In the ‘long eighteenth-century’ British national identity was superimposed over pre-existing identities in Britain in order to bring together the somewhat disparate, often warring, states. This identity centred on war with France; the French were conceptualised as the ‘other’, being seen by the British as both different and inferior. For many historians this identity, built in reaction and opposition to France, dissipated following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, as Britain gradually introduced changes that allowed broader sections of the population to engage in the political process. A new militaristic identity did not reappear in Britain until the 1850s, following the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. This identity did not fixate on France, but rather saw all foreign nations as different and, consequently, inferior. An additional change was the increasing public interest in the army and war, more generally. War became viewed as a ‘pleasurable endeavour’ in which Britons had an innate skill and the army became seen as representative of that fact, rather than an outlet to dispose of undesirable elements of the population, as it had been in the past. British identity became increasingly militaristic in the lead up to the First World War. However, these two identities have been seen as separate phenomena, rather than the later identity being a progression of the earlier construct.
This thesis argues that this militaristic nineteenth-century identity was simply an evolution of that which was superimposed a century earlier. A key component, linking the two constructs, was the memoirs of the soldiers of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, particularly those that served in the Waterloo campaign. Even as the wars were underway, former soldiers were releasing their memoirs to a receptive public, thanks to expanding literacy, and this only escalated after the final victory at Waterloo. In the 1820s, several memoirs were published that achieved an unprecedented level of resonance with the public as they successfully presented their wartime experiences as ‘an exciting adventure’ and ‘showed’ that British soldiers faced the horrors of war with a ‘cheerful stoicism’. These works helped to establish the memoir as an accepted literary genre in Britain.
The public’s enthusiasm for heroic episodes of war allowed the veterans to influence the public memory of the campaign. The soldiers’ own experiences led an overwhelming majority to conclude that they had more in common with their French enemy than their various allies, whether they were civilian or soldier. With respect to Waterloo, this meant that they erroneously portrayed the battle as a British victory, won in spite of the insipid performance of the allied combatants. These allied combatants made up of Germans from the states of Hanover, Brunswick, Nassau and Prussia, along with troops of the Netherlands, which at the time included modern-day Belgium, with a few notable exceptions, provided little in the way of defeating the enemy.
Despite the exceeding popularity of memoirs, demonstrating a continuing public interest in war, their impact on the views of the British public regarding foreigners was, initially, fairly limited. It was only with the advent of secondary literature, and the passing of the generation that had direct memories of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, around the middle of the century, that the British public began to embrace this memory. As British identity became increasingly militaristic and nationalistic, new secondary histories continued to remove the allied contingents from the battle, to the point where Waterloo became the final Franco-British conflict, affirming British supremacy. But whereas in the past British supremacy had been measured against France, in the nineteenth-century, the rest of Europe was included in this assessment, not just the French. The British viewed themselves as both different from the continent and, consequently, superior. The few attempts to redress this perception within the Waterloo narrative were vigorously rebuked by military historians in the period.
The memoirs of the military veterans alone did not achieve the objective of reshaping British national identity in the nineteenth-century. But they provide an important example of the manner in which British national identity was influenced by war and the military in the nineteenth-century. They provide a prominent example of the continuing interest of the British public in war, even after the long wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Furthermore, they provide the context for the changing view of the ‘other’ from France, as it had been in the eighteenth-century, to all foreigners as it became in the nineteenth-century. Finally, they help to explain why in much of the English-speaking world the battle of Waterloo is viewed as a British victory, rather than an allied one.