200 Years After Battle, Some Hard Feelings Remain
Thomas Freteur for The New York Times
Published: September 23, 2013
WATERLOO, Belgium — The region around this Belgian city is busily preparing to commemorate the 200th anniversary in 2015 of one of the major battles in European military history. But weaving a path through the preparations is proving almost as tricky as making one’s way across the battlefield was back then, when the Duke of Wellington, as commander of an international alliance of forces, crushed Napoleon.
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A rambling though dilapidated farmstead called Hougoumont, which was crucial to the battle’s outcome, is being painstakingly restored as an educational center. Nearby, an underground visitor center is under construction, and roads and monuments throughout the rolling farmland where once the sides fought are being refurbished. More than 6,000 military buffs are expected to re-enact individual skirmishes.
While the battle ended two centuries ago, however, hard feelings have endured. Memories are long here, and not everyone here shares Britain’s enthusiasm for celebrating Napoleon’s defeat.
Every year, in districts of Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, there are fetes to honor Napoleon, according to Count Georges Jacobs de Hagen, a prominent Belgian industrialist and chairman of a committee responsible for restoring Hougoumont. “Napoleon, for these people, was very popular,” Mr. Jacobs, 73, said over coffee. “That is why, still today, there are some enemies of the project.”
Belgium, of course, did not exist in 1815. Its Dutch-speaking regions were part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the French-speaking portion had been incorporated into the French Empire. Among French speakers, Mr. Jacobs said, Napoleon had a “huge influence — the administration, the Code Napoléon,” or reform of the legal system. While Dutch-speaking Belgians fought under Wellington, French speakers fought with Napoleon.
That distaste on the part of modern-day French speakers crystallized in resistance to a British proposal that, as part of the restoration of Hougoumont, a memorial be raised to the British soldiers who died defending its narrow North Gate at a critical moment on June 18, 1815, when Wellington carried the day. “Every discussion in the committee was filled with high sensitivity,” Mr. Jacobs recalled. “I said, ‘This is a condition for the help of the British,’ so the North Gate won the battle, and we got the monument.”
If Belgium was reluctant to get involved, France was at first totally uninterested. “They told us, ‘We don’t want to take part in this British triumphalism,’ ” said Countess Nathalie du Parc Locmaria, a writer and publicist who is president of a committee representing four townships that own the land where the battle raged. As in the case of the North Gate memorial, however, persistence paid off.
Prince Charles Napoleon, 62, a French politician and direct descendant of Jerome Napoleon — Bonaparte’s brother, who also fought at Waterloo — agreed to join a ceremony on the first of four days of events, to shake hands with the eighth Duke of Wellington, the 98-year-old head of his family, and Prince Blücher von Wahlstatt, a direct descendant of the field marshal who commanded Prussian forces in the battle. The French ambassador to Belgium was won over as an honorary member of the organizing committee.
Now the North Gate is but a wire mesh enclosure in a rambling brick and stone wall, though its wooden doors — the famed “chestnut barrier” — will be reconstructed exactly as they were when French and British troops fought furiously for control, which meant also control of the farm buildings. Eventually, after bloody, hand-to-hand combat, the British troops managed to shut the doors, ultimately breaking Napoleon’s advance and ensuring Wellington’s victory. Next to them, the controversial British memorial, a dark marble copy of the gate, will arise.
The word triumphal, or variations thereof, comes up frequently in discussions here, but the Britons involved vigorously deny having entertained a single triumphalist thought.
“In no way will this be Anglocentric or triumphalist in any way,” said Michael Mitchell, an aircraft consultant who volunteers as secretary of the organizing committee. “We never talk about a celebration, but a commemoration,” said Mr. Mitchell, the son of a British father and Belgian mother whose ancestor Col. Hugh Mitchell fought on Wellington’s right flank. “Many brave men died,” he said. “All the belligerents played an incredibly impressive role.”
If the temptation to triumphalism did exist on the British side, it would be odd, since most of the soldiers who fought under Wellington were not British. Though he commanded 25,000 English, Scottish and Irish regulars, his force also consisted of 26,000 Germans and 17,000 Dutch, while Field Marshal Blücher mustered 50,000 Prussian troops.
Thomas Freteur for The New York Times
For Germany, the events are welcome. Next year, commemorations will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, but unlike that war the Napoleonic wars are not something the Germans may feel they have to apologize for. Margaret Pollmeier, a spokeswoman for the German Embassy in Brussels, said in an e-mail that “in any event, the embassy plans to participate in the commemoration on June 18, 2015.” Since 2011, the German ambassador has been an honorary member of the Hougoumont committee; his military attaché hopes to restore some or all of four memorials to German units on the battlefield.
Over the centuries, the Wellington family has taken a keen interest in the battlefield. The present duke, said Mr. Mitchell, “in fine family tradition, takes, I won’t say a proprietary, but a close eye on the battlefields.” Several times, most recently in 1973, the duke intervened successfully when the local authorities planned to extend a superhighway across the battlefields.
In 2000, a group of Belgian taxpayers brought suit, demanding that the government rescind an agreement dating back to just after the battle under which the Duke of Wellington was given the rights to 2,600 acres around the battlefield. The lands were bringing in about $160,000 annually for the Wellington family, and the taxpayers argued it was time to end the arrangement. The case stagnated until 2009, when the finance minister, Didier Reynders, told Parliament that the government had no intention of backing out of its commitment, which was anchored in the 1839 Treaty of London guaranteeing the independence of Belgium.
Of course, if the Wellingtons continue to benefit from the lands, so do the communities around Waterloo. In good years about 300,000 people visit the battlefield, though recently the number has fallen as word of the restoration work got out. Clearly, the organizers hope that the farm’s revival and the new visitor center will raise the numbers, perhaps as high as 500,000 a year. In discussions, organizers frequently mention Gettysburg, which attracts more than two million people a year.
But the economy is only part of the picture. “Our concern is the experience of the visitor,” Ms. Du Parc said. “What is the message? What is the legacy, what purpose does it serve?” She contrasted the Napoleonic wars with World War I, which was followed only two decades later by an even greater war.
Mr. Jacobs agreed. “Still today, you find Belgians on both sides,” he said, “but thanks to the British this foolish Napoleonic experience was brought to an end. It changed the history of Europe.”
“It brought a hundred years of peace,” he said.