If you are looking for peace and quiet this weekend, you would be well advised to stay away from the countryside just south of Brussels. Similar advice would have applied exactly 195 years ago on Friday – June 18 1815, the decisive date in the history of 19th-century Europe. It was here, in this otherwise unmemorable landscape, that Napoleon was finally defeated, and the quarter-century of mayhem unleashed by the French revolution brought to an end.
On Friday night there were fireworks; and on Saturday groups of enthusiasts will be bivouacking ready for Sunday, when they will stage une grande reconstitution of the battle, as happens every five years. This will be a dress rehearsal for the grandest commemoration yet, marking the bicentenary in 2015.
We are assured that attention to historic detail during the weekend will be meticulous, down to the last button and buckle. Of that, there is no doubt whatever. We are also assured that the outcome will be the same as before: French troops will attack the British and Dutch forces; their assaults will be repelled; then the Prussians will arrive, leaving the French trapped and forced to retreat in disarray towards Paris and – in Napoleon’s case – exile in St Helena.
Of this part, I am less confident, because this would not be the result some spectators expect. Indeed, many people who go to Waterloo seem very confused indeed. Emmanuel Bacquet, the director of the battlefield, says a survey a few years ago showed that 70 per cent of visitors thought Napoleon had won. In a funny way, they may be right. “He lost the battle,” says the British military historian Richard Holmes, “but he has won the memorialisation.” Bacquet is French, and employed by a French company: British Eurosceptics might scent conspiracy here.
Visiting the site certainly comes as a surprise to those of us who thought we had some vague knowledge of history. The details offered by the visitors’ centre seem accurate enough. But everything else is a bit of a shock to anyone brought up to regard Waterloo as a British triumph. The hero is not the victorious general, the Duke of Wellington, but the man who lost. Wrong but romantic, the Napoleon depicted here is not the hate-figure used by generations of English mothers to threaten their errant children.
The café is named after Wellington all right. Other than that, Old Boney is everywhere. In the shop, the overwhelming majority of books, even in English, are Napoleonic. In the little waxworks over the road, there he is: buttoning his greatcoat against the evening cold while encouraging his troops; and sitting soulfully in his quarters while his marshals – wearing what look like bowls of spaghetti on their heads – discuss strategy in the next room. Even his death mask, imported from St Helena, is on display. There is an inconspicuous model of Wellington just before the exit, squeezed between the Prussian marshal Blücher, with his soup-strainer moustache, and the Dutch Prince of Orange.
The most remarkable exhibit of all is the panorama, housed in a rotunda built in 1912 to mark the centenary. The visitor is surrounded by a heroic-looking 110m long, 12m high, 360° French cavalry charge. I think I did manage to spot Wellington cowering behind a makeshift shelter, surrounded by the evening’s horsemeat. It was painted by a team of French artists. “If Waterloo were in Britain, the battle would be cast in a very different light,” says Holmes. “We would interpret it in our way, with our own distortions.”
But Waterloo is in what would become – 15 years after the battle – modern Belgium. It is also in Wallonia: French-speaking and, following the collapse of the mining industry, the poor relation of a country that is unmistakably, if discreetly, troubled. Not far from the wheat and barley fields of Waterloo there are election posters for a party calling for the reversal of 1815 and the reincorporation of Wallonia into France. Its supporters constitute a tiny minority, but this is not a happy region: the French line of retreat took them to Charleroi, 30 miles away, and now perhaps the most dismally run-down city in western Europe. If Bonaparte marched through again tomorrow, one suspects he would be welcomed with beer and roses.
The most striking feature of the battlefield itself is a massive bronze lion. But that isn’t British either: it was erected in the 1820s by the Dutch (it is their symbol too), and looks threateningly towards France on top of a 43m hill – the highest point for miles around. The hill is artificial, built by removing vast quantities of nearby soil and thus changing the subtle contours of the land, in which Wellington somehow managed to hide his forces. No wonder history gets distorted. “They’ve ruined my battlefield,” said Wellington, when he returned to the site.
But for the generations that followed, Waterloo was a resonant place. The victory gave the British a century of largely unthreatened peace at home, and they understood its significance. “If you crossed the Channel it was one of the places to go,” explains Frank Baldwin, chairman of the Battlefields Trust. “Waterloo was the starting point for battlefield tourism.” Now, however, the name conjures up a railway station and an irritating Abba song. It has been downgraded by the bitty, Hitler-centric history taught in British schools. And though many thousands of Britons still go to Belgium to visit battlefields, they are drawn by the first world war. The era of Waterloo seems as distant as that of Hastings.
This seems to say something significant about the British, and their distaste for triumphalism. They revel in the trauma of war: the Light Brigade, the Somme, Dunkirk, the Blitz. They are drawn to the Western Front, not by the ultimate victory, but the folk-memory of cock-up and futility; it is the triumph of what Baldwin calls the “Blackadder school of history”.
There they are moved by the graves and can track the fate of their ancestors. This is not possible at Waterloo. The dead are numberless – maybe 50,000 killed and wounded, maybe more – and largely nameless. They do not seem to whisper to us the way they do at the Menin Gate or Auschwitz: Waterloo is a tourist site, not a place of pilgrimage and reflection. That could change, says Baldwin: “As we get better with genealogy and computer power and, dare I say it, genetics, we may be able to start looking at earlier battles from the point of view of ancestry.”
Emmanuel Bacquet, appointed only last year after running the train and motor museums in Mulhouse, is a conscientious curator and recognises the defects in Waterloo’s current presentation. “I would like to see more life,” he says.
There should be some life this weekend all right. But if we are truly to understand what happened in these fields 195 years ago, what I would like to see is more death.
Matthew Engel’s Dispatch appears fortnightly