Two hun­dred years on, the guns roar anew at Waterloo


The sounds of war rang out on the fields of Bel­gium on Thurs­day as the Bat­tle of Waterloo was restaged 200 years af­ter the clash that ended Napoleon’s im­pe­rial am­bi­tions and changed the course of Euro­pean history.

In what was billed as the big­gest re-en­act­ment of its kind, 6,000 history en­thu­si­asts from 52 coun­tries in full cos­tume acted out the July 18, 1815 clash be­tween the French army and the al­lied Bri­tish, Prus­sian and Dutch forces.

A day af­ter Euro­pean roy­als and politi­cians sent out a mes­sage of peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to a mod­ern-day con­ti­nent fac­ing eco­nomic strife and con­flict on its borders, it was time for the mock bat­tle to start.

Around 60,000 spec­ta­tors from around the world were on hand to watch a spec­ta­cle which had sold out months ago, seated in huge stands ca­pa­ble of hous­ing more peo­ple than Bel­gium’s na­tional soc­cer sta­dium.

Deaf­en­ing cannon fire erupted from both sides as “troops” in full livery ad­vanced across the same damp fields south of Bel­gium where 47,000 peo­ple were killed or wounded two cen­turies ago — this time to ap­plause from the crowds.

“We love Napoleon,” said Kevin Michael, 25, from Cleve­land, Ohio, who had flown over from the United States with his par­ents for five days es­pe­cially to see the Waterloo bi­cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions. “It’s like watch­ing history.”

His fa­ther Wil­liam We­ston added: “We were read­ing about Euro­pean unity and Napoleon wanted to unify the Euro­pean peo­ple, but un­der the French.”

Smoke and Cannon Fire

The filmic re-en­act­ment was a far cry from the somber cer­e­monies on Thurs­day’s an­niver­sary of an event which still stirs pas­sions in Europe and fur­ther afield.

“Waterloo, the folly and the grandeur. The hor­ror and the ge­nius. The tragedy and then the hope,” Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter Charles Michel said in an open­ing ad­dress on Thurs­day.

Michel, whose gov­ern­ment spent 10 mil­lion eu­ros on the com­mem­o­ra­tions, called for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion through the “Euro­pean pro­ject” and its prom­ise of peace de­spite mod­ern-day chal­lenges of con­flict on its borders in Ukraine and eco­nomic wor­ries in Greece.

But the mood was more cel­e­bra­tory on Fri­day, with spec­ta­tors car­ry­ing French tri­col­ore and UK Union Jack flags, and stir­ring clas­si­cal mu­sic pumped out over loud­speak­ers at tense mo­ments.

They watched as the “sol­diers” in lav­ish blue, red and gold uni­forms acted out the course of the day-long bat­tle — which the Bri­tish Duke of Welling­ton de­scribed as “the near­est run thing you ever saw in your life” — over a two-hour show.

First came the French cannon fire and the ad­vance of both cav­alry and in­fantry on the or­ders of Napoleon, played by Parisian lawyer Frank Sam­son, wear­ing the em­peror’s dis­tinc­tive twohorned black hat.

“The dead were de­cap­i­tated, mu­ti­lated,” said the breath­less com­men­ta­tor de­scrib­ing the bat­tle to the crowd.

But as smoke drifted across the bat­tle­field, the Duke of Welling­ton’s al­lied forces held fast at two repli­cas of the famed Haie Sainte and Hougoumont farm­houses, just as they did on that damp day in 1815, de­spite vol­leys of mus­ket fire from the French.

The troops marched to fife and drums and, were it not for the planes fly­ing over­head from Brus­sels air­port, the scene could have al­most been from 200 years ear­lier.

Napoleon De­feated, then on

Bel­gian TV

In the end, as in real life, Na- poleon was de­feated. In 2015, how­ever, he went on to be in­ter­viewed by Bel­gian tele­vi­sion.

Bel­gian news­pa­pers later com­plained that the show was too loud, a view echoed by some spec­ta­tors at the event.

A sec­ond re-en­act­ment takes place on Satur­day.

Yet for all the sound and fury the re-en­act­ment could not cap­ture the full hor­ror of a bat­tle that al­tered Europe’s fate for­ever.

While around 12,000 died on that day alone many more died of hor­rific in­juries or in­fec­tions in the days that fol­lowed the end of Napoleon’s ill-fated drive north in 1815.

The bat­tle pit­ted around 93,000 French troops led by Napoleon against 125,000 Bri­tish, Ger­man and Bel­gian-Dutch forces un­der the Duke of Welling­ton and Field Mar­shal Bluecher.

De­feat saw Napoleon ex­iled to Saint He­lena in the south At­lantic Ocean, where he died in 1821.

The vic­tors then re­drew the map of a Europe which en­joyed al­most a cen­tury of rel­a­tive peace un­til the car­nage of World War I.

The bat­tle still stirs strong feel­ings.

On Wed­nes­day, Bri­tish heir to the throne Prince Charles un­veiled a me­mo­rial at the Hougoumont Farm­house, where al­lied forces fought off re­peated French at­tacks as Napoleon des­per­ately sought to break their lines.

In con­trast France only sent an am­bas­sador to Thurs­day’s cer­e­mony, and kicked up a fuss in the pre­ced­ing weeks af­ter Bel­gium tried to mint a com­mem­o­ra­tive euro coin fea­tur­ing the bat­tle.


Re-en­ac­tors take part in the first part of a re-en­acte­ment of the Bat­tle of Waterloo, “The French At­tack,” dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tions of the 200th an­niver­sary of The Bat­tle of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Bel­gium on Fri­day, June 19.

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