This post was written on the final morning of my recent 4 day tour of the battlefields of the Waterloo campaign, as I reflected on the enormity of what unfolded in the landscape around me.
Friday 7th September 2018. Dawn.
The Battlefield of Waterloo
It is a grey dawn.
As I sit beside Picton’s memorial, by the Mont St Jean crossroads, a thin grey mist envelopes the landscape. Plancenoit and Papelotte are vague smudges of grey and white, barely discernible in the distance.
It is cold. Behind me, the Brussels highway bustles with activity, but is a different sound to the one that filled this place at dawn on the 18th June 1815. It is a mechanical sound, of motors and hurrying traffic, not the organic one of crackling fires, and muttered conversations, of the whinning of nervous horses and of barked orders.
I eat in the growing light, reflecting as I do, that this simple meal of bread, cheese and fruit was a luxury which the soldiers who would have surrounded me over 200 years ago did not enjoy. They were cold, wet and tired. An enterprising few may have ‘acquired’ (stolen) items from the nearby farm, but there was little enough of that. Many of those who fought, and died, here did so on an empty stomach.
These are my last moments on the Waterloo battlefield. Over the last few days I have driven, walked and even run backwards and forwards along its paths, roads and dirt tracks. I have taken pictures from almost every angle, and I have filmed inside chateaus, on ridge tops, and from valley floors. Yet I know that none of those images, none of that film, can do this place justice.
I came here to understand a battle, and its commanders. I came here to see for myself what I had read so much about, not knowing whether I would be able to appreciate what I saw: reverse slopes, fields of fire, breakwaters, valley floors, cloying mud, dead ground and inclines. For the most part I’ve achieved that aim. I now understand the battle in a way which I never could have if I had not been here. Yet ultimately, this is not what Waterloo is about. You could easily say ‘these are just fields and folds in the ground.’ I once read a novel in which the characters visited an ancient battlefield, and one line has stayed with me throughout this trip: ‘There was nothing to see, and yet somehow there was’.
As I sit here, as the sun valiantly attempts to break though the steely mass of dark grey cloud, those words circle through my mind once more. They are true. The goosebumps that I feel are not solely due to the cold. There is an aura about this place, for those who want to feel it.
In the vista around me, history was made. This was not just a battle. It was a defining moment in European history, and yet at no point has the concept of glory been at the centre of my reflections on what happened here. Perhaps then, in visiting this place and seeking to better understand what I have spent so long studying, I have, in the process, come to better understand myself. Long gone is the wide-eyed boy who was inspired by the stores of bloody fighting, glorious victories, and the triumph of good over evil. He will always be a part of what led me to this point, but he has been replaced by something more mature, more thoughtful, more respectful of those fought and died on both sides.
That, then, is my Waterloo story.
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.