Sunday 5 July 2015

Waterloo Part One, The Visitor Centre, Panorama, Lion Mound and Wellington's Ridge - Belgium 2015

Our second full day in Waterloo was planned to spend its entirety working our way round the key sights of the Waterloo battlefield. We decided we would start with the new Waterloo visitors centre which was part of a joint ticket we purchased at the Wellington museum. The family ticket included access to the Panorama, Lion Mound and Hougomont.

In addition we had with us three very well informed guides from all three arms of service and with intimate experience of the fighting on the Allied line ; Sergeant Ewart of the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scot's Greys), Ensign Edward Macready of his Majesty's 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot and Captain Alexander Cavelie Mercer, G Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. These three fine fellows would make sure we had a better understanding of the ground we were looking at.

A very famous map of a very famous battle, just as an aide memoir
The new visitor centre is a great start point situated at the centre of Wellington's line adjacent to the Lion Mound with a link to that monument.

I was very impressed with this interactive multi format modern way of presenting the history of the battle. The visitor is led into a gallery presenting the information about the French revolution that led to the rise of Napoleon. The audio headsets provided take you through each exhibit, explaining it's relevance and make the whole visit a thoroughly interesting experience for all, including those that know a lot to those that know nothing about the history.

From the gallery covering the background to the Napoleonic wars we came to one of the main attractions in the new centre. An amazing array of reconstructed uniforms to help illustrate the dress among the various armies present that day in 1815. I wasn't, at first, sure about the faceless anonymous manikins, but on reflection I think they really capture the fate of many of these soldiers who died fighting. They were condemned to an anonymous death, with no known grave and very often, desecrated remains

British and Hanoverian Landwehr infantry
This display of martial pomp and grandeur really, for me, captures what the Napoleonic period is all about and the centre is to be congratulated on a fantastic show piece.

Marshal Soult and the French command at the morning briefing perhaps, if the cuirassier general officer in a wet weather cape is a clue
After the uniform gallery we came upon this reconstruction of a British 6lbr gun, the mainstay in the Peninsular War but somewhat superseded by the 9lbr by the time of Waterloo. The bronze barrel is original as are the metal parts fitted to a reconstructed oak Congreve design carriage.

British 6lbr
We then proceeded into a brilliant 3D visual presentation of the battle using very well dressed re-enactors together with CGI graphics that fired up the adrenalin as the Scots Greys appeared over the ridge amid the Gordon Highlanders and slammed into D'Erlon's massed infantry; or the recreation of the bitter fighting in and around Hougomont. Things have moved on since my day back in 1976 when you had to use your imagination as you gazed at Monsieur Dumoulin's masterpiece of the Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo erected in 1912 whilst you tried to remember scenes from the Waterloo movie.

An exhibit that seems to have rekindled the interest in the soldiers story of Waterloo was one I was keen to see and one that seems also to have sparked some controversy over the rights and wrongs of displaying human remains.

Personally I am unsure of precisely where I stand on this issue, as these soldiers demand our respect and be treated with all dignity. However I also respect the view that Private Brandt's remains remind us of the cost of war and its senseless waste, with his life ended by a tiny lead ball found between his ribs; and perhaps he might be pleased that his bones serve a higher purpose to remind us of that and of all the other soldiers with no known graves.

A new possibly controversial, exhibit discovered during the recent renovations at the Waterloo site. The suspected remains of 23 year old Private Friedrich Brandt an exiled Hanoverian in the KGL infantry

From the new museum we moved into the old Panorama building, housing the giant canvass illustrating the battle at around 16.00 when Marshal Ney lead the French cavalry attack on Wellington's line.

It's about 16.00 and Marshal Ney at full tilt, leads the French cavalry over the ridge in the mistaken belief that Wellington is retreating
Empress Dragoons of the Imperial Guard Cavalry reach the crest
It may not be as flashy as the CGI presentation in the centre, but one cannot fail to be impressed with the level of detail in this painting, together with the scale and movement it sets out to capture. I know this is a well known piece of art associated with the battle but I think it is worth pulling out some of the best bits. Like all great art, the longer you stare at it the more it seems to give you with aspects you hadn't noticed in previous viewings.

