Thursday, November 3
Once again I’m astonished at just how interesting I found another one of Max’s Disaster Tours, and this MDT 2 covering the Battle of Waterloo fell into that bucket of ‘whoa, this is well done!’.
From what others had mentioned, we thought we’d be trotting on a section of the battlefield and reading a few displays about what occurred, then we’d be out of there; but the museum captured our interest from the get-go and the expected 60-minute visit turned into a four-hour tour.
Memorial 1815, the museum site, combines a hilltop panorama (as well as a mural housed in the circular building below) with a modern, underground museum (just visible to the right of the strollers), all excellent tributes to this battle.
Similar to the one in Bastogne, Memorial 1815 enhances a visitor’s experience by using a mix of visual and audio tools. After sitting through a ten-minute film with 3-D glasses, Max said he got a good idea of just how it might feel to be an infantryman charged by a cavalry. Based on the progression of exhibit experiences, I wouldn’t be too surprised if in the next ten years (or less) I’ll actually be able to take part in a historical event though virtual reality (NOTE: I’d opt out of France’s Reign of Terror and chopped heads, and many more, no doubt).
For two hours we walked chronologically through rooms explaining…
the background of Napoleon’s rule (French Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, aka Age of Reason)…
some interesting aspects of his time as emperor: he honored the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827 ) with the title of count due to Volta’s work in electricity; he championed beet sugar production in answer to the British blocking the Caribbean sugar cane trade; and, one of his most influential legacies: he authorized the creation of the Napoleonic Code, a modern legal code with no religious content and written in language people could actually understand…
as well as a brief primer on all the forces escalating against Napoleon: his enemies sat on many thrones, so this Corsican’s rise to power based on merit and not on inheritance sent shivers throughout all of Europe and Great Britain. The museum Id’ed the prominent rulers opposing this upstart:
Francis II, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1768-1835) – detested any whiff of constitutionalism and waged war against France in 1792-97, and fought in subsequent battles against Napoleon; to his family’s dismay his daughter, Marie-Louise, later became Napoleon’s second wife and mother of Napoleon’s only legitimate son.
Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily (1752-1814) – pushed out of Naples by Napoleon (whose brother Joseph was then made King of Naples, then later replaced by another Bonaparte sib, Caroline); oh, and Maria Carolina was one of Marie Antoinette’s sisters… need I say more?
Frederick William, Prussian Duke of Brunswick and Wolfenbuttel (1781-1815) – was humiliated by Napoleon’s crushing defeat of the Prussian army in 1806 and looked forward to retaliating.
John VI, King of Portugal (1767-1826) – his country was invaded by the French and the Spanish during Napoleon’s rule with the royal family escaping to Brazil in 1807; interestingly, Britain under the command of Arthur Wellesley (who becomes THE Duke of Wellington) restored the Portuguese throne in1808.
Williem I, Stadholder/Governor of the Netherlands (later King when Austrian Low Lands, now Belgium, was added to the Netherlands) (1772-1843) – his country was invaded by Napoleon (Napoleon’s brother, Louis, ruled the Netherlands 1806-10).
Ferdinand VII, King of Spain (1784-1833) – first sought out Napoleon for protection from his father, Charles IV, then was taken prisoner by Napoleon who installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king of Spain (the latter was so ineffective as King of Naples, big bro Napoleon made him King of Spain instead; go figure).
Louis XVIII, King of France (1755-1824) – brother of the beheaded French king and hoping to take back his family’s throne.
Quite a club, eh? Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if all of them ever got together in one room. Actually, I’d rather be someone at the table for I can only imagine the food feast served.
With Napoleon invading so many of his neighbors, you wonder who wouldn’t rise up against him? Add the fact he made himself Emperor (so much for abolishing despots) and populated squashed countries’ thrones with his siblings, one would have to be a dummkopf (aka, blockhead) not to realize this was poking a hornet’s next with an extremely short stick. Scratch that: change ‘poking’ to ‘whacking the hell out of’.
Actually, Napoleon was just continuing the tradition begun with the first (1792-97) of seven Coalition Wars when monarchies tried to stifle the French Revolution. During that time Napoleon was proving his military genius as he ascended from soldier to general to commander of France’s army. Six more coalition wars were fought with the seventh in 1815, ending with the vanquishing of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Oddly the museum used historical paintings to cover earlier battles fought by Napoleon. It was fascinating from an artistic perspective but not too clear regarding the chronology leading up to this auspicious battle. However, one that caught my interest depicted a ball in Brussels given by the Duchess of Richmond, the Commander of the Reserve Troops’ wife, on June 15, just three days before the fight.
