The Battle of Waterloo rages on to this day! Sort of. On March 4, 2015 it seemed like the French had won the Second (much, much less important) Battle of Waterloo. Once again it was fought in Belgium, although the battlefield shifted from the hills and farms of the countryside to the meeting halls and office spaces of Brussels. Thankfully, no blood has been shed, but some poor, defenseless commemorative coins are getting caught up in the crossfire of remembrance.
As the BBC and other news outlets reported, France objected to a Belgian-minted €2 coin commemorating the Battle of Waterloo. Although The Belgian Royal Mint had already minted 170,000 of the coins, they agreed to withhold them from circulation, admitting that France’s objection in the eurozone would make getting support from other member nations impossible. A French diplomat at the EU explained the opposition. As quoted in Le Monde, the French “... found that ‘the negative symbol for a portion of the European population’ could be detrimental as the governments of the euro zone ‘are trying to strengthen unity and cooperation in the economic and monetary union’.”
This strong blocking maneuver clearly took the Belgians by surprise. The BBC quoted a source from Belgium’s Royal Mint: "The Battle of Waterloo ended 200 years ago, but now they are starting it all over again." France may have won this round, but then again, things looked pretty good for Emperor Napoleon during the opening days of the original Waterloo campaign as well. The coin conflict wasn’t over yet.
In the first week of June, the Royal Mint followed through with their Plan B. Using a loophole in the regulations allowing for non-standard denomination commemorative coins, Belgium issued €2½ coins that used the same Waterloo monument design as the original €2 coins. There would only be 70,000 of these, a step back from the original plan and they would be released through specialty shops. The story of this clever tactical maneuver flashed around the world, causing mild nods of approval and smiles of appreciation at Belgian cleverness.
As reported by France 24, Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt asserted that the move was not intended to antagonize France. "The goal is not to revive old quarrels. In a modern Europe, there are more important things to sort out," he said Monday. "But there's been no battle in recent history as important as Waterloo, or indeed one that captures the imagination in the same way."
I arrived in Brussels the week after the commemorative coins were announced, and I made it my first order of business to get my hands on some. I wasn’t sure where to look or who to ask, but just a few blocks from my hotel there was a shop for coin collectors. They didn’t have any. The second coin collector, a few blocks farther down the street told me, “That’s not the kind of thing we carry.” With what might have been a sneer, or was maybe just Flemish reserve, he directed me to a third store. I’d passed it by, because it was one of the two or three stamp collector shops I’d seen, but it turned out to be just the place. They didn’t have any Waterloo coins yet, but were getting an allotment the next day. I was about the twentieth person to add my name to the waiting list.
I got my coins the next day, and was thankful I’d made a reservation, because the salesman told me that they’d just about sold out their whole shipment in one day. The coins, pictured above, come in nifty packaging that explains what they are and makes them easier to keep track of. They also cost about €4 more than their €2½ face value. At that markup I imagine the Royal Mint will recover whatever losses they incurred when the French nixed their first attempt at Waterloo remembrance. I’m a little curious about what a cashier would say if I tried to spend one, but of course I never will. In that respect, the French did win: these coins will all end up in the hands of collectors and people who know all about Waterloo. The casual European consumer won’t be struck by untoward moments of idle curiosity about two-century old battles. Waterloo remains a foggy concept or vaguely familiar name for most.
But there must be something worth remembering here. Remember, the Belgian Finance Minister said that, “No battle in recent history as important as Waterloo, or indeed one that captures the imagination in the same way.” There’s a bit of hyperbole there (the man’s got commemorative coins to sell), but I think he’s generally right. Waterloo is a battle that captures the imagination like few others in history. It also marks an important turning point in the course of European and world affairs. It was also almost completely unnecessary, which doesn’t mitigate its importance and only adds to its mystique.
Why Commemorate Waterloo?