Like producing a great looking wargames army and table for it to grace, the eye is captivated by the feast in front of it and drawn to the multiple cameos of action presented. Even in these modern times this is still a great piece of art and worthy of the event it captures.

What follows are the pictures from the Lion Mound which gives the before and after comparison and I spent time comparing this dramatic painting with the real ground and the level of detail is truly inspiring.

Lefebvre's Dutch lancers of the Guard follow Milhaud's Cuirassiers with La Haye Sainte farm in the background. The aspect and curvature of the ridge, sadly changed with the construction of the Lion Mound is well illustrated against the side wall of the farm buildings.
With no other option than to try and make the best of Ney's decision to send in the cavalry, Napoleon on the white horse, centre background , supports his head strong Marshal with units of the Guard heavy cavalry led by the Empress Dragoons and Grenadiers a Cheval. He might have sent in some infantry and artillery support while he was it!
The Nassau squares hold firm surrounded by cuirassiers, with Mont St Jean Farm peaking through the smoke in the right background.
Royal Horse Artillerymen with drawn pistols and sabres are forced to defend themselves having left it too late to fall back on the infantry squares, evoking Mercer's comments of staying with the guns rather than running back and disconcerting the young Brunswickers in square behind him
Wellington takes shelter in the square of the 2/73rd (Perthshire) Foot, part of Halkett's brigade in Alten's 3rd Division, note the remnants of the British heavy cavalry doing their bit on the extreme right of picture
On leaving the Panorama building we climbed the two hundred and twenty-six steps to the top of the Lion Mound completed in 1826 as a monument to the site of the Prince of Orange's wounding during the battle, oh and no it wasn't Sharpe that shot him! I know that may come as a bit of a shock.

The Lion Mound, an elegant piece of historical vandalism

I soon appreciated the regular miles put in on the bike and don't remember it being quite so hard to do in 1976, but then a 16 year old versus a 55 year old probably isn't much of a comparison - oh how the years condemn!

Still a word to the wise, do not do this climb if you have even the slightest of heart issues. The sign at the bottom spells this out but it might easily be missed in the enthusiasm to get to the top.

Sergeant Ewart capturing the Eagle of the 45e Ligne on the ground pictured below, with La Haye Sainte just visible in the centre. The attention to detail in this picture never ceases to amaze.
Sergeant Ewart described his taking of the Eagle of the 45e Ligne in a letter;
"It was in the first charge I took the Eagle from the enemy; he and I had a hard contest for it; he thrust for my groin - I parried it off and I cut him through the head; after which I was attacked by one of their lancers who threw his lance at me, but missed the mark by my throwing it off with my sword by my right side; then I cut him from the chin upwards, which went through his teeth. Next I was attacked by a foot soldier who, after firing at me, charged me with his bayonet; but he very soon lost the combat, for I parried it and cut him down through the head; so that finished the contest for the Eagle."

View towards Wellington's left flank and the lateral road, lined with marquees (top left) after the bicentennial re-enactment and held by Picton's 5th Division through which Ponsonby's Union Brigade, including Sergeant Ewart, of heavy cavalry charged into D'Erlons corps from left to right. The two monuments along the Brussels road are to Lt Col Sir Alexander Gordon, ADC to Wellington on the left and the Kings German Legion troops (KGL) on the right.

If you do get to the top the view over the field of battle is well worth the effort.

La Haye Sainte looking much better from this side than from the road. The Ferme de la Papelotte can be seen nestled in the dip, top left corner, that was held by Saxe Weimar's 2nd Netherlands brigade and his Nassau infantry
The Union Brigade carry their charge into the French grand battery on the opposite ridge as French lancers counter attack. Mark Churms
The ridge extending from La Belle Alliance out of picture to the right, behind the Brussels road, where the Union Brigade plunged into the French grand battery.
I have mixed feelings about the Lion Mound. The structure is possibly one of the worst possible pieces of historical vandalism, up there with the concrete reconstruction work of Knossos in Crete.

