The following post was written on the third day of my recent tour of the battlefields of Waterloo, and marks a point, towards the end of my tour, when I paused to remember the Waterloo dead.
Thursday 6th September 2018, 18:55.
The Battlefield of Waterloo
I am sat about 400 yards North West of La Haye Sainte, on what was once the edge of the sunken road which marked the front of the Allied right flank. This part of the battlefield is the most changed since 1815, with the soil having been scooped from the fields to my front in order to form the Butte de Lion which towers over me on my right hand side.
I have just come from Plancenoit Church, where I have lit a candle to the dead of the Waterloo campaign. Although I had initially planned to do that at Waterloo Church, I decided, on impulse, that Plancenoit was more fitting, considering that the church itself was the scene of such bitter fighting between the Prussians and French.
I want to take this moment to reflect on the Waterloo dead. It is estimated that 40,000 men died on this rolling landscape. 40,000 men in one single day. 40,000 men in an area of maybe 6-8 square miles. The French dead are well memorialised. At many intervals I’ve found memorial stones and plaques to them, most of which are beautiful in their design. The allies and Prussians, frankly, are not so well remembered. There are a few memorials to individuals, but even the bold statement of the Butte de Lion is only vaguely a tribute to the Allied dead – although in truth many of the French monuments are dedicated to individual officers. For the life of me I cannot understand the logic behind building a monument to Victor Hugo on the site, irrespective of his literary achievements.
No, the real memorial to those who fought at Waterloo is the battlefield itself. Protected by a law restricting building on the site, this corner of Belgium will remain as it is now, so that for countless generations people can come here, learn about what happened, and crucially remember why so many died on these fields. That ultimately is what history is all about. Remembering correctly, and by doing so, honouring those who forged history.
After 10 hours of battle on 18th June 1815, Waterloo is now quiet. A place of contemplation. A place to remember. A place to create one’s own memories.
Long may it stay that way.
If you have any questions about the Battle of Waterloo, its significance, or would like advice on visiting the area, post a comment in the forum, and I will get back to you.