On the morning of 18 June 1815, few could have guessed that a sleepy village twenty kilometers south of Brussels would be thrust to prominence. The Battle of Waterloo, an epic clashing of arms, saw Napoleonic France face a coalition of Belgian, British, Dutch and German, Dutch troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Late on the morning of 18 June, a sizable portion of Europe went to war to stop Napoleon. Yet, what was a battle on 18 June, became, through the power of retrospect that is history, much more. It marked the advent of a century of British supremacy.
For France, Waterloo proved a historic defeat. It put an end to the spirit of the French Revolution, the embodiment of which Napoleon had co-opted to make his own. Napoleon exported the French Enlightenment to Europe, with its new ideas of nationhood and administrative rationalization. The legacy of his Civil Code is still very much present in Europe to this day.
Thus, Waterloo put a stop to the Napoleonic project, and by extension, the French World Order it had fostered. Waterloo would prove an embarrassment, if not a humiliation, in the national French psyche. The author Victor Hugo would try to re-branded it as a heroic defeat with his “Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !”, the French statesman Charles de Gaulle would omit Waterloo from his history of the French army.
Yet, for Great Britain, which in the early 1800s became the United Kingdom, Waterloo was the opening chapter of Pax Britannica: the British Peace.
From 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, the United Kingdom would lead the global world order, and through this lead, ensure a relatively stable international system. For a century, the European continent did not witness any general, all consuming, conflicts. The model of Napoleonic total war did not re-emerge.
In retrospect, Waterloo brought a stable world order. However, such a world order was not only based on martial prowess. It had two components, one military, the other diplomatic.
Waterloo had a naval precedent: the Battle of Trafalgar fought on 21 October 1805. At Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson had neutralized a combined force comprising the Franco-Spanish fleets. In a stunning victory, Napoleon’s naval arsenal was destroyed. It can be said, with little exaggeration, that the Royal Navy ruled the waves in the century from 1805. At Waterloo, Wellington accomplished on land what Nelson had so brilliantly done at sea. Britain cemented its triumph over Napoleonic France through military victory.
Nevertheless, those victories would have had a much lesser impact had they not been accompanied by the Congress of Vienna. War’s victories are of little value if they are not enshrined and acknowledged in peace. In many ways, it was the Congress of Vienna, bolstered by the triumphs of Trafalgar and Waterloo, that made Pax Britannica possible.
The Congress of Vienna translated military victory into a peaceful balance of power on the European Continent. France was restrained, and buffer states between the Great Powers were created or enlarged.
As we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, we must remember that the clash of arms did not happen in a vacuum. It marked the beginning of a century of British based international norms, and a stable world order that prevented the eruption of a European wide conflict for a century.