We did not have the best seats on the field of Waterloo. We weren’t right beside the battling regiments and charging cavalry. We weren't engulfed in the wall of smoke that followed every musket volley or cannonade. We were up high and distant, near the French artillery battery. Napoleon rode by and waved his hat at us, to a mix of some people shouting “Vive l’empereur!” and the scores of British tourists surrounding me booing and hissing. We weren’t up close, where we could see the snarling soldiers and the clashing bayonets, but we could see everything. From our key vantage point we could simultaneously watch the British defend the farm on the left and the French engage the Prussians on the far right. We could see the musket volleys crackle en masse and watch the infantry form a square to fend off the French heavy cavalry. It was glorious.
The reenactment for the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo played out twice, once on Friday, June 19th, and again on Saturday June 20th. 6000 men and women from 47 different countries donned the uniforms and bore the arms of soldiers from more than a dozen different nations. Divided between the French army and the Allied army, each side had its own massive bivouac where they lived, cooked, slept, and prepared for battle in ways as close to those of two hundred years ago as possible given modern health and safety regulations (notably the horses had more modern-seeming accommodations and individual shelters than they would have at the time).
Both performances followed the same script, a scenario wargamers, historians and reenactors have been replaying for many, many decades. They both took place in the evening rather than during the heat of the day, taking advantage of the longest days of the year to start at 8pm. There were variations between the two shows, most notably the direction of the wind made a big difference each night. On the first night, the breeze blew the smoke across the French end of the field, while on the second night it blew back into the Allied end, which is where all of the fighting took place. That second night was when our seats showed their true merit, as those in the close bleachers were entirely engulfed in thick, white smoke. I can’t imagine they saw much, although the cannons and muskets still flash bright through even the thickest haze.
In the end, as always must be, Napoleon lost his last battle. The Allies held strong and Wellington won his great victory. Of course the defeat wasn’t as total as it was in 1815. No one was shot, slashed, stabbed, trampled, or disfigured. There were no mass amputations to perform or graves to be dug. Almost everyone who “fought” went home in the same condition as they came. There was one truly tragic casualty Thursday night before the first reenactment, a Canadian man died from a heart attack. Several people were seriously burned by the explosives and fireworks. I’m sure many, many more suffered all manner of minor injuries. All the same, for almost everyone involved on both sides, this event was an epic thrill, something of a scale they’re not likely to participate in or witness again.
I wrote last week about why many think Waterloo is so interesting and important, so if you haven’t read that you can do so now for a bit of background on all this historical spectacle of remembrance. Now let’s focus on the events themselves. I learned a lot about the Battle of Waterloo from these few days, most of which would be impossible to absorb any other way. No battlefield tour or reenactment can give you the whole story the way well-written and researched writing can. No book, no matter its quality, can replace the visceral, five-sense impressions a tour and reenactment provide. Put them together, and you can learn a lot.
The 100 Days
Like a horror movie villain or an action movie hero, just when you think he’s beaten, he rises with new-found strength. He’s a murderous zombie or a resurrected savior. Jason Voorhees or Aslan the Lion. Of course there was nothing supernatural about how Napoleon Bonaparte, ruler of Elba and fallen Emperor escaped his island prison and returned to the throne. He hadn’t been gone a year, and the new King Louis XVIII was doing a terrible job. So bad that there were plenty of French people, especially and most importantly in the army, who were longing for the good old days of ten months ago.
Napoleon escaped Elba on February 26, 1815 with a small contingent of loyal troops and an eye on his old throne. The French soldiers sent to stop him instead rallied to his cause, and by March 20th King Louis had fled and the Emperor was back in Paris. He’d moved fast, but the news of his escape moved faster. Before he got to Paris, the great powers of Europe, who were still gathered in Vienna to argue about what to do now that they’d beat Napoleon, realized they needed to beat him one more time. They renewed their alliance, with only the slight adjustment that this time the war was against the outlaw Napoleon in person rather the country he once again ruled.
