A look at one of the largest European war re-enactments, the 200th anniversary of Napoleons last stand south of Brussels.
With Mitch’s parents now in London, he had a good chance to show them around some of the different sights. Being in a bit of a ‘transition’ phase with work made it easier too. Taking the Eurostar to Brussels we showed Jan and Fred around one of our ‘least’ favourite cities. The walk to the apartment took us by the Manneken Pis or “Pissing Boy”, through a few chocolate and waffle shops and the Grand Place. A good feed of moules and frites kept us occupied before getting on the train south to Braine l’Alleud. The whole operation was swift. A bus to Waterloo took us to the big Lion’s Mound which we snuck into a couple years ago.
The battle of Waterloo goes a bit like this:
Napoleon the French Emperor underwent a major conquest of Europe, defeating armies all the way to the gates of Russia until winter set in. He was eventually defeated and exiled to Elba by a coalition of forces, supposedly never to return. It wasn’t long before those loyal to Napoleon brought him back. The French Republic sent an army to capture him. However, forces defected and Napoleon began his swift return to power, marching on Paris, then again, onto Europe. On June 18th 1815 the Seventh Coalition of European Forces, including the British under the Duke of Wellington, the Prussians under Blücher met the advancing French forces in what was then the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The historians we saw that night were showing the battle with as much accuracy as possible. The outfits were really impressive, made with needle and thread and authentic to the smallest detail. The actors themselves were a mix of sorts. We heard a few accents from all over the world. The original battle involved over 190,000 men. With 7,000 we were going to get a pretty good idea of the battle. Some friends we met in Ireland were taking part. At this scale, there was no chance of meeting up with them. Mitch’s Dad was quite the military history buff, being across all events and providing a good narration.
To begin with, the armies gathered on opposite hillsides, sizing each other up. A few horses scouting through the long grass. After a while a few shots with the big guns were fired and a few riflemen started their assault. Then it was all on!
Due to the accuracy of the muskets being somewhat poor, the opposing forces didn’t begin firing until separated by a short distance. Military formations, such as a square to defend cavalry charges, and a column, to bring in reinforcements, were regularly used. Scenes were performed with historical precision, such as the Charge of the Scots Grey, a folly of the elite British heavy cavalry which resulted in them biting off more than they could chew, continuing on the fight behind enemy lines, eventually meeting the French cavalry and suffering heavy casualties. The horses did well with all the gunshots and pyrotechnics. However, one nearby reared up on it’s hind legs, dismounting it’s rider, who somewhat embarrassed led it away.
We couldn’t get over how the actors wouldn’t play dead. It was a constant – bang, reload, advance, retreat. I guess when you are representing an army 30 times bigger, you get 29 more lives! While Jan and Fred had seats, Mitch and Tam were roaming around the standing areas, being herded away by one officious warden. Some fans were really getting into it. A French couple in front of us were cheering “their” team on like it was a sports match. “Vive le France”, “Allez, Allez, Allez”.
In the end, the nights battle rounded out as the first act, with the remainder (the battle at Hougomont Farm) scheduled for the following night. We all decided that in the cold (yes, a cold June night) and because we had an early 6am flight to Nice that we wouldn’t use our tickets for the rest. History tells that the British and Prussians won the day, with the Duke of Wellington calling it “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”. The final moments of the battle would show the moment the Prussians regrouped and broke the French right flank for victory. Over 40,000 casualties in one day of battle.
A walk back to the train station late at night battling the hordes of other participants, all lined up in military formation, we had our own little Waterloo battle to get back to Brussels. We weren’t the best influence on Mitch’s parents, when showing them the tricks of sneaking on public transport, we didn’t notice the newly installed barriers on the Brussels underground. With the help of a Samaritan passer by, we were able to run the gauntlet and break through to get back. Mitch got caught in the gate arms and received a few bruises for his efforts.
The following day we were going to head out to see Brugge, but opted instead for the closer Ghent. We had heard good things about the place and as a bonus, our Dutch cousin Renee and her partner Silvio were coming along for the day. Ghent has all the charm of Brugge, but much more beauty and much less touristy. Ghent made its wealth though Northern Atlantic trade, being an inland port. It’s proximity to the industrial powerhouse of the United Kingdom created similar industry here first on the European mainland. Meeting the Dutch relatives at Dulle Griet, a bar famous for its antics and trappist beers, we had a midday pint. Mitch had a litre in a small yard glass – the catch was, that in order to get this glass, you had to give your shoe to the bartender, who put it in a basket and hoisted it into the ceiling as a form of bond. A lunch in the main courtyard and a quiet snooze in the sun rounded out a great visit.
Next up in our tour was the French Riviera. Mitch’s parents were very understanding of our fast pace and were more than happy to go with the flow. The next few days we hoped would be more relaxing…