Two hundred years today the Battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium which saw Napoleon defeated in battle by the Duke of Wellington and other allies from across Europe. It gave Europe almost a century of peace, incidentally 99 years and just a few miles separated the last British death in the Napoleonic wars and the first in WW1. Waterloo didn’t just give Britain the chance to eclipse France in the race to empire but as Henry Kissinger commented the security provided by the Royal Navy gave the United States the cover and security to acquire its territories towards the Pacific Ocean.
Despite all that and more, one thing that comes up time and again is the habit of describing men of short stature as being in some way Napoleonic. It’s a wide spread cultural phenomenon especially in the U.K. but also in North America. It can be most clearly seen in the 1970’s sitcom Dads Army where Captain Mainwaring of the Home Guard is in charge. He is short, pretentious and in many ways inferior to his laid back, educated, more capable and of course taller Sgt Wilson and frequently labelled a ‘Napoleon’.
Is there any truth though in this cultural perception? To take the wind out of the sails before we even get going, Napoleon himself was about 5 feet 6 inches (169 cm) tall and by no means short by the standards of the day. He is often thought of and depicted as being short because he was often painted next to his Imperial Guard who were towering figures in any century.
His Nemesis the Duke of Wellington is often portrayed as a towering man and indeed his 5’10” frame would mark him out as being relatively tall even today let alone 200 years ago. In his older age though his height reduced to 5’8″ so not quite as imposing as he is portrayed. Incidentally this is quite a common habit, when I was in Egypt I saw many carvings of Ramses The Great. He is depicted at being 6 foot tall and with a chest full of muscles that would make Brock Lesnar look puny but on seeing his body in the Egyptian Museum I was quite shocked at how frail and short he looked at little more than 5 feet 2 inches or so. I guess that is what a good publicist does for you and what being dead for 4000 years or so does to you too!
Another great opponent of Napoleonic France was Lord Nelson who stood only 5’4″ but his lack of height clearly didn’t stop him becoming perhaps the worlds greatest naval sailor and whilst some of his smaller stature may be due to the century he was born in, Captain Hardy was 6’4″ and HMS Victory’s chief surgeon, William Beaty, was of a similar or possibly even greater height which if you’ve ever banged your head on the ceilings of that great wooden ship as I have then you can imagine how hard life must have been for him!
Napoleon of course only really has one rival in the West who shared both his appetite for war and conquest and that is Adolf Hitler. Not without good reason, public officials and workplace bullies are often called “little Hitlers”. Whilst they are no doubt being compared to his authoritarian tendencies we still think of Hitler as being short but in fact he was around 5’8″ which is about average for today and not in anyway short for the early 20th century.
One tyrant who was obviously short is Tom Cruise… I mean Stalin. Both about 5 feet 4 inches tall and one uses Hollywood magic to appear much taller whilst making millions from making bad movies. The other used one of the worlds biggest propaganda machines to appear much taller in movies as he killed millions. Mussolini was shorter than Stalin and one man definitely worthy of being labelled a Napoleon.
Two of our recent greatest historic figures of short stature were Gandhi and Mother Theresa who despite their lack of height at 5’4″ (164cm) and 5 feet (152cm) respectively filled the world with peace and healing. One of the tallest and perhaps greatest statesman of the 21st century in Nelson Mandela was 6’4″ (184cm) was also one of the most peaceful in modern times, but in his youth was a terrorist. Whereas King Henry VIII is one of the most infamous monarchs of all time yet he couldn’t blame his short stature on this as he was a towering 6’3″ (182cm) which must have made him a monster for his time especially as his waist was nearly as long as is height! His bad behaviour however only started after he fell into a coma following a jousting accident with modern day historians and scientists believing he suffered some sort of brain damage.
Whilst genetically people from China and other east Asian countries are shorter than those of Western Europe, N. America and Eastern Africa, Chairman Mao may have killed millions but he was 5’11” (180cm). Perhaps the greatest tyrant of all times, Genghis Khan who killed millions more was an impressive 5’8″ (173cm) all the way back in the early 13th century. Call him a shortie and it would likely be the last thing you did.
As someone who is 5’9″ (175cm) tall I can probably comfortably sit this debate out, neither with any to prove by my shortness or instantly standing out with my height. The height of the average Britain has increased by 11 cm during the 20th century though one country increased by even more, the Netherlands. If you get the feeling that the Dutch are all tall, generally many of them are. Historically they were of a very average height but during the 20th they soared, scientists believe this isn’t just due to increased wealth and health but due to the women of the Netherlands repeatedly marrying taller men.
Whilst it seems obvious that taller people though not excessively tall people, have it easier in terms of standing out and being more confident and many of us have come against very determined and quite frankly obnoxious shorter people who are super determined to make an impact on the world, it doesn’t seem that height is a particularly good determinant for either being a world leader or being a particularly kind or tyrannical ruler. Still for as long as we see distorted depictions of Hitler and Napoleon it seems the reputation of a particular type of short man is secure.
Interestingly despite all his macho posturing, Vladimir Putin is only 5’7 is distinctly shorter than average both for Russia and the wider world and that other much maligned dictator Kim Jong-un is only 5’3″ and so embarrassed about his height that it isn’t on any medical record and is classified as a state secret. If I were him, I’d be more embarrassed by his hair-cut and I’m sure Napoleon himself would quite literally look down on him in more ways than one.