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The unfinished battles of Waterloo

How did a hamlet in Belgium become immortalised in the names of streets, districts, parks and buildings all over Britain? These five books, published in anticipation of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, explain why.

Waterloo: the History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles 
Bernard Cornwell
William Collins, 352pp, £25

24 Hours at Waterloo: 18 June 1815 
Robert Kershaw
W H Allen, 448pp, £25

Waterloo: the Aftermath 
Paul O’Keeffe
Bodley Head, 392pp, £25

Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny 
Tim Clayton
Little, Brown, 608pp, £25

The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo 
Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 160pp, £14.99

Waterloo was not merely a battle, nor merely a critical moment in British and European history, but something that has left a profound imprint on our culture. Byron, 27 at the time, famously recorded the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels three days before the battle in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “On with the dance! let joy be unconfined . . .” In towns all over Britain, Waterloo is immortalised in the names of streets, districts, parks and buildings; it is a railway station; it is a figure of speech – none of us wishes to meet our Waterloo. So did a hamlet in Belgium pass into the language: and these five books, published in anticipation of the bicentenary, explain why.

It is impossible to estimate how many histories have been written so far, the first of them appearing in the months after the battle on 18 June 1815. In the years that followed numerous officers published their memoirs of the events, even though the Duke of Wellington was constantly sceptical about the value of such an exercise. As Bernard Cornwell recalls at the start of his lively account of Waterloo, Wellington – “Old Hooky” to many of his soldiers, on account of his fine Roman nose – felt that one might as well write the history of a ball as the history of a battle, because everyone who attends a ball has a different experience of it from everyone else, just as everyone present at a battle will have a different perspective on it. A similar problem is apparent in the glut of books published to mark the centenary of the Great War.

But it hasn’t all been said already, and there are, inevitably, new ways of saying old things. Each of these books has something to offer. Bernard Cornwell is celebrated as the author of the Sharpe novels, and this is his first work of non-fiction. His style is occasionally novelistic, and one sometimes gets the sense one is reading a screenplay: but that is also the sensation one would have in reading Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a book that is none the worse for that. Cornwell’s is not a scholarly work, in that it is unburdened by footnotes, and he is honest about his reliance on earlier historians and researchers, but it is a clear account of how Napoleon, having escaped from his exile on Elba, headed to Paris, booted out Louis XVIII and the Bourbon monarchy, and decided to go on the march to what is now called Belgium but what was then called the Netherlands. There he met the armies of the United Kingdom and Prussia, and very nearly beat them: and that he did not changed the course of European history, not least in propelling Britain to the status of world power and Prussia towards domination of continental Europe.

Some will be tempted to dismiss Cornwell because he is a storyteller, but for those who want an entry-level, reliable guide to what happened at Waterloo, he has great appeal. His book is also superbly illustrated.

More traditional in its approach, but heavily reliant on secondary sources, is Robert Kershaw’s account. Another of its limitations is expressed in its title, for the story is spread over far more than 24 hours: Napoleon’s expectation that he could beat the allies despite being heavily outnumbered by them was not least fed by his initial victory at Quatre Bras, a few miles away, on 16 June. Kershaw is a former soldier and he brings passion and enthusiasm to his writing, as well as an understanding of military culture and movements that makes him a reliable interpreter of the events.

In many ways, the most fascinating of these books is Paul O’Keeffe’s. He deals with the battle in the opening pages and then, as his title suggests, looks in great detail at what happens next. The field of Waterloo was not very large but the engagement of the three armies was spread over more than 20 square miles, and the ruination of the land and the carnage were of awesome proportions, not seen again until the area became a battlefield again a century later. O’Keeffe describes the men’s wounds, the most famous of which was the shattering of the Earl of Uxbridge’s leg and its subsequent amputation, which Uxbridge endured with barely a grimace. Corpses were strewn across the countryside, heaped up and rotting in the June sun, displaying hideous disfigurements. There were so many dead – nobody seemed able to come up with an accurate figure at the time, but subsequent research has suggested it could have been as many as 12,000 – that attempts to bury them in pits soon failed and heaps of corpses had to be burned.

