Thursday, 30 April 2009

Napoleons HQ

Just weeks before we visited Waterloo, Jan and I had seen the movie "Waterloo". It was still fresh in our minds, and helped us to bring to life the locations we visited during this tour.

Nowhere was this more true than at Le Caillou, Napoleon's headquarters on the night before the battle. It had featured in the film, and this made it easier for us to imagine what it must have been like at the time.

Looking out of the window at the back garden I could easily imagine the Guard Lancers preparing for battle in the pouring rain. I have no idea whether there were any cavalry billeted in the garden on the evening of 17 June 1815 - but I like to think there might have been

The moment we entered the ADC room, I could picture Napoleon (Rod Steiger) greeting his marshals at breakfast on the morning on 18 June 1815. Remember how he received the report of the wet ground, and dismissed Soult's warning about Wellington and reserve slope tactics? Again not sure it happened here - but it should have done.

This gruesome display case had a legend "French Hussar". This poor chap did not feature in "Waterloo", and we both felt he should not feature in a museum either. It was in bad taste in 1971, and surely it has been removed in this more sensitive age?

My favourite room was Napoleon's bedroom. It was claimed that the bed was the original, and it certainly looked probable. Once more Rod Steiger came to the rescue, with an image of him retiring to bed the night before the battle with a look of pain on his sweating face.

Leaving Le Caillou we drove a short distance towards Waterloo, before turning right at La Belle Alliance and climbing a small hill to a plaque which claimed it was the scene of Napoleons command post during the battle. I have not seen this mentioned in any of the books I have read, but I did remember the scene above from "Waterloo". It was easy to imagine this small area packed with staff officers and ADC coming and going. And of course the great man himself surveying the battlefield.

In this photograph you can see the hill just to the right of La Belle Alliance, beside the road leading to Plancenoit. We had climbed the stone steps leading to the command post, and were rewarded by a fantastic panorama of the battlefield.

Directly in front of us was the area where Napoleon placed the massed French artillery of the grand battery. In front of that the ground over which d'Erlon led his massed infantry columns against Pictons thin red line. We could see where the attack stalled, where the French were smashed by the cavalry of the Union and Household brigades. Where they in turn came to ruin when they pursued the routed French, only to be repulsed by French cavalry as they reached the grand battery. All very stirring stuff.

We settled down in the warm midday sun to have a picnic. Jan had come prepared with bread, cheese, apples and a bottle of wine. I had come prepared with Jac Weller's "Wellingtion at Waterloo"

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours eating our lunch and reading aloud from Chapter VIII, which covers d'Erlon's attack in great detail. We had great fun pondering where the various infantry columns advanced and came to ruin.

Throughout this period we had the hill to ourselves. It was a Monday afternoon, so perhaps there were less visitors. Many cars drove to and from Plancenoit, but none stopped to disturb our peace and quiet.

La Belle Alliance stands on the junction of the Plancenoit and Waterloo-Charleroi roads. It was
here that Wellington met Blucher and they agreed that the Prussian army would perform the pursuit of the routed French army.

It was also the spot where the 1st battalion of the Grenadiers of the Old Guard stood and died. Again "Waterloo" came to our aid with that memorable scene near the end when they refuse to surrender and are blasted by a mass of artillery. Now I doubt very much that that particular scene owes a lot to historical accurracy. But it did give a very striking picture of hopeless defiance, which I think probably was true of the last stand of the Old Guard. I believe that this memorial marks the spot.

Monday, 27 April 2009


We found it very difficult to determine Prussian movements around Plancenoit. We knew that the Prussian army had advanced from Paris Wood towards the town, but could not find where Paris Wood was.

This photo shows Plancenoit, with the church in the centre. It is taken from the direction in which the Prussians would have advanced on the town.

This interesting photo gives a good impression of what Plancenoit might have looked like to an advancing Prussian infantryman.

There is no doubt that the fighting raged around the church, and that is one place which is easy to locate. The shape of the town has not changed greatly since 1815, and the church is still in the centre.

When we were there the church was closed, but we could walk around the outside area and church yard. On a warm summer evening it was difficult to imagine what it must have been like on 18 June 1815.

Although we walked around the town we did not see anything else which was obviously related to the battle. Unfortunately Jac Weller's "Wellington at Waterloo" does not go into much detail about Plancenoit, presumably because he had a similar problem. There is a general description of the fighting, but nothing specific apart from mentioning that the church was the centre of the fighting.