Yes the monument has provided a landmark of a certain elegance and achieved world wide recognition and a modern symbol of this major historical event. Yes the views from the top allow an amazing appreciation of the ground and the overall layout of the battlefield.

But the damage done to the key reason for the sight being selected by Wellington to make his stand, namely the ridge, has forever been ruined for those of us who appreciate seeing the ground the soldiers would have recognised. 

I visited Gettysburg many years ago and there the whole battlefield could be viewed from a viewing tower, that provided all the benefits from the mound, perhaps without the elegance, but certainly without the vandalism mentioned. Anyway we are where we are and the Lion Mound is probably a forever monument to Waterloo.

Looking out towards La Belle Alliance left centre towards Napoleon's lines, facing the allied ridge between La Haye Sainte and Hougomont.
The view towards Hougomont and Wellington's ridge where Ney led the bulk of the French cavalry attacks and Maitland's Guards met the Imperial Guard for the first and only time.
Close up of the garden wall at Hougomont. This wall would have been out of sight from troops on the ridge as a 200 metre square orchard ran along and behind it and was the scene of much too and fro bitter fighting through out the day
The reverse slope behind the allied right centre where Wellington pulled his line consisting of Halkett's, Maitlands, and Byng's brigades back to, and that prompted Ney to order the cavalry to charge
The reverse slope in the centre looking towards Mont St Jean Farm centre background. Somerset's Household cavalry was lined up here behind the infantry brigades of Ompteda and Kielmansegge
Returning to "ground zero" we decided to make our way along what remains of Wellington's ridge towards the newly restored remains of the Château Hougomont. This area of the battle was the scene of two dramatic actions. One involving the massed French cavalry charges of about eight thousand men at the allied squares on the reverse slope in the afternoon, and the other being the final "roll of the dice" for Napoleon as the Imperial Guard marched up the ridge to be met by Maitland's Guards and Halkett's brigades, with Adam's brigade flanking the attack with the veteran 1/52nd Light Infantry taking the lead.

As we made our way along the path that follows the military crest of the ridge we came to a monument erected in 1986 to commemorate the death of a Belgian officer serving in the French 5th Cuirassiers and to record the bravery of all his colleagues involved in the mass cavalry charge.

Monument to Lieutenant Augustin Demulder of the 5th Cuirassiers. A Belgian born in Nivelles in 1785, still serving in Napoleon's army having seen action at Eylau in 1807 where he was wounded, Essling 1809, Hannaut in 1813 and killed during the charge at Waterloo.
As you can see Lt. Demulder, probably like many of his comrades was by no means new or lacking in experience and the threat posed to the more unreliable units in Wellington's army was undoubted.

I took this picture from behind the crest, kneeling, to give you the view from the front rank of an allied infantry square as the massed ranks of French horse flesh thundered towards them - Present, Fire!

The sign board says it all. Probably one of the last great massed cavalry charges, led by one of  Mars' own
The next monument to grab the attention is that to the great journalist of the battle and former resident from my neck of the woods in Exeter where he is buried, Captain A. C. Mercer, G Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

Captain Alexander Cavelie Mercer

I picked up a kindle copy of his journal for £2.99 from Amazon to reread following our visit. If you have never read Mercer and you are interested in the battle, particularly from a artilleryman's view point, he really writes very well and is well worth investing a bit of time to read. His insights about Wellington are very revealing about the man's character.

He does however also reveal that waspish humour that Wellington was famous for when describing the story of an English officer out walking on the boulevard who was rudely pushed into the gutter by a French gentleman, whom the Englishman promptly knocked down. The Frenchman, it turned out, was a marshal. He complained to the Duke, but could not identify the officer who had knocked him down. The Duke there-upon issued a general order, desiring that
"British officers would, in future, abstain from beating Marshals of France".

