Napoleon and Waterloo: Defeat in battle, but Victory over history (Book Review)

Title: How the French Won Waterloo – or Think They Did; Author: Stephen Clarke; Publisher: Arrow Books/Penguin UK; Pages: 304; Price: Rs 499

Waterloo has become a byword – at least in the English-speaking world – for a decisive, career-ending defeat. Most people know that Napoleon, Emperor of France, lost this battle at this small Belgian settlement, near Brussels, in June 1815, and his eventful reign ended in ignominious defeat. Historical fact? Try convincing the French.

British journalist-cum-novelist Stephen Clarke says Napoleon “had gambled everything on one great confrontation with his enemies, and he had lost. The word ‘lost’, in this case, having its usual meaning of ‘not won’, ‘been defeated, trounced, hammered’, etc”. And everyone acknowledges it but the French – for over two centuries now.

It is not only Napoleon’s soldiers or die-hard supporters that have a different view, but also historians and experts down to our own times, he says. Waterloo veteran, Captain Marie Jean Baptiste Lemmonier-Delafosse may, in his memoirs, well say: “It wasn’t Lord Wellington who won; his defence was stubborn and admirably energetic, but he was pushed back and beaten”, but what about French historian Jean-Claude Damamme, who, in a 1999 book, says: “For the English, Waterloo was a defeat that they won” and former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (2005-07), in a recent book about the Emperor, who contends: “This defeat shines with the aura of victory.”

Then, as Clarke tells us, a visit to the Waterloo memorial will leave many confused as to who had actually won, given the preponderance of Napoleon and his French army among the exhibits and presentation.

This, he says, “provokes two main questions: Who exactly is behind this rewriting of history that has been going on ever since the battle ended? And why do they feel the need to indulge in such outrageous denial?” The answers are “fascinatingly complex”.

Part of the answer to the first, says Clarke, lies in presence of a “belligerent battalion of French historians who refuse to associate Napoleon’s name with anything as shameful as defeat”. “To achieve this feat of historical acrobatics, they will use any argument they can muster: at Waterloo, they contend, Napoleon might have lost to Blucher but he beat Wellington; the British cheated by choosing the battlefield; Napoleon’s generals disobeyed him; traitors revealed his plans; the French government prevented him from mustering another army and fighting on;etc, etc..”

As he seeks to explain why Napoleon has such a continuing hold on the French psyche and influence in its national life, Clarke takes us on a incisive but witty journey through the Emperor’s eventful life, right from his rise in the aftermath of the French Revolution, his glorious period of conquests and ascendance (save against Britain which continued to fight on), the reverses in Russia, the defeats and the first abdication, the return and the new battles culminating in Waterloo.

And this desperate struggle on which the fate of a continent rested is the high point and vividly recounted, before which Napoleon’s eventual – but shameful – treatment seems only a piquant footnote

But also key is the discussion on Napoleon’s legacy, both good and bad, and how it still permeates French life, while liable to crop out unexpectedly in various parts of Europe.

Clarke is well-suited for his task. He is not only the author of six satirically comic novels about a Briton’s experience in France from “A Year in the Merde” (2004) to “Merde in Europe” (2016) but also “Talk to the Snail” (2006), an ironical survival guide to the French way of life, and “1000 Years of Annoying the French” (2010), his unique take on a millennium and more of British-French history.

The same typical British humour, comprising satire, irony, hyperbole, and bathos, permeates the latest work, but don’t get taken in by its flippant approach. At the core are not only a valuable insight into Napoleon, but into the role and use (and abuse/misuse) of history, the contribution of exceptional individuals, and how abiding legacies can be crafted.

(26.07.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in <mailto:vikas.d@ians.in>)

–IANS

vd/

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