“This morning [June 22] I went to visit the field of battle, which is a little beyond the village of Waterloo, on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean; but on arrival there the sight was too horrible to behold. I felt sick in the stomach and was obliged to return. The multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger, as the Allies were, of course, obliged to take their surgeons and wagons with them, formed a spectacle I shall never forget.”
— Major W. E. Frye, “After Waterloo: Reminiscences of European Travel 1815–1819”
On Sunday, June 18, 1815 – two hundred years ago and being commemorated in Belgium with the largest recreation ever organized in the country – the armies of the Seventh Coalition and France converged on the fields near Waterloo. At that time part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Waterloo would prove to be the French Emperor’s last gasp both militarily and politically, and an end to his Hundred Days return from exile. After the signing of the second Treaty of Paris in November of that same year, Louis XVIII was restored to the throne and Napoleon was exiled again, to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
Waterloo was a decisive battle. Until the major world wars of the 20th century, generations in Europe saw Waterloo as having ushered in a relatively peaceful and prosperous era, ending a series of disruptions that dominated European politics and economies beginning with the French Revolution 25 years before. To be clear, though, the battle’s result was no revolution. Waterloo’s outcome was to restore and strengthen the old order in many ways, including the creation of the Holy Alliance of European governments intent on suppressing revolutionary and democratic ideas.
These days, Waterloo, still surrounded by farmland (beyond the commercial centers and car dealers), ironically is a popular bedroom community for British expatriates working in Brussels. On rainy days, of which there are many in Belgium, the thick mud in the fields sits humbly below the low, grey sky, evoking the struggles of moving man and war machines, and the serene brick farms hint at the thousands of tired and hungry troops who set up encampments and waited out their last hours before attack.
Over the past two hundred years, Waterloo has been a touchstone for crushing defeat and has been constantly alluded to in the popular arts, from discussions by Victor Hugo in “Les Miserables,” to early European films, to satire in Goscinny’s “Asterix in Belgium,” to Abba’s “Waterloo” performance to win Eurovision in 1974, to James Bond quips, to video games. While this liaison will endure, the thousands of soldiers who left their lives and personal stories on the battlefield illustrate more powerfully three universal truths: fleeting life, final death, and futile war.
As Victor Hugo wrote in “Les Miserables”
“Where the great pyramid of earth, surmounted by the lion, rises today, there was a hillock which descended in an easy slope … The elevation of this escarpment can still be measured by the height of the two knolls of the two great sepulchres which enclose the road from Genappe to Brussels: one, the English tomb, is on the left; the other, the German tomb, is on the right. There is no French tomb. The whole of that plain is a sepulchre for France.”
More images of Waterloo can be viewed here.
– Aaron C. Greenman
Aaron C. Greenman has been a photographer for more than 25 years and has lived and worked on four continents. He has previously been profiled on The Leica Camera Blog for his work in Asia, India, Africa, Israel, Turkey, Russia, and throughout Europe. More of his portfolio images can be viewed on his website, and he has several books available for the iPad (here, here and here).