Surely I cannot be the only one who has ever heard someone say, “Imagine if the Germans had won the Second World War, we would be speaking German now!” The fact of the matter is that they may possibly be right. There is indeed a chance I would be writing this blog auf Deutsch, had things gone a bit differently 70 years ago. However, you rarely, if ever, hear someone saying “Imagine if Napoleon had defeated the British and their allies in the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago, we would be speaking French now!” Well now that I think about it… would we?
200 years ago on the 18th of June 1815, after his escape from exile, Napoleon Bonaparte’s quest to reclaim his lost empire came to an abrupt end when he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian and Dutch/Belgian allies, changing the course of
Seriously though, clichés aside, history absolutely fascinates me. I always try and imagine what it would be like to have lived in those times, or what it would have been like to fight in such a war… Well, I can assure you that it would have been absolutely terrifying because last weekend I got as close as you can get! I had the privilege of attending the much-anticipated bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo, which hosted a world record breaking reenactment of the battle, with a little over 6000 reenactors and 300 horses participating. The event was spread across four days, from Thursday, June 18th to Sunday 21st, with the reenactment taking place on Friday and Saturday. It was mind-blowing.
Before I begin, let me ask you a question. Are you by any chance familiar with the phrase “Good things come to those who wait.”? Well they do. The four hours of traffic, queuing, and waiting we went through before we finally managed to get to our seats prove that they do.
The two hour battle was scheduled to start at 20:00, and the organizers had sent out an email asking visitors to arrive by 18:00. Of course I scoffed at the thought of arriving two hours in advance and told my mom it was ridiculous. What are we going to do for two hours? Just sit around? I don’t even have 3G. No chance! My mom however, is on the more cautious side of the
spectrum and insisted we should leave by 16:00. No matter how old you get, your mother will always be the boss, so I left the office on Friday at 15:30.
I rushed home, got changed, picked my mom up at her hotel (dad and brother joined on Saturday) at 16:00 and headed for the battleground. A drive that should have taken no more than 25 minutes, took a grandiose hour and forty-five minutes thanks to extreme Belgian traffic. Walking from the parking lot (read: enormous field) to the event area took about 30 minutes. At this point it was already 18:15 and we still had an hour and forty-five minutes to get to our seats. Easy
right? No, it was not. There was such an enormous crowd. We were like a herd of sheep in stop and go traffic going at the speed of snail. We only had to walk about 1.5 km from the entrance to the tribunes, but since it was so packed it took ages. After 90 long minutes of queuing and waiting, we had finally made it to our seats with 15 minutes to spare. A tedious 4 hours later, I was finally
in my seat and ready for the show to start. Like I said, “good things come to those who wait,” and I was about to get mine. Considering the epic journey we underwent to get to this moment, I’m
pretty confident we met the requirements for what constitutes waiting long enough.
I gazed across the massive field upon which the reenactment would take place and saw the British and French troops get in position and prepare for battle. Finally. It’s show time.
The show quite literally started with a bang. The French cannons opened fire, and the British quickly fired back. The French infantry then advanced towards the British-held farm of “Hougoumont”, a strategically crucial position. Again, the British retaliated and returned musket fire.
Despite the fact that our seats were quite far away from where the action was taking place, my handy-dandy binoculars (thanks mom) allowed me to keep a close eye on the battle. Live commentary was given in English, French, and Dutch, and provided historical information on the battle and a “play-by-play” of the reenactment, giving you a fairly clear understanding of what was happening. The smoke, musket shots, cannon explosions and the smell of gunpowder really brought it all together. Quite honestly the only thing that allowed you to distinguish the reenactment from a real battle was the fact that nobody was killed. Not even fake deaths, but I guess that makes sense. Nobody wants to participate in a world-record breaking reenactment by lying face down in a knee-high wheat field for two hours.
The whole experience really got me thinking though. What if Napoleon had actually won the battle? What kind of consequences would that have had on the course of history? Would the
French Empire still exist and rule most of Europe? What kind of cultural implications would that have had? How vastly different would Europe look today? Would we actually be speaking French now?
As thought-provoking and mind-blowing as the idea might be, the chance of it happening is microscopic. Even if Napoleon had been victorious at Waterloo, his victory would most certainly have been short lived. After making his escape from the Island of Elba where he was exiled, Napoleon had become considered an outlaw by the ruling powers of Europe, and there was no question that they would do everything in their power to prevent Napoleon from rebuilding his empire. Had he not been defeated at Waterloo, he would have been defeated shortly thereafter. Not only due to Europe’s collective determination to stop him, but mainly due to the fact that Napoleon’s army had very limited access to manpower and resources and would not have been able to withstand multiple battles. Despite the fact that he did manage to amass a very sizable army consisting of loyal former soldiers, he was acting independently and did not represent
France, and eventually, he would have quite literally run out of soldiers.
All in all, despite all the road and foot traffic we had to deal with, it was absolutely, 100% worth it. Every last second of it. This was more than just a once in a lifetime opportunity, it was an opportunity that would never present itself again, and I feel incredibly privileged that I had the chance attend this historic event. Not only was it entertaining, it was educational and thought-provoking. It opened my eyes to how fragile the current state of the world really is. In 100 years, Europe could look COMPLETELY different. Some countries may disappear, and new ones could emerge. The Europe we live in today, is not the same Europe our descendants will live in.