I don’t know why I find Waterloo so fascinating; the Belgians don’t really seem to. It was the last of the planned highlights of our trip for me, and I had read about it and thought about it for months. Yet compared with other tourist sites we visited, it had minimal infrastructure and sparse attendance. It left a lot to the imagination.
Granted, they have a nifty little museum underneath the site, as well as a “4D” movie experience that really makes you feel the smoke of the soldiers’ campfires and the charge of the horses over the ridge. But apparently this museum was built only last year for the bicentennial, and prior to that there was only this high, oddly designed “Lion’s Mound” that had a small observation deck, with an old map and a couple pay telescopes. You have to climb up and down 225 steps to get there, which would be difficult for a lot of people and downright awful in any weather that had the slightest wind, rain or worse. When we were there, there were a handful of Germans and maybe a few locals at the top, even though it was a beautiful day and a holiday to boot. The signs on where to enter the museum and observation deck itself were confusing, causing you to walk around a long fence, only to be redirected back and down these other steps that turned out to be right off the parking lot. (Why not have a sign when you come out of the lot, “MUSEUM THIS WAY”?) Margot, a friend who agreed to guide us, told us that was typically Belgian. She said that often while she was driving.
Lest you think I am just throwing shade on Belgium, I will say Margot took us to one of the best lunch places (Stoemp and Sausage) of the trip, and we spent several hours enjoying the sunny Grand Place at a cafe. But, to be fair, the day before we also had one of the worst dinners I’ve ever eaten, found the museums and gardens we wanted to visit were closed, and couldn’t find a single market to buy a soda after 8 pm. This was all after Karin lost her phone right between the metro station and the two blocks to the hotel. And there are no T Mobile stores in Brussels. I’m not throwing shade, this is just what happened. We got off to a rocky start.
Still, we were in a good mood embarking out to the Waterloo site the following day. I was particularly happy that Margot had agreed to take us because frankly the directions to get there were fairly obscure. The website for tourism for Waterloo and the little town, Braine l’Alleud is not particularly robust. There are buses that go out there, but they stop at various places that are miles apart, and most of the logistical explanations were in French. There are no guided tours other than private ones you could plan in advance for several hundred dollars. This was in marked contrast to the other sites, like Keukenhof, which had dedicated buses packed full of sightseers, or the museum with multiple exhibits at the Nobel Peace Center, or even the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, which was mobbed by cameras. In contrast, Waterloo didn’t seem to have the same draw.
Napoleon’s Last Stand
Some estimates are that 70,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. It was Napoleon’s last stand against combined armies of England, Prussia, and Europe, undoubtedly a turning point in history. At one point, Napoleon controlled all territories from Portugal up and across France, Germany, Prussia, Italy, stretching to Russia. He was unable to make inroads to England after he lost his navy at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and unable to get far into Russia because the Russian winters said “ptooie” on him. (This is the time to look at the Infographic from Napoleon’s 1812 march referenced by Edward Tufte, which I mentioned in my weekly blog from February, The Most Awesome Graphs in the World.)
Napoleon was considering expanding outward through America, coming up from the French colonies in the Caribbean and his foothold in New Orleans. However, he decided it was more important to get funds to support the campaigns in Europe, so he agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, thank you, Secretary of State, James Madison! Had he won at Waterloo, he might have sent some troops to take the Purchase back, and we Americans would be nous parlons francais by now.
Other Armies, Other Critical Battle Opportunities
It changed the face of Europe, so I can’t help but compare it to other famous battles – most notably, Gettysburg, as well as the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War, and most US children grow up learning Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and stories of the war that pitted brother against brother. Like Waterloo, it’s a site of rolling hills and meadows at a crossroads, a site that doesn’t look now like it would have held so much drama. Like Waterloo, it was a site where the losing General gambled because he saw an opportunity to end it all. Lee’s southern army had made strong inroads north all the way into Pennsylvania, and he thought if he could defeat the north there, it would shorten the war and end the sacrifice of soldiers which he detested but was so terribly good at engineering. His plans went awry when his soldiers spooked the north too early with too many men, and the north retreated to hunker down into a nearby ridge. For two days, the south pushed up the hill and failed, first at the flanks (endpoints), and then at the center, losing 14,000 men alone in the infamous Pickett’s Charge.
I’ve only been to Gettysburg in the summer, but even on a drippy, humid, miserable day in mid-July, it was mobbed with people. You had to wait your turn to climb to the top of Little Round Top, to see where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain held off wave after wave of the Rebs, finally running down the hill with bayonets at them when the ammunition ran out. In America, it’s an icon like the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty. And like other tourist icons, it comes with sizeable clusters of Econo Motels, hot dog and ice cream stands, and T shirt shops that ring the outskirts, providing evidence of the constant stream of visitors.
