In June 2015, it is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a seminal moment in British history. Had Napoleon not been defeated by the Duke of Wellington’s army, it’s possible we’d all be speaking French today and live on an island colony of the Empire of France. Certainly, French territory in Europe would probably be a lot wider than it is now. It seems, however, that not many people know this.
In a recent survey undertaken for the National Army Museum ahead of the battle’s anniversary, one-in-eight young people (aged 18-24) had never heard of Waterloo. Many of this age-group associate the name merely with the London railway station, or with the Abba song. They’ve obviously never listened to the words of that song, given that it says: ‘At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender,’ and ‘I was defeated, you won the war,’ which could give some clues to the meaning of its title. But to be fair, Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’ in 1974, a bit before the time of these youngsters. (Apologies to those of you who do know the song well, and now have its catchy tune stuck in your head.) Moreover, more than a quarter of people surveyed did not know who won the battle, and nearly half failed on who led the British forces. Quite a few thought it was Winston Churchill.
These survey results had Daily Mail readers harrumphing with disgust. But here’s the thing: is it the fault of the average person, especially if they are young, that they don’t know about Waterloo? For many years, history has been taught in the majority of schools in depth rather than breadth. So periods such as the Tudors or the First World War were taught in tremendous detail, with admirable reference to original sources of information, but the linking periods often got missed out. Pupils, therefore, had little context for the events and lives they learned about.
Does Waterloo matter?
Former Education Secretary Michael Gove wanted to improve this lack of context when he developed his changes to the National Curriculum for teaching history in schools. There has been a great deal of controversy about these changes, both in content (too anglo-centric) and implementation (too fast, ignoring modern teaching practice, and so on). But there is something to be said for giving children a better grasp of the full sweep of history, at least for a thousand years or so. It makes things far more comprehensible and meaningful if you know how they fit into a wider picture. It’s something I rarely say, but on this issue, I’m with Mr Gove.
Does it matter, however, if the average person is not aware of key moments in British history and their implications? If Napoleon had won the war, and we were a French colony, we wouldn’t know any different. Would it impact much upon our everyday lives after two hundred years? We might, like some people on the island of Ireland, still be fighting for independence. We might be more, or less, pro-Europe. We might be more inclined to vote in an election, if it meant changes to our relationship with our parent state. An understanding of historical events – and why they matter – is, I believe, important in understanding what’s happening in our world today and how one moment on a battlefield, in a royal court or a parliament, can affect everything in our future.