18 June 1815 – Waterloo – Losers, Victors and Law

On Sunday June 18, 1815 – 197 years ago – the reign of the Emperor Napoleon I came to an end in one of the most significant battles in history.

Bonaparte, a remarkable military genius and political survivor (some would say opportunist) was crowned (or rather crowned himself) Emperor of France on Sunday December 30, 1804 to the strains of Nicolas Roze’s “Vivat”

The event was immortalised by the most notable artist of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, Jaques-Louis David in his monumental “Coronation of Napoleon” – as much a propaganda piece as a record (but many of David’s paintings fulfilled that role). When I saw this enormous painting it was exhibited at Versailles.

The Coronation of Napoleon

Tim Blanning in a review of Alan Forrest’s biography of Napoleon (History Today June 2012 p. 57 – 58) observes that Napoleon’s

“(W}ars killed over a million Frenchmen and double that number of other Europeans and ended in his total defeat, not once but twice. He condemned his adopted country to at least a century of social and economic backwardness, while his fomer enemies across the Channel and across the Rhine powered ahead on all fronts. In particular, his destruction of the Holy Roman Empire – arguably the most damaging own goal in European history – paved the way for German Unification and the invasions of 1870, 1914 and 1940. He himself was an unprincipled opportunist, plundering both France and the rest of Europe to enrich his family and himself. Betraying the revolution that brought him to power, he established a military dictatorship, indulging himself in a luxurious lifestyle that was a grotesque parody of the old regime.”

Forrest concludes that “Throughout his career, Napoleon demonstrated an insatiable desire to project his chosen image, to reserve his place in history.” The monumental coronation painting by David is an example.

Bonaparte’s ability to publicise a victory was as important as the victory itself. He made sure that it was his version of events that reached the public first. The skirmish at the Bridge at Lodi on 10 May 1796 became an epochal triumph and throughout his career and even afterwards on St Helena he managed to create a myth of extraordinary power and durability.

But the strength of his armies and the power of the columns advancing to the strains of the Pas de Charge were not a myth as he stormed from victory to victory – from Arcola and Rivoli to the Pyramids, Marengo to Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena.

The martial music of the time and some of the “mythologising” portrayals of Napoleon can be seen and heard in the following clips.

Pas de Charge\La victoire est a nous

Pour l’Empereur

The myth continued with the repatriation of his remains to the Hotel des Invalides by Louis Phillipe in 1840 and continued as his nephew Louis Napoleon traded on his uncle’s reputation and was crowned Napoleon III.

Tombeau Napoleon – Napoleon’s Tomb – L’Hotel des Invalides – Paris
L’Hotel des Invalides

But the reality of Napoleon’s reign ended at Waterloo. There was no way that even he could spin the devtasting defeat, although, as is so often the case with military campaigns, if things had happened differently after Quartre Bras and Ligny, there may have been a final victory for Napoleon to mythologise. Crushing the defeat might have been but his antogonist, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington described the victory as a “near run thing”. In fact when questioned years later as to what he considered his finest accomplishment on the battlefield, Wellington answered Assaye – a battle fought in India in the Second Anglo-Maratha War on 23 September 1803.

The Iron Duke
Aspley House – The Duke of Wellington’s London Residence – Hyde Park Corner

But there were other victors of Waterloo. The Rothschilds were among them. One story goes that the financier, Nathan Rothschild ran one of the best intelligence networks in Europe. He understood the importance and power of information. In The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait. Frederic Morton recounts the story thus:

To the Rothschilds, [England’s] chief financial agents, Waterloo brought a many million pound scoop. 
“[After the battle}… a Rothschild agent … jumped into a boat at Ostend … Nathan Rothschild … let his eye fly over the lead paragraphs. A moment later he was on his way to London (beating Wellington’s envoy by many hours) to tell the government that Napoleon had been crushed: but his news was not believed, because the government had just heard of the English defeat at Quatre Bras. Then he proceeded to the Stock Exchange.
Another man in his position would have sunk his work into consols, already weak because of Quatre Bras. But this was Nathan Rothschild. He leaned against “his” pillar. He did not invest. He sold. He dumped consols.
…Consols dropped still more. “Rothschild knows,” the whisper rippled through the ‘Change. “Waterloo is lost.”
Nathan kept on selling … consols plummeted—until, a split second before it was too late, Nathan suddenly bought a giant parcel for a song. Moments afterwards the great news broke, to send consols soaring.
We cannot guess the number of hopes and savings wiped out by this engineered panic.”

The only problem with that story is that it is not completely true. The  legend originated in an anti-Semitic French pamphlet in 1846, was embellished by John Reeves in 1887 in The Rothschilds: the Financial Rulers of Nations and then repeated in other later popular accounts, such as that of Morton. Many of the alleged facts stated are incorrect. For example, it has been shown that the size of the market in government bonds at the time would not have enabled a scenario producing a profit of anything near one million pounds.

Historian Niall Ferguson agrees that the Rothschilds’ couriers did get to London first and alerted the family to Napoleon’s defeat, but argues that since the family had been banking on a protracted military campaign, the losses arising from the disruption to their business more than offset any short-term gains in bonds after Waterloo. Rothschild capital did soar, but over a much longer period: Nathan’s breakthrough had been prior to Waterloo, when he negotiated a deal to supply cash to Wellington’s army. The family made huge profits over a number of years from this governmental financing by adopting a high-risk strategy involving exchange-rate transactions, bond-price speculations, and commissions.

But although Wellington managed to stop the threat that Napoleon posed to the peace of Europe, perhaps one of the Emperor’s most enduring legacy remain.

The Napoleonic Code—or Code Napoléon (originally, the Code civil des français)—is the French civil code, established under Napoleon I in 1804. The code forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs go to the most qualified.

It was drafted rapidly by a commission of four eminent jurists and entered into force on March 21, 1804. The Code, with its stress on clearly written and accessible law, was a major step in replacing the previous patchwork of feudal laws. Historian Robert Holtman regards it as one of the few documents that have influenced the whole world.  It was the first modern legal code to be adopted with a pan-European scope and it strongly influenced the law of many of the countries formed during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

An interesting legacy that remains, notwithstanding Napoleon’s defeat.


There is an excellent exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Victoria titled Napoleon – Revolution to Empire. The exhibition covers the pre-Revolutionary period in art and culture, traversing through the Revolution, the Terror and Napoleon’s rise through the Italian and Egyptian campaigns through to the Directory and to the Coronation and the Empire beyond. If one had any doubt about Napoleons ability for self-promotion and propaganda a few minutes in the Empire section will dispel them entirely. Present are items that he gave his generals and favourites and other examples of the development of the cult of the Emperor.

And there, in a display on its own, is a copy of the 1810 edition of the Code Napoleon. But sadly, cameras could not be used in the exhibition.

Napoleon – Revolution to Empire – National Gallery of Victoria
Napoleon – Revolution to Empire Exhibition

One thought on “18 June 1815 – Waterloo – Losers, Victors and Law

  1. Dear Countrey Justice,
    You are pretty hard on the self-crowned Emperor Napoleon – and rightly so. I am sure you want readers to qualify praise for the magnificent codification of laws that bears Napoleon’s name. Still, might you not have inserted the bit on the Code at the top (for the benefit of other countrey justices) with the depressing military stuff, marching music, graphic illustrations etc to follow as an antidote. Bad people, including imperial megalomaniacs, can be responsible for good things. Indeed the British Empire (like the French Empire) had some rather bad episodes of military history in its time, which is not to denigrate the contribution of due process to common law legal systems.

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