Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Waterloo Battlefield - A Fresh Look

For me Waterloo is one of the iconic battles of not only the Napoleonic Wars but history in general, I'm sure most of my readers will agree, a place of pilgrimage.

Growing up in the 80s my initial wargames were virtually wholly set in the period, all my friends had Napoleonic Armies and we would regularly play large battles but Waterloo was always THE battle. Is it a British thing, I don't know, I particularly remember a huge re fight of the battle over 30 years ago, ending with Napoleon being killed at the head of his Guard Lancers, much to the Prussian players annoyance as they where just arriving, great memories.

However it wasn't until 2007 that I actually visited the Battlefield, this year we where back in the area again so another visit was in order, my plan was to ignore the main centre and just walk the field however when I arrived I realised things had changed dramatically from my last visit.

When I last visited the area between the road and the Lion Monument was an old style restaurant and the visitors centre, both now demolished, to the right out of view, the old museum was gone too.

The new visitors centre is cut into the ground on the site of the old museum, this is different I thought, let's explore. Entrance was €17 which included an audio guide and entrance to all areas.

The new museum was very impressive, you enter initially into a general history area or the "Napoleon Shrine" as I preferred to call it. It was informative, lots of interactive stations which were good, the ginormous painting of Napoleon dressed as the Emperor was slightly over the top. I was half expecting to find the French Waterloo Victory Room.

From there you enter a long corridor lined on both sides with manikins dressed in uniforms of 1815, Wellington  (apparently he was present) and his Allies on the left, the French on the right. A good variety of uniforms on display too, not just Imperial Guard.

Some pictures of someone who isn't Napoleon and one which is
From there you enter a 4D cinema, apparently the 4th D is smell, Mrs Yarkshire swore she could smell horses, I just thought it was the sweaty bloke next to us. An excellent film, freshly made with live actors, a tour highlight. The rest of the museum features artifacts from the battle and post battle history.

The large painted Panorama remains as it was on my last visit, still very impressive. And from there it's the long long climb up the Lion Monument, the view of the battlefield is superb, unfortunately the building of the mound means that the topography of the area has changed.

Lions Mound towards Pictons Crossroads
Lions Mound towards La Haye Sainte
Towards Hougomont 
There is a 3D experience advertised for the mound where you can hire a headset which super imposes the troops movements onto the battlefield as you look at it from the top of the mound, it sounds like a great idea, sadly it wasn't there on the day I attended, possibly due to the rain.

Next up on the itinerary was a visit to Hougomont, now there is complimentary bus from the museum to the farmhouse however I highly recommend that you walk the distance  (10 mins), if you turn immediately left on your exit through the turnstiles from Lions Mound and follow the path, this takes you along the British Line past the memorial to Mercers Battery (see above) and then through a small wood to Hougomont.

Last time I visited this is how far I got, there was a big sign saying Private Property Keep Out, the Farm was very run down and looking sorry.

The sight shown above is very different from that, full marks to the people who have made this possible, what a fantastic job, having been turned away last time I was mightily excited about visiting the area.

Before entering the Farm itself I spent a while just wandering around the walls, with the woods from the battle gone the area has changed a great deal since 1815 but you can still get a feel for the attack there. You know you are a bit of a geek when everyone else who arrived at the same time as you goes into Hougomont and you spend 40 minutes just breathing the place in.

Inside is a small information area, but the main attraction is the presentation in the main barn. What a fantastic thing this is, it's quite hard to explain as it uses projections on moving panels but what a show ! I think Pink Floyd would be impressed by some of the effects. As with the film at the main museum live actors are used to tell the story of Hougomont within the battle, a must see.

The small Chapel is particularly poignant, one of the few areas to survive the fires after the battle, someone had left some figures on the altar  (scale and manufacturer anyone) The crucifix has had an adventurous life, burnt, stolen and broken but now back where it belongs.

Another good wander round inside the grounds was of course required, the new British Memorial was impressive, if a little dirty.

No French in sight
Leaving Hougomont we decided to opt out of the free bus back and spend a bit of time free form wandering. We retraced our steps to the point where you emerge from the woods, on your right is a wide track, last time I visited this was the route of the battlefield tour where a open bus drove round the field. It didn't say we couldn't walk down there so we did.

Looking back towards Hougomont

Walking the field is by far the best way of seeing the battlefield, it always surprises me how steep and long the slope is to the British and Allied Ridge,  Wellington was certainly a genius at ground selection.

The track comes out on the main Brussels Road outside La Belle Alliance (shown above) by this point the light rain was getting slightly heavier, it wasn't proper sideways Yarkshire rain but it was noticeable. Being British and Northern, I was of course wearing only a t shirt (and trousers obviously, cheeky).

So we walked back along the pavement on the main road past La Haye Sainte  (Still a working farm, getting inside there one day is a must). This again gives a real feel of the distances and gradient involved, your actually walking in the footsteps of the attacking French. You also get a great view of the battlefield to the East of the main road.

Pictons Memorial at the main Crossroads

So at the end of a long day we ended up at the Crossroads at the centre of the British and Allied line, a few moments to soak (literally with the rain at this point) in the whole of the Battlefield before getting back in the car for a short trip to a warm coffee. We spent a proper full day at the site, I could have spent longer (Papelotte etc). A much changed experience from my last visit and well worth a return.