A Journey Into The Battle Of Waterloo, 200 Years On

Two hundred years ago, on a field in what is now Belgium, the future of Europe was decided by cannonballs, cavalry charges and carnage. Earlier this year, lifelong Waterloo buff Tom Barber followed in the footsteps of the Duke of Wellington’s army on a journey into this bloody chapter in British history, and into his own past as a boy obsessed with 1815 and all that

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What was your childhood obsession? Was it Lego? Liverpool FC? Stamp collecting? Action Man?

Well mine, since you ask, was the Battle of Waterloo. Little bit geeky, granted, but in hindsight I’m not sure even the word “obsession” quite cuts it.

Pretty much every day of every holidays, I  would beg my mum to take me across Albert Bridge to the National Army Museum in Chelsea, where I would gaze for hours at the vast model of the battlefield completed by one Captain William Siborne some 23 years after Napoleon’s final defeat in June 1815, precisely 200 years ago this month.

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When not standing on tiptoes peering intently through Perspex at Siborne’s drama in miniature unfolding across the rolling fields of what is now Belgium, I was to be found at home watching and rewatching the 1970 film Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington (tricorn hats off to whoever cast those two), until the VHS tape wore thin and eventually snapped.

Most prized possession status, though, was reserved for my 1980 Airfix Battle of Waterloo Assault Set, complete with tiny British, French and Prussian infantry, cavalry and artillery and a (not very accurate) reproduction of La Haye Sainte farmhouse, scene of some of the most brutal fighting. I could, and did, lose days arranging and rearranging the tiny protagonists and the little plastic La Haye Sainte farmer – apparently sitting on a box of beer bottles while driving his cart and frantically flogging his horses to pull him to safety.

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Some days he made it, sometimes a cannonball dispatched him, beer bottles and all. Occasionally, the battlefield became even more hazardous in a way that neither Wellington nor Napoleon, masterful tacticians that they were, could have predicted. The arrival of Mischa the Burmese cat would often see a platoon of Prussians obliterated with just a casual swat of a paw.

I have total recall of the fateful day: the Peugeot 505 Familiale with its three rows of seats taking the family on holiday to Scotland. My father driving, step-mum riding shotgun and behind them in the back two rows a distinct lack of seat belts and a generally fluid seating arrangement with my three elder stepbrothers administering Chinese burns until I agreed to support Arsenal (Richard, Charlie, Paddy, FYI – never!); the grim service station stop for lunch somewhere in the North; arriving in Scotland and removing the tarpaulin and octopus straps covering the luggage on the roof rack; the dawning realisation that somehow, somewhere, someone had pinched one of our bags from beneath the covering, and that the bag in question was mine.

The contents of said bag, now lost forever? Flares, fourth-hand and more patch than original trouser, one pair; orange and brown (God bless 1981!) Jockey Y-fronts, fortunately not fourth-hand, three pairs; assorted shorts, socks and Guernsey jumpers – and my Airfix Battle of Waterloo Assault Set. Cue instant and all-consuming grief. I was too young to register my parents’ divorce, and this was an era before dead pets and grandparents. My shocking conclusion? Life – and people – can be mean.

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I’ve coped OK in the intervening years: I’m married, have kids, haven’t – as far as I can recall – gone postal and murdered swathes of people, but with the Waterloo 200th anniversary cropping up in the news lately, the trauma of my loss has resurfaced.

After a swift self-diagnosis, I proposed two courses of action: I had to meet my Waterloo in, well, Waterloo; and I had to take to eBay to find a vintage Airfix set.

I’m not normally one to heap praise on American multinationals, nor someone to overstate things, but eBay’s Saved Searches function might just be the greatest invention since the wheel. After a few weeks inputting “Airfix Waterloo”, I’d unearthed a few vintage boxes of French cavalry and Prussian infantry, some even with the figures still attached to the sprues (technical modelling term for the plastic frames the figures come attached to) and also plenty of the 2008 Airfix Battle of Waterloo sets.

Don’t get me wrong, the ’08 is a decent effort, but I was after the original and I finally tracked one down to, of all places, the States.

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Airfix set ordered, I’m now standing in a corner of a foreign field, looking out across the location of one of the most decisive battles in history. At this point, it’s probably worth a whistle-stop historical backstory.

By June 1815, and after 20-odd years of trauma, triumph and territorial gain, Napoleon Bonaparte has avoided being devoured by the French Revolution, in which he played a pivotal role, and has risen to become (irony of ironies) Emperor of France. He is undeniably a military commander and administrator of genius but by 1814, hubris and his assorted enemies have caught up with him.

Rather than create a martyr, the Allies – somewhat naively, in hindsight – exile Bonaparte to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba where he is installed as sovereign. Given that his previous train set included most of continental Europe, Elba soon loses its appeal and Napoleon, accompanied by a handful of soldiers, “invades” France.

