Saturday, 20 June 2015

100th post! Battle Of Waterloo Bicentenary, Belgium.

The fields of Waterloo, June 2015.

En avance, mes enfants! Drilling at the
French bivouac, 18th June.

17th June

Over the last few years the number of times I've read about some Napoelonic memorial event after it's happened, cursing my head-in-the-sand ability to miss out on so many wonderful opportunities, doesn't bear thinking about.

I suppose this might be explained in part by the fact that I've only just been getting back into these interests? As 2012 unfolded, and I occasionally read about events commemorating Napoleon's ill-fated excursion into Mother Russia, I was particularly galled at my forever behind events knack for missing stuff, as I was at that time reading voraciously on that very campaign.

Mind you, I doubt I could've afforded a trip to Russia just then anyway!

The 'scum of the earth'! (Sorry guys,
nothing personal!)

A couple of German Highlanders!

'Old Nosey', aka The Iron Duke, aka Arthur Wellesley,
1st Duke of Wellington, the Sepoy General, etc.

Some French brass.

So, it is with great and extraordinary pleasure that I find myself typing this, my 100th published post for A Question Of Scale, lying in bed in a cool AirBnB holiday rental property, in Sint-Genesius-Rode, a southern suburb of Brussels, just a few miles north of the town and battlefields of Waterloo. Later today my wife and I will be exploring the bivouacs, and then watching the opening ceremony (billed as a fire and fireworks spectacular, called the 'Inferno'!).

This - the tiny little wooden shed-like thing,
smack-dab in the centre of the pic - is where
we stayed. Very green!

It might perhaps seem odd to some, as indeed it does to me, that the actual re-enactment battles are going to be happening not today, on the 18th, the 200th anniversary to the very day, but tomorrow, and the day after, i.e. the 19th and 20th.

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18th June


On the 17th we visited the battlefield and environs, to scout out the set-up, and check out where we'll be parking. It was a bit chaotic, and it wasn't at all clear where we'd end up parking. But we did at least get to hang out in the Waterloo 'village', where we had a couple of beers and a couple of Boulettes de Crevette, at a swank new restaurant opposite the swank new subterranean visitor centre.

I was very pleased to learn that our expensive 'Combi' tickets, which give us access to the bivouacs, the Inferno, and The French Attack (on Friday 19th), also give us access to the visitor centre. More on this later!

Follow the drums!

A beautiful French flying ambulance, an humane
invention of the famous French surgeon Baron Larrey.

Could this be a bivouac romance?

We also met, talked to, and photographed, numerous re-enactors. It was properly cosmopolitan, to the point of confusion, with German Highlanders, an English contingent of Prussians, and all sorts of nationalities dressed up in the uniforms of some other country!

The Duke of Wellington, who I talked to and photographed, was sitting atop a rather skittish horse. He at least was actually English! I had read somewhere that Napoleon was being played by American re-enactor Mark Schneider. But it turns out they have a French lawyer in the role, Frank Samson.

I filmed a really cool march past of the band of the Imperial Guard, lead by a group of ten drummers. I've tried uploading the clip below in numerous formats, and numerous time, but it always comes out looking pixellated and very low res (not like the actual video I shot!). There's also a lot of rumble from wind across the microphone (that is the same as the original clip!). Can anyone more au fait with blogger advise me as to how to improve the video image quality?

The Imperial Guard band. If I can edit it to remove the 
wind rumble I'll do so, when time allows.

More drilling at the camp.

This lot were a very friendly bunch of English 'Frogs',
of the 45eme Ligne.

Imperial HQ. I'd hoped to snap Boney here,
but we didn't catch a glimpse of him.

The brass milling about. Several poulet were
cooking on an open fire nearby.

The accoutrements of the ol' Grognards.

A dapper and friendly line infantryman. I do
like his greatcoat! I think it's the stripes
that really set it all off!

More Frenchies, en tenue de campaign.

As well as some Czech Prussians, Canadian, American and German Englishmen, and British Frenchmen - I had a particularly friendly and gratifying chat with a contingent of the 45eme Regt. de Ligne, who were from all over the UK - I did actually find a couple of groups of French Frenchmen: one group were some ranking brass, whilst another were a distinguished (and appropriately haughty) group of old grognards of the Imperial Guard. 

It turns out almost all the re-enactors are listed (as aggregate figures by nation) in the programme, with the UK coming second to Germany for the highest number of participants. Peter Hofschröer might find that gratifying! It kind of jibes with the German dominance in Allied numbers (though not by the same margins) at the time.

Just outside the French bivouac was a small
stall selling cheap vintage postcards.
Here's the little stash I poichased.

