Many people remember learning at school about Waterloo and the battle that made Wellington a British hero - but a visit to the actual battlefield in Belgium brings the historic event vividly to life
Imagine you’re a British soldier in 1815. You’re in a muddy field, with mayhem surrounding you. The French army, easy to see with their white trousers and blue tunics, are heading straight at you. You are armed with a musket – you lift it up to fire, but can only hold it for a few seconds because it is so heavy. You fire it, but then must reload by pushing a bullet down the barrel with some gunpowder. Your hands are shaking, and your arms are sore – and there’s a Frenchman coming towards you with a very nasty bayonet pointed straight at your heart. Will you reload in time?
That is the scenario that faced thousands of English troops at the Battle of Waterloo, a scenario that is brought vividly to life by a visit to the battlefield. History books are full of descriptions of the battle between Wellington and Napoleon but nothing brings it home like actually being there, holding the guns and swords and seeing the battlefield itself – a surprisingly small patch of land that was to reshape European history.
Waterloo is around 20km south of Brussels, easily reached by car after a ferry crossing, and the town offers the best place to stay. The Grand Hotel de Waterloo delivers corporate comfort and army-sized breakfasts, and is a 10-minute car journey (or a pleasant bike ride) from the battlefield itself.
Just south of Waterloo is Mont St-Jean, the site of the actual battle, which offers five tourist attractions, all included in the €12 ticket price. The first is the Butte de Lion or Lion’s Mound, a large artificially-constructed hill. There is a warning that good levels of fitness are required, and there is no wheelchair access. After the steep climb, you reach a statue of a lion looking aggressively towards France – a clear message – and you can clearly see how Napoleon’s troops were drawn into a trap on the battlefield. With Wellington to the north and the apparently drunk Prussian troops – who absolutely hated the French – to the east, Napoleon’s army was trapped. The fighting lasted all day on the 18th of June 1815, and the casualties were terrible. Wellington said: “With such heavy casualties, how can I possibly feel pleased with my victory?”
Wellington did win, however, and the other attractions show how. A panorama, painted in 1912, shows the carnage on the battlefield, with close fighting and bodies strewn everywhere. Cannon, pistols, rifles and swords were all used as the bodies piled up.
Just outside the panorama, you can pick up a bus for a tour of the battlefield itself. This gives you an idea of how small the field is, and how Napoleon made a tactical blunder – he walked into a flat field, while Wellington and Blucher’s Prussian army were slightly elevated, giving them better sight lines and more chance of defending their positions. Napoleon’s troops were amazingly brave and fought to the last drop of blood, but Wellington, who went to university in Brussels so knew the area well, outfoxed him. The bus tour has a commentary in English, with lots of sound effects of cannon fire, gunshots and sword fights. It really helps give you a feel of what it must have been like. After the bus tour, you can pop into the waxwork museum, for a simple portrayal of the leading characters in uniform. You learn the reason for Napoleon’s famous pose with his hand inside his waistcoat – he had stomach cancer.
The fifth attraction is a visit to the cinema for a 15-minute clip from the excellent 1970 film Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. The battle scenes are fantastic, as is Steiger as the emperor who is sensing this may be his final mistake. There is a nice exchange between Napoleon and his officer, talking about their young sons. The officer says he wishes his son was there to see Napoleon. Steiger shakes his head and says, “I wish I could see my son too, but not here – not today.” You can buy the DVD of the whole film in the shop for €18.
After visiting all the attractions – easily doable in a day – you have a much more personal reaction to the great historical battle; it makes history so much clearer. It’s ironic, too, that you can see Brussels in the distance from the top of the Mount, as that city would be playing a very different role in all of our lives today if Napoleon had won on that terrible day in 1815.