This restored Emperor Napoleon commissioned a more liberal constitution and offers peace to all of Europe. All of Europe isn’t interested, although many of his old followers are. While he offers peace, Napoleon prepares for war, mustering a sizable army faster than most thought possible, thanks in part to the loyalty of his old veterans. He knows the Austrians, Russians, Prussians, and most especially the damned British are all going to come for him and, he needs to find a way to beat them all.
Meanwhile, British general extraordinaire the Duke of Wellington had been representing Britain at the talks in Vienna. On hearing the news, he dashed back to the English Channel to take command of the Anglo-Dutch army forming up in Belgium. Wellington has already driven some top-notch French generals out of Spain, but he and Napoleon have never faced each other. He’s smart enough to know that the coming battle is no sure thing.
Wellington is to join forces with the army of Prussia, under the command Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, a seventy-two year old veteran soldier who has had his own phoenix-like rise from defeat. As part of the Prussian army that Napoleon thoroughly defeated back in 1806, Blücher has a bone to pick with the Emperor. That loss nearly drove him from the army, so great was the shame of his total defeat. Since then he’s been part of a hidden movement within the Prussian military that has managed to successfully reform and modernize the army. He has already shown what the new Prussian soldiers can do when he helped defeat Napoleon at Leipzig last year. Blücher has no intention of letting the French army or its commander survive.
Napoleon’s plan was to get between these two recalcitrant foes and beat them one at a time before they could join forces. With a speed the surprised everyone, he marched his army north into Belgium. Wellington was famously at a ball in Brussels when he received the news that the French army was approaching fast. He was genuinely shocked. Wellington had expected Napoleon to come around his Western side and try and cut him off from the sea. Napoleon surprised him here as well - the Emperor was marching his army straight between Wellington and Blücher. If everything worked according to his plan, the French would drive the Anglo-Dutch army back west to the sea and the Prussians east towards the Rhine, hopefully defeating one or both armies in the process. Everything did not go according to plan.
Touring Ligny and Quatre Bras
A battlefield tour is an exercise in deep imagination. Without the ability to envision phantom armies roaming the field in front of you, it’s almost impossible to make sense of what you’re seeing. Many years ago I toured several American Civil War battlefields, including the well-preserved field at Shiloh in Tennessee, which is a National Park. It’s filled with informative plaques and signs, expert guides, and lots of old cannons. Even with all these aids, you have to let your mind play tricks on you if you want to try and see the long-gone battle.
The Battle of Waterloo site is not a national park, but rather mostly private farmland. Waterloo itself has several well-tended and permanent monuments, most notably the famous Lion’s Mound and the key farm of Hougoumont. Also, the battle was fought in a remarkably small area of land, tiny by the standards of the Napoleonic Wars, so it’s easier to wrap your head around the whole picture than it is at other sites. Even with these monuments, without a good tour guide or book, it’s hard to know where key elements of the battle took place.
Two important battles preceded Waterloo, taking place simultaneously on June 16th, 1815. Each played a key role in determining the shape of the big fight on June 18th. At the crossroads village of Quatre Bras, the British army managed to delay the advancing left wing of the French army commanded by Marshal Ney. At the Battle of Ligny Napoleon won his last victory, defeating the Prussian army and forcing them back from a strongly held position in the town of Ligny.
There’s not much to see at Quatre Bras. It was then and remains today a small crossroads where multiple roads intersect. Armies of the Napoleonic era had to move by road if they were going to get anywhere. Cavalry might be free to cross open fields on some occasions, but infantry moved effectively only by road and artillery absolutely required an established route to travel any distance at all. As the name suggests, Quatre Bras is a junction of four roads, and taking control of it was vital for the French to advance and cut the British and Prussian armies in two.
