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Here Comes Waterloo!

There’s some irony in celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the British defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, given Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum within two years to decide if Britain should leave the European Union. We’ve been warned not to crow over the victory and upset the French, but flaunting it as a solely British triumph also risks snubbing the Germans and other Continental allies: as well as Blucher’s Prussian forces, over half of Wellington’s army was made up of German and Dutch and other nationalities. 

Nevertheless, Britain has got Waterloo fever. With the anniversary coming on June 18, documentaries are presenting Wellington, the Iron Duke, as more malleable than first appears, and lauding Napoleon as a hero, rather than as the megalomaniac “Boney.” In Broadstairs in Kent, a horse-drawn post-chaise charging through the streets will recreate Major Percy’s landing and his ride to bring the news of victory to London. In Perth in Scotland a march by the Scots Greys will look back to their famous cavalry charge, celebrated by Lady Elizabeth Butler in her painting Scotland for Ever!

And of course, there are the exhibitions. If you like prints and satires, the richest hoard is on display at the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings in “Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda.” This is one of my favorite haunts, with such a host of treasures that they can pull out wonderful things, from Renaissance drawings to modern etchings and engravings, to suit any occasion. (The BM has, apparently, 1,400 satires on Napoleon alone.) For the Bonaparte show, the military historian Tim Clayton and the knowledgeable curator Sheila O’Connell have kept the focus on the long propaganda war, steaming on from the French Revolution in 1789 to the start of the conflict in 1793 and through to the dramatic end twenty years later.

Read entire article at NY Review of Books