Category Archives: History

Waterloo

Waterloo-by-William-Holmes-Sullivan

Battle of Waterloo by William Holmes Sullivan

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.

La Haye Sainte in 1979

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.

Camping-in-Waterloo

Our tent on the battlefield

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.

Media Archeology

In his excellent post “The Great CCTV Camera of History” on First Advertising’s blog, Jamie Stanton writes eloquently about the ever increasing mountain of digital data that follows and records our every move. Most of us will be painfully aware of how the roll of 36 snaps that was sufficient to record an entire 2 weeks holidays 15 years ago, has today been replaced by umpteen hours of digital video and hundreds of pictures taken on a variety of mobile phones and digital cameras.

Roll of Film

Found this. Now what?

In spite of this enormous increase in visual mementoes of our annual trip, it seems that the handful of snaps from yesteryear had a better chance of survival than their multitudinous digital counterparts of today. At least the old fashioned photographs were awarded the ritual of an unveiling, some time after the holidays were over, when the local chemist had worked his magic on the roll of film. After having been handed around to share the memories one more time, they more than likely ended up in a shoebox in the attic — some of the lucky ones may even have brought it as far as a scrapbook. There they remain to this day, with the potential to be rediscovered at any time.

My brother in law has been carrying around the same digital camera for the last five years. When the memory card fills up, he deletes some of the older pictures to make room for new ones. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the images outside of their little screen on the back of the camera. No shoebox in the attic for these memories. Although there are those who will diligently select, print, archive, backup and sync their digital collections, I get the feeling that my brother in law is far more representative of today’s happy snapper.

That doesn’t mean that I disagree with the point that Jamie makes — there is without a doubt an enormous amount of information available on today’s individual compared to the sparse details we have on those of our parents’ generation. In fact, our friends at Google have already gone as far as working on ways to use information gathering to predict the future (yes, really). But in the meantime, the long term survival of all this data depends largely on the availability of the technology required to view, read or hear what’s hidden on the different types of media.

I challenge anyone to tell me what to do with a tape reel — assuming they’re old enough to recognise what it is and that it’s a reel-to-reel tape machine they should be looking for. Cassette tapes and VHS are also fast becoming extinct, not helped by the fact that magnetic media apparently have a lifespan of no more than 30 years. Those of us who have children will be aware of their astounding unfamiliarity with seemingly timeless objects such as the vinyl record. Similarly, Jason Huck writes on Facebook that his daughter “is playing with My First Camera, which is a real (film) camera, but I just told her it was pretend because it was easier than explaining why there’s no screen on the back that shows you the picture you just took”.

When a worker on an Irish bog discovers something unusual in July of 2006, he quickly realizes that it’s a book, and probably a very old one. Archaeologists later confirm that the book is a collection of psalms, dated between 800 and 1000 A.D. On hearing the news, I wondered what would happen if a distant descendent of the same worker were digging the bog 1000 years from now and came across a VHS tape. The bog itself would first have to have re-formed after its disappearance in the 21st century of course, but I digress. The point is, that our future digger would need the help of an archaeologist to establish what type of artefact he has just found. Even if they are then able to tell that they are looking at an object that was used to store images or sounds, they will sadly be unable to find out what exactly those images or sounds were. Compare that to the bog psalter of 1000 A.D. and the preservation of our recorded history for future generations is beginning to look bleak in comparison.

At 87, my mother has embraced modern technology, keeping in touch with friends and family via email. However, she still insists on printing off a copy of every email so that she can store them away for posterity, in a –physical– folder alongside letters from a bygone era — such as the one quoted in my first blog post. She may have a point. Letters and postcards have been replaced by emails and text messages, in the same way that vinyl was first replaced by CD and now download, thereby losing all of its tangibility (even though there appears to be a vinyl revival of sorts).

I wonder if archaeologists a thousand years from now will draw the conclusion that our civilization came to an end sometime around the start of the 21st century, based on the evidence that written and visual documentation all but disappears around this time. Interestingly enough, my sister-in-law tells me that “Media Archaeology” is a course subject at the University of Amsterdam. Isn’t it intriguing that technology has begun to develop so fast that what was cutting-edge only half a generation ago is now considered archaic?

Maybe if I print out this blog and bury it in the back garden, it will survive the test of time. For now, it will remain in this uncertain space where no turf cutter’s spade is likely to disturb it.

Letter from my Grandparents to my Mother

Ids Haagsma GraveToday is Liberation Day in the Netherlands, when the Dutch celebrate the end of the occupation by Nazi Germany, 66 years ago. At the time, my mother was living and working in Waagenberg, in the southern part of the country, which had already been liberated by Polish troops in early November 1944. While she lived among the ruins of the orphanage which had been destroyed during the fighting and bombing raids, she was unable to make contact with her family, who lived just 50km away in Rotterdam – still in occupied territory.

After six months of being cut off from each other, my grandfather finally managed to get a letter across to my mother. A translated extract follows here. Note that my uncle Ids mentioned in this letter was executed by the Germans the day after his arrest.


