As any old soldier will tell you, the ties of tradition and comradeship will always bind you to your regimental band of brothers. Even now, when my husband needs a little extra courage, he will put on the green, red and brown stripes of his old regimental tie. I love the story of how, before his regiment’s major battle at Cambrai in 1917, some regimental colours needed to be found. The best that the local draper’s shop could provide was some green, red and brown cloth and so the colours were made and the regimental slogan born – “Through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond”.
So when my husband and father-in-law (also a retired career soldier) wanted a bit of father-son bonding, it was hardly surprising that their idea of fun was a battlefield tour weekend. The battle of Waterloo has become the folklore of military strategy, absorbed by every prospective young officer at Sandhurst. By a happy co-incidence, their choice to visit this battlefield would enable them to test out the excellent gastronomic reputation of Belgium.
Waterloo was Napoleon Bonaparte’s last battle, his defeat putting a final end to his rule as Emperor of the French. The armies of Europe were mobilising against him and gathered near the French border were the Prussian army and the Anglo-allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Napolean hoped to destroy them before the other members of the coalition could join them.
On 18 June 1815, Wellington’s army withstood repeated attacks by the French until in the evening they counter-attacked with the help of the Prussians who arrived just in time to break through Napoleon’s right flank. By the time the French driven from the field, losses were heavy on all sides. The battle was decisive and enabled Coalition forces to restore King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, where he died in 1821.
Well that’s what the history books will tell you. But I like to imagine the battle through the eyes of the delicious Sean Bean playing Major Richard Sharpe, the dashing maverick British rifleman in the Sharpe television series, based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell. When we watch the DVD at home, my boys love the swashbuckling action and I swoon as the ladies of Brussels must have done at all those dashing young officers about to fight and die for their country. Check it out here – that song ‘Over the hills and far-away’ is so haunting.
At the Duchess of Richmond’s ball held a day before the battle, Wellington received a dispatch from The Prince of Orange summoning his army to meet Napolean’s advance. Her daughter Georgiana wrote:
“My mother’s now famous ball took place in a large room on the ground-floor, and I recollect the paper—a trellis pattern with roses. … When the duke arrived,at the ball, I was dancing, but at once went up to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, “Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.” This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume.”
Coming back to reality from my romantic dream of dashing young officers in scarlet uniforms, I checked out a few tour organisers for ideas and found the following;
Poppy Travel is the travel arm of the Royal British Legion and offered the most reasonably priced Waterloo 3 day tour for £269 as well as many other battlefield tours and pilgrimages.
Waterloo Battlefield tours claim to be the only company specialising only in Waterloo Battlefield tours and offering small guided groups of 6-10. The price was £450 per person for a 3 day tour.
Holt Tours also offered a 4 day tour in June priced at £595 per person. They also organise tours to many other battlefields and war graves.
The battlefield has an excellent visitor’s centre with audio-visual presentations, several cafes, shops and a waxworks museum showing scenes from the battle. Adjacent to the centre is the Lion’s mound, built as a monument to the battle, giving a panoramic view over the battlefield with an orientation map to give details of the strategic places on the battlefield.
If I was spending my own money on a hotel, my choice would be Le Jolis Bois (double room €90), part of the Logis de Belgique group. We stayed in similar hotels from the Logis de France group on our honeymoon and found them to be comfortable, family-run hotels with far more character than the average hotel chain. The others that looked nice were Le Côté Vert (double room €150), Le Grand Hotel (double room €160) and the 1815 hotel, right beside the battlefield(double room €100).