So, what’s the big deal about this battle from 200 years ago? I believe that the most important thing about Waterloo is that it’s The Last One. It’s the Last Battle for Napoleon, but in many ways that’s the least significant point. He’d already had a first last battle the previous year, and not much would’ve been different in world history if it had been Leipzig and not Waterloo that got to keep the credit for being the site of Napoleon’s last great battle. Although there’s no way of knowing what might have happened if Napoleon had won the day, we can be sure that Waterloo would not have been his last battle. The Russians and the Austrians were coming, and Prussia and Britain weren’t about to give up.
It’s also the last battle for Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, who gets to end his military career on the highest note possible. He gets the credit for beating the greatest and most famous general of his era. Victory launched his career to the next tier, including two terms as Prime Minister and a lasting legacy as one of Britain’s great heroes. Plus he got to spawn a line of Dukes that lasts down to this day, with Arthur Charles Valerian Wellesley today holding the title 9th Duke of Wellington. That’s cause enough for the at least the Wellesley’s to mark the 200th anniversary with a respectful smile.
It’s the last major European battle where army commanders led their troops from the field of battle. That’s more of a bit of trivia, but it’s worth noting. Waterloo ended the era where the man leading the army stood there on the battlefield and personally ordered battalions around. I think the more interesting fact is that the general in charge, Napoleon, was also the head of state. The idea of a Soldier-Emperor had its last day in the spotlight at Waterloo, and even there only on the French side of the field.
Being the last battle for Napoleon, that also makes it just about (apologies to General Rapp and his victory at the Battle of La Suffel ten days later) the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from around 1801 to 1815. But really, Napoleon joined the fight after the wars were well under way. The French Revolutionary Wars had begun a decade earlier, in 1792. Now that, I submit, is a truly significant milestone to mark. Peace at last after twenty-five years or so of the great powers of Europe tearing each other apart for a variety of reasons, none of them very good. I won’t debate who deserves the blame for what, because that’s insanely complicated and open to interpretation. I do feel confident in saying that I think there’s plenty of blame for the war’s death and horror to go around to all parties involved and that the post-Waterloo peace was a long time coming.
The wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon wrought significant changes onto the map of Europe. Most of them didn’t end up being lasting changes, but were more in the nature of tipping points. French armies enforced the unification of Italy at a level unseen since Ancient Rome. Napoleon eliminated many of the minor German principalities and set the region onto a path towards unification as well. Napoleon’s foe, Prussia, emerged from the wars a stronger power than ever before, while Austria was sent well forward on the path of decline. Spain ended up losing most of its American colonies as a result of independence movements launched in the wake of Napoleon ousting the Spanish King and putting his brother on the throne. The Last Battle meant that, in Europe at least, there was some time to take a breath and settle into a new world order.
Waterloo involved armies from four nations, but let me formally apologize now to Prussia and the Dutch. More on you next article, I promise. Because the lead players in both the history of the wars and the way we remember them were the French and the British. These two peoples had been fighting for a long time, in a series of conflicts that historians sometimes call The Second Hundred Years War. While it wasn’t 100 years of constant fighting, the two nations went to war with each other on at least ten or eleven occasions between 1688 and 1815. And note that it’s called the Second one because the two of them had already fought a first Hundred Years War from 1337 to 1453. There were some more wars in between the two bloody centuries as well.
For hundreds upon hundreds of years, French and English soldiers and sailors had killed each other. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 marks the last time that happened. They certainly did not get along all the time after that (or even today), but there have been no more wars between them. That’s worth celebrating and remembering. Waterloo 200 is really the anniversary of Anglo-French peace.