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19th June

The 18th, day of the actual historical battle itself, was the day of our visits to the bivouacs. We only went to the French ones. I was a bit miffed when we finally got home (at long gone two a.m!) to realise, upon consulting my paperwork, that we'd missed the opportunity of exploring the Hougoumont bivouac. Access to this latter site, the Allied encampment, was - on our tickets - strictly limited to between 18.00-21.00 of the 18th, which was the period we were at the French bivouacs.

This poor planning on my part resulted from some confusion which had arisen, in my view, due to poor displaying of info on tickets and elsewhere; some of which info related to multiple components, without making it clear enough which bit of info related to which element of the various component events. This wasn't the only organisational element which, to my mind, left a lot to be desired!

Another logistical pain in the derriere concerned what turned into something of a pain for us (quite literally), in that the parking arrangements were not clearly signposted, either on the ground, in the online literature, or in the printed program and other material. The maps of the event do display disabled parking, bicycle parking, and even campervan parking, but not ordinary automobile parking.

As the latter is the form of transport which probably accounts for the vast majority visitors who aren't using public transport transport, that seems a bit odd, to say the least!

The bizarre and not very good Inferno event of the 18th, which was staged very late (and actually ran significantly later than the 22.00-24.00 advertised) - oh, and walking miles and miles between bivouacs, etc.- left us both, and me in particular, so drained that I spent most of the 19th recovering in bed! Teresa made us something to eat whilst I typed most of this. I realised, as I sat typing this at our accommodation in Sint-Genesius-Rode on the 19th, that we might've screwed up, and missed our opportunity to see the new visitor centre. I'd far rather have seen that than the damned Inferno!

This guy told us he was a surgeon. 'Baron
Larrey?' I inquired.'If you like m'sieur!' 

The picture above was taken outside the new visitor centre, on the 20th, when we did indeed find out that we had missed our opportunity to use our Combi tickets to explore it on this visit! The downside to this is missing the contents, the upside is the necessity of another visit!

The 19th is the day of The French Attack. Like the Inferno this is on at an oddly late hour. I read on the day, somewhere online, that this is for economic reasons (apparently so the local working populace can do their day jobs and then come and see the event afterwards!). Fortunately this was on 8 till 10, and not 10 till midnight, like the Inferno was. We intended making strenuous efforts to park north of Waterloo for The French Attack, after the tortuous round trip to Nivelles in the wee small hours of the night of the 18th-19th!

I had rather hoped to run a smooth operation, posting to the blog as events unfolded here. But I ended up always trying to conserve the battery on my iPad, as things seemed to take forever to charge in Belgium, for some unknown reason! So all my initial pics (some removed now) were either taken on my iPhone (a few), or our digital camera (the vast majority till today), with only a very few on the iPad (and not those were not very good ones at that!). For the French Attack I was planning to use the iPad a lot more, as well as the digital camera (and perhaps even the iPhone?).

Anyhow, at this point the time had arrived to get ready for battle. The French Attack was imminent! En avance... Vive l'Empereur!


This, alas, is typical of the views we had of The French Attack.

The zoom on our Canon IXUS 85 IS proved
to be the best of a bad bunch.

A small group of what appeared to be dismounted
lancers acted as skirmishers.

One of the few instances of my camera
catching gunpowder flashes.

French cavalry attacks the British and allied squares.

... the cavalry have moved from the square in front
to the one behind. Infantry advances left.

... the cavalry gone, the infantry looks isolated!

Boney on one of his several ride-bys.

I shouted Vive l'Empereur. So did one other guy! 

Damn those 21st century lights (and the g'damn PA!).

Dragoons return to the French artillery lines on the crest.

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It turned out that partking was almost as big a pain on this occasion as previously. This time we were on the right (northern) side of Waterloo. But we ere a very, very, very long way from the event! The traffic in both cars and pedestrians was far busier on this day. The event being a much larger one. Despite logistical annoyances, the excitement was intoxicating.

When we finally got to our stand, after a 45 minute trek, I started to ruminate and cogitate on the fact that it's turning out to be an odd experience, this here Waterloo 2015 malarkey. If I'm honest, I thought the Inferno was, as well as being downright weird, pretty awful. I don't really dig these sorts of giant spectacles: from Dennis Taylor to Dame Edna, via Elton John, such things have, I've always felt, tended to be the epitome of naff. ;o) I won't become the 'you don't want to do it like that!' geezer from The Fast Show on this score. At least not right here and now (I'm adding this on the 20th June, back home in Blighty), but I may return to this theme at some later point.

