Waterloo, the day after the battle
For both Napoleon and Wellington, this was to be their last battle. It led one to ignominy and exile, the other to glory, but for both men it marked the start of their myth.
Wellington was hailed as a national hero on his return from Waterloo after the brilliant victory. Even though his popularity with the public had undergone some occasional downturns, in old age he was still cheered in the streets. From 1815 to 1818, as Commander-in-Chief of the army of occupation in France, he made her an ally of England. In 1830, as Prime Minister, he called a Conference of European Powers in London which allowed Belgium its independence. His death on 14 September 1852 at the age of 83 was followed by a magnificent state funeral. He was buried with great pomp and ceremony in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Napoléon, the deposed Emperor was exiled on the island of St. Helena, 7000 km from France. He spent his time reflecting on the opinion that posterity would have of him, while the Allies celebrated their victory over the “monster”. While in captivity he composed an a posteriori justification of his policy and his campaigns. His memoirs, published only after his death under the title “Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène” portray him as a fundamentally liberal man and a democrat. In France at the same time a “black legend” about Napoleon grew up in royalist circles, just as grotesque and extreme as that which was being put about abroad before the fall of the “hangman”. Fiery writers – Mme de Staël, Chateubriand, Vigny – depicted the prisoner of St. Helena as an “ogre”, an “Attila” or a “Nero”.
Within only a very short space of time after the battle, the site and the name of Waterloo itself were to become shrouded in myth. Waterloo in fact marked a turning-point in European history and as such constitutes a place of memory.
The various political parties in Belgium and Europe would soon seize the site and use its symbolism for their own ends. Belgian patriots and separatists of the “French party”, revisionists and those with nostalgic feelings for the lost Bonapartist Empire, disappointed at the restoration of Louis XVIII, looked upon Waterloo as a wound, as the ruin of their ideals. They turned Waterloo into a place of mourning and would wallow in the memory of the sacrificed soldiers. On the other hand, the victors, mainly the British and Dutch, turned the site into a symbol of European solidarity and of the victory of monarchy.
But above all, it was the unprecedented ferocity of the battle that so struck people’s minds that the curious have been flocking there since 1815 in order to “take note”. It is the bodies still resting there, having been thrown higgledy-piggledy into communal ditches scattered all over the site, that gives Waterloo its sacred dimension.
Pilgrimages dedicated to the heroes of Waterloo are organised, commemorative ceremonies take place every 18 June, armies of people arrange for commemorative plaques to be laid, nations raise funds to put up monuments, former soldiers set themselves up as tour guides. Visits are also made to the general quarters – “Le Caillou” farm for Napoleon and the inn at Bodenghien for the Allies. The building of local railway lines serving Wavre and Braine l’Alleud makes it easier to visit the Battlefield.
Little by little, the place of devotion is becoming a tourist site, and pubs, hotels, and places of entertainment are springing up just about everywhere.
As Waterloo increasingly becomes a part of everyone’s consciousness, it runs the risk of being a victim of its own celebrity and of becoming disfigured by this excessive popularity. Very soon it will be necessary to prohibit access to the site, which is being trampled over by the floods of the curious. In 1914 a law was passed designed to protect the site: over an area of 500 hectares it is no longer possible to erect any buildings or plant trees. Compensation payments levied on Belgian and English donations are paid out. This marks a precedent as regards the listing of the Battlefield – Waterloo has just become a part of European Heritage.