The aim? Typically audacious: defeat the four vast armies now dispatched to destroy him by the Allies’ Seventh Coalition (a clue, perhaps, to how well the previous coalitions had fared) and lead France back to glory.

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The plan? First, strike at the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies mobilising to meet near Brussels and then turn to face the Austrians and Russians rumbling westward across Europe towards the French border. His hope is that by knocking Britain out of the war, Napoleon can turn off the money tap funding the coalition and the others might just slink off home.

The critical campaign itself begins two days before the battle, on 16 June, 1815. The Duke of Wellington, hero of the earlier campaign to chase Napoleon out of the Iberian Peninsula and now commander of the Anglo-Dutch army, has, by his own admission, been “humbugged” by Napoleon who has crossed the border into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (which includes modern-day Belgium) before Wellington was expecting.

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To cut a long story a little shorter, and to adopt football parlance, Wellington meets part of the French army under Marshal Michel Ney at Quatre Bras, a gritty little battle ensues ending in a score draw (with more shots on target from the French), while Napoleon leads the rest of the French force to victory over Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussians at Ligny, forcing the latter to retreat away from Wellington. Napoleon orders Marshal Emmanuel Grouchy to pursue the Prussians but Grouchy is too far behind to realise Blücher has reached Wavre, from where he can head west to reconvene with Wellington rather than retreating to Prussia.

Napoleon’s audacity pays off, at least temporarily, and by scaring off the Prussians, he buys himself time to turn his undivided attention to Wellington and his Anglo-Dutch army standing between him and Brussels, near the hitherto insignificant hamlet of Waterloo. Then, another twist: on the night before the battle, Blücher, a venerable veteran of 72, gets a message to Wellington to say he is dispatching 40,000 men at daybreak to support the Anglo-Dutch.

Something other than audacity plays a part in warfare – luck.

Like many an English cricket team since, Wellington is saved by the rain, thanks to a downpour of biblical proportions and duration on the afternoon of 17 June that sees his infantry soaked to the bone, his artillery struggling to keep its powder dry and his cavalry reduced to sleeping in the saddle to avoid the mud. But crucially, it also slows the French pursuit.

Come the following morning (18), Napoleon has to make a decision: attack at once across a shallow valley filled with wet and head-high rye which, when trampled, proves treacherously slippery; or delay the attack while everything dries out, meaning more chance of the arrival of the Prussians.

So, here they are, Wellington and Napoleon, able to see each other across the valley, knowing their fates were about to be settled. As I stand by the crossroads where Wellington spent much of the day, I can’t help thinking about these two men, in 1815 both aged 46, just a few short years older than me.

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Inevitably, I play the “compare your achievements…” game. By the age of 42, Napoleon had conquered most of Europe and a significant chunk of North Africa. Me? Not so much conquering, although getting four young kids into bed sometimes feels like a truly heroic achievement. At 42, Wellington was a rising star, an undefeated general and famed seducer of nubile young Jane Austen-alikes, but he was still Arthur Wellesley, his dukedom coming in 1813.

No resting on his laurels, though. Wellington wasn’t satisfied with winning the most important battle of the 19th century, and went on to become British Prime Minister in 1828, and later again acted as interim leader. I think we’ll leave the comparison game there.

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Today, the battlefield is a strange combination.

Elements remain the same as 200 years ago: the wide-open farmland and the gentle depression across which the armies faced each other; the road leading north–south from France to Brussels with La Haye Sainte farmhouse near the crossroads that would be at the crucible of the slaughter. The west, towards Wellington’s right flank, is now outflanked by a busy motorway.

Down a scruffy track running a few yards parallel to the motorway and through a small and scruffier-still copse is Château d’Hougoumont. The chateau, farm and its extensive formal gardens and orchards marked the extreme Allied right flank, and it was here Napoleon chose to unleash his first – diversionary – offensive.

I’m here on a bright, breezy March day with academic and Waterloo guide Alasdair White. Belgian builders are frantically trying to meet June deadlines for Project Hougoumont, a charitable enterprise that has raised more than £3.5m to restore a place that was drifting into dereliction. We wander past the small whitewashed chapel, following a jagged wall that stops abruptly in a large open space.

“This is where the chateau burnt down during the siege,” White says. “The chapel survived. A few years back, someone broke in and stole the crucifix that had been here since before the battle, but it was spotted up for auction and requisitioned. It will be back in place come the bicentenary.”

The defenders of Hougoumont that day 200 years ago are German troops supported by the Coldstream Guards and other British infantry.

The French advance from the south through a wood of which nothing remains except three huge sweet chestnut trees. Two are now dead but all are old enough to have stood witness to the drama that ensued. Throughout the day, the French launch wave after wave of attacks while the Allies use loopholes knocked through the garden walls to fire their muskets. Eventually, the Coldstreamers outside the walls are forced to take cover inside the north gate and the French, sensing blood and led by a vast axe-wielding second lieutenant called Legros, manage to force the gates before they can be closed.

