Waterloo and Wisdom

Britain’s General Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Painting by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Two hundred years ago, this week, the Duke of Wellington’s dispatch was terse, not triumphal.

[T]he enemy made a desperate effort with cavalry and infantry, supported by the fire of artillery, to force our left centre, near the farm of La Haye Sainte, which, after a severe contest, was defeated; and, having observed that the troops retired from this attack in great confusion…and as Marshal Prince Blücher had joined in person with a corps of his army to the left of our line by Ohain, I determined to attack the enemy, and immediately advanced the whole line of infantry, supported by the cavalry and artillery. The attack succeeded in every point: the enemy was forced from his positions on the heights, and fled in the utmost confusion, leaving behind him, as far as I could judge, 150 pieces of cannon, with their ammunition, which fell into our hands.

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Wellington acknowledges the pivot, which the arrival of Prussians troops played in the battle. The French and British forces were equally exhausted, but, at days end, the Duke was reinforced; Napoleon wasn’t.

The Times of London, insisted that “nothing in ancient or modern history equals the effect of the victory at Waterloo,” but today many people, distant from streets and tube stations named Waterloo, now know little more of the battle than what they learned from the Swedish rock band Abba: “At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.”

The capitulation came later, but the emperor’s cause would not likely have triumphed, even if he had won the battle. France had already been decisively defeated, in 1813, at the Battle of Leipzig. As Alan Forrest points out, in the first of a series of great battle books by Oxford University Press, Waterloo (2015), even after his astounding return from exile on Elba and his resumption of rule in France, Napoleon’s chances against the combined forces reared against him were meager.

The emperor could field a force of only 124,000, but:

That number was dwarfed by the armies ranged against him. To the north Blücher led an army of Prussians and Saxons, and around Brussels Wellington commanded the British, Germans, and Dutch. Between them they had sufficient firepower to overwhelm Napoleon’s troops, and they were only the front line. Further back the Austrians and Bavarians were advancing with an army of around 200,000 commanded by Prince Schwarzenberg, while the Russians, moving west from Poland, threated to add a further quarter of a million soldiers to the Allied cause. If Napoleon was going to make war against such force he had few choices available to him. His only real chance of success lay in preventing the Allied armies from coming together and picking off his enemies one by one (31-32).

That is, of course, precisely what Napoleon attempted to do at Waterloo.

Time turned the battle into the great triumph of British arms, though, of the 209,000 Allied soldiers in the theatre of operations, only 30,000 were English speaking, many of them from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Their heroic contribution helped to define what it meant to be a United Kingdom.

We dwell in time, which is why time itself is required for self-understanding. We rarely know what is happening to us, in the deepest sense—which is to say, who we are becoming in the course of events—until long after those experiences have ebbed. Discernment requires the distance that time creates.

We can cite when someone is born and when the same dies, but it takes years to understand the sum and source of a soul. It’s only in death that a human life appears as a completed whole, as something formed and finished. Then time’s reckoning truly begins.

Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God is

like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up
and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade
(Mk 4 31-32).

Living in an age of information, we begin to expect that all answers are only moments away. We think that to have encountered someone, or something, is to know everything needed. Information might be immediate, but wisdom, the fruit of attentive ardor, takes many years.

Napoleon was finished before Waterloo, and the battle wasn’t a triumph of British arms alone. But many British soldiers fought bravely to exhaustion there, as did their German, Dutch, and French counterpoints. Time only enhances the tale of those heroes.

Today, many argue that the Duke of Wellington wasn’t an extraordinary tactician, but he did possess his share of wisdom, which is the gift of seeing as God sees. The Allies suffered some twenty-three thousand killed and wounded; the French, even more. A few weeks after the battle Wellington wrote:

My heart is broken by the terrible losses I have sustained of my old friends and companions, and my poor soldiers! The glory resulting from such actions, so dearly bought, is no consolation to me, and I cannot imagine that it is any to you, but I trust the result has been so decisive, that little doubt remains of our exertions being rewarded by the attainment of our first object; then it is that the glory of the actions in which our friends have fallen may be some consolation to me (55).

Waterloo, like all other human moments, changes as it moves through time. We understand it better, and we gain from that. At least, we should. The Kingdom of God grows in time, where Christ so surely planted it. Given time, and grace, we see that. We gain wisdom.

Ezekiel 17:22-24  2 Corinthians 5: 6-10  Mark 4: 26-34

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