Poem: Hubris at Waterloo
Unsparing of his soldiers killed,
Yet loved by them in every way.
Oppressed folk all around he thrilled
As Europe’s monarchies he flayed.
‘Upon their stomachs, armies march,’
Said Bonaparte the Corsican.
Europe and Asia, he almost grasped!
That ego said, ‘of course I can’.
A wild adventure drew him east
To fabled Sphynx’s quizzic stare;
But Horatio sank his fleet
And left his army stranded there.
Then east again to Moscow’s gates
With half a million of his best,
The great retreat was left too late:
With winter came that grimmest test.
An island race stood in his way
While others trembled at French might;
To field their armies it would pay
And lead them in a daunting fight.
Through two decades it fought it out;
Old liberties were put on hold.
To drive France from its last redoubt
It knew it must be hard and bold.
Prussians, Russians, Austrians, Dutch,
Belgians and Swedes joined in the cause;
No one thought of the future, much,
Just to survive those endless wars.
At Waterloo the dye was cast;
Sad soldiers penned their final wills.
Those British squares, they must stand fast,
And Frenchmen by the thousand kill.
Cavalry charged against the squares:
Sharp sabres aimed at British breasts.
How would those lines of redcoats fare?
How would they meet that fearsome test?
Volley on volley they must shoot,
‘The closest thing you ever saw…’
‘Hard pounding!’ balled the Iron Duke,
Till Boney’s men could take no more.
To save the day, an Army Corps!
The Emperor’s Imperial Guard:
Unbeaten in a foreign war,
The hardest of the very hard.
In silence and in fearless line
They bore down on their British foe;
But raked by fire ten thousand times,
They did yet make an awesome show.
At last the fates smiled on the reds;
Their musketry was so intense.
Sad doom came in a storm of lead:
‘Now was the game up,’ Boney sensed.
But Allied lines were fading fast,
Exhausted from the nine-hour fight,
When in the distance came at last
Old Marshal Blücher’s Prussian might.
The fearless Duke maintained morale,
Galloping round those battered squares;
They stood there fixed like Zulu kraals,
One and all did that peril share.
The day was clinched, at fearful cost,
With corpses measured by the ton.
‘The next worst thing to battles lost’
‘Is surely that of battles won.’
Was Napoleon murdered on St. Helena?
I personally believe that it was the power of money that defeated Napoleon. Britain dominated world trade. She was already a hundred years into the Industrial Revolution and these two provided her with the funds to build a truly colossal fleet to keep herself safe from invasion, safeguard all her worldwide trade routes and become the paymaster of all the European monarchies opposed to the ideals of Revolutionary France. French battlefield techniques remained superior to those of any other of the European powers, including ourselves, just as the Nazis were in World War Two; but just as in that war the underdogs got better so that their combined material and numerical numbers eventually proved decisive.
I think also there is a strong case for arguing that we made an end of Napoleon on the remote, South Atlantic island of St. Helena, his final place of exile. Crimes need three ingredients: means, opportunity and motive. We had all three. It was a healthy Napoleon who arrived at the island at the age of forty-seven. Six years later he was dead.
First, as our prisoner, we obviously had the means and opportunity. Finally – in my view the decisive factor – his incarceration was costing us a fortune. On that small island of ten miles by six we felt it necessary to garrison 2,000 troops. Second we also felt it necessary to maintain two ships of the line on permanent duty sailing round the island.
The final and perhaps decisive factor influencing the British government of the day was the nightmarish fear that France – which bounced back strongly after Waterloo – would mount a rescue operation to rescue their humiliated hero and begin the Napoleonic Wars all over again.
Please Hubris at Waterloo to read a poem I’ve written attempting to tell the story of Waterloo.