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.


  1. Hi Thistlebarrow,

    at the re-enactment last year (2008) it was the 'old guard' pretenders who were camped in the back garden of Caillou... Napoleons tent was in the front... and I seem to remember the skeleton was still there... although I was very distracted then abouts.

  2. Hi Christopher

    It must be very exciting to be part of a re-enactment on the field of Waterloo itself. I have never taken part in re-enactment, though I have been tempted.

    When we were living in Salisbury we often went to the "living history" at Old Sarum on bank holidays. There was only one I can remember dealing with the Napoleonic period, and we were facinated in particular walking around the tented area.

    There was one chap who was involved with the Sharpe TV series, I think he was called Rifleman Harris? He gave a lecture about the period, and his involvement in Sharpe.

    I am surprised that the skeleton is still there,l you would think in this PC period that there would be an outcry. I do think that they should give the poor chap a decent burial, perhaps with an honour guard from one of the French cavalry regiments.


  3. I am very much enjoying the development of this blog. Thank you for some very interesting entries and evocative photographs, It has brought a few memories back.

    I like the selection of monuments shown, though my own favourite is the Victor Hugo monument, which as far as I can make out, was erected for coming up with the best excuse why the French lost the battle.
    (They all fell down a giant ravine.)


  4. Hi John

    Thanks for your comment

    I am really pleased that you are enjoying the blog. I had wondered whether it might be of general interest. After all it is a pretty personal account of a holiday 38 years ago! Its been great fun for me to read the old diary, scan the old photographs and research for images which I had not done at the time.

    How interesting you should mention the Victor Hugo monument. I had forgotten, but we also admired the monument, but were puzzled why it should be there. We were aware that he was a famous French writer, but not aware that he had written anything about Waterloo. Now that you have reminded me, must Google the subject.

    If you like the blog so far, then you are in for a treat. I have just finished the Lion Monument and Visitor Centre, to be followed by La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. I always thing of these three in capital letters as "The Waterloo Big Three".

    And there just might be a surprise PS to complete the Waterloo visit.

    Thanks again for the comment, and "come again soon"



  5. I think it was Victor Hugo who was responsible for the legend that Cambronne said, "La garde meurt et ne se rend pas !" ("The Guard dies and does not surrender!"). General Cambronne survived the battle."Cambronne se rend, il ne muert pas."


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