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WHAT A SHOW!

Re-enactment Battle of Waterloo July 20, 2015

Order of Battle Allied Forces
Order of Battle Allied Forces

I am watching thousands of men armed with muskets and baker rifles, hundreds manning canons, all firing blanks at each other. With my binoculars I can also spot quite a few young ladies (Amazons?) dressed up as Grande Armée and allied soldiers. The French cavalry charges and the ground shakes as hundreds of horses and their riders add a bit of speed, sword and sabre to the spectacle. After a short while the smoke from the blanks envelops most of the battlefield. When the temporary mist caused by the black powder lifts, the spectacle can truly commence. And what a spectacle it turns out to be! This surely is the most ambitious re-enactment battle ever staged.

The show takes place on the actual battlefield where 200 years ago Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington confronted each other for the first and very last time. I find it incredible that the ‘Iron Duke’ and the Emperor never actually met in person. If you are interested in all things Napoleonic (Wellington never appealed to the general public in the same way) you wouldn’t have wanted to miss the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo. For two evenings only (the 19th and 20th of June, 2015) one of Europe’s most famous battles was portrayed by 6,000 re-enactors in front of a crowd of 120,000 spectators.

Charging Cavalry
Charging Cavalry

I probably don’t need to point out that these re-enactment battles can never come close to the real thing. During the Napoleonic era battlefields quickly became gruesome fields of slaughter with limbs getting ripped off by bouncing canon balls and grapeshot causing equally nasty injuries, if not death. At Waterloo, which was a relatively small battlefield, bodies would have quickly piled up and dead or wounded horses would have formed obstacles for both the advancing French and the defending Allies.

Napoleon’s strategic brilliance modernized warfare but the technology (weaponry) remained ‘old school’. Incredibly, some weapons (I am thinking of lances) had not changed much since the Middle Ages, but despite this the French lancers proved to be surprisingly effective at Waterloo. Their three meter long pikes often turned out to be more deadly than the pistols, sabres and swords that the cuirassiers and dragoons wielded to no avail when faced with Wellington’s infantry squares.

Battle formation and camp followers
Battle formation and camp followers

Particularly the re-enactors on horseback look like they are having quite a bit of fun charging through the rye field. They get to hack the poor fusiliers with their swords. OK, it is just pretend, but viewed from ground level it must give you an idea of how vulnerable you are. The horses are very well behaved and don’t appear to trample anybody. However it is rather difficult to practise mock combat with sharp lances and accordingly the lancers have no role to play in this re-enactment. Nobody wants to see real blood flowing and we all know this is a big show, despite the fact that it is presented under the guise of a commemoration. And accidents do happen. The guy playing Marshall Ney fell off his horse the first night and broke his arm (see my photographs) and only reappeared to witness the victory parade of the Allied forces on Sunday.

Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield
Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield

What does come across fairly realistically at this portrayal of the battle is the effect on the fighting that the smoke from the guns must have had. During the re-enactment the 100 canons and the 2000-3000 muskets created quite a bit of mist that occasionally hampered the visibility for the spectators. It is quite easy to imagine that 200 years ago the smoke produced by 400 guns and 100,000 muskets firing continuously for 10 hours must have enveloped the battlefield in a thick fog that would have hampered both armies at various stages.

Oh well, 200 years have passed and nobody who is alive now, will have met anyone who fought at Waterloo. Many people were, until recently, not even aware that their family fought in Belgium for the Allied cause. Throughout the year the French have been reminded of their defeat at the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean (Napoleon never adopted Wellington’s name for the battle). The Belgians minted a commemorative coin which the French rejected. French politicians have turned out to be sour losers. But so was Napoleon who fled from the battlefield and then blamed everybody else for the crushing defeat.

Napoleon and his generals
Napoleon and his generals

There was a point during the show that I came to realize that all the people that I could see around me – 60,000 in the grandstands in addition to the 6000 re-enactors out there on the battlefield – more or less equaled the number of soldiers that were wounded or died during the battle of Waterloo. The crying, the wailing, the groaning from the mortally wounded would have been soul destroying. It seems rather pointless to try and mimic that drama, but the soundtrack (with dramatic music) seemed to give it a try.

Wellington certainly didn’t celebrate his victory with a glass of champagne. Apparently he collapsed in a heap on his bed after the battle and cried over the loss of so many friends and colleagues. Only after that did he pull himself together to write his now famous dispatch from Waterloo. So, next time leave out the music, the commentator and sound effects! Just leave it to our imagination.

The re-enactment event has been a huge success in so many different ways. It was worth seeing all this just for the costumes. The time and money the re-enactors put into getting the uniforms and the paraphernalia just right is admirable. Many of them have been saving up for this occasion for the past five years. It is also worth bearing in mind that all these good people gave up their time for free to participate in this event. The organizers did provide the food, the tents and the black powder. But this spectacle could only take place because re-enactors came from all over the world to take part in it.

Allied bivouacs
Allied bivouacs

I loved walking around the bivouacs and at the French camp I spoke to re-enactors from the Czech and Slovak republics, Germany, Belgium and France. The Allied bivouac hosted an even greater multinational force. I met re-enactors from Portugal, Canada, USA, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium and even some from Sweden and Finland.

In 1815 the Swedes didn’t participate in the battle, but the troupe representing the Älvsborg regiment were undeterred by this inconvenient historic detail. They were determined not to miss such a major event so obligingly the organizers incorporated them into the scenario. One of the Swedes confided to me that back home re-enactment events rarely attract more than 200 participants.

This business of portraying different battles is not just a nerdish obsession of a happy few. It has become quite a movement and tens of thousands of people get involved in Europe and North America in various events during the spring and summer. I believe these enthusiasts – who can spend a fortune on jackets, shakos and plates alone – truly help to keep some of our war history alive. By spending time more or less living the life of a bygone soldier they can enrich our understanding of what it was really like to be in battle and help us to appreciate the incredible resourcefulness of soldiers 200 years ago.

I have in the past made a number of radio programmes about Napoleon and Waterloo for Finnish and Swedish media and believed I was fairly knowledgeable on the topic. But I have learned more about the Napoleonic wars from talking to re-enactors and visiting their bivouacs over one weekend than I have from watching Andrew Roberts pompous, and at times poorly argued and self-serving TV series on Napoleon, currently airing on BBC 2.

Journalist, photographer and social commentator.