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The winners took it all: ABBA’s Waterloo at 50

Ridley Scott’s Napoléon movie seems to have gone down like a lead ballon with the French. Moi? I’ve yet to see it, and with friendly Axel from Apple at Nice’s CAP3000 ranting to me how “so much of it is untrue” perhaps I won’t.

Still, when we’re talking cultural depictions of the little dictator, nothing beats Waterloo, which is almost certainly the first record I remember hearing that wasn’t by native English speakers. My cleaner Sylvie loves ABBA, not crazy about Bonaparte, but the fact the Brits kicked his short arse even less so.

My lord, the history lesson awaiteth…

Once upon a not long ago, an opinion poll conducted in the UK suggested most of those in residence on the grey British isle have never heard of the Battle of Waterloo. Well, mini historical coming up, because it was fought not near a Central London train station but in the muddy fields of what is now modern day Belgium — though back in 1815 still officially part of the ironically titled United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Lekker.

Having lived in France, on and off, for over seven years, I think I can safely say most French folk would rather forget about Napoléon Bonaparte and, understandably, the Battle of Waterloo. So as a British-raised journalist, writing this very piece from gorgeous Gallic territory on the Côte d’Azur, I feel it’s my duty to remind them. 

To commemorate his bloody life (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) and celebrate some erstwhile glam flockers triumphing in a song contest, here’s a couple of factoids relating to the diminutive dictator’s demise at the hands of the Duke of Wellington’s army.

According to that same survey, commissioned by the UK’s National Army Museum, just under half of Britons associate the name “Waterloo” with the eponymous ABBA song. The Swedish Fab Four’s iconic hit compares a girl’s surrender to romance to Napoleon’s capitulation after the fateful battle a few miles south of Brussels, much of it actually fought in the nearby municipality of Braine-l’Alleud (as the locals won’t hesitate to remind anyone who’ll listen), but can you imagine Agnetha and Frida getting their tongues around that mouthful?

Whatever the exact location, Waterloo remains the quintessential cross-continental Eurovision song. Despite receiving nil points from the British hosts, the Swedes won the kitschy contest half a century ago today — 6 April 1974 at the Brighton Dome, beating Olivia Newton-John in the process — and, as non-native English speakers, proceeded to rip up the rule book by kickstarting a glorious pop career that has seen the awesome foursome become one of the most beloved bands of all time.

The most bemusing thing in all this is that the Corsican cowbag they sing of — who may not have actually set his boot in Waterloo at all — was still crowned Emperor of the French in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in 1804.

By 1807, he added King of Italy to his list of titles, controlling an empire that stretched from the River Elbe in the north, down through to the Mediterranean in the south, and from the Pyrenees to the Dalmatian coast.

While the battle over exactly where Bonaparte raised the white flag continues on both fronts, this is what each party agrees on: the judges decided that the defeat at Waterloo / Braine-l’Alleud put an end to the Napoleonic Wars and his pan European reign. He returned to Paris and on 22 June 1915 royally abdicated in favour of his son Napoleon II, the disputed infant heir known colloquially as the King of Rome. Alas, that’s another song entirely.

Oh, yeah.

Steve Pafford, France

Dig those dancing queens anyway. Bonne journée!

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