That was the title of one of the two compendiums I lugged across the Channel to Belgium last month. The other was “The Waterloo Companion.”
If there’s any doubt as to what this overdue post is about, allow me to dispel it right now. Anyone who follows this humble writing blog should know of my love for history, and if you don’t then, well… I love history! I was therefore suitably excited when my parents let on that they’d bought tickets to Waterloo, Belgium, for myself and my girlfriend by way of a 21st birthday present.
When I told them I was going to ‘Waterloo,’ most people assumed I was headed to somewhere in London. Their un-knowledge, whilst annoying to any history fanatic, is understandable – the small Belgian town that was immortalised by the world’s most famous battle has since become the most common place-name on earth. Waterloo-wannabes can be found in their dozens on every continent. There’s even a Waterloo Place a kilometer north of where I am in Edinburgh, dominated by a gloriously huge statue of the Duke of Wellington (his head free from any cone. This isn’t Glasgow after all).
The name is famed with good reason, for to paraphrase historical novelist Bernard Cornwall, if I’d invented the battle of Waterloo from scratch for a novel, I couldn’t have made it more dramatic. Two vast armies, led by a pair of the greatest military minds in human history, in a showdown that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.
It’s the sort of thing that first captivated my imagination, and holds it hostage to this day. Visiting that ‘field of glory’ just a little south of Brussels has been a life ambition, so as a 21st birthday present there could have been none better.
Yet as I instantly learned, there was and there is no glory at Waterloo.
It has been 198 years since the battle. Never was so much blood shed over so little a space. Over eight hours around 57,000 men and 10,000 horses were killed or maimed in a space barely 2000 meters square. Along with its many other accolades, Waterloo was history’s most horrible slaughterhouse. Yet you wouldn’t know it today.
Bar the construction of the vast artificial hill known as the Lion Mound, the battlefield remains almost unchanged – gently rolling, incredibly muddy Belgian fields, bisected by a busy roadway. Gazing out over those fields during our visit, there was no glory in sight. The place was quiet, sunny, very still. The air was heavy with a weight you can only empathise with if you have felt it. It is the human understanding of what occurred here, the crushing burden of both history – beginning and end – and the tens of thousands of very individual, personal tragedies that occurred again and again over the soil beneath our boots.
The battlefield is eerie, and desolate. I’ve visited many in America – some virtual fairgrounds, packed all year round. I’ve also stood upon the moor at Culloden, in the highlands, more times than I count. That too has a eerie sense of loss about it, but there is no feeling of abandonment there – the vast (and excellent) visitor’s centre dispels that.
Yet at Waterloo, famed across the world, there seems relatively little by way of commemoration. The museums and panoramas which do exist appear understaffed and unattended. Strangest and most disconcerting of all are the two farmhouses which stood on the day of the battle, and still remain today. Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte were the scenes of the most brutal fighting in 1815 – only 40 of the latter’s 400-strong German garrison escaped, whilst many hundreds of French died in the constant attacks on Hougoumont. Yet today there is very little memory of those tragedies – only a subconscious agony, felt in the musket-ball riddled stonework and the derelict, sagging walls. The places seem abandoned, and it appears that anywhere else these buildings would have been ideally converted into museums commemorating the loss of so many.
Yet at Waterloo there is little commemoration, and certainly no glory. Only the suffocating weight of a past that captures imaginations to this day.