In the week of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo it is worth recalling that back in 1815 much of this country was opposed to making war against France and Napoleon.
Though after the victory it was hardly mentioned, the weeks before the battle had seen a bruising public debate in Britain about the justification for the conflict. There was a raucous public rally against it in central London; in the Commons no fewer than 92 MPs voted against the motion for war, while in the Lords the Duke of Wellington’s own brother argued that it was not legitimate.
Wellington himself would admit many years later that even after Waterloo not everyone in London was pleased. ‘When the truth first came of our having won,’ he declared, ‘Lord Sefton went to Lady Jersey and said to her: “Horrible news! They have gained a great victory.”’
The opposition had three main roots: exhaustion, problems of legitimacy and party politics.
In the spring of 1815, when Napoleon returned from his brief exile to reclaim the French imperial throne, Britain was only beginning to savour the experience of peace after more than 20 years of almost continuous war against France.
In the words of the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, the country was ‘peace mad’. Many soldiers and sailors had returned home to their families and everyone was looking forward to a peace dividend – meaning the lifting of some of the heavy taxes (including the hated income tax) that had been introduced as emergency measures since 1793.
Outside the property-owning elite that ruled the country, and especially in the newly-industrial Midlands and North, there were also expectations of improved living conditions and even of a measure of political reform.
All of this depended upon peace, and many people were reluctant to shelve these hopes once again in 1815 and embark on what might prove another long and costly foreign war.
Besides, there were real doubts about whether such a war was justified.
A year earlier a great alliance of European powers had combined to defeat Napoleon and remove him from the French throne on the basis that he was a usurper and a dictator. Now, however, he had returned to France and (as Wellington’s brother pointed out in the Lords) been welcomed back by the population, the army and most of the political class.
Under such circumstances, no one could claim that this would be a war to liberate France.
And the allies had made things worse by issuing a hasty joint statement declaring Napoleon an outlaw who was subject to ‘public vengeance’ – interpreted by many as an encouragement to assassination. This was seen as uncivilised.
Just as unsavoury to a great many British people was the prospect of shedding British blood to restore to the French throne a monarch – Louis XVIII – who had just been rejected by his own people. Worse still, Louis was a Bourbon, and for well over a century it had been one of the articles of faith of Britishness that you must hate the Bourbons.
Napoleon himself had long divided the British political class. For all his faults (not least of them his relentless warmongering) he was seen by many as a moderniser and a reformer who had made his country much fairer and juster than it had been under the Bourbons in the 18th century.
To join an alliance against him alongside autocratic states such as Russia and Austria, before he had committed any act of aggression, seemed to some a retrograde step that was likely to delay or reverse any movement towards political reform elsewhere in Europe, including Britain.
For all these reasons there was widespread reluctance to go to war again, and the government of Lord Liverpool was put on its mettle not only to defend the huge borrowing and enormous military effort the war entailed, but also to make a positive moral case for it.
In the end the key motion passed the Commons by a three-to-one margin, though it should be remembered that this was an unreformed and undemocratic assembly. Out in the country it is likely that the single most respected voice was that of the hugely popular journalist William Cobbett, and he strongly opposed the war.
Of course the swift and comprehensive victory of 18 June, which prompted widespread jubilation, all but silenced most doubters, or at least rendered many of their concerns irrelevant.
(Read more about the politics and journalism of the war of 1815 in The News From Waterloo.)
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