Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo – everyone’s heard about it.

The Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815. We are just a few days away from marking two hundred years (Waterloo200) since this important moment in European history. Two hundred years since the Emperor of France was finally stopped.  After his escape from Elba and after he marched into what is now Belgium, to clash with the Anglo-Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians under General Blucher. Many people know the name Waterloo, one of the most famous battles in history but little else about that day. Much has been written about the battle and more books are appearing every week at the moment. This is not a blog post regurgitating the history, but about a couple of days I spent wandering around the site at the end of April.

Work commitments mean I can’t attend the celebrations there next week. But apart from a brief day trip to the battlefield with my family as a kid, I had never spent time looking around the site itself. Never walked the whole battlefield. All the stories I’d read about. The desperate defences of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. The charge of the Scots Greys. The capturing of the French Eagles. The death of Sir Thomas Picton. The bravery of the 27th Inniskillings, who were slaughtered by French artillery fire as they stood in square, defending the centre of the Anglo-Allied lines. The bold flanking move by the 52nd Light Infantry, that sent Napoleon’s Imperial Guard tumbling back down the slope. France defeated. So many stories. But it is only when you stand on the same ground that many stories begin to make sense. Your imagination conjures up those long dead soldiers fighting on the ridgeline south of Brussels.

The ridgeline. The ridgeline is key. Where did it go? Wellington placed the bulk of his forces behind this ridge so that Napoleon, across the valley, could not see his disposition and strength. It also helped shield the troops from the Grand Battery’s cannonballs. Trouble is, it’s gone! Two hundred years is a long time but equally it is not? Landscapes change. Farming the land for two hundred years for a start has an impact. Once small hamlets grow in size. Even a ban on building on the battlefield in 1914 didn’t stop a great big convent being built along the Allied lines. Several times plans for a motorway to be built across the battlefield have been defeated. A motorway does skirt the battlefield, sunken into the ground right next to the walls of St Mont Jean – a farmhouse that served as a field hospital during the battle (currently being restored). It clips the area where the Allied infantry formed a patchwork of defensive squares against thousands of charging French cavalry. Life goes on. Modern life devours land. So what has changed?

Well first off that ridgeline, that went quite quick. Like something from modern day North Korea, the ridgeline was scooped up and became the Lion Mound. Built by the King of the Netherlands (who ruled this land then) to mark the wounding of his son, The Prince of Orange, who was shot in the shoulder near the end of the battle. Wounding – not death!!? Both Victor Hugo (who gets his own monument behind the French lines??) and the Duke of Wellington were outraged at this vandalism of a key feature of the battlefield. The truth is, the Lion Mound has become the symbol of the battlefield. Without it maybe the tourism would be less. Without it for many people it would just be some fields, either side of a busy road between Brussels and Charleroi? Coach parties back in April ate in the Wellington cafe, viewed the old panorama, then watched a very biased film (to Napoleon), before then walking up the steep steps of the mound to survey the battlefield. Much is changing now, with the new museum being put underground and many of the old buildings being demolished. But that ridge isn’t coming back. That ridge was critical to the battle. Now you have to imagine it. All that is left of the sunken road along the ridgeline is the field being a couple of feet above the road for a few metres. Little is done to encourage exploring the battlefield past this tourism area. The crossings on the busy road are poor – no pavements on one. The fields are littered with ‘private’ signs but still diehard enthusiasts walk the fields with maps and their imagination. All seemed to be Brits when I visited and some Colombian soldiers atop the Lion Mound.

Photography on the Waterloo battlefield

I stayed at The Hotel 1815. Built near what was the centre of the Allied lines, where the Hanoverian and King’s German Legion troops formed up. I got the chambre Napoleon with a view from the window towards La Haye Sainte farmhouse and the crossroads. The spot where Ompteda and many of his men were sent to a pointless death trying to retake the farmhouse. You are not near the battlefield here, you are on it!

From here I walked all over the battlefield. To the nearby crossroads, over the crossing near the monument to the Belgians who died here (on both sides), to a picnic area beside the monuments to Picton and the 27th. Near here was once a sandpit, held for a time by the 95th Rifles during the battle as they sniped at French troops besieging the KGL in the farmhouse. Head south down into the shallow valley, past the monuments to the Hanoverians and LtCol Gordon, that give you an idea of the former ridgeline level and past La Haye Sainte. Sadly privately owned still – this should be a museum to that heroic defence. There are plaques on the walls of the farmhouse, dirty from the modern traffic fumes, but good luck crossing the busy road to see them close up! The defenders were the Kings German Legion, part of the British army. Like the 95th, they used rifles rather than muskets and it was the lack of ammunition that meant they were finally forced out of the farmhouse. They fought for their homeland that had been occupied by Napoleon and fought well.

