Wed, 28 Jul 2021

Napoleon Bonaparte may have been "robbed of victory" at Waterloo - depending on who you ask - but that defeat, catastrophic as it was, did not rob him of glory. In the bicentenary year of his death, much fuss has been made of his accomplishments - even on the Belgian battlefield from where he was forced to flee.

Here, the events of 18 June, 1815 are recreated every year, with costumed performers bringing the military camps back to life in painstaking detail. The hand-sewn uniforms, surgical tools and even the cooking utensils are faithful to the era.

As the British relive their monumental win - one that shaped Europe in their favour - the French turn out in force to celebrate the unfading celebrity of their conquered hero.

Emotions are running high for this year's Covid-hit re-enactment because no British or French troops have been allowed to join the fray. Filling their boots are Belgian performers, doing their best as proxies in a massively scaled-down event.

While it's a far cry from the 6,000 troops and cavalry who put on a bumper show for the 2015 Waterloo anniversary, this year's festivities are a step up from last year's, which were scuppered altogether by the pandemic.

"Normally here at the British allied camp there are 2,000 of us, but today there are 38 allies and some French artillery," says a Flemish man playing the role of a Dutch major general at the Hougoumont farm, where the Duke of Wellington's men fought off a relentless attack from Napoleon's troops.

"Normally I am happier, but this is straight through the heart."

Calm before the storm

It was at this farm where the Emperor, surrounded by his senior commanders, spent the eve of the battle camped in an orchard under the protection of France's elite Imperial Guard.

Although outnumbered, Napoleon was confident that his men could defeat the British allies - and the army of Prussian reinforcements sent in under the command of Gebhard von Blücher. His plan was to fight them separately, before they could join forces, but a fateful decision to delay an artillery attack on Wellington's front line meant they were able to regroup.

At the recreated camp, a fully costumed Napoleon, true to history, spent Saturday morning eating and drinking with his military staff at a large table set up by the kitchen tent. Such was his commitment to the cause, he never slipped out of character.

"We're absolutely ready for battle. We're going to win," he laughed after lunch of lamb with beans and potatoes was done.

Putting off the attack was the right decision, he assured the few spectators who had gathered to hear him speak. Overnight rain meant the wet ground was "still a bit heavy for our cannons".

How long did he anticipate the battle would last? "The time it takes to have lunch."

French pride

While Waterloo may be a sore point for France, which has no monuments to commemorate the battle, in Belgium there isn't room for humiliation - only French pride.

The fields are scattered with tributes to French soldiers, while Napoleon's name is a regular feature on restaurant menus and in shops. The local Waterloo lager, meanwhile, is known as the "beer of bravery".

"Napoleon may have lost at Waterloo, but he won the ultimate battle - that of 'the legend'," says Antoine Charpagne, a French costumed performer whose day job is running the culture department at the local Battle of Waterloo Memorial museum.

"Here on the battlefield, we talk much more about Napoleon than we do about Wellington or Blucher."

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In the 200 years since his death on the remote British island of St Helena, Napoleon has managed to stir up some very decent PR. Historians say this is largely thanks to the memoirs he wrote during his time in exile.

"On St Helena Napoleon was surrounded by people who were loyal to him and who helped to rewrite his story," explains Charpagne.

"This 'birth' of the Napoleonic legend, the message he sent, has been retold for two hundred years and sold as the truth."

Military failure

Ultimately, though, Napoleon was a military and geopolitical failure. The France that he left behind was smaller than the France he took over.

"All of the conquests he accumulated over the years were reduced to nothing because he was forced to abdicate, with the European powers able to completely recover their former territories," explains Charpagne.

The fallen Emperor's true legacy, he says, is an administrative one. His Napoleonic code - abolishing feudalism and allowing religious freedom - remains the basis of French civil law today.

"Plus the French political system is still modelled on the one Napoleon created 200 years ago."

Originally published on RFI

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