Magazine article The Spectator

Taking the Wellington out of Waterloo

Magazine article The Spectator

Taking the Wellington out of Waterloo

Article excerpt


IF you climb the lion mound - the conical, 100-metre monument built by local women to mark the spot where Prince William of Orange was hit in the arm by a musketball - you have a superb vista over the thrilling panorama of the battlefield at Waterloo.

As you rest your aching thighs at the top of the butte, you can gaze straight down on the teenagers on quad bikes tearing around a muddy circuit marked out with tyres, the roar of the bikes blending with the whine of next door's rival go-kart track.

Look next on the visitors' centre, which hawks a wide range of trinkets and figurines depicting a scowling Frenchman in a grey coat and battered black bicorn hat, and an aftershave called Napoleon, but not a single souvenir of the Iron Duke.

Then, try to spot the key locations in this tiny hamlet 18 kilometres from Brussels, the site of one of the greatest battles of the 19th century. No, not the famed redoubts of La Haye Sainte, Mont St Jean, Hougoumont or the inn of La Belle Alliance. These farms and inns are either derelict, inaccessible to tourists, or in private hands. I am talking about the restaurants, the curio emporia and the private carparks, all slugging it out with each other to demonstrate their fealty to Napoleon and bring in the punters.

You can drink your biere Napoleon in either Le Cambronne, named after one of Boney's Imperial Guardsmen, Le Bivouac de L'Empereur, or Les Hussars. But even if you plump for Les Allies, you will still be fleeced by the innkeeper, who will race out for his SO francs when you return to your car from the mound.

It was ever thus. As day dawned on 19 June, 1815, on the morning after the battle, to reveal 40,000 men lying dead or dying in only two square miles of bloodstained rye and mud, the Belgian peasants stole out to the battlefield to loot the dead, even wrenching out teeth to sell for dentures, known for years afterwards as `Waterloos'. The locals are still turning a penny from the battle by exploiting the francophone world's yearning to bathe in the gloire that a Corsican genius brought to la patrie.

For the battle fought near Waterloo the first French-speaking town south of bilingual Brussels - was the biggest thing, probably, that has ever happened to Belgium (which attained nationhood 15 years later). And Napoleon was the biggest thing, probably, that ever happened to France.

Forget the inconvenient fact that Belgian troops fought for the Allies against Napoleon, who had ruled them vi et armis for the previous quarter-century. What matters here in Belgium, above all, is language, and Napoleon didn't speak English and he didn't speak Flemish. He spoke French. To the politicians up the road in Namur, the seat of the francophone regional government, Napoleon represents a code of laws, social justice, the stirrings of selfgovernment . . . and French-driven union of Europe's nation states. Vive l'Empereur!

It matters little, too, that Swedish popsters Abba were right (`At Waaaaaterloo . . . Napoleon did surrender . . . oh yeah!'). What matters here is that the greatest man in the history of the world wasn't himself - terrible piles - on 18 June. He was having an off-day.

So, at today's battlefield, the Napoleonic hegemony over Europe is still absolute. English-speaking tourists are guided discreetly to the Wellington Museum four kilometres away on the high street of Waterloo ville: to the inn where the Duke spent the eve of battle, and to the church of St Joseph opposite, which contains the 27 memorial plaques to the fallen and a gimlet-eyed but uninscribed bust of the Duke of Wellington.

Alas, the chateau Tremlant close to the church, the place where the Duke of Uxbridge's leg was amputated and buried under a stele in the garden, is derelict. The first resting place of the leg (`I say, I've lost my leg!' 'By God, sir, so you have!') was once a top attraction for English tourists after the battle but, like many of the places sacred to the Allies' side, it is neglected. …

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