This is the road which leads from Plancenoit to La Belle Alliance, and the Prussian army would have advanced along this road having driven the French from the town.

This impressive, and very Prussian, monument lies between Plancenoit and La Belle Alliance, and marks the Prussian advance.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Sunday 10 July 1971 was another sunny morning, as we once more drove down the Charleroi road, past Waterloo to Quatre Bras and turned left towards Ligny.

To quote Jac Weller from Wellington at Waterloo "...the villages here have not increased astonishingly in size, but there is still not much to see even from the air. This is a confusing battle to read about and even more confusing to walk over" And how right he is!

To be honest I did not know a lot about the battle when we visited in 1971. In recent years I read a book called something like "Waterloo, a German Victory" by Peter Hirschhofer. I believe the first volume covered Ligny, and has a lot of diagrams and maps. Ideal as a battlefield companion. Unfortunately not available to me in 1971.

Nor is much about Ligny in Wellington at Waterloo, and that was my main source of reference. There is not even a map. I hoped that I might be able to find something in Ligny itself, but could find nothing in English.

Ligny is not a large village, and walking around we soon found Ligny church. This is the only photograph in Jac Wellers book about the battle. So at least we were sure that this is indeed the church which changed hands many times during the battle.

And then our luck changed, we found this lovely little museum. There is only two rooms in the museum, and appears to be a collection of items found on the battlefield.

The unique thing about the museum is that none of the exhibits were under glass, and could be handled. At least I think it was OK to pick up this original sword. There was no one to ask, and I really could not resist the temptation.

There were also a number of models of typical Belgian farm buildings. They were not dioramas, in that there were no model soldiers involved. However the painting below was on a nearby wall, so I am reasonably confident that it was a model of the same farm.

Encouraged by the excellent museum, we set off to explore the area. We found a farm building on the outskirts of the town which looked very like the one in the museum. However there was no plaque or other identification, and no sign of war damage. So it is quite likely that it was not the same one!

We looked around the outskirts, but could not find any bearings on the battle. We sat near the farm building, and imagined what might, or indeed might not, have happened there. But all in all a disappointing battlefield walk.

I would stress that our lack of success was entirely due to our own lack of research. Time and again we have found that the more preparation you do the more enjoyable the walk turns out.

However we had one little unexpected treat in store.

Driving back towards Waterloo I saw a little sign for Genappe. We parked the car and walked through the village to the little bridge over the river Dyle. It was so old that there could be no doubt this was the famous bridge which featured in both Wellingtons retreat from Quatre Bras and Napoleons even more famous retreat from Waterloo.

We took our picnic lunch from the car and sat on the banks of the river overlooking the bridge. As we ate our sandwiches on a lovely summer afternoon, I read Jan this description of the cavalry melee on this very spot during the afternoon of 17 June 1815.

"The French forced a passage across the bridge and though the village to its northern outskirts.". The French lancers were met by the 7th hussars, but their charge proved ineffective. The Life Guards were brought up...."the French were awed by their appearance, and ran away before they came near them....".

The scene was so unchanged that we could easily imagine the French lancers trotting across the bridge, only to come back minutes later in great disorder pursued by the Life Guards on their big black horses. Stirring stuff!

And the second story concerned the French retreat after Waterloo.

"The French were now completely broken and retreated mainly by the Genappe road. they were badly hampered in passing through the village by the long narrow main street and the small bridge. Here they suffered additional severe casualties in killed,wounded and prisoners and lost practically off of their wheeled transport. The Prussian cavalry even took the emperor's coach a few second after he had jumped out of it and on to a horse".

And here we were sitting just yards away from that very same bridge!

I took loads of photographs, but the film must have been faulty because they never came out. But my memories of that afternoon are perfectly clear without the aid of a photograph.

I guess what I learned from that lovely afternoon is that to enjoy a battlefield visit you only have to take the time to sit, look and recall the events that took place right there. And if you can find a spot such as Genappe bridge it really is not all that difficult to do.

If you are in the area, do take the time to visit Genappe. Personally I would not want to go back, it could never be so enjoyable a second time.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Quatre Bras

A warm, sunny morning, and breakfast on the patio of the hotel was a nice way to start our third day. As we finished our coffee we studied “Wellington at Waterloo”, and in particular Chapter V Quatre Bras.

This volume really is the ideal battlefield companion. There is a short section on the topography of the area, and suggestions for places to visit. Then there are chapters on each phase of the campaign. But most important of all are the wonderful black and white photographs.