One hundred years after Waterloo it would be the British and the French fighting against the Germans.

Further south to La Belle Alliance and where the French lines were. A monument to the French fallen and one to Victor Hugo?( he wasn’t there at the battle, he just wrote about it ). Across and down to the village of Plancenoit, where later in the day, there was savage hand-to-hand fighting around the churchyard as the Prussians arrived. The village is a lot bigger now and spreads back up the hill to the French lines, with very smart houses and gardens. More monuments to French units and roads named after French marshals and French units.

You come away from Waterloo thinking that Napoleon and the French army won!??

Across the fields and down surviving sunken lanes to Papelotte and then a steep climb back up to the allied ridgeline (complete with convent). More monuments to the French in the hedgerows and back to the crossroads. From here you can walk from where Wellington’s elm tree was, for just a few minutes, past the Mont St Jean farmhouse, over the motorway, onto a large Carrefour supermarket, car dealerships and a McDonald’s fast food restaurant. I wonder how a burger and fries would have gone down with the Allied soldiers making their way back up the Brussels road after nine hours of battle? The Lion Mound glimpsed by traffic to the supermarket.

Hougoumont restoration

Back on the battlefield, carry on along the ‘ridgeline’, past all the building work back in April for the new museum and then down towards Hougoumont. Here I had the privilege of a day watching the new North gates be installed. The land has changed, the wood to the south through which the French attacked has gone. The orchard next to the large walled garden has gone. A new wood to the north covers where the Allied units stood as the Imperial guard marched towards them. There is the constant hum of the nearby motorway. But look through the restored loopholes in the garden wall and imagine the fierce fighting here, defended by so few against so many, in a surprisingly big area. Wave upon wave of French infantry were sacrificed in this killing zone.With the restoration work here, hopefully more people will make the effort to explore this critical part of the battlefield. There is even a flat in which to stay for a holiday break, at Hougoumont.

Walk the fields and you get a sense of the topography – it’s not the exact same topography of course, time has changed that. But the subtle curves of the landscape, one minute you can see the mound/la haye sainte/the ridgeline, walk a few metres, you can’t, can help you understand many of the stories of the fighting. How pockets of troops would find themselves lost in the smoke, fighting the enemy in mini battles within the battle.With a bit of imagination, sitting by a tree next to the walled garden and looking back up the slope to the ‘ridgeline’, you can try to get some idea of the carnage that beset this little bit of land in Belgium that had such a profound effect upon the history of all of Europe.

 

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Napoleon’s statue in the old car park, covered up.

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Picton’s monument by the side of the road. Behind, where the Scots Greys charged the French infantry.

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The crossroads, where The Duke of Wellington stood near the elm tree at the centre of the line.

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View south from the Hanoverian monument towards La Haye Sainte

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Monument to LtCol Sir Alexander Gordon, aide de camp to Wellington and one of the first monuments to be built.

It shows the height of the ridgeline at this point. Much of the rest now forms the lion mound behind.

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Memorial to the French fallen.

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The view towards the Allied lines from near la Belle Alliance, complete with modern bus stop.

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Prussian monument at Plancenoit

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Looking across the Allied lines from a wood that was not there in 1815.

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View towards the monuments from Hotel 1815. Note the level of the land upon which the monuments sit.

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Slope where the Imperial Guard were defeated.

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Loophole in the walled garden at Hougoumont towards the killing zone

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Modern day picnic area near the crossroads and a mass grave.

dawn over the battlefield at waterloo

If you plan to visit, I recommend this guidebook.

Over the years I’ve collected a fair few old engravings and photos from Waterloo. Here are a couple. An old postcard with a photograph presumably taken from the top of the Lion Mound looking towards the crossroads, the Hanoverian and Gordon monuments and La Haye Sainte. Before the modern world changed the landscape. The main road looks narrow and quiet, no cars, no traffic lights, no picnic area. No convent built at the top of the picture. There is no date on the postcard but I cannot see the Belgian monument next to the crossroads that was placed there in 1914, so must predate that.

Old photograph of the Waterloo battlefield

This is an older engraving, showing a very dramatic view looking south from the crossroads, past the monument above the road, towards La Haye Sainte .

Old engraving of the Waterloo battlefield

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