Rotterdam, 10th May 1945

Dear Rins,

Just now mr. Numan told us that someone is going to Breda tomorrow and there may be an opportunity to get a letter over to Braband. Therefore we hurry to briefly tell you a few things in the hope and expectation that you will soon be in our midst. Presently a few things in telegram style.

8th Nov. Ids and I were picked up by the S.D. Ids was detained for possession of Trouw en Vrije Pers. I was allowed to go home. Since that day we have heard nothing whatsoever from Ids. We have absolutely no idea where he is.

10th November Jacob was taken away with the raid. Went to Osnabrück. 16th Feb saw him safely back home. They are doing really well, Annelien too.

10th Nov. Douwe managed to go into hiding. No work this winter, at the moment he is with de Waard, Groene Hilledijk, and now gets 10 Kg potatoes per week. 3rd/5th January I brought Meinte on a bicycle without tyres to Friesland. He is doing really well there at uncle Bouke’s. Last news from him was 4th April. Uncle Bouke has pleurisy, so does Piet Busink, he’s in the Zuiderziekenhuis. Jitske’s Sake from Weidum has passed away. Tine – Jantje have lost their little one after only a few days. Uncle Ate had an accident while cutting trees en aunt Treintje is expecting. We think later this month. Uncle Jan and Jacob were in hiding with uncle Inne and made clogs there.

In spite of the hunger we are doing well here. We are still healthy, but very weak the same as everyone. Today we received our first margarine from the aeroplanes. Mother had not had coffee with milk since November. Because I had been to Friesland and Beekbergen I had gotten milk and some fat.

This week the food supplies were critical. There is absolutely nothing left. Our canned reserves had been finished for 14 days. Still we continued to get help in wondrous ways. On Mother’s birthday Mrs. van de Feijst gave her 100 gr oil, 2 kg barley flakes, Mrs. Amoureus gave her 1 tin of milk, Mrs Kuipers half a loaf of bread. I managed to get 1.5 litres of milk from Mrs Verschoor across the road, so that we managed to have a nice cup of coffee substitute last Sunday.

Mrs de Leeuw gave Mother 1 pound of flour. Because Douwe was working at the greengrocer’s we managed to get something now and then. Also from his friends, who are with the merchant navy. They slept here this week. We didn’t have any bread, but that day they brought some kidney beans.

When you get home, we would love you to bring something home with you. It doesn’t really matter what. We lack everything, or rather we have nothing left. Douwe got 2 Kg. barley and last night Jacob brought home 1 kg oatmeal. That’s somewhat bitter, but when we mix it we can bake a good sized pancake with it.

But don’t overload yourself just because we have nothing. It might be best if you manage to pick up some food stuffs, to leave some behind in Wagenberg if you have to, because it’s quite a journey by bicycle. Soap, washing powder is something that especially Mother is looking forward to.

Henny Kuipers is still based in the Hague. But Monday she came home and now today she wasn’t allowed to return to the Hague. She’ll have to stay here for the moment.
Old Mr. Founon has died. A large number of people are suffering from hunger edema. There also appears to be an outbreak of typhus here, which is why the Zuiderziekenhuis is no longer taking in any patients.

There’s been a party since last Friday night. Sunday night during the thanksgiving services (2 at six thirty and eight) there was heavy fighting, between the underground en German marines and infantry against the Dutch S.S. Monday there was a party on the Dreef. This has been beautifully decorated. There was lots of singing. Mr de Greef’s piano had been placed at Aurora.

Even now it is busy everywhere. Monday and Tuesday the girls who were going out with Germans had their heads shaved. At the moment members of the NSB are rounded up and detained and are getting a treatment just like the Germans used to do. Van de Kraan from the Restaurant was ordered to eat sugar beet in public, from a nicely garnished dish served with grass.

At last we are now getting milk, margarine and biscuits and thus our nutrition is much improved, so that we are gaining strength.

Now that we are free again, a weight has been lifted from us. This year I once again have an allotment at de Enk. The civil servants give us vegetables once a week. Douwe is still with de Waard (Groene Hilledijk) and has 10Kg potatoes extra per week and perhaps this week he’ll go to van de Vorm, so he is also supplementing our food supplies.

You therefore do not need to worry about us and our immediate future. On Ids’ birthday we would love to be able to at least report that he is doing well, and for all of us to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary together here on June 26th next. Of course we don’t know if you are going to stay there, but if that were the case, we count on you being able to come home on that date if God provides the opportunity. Mother put the clothes together. I picked out something to read. I would have liked to include a good book for you, but there is almost nothing available in the shops. On my birthday all the books I got were second hand, which were much to my liking even if they didn’t look the best.

[My Grandmother takes over and finishes the letter]

Well Rinske, we have written you about a few things, take good care of yourself, en we hope to meet each other soon and in good health. Should we hear from our Ids, then we hope to let you know as soon as possible. The very best regards from Father, Mother and Douwe and may God give that you get well soon!