There’s another reason many people, myself included, like to remember Waterloo; it’s the amazing finish to an amazing true story. The dramatic arc of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte reads like fiction. An immigrant child, he rises from obscurity to become a general during the French Revolution. He takes command of the country’s worst army and leads it to victory over Austria, conquering much of Italy. After a bizarre, tragic foray to Egypt, he should have returned to France in shame, but instead inserts himself into a coup d’etat and somehow manages to come out of it all as head of state. A few years later he crowns himself Emperor, wins a series of dramatic victories across Europe, reforms France’s laws and modernizes its institutions, and marries a princess. And of course it all comes tumbling down even faster than he built it up, from the ulcerous drain in Spain to the utter disaster in Russia. Come 1814 he’s beat, forced into retirement on a insignificant Mediterranean island.
Then he comes back. He’s not gone a year yet, but the restored French King isn’t paying Napoleon what he promised and isn’t doing right by many of his new subjects either. The once and future Emperor of France escapes back home, starting the clock ticking on the 100 Days of his second time on the throne. The rest of the great powers declare war on him personally, but hundreds of thousands of his veteran soldiers rally to his cause. The people (or enough of them anyway) shower him with praise and welcome him back to Paris. He forms a new government, writes a new constitution and builds a new army, all in record time.
He asks for peace, but Austria, Britain. Prussia, and Russia (and many others) aren’t interested in anything but blasting him from his reclaimed throne with as many cannons as they can bring to bear. They declare war not on France, but on Napoleon personally. He can’t have been surprised. In classic Napoleonic fashion, the Emperor strikes faster than his enemies think possible, marching his soldiers straight between the British and Prussian armies, planning to beat one then turn around and beat the other. He’s done it before. It’s a good plan.
We all know now that it didn’t work. But it could have! If only Marshal Ney had taken Quatre Bras when ordered. If only Marshal Grouchy had marched to the sound of the guns and pressed the Prussians when he should have. If only this, that and the other. Historians and enthusiasts have debated and imagined what could have been for just about two hundred years now. That's the mark of a truly compelling story: it leaves everyone who hears it wondering and wanting more.
The British Remember
The British love to remember Waterloo. At least many of the 27% of the population who know much about it it does. A recent, widely reported survey showed that “...73% of Brits have little or no knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo despite it being one of the most important events of the 19th century.” A bigger percentage knew the name and that Wellington was involved, but were fuzzy on the details. So fuzzy that 14% of them thought the French won, while 12% had not the foggiest idea what the fuss was all about.
The minority who do know include a lot of people in charge of museums, schools, historical foundations, and military institutions. They have produced vast quantities of enthusiastic remembrance in the months leading up to the 200th Anniversary. Museums all over the country have been holding lectures, special exhibitions, wargame weekends, movie screenings, and local reenactments. They even had a touring pop-up pub where reenactors poured pints and shared information about Waterloo with travelers in train stations. Spearheaded by the National Army Museum, the caring minority are doing everything they can to spread the word about Waterloo to the masses.
Waterloo Station in London has memorialized the battle since it was opened in 1848, tagging along with the nearby Waterloo Bridge which had born the battle’s name since 1817 . One of the busiest train stations in London, it has done good service at keeping at least the battle’s name in the public consciousness. On June 10, 2015 the busy travel nexus inaugurated a brand new memorial to the British soldiers who died at the battle. Unveiled by the 9th Duke of Wellington himself, the large plaque is an over-sized version of the medals given to soldiers who fought in the battle. It commemorates the 24,000 British soldiers who died during the campaign.
The armed forces have been the wellspring for much of the remembrance. Unlike in France, where there’s no direct continuity between the units of Napoleon’s Grande Armée and the modern French military, many extant British Army regiments can trace their origins through Waterloo and back into history. For these units and the soldiers that have served in them, there’s a direct connection to the men who fought and won at Waterloo. Regimental museums across the country have been holding events over the past months, capped off this week here in Brussels with a grand reenactment of the ball Wellington and his officers attended a few nights before the battle. The British Army shared the details on its Facebook page:
More than 400 guests have attended a glittering recreation in Brussels of the most famous ball in history...The attendance tonight in 2015 reflected that of June 1815: serving and retired officers of the Household Division whose regiments fought at Waterloo (Life Guards, Blues and Royals, Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards) and officers from the line cavalry regiments who are now titled the King’s Royal Hussars, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Royal Lancers and Queen’s Royal Hussars...The guests of honour were the Earl of Mornington, representing his father the 9th Duke of Wellington, and Prince Pieter-Christiaan of Orange-Nassau....Lieutenant William de Grouchy who's birthday coincidentally falls on 18th June, the anniversary of the battle, is a direct descendant of Napoleon's senior General. [He's] now an officer in the King's Royal Hussars, living in Thatcham, Berkshire.
