Tuesday, July 17, 2012


One month ago, I celebrated the 197th anniversary of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo by waking up early on a Sunday morning and taking the commuter train about 15 kilometers south of Brussels and walking another 5 kilometers down road and muddy path to watch a reenactment of the battle. The Napoleonic Bivouac is a big production, although not quite real battle-sized - that would require 190,000 re-enactors. You can wander through the camp and eat period meals with the battle re-enactors. I went for the cheaper option, devoting just a couple hours to Waterloo and checking out the free battle at Plancenoit.

Thanks to my Belgium and Luxembourg Lonely Planet which I grabbed before heading out, I realized that the battle being staged that morning was in a town 6 km from the Braine-l'Alleud train station. Plancenoit was actually a side battle. Napoleon needed to defeat the Prussians before they met up with the British and outnumbered his French troops. He succeeded, except they regrouped and he had to send a detachment to fight them on during the main battle on June 18. Unfortunately the local bus to Plancenoit was only running every two hours on Sunday. We got on the bus back to Brussels with everyone else and got off at the Butte du Lion, a huge grass pyramid visible from the train and highway which marks the spot where the Prince of Orange, William II, was knocked off his horse by a musket ball during the battle (William was OK and took the Dutch throne in 1840 - but the Dutch had the prerogative to build the biggest monument as Waterloo was on Dutch territory during the battle and during the 1820s when they built the hill, before Belgium declared independence in 1830). At the Waterloo museum by the lion, we were told to take a right at the traffic light and walk 5 kilometers.

Our reward was a great view of the battle, standing on a hillside and watching the movements of infantry and cavalry on the other side of a ditch. It's all far more orderly than modern warfare, or even the wilder Yankee style that I saw on display at Saratoga, New York in a re-enactment of the 1777 key battle of the Revolutionary War. I didn't see many Prussians at Plancenoit either, re-enacting seems to be more popular with the British who weren't involved in the actual side battle. They showed off some of Wellington's tactics, including his patented hedgehog formations (soldiers bunched up with bayonets out to ward off attacks by cavalry).

Volunteer history buff soldiers don't particularly like to play dead, of course, and occasionally you see a supposed casualty get up and rejoin the fight (one guy seemed to have trouble getting up, however - and his comrades just checked in on him periodically). But all in all it was good fun, and we even got to experience the mud that changed the course of history on our walk. Plus I made it home for lunch. I figured the museums and restaurant weren't worth it with the crowds. 

The museums might be worth a visit sometime, except I'm back in the USA now. But seeing the battle adds some flavor. The trip to Waterloo should be particularly interesting for the 200th anniversary in 2015.