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Posted July 2015

Blood and beer – Who are those clowns? I mean have you ever wondered how many anoraks secretly keep a closet full of historical uniforms which they will squeeze into, given half a chance, even when there is no Carnival going on? It seems there are lots of them. Because literally thousands came to the Belgian town of Waterloo on 18 June 2015 to ponce about in Regency attire which, I am sure, must have fallen off the back of a truck after one of the many shootings of Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” (1813). Ponce about they did - those 5,000 bespectacled, big-bellied posers in the greatest pageant of history this year, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Only they would not call it posing but “re-enacting”. Quelle affaire!

Standing on the battlefield of Waterloo, on the midsummer weekend this June, I was struck by a vision. It was like being at the Octoberfest in Munich. What shall I say: the battlefield was packed out. Ominously, as on 18 June 1815, when 200,000 soldiers faced each other - and an early butchery death - the same number of people (by official counts) milled around flashing their kit. Most of them sweated profusely in their historical uniforms (the guys), or mousseline gowns, straw bonnets and all (the women), while chewing frites and drinking copious amounts of beer. To make my Oktoberfest Deja-vu complete, they spoke French, Flemish, Dutch, German, English, even Texan American, Spanish, Italian, and Swiss German – although it was news to me that any large number of Americans and Swiss would have fought heroically on these fields south of Waterloo, either by siding with the little Corsican or his nemesis, a doughty Brit by the name of Wellington.

It was a mind-boggling experience being amongst those high-spirited “Schlachtenbummler” (German for civilian battlefield rovers). Incidentally there is no English term for them, implying that the Brits would never do anything so uncouth as to gorge themselves on a gruesome sight. The Germans apparently did, although the original meaning has been lost and the word nowadays refers to away fans. In effect, it would have been lost on these modern-day Schlachtenbummler too as they giddily and gigglingly posed for each other’s cameras.

Blame it on our lack of historical knowledge or on clever event marketing, the men, women and children in their historical costumes out in the blood-sodden fields appeared blissfully ignorant that they did not “re-enact” a battle but the spectacle of a battle, whose gory details have been lost forever in the fog of gunpowder. The same could be said about the paying audience in their fine clothes, who behaved just like an authentic gentleman from Brussels. He arrived the day after the battle by coach to “take in the view”. Wearing white gaiters, he carefully staggered about the carnage as he pressed a lace kerchief to his mouth to fend off the stench.

As time has made us “progress” from battle to spectacle, a similar shift happened to the meaning of the Battle of Waterloo: it has if not quite vanished but turned into something altogether different: a summer time Mardi Gras for paintball enthusiasts, who passionately want to wear a uniform.

In fact, you need to have a fairly flexible understanding of history if you can bill this June’s tourist event an “anniversary”. Wouldn’t “remembrance” have been the more appropriate term? Is it the curse of time that eventually even sites of unspeakable horrors can be turned into joyous affairs? Will we have to wait, say, another hundred years and World War I battlefields will be lined by fun rides to mark the occasion?

On 18 June, 1815, some 80,000 soldiers from half a dozen nations under Wellington’s command had rushed to Waterloo to meet in a muddy field where they hoped to liberate the world from a short fat man in a grey overcoat and bicorn. To their great horror, in merely three months after landing in Antibes from his first exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon had not only reclaimed the French throne, he had also managed to recruit an army of 120,000 men as he quickly moved up north towards Brussels. Eyewitnesses describe the battle as a terrible carnage, graciously veiled by thick gun smoke, acoustically accompanied by the cries of the wounded, the rumbling of artillery, the buzzing of projectiles and the tambours’ drumbeat.

When the day was over, some 40,000 men laid dead or dying, piled on their horses’ carcasses, sometimes as high as three metres; horse-drawn carriages jolted around picking up the seriously wounded; soldiers looked for their comrades, while peasants salvaged the dead men’s clothes and ripped out their incisors, which were in high demand by Brussels’ dentists. Actually, the task of burying the dead was left to the residents of the surrounding villages. “The pyre burnt for eight days and was kept going by human fat alone”, a visitor said. For the fallen allied soldiers, graves were dug, but already the next rain brought many faces and body parts back to the surface. One year later, a company was assigned to collect the exposed bones and process them into fertilizer, which was then sprinkled across the fields.

