( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The battle of Waterloo is an enigma as obscure for those who gained it as for him who lost it. To Napoleon it is a panic; Blucher sees nothing in it but fire; Wellington does not understand it at all. Look at the reports; the bulletins are confused; the commentaries are en-tangled; the latter stammer, the former stutter.
Jomini divides the battle of Waterloo into four moments; Muffling cuts it into three acts; Charms, altho we do not entirely agree with him in all his appreciations, has alone caught with his haughty eye the characteristic lineaments of this catastrophe of human genius contending with divine chance. All the other historians suffer from a certain bedazzlement in which they grope about. It was a flashing day, in truth the overthrow of the military monarchy which, to the great stupor of the kings, has dragged down all kingdoms, the downfall of strength and the rout of war... .
In this event, which bears the stamp of super-human necessity, men play but a small part; but if we take Waterloo from Wellington and Blucher, does that deprive England and Germany of anything? No. Neither illustrious England nor au-gust Germany is in question in the problem of Waterloo, for, thank heaven ! nations are great without the mournful achievements of the sword. Neither Germany, nor England, nor France is held in a scabbard; at this day when Waterloo is only a clash of sabers, Germany has Goethe above Blocher, and England has Byron above Wellington. A. mighty dawn of ideas is peculiar to our age; and in this dawn England and Germany have their own magnificent flash. They are majestic because they think; the high level they bring to civilization is intrinsic to them; it comes from themselves, and not from an accident. Any aggrandizement the nineteenth century may have can not boast of Waterloo as its fountain-head; for only barbarous nations grow suddenly after a victory—it is the transient vanity of tor-rents swollen by a storm. Civilized nations, especially at the present day, are not elevated or debased by the good or evil fortune of a captain, and their specific weight in the human family results from something more than a battle. Their honor, dignity, enlightenment, and genius are not numbers which those gamblers, heroes and conquerors, can stake in the lottery of battles. Very often a battle lost is progress gained, and less of glory, more of liberty. The drummer is silent and reason speaks; it is the game of who loses wins. Let us, then, speak of Waterloo coldly from both sides, and render to chance the things that belong to chance, and to God what is God's. What is Waterloo—a victory? No; a prize in the lottery, won by Europe, and paid by France; it was hardly worth while erecting a lion for it.
Waterloo is the strangest encounter recorded in history; Napoleon and Wellington are not enemies, but contraries. Never did God, who delights in antitheses, produce a more striking contrast, or a more extraordinary confrontation. On one side precision, foresight, geometry, prudence, a retreat assured, reserves prepared, an obstinate coolness, an imperturbable method, strategy profiting by the ground, tactics balancing battalions, carnage measured by a plumb-line, war regulated watch in hand, nothing left voluntarily to accident, old classic courage and absolute correctness.
On the other side we have intuition, divination, military strangeness, superhuman instinct, a flashing glance; something that gazes like the eagle and strikes like lightning, all the mysteries of a profound mind, associated with destiny; the river, the plain, the forest, and the hill summoned, and, to some extent, compelled to obey; the despot going so far as even to tyrannize over the battle-field; faith in a star, blended with a strategic science, heightening, but troubling it.
Wellington was the Bareme of war, Napoleon was its Michelangelo, and this true genius was conquered by calculation. On both sides some-body was expected; and it was the exact calculator who succeeded. Napoleon waited for Grouchy, who did not come; Wellington waited for Blucher, and he came.
Wellington is the classical war taking its revenge; Bonaparte, in his dawn, had met it in Italy, and superbly defeated it—the old owl fled before the young vulture. The old tactics had been not only overthrown, but scandalized. Who was this Corsican of six-and-twenty years of age? What meant this splendid ignoramus, who, having everything against him, nothing for him, without provisions, ammunition, guns, shoes, almost with-out an army, with a handful of men against masses, dashed at allied Europe, and absurdly gained impossible victories? Who was this new comet of war who possest the effrontery of a planet?
The academic military school excommunicated him, while bolting, and hence arose an implacable rancor of the old Caesarism against the new, of the old saber against the flashing sword, and of the chessboard against genius. On June 18, 1815, this rancor got the best; and beneath Lodi, Montebello, Montenotte, Mantua, Marengo, and Arcola, it wrote—Waterloo. It was a triumph of mediocrity, sweet to majorities, and destiny consented to this irony. In his decline, Napoleon found a young Suvarov before him—in fact, it is only necessary to blanch Wellington's hair in or-der to have a Suvarov. Waterloo is a battle of the first class, gained by a captain of the second.
