Just 199 short years ago today, something stopped that had been going on almost uninterruptedly for . . . oh . . . something on the order of 500 years.
On 18 June 1815, for the last time, a fully-sovereign France and Great Britain fired on each other in anger. I use the expression “fully-sovereign” because I distinguish the Vichy forces’ opposition to the TORCH landings in 1942 as being acts in the capacity of agent for their Nazi overlords. Let’s think about that for a moment. At least since Edward III asserted his rights to the French throne in 1337 the English and the French were at each other’s throats.
Several of those wars were world-transformative, in the most literal sense of the word. The Hundred Years War, launched by Edward III all those years ago, produced among its longer-lasting side-effects a functioning parliament in England. Edward was repeatedly forced to grant concessions to the Lords and Commons to obtain money for his war-making. In fact the very notion of no taxation except upon consent is a principle first firmly established in the course of that conflict.
On the other side of the Channel, as Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror, the war consolidated the French monarchy and territorial integrity, and introduced a new force into the political fabric of Western Civilization, one pregnant with implications for the future: nationalism. Oh sure, there were places where tribal loyalties could and did combine to produce momentary politico-social cohesion against outsiders. Think Scotland, and specifically the Scotland of Edward’s day; it was Edward’s father, the ill-fated Edward II, whom Robert the Bruce demolished at Bannockburn in 1314. But that’s the whole point: the Scots’ loyalties were tribal, meaning that creating a coalition capable of prolonged, bitter resistance to a non-Scottish force was problematic to say the least. Over the course of centuries the English time and again were able to splinter them to bits and conquer them piecemeal. Before the 100 Years War, “France,” as a concept, existed scarcely outside the area immediately surrounding Paris. One was Provençal, or Burgundian, Breton, or whatever. “I am the Lord of Coucy,” proclaimed the builders of the castle at the symbolic center of Tuchman’s book. Indeed what allowed England to wage war so successfully for so long was that the English were not fighting “France” so much as a succession of highly frangible coalitions of French nobles. The crucible of a century’s fighting ended that. By the time England was pared back to Calais, France as such was a unified state capable of mobilizing the population and resources of a comparatively vast (certainly in comparison to just about everyone else on the western European continent) territory.
The long wars of Louis XIV established Britain, as she by then was, in what became her traditional role of Paymaster of Coalitions. Certainly Britain fought on the continent against Louis, but it was the decades of repeatedly having to assemble and keep in the field massive coalitions of widely disparate allies that cemented Britain in its position as power broker. It wasn’t the first time Britain had played that role; we think of its underwriting of the United Provinces in the 80 Year War for independence from Spain. But there were two aspects of that involvement that, I think, set it a bit apart from the long struggle against Louis. Britain’s backing of the Low Countries was first and foremost a religious war, which Britain involved itself in because Spain during those years was actively attempting to crush the Reformation in England. Secondly, the relationship was dyadic; on the one side England and on the other the Dutch. The wars against Louis covered far more territory and involved much larger groups of very different combatants. Is it so unreasonable to suppose that a talent for coalition building and maintenance somehow made it into the English political DNA over the course of those years?
The Seven Years War found Britain once again at the financial center of a shifting coalition of forces the only constant in which was that England and France were always on the opposite sides. It also made Britain a truly world power for the first time, when it snapped up nearly all of France’s overseas possessions. All of North America east of the Mississippi, north of Florida and the mouth of the river, and — at least once you got to the Great Lakes — all the way west to the Pacific. The Indian subcontinent. And sundry others. On the other hand, the financial burdens of winning that war lead Britain down the entirely reasonable-seeming path of Why Shouldn’t the Colonists Help Pay For It All? With results in the form of the American Revolution too well-known to mention.
After only the briefest respite after the American Revolution, in 1792 France and Britain were at it again, and would remain so until this day in 1815. That conflict did two things: It ensured the critical thrust to the incipient Industrial Revolution in Britain, and by utterly destroying French and Spanish colonial power (Spain never recovered from its conquest by France and the civil war that ensued, and sure enough, by 1820 its remaining significant American colonies were sloughing off like dead skin), it ensured that for nearly 100 years the world was Britain’s oyster. No one at all seriously challenged its position atop the world economic system until Germany emerged in the 1880s.
Now, Waterloo did not suddenly make France and Britain such bosom buddies that all was kiss-in-the-ring ever after. Even though they fought in tandem against the Tsar in the Crimea in the 1850s, as late as 1898, when Captain Marchand and his troops marched into Fashoda, a general shooting war could have erupted on any number of occasions. It took Admiral Tirpitz and Wilhelm II, his dupe, to accomplish the final reconciliation in 1904 in the form of the Entente Cordiale. I’ve made my observations on that here. Wilhelm and his ministers were so confident of the depth of Franco-British enmity that they were dumbfounded when it happened. The United States making common cause with Iran will scarcely be more flabbergasting to our world than was the spectacle of France and Britain formally and actually abandoning an antagonistic posture nearly six centuries old.
The fact still remains, however, that this day in 1815 was the last time (apart from the peculiar circumstances of TORCH) that France and Britain traded mortal blows. Which of the surviving soldiers on that muggy June day in Belgium could have known to look out over the fields writhing with wounded and littered with dead men and animals, to say nothing of the blasted remains of muskets, cannon, limbers, wagons, and farm buildings, and think to himself, “Today ends nearly five centuries.” Who could have known, as Marshall Blücher and Wellington shook hands after the battle, and the old soldier greeted the Iron Duke with, “Quelle affaire!” that the next time Prussian and Briton would shake hands as friends and allies would be 140 years later, upon the West German rump state’s entry into NATO?
Happy Waterloo Day.