The battle involved the French moving forward under Marshal Ney’s command and a combined force of Dutch and British units rushing in to help hold Quatre Bras. Wellington had strung his army out to the west, anticipating that Napoleon would try to outflank him from that direction. Thus the key crossroads was only lightly defended as the French approached. Fortunately for the Allies, Marshal Ney was not at his best and boldest, and his advances on the position were tentative. The allies held out for most of the day, locking Ney down and preventing him from reinforcing Napoleon at Ligny (see below).
By the time the Allies withdrew in the evening, the moment for delivering a crushing defeat to the Prussians at Ligny had passed. Napoleon in the moment and historians in general have criticized Ney for his reticence, and especially for the conflicting orders that went to his subordinate general, D’Erlon. If instead of marching back and forth due to conflicting orders and Ney’s failure to understand Napoleon’s intent, D’Erlon’s troops had fought at either Quatre Bras or Ligny, the next battle would’ve been very different. The French missed a chance to deliver a crippling blow to one or the other of the two allied armies.
We visited two sites involved in the battle - the site of Gemincourt Farm where there was early fighting and the fields near Quatre Bras itself. At Gemincourt, the farm still stands, and as we looked out over the fields across a busy road, we had to imagine the French advancing across a field of wheat, where once there had been rye. Rye was the crop of choice in this area back then, and it grew to be six feet high. The wheat we saw was maybe two feet tall at its highest. Like the upcoming reenactment, it was a scaled down version of the terrain from 200 years ago. It was hard to picture exactly who was where or how the troops came to clash, but it was interesting in a mostly academic way.
It was easier to imagine things at Quatre Bras, where we crossed through the important intersection and climbed up onto a mound of earth that marked one border of a farm. Spread out below us we could see the fields in front of us and moving off to the left, where the French would advance from. To our left ran the road where the British would form up their line and hold off the initial French attacks. Where we say wire fences in the fields, there would’ve been thick hedgerows. It was clear that what looked like a nice rolling field could have been a trial to move and fight through on the day. It was at this vantage point that I first got an inkling of what the real battle might have looked like.
Ligny was Napoleon’s last victory. It was very close to being Blücher’s last day on Earth. The Prussians were moving to link their army with Wellington’s, and occupied the small town of Ligny ahead of the French advance. Once Napoleon knew that Ney was engaging the British at Quatre Bras, he attacked the town. Blücher was spoiling for a fight and was happy to take on the hated Napoleon. The opening cannon bombardment set fire to many buildings, but didn’t dislodge the defenders. The French pushed forward, forcing the Prussians on the flanks to retreat. Word of an approaching army caused the French to pause, but it was D’Erlon, coming to reinforce the attack. Unfortunately, it was just about then that Ney recalled D’Erlon’s corps back towards Quatre Bras. Napoleon sent in his Imperial Guard to finish the job, and force the Prussians out of Ligny.
The battle was won, but most of the Prussian army managed to escape intact. Had D’Erlon continued on and supported Napoleon’s advance, the French might well have smashed the entire Prussian force. As it was, Blücher had his horse shot out from under him and was almost left for dead on the field. His subordinate assumed command. Blücher had agreed previously with Wellington that he would retreat towards the Anglo-Dutch army rather than back East along the line to Prussia. Fortunately for the allies, Blücher recovered and the retreat went forward as planned. The French right wing, under Marshal Grouchy, continued to press after the retreating Prussians, while Napoleon turned his attention to the hated British and Waterloo.
We toured Ligny from three different perspectives, and now I fully understood the power and value of a well-guided battlefield tour. We started from the position of French General Gerard’s troops as he marched on Ligny. Across the field we could see the town itself, its central church spire rising above the other buildings. We were near where the cannons were located, and it was easy to imagine the fear the Prussians in the town would’ve felt as the artillery smashed into the walls around them. We also went around to the opposite side of Ligny, about where Blücher would’ve been commanding from. A little closer to the town, but still far enough away to see the effect the artillery would’ve had. There’s no doubt we could have hear the cannons firing and seen the smoke rising.
