For several more days British, Belgium the regular French public and even large numbers of Germans have gone to great lengths to commemorate this world famous battle that changed the course of modern history. While far left French President Hollande’s government has chosen to virtually ignore what has unfolded into a massive spectacular attracting world-wide attention, much of the rest of Europe has not followed his lead.
On Thursday Charles, the Prince of Wales, resplendent in his full dress uniform continued the English Crown’s thoughtful and dignified commemorations by attending a special Waterloo church service at London’s famous St. Paul’s Cathedral. The service included numerous descendants of the British troops who fought at the famous battle in 1815.
The 9th Duke of Wellington, Charles Wellesley continued his centennial observances near the Waterloo battlefield by taking part in private ceremonies dedicating a new museum on the site of the first Duke of Wellington’s Field hospital on the battlefield at the Mount St. Jean Farm. The beautifully restored 19th century barns and courtyard are only a stone’s throw away from Hougoumont, where some of the most brutal fighting of the battle took place. With his continued support of the British Army’s Benevolent Fund (AFB – the Soldier’s Charity) Wellesley is turning into a British version of Gary Sinese. The AFB supports current serving British troops and veterans in a number different ways from, various health issues to family concerns and education.
The Duke may not have his own band like Sinese, but at the Mount St. Jean Farm the fifes and drums of a correct in every period detail reenactor Irish infantry regiment greeted him playing flourishes of various British regimental tunes including the famous Gary Owen and The Girl I Left Behind Me. Both beautiful songs Americans would associate with the United States Cavalry of the Indian Wars, but were in use by well known British regiments for well over a century before. At one point during the proceedings I find myself in conversation with an Austrian woman and her husband who it turns out are direct descendants of Napoleon’s second wife Marie.
The American War Horse Foundation’s Royal Scot Grey’s fielding several Germans, three female riders, and two Brits including a retired commanding general of the, Royal Scots Dragoons, the modern Scot’s Greys were also part of the select group of participants taking part in the ceremonies at Mount St. Jean. The Mount St. Jean Farm will now also be the site of the Waterloo Brewery and the recreated Royal Scot’s Greys will be featured in a new advertising campaign that had previously featured a drawing of the Greys on it’s label.
As I leave the Mount St. Jean courtyard a elegant looking woman in her seventies takes note of my dress cowboy hat and inquires “American?’ She has an American accent herself, but it turns out while she is French, she was raised in New York and handles herself with the demeanor of a well bread English woman. It turns out French or not, because of several other family members she is heavily supporting The Duke of Wellington’s efforts on behalf of the British Army Benevolent Fund. To my pleasant surprise she is also very aware and appreciative of the Wounded Warriors Foundation in the United States.
The battle reenactment itself is almost too incredible to actually zero in on taking place over 2,500 hectares of rolling farm fields that don’t look too much different than they did in 1815. There is enough room for almost 60.000 spectators at each of the two reenactments. With tens of thousands more either observing from off site or during the day visiting the two major reenactor camps split into a French bivouac and an Allied section featuring the British, Prussian and Dutch troops. The wonderfully curious thing is that in each camp you will amazingly find French portraying British or Prussians, British reenactors in French or German uniforms, and Germans in French and British kit. The Americans taking part in the event lean toward British or French units.
The organizers point out that their reenactors have come from over 50 countries 18% of are from Germany with the UK not far behind with 17.80% – that’s almost 1,000 for each country with the French fielding almost 500 reecactors and the rest split up between Russia, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Holland and 3% from the United States and a handful of other countries. The degree of authenticity is incredible, from the ornate uniforms right down to hairstyles and facial hair. So many of these reenactors have such a sense of their look and type in a historical context and delight in grabbing spectator’s for photos perhaps even more than the spectators do.
French lawyer Frank Sampson has the plum role of portraying Napoleon. He looks the part, can ride well, and has invested quite a bit of his own money to duplicate Napoleon’s headquarters tent complete with the a reproduction of the Emperor’s silver dinning set. The day before a French reenactor of Napoleon’s famous Old Guard pointed out to me that his uniform, equipment and musket put him back well over 3,000 euros. Sampson has an enormous amount of his own euros invested in his true to life impression. Lucky for him he’s a successful lawyer.
Sitting in the press area for the final battle, I am at once awed and excited by the effect that 5,000 uniformed reenactors has on me. I am a longstanding military history buff since childhood and this isn’t computer generated visual trickery, so the effect of seeing it for in the flesh is amazing. They look more like tens of thousands of troops gathered into proper formation, uniforms ablaze in color than 5,000. You can see the blocks of men in the far distance maneuvering like soldiers of their time when individuality was meaningless and large formation of troops threw walls of lead musket balls at each other – on command of their officers then standing ready to be mowed down by the other side, because discipline was the difference between defeat and victory.
Little of this seems to be taken lightly by most participants who have read the first hand accounts of the battle and realize as much as someone who has not seen the face of battle up close just how horrible it can be. I recall a conversation I had the day before with Bryan, an Irish reenactor from Killeen I shared a pint with at the St. Jean Farm. “Ah, those lads back then were made far sterner stuff than we are today. Except for those lads who have seen the elephant up close in Afghanistan or Iraq.”
The orange flame and black powder smoke of the artillery and mass muskets may obscure the battlefield but to experience the overall effect of one the greatest battles in world history shows just how much those who sideline history like France’s far left are missing. By not participating is the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, particularly an event of such importance to Europe show just how clueless that the French far-left government is. Viva le Waterloo!