The British are in Brussels in force to mark the occasion. My hotel is full of fellow tourists, mostly older and mostly British. For them it is an occasion worth celebrating, when their best general beat France’s best general in a close-fought battle. If you’re ever inclined to be proud of such achievements, Waterloo is a battle worth being proud of.
The French Remember
Although the French media and museums haven’t been swamped with Waterloo coverage to the same degree as they have in Britain, the event has gotten significant coverage during the bicentennial week. As you might have guessed from their reaction to the Belgian Waterloo coin, the French don’t seem to want to remember Waterloo very much. That reaction is just a smaller piece of the rather complicated and divisive feelings many French have about Napoleon Bonaparte. His reputation and legacy at home have not fared as well as the Duke of Wellington’s has in Britain. When I told my French language instructor (a native Parisian) about my planned trip, she made her opinion of Napoleon clear with a scowl and a terse description, “He was a butcher.” A lot of other modern French people feel the same way.
French historian Patrice Gueniffey, author of a massive new biography of Napoleon spoke frankly about his country’s mixed feelings about commemorating Napoleon. “France does not participate in the celebrations of Waterloo, nor has it celebrated the achievements of Austerlitz or The Consulate. This continuity transcends the left-right divide, because the attitude was the same under Jospin, Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande...The French have a problem with their history. A permanent malaise replays about everything and nothing... There is no social consensus on the national past and historiography lacks cohesion.” As the author of a biography of Napoleon, Gueniffey obviously has stronger opinions about the subject than most, but he is right in pointing out the complex and contradictory attitudes towards Napoleon within the French populace.
Mixed feelings means there are still plenty of French folk who are into Napoleon, and there are ways in which his legacy lives on as an inspiration for many. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on the individual case, but the former emperor seems to find supporters on both the left and the right, as well as among history buffs and collectors. Napoleon and the French Revolution still cast their shadows over modern day France, as we shall discover in this series.
While the French government has no official presence here at the Waterloo reenactments and commemorations, at least the man playing Napoleon, Parisian lawyer Frank Samson, is French. He’s not quite alone out there, but there are not very many French reenactors. As le Monde noted, “The French presence, looks more than modest. Most of the men who will don the uniform of the Grand Army on the morning of June 18 will come from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany or Russia, and no official is announced, while the main royal families as well as the descendants of the principal heroes of the battle, are expected.”
I can sympathize with French ambivalence. While the British who care can do so with some justification, it’s hard to see what exactly the French should or could think about Napoleon. He’s a striking, fascinating figure, but he also brought the country back into war just when it seemed like peace had come at last. As I noted earlier, nothing new was settled at Waterloo. Tens of thousands of men died to maintain the status quo. The man who led the French army at Waterloo did so mostly out of personal ambition, and left France none the better for it. I can see why one wouldn’t be super into commemorating that.
The Belgians Remember
Belgium presents the most fascinating side of the remembrance question. The famous Battle took place here, just outside the city of Brussels. Except when it was fought, there was no free country of Belgium, and there hadn’t been for a long time. Revolutionary France had claimed it since 1795, and before that it had been under Austrian rule. Even after the battle, it remained under Dutch control for another fifteen years, before launching its own revolution and achieving independence in 1830. As a result, although the Battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium, there was not a Belgian army present. In fact, there were Belgians fighting on both sides, in either the Dutch or the French armies.