The most striking part of the tour took place in the middle of the town itself, where we parked at the base of that church tower we’d seen from Gerard’s position. Here was the farm where Prussian troops had fortified themselves against the French advance. Just the other side was the field they’d have been coming from. The narrow streets were especially striking. It was easy to picture the intense combat that took place at such close quarters. Our guide told tales of cannon balls ripping through alleys densely packed with Prussian defenders.
There’s also a nice museum in Ligny, with artifacts from the battle. Any other day and I’m sure it would’ve been a fascinating addition to the tour. On bicentennial weekend it was filled to the brim with fellow tourists, such that it was almost impossible to squeeze into some of the rooms. I didn’t mind much though. Soon we’d be seeing a kind of living museum in the massive camps of the reenactors.
Among the Bivouacs
It’s a little bit like Disney World. Just a little bit. There’s the same element of showmanship and customer service that you find in a theme park attraction. The 6196 reenactors are putting on a massive show that requires immense planning, expense and commitment. They’re living in tents, cooking period appropriate food, and undergoing real exertions on the fake field of battle. In doing so, they feel connected to history in a way that reading books or being a tourist like me can’t. They’re pretending as hard as they can, and that’s part of the fun. They do face one minor challenge that the real soldiers didn’t: these reenactors have to put on a soldier’s face while still being a kind and welcoming entertainers for the camera-wielding civilians that document their every move. Like Disney cast-members, every reenactor I met was both in character and generous when it came to posing for pictures.
The bivouacs were open to the public, with the purchase of a ticket to access them. The French and Allied camps were miles apart, no doubt for both historical reenactment and logistical reasons. It would break the illusion a bit to have both armies march onto the battlefield from the same camp. I spent time wandering through the Allied camp, which was the more varied of the two. Each army is made up of different groups from around the world taking on the roles of specific military units. In both the real campaign and in the bivouac, the allied army was a multi-national melange of units and diverse uniforms. There were 147 different reenactment groups listed in the program for the Allies, representing historical regiments from Britain, Prussian, the Dutch, Austria, Saxony, and more. On the French side, almost all of the 91 units being played were French, with a few exceptions like the famous Polish Lancers who fought for Napoleon.
Germany and the United Kingdom provided most of the reenactors, with each sending about 1150 people. France was third, with about 650 people, while host country Belgium had about 460 citizens fighting on native soil. Just because a unit being represented was from Britain or France or Prussia, that doesn’t mean the reenactors are from that country. Only about fifteen of the units in the French army were played by French reenactments groups. The rest were from a variety of countries, including some that had historically fought against Napoleon, like Britain and Russia. For the Allies, that country of origin tended to line up better with history. German reenactment groups played most of the Prussians and reenactors from the U.K. played most of the British.
There were exceptions of course. There was a UK-based Prussian regiment and a German squad portraying British Highlanders. Groups from former British colonies like Australia, Canada, and The U.S. filled out the British ranks, and a group from Malta played the British Royal Marines. There were also, according to the program, sole reenactors from a dozen different countries, including such distant lands as Brazil, Pakistan, Mongolia. I have no idea which side these international individuals fought for.
Moving through the camp, it’s hard to tell who’s who. There’s a map showing the general locations of the different nations within the Allied bivouac, but on the ground you have to go by flags and uniforms. Or you can just ask. They’re all happy to identify themselves. While a lot of them spent their non-picture posing time cleaning gear, eating food, or resting in camp, there was always at least a couple of units who were on the march to somewhere. I watched a unit of Prussians drill, marching in step, turning on command, and menacing a row of photographers with their bayonets. As the time for the night’s reenactment grew closer, the units mustered up in a long line to march to the battlefield. It was an impressive sight, watching the multi-colored ranks march by with no end in sight, followed by the even more impressive cavalry units.
