Visiting battlefields has become an increasingly popular activity over the last few decades and there are many reasons for this trend. Interest in the past has never been greater and many wish to commemorate the achievements and sacrifices made by their ancestors among other considerations. As the politics and events of today are shaped by past conflicts, interpreting why battles were fought, along with who won and them and why, is essential for gaining a thorough understanding of history. Indeed, while some view military history as a narrow and specialized field, it is impossible to comprehend political and social changes in the world without reference to military history.

Waterloo is one of the most famous battles to take place in the last 500 years and so its impact on European and world history is worthy of careful study. It was a decisive battle in that it ended a long series of wars that had plunged Europe into a maelstrom of bloodshed and destruction spanning two decades (1792–1815). The great historian David Chandler wrote that: ‘In the long history of Western civilisation, probably only Zama (202 BC) and Tours (AD 732) have proved of equal importance, and only Gettysburg has been written about as often.’ His point is supported by the fact that Waterloo attracts around 300,000 tourists every year.

The magnetic appeal of the famous personalities concerned also ensures that Waterloo continues to fascinate enthusiasts 200 years on. The mystique surrounding Emperor Napoleon I of France is enough to draw admirers and critics alike to visit the place where he met his final defeat, a loss that did nothing to diminish his growing legend. His principal opponent, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, also occupies a unique place in military history and the fact that these two commanders adopted different approaches to warfare has intrigued historians ever since their confrontation on this battlefield.

This was also a multinational battle, concerning three main armies composed of soldiers from many European nations. The Prussian Army played a valiant role during the 1815 campaign under Marshal Blücher, although historians occasionally downplay his army’s contribution at Waterloo. He was a tactician rather than a strategist and was somewhat overshadowed by the talented commanders of the other two armies involved. Among the lesser ranks who fought at Waterloo (from generals down to private soldiers) were men who had become famous in their own lifetime and it was here that veterans of twenty years of almost uninterrupted warfare converged for the climactic struggle. Great military reputations were made at Waterloo, a battle where many displayed incredible courage during continuous fighting that lasted over 9 hours.

Modern historians who make a study of Waterloo are confronted with a bewildering multitude of accounts from participants, contemporary observers and historians. Many incidents during the battle have gained an almost mythical status and, when these are challenged, provoke howls of outrage from traditionalists. The fame of such incidents in themselves, such as the closing of the gates at Hougoumont, makes a visit to the battlefield even more intriguing for visitors, but this is the case with many locations where such events have taken place.

Although considerable literature exists about the battle, many works are far from objective as it is difficult to set national and political considerations aside when historians hail from countries directly involved in the campaign. Some British historians tend to overemphasize the heroism of British soldiers and gloss over the contribution of their allies. This can be traced back to the immediate reaction after the overwhelming victory at Waterloo, which was welcomed with relief after many years of war. William Makepeace Thackeray, who used Waterloo as a focal point in his novel Vanity Fair, visited the battlefield in the 1840s and his writing typifies the patriotic feeling of the time:

Let an Englishman go and see that field, and he never forgets it. The sight is an event in his life; and, though it has been seen by millions of peaceable gents – grocers from Bond Street, meek attorneys from Chancery Lane, and timid tailors from Piccadilly – I will wager that there is not one of them but feels a glow as he looks at the place, and remembers that he, too, is an Englishman.

Thackeray gives a good impression here of how strongly Victorian society felt about this victory and many of his contemporaries made a pilgrimage to see the battlefield for themselves. However, his prose would have been more accurate had it referred to Britons rather than Englishmen, since Wellington’s Anglo-Allied Army contained many Scots, Irish and Welsh soldiers. Yet even that consideration fails to reflect the international make-up of the Anglo-Allied Army, two-thirds of whom hailed from Hanover, Belgium and Holland, along with other national groups.

In contrast, German historians often claim that the Prussian Army made the main contribution to the victory and allege that Wellington let his allies down by failing to come to their aid at the Battle of Ligny. Peter Hofschröer is one notable historian who believes that Wellington claimed unfair credit for a victory he would not have won but for the Prussian Army. While there is some truth to this and other theories, many historians recognize that the Allied victory was achieved only through an effective combined effort on the part of both armies. Extolling the virtues of one army over another provokes interesting debate between historians but tends to obscure this fact.

The perspective of the French is different again and many of their historians, such as Henry Houssaye, concentrate on the mistakes made by Napoleon’s subordinate commanders and are perhaps a little too generous towards the Emperor himself, who committed grave errors of judgement both at Waterloo and during the campaign. In fact, most French historians concentrate on Napoleon’s previous victories rather than dwelling upon the reasons for his final defeat.