Belgium’s Royal Military Museum is located in the shadow of its massive Arcades du Cinquantenaire, which honors Belgian Independence. The Military Museum features weapons, uniforms, and vehicles (including tanks and planes) from the army and navy’s history. The very first section is about the Battle of Waterloo, since that’s the fight that in many ways gave birth to the modern Belgian nation and military. In addition to their normal collection, the museum put on a special exhibition to mark the bicentennial, which is housed up at the top of great triple arch, in a kind of attic exhibit-space.
The exhibit is small, and focuses on the international aspect of the battle by displaying uniforms from ten different nations that participated in the war from 1810 to 1815. I think the most striking aspect of the exhibit is the image they chose to use on all of its promotional material, a painting by artist Jacques Madyol. Shown above, the painting features a lovely, smiling, well-dressed woman enjoying a sunny day in the countryside. In the distance behind her you can see the blurry image of a hill with a statue on it. For those in the know, that hill is clearly the Lion’s Mound monument at the Waterloo battlefield. If you don’t know that image by sight, you’d be hard-pressed to connect this lovely painting to that bloody day.
The field of Waterloo has been a tourist attraction since the days immediately following the battle, and people have been coming to pay their respects and/or gawk ever since. The Lion’s Mound was built by Belgium’s Dutch overlords during the period before independence. It marks the spot where a Dutch prince was shot in the shoulder. Completed in 1826, it stands 41 meters in height and has 226 steps leading up to a view of the whole battlefield. You might recognize it as the image on the commemorative coin that caused such a fuss. The coin’s design was not just commemorating the battle of Waterloo, it was commemorating the monument of commemoration.
Finished just four years before the Belgian revolution that kicked the Dutch out for good, this grand monument is perhaps the most tangible benefit the country enjoys because of Waterloo. Belgium was already marked for the Dutch before Waterloo, and the battle itself had nothing to do with the eventual struggle for independence. But it remains a hugely significant tourist attraction, as it always has been. This year, it’s hosting the biggest crowd it’s seen since the battle itself.
The tourists have left their mark on the small town of Waterloo, which lies less than thirty minutes south of the city center. The Wellington Museum sits in the middle of a main thoroughfare, lined with Napoleon and Wellington themed businesses. The small museum occupies a the former Bodenghien inn, which served as headquarters for Wellington before the battle and where he stayed the night before and the night of Waterloo. Like many museums confined to small structures where famous events took place, it’s more interesting for what it was than for what’s inside. It does have the tomb for Lord Uxbridge's leg, which was amputated after being hit by a cannon ball during the battle. Uxbridge himself lived another fourteen years, and is buried in England, without his leg.
Here on the ground in modern day Waterloo, the crowds fill every corned of the small museum, making it hard to see much. The handful of reenactors outside offer some extra spectacle to make up for the difference though. This is just a small taste of the crowds to come. Organizers are expecting 200,000 people to come to the battlefield site. That’s about 30,000 more people than there were actual soldiers fighting at Waterloo. I’m just one of 60,000 who will spend the next two evenings watching 5000 reenactors re-fight the key moments of the battle. I’m staying in a 600 room hotel that is almost entirely booked with tour groups like the one I’m in. The Cultural Experience, the group I’m with, is running 16 buses full of people.
According to the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure, the country has spent 10 million euros organizing the Waterloo events, in hopes of giving a powerful boost to its Napoleon and Wellington based tourism industry. “Major investments have also been made in recent years to renovate and develop the historical site. It thus aims to double the number of visitors to reach 500,000 per year,” the paper reported. Waterloo is big business for Belgium, and that’s as good a reason to remember it as any.
In the next piece I'll focus on the two days of reenactment and how they help evoke the course of the Waterloo campaign. We'll see how close the battle really was and what went right for Wellington and wrong for Napoleon.