CONTRIBUTED BY HEATHER LIDOWSKI
Growing up, the events studied in history class always seemed so far away. I was distanced from them by years, decades, or centuries and by miles, mountains, or oceans. It seemed like nothing notable ever happened where my feet fell.
All that changes when you move to Europe, though. It seems like nearly every town or province hosted famous people or events at one point in history or another. That holds true for the little town of Waterloo just south of Brussels in Belgium. I spent a day recalling history lessons while walking the battlefield where Napoleon Bonaparte faced the Duke of Wellington.
Most people can recall from history class that Napoleon Bonaparte was a celebrated military commander who rose to great political heights during the nineteenth century. He launched military campaigns hoping to expand his empire, but was eventually defeated and sent to live in exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba in May 1814. After just ten months, though, he escaped, rebuilt his army, and set out to realize his dream of conquering foreign lands.
This goal led him Waterloo, which was to be a gateway to Brussels. An army comprised of mixed forces scurried to respond, and the Duke of Wellington established a headquarters in a Waterloo tavern to face Napoleon. On June 18, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo took place. Napoleon planned his attack from his headquarters in Le Caillou, a farm he commandeered.
Wellington, more knowledgeable of the local landscape, was able to take advantage of a ridge that gave him a tactical advantage, and he ultimately proved victorious. The French forces were driven back, and Napoleon’s dreams went unfulfilled, but not before 40,000 men were left dead or wounded on the battlefield.
Today, visitors can travel to the battlefield and walk the paths that each force took. The Waterloo Battlefield is open daily. At the battlefield, you find a visitor center that is open from 9:30 AM – 6:30 PM April to September and 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM October to March. At the visitors center, you can purchase tickets to see a panorama of the battlefield that is similar to the one found at Gettysburg, Virginia, and to gain entrance to the Butte Du Lion (the Lion Mound).
The Butte du Lion was built in 1826 by locals who wanted to commemorate the great battle. People took loads of dirt one-by-one from the ridge that Wellington utilized to build a mound that take 226 steps to climb. At the top of the mound, there is a monument with a lion and a viewing area where the whole battlefield can be surveyed. Plaques illustrate where the different forces stood, and visitors can use them as a guide when journeying across the fields to imagine what the battlefield looked like two hundred years ago.
Guided tours can also be scheduled at the visitor center. Current prices for entrance to the Butte du Lion and the panorama as well as for guided tours can be found at the Waterloo Battlefield website. Information can also be found by calling 32 2385 1912. To locate the visitor center and on-site parking, you can use the address Route du Lion 252-254, 1420 Braine-l’Alleud. The Wellington Café is also on site and offers visitors a full menu. It is open daily from 11:00 AM – 9:30 PM.
Just down the street from the battlefield is the Dernier Quartier-Général de Napoléon, or the Napoleon Museum. It is located in Le Caillou, the farm that Napoleon used as his headquarters. Napoleon spent the night at the farmhouse on June 17th and worked with his advisers to plan an attack.
The farm was so damaged following the battle, that the owner, thinking he was too old to complete repairs, eventually sold the land and buildings. The farmhouse was used in many capacities, including as a cabaret or tavern where locals would gather and retell stories of the battle and its aftermath, before it was recognized for its historical significance and preserved.
The museum displays many items used during Napoleon’s stay, such as a folding bed that was light and portable that Napoleon had designed so that he could rest comfortably while on expeditions. The museum exhibits also explain the timeline of events, offer a scavenger hunt and prize for children, and describe military equipment used in the early nineteenth century.
Entrance fees include the use of an audio device that highlights information displayed in each room and that offers dramatic portrayals of people who took part in the battle. The audio tour greatly enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the displays.
The museum is open daily except December 25th and January 1st from 10:00 AM to 6:30 PM April to October and 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM November through March. Children under 7 are free. Tickets for children aged 7 – 12 are 2 Euros, and adult tickets are 4 Euros. The museum is located at Chausse de Brussels 66, 1472 Vieux-Genappe, and more information can be found at the Dernier Quartier-Général de Napoléon website or by calling 32 02384 2424.
After visiting the battlefield and the museum, I can no longer say that my history lessons seem far away. My time in Europe provides the opportunity to travel to places where important events took place and walk their grounds with my own two feet.
Tips for Your Trip:
Phone: 32 2385 1912
Visitor Center Hours:
April to September: 0930 – 1830
October to March: 1000-1700
Route du Lion 252-254
On site restaurant with full menu
Dernier Quartier-Général de Napoléon (Napoleon Museum)
Phone: 32 02384 2424
Open Daily (Except December 25 & January 1)
April – October: 1000-1830
November – March: 1000-1700
Children 0-6: Free
Children 7-12: €2.00
Chausse de Brussels 66