The Inferno was a much smaller do than the re-enactments. And that's how it ought to be as well, for my money. Talking of money, although I'm really glad we went - overall we had a great time - the bits that we paid for were, erm... for my money (sorry to get repetitive, but it's the most apt term!), not really up to snuff: the parking arrangements were downright shoddy. Despite paying for parking on both days, we ended up walking what felt like a Napoleonic campaigns worth of miles around the various sites. At least Teresa enjoyed the Inferno! But, as I've already said, I thought it was pants, frankly. And then there was the re-enactment, aka The French Attack.

[pic?]

I s'pose all this belly-aching - some of which was perhaps brought on by a 'hamburger' bought at one of the myriad stands? - makes me a right proper old grognard? Well, never mind, here goes: for starters we were, I guess, a tad unlucky in that the block we were seated in (M) wasn't exactly the best placed for viewing the battle.

By the same standards a good deal of the seating, especially those stands along the main axial north-south road - the Brussels/Waterloo to Charleroi road - suffered from the same issues. Numerous blocks, including ours, had, to all intents and purposes, very little other than empty fields directly opposite them, with the bulk of the action occurring either on the reverse slope of a hill, also directly in front of us, or so far away as to be nigh on invisible, especially once the smoke started to build up.

Now all this does of course illustrate perfectly what Napoleonic troops and their commanders had to contend with. But they were fighting a war, whereas we were paying customers who imagined we would be enjoying seeing the battle. I have to say that even though, in my mania for things Napoleonic, and on this occasion Waterloo in particular, I managed to enjoy this much more than the dratted Inferno, nevertheless I was, to be honest, sorely disappointed. 

Combine the distances involved, the problems of geography or topography, and the selection of poor quality cameras I had at my disposal - iPhone, iPad, and a Canon IXUS 85IS point-&-shoot - and this meant that photography was not going to provide the wonderful record of the battle I might've hoped for, as a few of the accompanying pics here amply demonstrate. Thankfully other bloggers have fulfilled that need!

And also rather fortunately, our time slogging round the bivouacs over the three days of the 18th, 19th and 20th June, whilst very physically draining and painful, did at least provide us with many moments that ultimately yielded a plethora of decent photo-opportunities, and, I hope you'll agree? a hoard of relatively decent pictures as well! You can be the judges!!

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The Lion Mound, truly a carbuncle on the face of an old friend! 
But it does at least look good here, viewed from afar under a tree,
as we walked from Hougoumont towards the visitor centre.


20th June

On the 20th we decided, despite having the ferry home to catch in mid-afternoon, to risk another visit to the champ de bataille. We had indeed missed out on the new visitor centre on the 18th, so we figured we'd try our luck at getting in a day late. Sadly this didn't work, as it turned out. So, we'll save that for another trip! This also lead to day three in our footsore saga. 

But the bonuses of this last jaunt around the battlefields were numerous: we passed the Hougoumont bivouac site, where the Allied forces were based, and saw loads of these diverse troops being marched about. We also saw loads more re-enactors of all nations, including numerous Austrians, who weren't taking part in the battle, but clearly felt the need to be there for this slice of historic action.


I think these guys are Middle or Young Guard.

More brass, the guy at left's a Gendarme, I think.

Dragoons, or, 'Dragon', as the french have it!
That's a rather foxy officer they have there!

Austrians at Waterloo?

French artillerymen.

A real proper dandified beau sabreur of le hussards.
I think this guy was French? But I couldn't understand
what unit he said he belonged to when I asked him.

Light infantry.

More Austrians!

One of the few pics I took of Allied/English troops.
This was shot over the fence of the Allied bivouac at 
Hougoumont (we did miss out on actually going in!).

As we walked this section of the battlefield Teresa thought she saw Jeremy Paxman stroll past us. I was too busy photographing people in their fab period gear to confirm if this was indeed a genuine Paxo sighting! Rather than run back and harass him - which I did really want to do! - we continued on our march towards the Lion's Butte. 




En route we passed a memorial to artilleryman Cavalie Mercer, Captain of Troop G, the Royal Horse Artillery. This really gave me a thrill - the first time such a memorial has done so - as I'd been reading an abridged version of his memoirs during our trip. So, to stand where his battery had fought actually had a powerful resonance. 

My Waterloo Waterloo reading!

Blücher and some of his Prussian staff.

We met Blücher and some of his staff, as attested to by the above pic. I'd been doffing my cap, and exclaiming 'Vive L'Empereur' as a thank-you, every time I snapped any French troops, so I tried to recall the catchphrase associated with the old Prussian commander - 'Vorwarts, mein kinde'. But my head was so addled with trying to think and talk French that it came out as 'En avance, mes enfants!' The stony-faced General looked distinctly unimpressed!

