Waterloo legacy re-jigged for the digital revolution

The astounding 15-minute epic of the Battle of Mont-St-Jean filmed in ultra-high-definition 3D, projected on a 169-degree screen transports you, in time and sensation to the heart of the violent action complete with vibrations, smells, mud, smoke and gunpowder: an experience that leaves you literarily shocked, says CHARLES XUEREB

The dominant part of the monument commemorates l’Empereur and his tragic heroes
The dominant part of the monument commemorates l’Empereur and his tragic heroes

The French speak of the decisive Battle of Mont-St-Jean, where most of the Garde elite soldiers lost their lives defending their country, the Germans refer to their pivotal win as belonging to la Belle (Anglo-Prussian) Alliance while the Dutch, who were reasonably represented on the battlefield, call it the Battle of Hougoumont.

History however retained the name of Waterloo for this decisive European battle on 16-18 June, 1815 because the Duke of Wellington signed the official correspondence announcing victory at his general field quarters installed at this town. This British-sounding designation was imposed by Wellington against the wish of Blücher who had preferred Alliance.

After 200 years the Belgians, on whose territory it all transpired, this year seem to have finally reclaimed their share of celebrity by promoting Braine-l’Alleud and other less publicised neighbouring localities, which after all received the heaviest brunt of the conflict. 

“When as a child I went to school in Waterloo,” says first city councillor Chantal Versmissen-Solie, “we were always taught about the battle of Mont-Saint-Jean and in every excursion we were always taken to the foot of the Butte” where the proud Lion stands in tribute to the Prince of Orange, who was wounded in battle.

Waterloo and Braine-l’Alleud have been in dispute over territorial rights of the Belgian Lion on the hill. The first councillor adds that the original battlefield included the communes of Lasne, Genappe, Waterloo and Braine-l’Alleud… “and all should benefit from the tourist commercial opportunities befalling us in this bicentenary”.

Touch screens and holographs

While enthusiastic historians of the encounter, particularly those on both sides of the Channel, still struggle to extract diverse heroic value from the Battle of Waterloo, a dazzling new €38 million state-of-the-art memorial complex in a low-lit underground bunker right under the Lion’s Butte brings the combat to life through futuristic touch screens and colourful holographs “calibrated, it seems, to sympathise with Napoleon”, opines Chris Haslam for the Travel Section of the London Sunday Times.

The project director, Phillippe Chiwy, defends the museum’s historical position by pointing out that while the misfortunes of the day went against the French Emperor, “the ideas and innovations of the Age of Reason endured”. 

After descending the solemn slope leading to the new museum, which I visited on a bright summer day with my daughter Karen last Sunday, we paused to read some of the names of the fallen and the survivors marked in epitaphic black marble, occupying centre of stage right in front of the entrance.

This dominant part of the monument – similar plaques on the sides memorialise the victors – commemorates l’Empereur and his ‘tragic heroes’ who, according to Dominique de Villepin, France’s former Prime Minister in his recent book on Napoleon, was a case of Waterloo ou la crucifixion, stating that the Emperor’s decision to surrender to his conquerors later in Paris shows le choix de la grandeur.

Popular British writer Stephen Clarke, who made his name selling a series of merde books on France, cynically points out that such religious attitudes towards Napoleon’s end of military supremacy in Europe might be construed by some authors as God’s punishment for deciding to go to war on a Sunday in 1815.

Napoleon’s ills

There are many other factors that the Emperor’s apologists bring to the fore. His deteriorating health and the filthy weather are among the prime. French battalions were dragged into a muddy wet land, most of the times even missing lines of provisions because of the extraordinary raging storm that struck them during the night of 17-18 June.

Napoleon himself was certainly taken ill with a severe cold at the start of the weekend, concurrently suffering from an attack of habitual haemorrhoids – typical of riding cavaliers – and dysuria, which had been bothering him for a number of years.

Owner Henry Boucquéau of the Caillou farm, where the fighting general made his quarters, confirmed that Napoleon hardly mounted his horse on that day. But the greatest fault for failure perhaps points towards his generals, especially his chief commandant Ney, who was entrusted with all decisions that were normally the competence of the Emperor. Orders were not very clear and reading of maps lacked a sense of strategy. This of course, admits Le Figaro Histoire, does not diminish the excellent tactical choices of Wellington and the timing of Blücher.

Ultra-high-definition-3D battle

Visitors of the new museum (waterloo1815.be) besides exploiting large halls with life-size uniformed mounted generals and soldiers on all sides and battle maps, could also participate in interactive digital panels offering multiple-type of questions about the clash.

Other electronic boards present outstanding milestones of Napoleon’s reign, including famous victories as well as his glorious hundred days after Elba. A souvenir shop full of Napoleonic memorabilia – could not spot any bust of the Duke of Wellington or Blücher on the shelves – plus a restaurant and a new still-to-be-built hotel complete the complex at the foot of the Lion.

The highest attraction however is an astounding 15-minute epic of the battle filmed in ultra-high-definition 3D, projected on a 169-degree screen transporting you, in time and sensation to the heart of the violent action complete with vibrations, smells, mud, smoke and gunpowder. You come close to Napoleon’s binoculars eyeing you right between your own eyes with hundreds of horses and warrior riders approaching, riding past and falling in disarray under your feet. An experience that leaves you literarily shocked.

End or start of a journey?

Whoever visits Waterloo and its environs this June and July is in for a lavish spectacular. Colourful re-enactments with over 800 participants from many countries including Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, most of Germany and Malta, who were all annexed by Emperor Napoleon I during his rule over Europe – his aim was ‘to organise a federal European system to advance civilisation’ – are being staged not far from Brussels.

Since Bonaparte’s first victory against the British fleet in Toulon in 1793, Britain had spent an astounding £1.5 billion – its anti-Napoleonic debt was so huge that it was only paid off in 1906, the Chancellor announced this week that he is calling Britain’s national debt committee to meet after a lapse of 150 years – to stop his military career but Napoleon’s mythical star still ascends.

Frank Samson, an experienced Napoleon re-enactor who will reprise the role during the reconstruction, told Victoria Ward of the Telegraph in June: “The public will acclaim him and we have forgotten that he lost. In terms of public relations, in terms of his historical importance, it’s clear that he won at Waterloo.”

Charles Xuereb is the author of ‘France in the Maltese Collective Memory – Perspectives, Perceptions, Identities after Bonaparte in British Malta’, published by the Malta University Press.