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What if the Duke of Wellington had died at Waterloo?

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

By Steve Payne and Jeff Provine

This article was originally posted on Today in Alternate History (twitter)and the original article can be found there. Please check that blog for more like this.

The Battle of Waterloo, by William Sadler II

The Duke of Wellington's victory over Napoleon made him one of Britain's most famous military heroes and took him to the role of Prime Minister, but what if he hadn't survived the war? One take on this scenario is written below.


In 1815,the Duke of Wellington's untimely death at the farm of Le Hay Saint was a tragic moment that changed continental Europe forever.

Great Britain had been the only consistent enemy against Napoleon and Wellington the most senior and important Allied commander. Superficially, Waterloo was a similar battlefield setting to John Churchill's Army of Europe and their famous victory at Blenheim a century earlier, but appearances were deceptive. Despite the highly visible British-led command structure at Waterloo, only thirty-six percent of the Anglo-Allied Army was English-speaking. The rest were German speakers, sourced by King George IIII as Elector of Hanover and also from Dutch, Walloons, and Flemings.

But it was the Prussian Marshal Gebhard Blücher's and not George's armies that saved the day. Although they did arrive late, they defeated Napoleon's last reserves, the senior battalions of the French Imperial Guard infantry. As a matter of fact, the Prussians would have been there very prominently from the outset had Wellington not made the unforgivable mistake of setting off late. French troops overwhelmed the 400 German defenders there, and eye-witnesses recounted Wellington's death as heroic as Horatio Nelson's a decade before. Though Napoleon had beaten the Prussians at Ligny two days earlier, Blucher's troops reformed in the east and led to Napoleon's defeat and capture.

The German victory at Waterloo ended Napoleon's return to power and resulted in his final abdication. Given the superior strength of the Seventh Coalition, these outcomes were widely expected. But more improbably, it brought forward by several decades the formation of a Second German Empire immediately after the collapse of the First French Empire. The negotiation of the Treaty of Paris provided the earliest signs that the Prussians intended to lead the German states in the domination of the continent. In London, cabinet members quickly realized that Great Britain had fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Holding Napoleon bodily proved to be a powerful bargaining chip during the Congress of Vienna for Prussia. King Frederick William III was a mousy and unimposing man who had joined the Coalition war effort reluctantly despite French invasion of Prussia. During the negotiations, however, Prussia used their advantage to secure the whole of nearby Saxony under their rule, a move that soon cascaded into an empire. As Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, he was decided to be fit for rule over the German-speaking areas that were reorganized beneath him as a new German Empire. Britain immediately balked as George III was also King of Hanover, but special status becalmed British anger. It proved moot in 1837 when William IV died and his brother Ernest Augustus became king in Hanover as Victoria was ineligible being a woman.

The move elevated Frederick William to an imperial status, which forced him to create bureaucratic bodies for delegation rather than overseeing everything himself as he had always done out of fear of failure due to his inferiority complex. Ultimately the emperor would find delegation comfortable, leaning on his advisors to conduct imperial business while he focused on his personal project of unifying the Protestant churches in Prussia. His son, Emperor Frederick William II, proved extremely popular taking steps to heal the Protestant and Catholic divide through his empire. His wife, Elisabeth Ludovika of Bavaria, was Catholic until their marriage, and Frederick William patronized the Cologne Cathedral following the conclusion of long-time issues with the archbishop.

Prussian authority grew through the nineteenth century as Austria's power waned. Frederick William II, a diehard romantic, had always considered Vienna to be the higher power, but his brother Wilhelm, the new regent upon the emperor's retirement due to ill health in 1861 and then emperor in 1871, held very different ideas. Austria lost its hold on Italy through a series of wars and was gravely weakened in authority by the Hungarian revolutions beginning in 1848. When Franz Josef invoked the Holy Alliance to suppress Hungary, Frederick William II had been eager to supply troops in aid. By 1866, however, Wilhelm's armies marched against Austria to affirm German borders and "liberate" Bohemia as a new buffer state between the two. The spinoff of the new country began a cascade that broke the empire into its component parts based on ethnic groups. When the dust settled, Franz Josef was King of Austria, which was soon a client state of the German Empire.

Rapidly industrializing, Germany soon began numerous rivalries with the other imperial giants of Europe. In the Balkans, Germany and Russia worked to dismantle the Ottoman Empire into new states such as Bulgaria and Albania as well as furthering the borders of Greece, then each tried to extend influence over them. Abroad, Germany established colonies in Africa and the Pacific, winning more territory as concessions of the Franco-German War in the 1890s. Had the war gone on longer, many strategists believed Russia could have been brought in to create a second front and defeat Germany, but mechanized warfare gave German advantage early on. Strategists then speculated what the next great war would be; although no one could be certain, they all agreed that Germany would be at its heart.



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