My time among the bivouacs was certainly interesting and entertaining, but I think it was probably much more evocative for the reenactors than it was for the visitors. For me it was more visiting a strange, open air museum or theme park. It gave the impression of the real thing, but the artifice of being surrounded by tourists like me was omnipresent. It wasn’t immersive like it must have been for the reenactors. They got to stay in the camp once we were gone, camping out under an open sky with only their comrades for company. I imagine that brings them a feeling of historical connection as great or even greater than the actual battle. The battle of course has its own unique features, but for safety reasons it has to be tightly restricted. I imagine that it’s very easy to feel like a soldier from 200 years ago when you’re collapsing into your tent after an exhausting day and really hoping it doesn’t rain. Sadly, it did rain the final night, although several regiments were spotted in Brussels bars in full uniform, celebrating a job well done and keeping dry as they got drunk.
The Battle of Waterloo
The actual farm of Hougoumont was right next to Allied bivouacs, a fitting location for one of the battle’s most important elements. It has recently been upgraded and re-restored, and features an impressive movie, a small museum, and a monument to the British soldiers that was unveiled by Prince Charles just a few days before the 200th anniversary. While it is now a top-rate tourist attraction, on the day it was the scene of intense fighting that lasted for much of the battle and was an important factor in the French defeat.
Wellington took up a defensive position and waited for the French to come to him. Famously, he had toured the area the previous year and made note of the terrain around Waterloo, so he began the battle with the advantage of already knowing where he might want to stand his ground. The large, walled farm complex of Hougoumont and its adjacent orchard were an integral part of that defense. It dominated the western end of the battlefield, protecting Wellington’s right flank. Napoleon’s plan was to attack the farm as a diversion, in hopes that Wellington would send troops to reinforce it. Then the French could drive forward against a weakened British center.
Napoleon’s little brother Jerome held command of the Hougoumont attack. As we shall see in future articles, very little good came from the Emperor entrusting important tasks to his relatives. Jerome, looking to refurbish his poor reputation and no doubt wanting to do his best, overcommitted to the attack on Hougoumont. What was meant to be a diversionary probe met stiff resistance. Instead of enticing Wellington to send more troops, it was the French army that got sucked down into the vortex of fighting at the farm and orchard. The battle there would last hours, tying up the French left while the British center remained strong.
Walking around Hougoumont today, it’s easy to see that the structure was as much fort as farm. Only three trees from the original orchard survive, but they extended well forward towards the French line and would have disrupted any assault through them. Anywhere you walk around the western end of the battlefield, you see Hougoumont, lying in wait.
Napoleon now pushed forward against the British center, as he’d planned. He sent in D’Erlon’s corps, those same soldiers who had missed fighting at both Quatre Bras and Ligny two days earlier. Preceded by a massive bombardment from the French grand artillery battery, the infantry advanced. Wellington had used his famous reverse slope deployment to shield his troops from the artillery attack. Positioning them behind the sloping ground where they had some protection from the cannonade and could stand up when the enemy drew close.
The French under D’Erlon advanced but had to go around the small farm of La Haye Sainte, where they faced fierce fighting against the tenacious defenders who would not give up the farm. As French pressed forward though, they fell under fire from the British who had been sheltering behind the slope under the command of Thomas Picton. The French continued to advance, returning fire, but were undone at the sunken road behind La Haye Sainte. The French attackers were eventually forced to withdraw, but both sides had inflicted heavy damage on each other and the British center was looking shaky.
One of the big revelations from walking the battlefields and seeing the reenactment is just how well these slopes block line of sight. Looking out across a gently rolling farm, it looks basically flat. In my mind when I read about Waterloo, I’d always pictured these hills and slopes as massive, when in fact they’re quite gentle. Of course much of the top of the British position was carved off by the Dutch King to make the Lion’s Mound memorial after the battle, but even so the hill was never huge. More importantly, it didn’t need to be. Several times watching the reenactment I was startled to see hundreds of soldiers rise up from what looked like flat ground. It’s a perspective on events that’s impossible to get without being there on the site.