Waterloo. It must have been as if hell had opened - and offered salvation. On the evening of 18 June 1815, Napoleon was beaten, his myth scattered, his reign terminated. After 20 years of brutal campaigns, which cost many young men’s lives (making their shortage in the ranks of marriageable men particularly felt for women – see Austen’s novels), Europe returned to peace again. For the people of the 19th century it was the event that changed everything. It was the chime of history that brought an era to an end and heralded in a new one.

But was it really Waterloo? The British, Belgians, and Dutch named the battle after the town of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington had set up his headquarters. For the Prussians, who had sent over the old warhorse, Field Marshall Blücher (then 72), and 40,000 soldiers to support Wellington and help turn the battle round (Wellington’s famous quote is: “I wish it were night or the Prussians came”), it was the Battle of Belle-Alliance: named after an inn, from where Napoleon commanded his army and where in the evening Blücher growled at Wellington by way of greeting “Ah, mon ami, quelle affaire!” Old Blücher had to resort to French, of all languages, because he did not speak any English.

The French, for their part, called it the Bataille de Mont Saint-Jean, after another inn on the road to Brussels, where Wellington’s field surgeons had set up a medical aid post. Ultimately, these alternative names could not assert themselves. Today, there is a brewery at Mont Saint-Jean, where they sell Waterloo Beer (“the Beer of Bravery!”), while, in Germany, the Belle-Alliance streets and squares have all but disappeared. In this respect, Wellington did indeed win the battle.

Who won? That’s a big question. The French still think of the Battle of Waterloo as a technical draw. In the popular imagination, at least, Napoleon walked away a winner (never mind that the great escape artist was forced to end his days in exile on the island of St Helena off the African coast). In the Museum of Waterloo’s gift shop Napoleon still rules supreme: there are Napoleon busts of all sizes, mugs, coins, napkins, liqueurs and other tack, whereas Napoleon’s vanquisher, Wellington, shines by his absence. Wellington – who he, many wonder? Ironically, these days, the Iron Duke is chiefly remembered as the inventor of a certain footwear (true) and a dish (not true).

As to Blücher, one hundred years after the battle, in 1912, the Prussian’s role in the battle was already totally negated. Looking at the Panorama of Waterloo, a 110 metre long and 12 metre high roundabout painting of the battle, which is a lurid orgy of red and blue uniforms, the Prussians are conspicuously missing. Why? Well, the panorama was painted by the Frenchman Dumoulin on the eve of World War I. At this stage, the Prussians were no longer an ally but France’s next enemy and therefore had to be painted out of history.

The Battle of Waterloo, over time, has seen various readings and interpretations. It was an incredible inferno and the only place to commemorate the fallen was to go to the village of Plancenoit, some 2 km from the battlefield. Here the Prussians attacked the French army’s wing, thus ruining Napoleon’s strategy. In 1818 Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm III had a monument erected there. It is a simple black tabernacle of cast metal, commemorating the 7,000 dead or wounded Prussian soldiers. “May they rest in peace. Belle-Alliance 18 June 1815.” Although within sight of the Waterloo carnival, it was an eerie spot. Looking out over a wide and softly rolling plain, interspersed by groves and bushes, and lined by forests, you could suddenly feel yourself close to the dead. Two Belgian cyclists whispered as they shared their lunch under the monument.

A wreath laid down by some German army unit – “for peace and freedom” the ribbon said – made me ponder: what did the Battle of Waterloo achieve? What did it do for us Europeans?

Wellington and Blücher stopped Napoleon’s Cent Jours (100 Days) reign, but the winner of the battle of Waterloo was the Restauration – the re-establishing of the pre-revolutionary political order by the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Unsurprisingly, Europe’s progressives, like the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) decried Waterloo as the “end of political hope”. In its wake “all of Europe became a St Helena.” It was not just Napoleon who lost. For Heine, “it were the interests of freedom, equality, fraternity, truth and reason; it was humanity which lost the battle of Waterloo” (Heinrich Heine, Confessions, 1854).

Fortunately, and from the distance of 200 years, Heine was wrong. Since 1989, when the Iron Curtain was brought down, Europe has seen freedom and liberties like never before. If it’s this historical achievement that revellers were celebrating on the occasion of Waterloo 2015, I rest my case.

 

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