The Battle of Pelennor Field, also known as the Siege of Gondor, is – in contrast – totally made up, but it also has caught the imagination of a lot of people. It’s the battle that encompasses most of Return of the King, (which won Best Picture Oscar of 2004), the climax to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Like the battle of Waterloo, there are two massive armies pitted against each other. On Sauron’s side, there are thousands of Orcs from Mordor and Urukhai from Isengard with their catapaults, trolls, and ramming engines, joined by giant five-tusked Oliphants, as well as the hideous flying Nazgul. They lay siege to the white city of Gondor, whose soldiers fight valiantly but are vastly outnumbered – kind of like the English army holding off the French as they attack the farmhouses of Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte. At a critical point, the riders of Rohan arrive, and they charge down the hill into the right flank of the Orc army, nearly taking it out (until the Corsairs arrive). This bears a striking resemblance to Marshall Ney’s charge of the cuirassers, the elite French cavalry, into the English line which he mistakenly thought was retreating. Unfortunately for the French, the English were not retreating but had moved back to hide behind the top of the ridge. When the horses rode down into them, they had already formed in squares and were ready to shoot; 9,000 cavalry were massacred. Now, if only the orcs at Pelennor had known to form square!
If you think I’m exaggerating the appeal of this fantasy battle, there are several lengthy Wikis devoted specifically to Tolkein and the Ring series, nearly as many as devoted to Waterloo. Moreover, the New Zealand tourism office has put together a pretty detailed description of where the filming occurred for most of the movie, included site information for the Battle of Pelennor filmed “near Twizel in the Mackenzie Country.” I’ll bet you that if you went to Twizel, you would see a little tourist site marking the “battle” film site complete with museum, map marker, ice cream stand and T Shirt shop.
The Cult of Wellington
The Brits also take their battle memorabilia very seriously. There are so many monuments to Wellington in England that there’s a list (24 statues, including his horse Copenhagen, not to mention the entire city of Wellington, New Zealand). There are references to Waterloo all over London, such as a set of thirty mini murals painted in the underground walkway between Hyde Park Corner and the statuary. Even in Amsterdam in the Rijksmuseum, one of the highlights is a wall length mural of Wellington, receiving the news that the Prussians are arriving. (Kind of like when Aragorn brings in the army of the dead to rout the last of Sauron’s forces).
There was an entire TV series devoted to Richard Sharpe, a lieutenant in the wars, which launched Sean Bean’s career and spawned sequel and prequel movies. There were mamy fun casting cameos from the series: the vicious nasty sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill in Sharpe’s Enemy was played by the great Irish actor, Pete Postlethwaite; the intriguing Indian princess of Sharpe’s Challenge was Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef; the blundering “Silly Billy” William Prince of Orange in Sharpe’s Waterloo was Paul Bettany, who now plays Jarvis/Vision in Marvel’s Avenger series. These were based on the 24 novels of Bernard Cornwell, who wrote several other excellent series such as the Viking/Saxon conflicts under King Alfred, the French/English battles up to and including Agincourt, a Civil War and an Arthurian series. He also wrote an excellent nonfiction account of Waterloo which I brought on the trip. Because this is where I came in; I stumbled on Sharpe’s Rifles about ten years ago and Cornwell has since become one of my top five authors. Which is why we climbed up those 225 steps to look across the quiet landscape of Waterloo.
So maybe it’s the imagination of these writers (Cornwell, Tolkein, Bruce Catton on the Civil War) that sparks MY interest. Maybe the Belgians just haven’t read the right books or seen the right paintings. After all, though the battle took place on their land, it involved more French, Prussians, and English than Belgians. Maybe the Belgians are tired of emperors and dictators and generals tramping over their land, tired as Monty Python put it, of all the knights with “their knees bent running about.” If you didn’t live through the battle of Waterloo or World War II, didn’t live under Richard III, Ronald Reagan, or Julius Caesar, maybe the stories are just stories. The battle of Waterloo changed the face of Europe, but not for the first time and not for the last time. Maybe the legacy of Waterloo is the idea of it: two battle tested commanders trying to outguess each other, dependent on so many winds of fate to shift in their favor. With the right imagination, you could almost see Wellington and Napoleon, peering at each other a few hundred yards apart in those rolling hills, wondering whether their troops would prevail. Otherwise, it’s a picturesque set of hills to look at, and then time to go have Stoemp and Sausage.