Saturday, June 16, 2012

Waterloo (Ma Vie Militaire - Road Trip Category)

Salut à l'Empereur
Napoléon, Wellington and von Blücher
197 years ago this weekend, the French Armée du Nord moved north in an attempt to maintain Napoléon Bonaparte on the throne of France. It was the Emperor's last campaign.

Now the Old Air Force Sarge is not going to attempt to wax eloquent upon the history of the battle. People way more talented than I have already done so. For those seeking historical edification, look up "Battle of Waterloo" on Wikipedia. Their article is a very nice synopsis of the affair. It even has pictures!

As a side note (and remember, I'm all about side notes and tangents) the battle is not known universally as "Waterloo". That's the moniker that the Duke of Wellington hung on the battle. After all, he was on the winning side and he sent out the first dispatches reporting on the battle to be reported in the press. Waterloo is a lot closer to London than it is to Berlin. That being said, Napoléon referred to the battle as "La Bataille de Mont-Saint-Jean", Mont-St-Jean being where the battle actually occurred, for the most part. Waterloo is further north and is where Wellington's headquarters was. General von Blücher (the Prussian commander) suggested the name "La Belle-Alliance". This was a small inn sitting atop the ridge where the French army had started the day. It's also where Wellington and von Blücher met up at the conclusion of the fight. So in German, the battle would be "Die Schlacht bei La Belle-Alliance".

At any rate, we in the West call it Waterloo. End tangent.

While stationed in Germany, I had the opportunity to visit the field of Waterloo numerous times. As an amateur military historian how could I not make this trip. It's roughly 95 miles from where we lived, perhaps an hour and a half drive as I recall.

As part of my series concerning my military life/adventures/escapades/what-have-you, I will, from time to time, go off on tangents like this. Not so much about my career in the Air Force, per se, but about some of the side trips the family and I made while in the military. This falls into what I call the "Road Trip Category".

Now as I mentioned above, this is a trip I made a number of times. As a matter of fact, I think for the 7 years I was stationed in Germany, there were two years I didn't go to Waterloo. The first time we went, the Missus and the progeny found it interesting, the second time was, "Okay, there were a couple of things we missed the first time...". The third time was, "Really? You want to go to Waterloo again? What is this, some kind of pilgrimage? This is it, this is the last time!" This was in 1995.

"Uh, honey, there is going to be a reenactment of the battle this weekend. It might be fun."

Yes, there was a great deal of eye-rolling involved I can tell you. But at dinner at friends of ours the next night, the Missus mentioned that we were going to Waterloo that Sunday. Again.

When told that there was going to be a reenactment of the battle, my buddy (I'll call him "the Chief") said that maybe he and his wife would go too. We could bring food and have a cook-out AND watch the reenactment. (At this point my son - the Naviguesser - and I were rolling our eyes. Really? A cook-out at a battle reenactment? Perish the thought!)

But it was decreed from on high, that is the wives decided that this was what was going to happen. So plans were made, cook-out stuff was purchased, rendezvous places and times were agreed upon and we were ready to set forth.

Now (time for another tangent) the actual battle was fought on the 18th of June, 1815, a Sunday. The reenactment was (queue Twilight Zone music) set for the 18th of June, also a Sunday. The Naviguesser and I thought this was really cool. But it got (to our minds anyway) even cooler.

You see, the weather that Friday was hot and humid. During the night the storm clouds began to move in and on Saturday the rain came pouring down, much thunder, much lightning. The cool thing was that this was nearly the same weather as experienced in the area in 1815.

Of course the Missus was concerned that the weather would be terrible that Sunday and by all that was Holy, we would NOT be going to a battle reenactment in the rain. I indicated that by all accounts the weather was supposed to clear up Sunday and we should be fine. Of course the Naviguesser chimed in at this point saying "But Dad, it'll be too wet to move the guns forward!"

"Yes my son. But it's not our problem, we're just going to watch the battle. We have no need to move the guns." Of course, the Missus was looking at the two of us like we had a number of screws loose. My son didn't, but I most definitely did (and still do!)

The point of all that is that at the actual battle, the ground was far too wet for the French to bring their cannon into action first thing in the morning. They had to wait for the ground to dry out before beginning their attack. A fatal delay, for the French that is. Damn fine news for the Duke.

So Sunday, the 18th of June 1995 dawned and we loaded up the car. It was a bit damp and cloudy, the Missus was grumbling "I don't know, weather looks bad". But we pressed on. Rendezvoused with the Chief and his Missus and drove to the battlefield.

There to discover that this was no small affair. There were literally thousands of people out and about, anticipating the start of the battle. Parking was a bit of an issue. We did find a side street in a residential area not too far from the battlefield. The Chief pronounced it a fine spot for our subsequent cook-out. So we parked and dismounted.

Proceeding on foot we discovered that the organizers of the event had actually built bleachers all around the field. There were even nicer seats for the hoi polloi. These were filling up quickly, you had to buy a ticket to sit there and I was told, "Non Monsieur, everything is sold out. C'est dommage, pardonnez moi!" etc, etc.

"Now what?", the two wives inquired. The Chief and I huddled and decided that we would go stand by the fence surrounding the field in an area which was not occupied by bleachers. I guess this area was intended for us peasants who were too cheap to purchase tickets in advance. (Or were unaware of the need to do so.)

So we went to the fence. It was pretty cool. It was on the French side of the field,near a "battery" of French artillery. (I have battery in quotes because it consisted of only three cannon. The artillerymen among you will understand.)

