Wednesday 23 October 2019

The Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815)

I'm not entirely sure why I hadn't walked what is arguably Western Europe's most important battlefield before. Anyway, my wife wanted to visit Bruges, Ghent and Brussels earlier this year so a couple of days on this iconic battlefield seemed like a great idea. I chose a hotel that is located on the famous ridge-line just south of Mont St. Jean and was rewarded by a fantastic view of Le Haye Saint Farm from our bedroom window.

La Haye Saint Farm - View from Bedroom Window

I was surprised how close the battlefield is to Brussels - though perhaps I shouldn't have been. During the day the site was awash with visitors but after closing time the battlefield was quiet with just a few dog walkers occasionally traversing the track that runs along, what were originally Wellington's lines, and down through the woods to the beautifully restored Hougoumont Farm.

Hougoumont Farm

The battlefield is, of course, dominated by the Butte du Lion which was constructed in 1826 to mark the spot where William II of the Netherlands (the Prince of Orange) was hit in the shoulder and knocked off his horse by a musket ball. It is also a memorial the the Battle of Quatre Bras which was fought two days earlier on June 16 1815. In his novel Les Miserables Victor Hugo wrote that the Duke of Wellington visited the site two years after the Lion Mound's completion and said, "they have altered my field of battle". A germane observation given the tons of spoil taken from 'Wellington's Ridge' to facilitate the building of this man made hill.

The Lion Mound and Rotunda

Wellington famously kept the bulk of his force out of sight on the reverse slope of the ridge but the change to the topography of the battlefield makes it difficult to see how this device worked so effectively during the battle.

Climbing the Lion Mound
The view from the top of the Lion Mound is spectacular but it's ironic that in creating the view, the historic landscape 'to be viewed' has been irreparably damaged. Adjacent to the lion Mound is an architecturally pleasing round structure housing the Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo which consists of 14 vast canvas paintings sewn together to give a 360 degree view of various actions during the battle - mainly covering French cavalry charges.

Underground, and accessed through the Panorama, is a stunning modern museum known as the 'Memorial Waterloo 1815'. It is quite remarkable how this relatively new building has been hidden within the landscape. Inside, visitors are treated to an insightful immersive experience covering the rise of Napoleon, his various campaigns and his denouement in the fields above and around the structure. I was particularly struck by the inclined corridor flanked by floor to ceiling display cases containing weapons and uniforms from the period in question.

The Memorial Waterloo 1815

An exploration of the battlefield would not be complete without visiting a number of the surrounding sites. The battlefield is dissected by the Paris to Brussels road. The Ferme du Callou where Napoleon rested the night before the battle has been restored and is now an interesting little museum. It's a good spot to view the battlefield from a French perspective - looking up to the ridge which runs across the main road - a road that Napoleon would need to take in order to secure his prize - the Belgian capital of Brussels. 

The Ferme du Callou
The run of the battle did, of course, begin to run against Napoleon's forces as Blucher's Prussian forces battled their way through the village of Plancenoit which was effectively a gateway into the rear of the French positions. I was surprised how different the countryside is on this part of the battlefield. The pretty hamlet of Plancenoit nestles amongst a series of wooded valleys. No open vistas here - and one can see how difficult the house to house fighting would have been as the Prussian IV Corps struggled against eight battalions of Napoleon's Young Guard.

Plancenoit Village

To reach the spot where Wellington rested before the battle one simply needs to travel up the main road to Brussels into the village of Waterloo. The house which served as Wellington's headquarters is now a fascinating museum - albeit neglected in comparison with the money lavished on the 'Memorial  Waterloo 1815' site which I have mentioned above. Anyone expecting to find an idyllic period house in the countryside will be quickly disabused as Waterloo is a bustling Brussels suburb with a very busy high street. Indeed the Wellington Museum is located next to a rather nondescript shopping centre. 

Wellington's Headquarters - 1815
Wellington's Headquarters - 2019
St Joseph's Church of Waterloo which can be seen on the pictures above, is directly opposite the Wellington Museum. The church contains 27 memorials associated with the Battle of Waterloo and, as is so often the case with such buildings, provides a tangible connection between the modern day visitor and the world changing events that happened in and around this small Belgian town in June 1815.

Waterloo Beer
A final footnote to this fascinating battlefield visit is that a day's walking can be topped off with a glass or two of Waterloo Beer - allegedly recognised in 1815 as having given "strength" and "courage" to the combatants of both sides during the Battle of Waterloo.

Cheers! Prost! Proost! ....  √† votre sant√©!

Wellington's Waterloo Battlefield - Flickr Portfolio