A date in history

Today, as I suspect not too many people are aware, is Waterloo Day. On this day in 1815 the Battle of Waterloo was fought (near the small Belgian town of that name), between the French armies under Napoleon on the one side, and the Prussians and British on the other. Napoleon lost the battle, and was sent into exile on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in 1821. Waterloo was decisive in shaping 19th century European history.

A few years ago I was driving through a rural part of England with a colleague – we were going to a conference – when we passed under a rather splendid Regency era railway bridge. On the side of the bridge was an inscription that said that it was built in the year of the Battle of Waterloo. So when was that, I asked my colleague. He had no idea. And who fought and won the battle? No, nothing. He thought, eventually, that it involved the French.

We have got used to the idea of history not being just about monarchs, big battles and important dates. And yet, it seems to me that certain milestones in history should be known and remembered and understood, and I was, I confess, shocked at my colleague’s laid back ignorance in this case. The Napoleonic wars were about more than just battles and conquests, they were about political evolution and competing cultures, and the fall-out of the era continues to affect us nearly two centuries later. People should know about it. Indeed, it seems to me to be important that we do not entirely neglect the key dates and personalities of history.

After we had driven on a little I suddenly noticed that my colleague was whistling the tune of Abba‘s song Waterloo. At first that kind of irritated me, but then I pointed out to him that if only he had paid attention to the first line of the song his earlier answer to me would have been better. Maybe it’s not surprising he never sought another lift from me.

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5 Comments on “A date in history”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    A few years ago? I remember you telling me that story way back when I was still an undergraduate! Which makes it a very long time ago…

  2. Vincent Says:

    Ah yes, but when was the battle of Trafalgar, for the English this date is way way way more important. Off that Cape they stopped worrying, and for another 10 or so years while all hell was going on in Europe, it was much like the Army in the Afghan Provence’s today.
    England was never really bothered about Bonaparte once he had declared himself emperor. That type of person they knew how to play with. It was the earlier republican part of French history that put the fear of God into them. The crunch of iron tyres on cobbles followed by the swish-clunk of a guillotine was a very real nightmare. They only needed to look out their own windows to believe the importation of an idea rather than the invasion of an army was far more dangerous.
    The German Peasants’ War had a similar feel about.

  3. Big Bad John Says:

    And here was me thinking it was the name of a railway station….
    Of course, the problem here in Ireland is that we REMEMBER all too well significant dates in our history.
    Next month there’ll be yet another “celebration” of the Battle of the Boyne, an event with which too many of us still have a morbid fascination.

  4. Jilly Says:

    Maybe the key to this is that it’s not just a matter of knowing the dates etc of history, but also of understanding WHY they’re important, and being able to see connections between historical events or movements and the structures of modern society.

    A people who have little sense of how our forms of democracy emerged, for example, and under what conditions, against what opposition, and so on, have little chance of exercising or even protecting their democratic rights in the present.

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