On the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo

2 Samuel 8:1-6
1 Corinthians 15:20-26 & 53-56

If your drive north from here, towards Reading and the M4, you find yourself passing things like the Wellington Farm Shop and the Wellington Country Park, for you’re passing through the estate of the Duke of Wellington. On just a few days a year you can see inside the Duke’s house, Stratfield Saye, which is quite fascinating as a living home, not an historical museum. The house and estate were given to the first Duke as a gift in gratitude for his famous victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

A survey by the National Army Museum of more than 2,000 people indicated that nearly three quarters of them had little knowledge of Waterloo, believing variously that it took place in South West London, was won by the French, or that it involved Churchill, or the wizard Dumbledore.

According to the French Government, Waterloo was a battle that “has a particular resonance in the collective consciousness that goes beyond a simple military conflict”. The phrase was contained in a letter protesting against a Belgian plan to issue a 2 euro commemorative coin marking the 200th anniversary. The protest succeeded in quashing the 2 euro project, although the Belgian authorities have responded by issuing a 2.5 euro piece which does not require unanimity.

But the French Government was obviously right about the sensitive character of the Waterloo anniversary. Victor Hugo said, “to us Waterloo is the date of the confounding of liberty”. There were many on both sides of the Channel who agreed with him.

The Battle of Waterloo was fought two hundred years ago, when a French army under the command of Napoleon was defeated by a coalition led by the Duke of Wellington. When Napoleon returned to power in March 1815, many countries that had opposed him an alliance and began to mobilize armies. Napoleon chose to attack the British forces in the hope of destroying them before they could join in a coordinated invasion of France with other members of the coalition. According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”. The defeat at Waterloo ended Napoleon’s rule as Emperor of the French.

Waterloo was a decisive battle in more than one sense. Every generation in Europe, up to the outbreak of the First World War, looked back at Waterloo as the turning point that dictated the course of subsequent world history. In retrospect, it was seen as the event that ushered in an era characterised by relative peace, material prosperity, and technological progress. The battle definitively ended the series of wars that had convulsed Europe, and involved many other regions of the world, since the French Revolution of the early 1790s. It was followed by almost half a century of international peace in Europe.

Another consequence of Waterloo was a heightened a sense of Britishness. It became a unifying symbol of national achievement, a foundation of a century of British self-confidence. British soldiers numbered perhaps a tenth of all the men on the field, but the battle was woven into the evolving narrative of British identity. Sir Walter Scott visited the battlefield in after years. As a “Briton” as well as a Scottish patriot he called down “a blessing on the fallen brave who fought with Wellington”. The army was, and still is British, a place in the collective life of the country where many different people fight and together under the same banner.

Of course Waterloo wasn’t the only battle to have a decisive effect upon history. Four hundred years before Waterloo, there was the battle of Agincourt, a major English victory in the Hundred Years’ War. Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, against a numerically superior French army, crippled France and started a new period in the war during which Henry married the French king’s daughter and Henry’s son, Henry VI, was made heir to the throne of France. Agincourt was notable for the use of the English longbow in very large numbers, with English and Welsh archers forming most of Henry’s army, and the battle is the centrepiece of Shakespeare’s play Henry V.

Yet, I want to draw our minds back even further. In the reading from 2 Samuel we heard a story of a famous battle, this one the better part of a thousand years before Christ. Throughout the years of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient people of Israel were fighting various battles, with stories like so many other ancient peoples, indeed stores we see reflected in fiction like The Lord of the Rings.

In this story, near the end of David’s life, the people of Israel had had rather a good go at the Philistines again, and the Moabites. Yet, the most important aspect of this story today is the victory over Aram. Here David let a particularly famous victory that saw off an old enemy for some long time. Aram roughly equates to the area we now call Syria and Iraq, and people came from there to attack Israel and Israel, under David’s mighty leadership, gave more than they got and beat an old enemy into a serious submission.

These victories for Israel under David weren’t decisive forever, but they were rather like Waterloo, and Agincourt, and other famous victories, in which the winning side believed their enemy had been if not destroyed, at least seriously damaged and subdued, and they shaped a nation. What we do when we commemorate Waterloo, and all the others, is something deep in our psyche, but we can’t allow it to proceed too far. Were we to do that we’d be allowing an earthly sense of victory to take too much precedence. As well as telling the stories of famous victories, the Bible also tells us that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’, and ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughs’.

Much than that, though, the Bible reminds us that above all earthly things we have seen the Prince of Peace, and it offers us another perspective on victory. As we heard in our reading from his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul talks about Christ’s resurrection as victory. The last enemy that shall be destroyed, Paul writes, is death. Death has been swallowed up in victory.

Let us remember, with a modest measure of pride, the achievements of our nation, and the good that has come from them. But much more so, let us remember that above all earthly enemies, battles, and victories, the last enemy, death itself, has been defeated, and the most important victory, the only really important victory, is Christ himself, risen to bring new life, leading us into ways of gentleness and paths of peace.

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