Sunday, February 24, 2013

Waterloo Battlefield visit

I was on a working trip to Brussels this week, and had a few hours of spare time on Friday. I knew exactly how to pass the time. I took a local train from Brussels and made the 20 kilometer or so trip to the Waterloo battlefield. 

The map of the battle from Wikipedia.

From the train station of Braine-l'Alleud it was just a 3 kilometer walk to "butte du lion", the huge observation mound / monument they built on the site of battle in 1820. It's interesting that the place started to attract tourists right after the battle and there's been a steady stream of people wanting to see the fields and the ridge themselves for nearly two hundred years now. 

The mound from the east.
View from the mound towards La Haye Sainte.

Apart from the nearly 50 meter high observation mound, there's a visitors center complete with a shop selling the kind of garbage you'd expect. You can view a short documentary on the battle there, as well as some scenes from the 1970 Waterloo film. There's a miniatures diorama of the battle which looked uninspiring. Also there's a small wax cabinet. 

The emperor seems glum.
Wellington's plumage is a bit droopy.
Bonaparte's death mask.

The best attraction built there is a panorama built in 1912. It's like an early 20th century action movie. There's a very detailed 360 degree painting of the battle with lots and lots of details complete with sound effects (added during renovation, I assume). Too bad there is some water damage on the painting, but the place is still in a remarably good condition.

The panorama building

Ney's cavalry charge in the panorama

The battlefield itself is quite well preserved compared to some I've seen. There's asphalt roads with plenty of cars on them, but they are on their historical lines. Other than that, the place is mostly just open field. The ridge line that was so crucial to the success of the Allies is easily seen, even though a good portion of it was used to make the observation mound. This was seen as tampering of the battlefield even in the old days and is said to have pissed off even Wellington himself. Still, you can just imagine British troops waiting nervously in cover as the French artillery shells whistle over their heads.

The field between the mound and La Haye Sainte. Ney and his cavalry charged right through here.
La Haye Sainte.
Facing east from La Haye Sainte. Uxbridge's cavalry charged through here.
A view from La Haye Sainte towards the French artillery position.
I looked at the field from the observation mound and walked from there to La Haye Sainte stepping on my way on the same ground which trembled under the hooves of both Frencg and British cavalry charges. I didn't have enough time to visit Hougoumont (which I think is closed for renovation anyway) or the French side of the field, but I think this was plenty. The battle had a profound impact on the European political map for more than a century to come, and I was pleased I had time to visit.

They're digging and building something over there. Maybe an underground parking lot for the anniversary?

During the trip I had plenty of opportunities to toast the men of Waterloo with some excellent Belgian beers.