Stratfor: The Battle of Waterloo: A Landmark in Britain’s Geopolitical Strategy

The Duke of Wellington orders the line to advance at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.
The Duke of Wellington orders the line to advance at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

Summary

Two hundred years ago, the Battle of Waterloo put an end to France’s imperial ambitions and marked the beginning of a century of British global dominance. The battle was a landmark in Britain’s lasting strategy to retain a balance of power on the Continent. But the culmination of World War II brought about a fundamental change in this strategy that is now playing out as a EU referendum bill makes its way through the British Parliament.

Analysis

“It has been a damned nice thing. The nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Two hundred years ago today, the Duke of Wellington uttered these words after his famous victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo. The battle had indeed been hard-fought; Wellington’s 67,000 British troops stared down the barrels of France’s 69,000-strong army. Muddy conditions mitigated some of the French artillery threat, as cannonballs failed to skip across the battlefield with their usual deadly effect. Nevertheless, neither side could gain the upper hand until the late arrival of the Prussian army, headed by Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, shifted the balance firmly in Britain’s favor.

The Battle of Waterloo was important not only for the British, but for the entire Continent as well. Along with the accompanying Congress of Vienna, it marked the end of the explosive period that followed the French Revolution, and it symbolized a successful, but ultimately temporary, attempt by leaders of the Old Europe to quash nationalism and movements for social equality. (These forces would re-emerge over the following century.) The French Revolution had unleashed a maelstrom of new ideas in Europe, a wave that the resourceful Bonaparte rode as he led his armies to victory after victory, redrawing the boundaries of the Continent and building an empire. Though a coalition of European armies had defeated him in 1814, he reassembled support and threatened the allied powers yet again only a year later. Waterloo proved to be the climactic victory that ended French ambitions for continental dominance, ushering in a century of relative peace.

Rise of the British Empire

For Britain, the Battle of Waterloo was a resounding success. It not only subdued France, a major rival, and paved the way for Britain’s global dominance; it also proved the effectiveness of Britain’s balance-of-power strategy in action. The strategy’s origins can be traced back to the end of England’s Hundred Years’ War with France in the 15th century. The discovery of the Americas soon afterward left Britain, with its Atlantic coasts, well positioned to take advantage of the world’s new continent. Meanwhile, the loss of its possessions on the European mainland, which had been obtained through conquest and marriage, freed Britain from Continental entanglements and, as a result, the maintenance of expensive land forces. The ruling Tudor dynasty built up Britain’s maritime capability, and the country soon profited — first through piracy and later through established colonies and trade routes of its own. Eventually, the Royal Navy came to dominate the world’s sea-lanes.

Britain’s island status protected it from foreign attackers, so long as no other nation developed a strong enough navy to challenge Britain’s own — a point proved in an early scare, when inclement weather fortuitously defeated a large Spanish invasion fleet. The best way to prevent such a threat from occurring again was to make sure that no single power controlled the European peninsula. Over several centuries, Britain repeatedly intervened on the side of weaker forces to maintain a balance of power against any potential hegemon. When Spanish King Carlos II died in 1700, Britain stepped in to ensure that the French and Spanish crowns were not united, defeating French troops at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. And when Bonaparte set about building a French Empire and, adding insult to injury, persuading the remaining Continental powers to halt trade with Britain, London dispatched Wellington’s army to fight up through Spain and counter the new French threat.

                       Source: Stratfor Global Intelligence

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