A Guide to Napoleon’s Waterloo

The battle of Waterloo, when the allied forces of European countries defeated Napoleon in 1815, is so famous, that places all over the world are named after this unassuming little village in the French speaking part of Belgium. There are Waterloos in England, the US, Canada and Australia. There is even a Waterloo in Antarctica. But the real place is here, on the outskirts of Brussels, where thousands come every year to stare over the beautiful rolling hills and imagine it full of horses and soldiers, while others dress up as said soldiers to relive Europe’s most iconic battle. As every building here is part of history, and every farm has its own story to tell, hiEurope wrote this special guide.

Two days before the battle - Ligny

In this village, Napoleon’s troops fought the Prussian army, as part of the emperor’s plan to attack different allied forces in different locations. When the Prussians retreated, Napoleon thought he had defeated them for good, a miscalculation that later proved to be fatal. So no wonder that the people in this village know that their part in history was important to the outcome of the battle. “I have two lives,” says farmer Benoit Histace in the farm that he is redecorating into a new museum. “One is that of farmer, one as an officer in Napoleon’s army.” Histace has been involved in historical reenactments for 30 years. “In the regiment, we have our own names. The foot soldiers aren’t really based on real historical figures, but the officer that I represent really existed,” he says. While the men have monthly gatherings as Napoleon soldiers, the highlight of the year is in June, when thousands of visitors gather here and walk to Waterloo, through the fields, camping on the way, just like the real soldiers did in 1815.

The night before the battle - Ferme du Caillou

It’s tiny, this field bed where Napoleon himself slept the night before the battle of Waterloo. In any case, he only slept one hour at a time – as he was constantly interrupted by his officers reporting on the ongoing battles outside. While the officers stayed in the tiny room next door, where there was no place to lie down, they were better off than the soldiers, who stayed outside in the pouring rain. Napoleon set up war council in the kitchen, and when the local farmer heard that the emperor himself was staying in his farm, he went to ask for some compensation. This was good foresight, as part of the building was burnt down by the Prussians two days later.

Day the battle – Hougoumont

“Whatever you do, hold on to Hougoumont,” British commander Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington ordered his troops when they faced Napoleon on the Waterloo battlefield. The farm fortified the British side. For most of the day, the French tried to capture this well-built country house. At one point, one group of French soldiers managed to get in, but some particular brave British closed the big courtyard gates on them. The French were never able to take Hougoumont during the remainder of the day, although 12,700 of Napoleon’s troops were tied up in the attempt. In the end, they decided to burn the whole place down. That’s when the miracle happened. When the fire reached the wooden statue of Jesus than hung above the door in the small chapel, it died out, leaving the figure intact. It’s still there.

Day of the Battle – Waterloo Memorial

“People used to come here, climb up to the lion, take pictures and come down. And then if you asked them who won the battle of Waterloo, they would answer, Napoleon.” Tourism Bureau Director Etienne Claude tells this story with a friendly smile. There is much to see here, right in the middle of the battle field. The Dutch built a mount with a lion statue and 226 steps to climb on the place where their king was wounded, while the French put up a painted panorama of the battle. More recently, an underground museum was added with not only the story of the battle, but also the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. Best of all is the 4D movie, where the ground vibrates as battalions of horses and marching soldiers come running right up to you. This is where you can feel the confusion, the noise, the cannonballs, and those different troops charging at each other.

The Evening of the Battle - Wellington Museum

A doll representing the Duke of Wellington sits at his table in a little inn in the village, writing his victory report. In it, Wellington admits that the British barely held out and Napoleon might have actually won, had the Prussians not come back to attack him from the side. While Wellington wrote his report, Napoleon was on his way back to Paris, where he abdicated. In the end, the British exiled him to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later at the age of 51.

The Day after – Mont Saint Jean.

On the many farms that were used as makeshift hospitals, thousands of soldiers were treated and many limbs were amputated, as this was often the only way to save a life. Medicine wasn’t very advanced in Europe in those times and the little museum here tells the stories of these treatments in all its gory details. Luckily, the farm now also functions as a brewery, and you can drink freshly brewed beer during your visit, fittingly named “Waterloo, Beer of Courage.”

Even though the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo meant forty years of peace and prosperity for Europe, the villages here suffered for a long time after the battle. Many farms had been burned, crops had been damaged, and the fields were full of dead and wounded. At the same time, the first tourists were seen to have arrived to these fields the day after the battle, in a carriage from Brussels. People from all over the world continue to visit this place – some to study war strategy, some to commemorate fallen ancestors, others because they like history or just want to look at the gentle landscape. It’s been more than two hundred years, but Waterloo is still more famous than ever.

Battle of Waterloo reenactment is the annual modern recreation of the Battle of Waterloo on the original battlefield. It is held every June on the weekend nearest to the historic date of the Battle of Waterloo, which was the 18th of June 1815.

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