Many are aerial photographs, and are ideal for confirming your location. There are also close ups of the various farms and important strategic locations. These are particularly useful as you can be sure that your are looking at the correct farm, or cross roads or indeed in the right direction! On a first visit to a battlefield it really is very difficult to orientate yourself with only a modern map and a line drawing from a book. Although published in 1967 I would still strongly recommend this wonderful book to anyone attempting the battlefield for the first time.

We were soon on the road, and driving across the Waterloo battlefield, and the unmistakeable La Haye Sainte, towards Quatre Bras. It is impossible to miss the cross roads, and at least you can be sure that you are pointing towards the French. However after that things get a bit more complicated.

The battlefield of Quatre Bras is much the same as it was in 1815. The cross roads is easy to locate, and all four roads still follow the originals. Most of the large farms are much the same. However there are a lot of new buildings, and it is not always easy to recognise the ones you want. I could not find any trace of Bossu wood.

This is the vital cross roads on which most of the most desperate fighting was centered. The Dutch Belgian troops holding this junction were soon reinforced by British brigades arriving both along the Waterloo road and from the left. Wellington held this cross roads throughout the battle despite the best efforts of the French led by Marshal Ney.

Picton's was the first British division to arrive, and it was deployed to the left of the photo. The brunt of the French attack was directed at this area, and it was here that the 42nd and 44th were attacked by French lancers.

We walked down the Charleroi road to the Brunswick monument. It was here that the Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded leading a charge by his hussars to stem a French attack.

A little further down the road is the farm of Gemioncourt farm. It was artillery fire from this position which pursuaded the Prince of Orange to order the 69th out of square and to form line. Cavalry deployed in a fold in the ground near the farm spotted this deployment and swept down on the British infantry. The 69th practically ceased to exist, it lost its colour and played no further part in the battle.

Further still, and to the right of the road, is Pierrepont farm. This area was in French control until the final allied counter attack. The Brunswick infantry pushed the French right back south of this area and took possession of the farm.

We returned to the cross roads and turned right (west) to walk along the area of Pictons battle.
We soon reached the hamlet of Thyle and the nearby Materne lake. This area was the scene of prolonged skirmish fighting between the 95th Rifles and the French light infantry.

Early in the day Wellington sent the 95th Rifles to occupy Piraumont farm. However before they arrived a strong force of French infantry took possession of it. The Rifles fought to drive them out, but they retained possession until the end of the battle.

The old Roman road is no longer in use, but it was then the main road from Quatre Bras to Ligny. It was down this road that Wellington rode for his historic meeting with Blucher prior to the battle.


Quatre Bras is an easy battlefield to find, but we found it a less easy one to explore. Some postions are obvious, for example the cross roads and the Brunswick museum. Others take a lot more effort, even with such a useful guide.

We spent a full day there, but I still feel we did not do it justice. We did a lot of walking but despite our best efforts were unable to find some of the locations. This was mainly because it was a very hot day, and we were covering a big area on foot. We were forced to spend a considerable amount of time in the shade, consulting "Wellington at Waterloo". We got a good "feel" for the battlefield, but did not have the energy to do full justice to the Thyle area in particular

I often thought that I would like to return and do it properly. Either with a knowledgeable guide, or (better still) on bicycles. It is a very flat area, and the wheels would allow us to explore a much wider area in comfort.

Its not the only battlefield I would like to return to. But perhaps one day?

Friday, 10 April 2009


After a sleepless night, due to the heavy and noisy traffic, we woke up feeling tired and weary. Looking out of the window it was a grey sky with light drizzle. Not wishing to waste any more time than necessary we packed, had breakfast and booked out of the hotel.

We left Brussels against the flow of incoming rush hour traffic, and we were soon driving through the peaceful Soignes forest . The sky cleared, and so did our mood. We passed a road sign for Waterloo, and that cheered us even more.

As we neared the town of Waterloo we spotted a nice little bar called Les Couleurs. We stopped for a drink and were delighted that they also offered rooms, and that they were less expensive than our noisy one in Brussels. We dropped off the suitcases and continued to Waterloo.

As we drove through Waterloo we noticed the Wellington HQ museum. This one is well worth a visit. On the day we were there we were the only visitors. I sat at the table where Wellington wrote his famous dispatch, but unfortunately did not take any photographs. I also sat on the bed where Gordon died. Apparently it was Wellingtons bed, but he gave it to the dying Gordon, whilst he sat next door and wrote the dispatch. We stayed there for about an hour.

