How the French Won Waterloo (Or Think They Did)

Written by Stephen Clarke
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

In this witty look at two hundred years of rearranging history and reality, Stephen Clarke demonstrates how the French persist in believing that they won the battle of Waterloo, in spite of their defeat and Napoleon’s exile. There is something in the French psyche, Clarke argues, which cannot bear Napoleon’s name to be associated with losing. The rewriting of history by vociferous Bonapartists began as soon as the battle ended, and the restored Bourbon kings and, later, Louis-Napoleon’s behaviour, only highlighted Napoleon’s charisma. French historians argue that if it hadn’t been for the appalling weather, the agony of Napoleon’s piles, the disobedience of his generals, and the unsporting way that the Prussians (Britain’s allies) weighed in at the eleventh hour, Napoleon would have won. Even a twenty-first century French Prime Minister declared, ‘This defeat shines with the aura of victory.’

I found myself thinking that we British similarly re-write the 1940 military disaster of Dunkirk; the heroism of the little ships crossing the channel to bring back the stranded soldiers has almost obscured reality there, too. However, in some ways, the French are right. Napoleon may not have won the battle of Waterloo, but he certainly triumphed in the publicity stakes.