16 October 2015
The Truth about Waterloo?
A few days ago I attended a talk by Belgian author Johan Op De Beeck, who specialises in the Napoleonic Wars. His latest book Waterloo: De laatste honderd dagen van Napoleon focuses on the roles played by Dutch, Belgian and Nassau troops before and during the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
Johan Op de Beeck, Waterloo: de laatste honderd dagen van Napoleon. (Antwerp, 2013). British Library YF.2015.a.14916; the cover shows 1814 by Jean-Philip-Ernest Meisionier (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
It is often said that the truth is the first casualty in war and Waterloo is no exception. Op de Beeck’s view is, that all parties involved created their own ‘truth’ and that future historians have been all too gullible in accepting highly one-sided accounts from mainly the British. After all, ‘history is written by the victor’, as Winston Churchill observed. For nearly 200 years the accepted narrative has been that the British army, under command of the Duke of Wellington secured victory practically singlehandedly. No-one contests the fact that Wellington’s army won the battle of Waterloo, but there has been a distinct lack of acknowledgement of the major and sometimes decisive contributions and sacrifices the Dutch, Belgian, Nassau and Prussian armies made on the battlefield. Wellington’s own account of affairs does not mention that it was the Dutch, Belgian and Nassau armies who held the French at bay at Quatre-Bras until British reinforcements arrived on 16 June. Nor does the Duke mention the Dutch actions that proved instrumental in securing the victory during the final stages of the battle at Waterloo.
The Dutch King William I and his son, the Prince of Orange, who had fought in the front line and was wounded, were outraged. They demanded acknowledgment of the sacrifices the European allies of the Brits had made, but to no avail.
Things did not get any better for the Dutch and Belgians when William Siborne (1797–1849) published his History of the War in France and Belgium in 1844. In it, Siborne dismisses the Dutch and Belgians as deserters. He particularly attacks the Prince of Orange, whom he describes as ‘incompetent’ and ‘inexperienced’ , a bit of a loose cannon. Siborne’s book had such an impact that it was simply accepted as the truth by future British historians, until far into the 20th century: Jac Weller criticizes the Dutch in his 1992 book Wellington at Waterloo.
Siborne’s account was challenged as early as 1846, amongst others by Dutch Lieutenant-General and military historian W.J. Knoop (1811-1894). His reaction to Siborne appeared as a pamphlet, entitled Beschouwingen over Siborne’s Geschiedenis van den oorlog van 1815 in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden. Knoop strongly objected to Siborne’s view that practically the whole Dutch army deserted at Waterloo. The same year his pamphlet was translated into German, (M.L.df.1) and French ( 9076.ff.41) and met with great approval. In Britain it was merely noted.
The Dutch government did not give up and sent Knoop’s pupil François de Bas to Britain to research Siborne’s archives. De Bas found that Siborne had been rather selective in choosing his resources, but he did not get anywhere with the Brits. On the contrary, the British views were only reinforced when Siborne’s son Major-General Herbert Taylor Siborne (1826-1902) published Waterloo Letters in 1891.
So strong was support for Siborne that the Scottish historian Sir Herbert Maxwell was accused of being ‘anti-British’, when he dared point out how important the Dutch, Belgian and Nassau contributions to the victory had been in his 1899 Life of Wellington.
However, the Brits weren’t the only ones to exaggerate their role in events. The Dutch and Belgians did the same for their sides, mainly inspired by a desire to strengthen the position of the very young new Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was only established two years earlier.
Throughout the 19th century commemorations and celebrations of Quatre-Bras and Waterloo were held at every opportunity, which led to a flood of highly patriotic songs, poems and other publications, such as those illustrated below.
It wasn’t until well into the 20th Century that more balanced views started to be aired, both within and outside Britain. When written in English, the latter are better picked up by British scholarship, which promotes a more critical approach of earlier studies, such as Siborne’s. Jeremy Black’s The Battle of Waterloo (2010) and Alan Forrest’s Waterloo (2015) are good examples of this less biased approach.
There is of course no one real truth about Waterloo and so researchers will have plenty of work to do unpicking the truth and debunking the myths surrounding Waterloo. What better place to start than at the British Library?! Very few libraries in the country can rival our holdings published both within and outside Britain, expressing many different views, in various languages and forms.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
William Siborne, History of the War in France and Belgium, 1815; containing minute details of the battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo. (London, 1844) 1435.g.7-8, and online: http://access.bl.uk/item/pdf/lsidyv37be609e
Jac Weller, Wellington at Waterloo. (Greenhill, 1992). YK.1992.a.7961.
Herbert Taylor Siborne, Waterloo Letters: a Selection from Original and hitherto Unpublished Letters bearing on the Operations of the 16th, 17th, and 18th June 1815, by Officers who served in the Campaign (London, 1891) 9079.bb.36, and online: http://access.bl.uk/item/pdf/lsidyv30b6053a
Sir Herbert Maxwell, The Life of Wellington: the Restoration of the Martial Power of Great Britain ... (London, 1899) 010817.k.14.
Jeremy Black, The Battle of Waterloo (New York, 2010) m10/.15369
Alan I. Forrest, Waterloo. (Oxford, 2015) (awaiting shelfmark)
Jeroen van Zanten, ‘Hoe dapper was ‘Silly Billy’?’ Historisch Nieuwsblad, Vol. 24, no. 6 (June 2015) pp 33-39. 
Ruscombe Foster, Wellington and Waterloo: the Duke, the Battle and Posterity. (Stroud, 2014) YC.2015.a.2532