But before that, as O’Keeffe details, local peasants and some of the soldiers roamed the battlefield looting corpses, and not just for money, jewellery and watches. A group that was identified as Russian Jews chiselled the teeth out of corpses to make dentures for the discerning rich: for some years after the battle, the fashionable edentate of Europe were sold “Waterloo teeth”. But O’Keeffe’s book is not all blood and gore. He records how word of the victory was brought to London to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and to the prince regent. Prinny was at a ball at Mrs Edmund Boehm’s house in St James’s, at which no expense had been spared (she was the wife of a prosperous merchant). However, the cheering of the mob outside announced the arrival of Major Henry Percy, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, with the Iron Duke’s handwritten despatch announcing the victory. The guests rushed to the window and, when the news was broadcast, rushed out to celebrate in the streets: to Mrs Boehm’s annoyance, the lavish spread remained untouched.

O’Keeffe describes Napoleon’s rejection by the Assembly and peers in Paris and his attempt to get out of France, then under the allies’ control. His application for a passport alerted the authorities to his plan and he was intercepted by the navy. For a time he was confined to a ship off the Devon coast, and would wave to locals who gathered on the littoral to see him. For all the devil-like reputation that “Boney” had acquired among the British, they cheered him when he appeared on deck. He was soon sent off to St Helena, possibly after trying to commit suicide, whence he never returned.

As O’Keeffe points out, the tourism potential of Boney’s visit to the British coast was one of the early enterprises to make money out of the battle. Not only was there a rash of books about Waterloo, but the cash register was soon ringing, with parties of tourists on the battlefield, searching for any souvenirs the looters had chosen to leave them. The only minor quibble about O’Keeffe’s fascinating book is the way he mangles aristocratic titles.

Of this selection, Tim Clayton’s book is the best overview of the meeting of the three armies. In more than 70 short, episodic chapters, Clayton sets out what happened on both sides from the moment Napoleon left Paris and rode north. Drawing extensively on published and unpublished sources, he brings back to life many personalities whose names have become synonymous with the battle other than Wellington and Napoleon – Blücher, Uxbridge (who, Clayton thinks, did indeed have the legendary exchange with Wellington in which he said, “By God, sir, I have lost my leg!” and the Iron Duke replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”), Ney, Grouchy and a host of middle-ranking officers whose almost insane heroism made the battle so ferocious. Clayton well conveys the difficulties of communication on a battlefield in the days when it depended on a message being carried by a man on a horse, and how miscommunications between Napoleon and Ney and Grouchy led to a failure to drive home the advantage over the allies which proved fatal.

That brings us to Brendan Simms’s short but superb book on why Waterloo was actually won: it was down to the defence by the King’s German Legion of the farm at La Haye Sainte, which held the French back long enough for the Prussians to come to Wellington’s aid. The king of England – George III – was also king of Hanover, and Simms describes how the legion raised in his name adopted English military customs and practices. That it was the Germans who ultimately won it may fly in the face of British mythology, but Simms, a Germanophone who uses a range of primary sources from the Hanoverian archives, proves the point effectively. The scholarship is impeccable, as one would expect of a Cambridge professor, but it also proves that even at this remove, when one might have thought all that could be said about the battle had been said, one could have got it wrong.

In an engagement that involved nearly 150,000 troops on both sides, Simms pins down the 400 of them who, despite being turned out of La Haye Sainte in the end, held on long enough to see the allies home. It complements any other book you may care to read on the subject but also serves to remind us that the dividing line between victory and defeat is precariously fine: and on those 400 men would hinge the development of a whole continent, whose ripples are, like those of the Great War, still felt, even at a distance of 200 years. 

Simon Heffer is a historian and a writer for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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