Episode 38: Napoleon’s Hundred Days, Part III

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“Waterloo” is a name so historic and iconic that it’s taken on more than its literal meaning—when we speak of someone “meeting their Waterloo,” we’re talking about their final epic defeat. Napoleon Bonaparte certainly did meet that end on the farm fields of Belgium in June 1815, but the story of how his brief restoration as France’s Emperor came crashing down is more than just the story of a single battle. Historians since 1815 have been more guilty than anyone else at distorting and sanitizing the story of this event, turning a tragic occurrence with real human consequences into little more than a tabletop strategy game with a lot of maps and symbols that obscure what really happened on that field. What was Waterloo really about? What were the stakes? Why are we so reluctant to remember it as anything more than a textbook military exercise? These are the questions that underlie this episode.

In this, the final installment in a three-part series on Napoleon’s Hundred Days, Dr. Sean Munger will throw away the maps and symbols and try to get to the heart of what the Battle of Waterloo was. In this episode you’ll learn why what you may think you know about Napoleon’s defeat is wrong, or at least distorted; you’ll ponder the existential implications of getting a bayonet in the face; you’ll marvel at how such a consequential man as Napoleon ultimately had so little to offer the people he asked to die for him by the thousands; and you’ll meet a 19th century British model-maker who landed the job of a lifetime and wound up seriously screwing up an important moment in European history. This is one of the highlight moments of the entire Second Decade, and one of the main reasons this podcast exists!

Additional Materials About This Episode

[Above] Arthur Wellesley, more commonly known as the Duke of Wellington, the British military hero who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellesley was born in Ireland and earned his chops in the British Army in India before his turn came in the Napoleonic Wars. After 1815, he turned to politics, and eventually became the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1828 to 1830, and again in 1834 for only a couple of weeks. He also revamped and restored the Tower of London as a monument and eventually a tourist attraction. He died in 1852, still Britain’s greatest military hero with the possible exception of Lord Nelson (whom Wellesley knew).

[Above] Gebhard von Blücher, the commander of the Prussian armies at Waterloo. Blücher was the quintessential Prussian soldier and one of the chief exemplars of the military aristocracy that would come to define German political identity in the later 19th and particularly the 20th century. Blücher was already old at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, having served the most productive years of his career serving Frederick the Great. He was seriously wounded at Waterloo, laying crushed under the body of his dead horse for several hours. He survived the battle and died in 1819.

[Above] August von Gneisenau, another Prussian exemplar and Blücher’s chief of staff at Waterloo. He was much more receptive than his boss of the windfall of a French officer’s treasonous desertion and delivery of Napoleon’s war plans to the Allies. Gneisenau continued in his military career after 1815, and also served as the mayor of Berlin. He died of cholera on campaign in Poland in 1831, in the same outbreak that killed his chief of staff, Clausewitz.

[Above] Gneisenau charges at the Battle of Ligny. The Battle of Waterloo has inspired countless heroic paintings recreating the scene, most of them very much like this one. Uniforms and heroism are usually emphasized, but the real death and destruction of the battle is usually little more than background detail.

[Above] This is the kind of pins-on-a-map treatment that the Battle of Waterloo usually receives. Almost any book on the battle will contain numerous illustrations that look like this.

[Above] Dead bodies being buried after the battle. Finally, a little dose of reality.

[Above] Napoleon aboard the British ship Bellerophon, a prisoner of his enemies. Napoleon was exiled to the tiny desolate island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he lived in a comfortable house but was kept under British guard at all times. He ultimately died there in May 1821, having never again set foot in Europe. Naturally there are conspiracy theories about his death.

Unless otherwise specifically provided, these images are believed to be in the public domain.

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