It was at this point that the wives began commenting on the mud. And oh boy, it was muddier than "all get out". A solid day of pouring rain will do that to a farm field. And, like the real battle, the reenactment was in a farmer's field. No doubt the Belgian government had paid the farmer not to grow crops that year. And as they do this reenactment every five years, no doubt it's a good deal for the farmer.

It was also a good spot to stand because all of the French units had to march past us to get onto the battlefield. So we got to see a great deal more than the folks in the bleachers. On the other hand, they weren't covered in mud up to their knees.

Eventually some guy on a white horse, dressed like the Emperor, rode up and we heard a lot of "Vive l'Empereur" coming from les troupes françaises. Most of whom seemed to be hung over. Now as an old reenactor myself, I recall the habit of imbibing strong drink the night before a reenactment. Guess the European reenactors had similar customs. The whole effect of being transported back to the early 19th century was somewhat spoiled by the ambulance rolling up to take one extremely inebriated French grognard away to the hospital when he passed out in mid-Vive.

Then my son and I noticed something rather odd. A unit of what appeared to be Italian admirals marched onto the field armed only with swords. Their uniforms were like nothing I had ever seen. The Chief asked if they were perhaps a dismounted cavalry unit. My response was, "No. I have no idea what the heck they're supposed to be. All I know is that no such unit was at Waterloo." I later discovered that these guys were some kind of Italian social club. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in reenactment circles over their presence on the field. Bottom line from the Belgian organizers, "Hey, they paid to be here." Sounds familiar, if you've got the dough, you can be in the show.

Another anachronism I immediately pointed out, is that the participants were all carrying percussion cap muskets and not flintlock muskets. Oh my word, what were they thinking?

The Naviguesser pointed out that flintlocks are damnably inconsistent when it comes to firing them. Would the crowd be content with many "whooshes" when only the powder in the pan went off, or would they prefer loud bangs every time a trigger was pulled? "Hey Dad, it's all about the show. Hell they let the Italian navy in, why not percussion cap muskets as well?" I had to reluctantly agree.

Then, when I started to point out that there were far too many Imperial Guard units present, the Missus told me, in no uncertain terms, to shut up and watch the battle. Shut up I did, but as the French artillery had commenced firing, it was a bit loud for conversation anyway.

It was loud, it was awesome. Much yelling, many loud bangs from those percussion cap muskets mixed in with the occasional basso profundo boom from the cannon. (Like I mentioned before, there weren't that many cannon present. Of course, those suckers ARE expensive.)

Another thing was the smoke. Black powder generates a LOT of smoke. Before long we could barely see anything. The womenfolk were starting to wonder what was the point of standing there watching clouds of smoke drift about the field. We did see a French cavalry charge go up the hill, into the smoke. And come charging back down again, one horse sans rider. Said rider coming down, chasing the horse, swearing vociferously. Loud enough to be heard even over the "mournful mutter of musketry". Awesome!

Due to the smoke, the mud and the growing feelings of ennui amongst the ladies, the Chief announced that perhaps we should retire to the vehicles and commence grilling and eating. The Naviguesser protested, "Mom, the Imperial Guard hasn't launched their attack yet, the Prussians aren't here yet. Mom!" As I started to protest as well, the Chief just kind of winked and pointed towards where we'd parked. Dude had far more sense than I. Probably why I retired as an E-7 and he retired as an E-9.

So we returned to our cars, broke out the BBQ stuff and commenced to grillin' and stuffin' our faces. I would occasionally look at the surrounding homes and see glimpses of the locals peering at us from behind their curtains. No doubt they're used to these strange occurrences every five years. But we were well-behaved, quiet and picked up our trash. So they let us be.

Though we could still hear the guns in the background, we decided that, having feasted, perhaps we should head back to Germany. Before the many thousands of other spectators decided to hit the roads as well. (I later heard that their were 10,000 participants in the reenactment and roughly 100,000+ spectators. It was a pretty big deal. The numbers on that small part of the battlefield came close to how many people fought in the actual battle!)

So to the East we went, returning to Germany. On the way we just had to stop at the Commissary (no military Missus that I know of will ever pass up a chance to stock up at the Commissary if they're near one). Inside the Commissary my wife and I noticed another couple who, like us, were covered in mud to above the knees. Before we could say anything, the lady looked at us and proclaimed, "Hey, you guys were at Waterloo too!"

Oh yes we were. And we had the muddy clothes to prove it. Not to mention carrying the smell of BBQ smoke mixed with the smell of rotten eggs. For doncha know, burnt black powder smells much like rotten eggs.

The Missus never went back to Waterloo with me.

I wonder why.

6 comments:

  1. Fantastic stuff! and one of my ancestors was at Waterloo (on our side of course). Given enough notice I could probably be there in 5 hrs (including the channel crossing!). Must visit, must, simply must.

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    1. Although I have no proof one way or the other, it's quite possible I had ancestors on both sides of the field. Glad you liked it HD. I'm a bit of an amateur historian and the Napoleonic period is one of my favorites. No doubt you'll see more on that time period in the future.

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    2. My names sake was found on the roll call archives. These Sergeants and their little black books ;)

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    3. The sergeant's motto: remember everything and document, document, document. Or to paraphrase a German colleague of mine, "If it isn't written down somewhere, it never happened."

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  2. PS and what a stunning header picture of "The Big E" - WOW!

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    1. Yes, when I saw that picture on the Navy's website I just had to find a use for it. The old girl's looking pretty good for her age!

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