The new battle of Waterloo in 2015
The monetary celebration of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015 offers an occasion to remember how monetary representations and nationalism still remain interlinked in a delicate equilibrium even within Europe.
On 18 June 1815 the French army, assembled by Napoleon in less than three months after his return from exile in the island of Elba, was defeated close to the village of Waterloo, south of Brussels in Belgium, by two allied armies. The British-Dutch Belgian-German army led by the Duke of Wellington resisted the French attack and was rescued by the Prussian army, led by Field Marshal Blücher, who had regrouped after a defeat at Ligny two days earlier. As a consequence of Waterloo Napoleon lost power again, ending 23 years of European wars originated by the French revolution. Napoleon was deported to an island in the southern Atlantic, St. Helena, under British guard until his death in 1821.
The significance of Waterloo cannot be underestimated but its celebration always posed geopolitical questions.
In 1815 one single Napoleonic coin could be associated with the battle, the two francs silver piece bearing a new portrait of the Emperor, minted in very small quantity (6.777 coins) before the end of the “Hundred days” (here illustrated). Immediately after the battle various celebrative medals and tokens were produced, including a British token (here illustrated) dedicated to the Crown Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne and general of the Allied army, riding sword in hand with his bicorn on his head (and waving it to incite his troops in later official paintings).
In 1915, on the occasion of the first centenary of the battle, no coins were minted, because celebrative coins were extremely unusual at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also because the British would have been rather uncomfortable celebrating conspicuously a victory in alliance with the Germans and against the French, while they were fighting in the Belgian trenches with the opposite combination of friends and foes.
In 2015 peace and union in Europe were expected to simplify things. Several countries decided to dedicate celebratory coins to the event, in particular the UK (and its dependencies the Isle of Man and Ascension Island), the Netherlands and Belgium.
In a commemorative 5 pounds piece the Royal Mint in London chose to represent the winners of the day through the handshake between Wellington and, Blücher, both on horseback, meeting casually at the end of the battle, at the Belle Alliance, a farm hosting a tavern and a key position in the French lines. The image comes from a painting by Daniel Maclise hosted in the House of Lords.
The Dutch mint issued a simple and uncontroversial yet banal 10 euro coin, only representing the hat (bicorn) of the Prince of Orange. The coin is not really meant for circulation because it is only sold to collectors well above its nominal value and has no legal tender in other Eurozone member states.
The Belgians, on whose soil the battle was fought and who provided a substantial contingent in Wellington’s army, decided on the most visible solution and with the highest impact. They designed a 10 euro silver coin for collectors, depicting Wellington, his cavalry commander Lord Uxbridge, the injured prince of Orange and in the background the shadow of Napoleon dominating the horizon. But they also designed a much more visible 2 euro coin with full legal tender, meant to circulate throughout the territory of the Eurozone. It depicted the Lion’s mound, erected in 1820 in the middle of the British positions to commemorate the battle. The coin’s design was completed by a simplified map of the battlefield and the positions of the various armies (Wellington’s troops in the north, the French in the south and Prussian reinforcements arriving from the East).
The rules guiding the issuance of 2 euro celebratory coins in the Eurozone, however, did not give any single member country the right to issue new images without the consent of the other partners. Already in 2013 some images were rejected (San Marino’s desire to represent Jack Kennedy was rejected).
When the Belgian representatives presented to European institutions their draft new design in February 2015, their French counterparts vetoed it. Following procedure, the French government wrote to the European Council that the coin was likely to create negative reactions in France. “The battle of Waterloo is an event which has a particular importance in collective conscience that goes beyond simple military conflict. The circulation of coins that promote a negative symbol for part of the European population appears to us dangerous in a context in which Eurozone governments are seeking to reinforce unity and cooperation through monetary union.”
The Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt initially replied that "The goal is not to revive old quarrels. In a modern Europe, there are more important things to sort out, but there's been no battle in recent history as important as Waterloo, or indeed one that captures the imagination in the same way." He then bowed to the French veto and withdrew the 2 euro coin, destroying those already prepared for sale to the public, but shortly after announced that the coin would be issued in the newly invented 2.5 euro format, not subject to the supervision of other member states because it was exclusively sold to collectors and could not circulate as coinage, being in fact a medallic token.
The French embassy downplayed the significance of this story, developed in a «subcommittee on coins», with a mere technical relevance (according to Le Monde). The international press instead rushed to cover a spicy story, obtaining easily colourful jingoistic quotations from some British Conservative MPs, who gloated happily on the subject. In the Daily Telegraph Sir Peter Luff, the Tory MP for Mid Worcestershire, said: “I’m delighted the Eurozone should celebrate the failure of France to create a European super-state. [The French] sensitivity is disappointing and they really should recognize that this is a momentous event in Europe’s history and an important one for freedom and democracy – which I’d have thought the French Republic would have celebrated, rather than sought to prevent.” Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough, said: “It would seem extraordinary that this remarkable 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo should not be commemorated just because it would hurt the feelings of the French.”
In fact the Waterloo coin was not the first project to be refused but just the most talked about. What many reports did not recall was that a few months earlier a French commemorative 2 euro coin dedicated to the battle of Marignano (Lombardy), fought in 1515 had been rejected. At Marignano a French army of François I, supported by the Venetian troops led by Bartolomeo D’Agliano, had defeated the Swiss army reinforced by very few Milanese troops. The Italian government had opposed the project of a 2 euro coin, despite the battle being a weak and distant memory, more associated to the expulsion of the Swiss from Italy than to an Italian defeat, which in fact it was not.
Testifying to a different approach, Germany did not produce any commemorative piece for Waterloo, despite having the largest number of soldiers on the field that day. The combined forces of Prussia, Hannover, Brunswick, Nassau and the King’s German Legion were larger that the French and three times bigger that the number of British soldiers on the field (respectively 76,000 men, 73,000 and 25,000). In 2015 Germany decided to rather celebrate the 25th anniversary of German reunification. It also highlighted a different German approach to its past history, less willing to search for lost glory on battlefields and more intent on researching and acknowledging past errors and horrors in order to prevent their repetition.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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