Cities / Towns Visited: 6
Countries Visited: 4
Steps Taken Today: 16,936
Steps Taken Around the World: 510,046
Our first day in Brussels didn’t actually involve exploring the city itself at all, in fact we were just using it as a base to journey further out. Our destination for the day: Waterloo. The place where Napoleon fought his last battle and lost. Where his enemies, old and new, joined forces to stop him, and put France back in its box. After a metro train, an intercity train, and a half an hour walk, we finally neared the giant, lion-topped, grassy, man-made hill, that is the Lion’s Mound; a monument made by the King of the Netherlands to commemorate the spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded during the battle of Waterloo. Climbing the mound would have to wait, however, as we delved into the 1815 Memorial Museum. Audio guide obtained, we jumped straight in. The first part of the museum looks at the French revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power. What started as all ‘Down with the man! Power to the people!’ really just ended in another man sitting on a throne telling everyone what to do and living in the very same ridiculous palace in Versailles that they were all so angry about to begin with. Although some good did come from the revolution and the ensuing decades of Napoleonic wars, for example: the metric system, and the declaration of rights which would go on to become the basis for today’s human rights. That being said it also hugely pushed back women’s rights in the country, and resulted in the deaths of countless people, so it’s a bit of one step forward, seventy-five steps back.
The next part was a huge display of the historic uniforms of many of the parties to the wars; from the French’s signature blue coats and red pants; to the British in their bright red with gold trim; right through to the uniforms of the Scots, Prussians, and soldiers from the British territories, like India. The bright colours look strange when you grow up in a world where camouflage and khaki uniforms are the standard, but when your fighting old school wars, with the smoke of the artillery cannons and infantry muskets obscuring all but a few yards in front of you, it’s easy to see why bright colours were important.
From here we stepped into a 3D movie that ran through the almost hour by hour recap of the Battle of Waterloo; a fight that started around 11:50am and was over by the early evening, but killed tens of thousands of soldiers; a fight the allies only won because the British never lost their stronghold at Hougoumont farm, thus Napoleon kept throwing troops at it and losing them; a French commander wrongly thought the British were retreating and thus sent most of their cavalry after them without the protection of artillery and they lost most of their horses; and finally the Prussians arrived before the French reinforcements. From here, we went through the display about the aftermath of the war, Napoleon’s fall from grace, the restoration of the French monarchy, and the subsequent 100 years of peace in Europe. This part included a skeleton found of a fallen soldier, who must have been quickly buried by his comrades, so that he would not be pillaged by the other army, or by local scavengers; hence why he was found with coins and other personal items still with him.
Upstairs from the exhibit we were treated to a VR simulation giving us a 3D 360° view of the battle, which was both informative, and my first experience of virtual reality. It wasn’t the best quality, but is was awesome being able to see it from that sort of perspective. The last exhibit in the museum is a panoramic painting in a large rotunda with 110 metres of 12 metre high canvas painted with a full circle view of the battle. It was painted in 1911, and depicts some of the biggest and most important clashes in the battle, and you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of it.
At last it was time to climb the 40 metre high Lion’s Mound. And after all 226 steep stairs to the summit I couldn’t tell if I was out of breath from the climb, or from the view. After everything we’d seen in the museum, it was the perfect conclusion to be able to see the battlefield from above. It may be lush with grass covered fields and forests of trees again, but there are few houses around, leaving it hauntingly similar to how it would have looked before thousands of enemies stormed in and decimated it.
With rumbling stomachs we descended to the restaurant beside the museum for a quick lunch. As a tourist there will always be things that differ from your norm, and some are easier to understand than others. For example, I dislike but understand having to pay to use public bathrooms in Europe, I mean someone has to clean and maintain them, and they have to get paid. Although it is annoying and begs the question, what happens if you’re caught with no change and a sudden call from nature? By the same token I have found it challenging to adjust to the fact that many places in Europe refuse to serve tap water in restaurants, forcing you to have to either go without, or foot the bill of overpriced mineral water as was the case at this establishment. We chose to go without and drink from our water bottle once we’d left. I understand such situations in countries where it is actually dangerous to drink the tap water, Turkey and Egypt for example, but in first world countries where the tap water is safe, it kind of just feels like fishing for extra cash to deny your paying customers access to free drinking water. The food was quite nice but our first experience of being denied water left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths. It’s just something I’ll have to get used to, I guess; but that’s what travelling is for, right, experiencing how other people live?
Our last stop for the day was Hougoumont farm, that, as I mentioned, was integral to the success of the allied forces. Once we arrived we were directed to a film that ran you through how that battle at the farm progressed, projected onto three rotating screens which were flat on one side, and embossed with men and horses in the throes of battle on the other, it was one of the best historical multimedia displays I’ve seen to date. When I say farm, it was more of a stately home in the country, a chateau for the rich owners once stood proud in the centre and a pleasure garden once bloomed at the side, with farm and forest all around. After the battle it was decided that the site would not be rebuilt, and it was to remain as a tribute to remind future generations of the events that occurred that fateful day. The only part which has been rebuilt was the barn, in which the film is shown. The rest of the buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires caused by the fighting. The battle essentially involved the French unceasing emerging from the forest and attacking the farm in waves, only to be struck down by gunners from behind the walls of the farm. They only once breached the defenses of the northern gate, but ten brave British and Scottish soldiers rushed to shut the gates behind them under heavy fire, trapping the invading troops and in turn all but the young drummer boy were slaughtered. In the walled in field, which was once a beautiful manicured garden, stands a monument to the French soldier’s who lost their lives, and within the grounds of the farm yard stand numerous plaques and memorials to the allied troops who died in the battle. The most interesting part would have to be the small chapel that was attached to the chateau which still stands. It’s roof was fixed to prevent further damage by the weather, and on the wall hangs the same wooden statue of Jesus on the cross that miraculously survived the fire, only losing the feet to the flames before they fizzled out. As we left we made sure we stopped to see the three chestnut trees, which are the only reminder of the lush orchards which once serviced the farm, the trees were killed in the battle, their trunks pockmarked with musket ball holes. While all of the other dead trees were felled, they kept these three giants as a rather morbid memorial.
On the train ride home we both took time to reflect on all we had seen and learnt on this long and educational journey to such an unassuming regional area of Belgium. So many lives lost, simply because the ruler of France decided that that wasn’t enough for him, that he would risk the lives of tens of thousands of his own people just so he and his family could sit on a few more thrones, own a bit more land, control a few more people. Lives thrown into the mud, then stripped bare of their possessions and dignity even in death. So many allied troops killed trying to stop one average sized man with grandiose plans. It’s such a waste, that we can all agree on, and yet here we stand in a world full of leaders with grand plans, on the precipice of mass warfare once more, and we do nothing. Will we never learn?