What must be admired in the battle of Waterloo is England, the English firmness, the English resolution, the English blood, and what England had really superb in it, is (without offense) her-self; it is not her captain, but her army. Wellington, strangely ungrateful, declares in his dispatch to Lord Bathurst that his army, the one which fought on June 18, 1815, was a "detestable army."
What does the gloomy pile of bones buried in the trenches of Waterloo think of this? England has been too modest to herself in her treatment of Wellington, for making him so great is making herself small. Wellington is merely a hero, like any other man. The Scots Grays, the Life Guards, Maitland's and Mitchell's regiments, Pack's and Kempt's infantry, Ponsonby's and Somerset's cavalry, the Highlanders playing the bagpipes under the shower of canister, Ryland's battalions, the fresh recruits who could hardly manage a musket, and yet held their ground against the old bands of Essling and Rivoli—all this is grand.
Wellington was tenacious; that was his merit, and we do not deny it to him, but the lowest of his privates and his troopers was quite as solid as be, and the iron soldier is as good as the iron duke. For our part, all our glorification is offered to the English soldier, the English army, the English nation; and if there must be a trophy, it is to England that this trophy is owing. The Waterloo column would be more just, if, instead of the figure of a man, it raised to the clouds the statue of a people. .
But this great England will be irritated by what we are writing here; for she still has feudal illusions, after her 1688 and the French 1789. This people believes in inheritance and hierarchy, and while no other excels it in power and glory, it esteems itself as a nation and not as a people. As a people, it readily subordinates it-self, and takes a lord as its head; the workman lets himself be despised; the soldier puts up with flogging. It will be remembered that, at the battle of Inkerman, a sergeant who, as it appears, saved the British army, could not be mentioned by Lord Raglan, because the military hierarchy does not allow any hero below the rank of officer to be mentioned in dispatches. What we admire before all, in an encounter like Waterloo, is the prodigious skill of chance. The night raid, the wall of Rongoumont, the hollow way of Ohain, Grouchy deaf to the cannon, Napoleon's guide deceiving him, Bu-low's guide enlightening him—all this cataclysm is marvelously managed.
There is more of a massacre than of a battle in Waterloo. Waterloo, of all pitched battles, is the one which had the smallest front for such a number of combatants. Napoleon's three-quarters of a league. Wellington's half a league, and seventy-two thousand combatants on either side. From this density came the carnage. The following calculation has been made and proportion established : loss of men, at Austerlitz, French, four-teen per cent.; Russian, thirty per cent. ; Austrian, forty-four per cent.; at Wagram, French, thirteen per cent.; Austrian, fourteen per cent.; at Moscow, French, thirty-seven per cent. ; Russian, forty-four per cent.; at Bautzen, French, thirteen per cent.; Russian and Prussian, fourteen per cent.; at Waterloo, French, fifty-six per cent.; allies, thirty-one per cent.—total for Waterloo, forty-one per cent., or out of one hundred and forty-four thousand fighting men, sixty thousand killed.
The field of Waterloo has at the present day that calmness which belongs to the earth, and resembles all plains; but at night, a sort of a visionary mist rises from it, and if any traveler walk about it, and listen and dream, like Virgil on the mournful plain of Philippi, the hallucination of the catastrophe seizes upon him. The frightful June 18th lives again, the false monumental hill is lev eled, the wondrous lion is dissipated, the battle field resumes its reality, lines of infantry undulate on the plain; furious galloping crosses the horizon; the startled dreamer sees the flash of sabers, the sparkle of bayonets, the red lights of shells, the monstrous collision of thunderbolts; he hears like a death groan from the tomb, the vague clamor of the fantom battle.
These shadows are grenadiers; these flashes are cuirassiers; this skeleton is Napoleon; this skeleton is Wellington; all this is non-existent, and yet still combats, and the ravines are stained purple, and the trees rustle, and there is fury even in the clouds and in the darkness, while all the stern heights, Mont St. Jean, Hougoumont, Frischemont, Papelotte, and Plancenoit, seem confusedly crowned by hosts of specters exterminating one another.