We Conquer’d Them at Waterloo

June 19, 2015 at 6:36 am (Civil liberties, Rosie B)

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.



  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    You (don’t know about Kettle who I no longer read on general principle) left out Byron:

    Who hold the balance of the world? Who reign
    O’er congress, whether royalist or liberal?
    Who rouse the shirtless patriots of Spain? [*]
    (That make old Europe’s journals squeak and gibber all.)
    Who keep the world, both old and new, in pain
    Or pleasure? Who make politics run glibber all?
    The shade of Buonaparte’s noble daring? —
    Jew Rothschild, and his fellow-Christian, Baring.

    Those, and the truly liberal Lafitte,
    Are the true lords of Europe. Every loan
    Is not a merely speculative hit,
    But seats a nation or upsets a throne.
    Republics also get involved a bit;
    Columbia’s stock hath holders not unknown
    On ‘Change; and even thy silver soil, Peru,
    Must get itself discounted by a Jew.

    (Don Juan Canto XII)

    Which illustrates how both anti-semitism and conspiracy-mongering was as prevalent in the infancy of the British Left (and one can find worse in Cobbett – although Hazlitt was much more complex) as it is now in its disgusting senescence.

    • Rosie said,

      Cobbett was a shit about stock-jobbing Jews. He had his black spots.

      • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Marx on Cobbett in the NY Daily Tribune 1853:

        William Cobbett was the most able representative, or, rather, the creator of old English Radicalism. He was the first who revealed the mystery of the hereditary party warfare between Tories and Whigs, stripped the parasitic Whig Oligarchy of their sham liberalism, opposed landlordism in its every form, ridiculed the hypocritical rapacity of the Established Church, and attacked the moneyocracy in its two most eminent incarnations — the “Old Lady of Threadneedlest” (Bank of England) and Mr. Muckworm & Co. (the national creditors). He proposed to cancel the national debt, to confiscate the Church estates, and to abolish all sorts of paper money. He watched step for step the encroachments of political centralisation on local self-government, and denounced it as an infringement on the privileges and liberties of the English subject. He did not understand its being the necessary result of industrial centralisation. He proclaimed all the political demands which have afterward been combined in the national charter; yet with him they were rather the political charter of the petty industrial middle-class than of the industrial proletarian. A plebeian by instinct and by sympathy, his intellect rarely broke through the boundaries of middle-class reform. It was not until 1834, shortly before his death, after the establishment of the new Poor Law, that William Cobbett began to suspect the existence of a millocracy as hostile to the mass of the people, as landlords, banklords, public creditors, and the clergymen of the Established Church.

        If William Cobbett was thus, on one hand, an anticipated modern Chartist, he was, on the other hand, and much more, an inveterate John Bull. He was at once the most conservative and the most destructive man of Great Britain — the purest incarnation of Old England and the most audacious initiator of Young England. He dated the decline of England from the period of the Reformation, and the ulterior prostration of the English people from the so-called glorious Revolution of 1688. With him, therefore, revolution was not innovation, but restoration; not the creation of a new age, but the rehabilitation of the “good old times.” What he did not see, was that the epoch of the pretended decline of the English people coincided exactly with the beginning ascendancy of the middle class, with the development of modern commerce and industry, and that, at the same pace as the latter grew up, the material situation of the people declined, and local self-government disappeared before political centralisation. The great changes attending the decomposition of the old English Society since the eighteenth century struck his eyes and made his heart bleed.

        But if he saw the effects, he did not understand the causes, the new social agencies at work. He did not see the modern bourgeoisie, but only that fraction of the aristocracy which held the hereditary monopoly of office, and which sanctioned by law all the changes necessitated by the new wants and pretensions of the middle-class. He saw the machine, but not the hidden motive power. In his eyes, therefore, the Whigs were responsible for all the changes supervening since 1688. They were the prime motors of the decline of England and the degradation of its people. Hence his fanatical hatred against, and his ever recurring denunciation of the Whig oligarchy. Hence the curious phenomenon, that William Cobbett, who represented by instinct the mass of the people against the encroachments of the middle-class, passed in the eyes of the world and in his own conviction for the representative of the industrial middle-class against the hereditary aristocracy. As a writer he has not been surpassed.

        [end quote – para breaks are mine]

        Marx (or perhaps Engels who wrote many of Marx’s Tribune pieces for him) of course hits nail on the head

        Without an understanding of class radicalism has always tended to degenerate into some form of identity politics – which however remote his style may seem now is very much what Cobbett was with all his trumpeting of Englishness and vomiting of bile not just against Jews but Scots, blacks (he attacked Wilberforce and the abolitionists for encouraging servile rebellion and peddled the worst atrocity propaganda about Haiti) and pretty much everyone not a stout Anglo-Saxon farmer or artisan.

  2. Steven Johnston said,

    But wasn’t one of Napoleon’s aims a united Europe? Though under him it would have been a dictatorship.

  3. Scott Reeve said,

    Or as Shelley wrote:
    I hated thee, fallen tyrant! I did groan
    To think that a most unambitious slave,
    Like thou, shouldst dance and revel on the grave
    Of Liberty. Thou mightst have built thy throne
    Where it had stood even now: thou didst prefer
    A frail and bloody pomp which Time has swept
    In fragments towards Oblivion. Massacre,
    For this I prayed, would on thy sleep have crept,
    Treason and Slavery, Rapine, Fear, and Lust,
    And stifled thee, their minister. I know
    Too late, since thou and France are in the dust,
    That Virtue owns a more eternal foe
    Than Force or Fraud: old Custom, legal Crime,
    And bloody Faith the foulest birth of Time.

  4. Andrew Coates said,

    Germaine de Staël in Dix annees d’exil, talks of how people do not realise just what personal power is about until they’ve dealt with somebody in the position of Napoleon.

    He took decisions, directly related to everything, and in her case her.

    This gives some (imperfect) account of their stormy relations: http://divainternational.ch/spip.php?article72

    This is one, of the, many, reasons (including those Rosie signals), why Napoleon leaves me cold.

  5. Paul Canning said,

    Andrew Collins at the Graun had a major bitch about the Roberts’ Napoleon show or rather the Napoleon show about Roberts. I agree having watched it through gritted teeth. Napoleon loved ‘the strivers’ dontchknow?

    • kb72 said,

      Napoleon the Thatcherite. His marshals, grabbing the spoils, self-made men.

  6. februarycallendar said,

    This seems to be the case so often: that for Britain to escape the echoes of feudalism, and not to have defined its culture against the rest of Europe (something which I wish every day had happened), we would have had to get involved with some pretty horrible things before that could happen.

    Even down to what would have been required for a Franco-British Union after the war.

    Even wishing the First World War had not happened might be taken by some to endorse extreme inequality and poverty.

  7. Political tourist said,

    Waterloo, it took a 103 years from 1815 for men over 21 to get the vote.
    Another 10 years for women.
    It took till the 1970 general to get the vote for those aged 18 years and older.
    Just as well Wellington won or the masses might have got above their station.
    Remember Peterloo.

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      1969 it was. Peterloo was an internal matter. Did not know that lefties cared about the vote unless they managed to rigg it with the traditional card board box and the votes counted by the incumbent branch committee.

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