For example, Victor Hugo saw Waterloo as the tragic end of a young republic brought down by a pact between old monarchies (see Chapter 1). Although he wrote very movingly about the tragic effect that the defeat had upon France, his work contains a number of factual errors and can prove misleading. Yet he did visit the field for himself and saw how the site had changed, commenting:

Every one is aware that the variously inclined undulations of the plains, where the engagement between Napoleon and Wellington took place, are no longer what they were on June 18, 1815. By taking from this mournful field the wherewithal to make a monument to it, its real relief has been taken away, and history, disconcerted, no longer finds her bearings there. It has been disfigured for the sake of glorifying it. Wellington, when he beheld Waterloo once more, two years later, exclaimed, ‘They have altered my field of battle!’ Where the great pyramid of earth, surmounted by the lion, rises to-day, there was a hillock which descended in an easy slope towards the Nivelles road, but which was almost an escarpment on the side of the highway to Genappe. The elevation of this escarpment can still be measured by the height of two knolls of the two great sepulchres which enclose the highway from Genappe to Brussels: one, the English tomb, is on the left: the other, the German tomb, is on the right. There is no French tomb. The whole of that plain is a sepulchre for France.

Hugo’s views were very influential on French historians. The way he described the defeat as being a tragedy for liberal ideas, where Napoleon, representing a new form of government, was defeated by mischance, gained widespread acceptance in France. For example, Jules Delhaize and Winard Aerts argued succinctly in their book Waterloo: etudes relatives a la campagne de 1815 en Belgique, published in 1919, that: ‘… there are some defeats which do not tarnish the glory of an army any more than they dimimish a people. Waterloo is one of these.’ In the years immediately following the battle, the majority of its visitors came from countries that had formed the Seventh Coalition against Napoleon. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, French tourists became increasingly common at the battlefield despite it being the location of one of the worst French defeats.

Yet the Battle of Waterloo can only be properly understood when it is placed within the context of the campaign itself, in which four major battles were fought in as many days between 15–18 June 1815. Therefore, the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny are described within this book, although not with the same level of detail as events at Waterloo, along with the almost simultaneous conflict fought at Wavre. This battle occurred 15km (9½ miles) from Waterloo and some knowledge of it is necessary to understand how the Prussians were able to reach Wellington’s position in time to intervene and to explain why the French failed to prevent them.

A description of the aftermath of the campaign is also included to explain the massive political impact of the battle and how it altered the balance of power in Europe. Countries like Britain and Prussia gained enormously from the resulting settlement, whereas France was humbled and its military influence drastically reduced. Waterloo also represented the triumph of old reactionary states over the new liberal philosophies emerging in Europe. The old monarchies were relieved after the victory but Napoleon’s defeat only slowed the pace of reform and the respite it gained for them in Europe was only temporary.

The end of the wars also saw the Congress of Vienna, interrupted by Napoleon’s return and reconvened following his final exile, attempt to put an end to warfare as a means of settling disputes between states. Although their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, this was the first time that an international congress met and tried to resolve issues at the negotiation table rather than by force of arms. This alone makes Waterloo an immensely important event in European history.

Historians entertain many views about exactly what occurred at Waterloo and the responsibility of individuals for specific incidents on the battlefield, reasons why Napoleon lost the battle, reasons why the Allies were victorious and many other theories relating to the battlefield and the campaign. Some are highly controversial and give rise to vigorous debate. While analysing this famous battle is an interesting and engrossing subject, it is not the purpose of this book. This guidebook tries to offer an informed, and hopefully objective, account of the battle rather than attempt to promote new ideas about the campaign or challenge views contained in other works. Its primary intention is to act as a helpful tool for people wishing to visit the location, allowing them to draw their own conclusions from the experience.

A thorough understanding of the difficulties facing the commanders and the armies involved is best achieved by viewing the battlefield itself. Topography has always had a great influence over combat and this was especially true at Waterloo, where Wellington selected a strong defensive position and was determined to hold it until reinforced by the Prussians. The difficulties that Napoleon encountered while attacking this deceptively strong position were immense and only by standing on the actual ground itself can one appreciate why decisions were made, not only due to what commanders could actually see but because some areas were hidden from their view.

Wellington, in his habitually straightforward manner, summarized this neatly, remarking: ‘All the business of war … is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called “guessing what was at the other side of the hill.”’ Although this is true of all Napoleonic battlefields, it is particularly so regarding Waterloo where Wellington’s cunning deployment of troops (many being out of the line of sight of French artillery and observers) influenced the choices Napoleon was forced to make.

Waterloo is also unusual in many ways; it covered a far smaller area than many contemporary battlefields and its occasionally subtle geographical contours limited the effect of firepower and contributed to some serious tactical errors on the part of some generals and officers of lesser rank. For those who wish to gain an insight into what occurred on that fateful Sunday afternoon of 18 June 1815, a visit to the battlefield is therefore essential. It is hoped that this work will provide a useful guide for use on the battlefield by including information on how to get there, where to stay, viewing the field itself and how to get the best out of the experience.

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