By the time we left Waterloo it was almost lunch time. We had not seen a cafe, and it was a now a warm and sunny day, so we decided on a picnic. We found a supermarket and bought some bread and cheese and looked for somewhere nice to eat it.

Jan was map reading, which is not her strong point. But this time she did quite well, found a pretty little village with a small park. It was the village of Ohain. At this time I did not know a lot about the battle of Waterloo, but I was fortunate that I had got hold of a book called "Waterloo" by Jac Weller. This proved to be the most perfect battlefield companion. It looks very old fashioned by today's standards, with lots of black and white photographs. However these are ideal for locating exactly where on the battlefield you are. As we had lunch I checked the Index of Places at the back, and read aloud the part this little village had played in the battle.

Ohain was on the far left of Wellingtons battle line, and was held by Dutch Belgian troops. Because there were no British troops in this area, it is not (at least in 1971) particularly well known. Fortunately there is a section about the area in the book, so we got a grasp of the confused fighting that took place here.

There is no mention in the book about the church in relation to the battle, but it is a very interesting building to look around

To be best of my knowledge this card did not play any part in the events of 1815, but it was the closest we could come to something that might have been there at the time.

We bought these old black and white post cards in the local shop. I think they give a much better feel of the village than the colour photos I took. You can almost feel the infantry marching down the cobbled streets.

Another timeless picture of Ohain. Although the post cards were old, the village was not at all changed when we were there. And I felt that this gave a much better impression of what it musts have looked like in 1815 than parts of the battlefield itself - particularly around the Lion Mound.
We spent all afternoon walking around the village, and as evening arrived we returned to our hotel. Very tired, but feeling that the holiday was looking up. We had not yet explored the battlefield itself, but we did have a feel for the area.
Tomorrow we would start to walk the ground. But not at Waterloo, we would start where Wellingtons campaign started - at Quatre Bras.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


Our first battlefield walking holiday was to Waterloo in July 1971.

The Lion hill in the centre of waterloo.

Three things contributed to our decision to visit this most famous battlefield.

First we had recently discovered Napoleonic wargaming and were interested in anything Napoleonic.

Our first wargames room, note stills from "Waterloo" on the wall. The wargame also looks like Waterloo with Airfix cavalry and Hinton Hunt infantry

Second the movie "Waterloo" had just been released. We went to see it in a German cinema, and though we could not understand what Rod Steiger was saying, the battle scenes were fantastic.

A still from "Waterloo". I used to have nice photographs, but they have disappeared over the years.

Third we had just bought our first car. It was a very old, and very rusty, Opel Kadett.

Parked for a picnic lunch somewhere near Waterloo

We were living in Osnabruck in north Germany at the time. So how better to combine all of the above, than to drive the 235 miles to Waterloo and spend a week walking the battlefield. Old car, no breakdown cover, but we were young and didn't worry about such things,and if we had we could not have afforded it.

Fortunately the car was not a problem and we arrived safely. Accommodation was to be a different matter. Needless to say we did not book in advance, nor did we give too much consideration that that problem. Again we were young, and confident fate would be kind!

We found Waterloo without difficulty, and drove around looking for a cheap hotel. We only spoke English, so asking for advice was not an option. There is much to see at Waterloo, but a tourist information office is not amongst them.

Having wasted a lot of time, and petrol, we decided to head for Brussels, surely there would be plenty of hotels there. There were, but driving through a major city in the rush hour is not the best way to find one. Eventually we just parked the car, took our suit cases and walked until we found one.

Being in the centre of a city is great if you want to explore that city. But not so good if you just want a good nights sleep before finding a more suitable hotel. We were too tired to explore Brussels, and just went to bed. The noise of the all night traffic made sure that we did not sleep a lot.

This first holiday was proving to be a major learning experience in planning a visit to a battlefield. First do some planning. And first thing on the plan is where to stay and how to get there.

Like I said before, we were very young, and very confident that tomorrow would solve all of our problems.


Over the years my wife and I have visited many of the Napoleonic battlefields in Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Italy. Throughout this time our main interest has been Napoleonic history and walking.

So visiting Napoleonic battlefields was an ideal way to combine both hobbies. We have spent many happy days walking battlefield during our annual holiday, and have taken many photographs over the years.

The objective of this blog is to record those holidays. I plan to do so by writing a diary of each holiday, starting with our first visit to Waterloo. I will publish a short blog each week, recording one, or possibly more, day on each one.

We hope that you enjoy reading about these visits as much as we enjoyed them at the time.