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.’
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.
Most children today have such a cosseted, undemanding life at home. In too many cases their every whim is pandered to. They become little Emperors, missing out only on the imperial purple. Instead they get designer clothes as a substitute. Naturally, they expect this child centred mollycoddling to continue when the day comes to begin their education, and in so many ways it does. If you have a cushy, spoiled, indolent life at home and school you are likely to carry this forward into the workplace.
The very first of life’s many disciplines is getting to school on time. Failure, only a little while ago, was almost unthinkable: it was hugely embarrassing and carried a substantial penalty. This sowed the first seeds of being a good timekeeper.
A few years back it was voguish to deride the Victorians and use them as a way of insulting people. Not anymore. We have come to an appreciation of their towering achievements; they had a work ethic that inspired the world and powered the Industrial Revolution. Recently I read a letter which had come to light from a 17-year-old Durham miner in the trenches of the western front in WWI. I was quite blown away by the literacy of the lad. Not only that, but the handwriting was almost a work of art: beautiful calligraphy. The poor lad almost certainly suffered from trench foot and would have had an army of lice crawling over him as he wrote that letter.
Then, on another occasion, I saw a paper of 20 questions which 11-year-olds, a little earlier, were expected to answer. Three of them were beyond me.
Right now in Singapore, India and China that very same sort of rigour is being applied in schooling. Go into an Indian classroom and you will think you have passed through a time warp. It is the very model of the classroom of their former rulers. They may have said their goodbyes to us, but they are not too proud to cherry pick the best we had to offer, including our wonderful language.
What great societies have to guard against is the soft living and compromised standards that their very success induces. The Greeks despised the Persians for their effete ways and the barbarians the Romans for their dissolute lifestyle. And we know who came out on top in those standoffs.
No one is saying that we should not enjoy the fruits of our success, but we must maintain our core values and the essential disciplines which go with them. Otherwise we will go the way of Nineveh and Tyre.
Not helping in this struggle to maintain standards is the West’s current obsession with celebrity. It has reached farcical proportions. Time was that to be a celebrity you had to have done something; something pretty amazing. And you had not to blot your copybook along the way. Yet today we shower adulation and honours on former drug and sex addicts, philanderers, rotten bankers, shady party funders, time servers, spin doctors, failed politicos, useless Met chiefs and not so brilliant actor/showbiz types who, in many cases, deny the country who made and furnished them with their great wealth a small part of it to fund its necessary expenses.
Young people are mesmerised by the lure of fame. They are being seduced by the idea that their life chances are unaffected by not taking their studies seriously. Why endure the tedium of swatting when you can nab a mega-rich footballer, try your luck on the lottery, win the X Factor or be a Page 3 girl? There’s always something out there. And if all else fails there’s always that soft-touch dozy lot down Social. And if you prefer not to work, well that’s a lifestyle option, innit. And no worries either about having no points on the social housing list! No prob… just have a baby or two… or three… or four.
It is truly a sad spectacle to see all those delusional wannabes packing out the car park of The X Factor waiting for the call. And what does it say about us that the producers serve up for our edification and ridicule the most hopeless, cringe-making losers. There is almost a gladiatorial games feel about it all when they step out in front of 5,000 people to demean and make fools of themselves and, inevitably, be hissed and booed. Many are genuinely puzzled, even furious, that others cannot see the enormity of their talent. Some, undoubtedly, have mental health problems and it is hard to believe that the producers do not know that.
The truth is we have to be realistic and accept that few of us have that sort of shining talent which will leave our peers breathless. Equally, we must accept that the odds against us winning the lottery or The X Factor, or bagging a Wayne Rooney, are slim to the point of vanishing.
So what is the alternative? A humble acceptance of not being a super nova, but being ordinary. Normal, if you like. Being normal is not such a bad thing. Great nations are not built by the glitterati, but by the quality of their ordinary people. It was those ordinary people who Wellington, by the way, described as “the scum of the earth” who handed him his victory at Waterloo after a daylong pounding by the best that the French could throw against them. Hallelujah, I say, for the common man; more properly termed ‘the salt of the earth’. His loves and lives beat nine out of ten of the never satisfied divas.