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Americans to Charge at Waterloo

From June 18th through June 20th over 5,000 historical reenactors will gather in central Belgium to commemorate the 200th anniversary of perhaps the most famous battle in world history, Waterloo – and a small group of dedicated, history and horse loving Americans will be an important part of the spectacular festivities. At least one member of the British Royal family will be in attendance along with the King and Queen of Belgium, the King and Queen of the Netherlands, the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, various high ranking official from both France and Germany, and other dignitaries from across Europe.

Between 1799 and 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte conquered major parts of Belgium, Holland, Poland, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Prussia, Spain, and Egypt. In 1815 at Waterloo the British, Prussian, and Dutch armies confronted serial conqueror Napoleon’s French one last time. For one long bloody day almost 190,000 troops fought across the once peaceful farmlands of central Belgium.  Over 65,000 soldiers fell killed or wounded on both sides. It was the final act in a brutal and brilliant drama of 15 years of conquest that had made Napoleon a legend. More has been published, painted and filmed about Bonaparte than any other person in history except for Jesus Christ.

Love Napoleon or hate him – the French obviously revere him, the British are on the other side, this year marks the bi-centennial of the battle where Great Britain’s Duke of Wellington finally vanquished Napoleon once and for all. The Waterloo 2015 committee putting on the celebration expect up to 120,000 spectators to watch 4,500 infantry, 300 cavalry and 100 artillery pieces refight the key events of the battle right on the hollowed ground where much of the fighting actually took place.

This will be the largest reenactment of its kind to ever take place at the famous site, and a unique group of historically inclined American riders will be helping recreate, for only the second time in 200 years, the famous charge of the Royal Scots Greys. The Greys are one of the most famous cavalry regiments in British military history and on June 19th they will ride once again on the very ground were the charge took place. The only other live depiction of the charge was for the epic 1970 film Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer that was filmed in the Ukraine.

American actor Fritz Bronner (Miami Vice, Flight of the Navigator) has run the non-profit historical equestrian group War Horses for a number of years. The group has been featured or performed mounted exhibitions in various countries’ period uniforms in the Rose Bowel Parade, at the Southern California Highlander Games and for numerous school groups and civic groups.  The one regiment that these horseback historians love to depict more than any other is the Royal Scots Greys.

When I was a boy Life Magazine featured Lady Butler’s magnificent painting of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys in their special 150th anniversary of Waterloo edition. It was so powerful and magnetic, with the expressions of man and horse, and the emotional stories on each face from man to animal. Over the years, as an equestrian this painting has unraveled to me so many telling stories from the horses and what they are communicating.

Bronner emphasizes recapturing the enthusiasm of his youth.

So it was without hesitation that Bronner and other members of War Horses decided to recreate the Grey’s famous cavalry charge for the bicentennial celebration at Waterloo. This was a charge that started in a triumph over Napoleon’s massed infantry and ended in tragedy against Napoleon’s lancers. The Greys actually charged five different times that day at Waterloo. Of the 400 Grey’s troopers who fought there, almost 200 were either killed or wounded including their commanding officer Major-General Ponsonby.

It was at the beginning of the best known of the Scots Greys’ charges that they also manage to rally their fellow Scotsmen of the 92nd Gordon’s Highlanders infantry, who then grabbed onto the mounted trooper’s saddle stirrups running along side the regiment’s horses shouting “Scotland Forever!” The two regiment’s combined efforts turned back a massive French attack that had threatened to turn the tide of the battle in Napoleon’s favor.

Bronner is an incredibly knowledgeable military historian of Scottish, English, and Welsh decent. Fritz has managed to secure the blessings of today’s Greys – the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards through the considerable efforts and friendship of a former officer in the modern regiment Captain Jonathan Findlay (retired). Captain Findlay will also ride as one of Grey’s at Waterloo beside several other current or former officers of the famous regiment.

Bronner’s wife Marge Beeson, an excellent horsewoman herself, will be riding in the charge along side Taylor Cooper and Katie Barnes two other skilled American female riders, all three disguised as male troopers of the Greys. Another American cavalry reenactor Frank Bakonyi will also ride with the group along with several British reenactors and members of Time Trotters, German professional equestrian performers who put on paid exhibitions through out Europe as Roman Cavalry circa 300AD.

“Time Trotters are providing us with a number of grey Spanish Cantabria horses for use in the reenactment.” Says Bronner gratefully. “The cost, logistics and emotional and physical wear and tear of bringing our own horses to Waterloo from California were just far too prohibitive. So we started looking for local sources of proper grey horses in continental Europe.  These wonderful Cantabria mounts from our German friends came to our rescue.”

Bronner proudly points out that he, his wife and other members of War Horses, many of whom are not able to attend the Waterloo event, have put in over 600 hours making extra copies of the regiment’s distinctive bear skin caps and other not readily available uniform and equipment items. The St. Andrews Society of Los Angeles who strive to preserve and honor Scottish culture and history also provided the modern Greys with a generous grant that has helped fund making or acquiring other unusual items needed to recreate the famous charge.

A week later on June 27th and 28th Warhorse’s Royal Scots Greys’ reenactors will be honored to march with the modern Royal Scots Dragoons Guards and the regiment’s pipers and drummers up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland. The event marks the official return of the regiment to their headquarters in Endinburgh Castle after their recent prolonged duty in Afghanistan.

The British still shine at welcoming home their troops who have served overseas in grand style.  The bagpipes and drums of a Scottish regimental band may be the most inspiring military music ever conceived. War Horse’s Royal Scots Greys will be trotting right behind the pipers and drummers of the Royal Scots Dragon Guards.

It has been a life long journey for Fritz Bronner that started with the boyhood fascination of a grand historic painting and a youthful curiosity that led him to want to know the story of the charge and men and horses that took part in it. On June 19th in Waterloo, Belgium the rattle of musket fire, the booms of cannons and the thunder of horse’s hoofs will once again reverberate across the countryside, but this time a handful of history loving Americans will help the rest of the world remember what happened there 200 years ago.

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