Monday, 22 June 2015

The Battle of Waterloo - bicentenary anniversary

Two hundred years ago, on 18 June 1815, one of the most famous and important battles in modern history took place in a small village outside Brussels called Waterloo. It was to determine the future of Europe. As for a 'Pyrrhic' victory (named after king Pyrrhus of Epirus whose army defeated the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC; his army suffered irreplaceable casualties and is quoted by Plutarch as saying:  one other such victory would utterly undo him) the term Waterloo became synonymous with something difficult to master. Lord Byron, in a letter to Thomas Moore wrote: "It (Armenian) is ... a Waterloo of an Alphabet." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was the first to use the meaning of someone meeting their Waterloo: "We have not yet met our Waterloo, Watson, but this is our Marengo." (from Return of Sherlock Holmes). Marengo refers to the battle Austrian forces fought against Napoleon in Italy, where he came close to a defeat. After the battle Wellington said: "My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."

To connect to my interest in history, and this event taking place just some kilometers from where I live, I enrolled in a course on Future Learn about Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo as well as going to the site in Waterloo, visiting the bivouacs of the French and the Allies. The museums I have already seen before, as well as the 'Panorama' view of the battle and of course the 'Butte du Lion', although this was built after the battle. I also managed to get a last minute ticket to the re-enactment of the battle on Saturday evening.

Furthermore, the morning started with a lecture with the Brontë Society and the Brussels Brontë
Group. A group from the Brontë Society was here for the weekend since both Wellington and Napoleon were heroes of the Brontës. The lecture was given by Emma Butcher, still a student, and already a wonderful speaker. Her thesis is on 'The Brontës and War' and her lecture was on 'The Brontës and their Early Heroes'.

 A coach took us out to the centre of Waterloo where we had to walk around 1.2 km to reach the museum area. I continued right away down the lane another 1.3 km (yes a lot of walking!) where I found a bus who took me the last bit of the way to the French bivouacs. Of course everything look very nice on a sunny day, when people are relaxing in a historical setting. The bivouacs had been built up with tents and the actors were playing their parts very well. You could see how people were resting, eating, sleeping, exercising and all different kind of things you can imagine that the soldiers would do, while waiting for the battle to start. Of course, on the day of the battle in 1815, the weather was terrible with continuing rain. Everything must have been so cold and muddy and a nightmare to be in.

Going back up the road to the Allied bivouacs, I squeezed myself into the already overfull bus, and kept my breath most of the way, hoping that there would not be an accident with the bus and trying not to breath in the sweat from the surrounding people, all with their arms in the air, holding on to whatever was available. I made it safely up the road, and took a smaller road through the rye fields to reach the Allied camps. This camp was slightly bigger and extended over a bigger area. Here I could see people preparing the cannons, exercising, sleeping, eating, waiting and preparing for battle.

After this, my legs were rather aching so I went back to the museum area where I met up with my husband, who only got a very last minute ticket to the re-enactment. By this time the sun was shining nicely, the temperature perfect and we sat down with a typical Belgian meal; frites! We ate them with a glass of wine and a Kriek, a Belgian cherry beer, which I, who am not a lover of beer, just love.

In due time we walked over to the battlefield and sat down to see how battles were fought in the old days. I am personally against wars and am not really interested in military matters or battles at all, but this is of course a once in a lifetime event and I was rather excited to see it first hand. It was all very professionally done, with actors from all over Europe. I heard soldiers speak German, French, English, Dutch, Italian and there were probably other nationalities participating in this event as well.

The event started with a silent minute to remember all the people who perished and were injured in this war. The actors were ready with the two sides on each side of the field. There were smoke, 'bang bangs' and fires. Infantry, cavalry and whatever they are all called, that filled the field as the evening progressed. It was a very weird situation, and I had the feeling that I saw a painting of the war. Maybe because, paintings are all you have seen from wars in those days. There were talks in three languages to guide us through the day and the movements of the armies. As the re-enactment went on it got darker and darker and at ten p.m. when it finished the scene was all surrealistic, with shadows through the smoke and the smoke turning reddish with the setting sun. I let the pictures speak for themselves.

All in all it was worth the experience. It was an interesting day and together with the on-line course with Future Learn, the talks through the event and what I have read myself, gave me a different view of this battle.  Just as it finished the rain started. We walked slowly back to the car and the rain was maybe a sign that we should remember how the conditions was at the day of the battle.

I know more about Napoleon than I know about Wellington, so when I got an offer from Kobo books for a discount book, I downloaded Wellington - A Journey Through My Family by Lady Jane Wellesley. Will be interesting to read and I will be back with a review later on. 

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