She invited top dignitaries, including Wellington and his commanders. Although the French had already begun preparations for battle, the Duke ordered his officers to attend in order to stave off any panic their absence might have caused.
When we got to the museum’s area covering the actual battle, a timeline adorned each side of a long hallway while soldiers marched towards the battle. Here the information was so detailed you could press a button on your audio guide to hear about soldiers’ belts and other minutia. Must admit I skipped a lot of those for my eyeballs were starting to spin in my head.
Prussian officers led by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (1742-1819) were instrumental in winning the Battle of Waterloo;
as were those led by Willem I, King of the Netherlands (mentioned earlier). Without the Prussian and Netherland troops, the French would have won the Battle. FYI: I’ve seen so many conflicting numbers of troops per army I won’t even begin to try to figure it out. Suffice it to say, the French were outnumbered.
It was a singularly bloody fight with Wellington aptly saying “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
While the actual, June 18th squirmishes didn’t attract my attention too much some specific incidents related to this Battle did, such as…
- a painting of the capturing and looting of Napoleon’s military carriage (we actually saw his battlefield hat in Berlin’s German History Museum);I later discovered the carriage was shipped to England’s Prince Regent (later King George IV), eventually landing in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (!) where it was destroyed by a fire in 1925;
- sketches by Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), a surgeon and anatomist who visited the battle field 10 days later to document some of the wounds, possibly to use as part of his medical teachings;
- hearing Napoleon went to Mal Maison, the manor he had shared with his ex-wife, Josephine, seven days after escaping capture on the battlefield (and, which Max and I visited with Betsy just before New Year’s Eve in 2014);
- and, due to the heroics and victory at the Battle of Waterloo, veterans received free beer for a long time at any British pub.
With all of the information provided several categories seemed to be missing: the personal lives of the main characters; and, the period of Napoleon escaping Elba only to return to lead the French back into war. But, we were definitely ready for a break and some fresh air, so we headed to a key battle site: Hougoumont.
A short shuttle bus landed us at the site where at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of June 18, 2015 the first shots were fired. This walled farmhouse stood equidistant between the two lines of engagement, and, for that reason Wellington positioned his troops there. Supposedly, when asked what his orders would be if he died in battle, he said “hold Hougoumont.” And, they did, but not without a lot of fighting as the French tried over and over to win this piece of land.
At one point during the fight, the French caused the buildings to burn. Later, the French managed to push in the gate and storm the grounds. Several soldiers then rushed to the wall and, in a heroic moment–one of many, i’m sure–closing the gate, thus keeping their enemy out. This action is credited with ensuring Hougoumont remained in the Coalition’s possession.
Remarkably, a chapel remained intact after this horrendous fighting. What was deemed a miracle was a 16th-century Flemish crucifix in the chapel actually starting burning but mysteriously stopped at the feet. Some writers whose names I recognized visited this site: Lady Shelley, friend and confidante of Wellington, travelled there in September 1815; the following year Lord Byron scrawled his name on the wall (not there now); and Victor Hugo must have been there for he included the manor’s well in Les Miserables.
Since then the crucifix has gone through a theft of a leg and several restorations.
Both Max and I found Hougoumont particularly interesting, and moving when you consider the bravery of the few who held this vital site. Where once a woods stood three trees remain, left by the owner, Chevalier de Louville, after the battle due to the heavy damage incurred. Not only humans but nature, too, is befouled by war.
But, time to catch the shuttle back where we both walked up the numerous steps to look across the battlefield; however, I with my shuddering fear of heights climbed up step by step while talking to myself to tamp down my nervousness. Once atop I quickly scooted my backside along the base of the monument only to rush back down the numerous steps, talking to myself with catch-and-release death grips on the metal hand railings.
Do you see the dot in the middle of the picture way down below? That’s moi feeling oh so much better.
Meanwhile Max took in the view and snapped a diagram of the lines of engagement.
Lastly we drove to the Waterloo Inn where Wellington stayed during the nights of the 17th and 18th. Here we saw where he slept and wrote his report of the Battle. More interesting, we saw some of his handwritten field notes.
Other than seeing his room and his orders, this Wellington Museum didn’t offer a lot of information unless you were into weapons of that time. (I had actually seen the chair in which he died, or so they say, with my friend Carol in southern England.)
And, with that our MDT 2 was over, and I was ready to head home to our Belgian Family. Yet, like I mentioned at the beginning, Museum 1815 and Hougoumont are definitely worth exploring if interested in the Battle of Waterloo.
Tomorrow, our MDT 3…