’s most important ability: to communicate effectively the limitations of military power to the strategic decision-makers in London.

Had Raglan understood British grand strategy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries then he might have understood that he would be required to command an amphibious assault against Sebastopol, and then he might have been able to explain that in 1854 the British Army was not capable of attacking an un-reconnoitred, well-fortified and strongly held peninsula. He did not understand, he did not explain, and the British Army became committed to a costly, bloody and attritional series of battles and sieges.

A dispassionate assessment would arrive at the conclusion that this was ultimately strategically successful. Russia was defeated and her naval power in the Black Sea was crippled. But at what cost? Casualties were horrendous. Of the 200,000 allied forces committed to the Crimea, well over half fell, most – 75,000 French and 16,000 British – dying from disease. Russian casualties were similar in number. You can read more about the aftermath and repercussions of Waterloo here.

Image: Portrait of the Battle of Inkerman, Crimea, 5 November 1854: Copyright Defence Academy

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