Brussels lies at the centre of Brabant, one of Belgium’s nine provinces. The Flemings claim the lion’s share of the province with their Vlaams Brabant (Flemish Brabant) actually encircling the capital – a noticeably narrow corridor of Flemish-speaking communities runs round the southern edge of Brussels. WATERLOO is easily the most popular attraction in Brabant Wallon (French-speaking Brabant) and is best seen on a day-trip from the capital. A run-of-the-mill suburb about 18km south of the centre of Brussels, the town has a resonance far beyond its size. On June 18, 1815, at this small crossroads town on what was once the main route to Brussels from France, Wellington masterminded the battle that put an end to the imperial ambitions of Napoleon. The battle turned out to have far more significance than even its generals realized, for not only was this the last throw of the dice for the formidable army born of the French Revolution, but it also marked the end of France’s prolonged attempts to dominate Europe militarily.
Nevertheless, the historic importance of Waterloo has not saved the battlefield from interference – a motorway cuts right across it – and if you do visit you’ll need a lively imagination to picture what happened and where – unless, that is, you’re around to see the large-scale re-enactment which takes place every five years in June; the next one is scheduled for 2015. Scattered round the battlefield are several monuments and memorials, the most satisfying of which is the Butte de Lion, a huge earth mound that’s part viewpoint and part commemoration. The battlefield is 3km south of the centre of Waterloo, where the Musée Wellington is easily the pick of several Waterloo museums.Read More
The Musée Wellington
The Musée Wellington
The Musée Wellington, chaussée de Bruxelles 147 (wwww.museewellington.com), occupies the old inn where Wellington slept the nights before and after the battle. It’s an enjoyable affair, whose displays detail the build-up to – and the course of – the battle via plans and models, alongside an engaging hotchpotch of personal effects. Room 4 holds the bed where Alexander Gordon, Wellington’s principal aide-de-camp, was brought to die, and here also is the artificial leg of Lord Uxbridge, another British commander: “I say, I’ve lost my leg,” Uxbridge is reported to have said during the battle, to which Wellington replied, “By God, sir, so you have!” After the battle, Uxbridge’s leg was buried here in Waterloo, but it was returned to London when he died to join the rest of his body; as a consolation, his artificial leg was donated to the museum. Such insouciance was not uncommon among the British ruling class and neither were the bodies of the dead soldiers considered sacrosanct: tooth dealers roamed the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars pulling out teeth, which were then stuck on two pieces of board with a spring at the back – primitive dentures known in England as “Waterloos”.
In Wellington’s bedroom, Room 6, there are copies of the messages Wellington sent to his commanders during the course of the battle, curiously formal epistles laced with phrases like “Could you be so kind as to …”. Finally, an extension at the back of the museum reprises what has gone before, albeit on a slightly larger scale, with more models, plans and military paraphernalia plus a lucid outline of the immediate historical background.
The battlefield – Le Hameau de Lion
The battlefield – Le Hameau de Lion
Some 4km south of town, the Waterloo battlefield is a landscape of rolling farmland, interrupted by a couple of main roads and more pleasingly punctuated by the odd copse and farmstead. The ridge where Wellington once marshalled his army now holds a motley assortment of attractions collectively known as Le Hameau du Lion (Lion’s Hamlet). This comprises four separate sites all within a few metres of each other, with the added offering of a 45-minute battlefield tour in a four-wheel-drive. Of the four sites, the worst are the Centre du Visiteur, which features a dire audiovisual display on the battle, and the Musée de Cires (same hours), a dusty wax museum. The best is the 100m-high Butte de Lion (same hours), built by local women with soil from the battlefield. The Butte marks the spot where Holland’s Prince William of Orange – one of Wellington’s commanders and later King William II of the Netherlands – was wounded. It was only a nick, so goodness knows how high it would have been if William had been seriously injured, but even so the mound is a commanding monument, surmounted by a regal 28-tonne lion atop a stout column. From the viewing platform, there’s a panoramic view over the battlefield, and a plan identifies which army was where. Also enjoyable is the Panorama de la Bataille (same hours), where a circular, naturalistic painting of the battle, on a canvas no less than 110m in circumference, is displayed in a purpose-built, rotunda-like gallery – to a thundering soundtrack of bugles, snorting horses and cannon fire. Panorama painting is extremely difficult – controlling perspective is always a real problem – but it was very much in vogue when the Parisian artist Louis Dumoulin began this effort in 1912. Precious few panoramas have survived and this one is a bit past its best, but it does at least give a sense of the battle. You can also venture out onto the battlefield under your own steam by following the old track that cuts south across the fields from beside the Panorama.
The Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo
Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the Italian island of Elba on February 26, 1815. He landed in Cannes three days later and moved swiftly north, entering Paris on March 20 just as his unpopular replacement – the slothful King Louis XVIII – high-tailed it to Ghent. Thousands of Frenchmen rallied to Napoleon’s colours and, with little delay, Napoleon marched northeast to fight the two armies that threatened his future. Both were in Belgium. One, an assortment of British, Dutch and German soldiers, was commanded by the Duke of Wellington, the other was a Prussian army led by Marshal Blücher. At the start of the campaign, Napoleon’s army was about 130,000 strong, larger than each of the opposing armies but not big enough to fight them both at the same time. Napoleon’s strategy was, therefore, quite straightforward: he had to stop Wellington and Blücher from joining together – and to this end he crossed the Belgian frontier near Charleroi to launch a quick attack. On June 16, the French hit the Prussians hard, forcing them to retreat and giving Napoleon the opportunity he was looking for. Napoleon detached a force of 30,000 soldiers to harry the retreating Prussians, while he concentrated his main army against Wellington, hoping to deliver a knockout blow. Meanwhile, Wellington had assembled his troops at Waterloo, on the main road to Brussels.
At dawn on Sunday June 18, the two armies faced each other. Wellington had some 68,000 men, about one third of whom were British, and Napoleon around five thousand more. The armies were deployed just 1500m apart with Wellington on the ridge north of – and uphill from – the enemy. It had rained heavily during the night, so Napoleon delayed his first attack to give the ground a chance to dry. At 11.30am, the battle began when the French assaulted the fortified farm of Hougoumont, which was crucial for the defence of Wellington’s right. The assault failed and at approximately 1pm there was more bad news for Napoleon when he heard that the Prussians had eluded their pursuers and were closing fast. To gain time he sent 14,000 troops off to impede their progress and at 2pm he tried to regain the initiative by launching a large-scale infantry attack against Wellington’s left. This second French attack also proved inconclusive and so at 4pm Napoleon’s cavalry charged Wellington’s centre, where the British infantry formed into squares and just managed to keep the French at bay – a desperate engagement that cost hundreds of lives. By 5.30pm, the Prussians had begun to reach the battlefield in numbers to the right of the French lines and, at 7.30pm, with the odds getting longer and longer, Napoleon made a final bid to break Wellington’s centre, sending in his Imperial Guard. These were the best soldiers Napoleon had, but slowed down by the mud churned up by their own cavalry, the veterans proved easy targets for the British infantry, and they were beaten back with great loss of life. At 8.15pm, Wellington, who knew victory was within his grasp, rode down the ranks to encourage his soldiers before ordering the large-scale counterattack that proved decisive.
The French were vanquished and Napoleon subsequently abdicated, ending his days in exile on St Helena, where he died in 1821. Popular memory, however, refused to vilify Napoleon as the aggressor – and not just in France, but right across Europe, where the Emperor’s bust was a common feature of the nineteenth-century drawing room. In part, this was to do with Napoleon’s obvious all-round brilliance, but more crucially, he soon became a symbol of opportunity: in him the emergent middle classes of western Europe saw a common man becoming greater than the crowned heads of Europe, an almost unique event at the time.