Letter from Belgium — From the December 2015 issue

Blast from the Past

The Battle of Waterloo turns 200

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You would never have something of this scale in the United States,” says Kathryn Rosewitz, originally from Missouri but now living in Germany. “Like, it would not happen.” Kathryn and her sister, Emily, are dressed as upper-class ladies from nineteenth-century Brussels. Kathryn is wearing a bonnet primped with a bloodred feather and spilling a Jane Austen–ish quantity of strawberry-blond ringlets. Emily’s Empire dress has a lacy neckline and is cinched at the waist with a sort of shawl-cum-belt, as if she’s being hugged from behind by a bedspread. Kathryn in particular has a knack for slipping archaisms into her speech without ever sounding less than a hundred percent twenty-first-century late-teen American. On Wednesday, she and Emily attended the Duchess of Richmond’s ball at the Château Sainte-Anne, in Brussels. “It was a lot of fun,” she says. “The Duke of Wellington showed up.” Too bad he had to retire early with his advisers, but his manners were impeccable. “He bade the rest of us to continue our dancing and complete the evening.”

Photographs from Waterloo 2015 by Andreas Meichsner

Photographs from Waterloo 2015 by Andreas Meichsner

The risk with an event like Waterloo 2015, the four-day bicentennial celebration on the site of the Battle of Waterloo, in present-day Belgium, is that its scale acts less as an acknowledgment of than a distraction from the horrors it purports to memorialize. Wellington’s final defeat of Napoleon, on June 18, 1815, occupies such a firm place in British self-identity, as the defining example of Anglo-Saxon pluck and stoicism in the face of continental tyranny, that it’s as well to remember how close the Allied armies came to losing, and at what appalling cost victory was won. By early evening Napoleon’s notoriously hotheaded Marshal Ney had captured the farmhouse at La Haie-Sainte and the French had all but prevailed; only the late intervention of the Prussians, under Field Marshal Blücher, swung the momentum back in the Allies’ favor. “I never took so much trouble about any Battle,” Wellington wrote later, “and never was so near being beat.”

Estimates of casualties range from 42,000 to 53,000. As Paul O’Keeffe points out in Waterloo: The Aftermath, however, the toll of death and suffering is less striking than its density. Roughly 92,000 had been killed or wounded at Leipzig in 1813. What gave Waterloo such grim distinction two years later was the confinement of its combatants to a site measuring only five square miles. (The front at Leipzig was twenty-one miles long.) Per-square-mile British casualties were almost ten times higher than at the first Battle of the Somme. Parts of the field were so densely carpeted in corpses that it was impossible to avoid walking over them. Wellington refused to glory in such slaughter. “Next to a battle lost,” he reputedly said, “the greatest misery is a battle gained.”

The numbers attending the commemorations are certainly impressive. Eleven thousand five hundred people come to see Inferno, Thursday night’s prefatory son et lumière. (Imagine the opening ceremony of a Belgian Olympics and you’ll get a fair idea.) Friday and Saturday nights will bring the two battle reenactments, The French Attack and The Allied Counterattack, which will each attract 60,000 paying customers, plus 7,000 VIPs from the event’s corporate sponsors, including Renault, Paris Match, and a local brewery hawking Waterloo, “The Beer of Bravery!” (After my four days in Belgium I will conclude that the decidedly Bud-like Jupiler is more my bag, beer-wise. Jupiler’s slogan is “Les hommes savent pourquoi” — “Guys know why.” I certainly do: it doesn’t let anything as irrelevant as flavor get in the way of drinking.) More than 5,000 battle reenactors, accompanied by 1,000 camp followers — i.e., women, children, and veteran reenactors too old or infirm to handle the musket fire — have converged on the site from fifty countries. To put that in perspective: roughly 180,000 men were engaged in the actual battle. Even among reenactments, the troops massed at Waterloo 2015 are dwarfed by the 17,000 Soviet soldiers, reportedly paid a dollar a day, who appeared in Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic, and epically stodgy, movie Waterloo (1970). (It’s been said that during production Bondarchuk had the world’s seventh-largest army under his command.) Still, as live events go, five thousand plus is major-league.

Photograph from Waterloo 2015 by Andreas MeichsnerA long-standing controversy attaching to such events has to do with the degree of immersion in period. In Confederates in the Attic, his ten-state inquiry into the ongoing legacy of the Civil War, Tony Horwitz distinguishes between “farbs,” fair-weather reenactors who wear wristwatches or insect repellent, and “hardcores,” who, in pursuit of the “period rush” of maximum authenticity, adhere to mid-nineteenth-century speech patterns and starve themselves to achieve “the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of underfed Confederates.” (The derivation of farb may be “far be it from authentic”: no one is quite sure.)

There’s little love lost between the two factions. A month before traveling to Belgium I had lunch with Mark Wallis, the founder of Past Pleasures, a historical-interpretation company based in Surrey, England. Wallis was part of the team that would ferry the New Waterloo Dispatch, a carefully worded declaration of pro-E.U. sentiment, from Belgium to London by post chaise and Royal Navy frigate. The journey was scheduled to take three days, in keeping with the delay an anxious British public had to endure for Wellington’s original victory dispatch, on which the N.W.D., handsomely printed on foam mounting board, was very loosely based. Wallis and I were sitting in a Kansas City–style barbecue joint near the Tower of London, where his team parleyed with the public, in character. For hardcores, meanwhile, history is less an interest than a hideaway. “These men — because they are men — so much want to live in the past, they actually want to have rickets, have loose teeth in their gums,” Wallis said. “They sleep in ditches and get rained on — ‘Ooh, I’m really ill, this is great.’ They are complete fruitcakes. . . . And that’s not me. I like to stay in a bed-and-breakfast or hotel. As Laurence Olivier said, ‘Try acting, dear.’ ”

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is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel.

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