Battle of Waterloo re-enacted in Belgium

Posted on: 28 June 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews the dramatic and spectacular re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo.

Battle of WaterlooIt's not often that one gets the chance to relive a great moment in history but this was indeed the case last Sunday when I was invited to a spectacular re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo (1815) which took place on the actual sight of the battle, a mere 20 minutes from Brussels.

The event, held every five years (a shorter, less elaborate version is held every year) attracted 3,000 enthusiastic re-enactors (of which over 1,000 were from Britain) from countries as diverse as France, Poland, Germany, Italy and Russia, who ranged from actors and nurses to graphic designers and occupational therapists, all investing their time and money, as well as a record 70,000 visitors.

A turning point in history, this was a battle fought on the 18 June, in which Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington came into direct conflict and in which nearly 180,000 confronted each other for over ten hours, with more than 35,000 horses and with 500 cannons flying. Initially Wellington’s troops came under intense pressure. But news that Prussian reinforcements were on their way persuaded the English commander to hold his position despite heavy losses. Eventually the Prussian army arrived and together the combined Anglo-Prussian forces defeated the French.

Indeed Napoleon himself astride his trademark silver grey horse had witnessed more than 8,000 French cavalrymen, led by Marshall Ney come under the intense fire of the allied infantrymen, without managing to break the English defence or resolve. This was one of the most brutal battles ever fought, at the end of which 50,000 men lay either dead or wounded.

But to fully understand the importance of this momentous day we must consider the events that led up to it. Napoleon escaped from the Isle of Elbe where he was exiled, with the intention of re-conquering France. He disembarked at Golf Juan on 1 March 1815, arrived in Paris on 20 March, and assembled an army of 200,000 men. He then marched towards Belgium, where the English and Prussians armies together matched his strength. Napoleon’s plan was to attack each army separately before taking Brussels, and this culminated on the fields of Waterloo, with the allies spread out over a distance of 150 kilometres. The resulting victory for Wellington marked the end of the French emperor’s grandiose territorial ambitions to conquer the whole of Europe.

The re-enactment was truly epic in scale and thrilling in execution with steam rising in plumes from the horses’ nostrils as their riders charged into battle, clashing swords, while the infantrymen, their bayonets sharpened, marched in perfect unison over the uneven terrain, their uniforms authentic down to the last button on their tunics, and the ensuing hand-to-hand combat so realistic I feared for the safety of some of the participants. At times the smoke released from 50 cannons lingered so thickly over the battlefield that it was impossible to tell which side was winning, while explosive charges planted in piles of straw further heightened the sense of realism. Indeed this was a battle in which strategy counted for everything and each move planned with the precision of a chess game, so much so that it was due to the strategic mistakes made by Napoleon that the British and Prussian forces were able to combine, resulting in an allied victory.

One mock soldier, a descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte was philosophical about the occasion: “It is very satisfying to see that nearly 200 years after the battle the British, French and Germans can commemorate it together in a friendly one”.

Another participant, a warehouse manager, when asked whether called up into the army he would prefer to be on active duty today in Afghanistan or back almost 200 years fighting on the battlefield of Waterloo, he said he would much prefer the latter as “chivalry played such an important part and valour was truly rewarded”.

With the battle over, the smoke cleared, and the recreation appearing accurate down to the last detail - even the weather obliged with grey skies and heavy showers, not dissimilar to the conditions on the actual day of the battle - I headed for The Wellington Museum, a must for every visitor to the site. Situated in an old coaching inn, this was Wellington’s headquarters where he spent the night before and after the battle and wrote his victory dispatch to the British government. (The Duke’s bedroom features a life size model of Wellington himself writing his ‘Victory Report’). Here you get a real feel of the conditions of the time and what it was like to go to war in the 19th century through the wide range of authentic documents, etchings, weapons from cavalry swords to a six pounder bronze cannon captured at the site, as well as souvenirs of the various nations that took part in the combat, while illuminated panels depict the hourly development of the battle.

I just can’t wait to return for the 200th anniversary and relive one of Britain’s greatest historical triumphs!

By Laurence Green

Further information about travel to the site can be obtained from the Belgian Tourist Office, Brussels & Wallonia, 217 Marsh Wall, London E14 9FJ or by calling 020 7531 0390. The brochure line is  0800 9545 245.

About The Trip

Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. All Eurostar tickets to Brussels are valid to/from any Belgian station at no extra cost. Tickets are available from or 08432 186 186. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 1h51 minutes.

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