This post is based on notes made during my recent visit to the Waterloo battlefields. Amongst my notes were a series of reflections on the various museums dedicated to the events of the Waterloo campaign. This post represents a synthesis on the most well known of those museums: Memorial 1815.
The Memorial 1815 Museum, The Battlefield of Waterloo
This museum was not what I expected. An entirely new underground complex was built for the bi-centenary (discovering in the process the skeleton of a Hanoverian soldier buried alone). For those with little knowledge of the Napoleonic era, the museum is extremely effective at setting Waterloo in context (both historically and in terms of legacy). To a large extent, this centres around an audio guide, which lays out everything from the origins of the French Revolution to the weapons of the period, and the geopolitical impact of Waterloo.
The layout is very inventive: chess pieces show key figures in the French government and army; a guillotine with sound effects yet no gore is a focal point of explanations of the terror; and a printing press churns out front pages outlining key points of Britain’s involvement in the war against France (I thought that was a really nice touch). The centre piece of the museum is a glass walled gallery with around 50 dummies each dressed in period uniform showing different uniforms for the various armies. The effect is really impressive (and is perfect for self-confessed uniform nerds who like to know how button shapes differ in each regiment’s uniform), although no photograph can do the gallery justice.
The biggest surprise was the 3D film – I was expecting some tedious ‘guts and glory’ production about honour, duty to the fatherland, and other tired military history clichés. I was totally wrong. Although the acting is strained in places, the 3D element was put to exceptional effect, placing the viewer in the centre of the cavalry charges, gunfire, the attack on Hougoumont, and so on. The fighting is not gory though, but rather sensitive. In fact the overwhelming emotion from the film is one of sadness at the waste of human life (something which is very apt considering that it was Napoleon’s return from exile that led to the futile battle at Waterloo).
That emotion is brilliantly captured partly by referring back to a solitary (fictitious) French drummer boy in the heart of D’Erlon’s attack (and therefore on the receiving end of the British heavy cavalry charge). The closing shot is of this little lad slumped in a field, surrounded by the dead, in such a shell-shocked state that he is still tapping out the advance on this drum.
That melancholy poignancy is then spoilt upon leaving the 3D film, as the visitor literally comes face-to-face with one of the dead, in the form of the skeleton of the Hanoverian who was discovered on the museum site whilst it was being built. It was a controversial decision to display him, but, in my view, totally the wrong one. It completely speaks of a lack of fundamental respect for one of the very dead that the visitor has just been reflecting on. There is a powerful argument to be made that ‘we can learn’ from the dead, however, with the amount of money invested into the museum, it would surely have been possible to produce a replica of his remains, and move him to the vault in a Brussels cemetery where so many of the Allied Waterloo dead have been placed over the years.
The failure to do this makes this man’s remains the equivalent of an animal in a zoo, and therefore makes it difficult to buy into the museum’s message of respectfully remembering that thousands died in the fields around you. This soldier really should have the basic courtesy of a grave extended to him.
That aside, the museum is deeply impressive. In addition to the poignancy of the film, and the visually impressive gallery of uniforms (including figures on horseback – a nice touch – and figures crowded around Napoleon whilst planning the French attack), there is a subtle use of historical discussion in terms of looking at the legacy of the Napoleonic era. Admittedly, they have resorted to trotting out some of the myths about Napoleonic expansion aiming to ‘liberate’ nations from the tyranny of the Ancien Regime (only for them, in reality, to have to align in support for the equally tyrannical and more totalitarian French Empire), but the point is that they do use historians as ‘voices of authority’, rather than simply leaving the narration to the museum curators writing the display boards.
On balance, then, this is unquestionably one of the best museums that I have ever visited, and as a piece of ‘public history’, is exceptional (in that regard, truly the best I have ever seen). It is just a shame that the gift shop is crammed with merchandise on Napoleon, and little else. You can’t even get a postcard of Wellington or Blucher! Napoleon may have lost at Waterloo, but he unquestionably rules the battlefield today.
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.