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About 30 French make it inside before the Coldstreamers can heave the gates shut. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensues within the walls with all the French killed except for a young drummer boy spared to work in the makeshift field hospital in a barn. The battle-within-a-battle at Hougoumont lasts all day, with the 2,500 defenders tying down an estimated 12,500 men, a quarter of Napoleon’s entire force. One-third of all the deaths at Waterloo were here, with Wellington later asserting “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.”

With Hougoumont besieged, Napoleon switches his attention to the centre of the Allies’ line, ordering forward the 30,000 men of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet the Count D’Erlon’s 1 Corps at around one o’clock.

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This formidable French force can only see a small number of Anglo-Dutch, Wellington adopting his favoured tactic of deploying the majority of his forces on the reverse slope of a ridge so the enemy never knows its exact number or position. It means the brutal barrage from the grande batterie of cannons – a classic Napoleonic softening-up technique – is based on mere guesswork, with many of the cannonballs landing harmlessly in the mud.

Even so, D’Erlon’s troops reach the brow of the ridge in what is now a valley filled with smoke. Bonaparte can only tell what is happening by observing the column of smoke steadily advancing up the hill away from him. With the Allied centre creaking precariously, a staff officer glancing at Napoleon recalled an expression of satisfaction that implied “he thought his battle was won”.

But D’Erlon is in for a further surprise.

The art of the cavalry counter-attack is timing and the 2,600 British Heavy Cavalry under Lord Uxbridge who thunder up from the rear time their run to perfection, streaming through the broken Allied ranks and smashing into the French.

The first many of the French know of their impending destruction is the sight of huge horses, eyes bulging, galloping out of the smoke before a swift hack of the sword and eternal darkness. D’Erlon’s infantry are stopped in their tracks, buckle and run, with riders – many of them huntsmen – in pursuit of the French foxes. The British cavalry pursue the infantry back across the valley finding themselves among the cannons of the grande batterie, where they hack away at defenceless French gunners. In The Battle, the definitive account of Waterloo by Alessandro Barbero, he quotes Lord Uxbridge: “Surely such havoc was rarely made in so few minutes.”

The havoc is about to continue, however, because now the British cavalry, far from their own lines, become sitting ducks for French lancers. In the space of a few minutes, the tables have turned three times and the carnage is escalating.

The armies pause and wonder: where are the Prussians? In an era long before radio, information is hard to come by and unreliable, but Napoleon gets word the Prussians are close, and Blücher, nearly trampled to death by French cavalry at Ligny and since then fortified by brandy, has ridden hard to arrive at the vanguard of his army.

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The next set-piece takes place where the builders are putting the finishing touches to the new Waterloo visitors’ centre. It’s a large nondescript piece of land with the centre cleverly built underground, so there’s no clue to the struggle that played out here 200 years before, but this was where a large part of Wellington’s infantry were waiting.

Red-headed Marshall Ney, who would lose four horses at Waterloo, leads 8,900 cavalry including brigades of cuirassiers, mostly veterans and resplendent in their gleaming breastplates, up the slopes in the hope of a decisive breakthrough. He has, mistakenly, believed he’s seen Allied troops retreating when in fact it is the wounded making their way back to the field hospital in the rear.

At this point, says writer Bernard Cornwell (of Sharpe fame) in his book Waterloo, the battle becomes a deadly game of rock, paper, scissors. Infantry caught in the open, as had happened earlier to D’Erlon’s unfortunates, would be cut to pieces by cavalry. But well-trained troops formed into squares of hundreds of men in three rows with fixed bayonets – first row kneeling, second row crouching and third row firing — could keep cavalry at bay because horsemen could never persuade their steeds to charge at so much steel.

The second the cavalry retreated, however, a stationary square of men became targets for batteries of cannons that could decimate them with canister shells full of grapeshot.

This dance of death continues for two hours with the French cavalry attacking as many as 60 Allied squares on the reverse slope, knowing that one breach in one bristling square and they would be in among the infantry. Time and again, they wheel away unsuccessfully to leave the squares to sit tight under another artillery barrage, with the officers screaming “close ranks”, the injured dragged into the middle and the dead thrown out as extra defensive barricades on top of dead cavalrymen and the horrifically maimed horses thrashing around in front of every square.

Not a single Allied square breaks, with Wellington, the master of defensive strategy, himself caught in a square at one point. His rope-a-dope tactics are buying time but losses are mounting. “Give me night or give me Blücher,” he is heard to mutter, and now, after a full 12 hours on the move, the Prussians do arrive behind Napoleon’s right flank, forcing the Emperor to redeploy crucial troops from the central assault.