I'd photographed a far more friendly Wellington on one of the preceding days. But, aside from the really rather pathetic long distance shots of Napoleon, taken when he did one of several ride-bys along the stands during The french Attack, I didn't get to see Boney up close. This last point has a funny relation to both historic and fictional sightings of the emperor that I've encountered during this sojourn, in that during Sharpe's Waterloo it's the desire to see Napoleon that causes Sharpe and his Irish pal Harper to return to Waterloo, after leaving 'Silly Billy's' staff and the battlefield, and Mercer mentions his two sightings of Napoelon with evident glee.

Even now, 200 years on, Napoleon - or even someone pretending to be Napoleon! - exerts a magnetic and charismatic effect!

Can you spot Boney?

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And Finally...

We're now back at home, eating dinner sat on our couches in front of the TV, watching Rod Steiger as Napoeon, in the epic Waterloo film by Dino de Laurentis and Sergei Bondarchuck. I now need a second holiday to recover from all the Napoleonic footslogging we've been through in the last few days!

10 comments:

  1. Excellent. Looking forward to the photos. Have a great weekend!

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    1. Thank you LH. We're back home now. It was a funny old trip! Goodness only knows how far we walked over all. But much fun was had. Only a few pretty poor pics so far, alas. Tomorrow I'll try and upload some better ones!

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  2. Enjoyed the post Seb and your frank account of the events and festivities. It would appear that things have not changed that much since my last trip to Waterloo many years ago in terms of organisation. However at least you were there mate so well done.

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    1. Cheers Carlo. It was great to be there, even if certain things weren't perfect. I've missed so many Napoleonic bicentennial events, I just had to make Waterloo... it being the final battle!

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  3. My view was much the same as yours - Tribune M. I did get some good video of the Grand battery though. Glad I brought binoculars though! You did get some impression of how hard it was for commanders to see through the smoke from a position 1000m away!

    That hussar is Austrian - I also ran into him and asked (in several languages) what unit he was from - he agreed to the 1st hussars, but notice the double eagle on his busby. I saw Swedes, and more Austrians in the allied camp. Also some Russian artillery.

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    1. Thanks Eric, interesting to get feedback from the same stand! We were row 29, seats 44 & 45. Were you very near?

      I suspected that guy wasn't French for exactly that reason: his busby badge (and the shape of it as well!).

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  4. Thanks for sharing!

    The Hussar certainly isn't a Napoleonic Austrian one - they didn't wear Busbys at all, and only an Austrian trumpeter would have a red plume - the rest were all black over yellow (Hapsburg colors). The Austrians also used the dople adler only on their flags, not on their equipment - those would have the Kaiser's Cypher if anything . My guess would be either not actually a Napoleonic uniform (maybe a bit later) or a Hanoverian unit. Also Austrian shako cords would be yellow mixed with black, at least during the Napoleonic Wars.

    Hungarian Cavalry generals wore busbys, but their uniforms were in white and red.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Gonsalvo, glad you enjoyed the post. That Hussar is still a bit of a mystery man then, it seems!?

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  5. Excellent photos! Seems like the bivouacs were great. We didn't manage to get tickets to see them as they were forgotten when we bought tickets for the reenactments and later on they were already sold out. Too bad you didn't see the new museum. It really was great and I do recommend visiting it sometime in the future :)

    The arrangements were indeed a bit shoddy sometimes. Luckily we had decided to skip the official parking areas all together and managed to get the car next to Papelotte with only 10 minutes of walking without having to be stuck in the masses when the show ended.

    The saturday reenactment was a much better affair than the friday one. Better organized and with some useful commentary. It really made friday seem like a rehearsal compared to it. I was in Tribune B for both of them and from there the view was decent enough, though slightly blocked by cavalry higher on the slopes and by the smoke of course. I've got some pics on my blog if you are interested.

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    1. Hi Samuli, glad you liked the pics! And thanks for dropping by and commenting, it's always appreciated.

      After the difficulties using the official parking on the thursday, we thought about doing want you did (or even getting a taxi!) on the friday. But, skinflint that I am, having paid for the parking I wanted to use it! Actually, when I look back I it all now, I'm glad of the exercise we were forced into having - so much walking! (makes you appreciate what the soldiers had to do, in their hot uniforms carrying their packs and weapons) - and we also now know the area better, as we either walked or drove round all sorts of unexpected areas!

      Interesting to hear that Saturday was an improvement on friday. I just wish we'd have had a better view, as our binoculars and camera weren't really powerful enough to compensate for the distance. I'll definitely check out your pics and your blog,

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