What is it about the Battle of Waterloo?
What is it that makes Waterloo such a major symbol in the consciousness of modern Europe and other parts of the globe influenced by this continent – streets, bridges, monuments, stations, villages, and towns all named after one battle?
Yes, Waterloo was the last in this particular format of immense set-piece battle to be fought on European soil for a hundred years (and it was also the last ‘pre-industrialised’ battle on this scale anywhere in Europe), but none of this could have been known in the years that followed Waterloo, when it began very quickly to assume the iconic status it has held ever since. And Waterloo was not even the largest of the battles during the Napoleonic wars. The Battle of Leipzig in late 1813 was considerably bigger and, in many respects, it was actually this battle - The Battle of the Nations as it is sometimes known, with perhaps three times as many combatants as Waterloo - which ensured that Napoleon could never again dominate continental Europe in the way he once had.
Waterloo was, however, a culmination of the continuing wars that had beset Europe from the early 1790s (if one includes the revolutionary wars) and, even before that, Europe had seen more than a century of regular major wars on its soil. We have to move one hundred years on from Waterloo to the First World War before we again see warfare on such a massive scale on this continent. (America, with its devastating Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century, was of course a different matter.)
But as you and I look back to Waterloo in commemoration, we should perhaps also observe, in the European context, that this period of war in the early nineteenth century was the last major European conflict which for the most part, although not entirely, involved direct combatants, but relatively few others. A century later (and a century ago from today) with the First World War, a more definite concept of ‘total war’ began to develop in the modern European context, which drew no moral distinction between the soldier and the civilian as targets in war. And today, 2015, we know that a conflict thousands of miles from Europe may (with modern technology, mobility and communication) provoke violent and utterly indiscriminate reprisal and revenge on our own doorsteps.
But every battle on whatever scale, and every war of whatever size, and in any age, brings grief, misery and hopelessness to many. We believe that over thirty thousand men may have died at the Battle of Waterloo (literally within a few hours and within a very small area of ground), with many more mutilated and incapacitated. We know that Wellington believed that next to a battle lost the greatest misery was a battle gained; we are told he wept in the aftermath of Waterloo. Accompanying probably almost every death at Waterloo, there was misery and, in many cases, destitution for families and dependents. And, gathered together in Christian worship, this must all assuredly be part of our commemoration – in Wilfred Owen’s famous phrase of one hundred years later, ‘the pity of war’.
Wellington told his friends not to congratulate him after the victory at Waterloo, because what he felt most acutely was the loss of so many. The pity of war should never be far from our prayers and our thoughts at such a time as this.
One of the memorials for Waterloo being inaugurated at this time bears the words, ‘Closing the gates on war’, an oblique reference to the gates of the farm at Hougoumont, which were closed by the British garrison under James Macdonnell after a group of skirmishers from the opposing army had initially smashed their way through. This defence of the farm at Hougoumont was a pivotal aspect of the battle. Closing the gates on war is a fine and noble aspiration as a fitting memorial of the Battle of Waterloo, but it will not be painless if it is being taken seriously. It will mean closing the gates firmly on all narrow nationalistic pride, on all that makes for the indignity and degradation of others, whether racially, economically or socially. It means standing firmly against a pseudo-liberalism that quickly turns into a cruel totalitarianism when dealing with minorities whose understanding of life does not conform to the fashionable consensus. It means closing other gates against an avaricious pillaging of the environment that will ultimately (if not today or tomorrow) drive others into violence as the only means of their survival. ‘Closing gates on war’ will only ever be a sanctimonious cliché if it is not seen as carrying a real cost and a serious price-tag.
And, as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would also remind us, opening gates is a far more usual religious metaphor for wholesomeness and peace. Not opening gates in surrender, but opening gates so that a new order of things may enter and come into being. The psalmist declares (in Psalm 24), ‘Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in...’ A new order of glory, far distant from our human notions of self-aggrandisement and self-glorification. Again, we would be deluding ourselves not to imagine that opening gates does not mean risk and vulnerability. It means opening gates to people and to ideas not of our own choosing. It means opening gates to a new courtesy and a sacrificial generosity in our dealings with others.
It has been said that the conclusion of the European wars at Waterloo and the contemporary Congress of Vienna marked the opening a new era and a new understanding of Europe. Two hundred years later, with two horrific world wars in the intervening period and many other smaller-scale wars fought out on European soil right through to the present day, can we deny that we have not learnt the lessons nearly quickly enough that should have accompanied the vision of opening up a more benevolent future for this continent of Europe, that began two hundred years ago? We have much still to learn, and perhaps not as much time as we would like to imagine in learning it. Closing gates on future war and opening gates on authentic harmony is not the softest option, but it should surely be the only proper option.
With millions of fellow Europeans, we commemorate today the bi-centenary of the Battle of Waterloo. For some it is far from a pleasant remembrance - the humiliation of their country in another age being re-played. For others it may indeed appear as a vindication for what they hold to have been their culture and tradition. But for none should it be a day for xenophobia or nationalist chauvinism.
Waterloo was indeed a turning point in the political history of Europe.
It was the conclusion of a long and continuing war that had brutalised people and nations.
It was the beginning of a new opportunity to make something good out of Europe, an opportunity that has been squandered again and again, but which remains today precisely what it once was in 1815, a real opportunity.
For us, in this place and in this context of Christian worship, it is the opportunity to pray for the healing of nations, but also that we may be given the sacrificial and demanding courage to close the gates on war and open the gates to a generosity of living, that the King of Glory may come in.