History, they say, is written by the victors. And sometimes everyday expressions are too.
Two hundred years ago today, Anglo-allied forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian forces led by Gebhard von Blücher decisively defeated Napoleon’s troops near the town of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium. The victory halted the French leader’s decade-long quest for empire and—perhaps less vitally—spawned an idiom for confronting an insuperable challenge or suffering a stunning defeat: to meet one’s Waterloo.
But ahead of the anniversary this year, The Wall Street Journal reported on a quirk of history: Napoleon wasn’t actually in Waterloo when he met his Waterloo. Most of the battle had occurred in Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit, just a few miles south of the town (the Lion’s Mound, the most iconic symbol of the battle, is located in Braine-l’Alleud).
When the battle concluded, leaving tens of thousands dead, it had no name. “The French initially called it ‘Battle of Mont Saint-Jean’ after the Braine-l’Alleud plateau where the allies were positioned,” the Journal noted. “The Prussians chose ‘Battle of La Belle Alliance’ after a farm in Plancenoit where Wellington and Blücher reportedly met.” It was Wellington’s day-after report of the military confrontation from his headquarters in Waterloo that gave the battle its enduring title. “The attack succeeded in every point: the enemy was forced from his positions on the heights, and fled in the utmost confusion,” the duke proudly announced to his superiors under the dateline, “Waterloo, 19th June 1815.” The association between the battle and Waterloo began to stick once Wellington’s dispatch reached London.
Miffed officials in Braine-l’Alleud have tried to raise awareness about their town’s role in the struggle by commissioning a book entitled Braine-l’Alleud, Heart of the 1815 Battle and suing a guide-book company for referring to the Lion’s Mound as the “Mound of Waterloo.”
“Nobody will ever call it the ‘Battle of Braine-l’Alleud.’ That would be completely ridiculous,” Vincent Scourneau, the town’s mayor, told the Journal. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to correct errors that were made.”
Military Positions During the Battle of Waterloo
In the months and years following the battle, its name was still in flux. Consider the musings of one Lieutenant-General William A. Scott, in an 1815 treatise delightfully titled Battle of Waterloo; or, Correct Narrative of the Late Sanguinary Conflict on the Plains of Waterloo: Exhibiting a Minute Detail of All the Military Operations of the Heroes Who Signalized Themselves on That Memorable Occasion, Opposed to Napoleon Buonaparte, in Person: With an Authentic Memoir of That Most Extraordinary Person; From the Beginning, to the End, of His Political Career. The following reflection appeared in a footnote:
For so destructive a battle, ending in a victory of such interest in its results, and so important in its consequences, one might imagine it would not be difficult to find a suitable name: yet such is the fact. No one has yet been able ultimately to decide by what title the astonishing victory of the 18th of June should be recorded. The Battle of Waterloo, or La Belle Alliance, has two names, neither of which is exactly appropriate. The first is a large handsome village, three miles in the rear of the ground where the action was fought, and happened to be the head-quarters of the Duke of Wellington for one night. The other is a serry farmhouse, or rather cabaret, rendered famous by the meeting of the two great commanders at the close of the engagement, in which each was completely victorious.
If general locality of position, if the field where all the manoeuvres and most of the fighting took place, be deemed the best criteria to designate a pitched battle, then, unquestionably, the name given by the French, namely, Mont St. Jean, ought to be adopted. In all wars, however, the victors claim the privilege of naming the combat. Our enemies alone seem to dispute this right, even on the page of history. … In the present instance, however, they appear to have reason on their side; for the rising ground at a short distance from the south end of the village of Mont St. Jean … was not only the position chosen by our great general, but the place where the contest was hottest, which the enemy made the most stupendous efforts to force, and where, in his last attempt, in the hollow way in front of it, the “Imperial guard” perished almost to a man.
By 1817, the Edinburgh Annual Register explained that the British had diverged from the Prussians and French in referring to the battle as Waterloo because it was “the nearest village of any consequence” and served as Wellington’s headquarters, and the name was now “most familiar to the British ear and imagination.” Decades later, the French historian Adolphe Thiers wrote that the British, French, and Prussians still called the battle different names, though he conceded that “the historian calls [it] the battle of Waterloo, as custom, from whose decision there is no appeal, has named it so.”
On Thursday, Belgium’s King Philippe joined other dignitaries at the Lion’s Mound, in Braine-l’Alleud, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and praise the European Union’s contribution to peace on the continent. “Today, the European institutions are firmly established in Brussels, a few kilometers from Waterloo,” he observed. “Certainly, it is not always easy to get along. But it is always better to meet around the negotiating table than on the battlefield.”
He didn’t mention that the battlefield where Napoleon was vanquished stood a few kilometers from Waterloo as well.