WATERLOO, Belgium – In a thunder of hooves, 250 French cavalrymen charge up the hillside with sabers flashing, breastplates gleaming and the reds, gold and blues of their uniforms a glorious wave of color breaking against the ranks of scarlet-coated British infantry.
As reconstructions go, the Battle of Waterloo 2010 was a magnificent spectacle.
But could this gathering of 3,000 enthusiasts in period costume to mark the 195th anniversary of a bloody turning point in world history also help cement unity among modern-day Europeans? Some of the participants seem to think so.
“This was an enormous event in the collective memory of all Europeans,” said Luc Meaux, a Belgian decked out in the navy blue and gold braided uniform of Napoleon’s marine guard.
“It’s important to remember that this battle was an opening toward Europe, it was from this moment that we started to think about alliances among the European nations.”
Waterloo today is a quiet commuter town on the southern outskirts of Brussels, an upscale suburb much sought after by officials working at the headquarters of the European Union. Not surprisingly, it’s particularly popular with British ex-pats, reassured perhaps to reside alongside the battlefield that produced one of their country’s greatest victories.
On June 18, 1815, an army of 67,000 British, German and Dutch troops led by the Duke of Wellington blocked Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to take Brussels with a French army of 72,000. Wellington’s force held out all day against ferocious French attacks until, the arrival of 50,000 reinforcements from the German kingdom of Prussia gave the allies a decisive advantage late in the afternoon.
Defeat brought the Napoleonic era to an end and the emperor was sent off to exile on the British south Atlantic island of St. Helena, never to return.
The French lost (again) in the reconstruction, a dress rehearsal for what is expected to be one of the biggest ever historical reconstructions on the 200th anniversary in five years' time. Despite the inevitable defeat, the second-highest figure in the hierarchy of today’s French Republic came to watch the action.
“In a Europe that finally is finally together in a beautiful alliance, it’s good to come here and remember how things were in the past,” said Gerard Larcher, president of the French Senate.
Larcher recalled that as well as being the anniversary of the great battle between France and Britain, June 18 also marked 60 years since Gen. Charles de Gaulle of France broadcast to his homeland from London to appeal for France to join Britain in resisting the Nazis.
Major re-enactments are held in Waterloo every five years in the rolling wheat fields where the original battle was fought. Towering above the battlefield today is the Lion Mound, a 140-foot memorial crowned by 31-ton statue of a lion that was built in the 1820s to mark the allied victory. This year’s event brought together men and women from around Europe to participate and the organizers said assault by French horsemen on the British lines was the biggest cavalry charge ever in a historical reenactment in Europe.
The hundreds of Brits, French, Germans and Dutch hobbyists who marched into Waterloo for the battle, were joined by a babel of Russians, Spaniards, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Italians and others. There was even a detachment of marines from Malta who joined the British ranks.
“It took as two days in a bus to get here from Moscow, without stopping for a pee,” said Vladimir Levin, a Russian IT programmer, in the bright-blue uniform of the Württemberg artillery.
“It’s so interesting to meet people from different countries ... plus I work for a French company, so this is a chance to get back at the boss,” added the grinning Muscovite. Other members of Leven’s group were however fighting on the other side, as members of Napoleon’s guard.
Elsewhere, Alberto de Santiago Lantaron from Valencia, Spain, was fighting for the British in the black of the Brunswick cavalry, while most of his friends where in the French artillery. Dutchman Rene van Rijen, marched under the towering bearskin cap of the French grenadiers against the army of his homeland. The confusing mix of nationalities in the re-enactment reflected in the battle itself.
Belgian troops, for example, fought on both sides, since their country had changed hands between France and the Netherlands just months before the battle. Belgian veterans of Napoleon’s Grande Armee, who found themselves conscripted to fight against their former leader, marched into the battle shouting “Long Live the Emperor” out of habit, explained Meaux, president of a Napoleonic association in Belgium.
For those who made the trip to Waterloo, the three-hour mock battle under the eyes of an estimated 70,000 spectators (including Prince Charles Napoleon — current head of the Bonaparte dynasty and great, great, great nephew of the emperor) was the climax of a weekend of camping under the Belgian rain to re-create the bivouacs of the time — complete with sleeping straw beds, drilling and cooking over open fires.
“There are two things I get out of this: the camaraderie, but also an understanding of history. You can learn so much about a period by living these experiences,” said Andrew Choong, a curator at London’s National Maritime Museum, and temporarily an infantryman in the Scottish Black Watch regiment. “We should not forget about this slice of history.”
Steve Hars, another British red-coat, spoke warmly of the comradeship with the weekend soldiers from around Europe, but made clear that there were limits, especially while the World Cup is going on.
“The French are never allowed to win; here we always get the right result: England 2, France 1.”