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Waterloo and the Rise of an Empire

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June 18, 2015 marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, a battle that 200 years ago halted abruptly the second Hundred Years' War between Britain and France. As historian Jeremy Black asserts, "Waterloo was an iconic battle for the British, a triumph of endurance that ensured a nineteenth-century world in which Britain played the key role" (Waterloo, p. xi). Waterloo was a crucial victory—not only for British ascendancy, but also in fulfilling ancient promises recorded in Scripture. So, how did these promises impact the outcome of Waterloo and beckon the rise of the British Empire?


The Stage Is Set

In 1805, France's Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, initiated a volley of victories, trudging undefeated until he grasped nearly all of Western Europe. Even the Russian army capitulated; however, Napoleon and his troops failed to weather the brutality of the Russian winter and were driven back.

By 1814, allied forces had apprehended Napoleon, reinstated the French monarchy, and banished the disempowered Emperor to the small Mediterranean isle of Elba. The allied nations of Europe assumed Napoleon was impuissant, powerless, yet they underestimated his resolute ambition.

He escaped Elba, returning to Paris on March 20, 1815. Meanwhile, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia rallied to form the Seventh Coalition. Its goal was to combat, not primarily the renewed threat of French military action, but rather, Napoleon's desires for world domination.

Leading around 68,000 troops (ibid., p. 93) was Arthur Wellesley, a future 1st Duke of Wellington. Joining him was the seasoned Count Gebhard von Blücher, a seventy-two year old field marshal who, in time, would bring some 30,000 Prussian troops to Waterloo (History.com, "Battle of Waterloo."). Napoleon, who was the unequivocal master of the attack, commanding 72,000 troops (Black, p. 97), marched north into Belgium bringing the fight to the Allies. He would clash sabres with Wellington, the definitive master of the defence.

Stacking the Deck

Apart from Napoleon's poor health, initially the odds seemed to be in his favour; however, the deck turned out to be stacked against him. First, word was sent to Wellington of a French buildup southwest of Charleroi. This news devastated Napoleon's hope for a surprise attack. Additionally, the defection to the Allies of General Count Louis Bourmont, who according to one source "revealed Napoleon's plans to Blücher's officers" (Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 11, p. 744), and according to another, did so "at 5 a.m. on 15 June, causing confusion" in the French camp, leveraged Allied preparedness (Black, p. 77).

Furthermore, an unseasonable, unremitting rainstorm impeded the Emperor's attack, saturating the ground. He delayed his planned 9:00 a.m. assault until 11:30 a.m., hoping to improve maneuverability of artillery. This delay, joined with miserable, muddy ground conditions, favoured the Allies.

French writer Victor Hugo (1802–85) asserted that, "If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June, 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different… All that Providence required in order to make Waterloo the end… was a little more rain, and a cloud traversing the sky out of season…" (Les Miserables, Vol. 2, Book First, Ch. 3, p. 525).

Lastly, the Prussians dramatically shifted the balance of the battle. Wellington had communicated to Blücher that he "would give battle on a ridge of Mont St. Jean (the Waterloo battlefield) if Blücher sent at least one corps to his assistance" (Black, p. 87). In response, Blücher vowed to deploy his entire army!

Wellington's defensive plan was to wait for the arrival of Blücher. He moved his men to the ridge's reverse slopes, a tactical stroke of genius, which saved his men from cannon fire as well as cavalry attack.

The French Marshal, Michel Ney, misread Wellington's troop movement as retreat, and at 4:00 p.m. launched the single greatest cavalry charge ever, hurling somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 French horsemen toward unbroken squares of British infantry. It proved a futile endeavor, though, as the squares, while battered, remained unbroken.

Moreover, Blücher did not disappoint. As promised, his whole host arrived to the aid of Wellington (ibid., pp. 113–14). The British and Prussian troops, many lying in wait behind the ridge of Mont St. Jean, rose up to form a three-mile line, and with repeated musket volleys levelled the French army. The Allies, at last, had defeated Napoleon and achieved a hard-won victory!

From Victory to Prosperity

Before Waterloo, Britain had developed great agricultural wealth and was enjoying the foundation of its industrial revolution. After Waterloo, despite ongoing internal problems and challenges, Britain would revel in its meteoric ascent to international grandeur. It seized around "20 per cent of world trade" and "about half the trade in manufactured goods" (Oxford Popular History of Britain, p. 475). Change was in the air and a "reversal in the positions of Britain and France" took place due not only to the end of French hostilities at Waterloo, but Britain's "consistent industrial development and the take-over of important markets" as well (ibid.). Steadily growing over the next 100 years, Britain became the world superpower of its day.

Promises to Abraham Kept

Was Allied victory at Waterloo a result of the mere might of men?

Victor Hugo wrote, "It is the day of destiny. The force which is mightier than man produced that day" (Les Miserables, Vol. 2, Book First, Ch. 13, p. 577). Even Wellington is quoted after the battle saying, "The hand of Almighty God has been upon me this day." Daniel 2:21 reveals that God "removes kings and raises up kings." God had stacked the deck for British triumph at Waterloo!

Regular readers of this magazine recognise Ephraim was to become a company of nations, namely Great Britain and its Empire. God's promised birthright blessings originally made to Abraham, and passed down to Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, made this possible (Genesis 17:6; 26:3–5; 28:3–4; 1 Chronicles 5:1–2; Genesis 48:5, 17–19).

Assyria took ancient Israel captive in 721bc. At that time, God punished Israel, delaying receipt of the promised national blessings for seven prophetic times, or 2,520 years. By adding 2,520 years to 721bc we arrive at 1800ad (note that there is no year 0). The battles of Trafalgar in 1805, securing Britain's sea primacy, and Waterloo in 1815, solidifying its command on land, paved the way for the rise of an empire.

Britain's Waterloo victory, which rescued Europe from Napoleon's grip, turning the tide and altering its future forever, was orchestrated by God's mighty hand. It was a major catalyst in the ascent and expansion of the British Empire, and key in fulfilling God's long-ago-promised blessings to Abraham.

Sadly, 200 years on, Britain's prosperity is waning due to individual and national sins. Tough times are on the horizon. Our fascinating booklet, The United States and Great Britain in Prophecy, will help you understand God's intervention in Britain's history, as well as what challenges are yet ahead.

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