Friday, September 06, 2013


Waterloo, Waterloo
O' plain of sorrow

After my trip to the European Parliament, I headed over to the Central Station to catch a train to Waterloo, some 25 minutes away from Brussels.  It took a while to navigate the automated train ticket seller because there were no times listed for the trains.  A very nice Belgian girl stopped to help me through the process.  She really went out of her way to help me find the time, train line and track.  I found my train and sped across Brussels and out of town to the city of Waterloo.

Once in Waterloo, I meandered my way through the small Walloon town that made me feel like I was very much still in France.  I stopped at a bakery to ask directions, and the kind lady told me to take a bus in the city center.  I grabbed a Liege waffle to try on my walk.  This is the rounded waffle with sugar in the batter so that it is eaten plain.  I took one bite of the sticky sweet waffle and said Mon Dieu.  Yum.

I got to the city center and stopped at the tourist office to find out how to get to the battlefield.  The tourist office told me to hop the bus out of town to the battlefield, and explained how to get there and also to get back without having to double back into town.  As she was finishing up my directions, the bus pulled up and I ran to catch it.  I did and headed out of town.

I hopped off at an Esso station (What the rest of the world calls Exxon, and what it once called itself in America).  I crossed the road and walked the path to the giant mound with lion towering high above.  I made my way to the visitor center.  I had my choice of tickets that included a visit to the Lion mound and panorama, or those plus 2 movies and wax museum.  I noticed they had an unemployed discount.  I am technically unemployed so I asked for that discount.  The woman asked to see a card.  I need a card to prove I don't have a job?  She technically needed to see a sort of unemployed card to give me the discount, but was kind enough to relent and gave me the discount anyway.

And on to Waterloo!  A lil context first.  After his ill-fated march into Russia and defeat in Germany as well as the invasion of France by the Sixth Coalition (Britain, Prussia, Russia among others), under the Treaty of Fontainbleu Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne and was sent into exile in Elba.  But while the Congress of Vienna was convening, Napoleon escaped Elba.  He and his army marched on to France, snowballing in strength until he entered Paris unopposed.  Thus begun the Hundred Days as it would later be called.  The powers of the Congress of Vienna heard that Napolean was back, and all agreed to send armies after the Corsican general.

With British and Prussian armies approaching France from Belgium (technically the United Kingdom of Netherlands then), Napoleon took the lead and took his army into the field.  After skirmishing for a few days prior, France and the the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies went to war on the fateful day of June 18, 1815 on the plains of Waterloo.  Napoleon (and Ney and Grouchy) squared off against Wellington and Blücher.  Like Poitiers prior, this was an event that would shape the history of the days to come.

The first film was "Waterloo, History of a Battle" and explained the context of the time through 3D maps to illustrate the troop movements and displayed it through re-enacted battles.   I learned about the rain the night prior that had hindered France's use of artillery and its cavalry.

It gave a little detail about all sides and the tactics that ultimately gave Wellington the decisive victory over the great French general.  Basically, some better use of terrain as Wellington stationed his best troops in a divot that allowed them to duck the hail of French artillery, and thus when the Imperial Guard charged they were in a position to repel the attack.  Meanwhile, Wellington's iron discipline helped his tactical formation of infantry squares withstand the French cavalry's blistering charges.  After the fruitless charges were repelled, in part with the arrival of fresh Prussian forces that Grouchy was unable to keep from the field, Napoleon's army had essentially lost and surged back from the field in disarray- leaving its artillery still in the field.

Like Poitiers, this battle was of contrasting styles.  Napoleon's dynamic charges and flanking maneuvers against Wellington's defensive style of war and adept strategic planning of battlefield placement.  Like Poitiers, again the defensive maneuvers withstood the offensive onslaught.  Similar to Poitiers, it was the tight square/diamond formations that were able to neutralize the cavalry charge and turn the tide.  As one Bear Bryant (another Paul) remarked, "Offense sells tickets; defense wins championships."

While Napoleon escaped capture and fled back to France, his days were done.  After he was refused safe passage to America, he was forced to surrender to the English fleet, and was subsequently sent into exile on the island of St. Helena, where he would live under guard until he died six years later- still blaming his generals for his defeat.

The second movie was clips from Sergei Bondartchouk's Waterloo

This was great, because it gave a tangible face to the tactics and logistics that the first movie displayed.  I will have to watch this movie when I get back.

After the films, I climbed the 226 steps to the top of the Lion Mound.  The Lion Mound was erected between 1824 to 1826 in dedication of the soldiers who perished in the battle.  On top of the mound is a 28 ton bronze Lion.  The 41m (135ft) mound offered an incredible view of the plains of sorrow.  I watched the clouds pass across the once-blood-soaked fields.

After pensive moments of silence, I returned back down the mound and on to the panorama.  It offered a sweeping perspective on the battle that was, a true masterpiece.  And more interestingly, in the foreground there were constructions of dead bodies and dead horses.  Some gory perspective added.  And the platform trembled like the fields under cavalry charge while speakers blasted sounds of war.  It was intense and engaging.


I stopped at the last part of the tour, a wax museum depicting all the players on the eve of the battle, and had collections of some of their effects.  

All and all, quite an engaging experience that really played to all the senses to illustrate this momentous event.

I wandered my way down to the road, following the path to the train station and caught the direct train back in to Brussels.  I made my way back to the hostel to collect my stuff, and caught the train to Antwerp.  I wish I could have stayed longer in Brussels, there was definitely more for me to explore.  But I was without a bed for the night, and it didn't seem to make sense to change hostels for one night.  I shall just have to return....


Aaron Hubart said...

Your video is good. I want to visit France one more time because my last trip to France was very good.

Paul Rockower said...

except...this is in belgium...