History: Oliver Reports For Duty at Waterloo

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As many people will know, the 200th Anniversary of the great Battle of Waterloo took place at the tail end of last term.

This event - in which a combined British, Dutch-Belgian, German and Prussian army defeated the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte on June 18, 1815 - is famed for its moments of great heroism and tragedy.

It led directly to the final overthrow of the Emperor Napoleon, cemented British dominance on the world stage and created almost a century of peace in Europe, right up to 1914.

Many people fascinated by history will have found ways of marking such an important point in the history of Europe, but I chose to forego the more mundane ways of recognising this event in favour of joining more than 5000 reenactors on the fields of Waterloo, Belgium to refight the battle.

Historical reenactment is a widespread hobby in Europe and America. In Britain large groups gather to recreate great battles of the past, living in authentic camps, eating authentic food and dressing in authentic clothes and uniforms from key points of history. However, this event was on another scale entirely, as it was the largest Napoleonic reenactment since the hobby first gained widespread membership in the 1970s.

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The current political climate of controversy over Britain's place in the European Union only made it more interesting - after all, this was the great battle in which we defeated the idea of a united Europe. There were certain questions over how much we should recognise this side of the battle.

I travelled to Belgium on the Tuesday afternoon, and arrived on the campsite in the early evening. My group of reenactors, who recreate the 6th Regiment of Foot, were encamped in the walled garden at the farm of Hougoumont, the site of fierce fighting throughout the battle, and we were keenly conscious of the significance of the land.

We had Wednesday off, to ready our equipment and tour the battlefield. However, we made up for it on Thursday 18th - the Bicentenary itself - with hours of drill throughout the day. This gave the Division to which I was assigned a chance to practice for the battles themselves, and we soon realised the difficulties of moving four hundred men across ground in a neat line.

We nonetheless persevered and soon had the movements learnt and ready to be practiced on the field itself.

A minute's silence at 11.30am on the 18th marked the opening of hostilities, and throughout the day many hands flicked often to pocket watches to mark key moments in the chronology of the battle.

Friday dawned bright and early with the troops possessing more energy than before, for the day of the first battle had dawned. I spent the morning in nervous readiness, ensuring that my musket was working properly and going through safety drills. Tension was high by 5pm when the armies formed up for action in their separate encampments, with all the Allied and French troops mustering together in their respective camps for the first time - an awe-inspiring event in itself, thanks to the sheer number of reenactors gathered together in one place.

Marching to the field filled me with pride, as people from across the world lined the road to the battlefield to cheer on the marching combatants.

Our entry to the battlefield took us through the farm at La Haye Sainte, the site of fierce fighting throughout the battle. The privately-owned site is not normally open to visitors, but the owner gave us permission to march through the courtyard where hundreds of men of the King's German Legion had fought all day to hold off the French army.

From that point, excitement only grew as we stepped onto the battlefield under the gaze of nearly 65,000 spectators. I knew then, more than at any other time, the sheer scale of the event.

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The French army was laid out on the ridge opposite, vast lines of infantry, blocks of cavalry, lines of cannon, and behind it all the line of tall, bear-skinned Imperial Guard. In the distance, an ominous figure in a grey greatcoat could be seen riding along the French lines. "The Emperor" rose up the call, as we recognised the actor portraying the great general.

The reenactment was preceded by a minute's silence, and we keenly felt the significance of the ground on which we fought, and the lives that had been lost there. A moment after this, the thunder of the French guns in volley marked the opening of the battle, and we soon set to with the fighting.

What occurred strongly mirrored the opening of the battle, with an initial assault by the French who struck heavily against the Allied line, only to be thrown back in disarray by a cavalry charge. I found the battle exhilarating, with volley after volley of musket fire crashing out from both sides. Powder smoke filled the air, obscuring the view of what was going on around us, while it was impossible to hear any orders from the officers in the roar of battle.

This was the largest reenactment almost anyone there had seen, and in the process we learnt a good deal about how a genuine battle of the period would have been fought. By the time the battle was coming to a close it was turning to night, and we returned to our camps at almost midnight, exhausted, but incredibly excited.

The second day's battle, on Saturday evening, commenced very differently to Friday's as the French immediately launched a mass attack, driving up the Allied ridge and pressing on our line. However, the massive firepower of the Allied lines - supported by more than fifty cannon - soon drove them back and we pressed our advantage, leading to a recreation of another famous event, the great French cavalry charge.

There were more than two hundred French cavalry on the field, and the rolling thunder of the horses' hooves struck fear into our hearts, despite us knowing that it was all an act. The French pressed their attack but, as occurred in the real battle, they could not break the squares in which our infantry sheltered and soon retreated.

At this point, my division was taken out of the line for a rest. We were told to lie in the grass, but many of us sat up to watch the mighty spectacle of the battle. As we waited, another spectacle caught our eye - after two days' battles, the Imperial Guard finally made its move.

Two hundred reenactors, clad in bearskins and greatcoats, came marching down the ridge to chants of 'Vive L'Empereur' as we readied for the storm to break.

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The Guard stormed up the ridge, and at the Duke of Wellington's command we rose up to face them. The Guard were true to their reputation, proving fearsome opponents, but we ultimately drove them off. At last they were surrounded by the Allied army, answering calls to surrender with the verses of Le Marseillaise before being slain to a man.

However, with the battle over they rose again to accept our salutes, and once again we were all comrades united by a love of history. As we marched back to camp, a slow rain began to descend, cooling us off as we re-entered our tent city to swap our stories of the day's fighting.

We celebrated together, toasted the fallen of the true battle and made a few friends as well. There was even a visitor from the French camp, who in a mirror of the footballing practice of trading shirts was going through the camps swapping regimental buttons with his opponents!

On Sunday many of the reenactors had slept in after the late-night battle and march, but we were soon off and a march through Waterloo was organised. The two armies gathered together, as comrades in reenacting, and marched together out of our camps - and the 19th Century - to the town of Waterloo itself, re-entering the 21st Century - before being transported back.

This last hurrah marked the end of the commemorations, though already other events - including a reenactment of the moment when the news of Waterloo reached London - were already in the working.

The experience at Waterloo was a unique one, not just for me but for all the participants and for anyone who came to watch. There was a deep sense that what we were doing was carrying on the memory of those that fought. However, the week was one of great fun for all that, with many memories from the event that will last for years. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in history, or just in meeting interesting people and having a lot of fun, to try reenacting as a hobby.

For the interested, you can contact me at oliver.marks@bedes.org, or go directly to the Napoleonic Association, the central group of reenactors for this period in the UK, though many other eras of history are recreated by groups across the country.

Alternately, just reading a book on the Battle of Waterloo would be strongly encouraged, as in this modern day and age it is still important that we understand the conflict that defined Europe.

 

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