Monday, 22 June 2015

Battlefield tourism: Quatre Bras and Ligny

We extended last week's visit to Waterloo to cover the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny that preceded it. Driving from the Waterloo battlefield, we headed first to Quatre Bras and from thence made a loop along the route taken by the Prussians through Ligny, Wavre and via Papelotte back to the centre of the battlefield of Waterloo. This helped to give a sense for how close these places really were and how the campaign developed. Strolling around in these places helped give an impression of these battlefields.

Quatre Bras

View south from the Allied right towards where Bossu woods used to be

Centre of the battlefield as viewed from the Allied lines (the trees mark the road)
The crossroad - somewhat derelict nowadays

View south from the Allied left. The treeline in the distance marks the stream running across the battlefield.

We weren't lacking in the number of experts with maps:


I didn't get much of a chance to take pictures of Ligny or its surroundings. It was a pretty large area (larger than Waterloo) and, unlike Waterloo, you couldn't view the entire battlefield from a single place on the ground. A lot of the surrounding countryside was quite open and seemed like it would be easy to manoeuvre in. The stream held by the Prussians seemed more like a ditch, but I guess that's enough to provide a hindrance against attackers. It seems incredible that d'Erlon's corps could spend so much time manoeuvring between Quatre Bras and Ligny without being caught up in the fighting in either one. It was only a few minutes driving from Quatre Bras before we were in the place where the extreme right flank of the Prussian army was stationed. These two battlefields were very close to one another!

In the town of Ligny we found a nice little museum dedicated to the fighting there. It warmed my heart that the museum contained so many beautifully painted miniatures which had a strong role in illustrating the events and soldiers involved.


The Imperial Guard storming Ligny

Certificate according to which Mme Vallon, wife of the porte-aigle of the 15th infanterie léger is given a pension after her husband has died

I just might have to get a replica version of this guard officer's sword

The museum had a nice and meticulously made map of the position of each brigade on each side at 15.00 on June 16th 1815.

Battlefield Tourism: Waterloo

Last week was spent in Belgium to attend the bicentennial and re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. I was in great company, being accompanied by friends who share my passion for military history and wargaming. We've been playing a lot of Black Powder games with this group and with our own version of Waterloo lined up for later this year, this visit was definitely very inspirational.

The Butte de Lion

For myself, this visit had an additional aspect. I've lived in Waterloo for eight years between the ages of 8 and 16, so for me this whole thing was very nostalgic. Already as a kid I was very interested in the battle and have visited the sites dozens of times. It might even be that living in Waterloo was the thing that sparked my interest in military history. However, it's been quite a while since I've been to Belgium and as a kid I didn't really pay attention to the same things or have the same perspective as I do now.

For one, the landscape was far more undulating than I remembered. Walking the distances between some of the key locations and taking an "on the ground" look of the battlefield I can easily understand how troops could be concealed from the enemy and how tough the going might have been in mud and wet crops. At the same time, the smallness of the battlefield is quite striking, particularly when you try to envision the entirety of d'Erlon's corps marching through such a small area.

It was nice to see the farmhouses up close. Their walls really are quite thick, which makes it easier to understand why they were so difficult to assault. Also the positioning of these farmhouses relative to the terrain helps to understand why they were vital in controlling the battlefield. Also the rough nature of the terrain east of the battlefields (where the Prussians entered the battle) and the smallness of the roads there is interesting.

Papelotte viewed from the Butte de Lion (West)


Small roads east of the battlefield

La Haye Sainte viewed from the Butte de Lion (West)

La Haye Sainte

View towards La Belle Alliance and the French lines from the Butte de Lion

View towards Hougoumont (red roof visible within the wood) from the Butte de Lion. Re-enactors' bivouacs are in the front.
View towards the Allied centre from near Papelotte (far left of the Allied line)

Here you get a sense of the undulations of the landscape. This is a view of La Belle Alliance (French centre) from the Allied left

Point where d'Erlon's infantry was repulsed

View of the Anglo-Allied lines from Plancenoit

Prussian memorial at Plancenoit

Memorial to the Young Guard at Plancenoit

Battlefield visitor's centre

I was really impressed by the new visitor's centre and museum that had been built at the battlefield. This thing was brand new and had been done very well and with a lot of money put into it. The centre had something for everyone, explaining the background of the Napoleonic wars and the Waterloo campaign, weaponry and tactics of the period, the course of the battle, the human element of the combatants, medical history, the impact of Waterloo, etc. Numerous interactive devices were used there was a 3D film of the battle. These were done well both in terms of quality as well as in the educational sense (they were informative, immersive, fun and cool).

Entrance to the visitor's centre. The black slab running across the wall has the OOB of all the forces involved.

Interactive guillotine

Presentation of the protagonists. Notice the re-enactors playing educational games on screens embedded in drums.

Presentation of Napoleon's and Wellington's battles were done with animated versions of famous paintings plus audioguides.
Then there were the uniforms:

Myself observing the operational manoeuvres of the campaign prior to the battle on an interactive map (through the telescope you could see troops moving on the map). I really liked how this was done, since it gave you only limited view of events through the microscope, yet you could see how troops manoeuvred simultaneously and reacted to each other.

My friend exploring an interactive map

Reminder of the human cost

We also visited the Waterloo panorama, which depicts a 360 degree painting of Ney's cavalry charge. Having just been vowed by visitor's centre and having seen the Atlanta Cyclorama the previous week, I must admit that I was not as impressed as this painting merits.