Today marks the 200th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon by the British Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Gebhard Blücher, near Waterloo in central Belgium. It marked the end of Napoleon’s career; he surrendered in July and was transferred to St. Helena, an isolated British possession in the South Atlantic, where he died May 5, 1821.
Napoleon Bonaparte was a skilled military leader, trained under the royal Ancien Régime, but later siding with the Revolution. He won Italian campaigns in the late 1790s, and successfully occupied Egypt as a projected launching point for capturing India, although Nelson destroyed his fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798.
Napoleon formed a provisional government in France on the 18th of Brumaire (November 9, 1799), promulgated the Constitution of Year VIII (of the French Revolution), and became first consul by the end of the year.
His military campaign to spread the ideals of democracy in lands ruled by the aristocracy and the church continued across Europe. He won the Battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800, which is referenced in Puccini’s opera Tosca. He became a hero to reformers and Enlightenment figures such as Beethoven, who dedicated his “Eroica” symphony to him (retracting it shortly afterward owing to Napoleon’s tyrannical excesses.)
By1802 Napoleon had most of central Europe under his control, partly by military and partly by diplomatic means. He extended the boundaries of France, signed the Concordat of 1801 which reestablished the Roman Catholic Church in France, and reorganized government and the educational system. From 1804-10 he effected the codification of laws called the Napoleonic Code, which guaranteed citizenship in the nation (as opposed to being subjects to a monarch). He was forced to sell off Louisiana (recently acquired from Spain) to the U.S. to wage his wars.
Crowned emperor at Paris on December 2,1804, he became the virtual master of the European continent, although losing supremacy of the seas at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His occupation of Spain during the Peninsular War lasting until 1814 is remembered in Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia (Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), led to an ignominious retreat and quickly building nationalist upsurges across Europe. In March 1814 the monarchist allies took Paris, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, and Louis XVIII was placed on throne. But Napoleon escaped from Elba, returned to Paris, raised a new army, and was defeated at Waterloo.
Napoleon’s remains were brought back to France from St. Helena in 1840. His tomb in Paris remains a site of profound reverence to this day.
One of the most written-about figures in history, Napoleon is depicted as a champion of the French people and defender of the principles of revolution and democracy. Others see him as an adventurer and despot, exploiting the Revolution to his own ends. His life exemplifies the old conundrum: By what means do radicals and revolutionaries effectively promulgate their ideas?
Waterloo entered the language as both a symbol of decisive defeat, and as a turning point in history. In 1859 the prominent American reformer and abolitionist Wendell Phillips said, “Every man meets his Waterloo at last.”
W. S. Gilbert’s “modern Major-General” in The Pirates of Penzance, brags, “I know the Kings of England, and I quote the fights historical/From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.”
Carl Sandburg, in his poem “Grass,” published in 1918, as World War I ended, wrote these sad, elegiac lines: “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo./Shovel them under and let me work -/I am the grass; I cover all./And pile them high at Gettysburg/And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun./Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:/What place is this?/Where are we now?”
In a conference at the White House in December 1941, shortly after the U.S. joined World War II, Winston Churchill quoted lines by the English poet Lord Byron: “Thou fatal Waterloo…where the sword united nations drew/Our countrymen were warring on that day.” From that reference the wartime leaders changed the name of the allies from Associated Powers to United Nations.
Photo: Wikipedia (CC)