The Belgian connection

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The Independent Travel
You'd think there would be a world of difference between a bright June morning at the beginning of the 19th century and a damp May lunchtime at the end of the 20th century. But here at the original Waterloo, beyond the outskirts of Brussels, you would be wrong.

With your back to the rather ugly monument known as the lion mound, you are standing where the Dutch and Flemish soldiers stood 182 years ago under the command of William, Prince of Orange. Wellington's troops were gathered to the left, around the farmhouse of Mont St Jean. Facing the 68,000 Allied troops, less than a mile away on the ridge at Belle Alliance, the 72,000 soldiers of Napoleon's army spearheaded by the French Imperial Guard.

It's not that long ago, maybe nine generations, and when you look over the open, slightly rolling countryside it's easy to imagine that morning. There's a feeling when you walk through the fields themselves that the land holds on to the memory. Every now and again you come across two or three gravestones, clustered on a grassy patch in the middle of a ploughed field, with the furrows carefully skirting around them and cow parsley blowing gently across them.

The main Brussels to Charleroi road still cuts through the middle of the battlefield, and is lined with grander memorials to the dead. Near the farmhouse of La Haie-Saint, a stone column commemorates the Honourable Sir Alexander Gordon of the Scots Guards. He was Wellington's aide de camp, only 28 when he was killed. On the side of the column a long inscription ends with the words: "In testimony of feelings which no language can express, a disconsolate sister and five surviving brothers have erected this simple memorial to the object of their tenderest affection."

On the farmhouse itself, a plaque informs you that at about 6.30 on the evening of 18 June, it was taken for the French by Marshall Ney after "heroic assaults"; the scarred, chipped, white-brick walls still bear witness to them.

By the end of the day 13,000 men were dead, more than half of them from the losing French side. No wonder these fields feel haunted. And as you walk away and look north-west you remember that these ghosts are just the forerunners of those belonging to the Flanders fields only 50 miles away, and five generations closer to, this spring day.