Waterloo 2022 – the Waterloo Museum and Hougoumont and we don’t hang about on the Number One London Waterloo tour. Having been picked up by the coach at the station in Brussels, we drove straight to the Lion Mound and the attached Waterloo Museum.
The museum gives an excellent overview of the history of the French revolution, Napoleon’s rise to power and the various coalitions and wars which led inexorably towards the Waterloo campaign. There are fabulous displays of weapons and uniforms from troops on both sides of the campaign, maps and models depicting the events of 1815 and the famous Waterloo Panorama which was painted in 1912 by Louis Dumoulin, and occupies a circular building. It is 110 metres in circumference and 12 metres high and the soundtrack plunges you into the midst of the battle. Despite, as Gareth assured us, a number of inaccuracies, it’s genuinely impressive and I’m glad we managed to see it before it closes for restoration later this month.
The Lion’s Mound was erected in 1826 at the request of William I, King of the Netherlands. It has a huge lion at the top that symbolises the victory of the various monarchies. There are 226 steps up and an excellent view over the battlefield. Along with many other people, I’d heard that the building of the Lion’s Mound had profoundly affected the shape and layout of the battlefield. Gareth’s clear explanation of exactly which part of the field was dug out to create the mound made it clear that the changes were relatively minimal.
Our next visit was to the farm of Hougoumont which was the scene of fierce fighting throughout the battle. A spectacular film show shows scenes from the story of the struggle for Hougoumont and although many of the buildings were destroyed in the fire which consumed the defences or were taken down after the battle, Gareth’s explanations gave an excellent explanation of how the Allied troops fought to hold on to the farm through several French breaches of the defences throughout the afternoon. In particular, he ran through the various stories about the different French incursions and exploded one or two popular myths very convincingly as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve visited Hougoumont before and found it very moving, but without a guide it’s difficult to visualise the progress of the battle and the original layout of the farm. Gareth carried a selection of maps and a copy of his fantastic Waterloo atlas to help his explanations. This had the dual effect of giving me a clear picture of the fight for Hougoumont and of causing me to order a copy of the book as soon as I could.
We were all tired and very hungry by the time we arrived at Martin’s Hotel in Waterloo. Before dinner, Gareth gave a short talk about the background to Waterloo which set up the next few days visits. It was a long day and we needed an early night ready to tackle Quatre-Bras and Ligny the following day. We’re all learning a huge amount about the story of the Waterloo Campaign, the various myths which have grown out of the story and the work done by different historians to discover the most likely scenario.
From my own perspective as a writer of fiction, I’m hoping not only to learn a lot about the various battles of the campaign but also to begin to get a sense of how my own fictional battalions and characters are going to fit into it. Already I’m beginning to visualise the scale of the battle and the sheer horror of the casualties. I’m a few books away from Waterloo but I’m scribbling frantically in my notebook for future reference. I think this will be a tough one to write.
We’re lucky enough on this tour to have not only Gareth, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the various military sources about the campaign but also Kristine who has an astonishing knowledge of the social history of the period and in particular the various civilians in Brussels at the time. As Gareth read accounts from officers and men involved in the battle, Kristine gave us excerpts from her wonderful book, giving us a poignant picture of those waiting anxiously for news of the outcome and of their loved ones on the battlefield.
Tomorrow we’re off to Ligny and Quatre Bras…