Memorial Tourism Waterloo
Ninety nine years before the Kaiser’s troops marched into Wallonia, the region had staged another landmark event in European history, when Napoleon finally met his Waterloo in June 1815. Spectacular bicentennial events are being planned for the bicentenary in 2015. New venues are opening; existing ones will be remodelled or demolished. The overall effect will be a vast improvement of tourist sites and facilities in the battlefield area, about half an hour’s drive from Brussels.
However many times you visit Waterloo, there’s something about the place that stops you in your tracks. Apart from the Allied Ridge (where the Visitor Centre, the Lion Mound, Panorama and Waxworks are situated) the gently undulating topography has hardly changed in 200 years. It’s criss-crossed with footpaths, farm tracks and cobbled lanes, which lend themselves to rewarding and revealing walks. While the focal point for most visitors is the clutch of museums, shops and restaurants around the Lion Mound, the real atmosphere is to be felt out in the battlefield itself, and in the surrounding villages of Papelotte, La Haye and Plancenoit.
Exploring these places, ideally with an expert guide, you can appreciate how uncertain the outcome of the battle was. The Allied armies of Great Britain and Prussia were separated by an early French assault, and for some time the French had the upper hand. The fighting raged for nine hours, and claimed the lives of 40,000 men. In a private letter after the event, Wellington wrote: “It was the most desperate business I ever was in; I never took so much trouble about any battle; & never was so nearly beat.” His modesty overlooks the fact that visionary planning, new technology including rockets and shrapnel shells, and exceptional bravery by the British cavalry in particular, signaled the end of the Napoleonic era and the beginning of the British Empire.
On a later occasion Wellington was somewhat less modest about his achievement: “By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”