Waterloo – a decisive battle

The 18th of June this year is the bicentenary of the legendary Battle of Waterloo. This was the battle that gave us hundreds of places named after the Duke of Wellington, a London train station, a dramatic Sharpe story and and a classic Eurovision winner. But what was it all about?

The Napoleonic Wars, which had begun in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary Wars, raged across Europe for well over a decade. Napoleon had emerged as a charismatic leader of the French, being crowned Emperor in 1804, and wanted to dominate Europe. Although defeated by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 it wasn’t until 1814, following campaigns such as the Peninsular War and with all of Europe against him, that Napoleon was defeated and exiled to the island of Elba off the Italian coast.

Dramatically, Napoleon escaped, took back France and – outside a small town in Belgium – met a combined force of British, Prussians and other allies led by Wellington and Marshal Blücher in a showdown to decide the direction Europe would take. To paraphrase Wellington, the battle was a ‘close run thing’, with Prussian support arriving when the British were in dire need. It was also a brutal encounter, with many thousands killed or maimed. For an overview of the battle take a look at this BBC iWonder guide.

Following his final defeat Napoleon was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. This time there was to be no escape.

There are many important anniversaries to remember this year and Waterloo may seem remote, yet when the centenary of the battle took place, the Gallipoli Campaign was only a few weeks old. If Napoleon had won the battle the balance of European and world power would have been markedly different.

2015 – what to expect in anniversaries

While 2015 is going to be dominated by the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, there are a number of major non-First World War military-related anniversaries coming up this year. (This is not an exhaustive list)

Although the campaign was a failure, the evacuation of the allies from the Gallipoli Peninsula was remarkably successful, as was the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and much of the French Army from Dunkirk in northern France 25 years later. In late spring 1940 Hitler‘s forces seemed unstoppable and withdrawal from continental Europe left Britain and her empire isolated and facing invasion. In order to invade the Nazis first needed air superiority, but during the tense weeks of the Battle of Britain that summer the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe and the invasion was called off.

A number of New Zealanders served with the RAF during the Battle of Britain, most notably Keith Park, from Thames, who commanded No. 11 Group defending London and the South-East of England.

This year will also see the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, both in Europe where VE (Victory in Europe) Day was held on 8 May (9 May in New Zealand) and VJ (Victory over Japan) Day on 15th August – although the official Japanese surrender wasn’t signed until 2nd September. As the Allies liberated Nazi-held territory in Europe the painful truth about their treatment of Jews was revealed. It was on 27th January that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

The Battle of Waterloo was a major event in European history and took place in Belgium on 18th June 1815. The battle saw a coalition of British, Dutch, German and Belgian armies, led by the Duke of Wellington defeat the French and finally end Napoleon’s imperial aspirations in Europe. The Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolutionary Wars which had begun in 1792. If Napoleon had won, what would Wellington (and Picton) have been called?

The Hundred Years War lasted longer than 100 years, but one of the most significant battles of the war was fought 600 years ago this year. The Battle of Agincourt, which took place in northern France on 25th October, was a major victory for the English, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

There certainly is much to think about and remember this year.