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We Conquer’d Them at Waterloo

Ebenezer Elliott, iron monger, Radical and Corn Law poet wrote a lament for the enemy of his country, Napoleon Bonaparte. To a later generation it sounded shocking. W H Auden said of it, that it was like finding a poem saying Now Hitler lies dead in Berlin.

When working blackguards come to blows,
And give or take a bloody nose,
Shall juries try such dogs as those,
Now Nap lies at Saint Helena ?

No, let the Great Unpaid decide,
Without appeal, on tame bull’s hide,
Ash-planted well, or fistified,
Since Nap died at Saint Helena.

When Sabbath stills the dizzy mill,
Shall Cutler Tom, or Grinder Bill,
On footpaths wander where they will,
Now Nap lies at Saint Helena ?

No, let them curse, but feel our power;
Dogs! let them spend their idle hour
Where burns the highway’s dusty shower;
For Nap died at Saint Helena.

Huzza! the rascal Whiglings work
For better men than Hare and Burke,
And envy Algerine and Turk,
Since Nap died at Saint Helena.

Then close each path that sweetly climbs
Suburban hills, where village chimes
Remind the rogues of other times,
Ere Nap died at Saint Helena.

We tax their bread, restrict their trade;
To toil for us, their hands were made;
Their doom is seal’d, their prayer is pray’d ;
Nap perish’d at St. Helena.

Dogs! would they toil and fatten too?
They grumble still, as dogs will do:
We conquer’d them at Waterloo;
And Nap lies at Saint Helena.

Elliott was living through the early nineteenth century. Habeas corpus suspended, tough censorship laws, men press ganged for the navy, a cruel penal code, the poor starved by Corn Laws and shut out of enclosed lands. To many it was a tyranny and the French Revolution, and Napoleon, the Revolution’s saviour, meant hope of a transformation. Elliott’s poem is full of scorn and bitter anger at the injustice within the legal and economic system.

Napoleon was much admired by the progressive spirits of his day as an alternative to old rotten regimes. Martin Kettle in The Guardian:-

William Hazlitt, the most ardent of all British radical admirers of Napoleon, called the battle of Waterloo “the greatest and most fatal in its consequences of any that was ever fought in the world”. William Godwin, another of the Waterloo dissidents we should be remembering this week, railed against the “miserable consequences of that accursed field”, and continued throughout his life to believe that, however flawed Napoleon might be, he was still to be preferred to the restored Bourbon kings.

… William Cobbett put it in this way: “The war is over. Social Order is restored; the French are again in the power of the Bourbons; the Revolution is at an end; no change has been effected in England; our Boroughs, and our Church, and Nobility and all have been preserved; our government tells us that we have covered ourselves with glory.”

William Hazlitt and William Cobbett are two of the best writers and the most generous minds that Britain has ever produced.

Kettle says that they may seem like useful idiots and it is reminiscent of how a powerful figure in a foreign land – Lenin, Stalin, Chavez – is picked up as a sign of hope that the old oppressive power can be broken. Sections of the Left fell into despair when the USSR collapsed, as better a false hope than no hope at all.

Napoleon was no Stalin and a reformer in many ways but his scheme for a conquered Britain sounds more like propaganda than actuality. “I would have proclaimed a republic and the abolition of the nobility and the House of Peers, the distribution of the property of such of the latter as opposed me amongst my partisans, liberty, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”

There would have been some liberal measures – emancipation of the Jews for instance – but Napoleon’s habit was to install one of his useless siblings on the thrones of the countries he conquered. During the nineteenth century Britain went its own way to a more liberal and democratic government, out of Old Corruption to cleaner politics and a less jobbing civil service.

So I’m glad that the Emperor of the French got done over by Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo, the battle that Wellington described as “ been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. “ Blucher had wanted to call Waterloo the Battle of La Belle Alliance but Wellington decided on Waterloo as more easily tripping off the English tongue. I’ve always had a liking for Wellington if only for his laconic pithiness of speech compared to Bonaparte’s bombast and grandiosity.

There’s plenty of French Empire bling in the television series that Andrew Roberts, the military historian and an admirer of Napoleon, is presenting.

He also has a five parter on Radio 4 on the Corsican Usurper and yesterday he was telling us how Napoleon screwed up winning the Battle of Waterloo.

“The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance. .. “ Wellington.

Wellington