“Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” —Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, June 19, 1815
The Battle of Waterloo — a series of bloody encounters between French, Anglo-Dutch, and Prussian armies fought over four days — culminated with Napoleon’s final defeat on June 18, 1815. It was a major historical event, and yet its bicentennial has come and gone essentially without notice.
From 1789 until 1815, wars of the French Revolution and the era of Napoleon wrested Europe from the era of “limited warfare” (from 1648 until the French Revolution) into a modern era of enormous bloodletting intensified by the rise of nationalism and the Industrial Revolution. It was a historical perfect storm unleashed in full fury a century later in two global wars. The aftermath: the terror-stricken world of today.
Anglo-Dutch forces under Sir Arthur Wellington suffered 15,000 casualties. Napoleon’s army lost twice that number, including 7,000 captured. England’s Prussian ally suffered 7,000 dead. Napoleon, declared an international outlaw by the Congress of Vienna, finally was consigned to the remote south Atlantic rock of Saint Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821.
Over the next 40 years, two centuries of French hegemony over Western Europe dissolved into political turmoil while Prussia — formerly a nation of clock makers and peasant farmers — evolved into a modern industrial state under the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck. Prussia’s quick defeat of France in 1871 established a unified German Empire as the continent’s dominant power. History’s perfect storm brewed.
Meanwhile, the 19th century seemed full of scientific promise set against the backdrop of an Industrial Revolution that transformed Britain as well as Germany, the United States, and Russia. The birth of romanticism fed nationalistic forces unleashed by the French Revolution that metastasized with Charles Darwin’s theories driven by survival of the fittest. The British Empire, freed from pestering by a broken France, solidified its hold on southwest Asia and India and extended throughout Africa and the Middle East. Germany, seeking its place on the world stage, challenged its historic ally across the English Channel by building what England could not abide, a rival naval force. And the drums began to roll.
The 20th century then followed, dawning bright and full of promise. Powerful turbine engines drove ocean vessels that turned journeys of weeks into days binding the world more closely in what some hoped would be a new era of international understanding and peace. Humanity broke the surly bonds of earth to first float on gas-filled balloons and then flew with increasing ease, speed, and distance. A diplomatic revolution realigned Europe into a previously unfathomable Anglo-French alliance aimed at countering the German-Austrian hold on continental hegemony even as the Russian Empire faltered in its war with Japan. Meanwhile, the United States, after sorting itself out with the bloodiest war in its history, extended its power across a continent and then abroad with a blue-water navy needed to support the global interests of a modern nation state.
Two centuries of political, scientific, and ideological revolutions converged in the perfect storm that was the 20th century. The Industrial Age fostered ideological revolutions loosely flowing from French socialism and the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels tousled by Lenin and Trotsky, and then rewritten by Mao Tse Tung resulting in the greatest terror unleashed by humanity: state terrorism devouring millions of lives. Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest — boosted by nihilistic musings of Friedrich Nietzsche — fed into racial concepts of Adolph Hitler already fertilized by his perverted notions of Aryan cultural and ethnic supremacy.
Nearly 130 years after Waterloo, the scientific revolution rendered history’s most awesome weapon: the atomic bomb. Since then, the butcher’s bill for which Waterloo made a comparatively modest down payment, decreased to around 1,000,000 or so lives sacrificed annually on the altar of warfare. Industrial Age giants capable of fielding and sustaining armies of millions could not risk the nuclear age’s threat of self-inflicted obliteration. Humanity returned to an age of limited warfare where major powers struggle through proxies, conflicts the major powers entered mostly to their detriment: Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan.
Two centuries on from Waterloo, what have we learned? Perhaps Wellington, in his June 19, 1815 letter to Lady Frances Shelly, had it right. The only thing sadder than a battle lost is a battle won. Even sadder, there seems no end to battles to be fought, won or lost.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.