Thursday, June 25, 2015


The strategic situation in Western Europe in 1815: 250,000 Frenchmen faced a coalition of about 850,000 soldiers on four fronts.
Napoleon was forced to leave 20,000 men in Western France to reduce a royalist insurrection.

Source: The Department of History, United States Military Academy (PD)
As a follow-up to last week's series of posts on the Waterloo campaign, a subject near and dear to my heart (YMMV), I wanted to share a conversation from Facebook between myself and a friend and fellow lover of history, FRaVMotC* David Martin.

The conversation was sparked by another friend whom I shall refer to as "Spill," not his name but his call sign which was bestowed upon him at a small Irish pub in Connecticut by his friends and colleagues when he displayed an amazing lack of ability to hold his drink. Literally, he could not hold his drink. Kept spilling the bloody thing.

But that, as you may have guessed, was a digression. I do that a lot, as do Juvat and, to a far lesser extent, Tuna. It is what we do. From time to time.

Here's the raw text of the exchange on Facebook...

Spill: Question for you and Christopher: Waterloo sealed Napoleons fate and rid Europe of him. However what were geopolitical consequences and legacy of the battle itself?

David: Great question, Jason. And it's one smarter people than I have expounded upon at great length over the years. In an attempt to keep it pithy, I'd say Waterloo set the political trajectory of Europe through (at least) the First World War, and set the table for what would become the British century. 

The vast majority of the old European monarchies remained in power until displaced some 100 years later by the events of the First World War, even in spite of the Revolutionary ideas spread by Napoleon's conquests. The balance of power system that would characterize European international relations for the next century was enshrined at the ensuing Congress of Vienna, and was a clear attempt by its adherents to avoid ever having a Napoleon problem in the future. It succeeded in that, as 1815-1914 was (relatively speaking) one of the more tranquil and prosperous centuries Europe ever experienced. It's no mere coincidence either that the Industrial Revolution was able to come into its own during this relatively peaceful time, in a world largely quite exhausted from some nearly 22-years of warfare largely without respite. It also showed that a well-led international coalition force (in Wellington & Blucher) was capable of defeating an ambitious, and arguably militarily superior foe. It is no coincidence that the two victors of Waterloo---Britain and Prussia---would go on to dominate the next 100 years of European (and in many ways world) affairs.

That's my take, anyway. Christopher, what say you?
Your Humble Scribe: Spill and David, stay tuned for a future post on this subject. Waterloo was all that, but...

The Emperor's fate was written in Spain, signed for in Russia and sealed at Leipzig. Waterloo was simply a postscript, a last hurrah if you will.

As to Europe being "peaceful" from 1815 to 1914, in relative terms only. Solferino was as bloody as any battle of the First Empire. Sadowa, Sedan and events such as the Greek War of Independence, the French invasion of Spain in 1823 all contributed to the strife. The many wars fought in the period around 1848 where the people attempted to throw off their dynastic rulers were also bloody but presaged the events of 1918, when Empires fell.

The British Empire "survived" WWI but was fatally weakened, she was a shadow of her former glory when the Wehrmacht rolled into Poland in 1939.

Peace from 1815 to 1914. really just a question of scale. The last time Europe was peaceful was probably before the first humans migrated there.

A bloody continent it was, a bloody continent it remains.

The major outbreaks occur periodically, I have no doubt there will be another, probably in the East, probably within the next 50 years.

And I'm an optimist.

David: Haha... well said, Chris. I agree that the post-Waterloo peace of Europe was relative, but 1815-1914 was relatively free of the full-scale, massive multi-national conflicts that were the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. There's a reason some historians consider those wars to be the first "world war"---and in a sense they're not wrong, given the sheer number of combatants, fronts, and several millions in casualties. Even accepting, arguendothat the Crimean War constitutes a breach in the relative peace, it still took 38 years after Waterloo to transpire. Not bad by European standards.