The British now counterattacked with a massive cavalry charge, ordered forward by Lord Uxbridge whose leg’s tomb we visited earlier at the Wellington Museum. This cavalry assault drove the French back, wreaking havoc on D’Erlon’s already disorganized troops. The charge carried on forward past La Haye Sainte and towards the French lines. They made it all the way to the enemy artillery battery, but were unequipped to spike the cannons and put them out of action. The long charge had exhausted the horses and disorganized the squadrons, leaving them vulnerable when Napoleon ordered a counter charge with his own cavalry. The French got their revenge, causing huge damage to the spent British horsemen.
The most famous cavalry charge of Waterloo was yet to come. Marshal Ney, thought he saw an opportunity to strike against a weakened British line. He ordered Kellerman’s cavalry corps to charge, unsupported by artillery or infantry. This was not sound tactics, and it remains a mystery why Ney made such a blunder. The thundering sound of the French cavalry gave the British plenty of time to ready themselves. Wellington ordered his men to form into squares - blocks of troops in a square three or four men deep with bayonets bristling in every direction. No horse will throw itself onto this deadly porcupine-like formation. All of the squares held, despite Ney’s dozen or so attempts to break them. Without artillery and infantry support to disrupt the defense’s formations, the French cavalry was almost entirely ineffective at this crucial juncture.
Napoleon, angry at Ney’s failure, still continued to futilely send in cavalry while again pushing forward against the weakening British center. He finally took La Haye Sainte and was in position to drive Wellington back. Then the Prussians arrived. They’ve been marching ahead of a slow-moving French force under Grouchy, and their arrival on the battlefield is a crisis for Napoleon’s plans. He is forced to divert troops to the east to fight the Prussians, and now he doesn’t have sufficient force on either front to win.
All Napoleon had left was his Imperial Guard. The Guard are his elite troops, his veterans. They’re usually kept in reserve until the perfect moment to deliver the killing blow. At Ligny they’d made the final push into the town, but in general Napoleon was very reluctant to use his Guard. They were a powerful symbol that inspired his other soldiers and caused fear in the enemy. Now, if he had any hope of breaking the struggling British line, he needs to use them.
The Emperor personally led them forward part of the way and then set them against the British line. At the same time the Prussians were pressing forward from the East and coming around behind the French position towards the small village of Plancenoit. The Imperial Guard advanced into the Anglo-Dutch defenders, and firece fighting ensued. Once again Wellington took advantage of reverse slopes to protect his troops from artillery attack and to surprise the enemy. After deadly exchanges of fire the Guard began to waver and was finally broken by a bayonet charge from the British. The Emperor’s finest retreated for the first time, and the news travelled fast across the battlefield. Shouts of “La Garde recule!” went up, panicking the French and spurring on the allies. The Prussians pushed forward and took Plancenoit from the French and soon it was all over. The French army was routed. Napoleon had lost.
Napoleon’s second chance at ruling France was over. He put on optimistic airs for a time, vowing to fight on, but it soon became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. He and fled the advancing armies, who occupied Paris. The fallen emperor had thoughts of fleeing to the United States. His brother Joseph had travel papers that he offered to his brother, knowing they looked enough alike that Napoleon could likely have escaped. But he let Joseph flee to the U.S., while he in turn surrendered to the British. Despite years of animosity, the two old foes had some respect for each other. Whereas the Russians and Prussians were calling for his head, the British sent Napoleon into another island exile. This was no Mediterranean island two days sail from France. St. Helena lies far away in the South Atlantic, and Napoleon would never leave it. He died there in 1821, almost certainly of natural causes, not poison as you might have read elsewhere.
Post-Napoleonic and thus Post-Revolutionary France reverted to a monarchy, although not the absolute kind of previous reigns. The events of the previous quarter century had left their indelible mark on the nation and the city of Paris. Two more revolutions would follow in the footsteps of 1789’s Storming of the Bastille. One more Napoleon would follow in the footsteps of 1799 and seize claim the Imperial throne for himself. It wasn’t until another Prussian army beat another French one under another Napoleon that the full dream of the French Revolution finally found stable ground to stand on.