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Keeping an eye on the other side of the hill

Tuesday, 3 March, 2015

The Battle of Waterloo was a momentous event in European history and the Bicentenary is coming up in June. The two greatest soldiers of the age, Napoleon and Wellington, who had never faced each other before, finally met on the plains of Waterloo and the rest is history. Their encounter was a long time brewing.

In 1803, when fears of a French invasion of Britain were at code red levels, a new play, Goody Two Shoes; Or, Harlequin Alabaster, was performed at Sadler’s Wells theatre. In it, a French assault by balloon is foiled at the last minute. The drama was riffing on popular rumours of the day, such as the one where Napoleon’s engineers would construct a pontoon across the English Channel, with the work being supervised by officers in balloons. There was a factual basis for this. The French army had used reconnaissance balloons in the Low Countries in 1794 and Napoleon, aware of the potential of air war, set up a Compagnie d’Aérostiers. The revolutionaries lost interest in their innovation, however, and as Historic Wings notes:

“On Sunday, June 18, 1815, the armies of Emperor Napoleon would face the armies of the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo. The key to Wellington’s initial deployment was that his forces were hidden on the back slope of a ridge, along the top of which ran Ohain Road. If only Napoleon had the services of the Aerostatic Corps, he would have known the full deployment of the enemy from the outset — and thus, history could well have been rewritten that day.”

The Duke of Wellington probably wasn’t talking about balloons or related technologies when he spoke to John Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, post-Waterloo but he did make this observation: “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.'” The Croker Papers


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