I also respectfully disagree with what I call the Owen Connelly school on Waterloo---that it was nothing more than the dénouement of the Napoleonic Wars. I think that's a view that can only emerge with the 20/20 historical hindsight of some two hundred years' hence. It's impossible to say what would've happened if d'Erlon's corps arrived on the field at either Quatre Bras or Ligny; if Grouchy had done his job; and if Napoleon had won at Waterloo. But to say that l'Empereur's demise was inevitable flies in the face of what he had done his entire life--defy the odds, make something out of nothing, harness fickle Fortuna to his will. Waterloo was not the first time Napoleon faced seemingly impossible odds.

I think the case can just as easily be made that decisive victory in the Waterloo campaign would have solidified Napoleon's political support in France, whilst fragmenting the collective international will to stop him. It's not unrealistic to think that some sort of a brokered peace might have been arranged, allowing l'Empereur to retain his throne, and propagate his dynasty with his estranged Hapsburg wife. 

The French who fought at Waterloo certainly didn't believe they were fighting and dying for a last hurrah. Nor did the marshals who bet everything---including their very lives---on what would ultimately prove to be Napoleon's last gamble. Victory creates momentum, confidence, and opportunity. Had Napoleon gained a victory at Waterloo, anything was possible.

Napoleon wouldn't have fought if he didn't think he could win, and by winning, convert military victory into tangible political results. There's a reason the second time around that the British shipped him off to a rock in the middle of the Atlantic---they knew what he was capable of, and they didn't want him coming back ever again.

Because Napoleon lost Waterloo, we see it as the inevitable period concluding his brilliant historical epoch. Had he won, who's can say what may have come. At the very least, an exclamation point; at best, a whole new chapter.

Your Humble Scribe: Well said David!

David: Thank you, sir! I've enjoyed our discussion, and your posts on Waterloo immensely. I look forward to your next one.
For your further edification (and no doubt complete, sleep-inducing boredom) here's a list of the conflicts which occurred in Europe after Waterloo and before August of 1914:
  • 1815–1817 Second Serbian Uprising
  • 1817–1864 Russian conquest of the Caucasus
  • 1821–1832 Greek War of Independence
  • 1821 Wallachian uprising of 1821
  • 1823 French invasion of Spain
  • 1826–1828 Russo–Persian War
  • 1827 War of the Malcontents
  • 1828–1829 Russo-Turkish War
  • 1828–1834 Liberal Wars
  • 1830 Ten Days Campaign (following the Belgian Revolt)
  • 1830–1831 November Uprising
  • 1831 Canut revolts
  • 1831–1832 Great Bosnian uprising
  • 1831–1836 Tithe War
  • 1832 War in the Vendée and Chouannerie of 1832
  • 1832 June Rebellion
  • 1833–1839 First Carlist War
  • 1833–1839 Albanian Revolts of 1833–1839
  • 1843–1844 Albanian Revolt of 1843–1844
  • 1846 Galician slaughter
  • 1846–1849 Second Carlist War
  • 1847 Albanian Revolt of 1847
  • 1847 Sonderbund War
  • 1848–1849 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence
  • 1848–1851 First Schleswig War
  • 1848–1866 Wars of Italian Independence
    • 1848–1849 First Italian Independence War
    • 1859 Second Italian War of Independence
    • 1866 Third Italian War of Independence
  • 1853–1856 Crimean War
  • 1854 Epirus Revolt of 1854
  • 1858 Mahtra War
  • 1861–62 Montenegrin–Ottoman War
  • 1863–1864 January Uprising
  • 1864 Second Schleswig War
  • 1866 Austro-Prussian War
  • 1866–1869 Cretan Revolt
  • 1867 Fenian Rising
  • 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War
  • 1872–1876 Third Carlist War
  • 1873–1874 Cantonal Revolution
  • 1875–77 Herzegovina Uprising
  • 1876–78 Serbo-Turkish War
  • 1876–78 Montenegrin-Ottoman War
  • 1877–1878 Russo–Turkish War
  • 1878 Epirus Revolt of 1878
  • 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War
  • 1897 Greco–Turkish War

It is estimated that over 3,000,000 people died in Europe as a direct result of the Napoleonic Wars (see here and here). Estimates of deaths in World War I range from 9 to 15 million (see here and here). Those are the bloody bookends of the 19th Century in Europe. But Europe was by no means peaceful during that century.

