June 18, 2015 3 Comments
On 15 June 1815, just over two hundred years ago, and coincidentally the six-hundredth anniversary of the signing of Magna Charta. Charlotte, the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball in Brussels. It was a glittering affair. Attending amongst many other famous names was Sir Arthur Wellesley, soon to be the first Duke of Wellington, and excepting three general officers, all the high command of the army of the Seventh Coalition. Many of them would die or be badly wounded in the next few days.
For on the 16th, the Battle of Quatre Bras took place, leading to the climax today, with the Battle of Waterloo, and the surrender and final exile of Napoleon Bonaparte to St. Helena, where for the rest of his life, the Royal Navy would make sure he would cause no more trouble.
It was a hard-fought battle, and you can easily find out more but for me, Robert Southey, in writing about an earlier English victory that would blaze down history, that at Blenheim that made the Duke of Marlborough, pretty much said it all
“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.
“They said it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.”
“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”
One other thing connected the Duke of Marlborough with the Duke of Wellington.
As well as the steadiness under fire of the soldiers that the Duke of Wellington called “scum, the very scum of the earth” commanded by officers who bought their commissions in hope of getting rich on war booty. Free enterprise warfare (sort of) and it didn’t work out too badly.
But that says something as well, doesn’t it. We commented earlier this week that there is a stubbornness in the English, there is a point beyond which, if they are pushed, they tend to wreak a terrible vengeance, whatever the cost, and it has been so since at least 1066. Magna Charta is part of that story with the humbling of a king that thought he was above the law.
It also shows up when the British took on the French in the Second French War and lost the Mary Rose at the Battle of the Solent in 1545.
Then we come to the famous one, The Armada when Imperial Spain mounted a full on Crusade against Elizabethan England. England’s royal navy not only showed them off but started the decline of Imperial Spain which the US Navy would complete at Santiago and Manila Bay in 1898.
This, of course, cleared the way for the First British Empire, That empire featured the colonies that would become the United States. Interestingly, from this point, the only major war Britain lost was the American Revolution, and I would posit that we inherited along with the traditions that include the rule of law, our full share of that stubbornness. It’s often been said that the American colonies even then could not be conquered. I think it’s true, but I think it has more to do with the people than anything else, conquering India really should have been harder than to reassert themselves in the colonies. But India succumbed and the United States didn’t.
The first empire is the setting of course for the coalition war that ended Louis XIV’s pretensions to combine France and Spain (It was called the War of the Spanish Succession for a reason). This is the war that Marlborough so stunningly waged, the first in modern times when England campaigned in Europe, to very good effect. It also was a bit of a religious war, you’ll find that England’s allies were mostly Protestant and were opposing the Catholic powers of France and Spain.
The French revolution divided English society along much the same lines as the American one had. Some supported the revolt and some the king, but when the revolution ran its course into the Terror and all semblance of rule of law was lost, opinion solidified, and when France decided to export the revolution, the war began.
And so, when Napoleon became emperor, it got pretty serious. In 1805, Napoleon gathered barges and troops around Boulogne to invade Britain, an existential threat not seen since the Armada, and not to be seen again until 1940. That threat was ended for all time at Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar, as were the French pretensions to superpower status. It also enabled Wellington to wage the peninsular campaign that kept Portugal from falling and kept the war going in Spain as well.
Napoleon set the stage for his defeat when he decided to hold off on England and invade Russia instead, leading to the destruction of the Grand Army, and his abdication in 1814. he escaped and “The Hundred Days” ensued, ending at Waterloo.
And that set the stage for the growth of the Second Empire, one built more on trade than on the discredited theory of mercantilism that had cost Britain the First Empire. Other than opposing Russia’s drive to the Black Sea in the Crimean War (allied to France) Britain pretty much stayed out of European politics and war. This period saw the decline of France and the rise of Germany. Which at the beginning of the twentieth century led to first the Great War and then the Second World War, as the spread of Germany’s empire was checked, and indeed Germany herself all but destroyed. In large part because Hitler repeated many of Napoleons mistakes, and the British fought him off in the same old way. And then came the Cold War in which Britain and the United States managed to destroy the Soviet Empire without firing a shot in the main theater.
So, is there a common thread here? I think there is, and it’s one shared by all the English-speaking people. Leave us alone. We’ll take care of business, calmly and professionally, but if you choose to mess with us or our freedom, well, as usual, that bard of the English speaking people said it well.