Waterloo: a beautiful countryside with a bloody history

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The Independent Travel

Wars have arguably shaped the history of Belgium more than any other country in the world. So it is fitting then, that wars fought in Belgium have, more often than not, shaped the course of world history.

From the glory of Waterloo to the first British shots of the First World War, to one of the most decisive confrontations at the end of the Second World War, the rolling countryside of Wallonia has time and again formed the backdrop to some of the most crucial battles in European history.

Today, these revered battlefields and the memorials and museums associated with them are tourist destinations. Children visit Waterloo because it is part of their school history syllabus, while older visitors make the trip to places like Mons and the Ardennes to pay their respects. Each has an abundance of accessible history to offer, set against the picturesque hills, valleys and villages.

Waterloo is now one of the country's biggest tourist attractions. The entire area, just 15km south of Brussels, is dominated by the Butte du Lion (Lion's Mound): a 40m-high grass pyramid, topped by a giant stone lion, guarding the old battlefield.

From this vantage point - if you can face the 226 steps to achieve it - visitors can gaze out over the famous open expanse where Napoleon Bonaparte finally met his match at the hands of the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian allies on 18 June 1815.

The facilities here are excellent, with the main museum located close by, complete with a boisterous interactive map, explaining how the battle was won and lost, and a detailed waxwork museum recreating all the major players.

Some historians mischievously suggest that the battle - widely considered as one of the greatest in British military history - was only won because of Napoleon's haemorrhoids. These were supposedly playing up so badly on the day of the fighting that the Emperor could not sit on his horse, and was unable to see what was going on.

Today, the battlefield appears almost exactly as it did when hostilities began - whether Napoleon could see them or not. Many of the crucial buildings are still intact and can be visited: including Wellington's headquarters, a former inn two kilometres north of the main site. Now the Wellington Museum, it is a must-see on any Waterloo tour, housing a number of the Iron Duke's personal effects, plus a map room illustrating various stages of the battle from the British perspective.

Today, any visit to Waterloo benefits considerably from hiring one of the many local guides, all of whom speak fluent English and bring the attacks and counter-attacks of the battle enthusiastically to life.

Just 60km to the south-west lies the graceful town of Mons, which was to seal its own extraordinary place in the annals of military history nearly a century after Napoleon met his Waterloo.

It was on the outskirts of Mons on 22 August 1914 that the First World War began in earnest for Britain - when the first shots of the conflict were fired against German troops. A monument to commemorate this act, by a Corporal E Thomas of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, stands just outside the town. But it was the day after this skirmish, however, that something truly inexplicable happened here, during the subsequent Battle of Mons.

Hopelessly outnumbered by at least three to one and in danger of being completely encircled and overwhelmed by the better-equipped German forces, the British troops feared annihilation as night fell on 23 August. Then, as thousands of witnesses were to later testify, a miracle happened. Just before midnight, a series of celestial apparitions appeared in the sky, including what appeared to be bowmen and armoured knights on horseback. The terrified Germans backed off, allowing the British to retreat without any further loss of life, and subsequently join up with their French allies.

Thanks to the mysterious Angels of Mons, as they were subsequently dubbed in the British press, thousands of British lives were saved, the main German advance was slowed and the Allies were given crucial breathing space, which subsequently allowed them to win the Battle of the Marne.

There is much of interest in modern day Mons, including the Museum of the Military Arts, which contains a number of weapons and uniforms from the Battle of Mons, as well as the most famous painting of the Angels, by Belgian artist Marcel Gillis. The town is also home to the beautiful Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery, regarded as one of the finest in Belgium, and well worth a visit.

Sadly, it was little over two decades after the end of the First World War that Belgium found itself as the battlefield of Europe once again. Even as the destructive Second World War drew to a close - and three months after the people of Wallonia believed they had been liberated by the Americans - the Germans launched a devastating counter-strike through the Ardennes. The Battle of the Ardennes, also referred to as The Battle of the Bulge, began in December 1944 and saw some of the most bitter fighting of the conflict over its six week duration, costing countless lives.

There are two centres commemorating the Battle of the Bulge. At La Roche en Ardenne there is a museum focusing on the British divisions who fought in the battle, which also boasts an Enigma coding machine, taken from the Germans during the fighting. Less than 30 minutes drive to the south lies Bastogne, with its symbolic Sherman tank standing proudly in the main square. The Bastogne Historical Centre, located just outside the town, houses a number of old films, weapons, and maps providing a detailed insight into the Battle of the Bulge.

Every kilometre from the Normandy beaches to the Bastogne Historical Centre is marked by a stone, set alongside the route of the liberating Allied army. The last three markers of The Liberty Way (there are 1,145 in total) can be seen in Bastogne.

Visiting southern Belgium today, with its river-laced countryside,clifftop towns and picturesque woods, it is hard to believe that something as ugly as war should ever have visited here. Wallonia has recovered from its days as the battlefield of Europe, but it has never forgotten. And tourists today can reap the benefits of that, here in the hills and valleys where the tide of history was so often broken.

WHAT'S ON IN WALLONIA?

9-14 June The Ducasse, Mons (Province of Hainaut).

The Procession of the Golden Carriage and the "Lumecon" Battle in Mons, a re-enactment of St George slaying the dragon in one of the oldest festivals of Wallonia.

18 June Bivouac at Waterloo (Province of Walloon Brabant).

Reconstruction of a Napoleonic bivouac and of the Battle of Plancenoit.

14-16 August Outremeuse, Liège (Province of Liège). Three days of processions and festivities, including flea markets, folk dancing, and chances to taste Peket gin and delicious bouquettes (pancakes) typical of this lively part of Liège.

15 August 24th International Bathtub Regatta, Dinant (Province of Namur). Surely the wackiest and most entertaining boat race on the planet with over 250 participants in a flotilla of original vessels made out of at least one bathtub racing down the river Meuse.

6-8 October 44th Ciney Antique and Flea market (Province of Namur). One of the largest antique fairs and flea markets in Belgium with over 400 exhibitors. First day is trade only.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

For the Wallonia battlefields: 020-7531 0390; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be

Waterloo Visitor's Centre: 00 32 23 85 19 12; www.waterloo1815.be

Mons maison du tourisme: 00 32 65 33 55 80; www.mons.be

Bastogne maison du tourisme: 00 32 61 21 27 11; www.bastogne-tourisme.be or the Bastogne Historical Centre: 00 32 61 21 14 13; www.bastognehistoricalcenter.be

La Roche en Ardenne maison du tourisme: 00 32 84 36 77 36. Museum for the Battle of the Ardennes: 00 32 84 41 17 25; www.batarden.be

Battlefield tours can be booked as a complete package. Try Holt Tours (01293 455 356; www.holts.co.uk) or Leger Battlefields (0845 408 1231; www.leger.co.uk)

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