Historical story

Prince William the hero of Waterloo?

The Battle of Waterloo took place exactly 200 years ago and is widely commemorated. Our king is also present:Dutch soldiers, led by Prince William, played an important role in defeating Napoleon. It just didn't end up in the foreign history books that way.

A commemoration requires new publications. Two fine examples are 'Our battle at Waterloo' by Louis Ph. Sloos and 'Waterloo, 200 years of struggle' by Ben Schoenmaker, Jeroen van Zanten and Jurriën de Jong. Both books look at Waterloo from a Dutch perspective.

And they paint a different story than the usual version, dominated by British historiography. The role of the Dutch soldiers and of Slender Billy, the scornful nickname for Prince William as a figuratively skinny commander, unrecognized in victory. In fact, the Dutch would have fled like a bunch of cowardly dogs.

This distorted picture already started with the appearance of the first literature in 1816, in which the British and Prussia usurped the victory. William Siborne actually ridiculed the Dutch role in his bestseller History of the war in France and Belgium in 1815 from 1844. There was great indignation in the Netherlands, where not only Willem, but all soldiers who had anything to do with Waterloo, were seen as heroes.

Everyone sympathizes

The Battle of Waterloo was no ordinary battle for the Netherlands. There were several reasons why this battle had more impact on the population and opinion than ever before. First, we were just out of Napoleon's yoke when his army loomed again at the border. Under the little general, the country had suffered abject poverty, and no one looked forward to it. The call from the new King William I to young men to fight Napoleon resulted in many volunteers. Everyone knew someone who had gone south to reinforce the troops. The whole country joined in. The battle also took place on then Dutch territory and Prince William, who bravely led the battle, was wounded. This news, and other news of the fighting, dominated the newspapers of the day. In other words, everyone was in suspense.

After the disastrous campaign to Russia in 1812, Napoleon was crushed to death at Leipzig in 1813. He was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean. Louis of Bourbon, prince of an old French royal family, ascended the throne. However, he was afraid of Napoleon's supporters and caused a bloodbath among them with his "purges". That did Louis XVIII no good and when Napoleon managed to escape in 1814, the former emperor was able to take back power in France with the help of his old supporters and soldiers. Lodewijk fled to Ghent and was received by Napoleon's enemies as the rightful king of France.

From the ballroom onto the battlefield

The young Prince William (1792-1849) had a military upbringing and had previously fought against Napoleon's troops in Spain under the British General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. The army of allies to protect Brussels against Napoleon's advance consisted of a Prussian army commanded by General Blücher and a British-allied army commanded by Wellington. A third of this second army consisted of Dutch troops, of which Prince William was the commander in chief. He was also commander of the 1st British Army Corps. In total, nearly 300,000 soldiers fought each other during the Battle of Waterloo and the fighting in the preceding days. One of the battles took place at Quatre-Bras, a small village south of Waterloo.

Wellington knew Napoleon was coming, but the speed with which the Emperor moved his army was a surprise. As the French approached, the duke held another ball in Brussels, which was also attended by Prince William. Wellington wanted his officers to fulfill their social obligations, so the military top was not with their soldiers in the field. When the messenger arrived with the bad news, the officers, often still in gala costume, rush to their soldiers. Fortunately William had under him a young commander, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who had taken seriously the fleeing peasants and the rumors of the approaching French and had prepared positions at Quartre-Bras. This turned out to be against Wellington's orders, but Willem decided to defend this important crossroads and thus block the road to Brussels.

Blood, sweat and tears

On June 16, Napoleon attacks the Prussians who were stationed at Ligny, another village nearby. His famous Marshal Michel Ney had to take Quatre-Bras at the same time and found Prince William there. This unexpected resistance prevented the French from pushing through to encircle the Prussians. The latter were well received by Napoleon and went on to lose. Willem had meanwhile received help from extra English troops, but because of the overwhelming superiority they had to give up Quatre-Bras the next day. The troops withdrew to headquarters in Waterloo to regroup.

The final battle took place at Waterloo on 18 June. The fighting was fierce, the losses great and it rained for days. The benefit of this was that the cannonballs plopped into the mud instead of bouncing around, which would have resulted in even more deaths. Prince William had managed to escape the French cavalry at Quatre-Bras with his fast horse Wexy, but at Waterloo both the prince and his horse were hit by a bullet. They survived and the prince was quickly taken to headquarters to have his wound treated.

In the end, the Allies gained the upper hand and the French army fled. The Prussians in particular showed no mercy and slaughtered everything French. Napoleon managed to escape and initially did not see this loss as his final end. He wanted to reunite his men to fight the Allies. Napoleon had only lost more and more strength. Many French saw him as an aggressor who drove their boys to their deaths with wicked missions. The refugee Louis XVIII therefore had many French behind him in addition to the Allies. Napoleon had lost his luster and for the first time in his life he gave in:22 June 1815 he abdicated definitively. He applied for asylum in England, but once on the boat they took him to the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon would spend the years under guard until his death in 1821.

Each country has its own heroes

The great little emperor was defeated! Although it had been a joint victory, each country ran off with its own version of reality and created its own heroes. Prince William was glorified in the Netherlands. He was given no fewer than four statues, while none would be erected for his father and his son. He was the guardian of the nation and Orange therefore the rightful royal family. Parallels with Orange's victories over the Spaniards in the Golden Age were eagerly drawn. King William I also had a memorial, the Lion of Waterloo, erected on the spot where his son was injured. Already in the days after the battles, the first disaster tourists came to visit the places, to see for themselves what terrible things had happened here. Property of deceased soldiers (hats, diaries, watches) and weaponry were readily available. This place attracted more tourists than any battlefield in history.

Abroad, the Dutch exploits were ridiculed, especially by the British. According to contemporary writers, this has everything to do with the rise of the British Empire. Wellington was the hero ("he had defeated Napoleon") and England the new superpower. There was no place for other heroes here, not even in the shadows. The Dutch who immediately objected to this could no longer adjust the negative image. But did the British also have a point? Yes and no. Cowardice could not be blamed on the Dutch soldiers and Prince Willem, but inexperience was. The latter played tricks on them during the fighting and caused more deaths, including among the British, than was necessary.

New books about Waterloo

Both books discuss the Battle of Waterloo from a Dutch perspective. Sloos only mentions the fights themselves in the introduction – because enough has been written about this already – and focuses on the events before and after Waterloo. About how the Netherlands experienced the threat and immediately after the battle dealt with the dead and wounded, the orphans and widows, the veterans and heroes. It beautifully reflects how the soldiers – and not just the Prince – were declared heroes and how ubiquitous Waterloo was in art and literature and with a national day of remembrance on 18 June. The break only came with the Second World War:the day of remembrance moved to May 4 &5 and Waterloo disappeared into the background because of this new terrible war.

Schoenmaker, Van Zanten and De Jong do take the reader to the fight. They describe in detail what happened, without it being a summary. The authors mainly draw on diaries and other ego documents, so that you as a reader have the idea that you are there. They look at developments on and around the battlefield from the perspective of Dutch soldiers and civilians, and supplement them where necessary from an international perspective. For example, they describe in detail the time after the battle, in which a new balance had to be found within European politics (Wellington and Blücher were diametrically opposed). The Netherlands did not play a major role in this.

Both books, and especially that of Sloos, contain many beautiful images, which illustrate the story excellently. Sloos likes the details and therefore writes less lively than Schoenmaker and the others; they draw you more into the story. Together, the books provide an excellent overview of the Battle of Waterloo and the significance of these historic battles for the Netherlands(ers).

Read more about Napoleon and the beginning of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Read at NPO science why the French (still) view Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo differently.