Waterloo, Belgium (1815 AD)
The Battle of Waterloo was by far the most famous engagement of the Napoleanic Wars and one of the most popularized in history. It was the culmination of Napolean Bonaparte’s final campaign, as well as the end of nearly three decades of strife in Europe that began with the French Revolution. Fought between a hastily gathered army of French conscripts on one side and an alliance of English and Prussians on the other, it represented the emperor’s last ditch and unrealistic attempt to re-establish his power. In actuality, the Battle of Waterloo was neither the largest nor the most decisive engagement of the wars, which were already largely over by 1814, but it was certainly the most famous in the popular imagination. The site of the battle is the most famous in Belgium and arguably the most visited in the Low Countries.
In 1814, after more than a decade of nearly continuous war in Europe, the French empire under Napolean Bonaparte disintegrated in the face of an overwhelming coalition of enemies. His armies defeated, the emperor was forced to abdicate in April of that year, after which he went into exile on the island of Elba. However, with the withdrawal of foreign troops, the French quickly rallied, their leader returning from exile less than a year later. Before his enemies even knew what was happening, Napolean was back in power with a force of over a hundred thousand men at his command.
What followed was a whirlwind campaign known as the Hundred Days, the final phase of the Napoleanic Wars. A coalition between England, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Sweden was hastily organized to oppose Napolean’s restoration to power. Knowing that France could not oppose all of these powers once combined, the emperor launched a pre-emptive strike into the Low Countries to drive the English from the Continent and deliver a knockout punch to the Prussians who posed the most immediate threat.
Before Napolean even made it back to Paris, the armies on both sides were gathering. By May 1815, the French were on the March, headed for Belgium, where the English had maintained a large force since the previous year. The French, Prussians and English began to converge south of Brussels on June 15. Preliminary engagements at Quatre Bas and Ligny led to initial but minor successes by the French which kept the enemy forces separated.
The decisive day of the battle, and war, was June 18. With the Prussian army delayed, the French under the direct command of Napolean began the assault against the British under Wellington. Fighting raged throughout the day. Although the French seemingly had the upper hand most of the day, they could not deliver a finishing blow to the British, who held out until the arrival of the Prussians later in the afternoon. These fresh forces proved overwhelming, and by the end of the day the French army had collapsed. What was left of the imperial army retreated to Paris, where Napolean surrendered a few weeks later.
The Waterloo battlefield is fairly well preserved, with much of the original field in a relatively intact state. The most prominent, and somewhat controversial, difference is the large artificial hill in the center of the historic site known as the Lion’s Mound. This hillo, built to commemorate the English victory, marks the spot where William II of Orange was wounded during the battle. Although it mars the pristine site, it also offers a magnificent vantage point from which to view the entire battlefield, and is the main focus for most visitors to the site. Commemorative stones mark various sites of importance around the battlefield. The Brabant Inn, located in the town, is now home to the Wellington Museum which displays artifacts from the battle.
The Waterloo Battlefield is located about a mile outside of the town and approximately ten miles south of Brussels. There is an extensive visitor center and museum on the site close to the Lion’s Mound. It is open year round from 10:00am to 5:00pm (longer hours in Summer). The cost of admission is E6.00 for adults (E9.00 including museum and films). Web: www.waterloo1815.be/en (official website)