One empire was destroyed (the Second Empire under Napoléon III) and one was founded, the German Zweite Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Napoléon III à la bataille de Solférino
by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (Source)
Die Proklamation des Deutschen Kaiserreiches
by Anton von Werner (1877)
Left, on the podium (in black): Crown Prince Frederick (later Frederick III), his father Emperor Wilhelm I, and Frederick I of Baden, proposing a toast to the new emperor. Center (in white): Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of Germany, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Chief of Staff. (Source)

The wars for Italian Independence also united that benighted peninsula for the first time since the fall of Rome.

So there was a lot going on in Europe between Waterloo and the start of World War I.

So how about what might have happened if the first Napoléon had managed to defeat his enemies in the Waterloo campaign?

Let's assume that Napoléon still had about 100,000 men under arms with him after defeating the Prussians and the Anglo-Allies in the Waterloo campaign. That was the only army of any size available to the Emperor. There were dribs and drabs available in France but they really were needed right where they were. Paris had to be held, the line of the Alps and the Pyrenees as well. (Though I doubt the Spaniards would have entered France without a sizable sum of British gold deposited in Madrid and a stiffening of British troops. Which would not have been forthcoming.)

Approaching the Rhine were 225,000 Austrians under Schwarzenberg. Behind him further to the East were 168,000 Russians under Barclay de Tolly. Advancing on the Riviera were another 85,000 men. (A mish-mash of Austrians and Italians.)

While a French victory at Waterloo may have stunned the Allies from London to Saint Petersburg, I doubt they would have thrown in the towel. The Russians hated the French and the Austrians were tired of being pushed around as well.

But on the outside chance that they did pack it in and let the Emperor stay on his throne, what might have been the result? Lots of ink could be spilled on that topic and we'd still wonder.

I'll hold to my opinion that Waterloo was the epilogue of the great war which raged from 1792 to 1814. A last gasp.

One could make the argument that the Wars of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars so exhausted France (and so pissed off the Germans) that the near defeat of France in World War I and the overrunning of France by a resurgent Germany in 1940 was a foregone conclusion.
The effect of the war on France over this time period was considerable. According to David Gates, the Napoleonic Wars cost France at least 916,000 men. This represents 38% of the conscription class of 1790–1795. This rate is over 14% higher than the losses suffered by the same generation one hundred years later fighting Imperial Germany. The French population suffered long-term effects through a low male-to-female population ratio. At the beginning of the Revolution, the numbers of males to females was virtually identical. By the end of the conflict only 0.857 males remained for every female. Combined with new agrarian laws under the Napoleonic Empire which required landowners to divide their lands to all their sons rather than the first born, France's population never recovered. By the time of the First World War France had lost the demographic superiority she had over Germany and Austria and even Great Britain. (Source)
No matter who ruled France after 1815, she would pay the price further down the road. Prior to Napoléon, France was considered a great power in Europe. After Napoléon, France was a shadow of its former self. She would have a last hurrah in the bloodbath of World War I but after that, she was no longer a serious player on the world stage.

Not even England's empire would survive. One could make the argument that Britain is still paying the price for financing all of those coalitions against the French. (The Income Tax was introduced in 1799 by William Pitt the Younger to help pay for weapons and equipment to fight the French. W)

So yes, he could have won and stayed on the throne, unlikely and really, in the long run, almost immaterial. But the Emperor was a brilliant man, who knows what he might have accomplished in a time of peace.

We'll never know.

* FRaVMotC = Frequent Reader and Valued Member of the Commentariat, FYI, that's pronounced frav-MOAT-see.


  1. Great post, Sarge. Gonna have to peruse in more detail as our journey continues.

    1. Thanks Juvat.

      And yes, we expect a complete and detailed trip report. Don't forget to file your travel voucher with finance.

  2. Et maintenant je vois la genèse de la délicieusement accommodante jeune fille française!

  3. Sarge/

    I've been following this entire series w. great interest. Great posts!

    1. Thanks Virgil. It's one of my favorite periods of history.

  4. While Europe is on fire during this period.
    What were all the wars and conflicts that the United States were in during the same time?

    1. And there's a good idea for another post!



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