G Troop was the finest artillery battery bar none, in any of the armies present, and you only had to ask a very proud commanding officer, Captain Mercer to confirm that.

Mercers troop of five 9lbr guns and one 5.5 inch howitzer was placed in front of two Brunswick squares during the latter stages of the French cavalry attacks. He observed how unsteady they appeared as the occasional round-shot tore holes in their ranks and the officers and sergeants had to push and occasional thump the men into the gaps caused. He feared the sight of his men running back from their guns towards them may inadvertently cause panic.

He stated
"To have sought refuge amongst men in such a state were madness - the very moment our men run from their guns I was convinced, would be the signal for their disbanding."

Mercer fought his guns throughout the battle until his troop was left with just sixty horses out of two hundred of the best horses in the RHA and barely enough men to handle four of the guns.

Captain Mercer came up in discussion earlier in the week following my post on the Farm at Mont St Jean which in its role as a field hospital during the battle, was the destination of one of Mercer's men after losing both arms in a firing accident.

He discovered his dead gunner after the battle and described the man he knew.

As part of the bicentennial commemorations, General Mercer's grave, at St David's Church in Exeter, has been restored to its former glory, and my old friend Vince beat me to it to get a picture.

The restored grave of General A. C. Mercer pictured by Vince
The route along the ridge is a very moving piece of ground to walk for anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the fighting that occurred here, and it was on this ground that the dream of a Napoleonic France came to a dramatic end with the defeat of the Imperial Guard.

The attack of the Imperial Guard echeloned in squares, back to the 4th Chasseurs  - Macready's 30th Foot were part of Halkett's brigade and faced the 1/3rd Grenadiers
The first part of Wellington's line to receive the Imperial Guard was Halkett's battered brigade and, after their casualties at Quatre Bras, his four battalions (33rd/69th & 30th/73rd) had had to combine into two battalion squares to face the French cavalry but were now required to open out into a four deep line to face the threat of the 1/3rd and 4th Grenadiers.

A young 17 year old Ensign Macready of the 30th Foot described the action;
"The brigade commander (Halkett) shouted for silence and instructed one volley on the order, followed by port arms. They (the Guard) halted and fired - I think badly. We returned the volley - ported - and, giving a hurrah! came to the charge. Our surprise was inexpressible when through the clearing smoke we saw the backs of the Imperials flying in a mass. We stared at each other as if mistrusting our eyesight. Some guns from the rear of our right (Captain Krahmer's Belgian horse battery - six 6lbrs and two 5.5inch howitzers) poured in grape among them, and the slaughter was dreadful. Nowhere did I see carcasses so heaped upon each other. I never could account for their flight...."

La Garde Recule
The attack of the Imperial Guard spearheaded a general last ditch attack by all elements able to, in the French army, facing the allied line. 

By 19.30, the Emperor was reduced to just eleven battalions of elite infantry uncommitted to the battle. With his cavalry shredded and his artillery exhausted, but with the Prussians pushed out of Plancenoit, for now, he was faced with two options, Make one final push for victory against Wellington's line or use his reserve to fall back with, regroup his army and rejoin with Grouchy's force.

Napoleon was by nature a gambler and believed in his star, so it is unremarkable that he chose the former to the latter option. Needless to say the attack of the Guard and its first and final defeat has eclipsed all the other attacks made by the French army that day and there is a strong case to argue that it was a futile gesture any way with, when the attack was made, 50,000 Prussian troops on the field another 26,000 en route and with both allied armies now in contact around Papelotte.

Yet another great "what if" thrown up by this campaign and goes in some way to explain its fascination.

The wall of the garden at Hougomont seen from the ridge occupied by Byng's 2nd Guards brigade and the route of the "covered way" along the back wall to the North Gate.
As the walker approaches the boundary of Hougomont, the path takes a noticeable downward track into the hollow way, used by Byng's 2nd Guards brigade to support the garrison in the Château and the route taken by Private Joseph Brewster of the Royal Waggon Train who resupplied the garrison with ammunition after a dramatic drive under enemy fire.

