Professor Brendan Simms delivered the fifth All Party Group on Archives and History's annual lecture on 3 November 2015.

 

Professor Simms

Professor Simms, an historian of international relations, spoke on: 'The Battle of Waterloo: a European Victory?' to an audience of MPs, Peers, historians and archivists in the House of Commons Committee Room 8.

Professor Simms skilfully set the scene of the battle and its importance. He introduced themes that even some scholars of the period may not have understood well. Who knew, for example, that contemporary accounts referred to the allies facing Napoleon as the 'united nations,' and that this would be the inspiration for the founding of today's UN, a century and a half later?

Professor Simms first set the scene. He spoke about the history of the then Anglo-German 'special relationship.' In the two centuries before Waterloo, "...there was scarcely a British conflict... which did not involve either German troops or a campaign in Germany...The King's German Legion epitomised this, (as) part of the British regular Army." He then looked at the wider 'coalition' facing Napoleon: eight separate forces, including an Hispano-Portuguese force in the Pyrenees, the Army of Upper Italy and the Army of Switzerland. In central Europe, there were 200,000 Russians and a similar number of Austrians. The Anglo-Prussian force under Wellington and Blucher was therefore one part of a bigger European coalition.

Professor Simms then focused on four aspects of Waterloo to support his headline thesis:

i) the role of the Dutch-Belgian force – despite being outnumbered three to one - in blocking Marshal Ney's advance at the crossroads of Quatre Bras on 16 June 1815. Without this action by a much-overlooked part of the 'coalition', Napoleon may have succeeded in splitting Wellington from Blucher and defeated both separately.

ii) when the Prussian General von Gneisenau ordered a retreat at the nearby battlefield of Ligny the same day; the key element was his decision to maintain contact with Wellington in order to rejoin battle later.

iii) the struggle for the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte during the battle of Waterloo itself on 18 June 1815. Its sustained defence - by a small, combined force of British and 'German' elements in the British army - was crucial in denying Napoleon momentum in the battle.

iv) the arrival of the Prussians on the battlefield from the mid-afternoon of that same day, not as a single force, but in steady stream, which forced Napoleon to commit more and more of his reserves. Blucher's later arrival with his main force then proved decisive.

Professor Simms then explained why this objective 'coalition' view of the battle had disappeared over time. In Britain, during the nineteenth century, Wellington's role became the focus of attention (in part driven by Wellington's himself), and because Germany gradually went from being Britain's natural ally to replacing France as its global rival. German historians, in turn and for similar reasons, had tended over time to see Blucher's role at Waterloo as decisive and minimise the 'British' and 'allied' contribution. The First World War has since entrenched a debate over which of the two generals and their forces had proven decisive at Waterloo, rather than looking at the battle in its real context.

During questions, Professor Simms paid tribute to the archivists who had helped in his research in Germany (notably accessing some important medal citations and battlefield accounts related to individual soldiers from the various German principalities). He was preparing a revision to his work on Waterloo due to recent findings in these archives. In conclusion, this was a masterful and succinct treatment of a complex time in European history, which had much for everyone who attended.

Biography:
Professor Simms is Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University. Among many other things, he is also President of the Henry Jackson Society, President of the Project for Democratic Union and the author of "Unfinest Hour" and "Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy" (both published by Penguin) and "The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo."

Notes:

This was the fifth All Party Group annual lecture. The previous ones were:

  • in 2011, Lord (Peter) Hennessy on government records;
  • in 2012, Professor Michael Slater on Charles Dickens and his links to Parliament as a reporter and as a campaigner;
  • in 2013, Professor Malcolm Chase on the Chartists and the 175th anniversary of the People's Charter;
  • in 2014, Professor Sir Richard Evans on the First World War