It’s last-roll-of-the-dice time for Napoleon. There could be one decisive breakthrough, and in reserve he has the Imperial Guard, then the world’s elite fighting force. They have been kicking their heels in the rear all day thanks to Napoleon’s confidence, but now they advance to their drummers’ beat across the valley and up the slopes, bearskin hats making these already tall troops seem like giant supermen, all the while roaring “Vive L’Empereur!”

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To quash the rumours spreading through French ranks of the Prussians’ arrival, the Emperor rides at their head for a time, shouting that French reinforcements have been spotted. It’s a desperate lie. So, onwards the Imperial Guard go, supported by the remains of D’Erlon’s 1 Corps on the other side of La Haye Sainte farm. It’s do or die. Or both.

La Haye Sainte farm now stands in the shadow of the vast conical Lion’s Mound, built in 1826 on the site of the centre of the Allied line to commemorate the sacrifice of Anglo-Dutch dead at Waterloo. The Dutch used soil from the defensive ridge, prompting Wellington to remark later that “they ruined my battlefield”. Climb the 226 steps to the summit and you can see the entire battlefield, with the Lion’s Mound itself on the spot where the Imperial Guard reached the Allied lines, advancing in immaculate square formation to repel cavalry attacks.

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It’s at this point that historians disagree. There are plenty of first-person accounts of the battle but everyone’s experience is in isolation. In the case of Waterloo, it’s an isolation of thick smoke, the reek of death, the deafening noise of near continual artillery fire and exposure to exhausting carnage for an afternoon. Perhaps they got word of the Prussians’ arrival, or were disheartened by their journey, or were surprised by unforeseen attacks; what is certain is that the Imperial Guard, nicknamed “the Immortals”, waver and do something they have never done – withdraw.

In admirably orderly fashion, mind, retreating in squares, but the momentum is lost, and Wellington, sensing his moment, stands up in his stirrups, takes off his hat and orders an advance.

Napoleon’s Armée du Nord disintegrates, pursued by vengeful Prussians, not yet sated even after a day of marching and fighting. Wellington and Blücher meet on the battlefield and embrace each other while Napoleon turns tail for Paris. A month later, after abdicating, he hands himself in to the British after trying to sail to America.

There were 42,000 casualties at Waterloo, with an estimated 10,000 dead. Given the relentless Great War centenaries, we’ve become inured to these casualty figures, but WWI battles such as at the Somme were fought along fronts sometimes stretching for tens of miles. The killing fields at Waterloo amount to just two square miles of concentrated butchery. Given this scale, it remains a mystery as to where the bodies are buried.

“The fields and lanes are dotted with memorials and steles commemorating individuals or military units,” Alasdair White says, “but none marking mass graves.” Waterloo Uncovered, a new archeological project created by a couple of Coldstream Guards officers, Major Charles Foinette (serving) and former Captain Mark Evans, aims to unearth the answers. “A battle like Waterloo leaves a physical record,” Foinette explains. “So far, everything we know about it comes from notoriously unreliable eyewitness accounts, so the only indisputable facts will be the physical evidence.”

The team will conduct forensic tests when they inevitably find the mass graves, and aim to scan the areas around Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte to assess where the largest predominance of cannonballs and musket balls are found, all of which will refine the narrative. It will be the first official dig on the battlefield, and a fitting way to celebrate the 200th anniversary.

The bicentennial itself is important for another reason. The centenary in 1915 passed almost without notice as the great-grandsons of those who fought at Waterloo were dying in droves along the Western Front in places like Ypres, some 100 miles up the road. This time, Europe can remember in peace.

As ever, there’s a school of thought that downplays the importance of Waterloo: Napoleon was a busted flush, they say; normal service would soon have been resumed, they expostulate. Maybe, maybe not, but what is true is that the battle drew a line under 475 years of near-constant conflict between England (later Britain) and France, with Britain – for better or for worse – going on to exert hegemony as the world’s only superpower for the next 100 years.

After taking the Eurostar home from Brussels, I unlock the front door to find a large parcel. I open it and tears follow surprisingly quickly. It’s Airfix model 40604-4, the Battle of Waterloo Assault Set, scale HO:OO, and I’m eight years old again. The farmer’s wagon is there; so, too, the Imperial Guard, drummer and all, and the kilted Highland infantry. Even the crinkling, green moulded plastic box. I remember these things with visceral intensity.

That said, it’s funny how memory warps over the years. The box itself feels far smaller than I remember, not much bigger than the size of a Monopoly set. I’d remembered it filling up most of my suitcase. (Maybe it had, maybe my suitcase was more of a lunchbox.)

The floodgates open when later I find my five-year-old boy George playing with the soldiers. To date, he’s been a Lego chap but he’s transfixed and, as I watch surreptitiously, it feels like a ghost has left the room.

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