In the middle of the First World War centenary period we find ourselves marking the bicentenary of the end of the original Great War â€“ the one fought between 1793 and 1815. With only a brief hiatus in 1802, the legacy of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars has been somewhat overshadowed by more recent conflicts; nonetheless, for 19th century Britons and other Europeans, Waterloo marked a pivotal moment. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a century of relative peace on the continent. As with the worldwide conflicts that defined the 20th century, this war of more than 20 years placed enormous strains on the people of the nations involved and altered the shape of the continent in its aftermath. Rather than pick apart the intricacies of what happened on 18 June 1815, however, this blog will try to put the Battle of Waterloo into context using some of the documents in The National Archivesâ€™ collections.
Despite providing a definitive end to the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo did not come at the end of the 1814 campaign, but instead followed another brief pause in hostilities. After his misadventure in Russia and a loss of control in Spain, Napoleon still managed to inflict tactical victories on the encroaching powers of the Sixth Coalition â€“ Austria, Prussia, Russia, the UK, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and various German states â€“ as he retreated towards Paris in 1814. He was, however, unable to prevent the coming defeat and so delayed the inevitable by abdicating, agreeing to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau.
Instead of a humiliation or long and distant internment, the treaty placed Napoleon in exile on the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy. The treaty offered an unusually lenient list of concessions, including the retention of his titles, sovereignty over the island and a bodyguard of more than 400 men. Recognising that such an agreement would acknowledge the legitimacy of Napoleonâ€™s power and leave the door open for further conflict, Lord Castlereagh refused to sign the document on behalf of the British Crown. Nevertheless, Elba would be the French emperorâ€™s home during his brief incarceration. Continue reading »