Friday, 20 September 2013

True Glory

In among all the talk about war, or possibly no war, between Syria and the West in recent weeks, I’ve taken to thinking again about what it is that truly gives a nation its glory. And, quite frankly, I have to conclude that whatever it may be do in the arts, the sciences, the law or government, what really matters is its achievements in war. A victory or two give a country the fillip it needs, however badly it may be failing elsewhere.

That’s a factor not to be discounted in all the debate about firing cruise missiles.

No nation is immune to this kind of thinking, and least of all my own, Britain. Oh yes, our fine military tradition is the backbone of our sense of ourselves. And in among all our great successes on the battlefield, none is so glorious, none puts such a spring in our step, as the great, historic victory Britain won at Waterloo.

Wellington, glorious leader leading a glorious action.
Or was he?
‘The tale is in every Englishman’s mouth,’ writes William Thackeray in that superb novel Vanity Fair, and points out that we ‘are never tired of hearing and recounting the history of that famous action.’

Of course. It was such an unambiguous victory, and so unambiguously British.

Though, to be fair, there are some who are a little less sure of that than others. 

‘There was a bit of a German element, too, wasn’t there?’ these wet blankets point out.

Ah, yes. The Prussians. But they were just johnny-come-lately’s, showing up at the end of the day, when the best of the fighting was all but over. They made sure of a victory that the British Army had already won.

Well, up to a point. The French had wasting several hours trying to capture the forward position Wellington had established at the chateau of Hougoumont, on the right of his line. That position did indeed hold out against sustained infantry assault, and then a terrible series of cavalry attacks. It never fell.

See? Heroic work by the glorious British under the genius Wellington.

Again, up to a point. The French got a bit smarter late in the afternoon. They pulled their infantry and cavalry together and launched them, not at Wellington’s right, but at his centre, another defended forward position in the farm at La Haye Sainte. And this time they succeeded: the farm fell and with that French gain, Wellington
’s hold on the middle of his line became precarious.

Wellington had been in touch with the Prussian marshal Blücher since the small hours of the morning, and was expecting him to arrive on his left. So he’d only sparsely manned that part of the line. With his right heavily committed around Hougoumont he now had little force with which to shore up his centre.

In the end it didn’t matter much. By the early evening, the Prussians were fairly pouring onto the field, and Napoleon had to detach forces to deal with them. Wellington got out of jail free. 

Maybe that’s why the British general described the battle as ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw...

Even so, he’d done well up to that point. And that was an unequivocally British success. Wasn’t it?

Perhaps not unequivocally, exactly. 

The idea of coalitions to fight wars isn’t new. Wellington headed one. Waterloo being in Belgium, then part of a combined Dutch-Belgian kingdom, Wellington’s 68,000-strong army included 17,000 – a quarter – from the Low Countries.

Still, that leaves 51,000 Brits, doesn’t it?

The King of Britain was at that time also Elector of Hanover. In Germany. 11,000 soldiers under Wellington were Hanoverian. And, as it happened, 6000 more were from Brunswick, along with 3000 from Nassau. Also both in Germany.

So actually only 31,000 of the soldiers were from the British Army. And, funnily enough, during the long years of Napoleonic occupation of Germany, other Hanoverians had escaped and made it to England, where they formed the King’s German Legion, 6000 of whom were in the specifically British contingent of Wellington’s army.

So even on Wellington’s side, only 25,000 soldiers were actually British. Slightly more, 26,000, were German. Which along with the 50,000 Prussians who rather turned the tide on the day, meant there were 76,000 Germans fighting the French – just over three times as many as there were British.

Still, we all need something to put a spring in our step. And if Waterloo does it for us Brits, why not?

Though personally, to be honest, I prefer to take something else from that epoch-making event, summed up in two other comments of Wellington’s. 

The first summed up his reaction to the dead strewn over the field of Waterloo: ‘nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.’ 

A dismal place, a battlefield. 

There’s talk today about negotiations starting at last between the two sides in the Syrian civil war. That's nothing like as exciting as a missile strike, nothing like as dramatic in outcome, nothing like certain of success. But perhaps by killing fewer people, it might be marginally less miserable than yet another battlefield, lost or won.

And Wellington’s other comment? 

‘I hope to God I have fought my last battle.’

There’s little hope that we have fired our last cruise missile. But maybe we ought to take heed of the sentiment behind the glorious general’s heartfelt wish, and be slightly less inclined to reach for the missile as a first resort rather than a last.

That would be a different kind of glory. But it might have more substance to it.


Mark Reynolds said...

"When merciless ambition, or mad zeal,
Has led two hosts of dupes to battle-field,
That, blind, they there may dig each other’s graves
And call the sad work glory..."

David Beeson said...

Perfectly apt! I didn't know the Shelley - brilliant.