It is a small town of Walloon Brabant in Belgium, a place, famous worldwide, that has become the synonymous in several languages of a terrible defeat. Described as “bleak wilderness” by Victor Hugo, it gave its name to a London train station and was the scenery of a bloody battle. Major European powers fought there on the 18th June 1815. At the end of that terrible day, 60,000 casualties (dead and wounded) were lying on the ground, as far as eyes can see and the earth was red with blood.
Have you guessed its name? Waterloo, located about 25 kilometers south of Brussels, the Capital of Belgium and of the European Union. Today, this very cosmopolitan and prosperous city, with its nice shops, its residential neighbourhoods and its international schools, still keeps a close link with its glorious past.
Each year, a commemoration of greater or lesser magnitude takes place on the battlefield, but for several months, the city has been actively preparing the celebration, on the 18th June 2015, of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.
The festivities will last for four days, from Thursday 18th to Sunday 21st June 2015 and are expected to attract nearly 120,000 people, including several heads of state. The show will be grandiose: the reconstitution of the first corps attack, fireworks and lighting effects, the discovery of several farms and other buildings reconstructed for the occasion and the apogee of the celebration, the full reconstitution of the battle.
The site landscaping has suffered some changes since the 19th century, but the landscape has maintained its agricultural character. In the early 20th century, to protect the premises against any urbanization-for-all (the town being coveted by developers because of its proximity to the capital Brussels), the Belgian Parliament passed a law in 1914 aiming to preserve the entirety of the battlefield.
About 130 monuments evoke the tragic moments that took place there, among which the most famous are the farm of Hougoumont, the farm Caillou, Napoleon’s last headquarters or the Wellington Museum, Duke of Wellington’s headquarters.
But the most symbolic site of the battlefield is the Lion’s Mound, a 43-meter high hill, surmounted by an iron lion, a paw resting on a ball and looking towards France. It was built between 1824 and 1826, at the request of King William of the Netherlands in honour of his son, the Prince of Orange, who was wounded during the fight. Year after year, it became such a touristic place that a staircase of 226 steps was added in 1863.
Next to the Lion’s Mound, you can visit the Panorama. This large circular building houses a huge military mural painting, achieved in 1912 by Louis Dumoulin and restored in 2008. This gigantic 110-meter long and 12-meter high fresco represents a dramatic scene of the raging battle. The artist depicted the Polish Lancers, the charge by Marshal Ney, the Emperor surrounded by his Imperial Guard, and the resistance of the English infantry squares around Wellington. The huge size of the fresco that surrounds you, the portrayal of the soldiers, the weapons, the loud soundtrack with clashing swords, cannon balls and cries make you feel like you are in the heart of the fight!
The battle opposed the Great Army of Napoleon, made up of 125,000 men, to the Allied armies, mainly British and Dutch, under the command of Wellington, and the Prussian army, commanded by Blücher, 210 000 men in total.
Napoleon left Paris on the 12th June 1815 and on the 14th June, he had already formed his army and set off to Brussels. On the 18th June, Wellington rose before dawn, he wanted the attack to take place on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean, near Waterloo, but awaited confirmation from the support of Blücher. If he had not received, he would have moved toward Brussels.
Waterloo was at a strategic location on a paved road leading to Brussels. This explains why the battle took place south of the city: the allies wanted to prevent Napoleon from reaching Brussels at any cost and Waterloo was the last inhabited village. Beyond was the forest and then, Brussels…
The fight started late, around 11:30 a.m., due to poor weather conditions. After several hours of bloody struggle, around 9:00 p.m., Wellington and Blücher met and shook hands: their armies were victorious. Napoleon, protected by his Imperial Guard, was able to escape. The battle of an uncommon violence, was a terrible carnage. The late evening sun set on Apocalypse: early 12,000 soldiers were killed, the groans of thousands of wounded, some of them dying, were rising in the dark. The last of them received help and care only three days later. The corpse of thousands of horses littered the plain out of sight.
In Waterloo, Napoleon and Wellington gave their last fight before walking to their fate: the first would see his downfall and exile, the second an endless glory. But both became mythical, like the site and the name of the city itself.
Is it the unprecedented violence of the battle? The number of unidentified bodies, thrown pell-mell into mass graves? The fascinating personality of Napoleon? By 1815, the curious began to flock to the site, which soon became a place of pilgrimage and commemorations.
Gradually it turned into a highly tourist site, with its inns and taverns.
But when you climb the 226 steps to the top of the Lion’s Mound and as you contemplate this seemingly peaceful plain, which was the scene of one of the most terrible battles of history, you feel overwhelmed by a deep emotion at the thought of the thousands of soldiers who died in a few hours, so far away from home…
Take the trouble to read the passages of “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo, which, if not always of perfect historical accuracy, will plunge you with a shattering realism into the heart of the fight. And don’t miss his beautiful poem “Waterloo, bleak wilderness”, a masterpiece of French literature.
Waterloo was a decisive battle on several fronts. It finally put an end to the series of wars that had devastated Europe and had involved many regions in the world since the French Revolution. It also put an end to the First French Empire and to the political and military career of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the great statesmen and warlords in History. Finally, after this terrible battle, a period of peace of nearly a half-century reigned over Europe, until the outbreak of the Crimean War.
So, next summer, before rushing to the Greek islands, their luxury villas and sandy beaches, why not being part of European History in Waterloo, on 18th June 2015?