Private James Brewster drives in through the north gate at Hougomont to deliver a much needed resupply of ammunition

The road leading down hill towards the north gate of Hougomont
At the bottom of the hill the path sweeps round to the left and leads up to the famous north gate of Hougomont, where I will pick up and conclude this trip to the Waterloo battle sites in the next post.

The restored and famous north gate of Hougomont
Other sources used in this post:
Waterloo the hundred days - David Chandler
Waterloo, Battle of Three Armies - Lord Chalfont
The Waterloo Companion - Mark Adkin

The next post will conclude this series with our last look around some of the key sights


  1. Excellent post JJ.
    We have just done the exact same trip plus some WW1 grave yards and the Menin Gate plus a few days in Brussels, great time had by all. Basically you have done a fabulous job here which means I don't have to and if I did it wouldn't be as good.
    Have fun out there,

    1. Thanks Jeremy. We had a great time, spending the first couple of days in Bruges and cycling into Holland. I spent many childhood holidays in Belgium and had not really thought of it as a holiday destination but have come away re-enthused about other visits I have in mind.

  2. Excellent report,sir. I too have mixed feelings about the lion mound but standing on it and seeing the whole field about you is handy none the less.

    1. Thank you SRD, yes the mound is an excellent viewing platform and provided a great point of reference for our Wavre to Plancenoit trip. However if I could put all that earth back where it came from and replace it with a less destructive alternative I wouldn't give a second thought to getting rid of it.

  3. JJ, not to get ahead of your story - but how much time did it take for your visit to the sites you discuss in this post (new visitor center, Panorama, Lion Mound, Wellington's ridge), plus Hougoumont itself? Six hours? Again, I'm planning our trip, and greatly appreciate your information!

    1. Hi Frank, no problem . The trip to Waterloo was planned as two days out of a five day holiday, slightly shortened thanks to the dock workers strike in Calais. Thus we took a day to cover Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and Plancenoit and the second day to cover the battlefield of Waterloo itself. We stayed in Waterloo so went to the Wellington Museum on the afternoon we arrived from Bruges. For the battlefield visit we did the visitor centre, Ridge walk and Hougomont in the morning and the rest, to be covered in the final post, in the afternoon, so it is very doable.

  4. Great write up I have read it over a few times thanks for your efforts Jonathan. I have to say I can't believe they would have displayed a soldiers remains at the museum I am not religious but I can't see any thing that the public could learn from that display . I wonder when people would think its ok to display remains from the Great War . When you gave all you had for your mates and your regiment the least you could expect is to be able to rest in peace !
    As I have said you have done us all a service with your many blog posts many thanks .
    Regards Furphy .

    1. Thanks Furphy, glad you enjoyed the read.
      Yes I understand your point re displaying remains. The Waterloo visitor centre is by no means unique in doing so. There is the French hussar's bones on display at La Caillou that have been there for years. Only a few years ago, I visited the Bosworth visitor centre and they have a skeleton on view to display the battle wounds inflicted in that era.

      The fact that this skeleton is a rarity is also mentioned given that after the wars it was custom for the bones to be dug up and ground down for fertilizer until public outcry in countries like Britain helped put a stop to that practice. Then of course we had "Waterloo teeth", dentures created from the teeth of the dead.

      It seems interesting to me that King Richard's remains were analysed, photographed and then re-interred with honours and you could argue that that should be the model for future discoveries of this type.


  5. Great great post. Thank you very much.
    After reading a few other books, such as "The battle"by Barbero or Waterloo: The French Perspective by Andrew Field, Adkin's Companion, however pretty did not feel right.

    But again, great great post and inspiring to make the trip.

    1. Hi Braxen,and welcome to the blog.
      Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the read. Your comment caused me to re-read my own post and take me back to a very pleasant holiday. The highlight for me was following the march of the Prussians and seeing the battlefield from their viewpoint; highly recommended if you want to understand how Blucher must have felt seeing the French army at his mercy with its right flank hanging in the air and committed to taking on Wellington.