196 years ago today, one of the most famous battles in history was fought on a small plot of land south of Brussels, in what is now Belgium but had at that time just become part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, following the Congress of Vienna. On Sunday 18th June 1815, the French army under Napoleon launched the attack on the Anglo-Allied forces under Wellington. Joined later during the day by the Prussians led by Blücher, the Allies eventually defeated Napoleon’s forces after a bloody battle that raged for 12 hours and left 50,000 dead and wounded — one out of every four soldiers who took part. Napoleon did not surrender, as Abba would have it, but it did signal the end of his career — for once and for all.
When the creators of The Simpsons picked Springfield as the ubiquitous American town, they might as well have picked Waterloo. If this name does not appear as a town in every state of the union, then it will at least show up as a street, square or building not only in the US, but in virtually every country of the English speaking world. One wonders if this would have been the case if the battle were to have received one of its more appropriate names — the Battle of Mont Saint Jean or the Battle of Braine L’Alleud, for example. History being written by the victors, it appears that Waterloo is easier to pronounce for English speakers, and so was favoured over those awkward French tongue twisters.
I grew up surrounded by the meticulously hand-painted Airfix armies of my older brother. He taught me all there is to know about the history of the Napoleonic wars and about the art of wargaming. We were joined in our enthusiasm by my cousin and my best friend René, and in an era before computer games, we spent entire school holidays amassing miniature armies and re-enacting historic battles in our attic in Rotterdam — my brother invariably emerging as the winner, but that’s another blogpost. Waterloo featured on a regular basis, needless to say — my brother even built a model of the battlefield.
Our fascination with Waterloo extended beyond playing wargames — it also involved trips to the Army Museum in Leiden and the model soldiers shop “La Grande Armée” in The Hague, among other things. When my mother bought her first car in the early 70s, her first real trip took our family and my cousin — at this stage an honorary member of our family — to Waterloo.
The battlefield at Waterloo is remarkably well preserved. The buildings that featured so prominently during the battle still stand today, such as the farm house of La Haye Sainte, which looks the same as it did in 1815, and is still privately occupied. La Belle Alliance, the inn where Napoleon set up his headquarters, is now a night club, thereby maintaining its allegiance to the hospitality industry. Monuments, statues and plaques commemorating various commanders and regiments are dotted around the landscape and its buildings. Disproportionately large is the monument that marks the spot where the young Prince of Orange was wounded at some stage during the battle — much of the surrounding lanscape was dug up to provide the material for a huge mound topped by a stone-faced lion. Most of the souvenir shops are concentrated near this monstrosity and in the town of Waterloo itself.
To behold such a historic site in real life made a huge impression on me. So much so, that I felt obliged to return for another pilgrimage, this time accompanied by René and taking the train to arrive on the eve of the battle’s anniversary, in 1979. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, we pitched our tent on the field of an incomprehensible but accommodating farmer — smack in the middle of the area where Marshal Ney’s desperate cavalry charge of some 5,000 horsemen would have thundered past all those years ago.
As our understanding of the events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo increased along with our age, so too did the realisation that the history books were maybe a bit unfair in their depiction of the Dutch-Belgian contribution. Of course the universally accepted version of events is supplied by the English, who have been less than complimentary about the soldiers on whose national turf the fighting took place. Reports about the troops fleeing en masse at the start of the battle usually fail to mention that Wellington had positioned them at the front of the sloping terrain, facing the French artillery who mercilessly pounded their ranks. English troops were placed on the slope facing away from the French and thereby spared the role of cannon fodder — at least initially.
Dutch author N. Vels Heijn makes a valiant effort at placing the Netherlands’ army in a better light in his 1974 book Waterloo — Glorie Zonder Helden (Glory without Heroes), re-evaluating events leading up to Waterloo, such as the fighting at Quatre Bras where Dutch troops held the French at bay. It’s a case of too little, 160 years too late and the British version of events prevails.
The 18th of June still triggers childhood memories of Humbrol paints, Airfix soldiers and our stuffy attic. René and I were BFF avant la lettre, and we promised each other that no matter how far we drifted apart, we would meet again on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo at the monument of the French Old Guard near La Belle Alliance. Only four years to go — I’ll be there.