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 Post subject: Waterloo @ 200 - My Experiences at the Bicentenary
Unread postPosted: 06 Aug 2015, 14:46 
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Waterloo @ 200

My Experiences at the Bicenenary Reenactments of the Battle of Waterloo


By Matthew Groves

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Introduction

For those who don't know, I am part of a Napoleonic Reenactment group portraying the 21eme Regiment D'Infanterie de Ligne in Napoleon's army. I've been doing it since May 2013 and I enjoy every minute of it, a truly wonderful hobby for me. Last week we went over to Belgium to take part in the bicentenary reenactments of the Battle of Waterloo, over 6000 reenactors from across the world took part with hundreds of cavalry and lots of artillery.
Waterloo 2015 was the best reenactment event I have taken part in so far, I don't know if any European event will top the experiences I had at this event, it may have been the most physically demanding event I've done so far but it was worth it. It was my first time ever visiting this battlefield which made this event so special to me. The battles were truly spectacular, the best I've ever had the privilege to take part in and witness. It was an honour to explore parts of the battlefields in 1815 where so much happened and so many gave their lives. I will never forget forming up and marching down the French ridge where the French attacked the Allied line 200 years ago. Marching down into that valley into thick smoke and waist high wheat whilst the drums were beating and we were shouting 'Vive l'Empereur!' is something I'll always remember among many other parts of this fantastic event. The marching may have been long and tiring but it was all worth it for the experience, I enjoyed every minute of this event from the battles to the marches, from the singing to the sightseeing. Of course this event wouldn't have been half as enjoyable if not for the friendships I share within my reenactment unit, who are all truly wonderful.
But anyway, in this article I'll go through the event day by day with some pictures (and there's alot) and some awesome videos captured from our unit's perspective, I hope you all enjoy!

Thursday 18th June, Day One: From Dover to Le Caillou
We travelled by coach to and from Waterloo, we got an early ferry and then it was about a 3 hour drive to our campsite from Calais. Our campsite was not too far from the farmhouse of Le Caillou, where Napoleon had his headquarters the night before the battle, his Old Guard was also camped in the gardens outside (see photos below). Interestingly, the Imperial Guard reenactors had their campsite in and around Le Caillou just as they would have 200 years ago.

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We arrived at our campsite that afternoon only to discover that the tent space we had been promisedd had been nicked by another group, meaning we had to squeeze all our tents into a very small camping area! After setting up the tents and getting changed into our kit, my friends and I went over to Le Caillou to look around. We saw the Guard relaxing, some of them in the big bearskin hats. We then went round the back of Le Caillou into the garden and there we saw the Emperor's tent! He was there with all his staff, but there was quite a funny spectacle0 going on. The general staff were watching some fencing with wooden swords and who did we see fighting a French Aide-de-Camp? Field Marshal Blucher, commander of the Prussian army, outside the Emperor's tent! It was strange but quite funny. After this we returned to camp and where we chatted around the fires for a bit before four of us played a marble game created by one of our fellow fusiliers called 'Get the F*** Off My Marbles!' A very fun game but we were unable to finish it as darkness fell and we were starting to lose some marbles in the dark. So in the end everyone retired for the night and prepared for a day of hard work and marching.

Friday 19th June, Day Two: The First Battle
We woke up at 7am for breakfast before forming up for drill at around 9am. We were formed into 3 sections and each section did their own individual drill for a while before the battalion we were part of all formed up for battalion drill. This time was used to figure out how to form our battalion from line into column and vice versa, it could get frustrating but in the end we got there.
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Our battalion formed up in column during drill
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After this, we had the entire afternoon for our own leisure, so many had lunch and also prepared our early dinner since the battle would be at 8 in the evening and we would have to form up 2 hours before that. We mostly rolled and filled cartridges that afternoon, putting blackpowder into paper cartridges, we made so many cartridges that I cannot begin to guess the exact number!
We ate our early dinner at about 4pm and formed up for the march to the battlefield at around 5pm. The march began fairly late as the entire French army was marching the same road so we had to do what Napoleonic re-enacting often consists of, waiting. We were waiting for the other battalions to march out of the camp before we could. Then finally the order was given to march out the camp! But no sooner had the front of our column of route reached an exit from the camp than it turned round and led the column back the way we had come, we’d gone to the wrong exit, we joked how it had been a quick battle so we all had a good laugh.
The march to the battlefield from the campsite was nearly four kilometres, but the march there was done in good order despite delays, we were encouraged by the music of our drummers and fifers and we sang songs to keep us moving. Eventually we reached our position behind the artillery, which was formed in one grand battery, our battalion formed up in line formation. Around us were the other battalions of line infantry, behind these battalions was the infantry of the Imperial Guard, formed in column in their blue greatcoats and tall bearskin hats, they were a sight to be seen. We also so the large amount of cavalry, Chasseurs a Cheval, Hussars, Lancers and of course the iconic Cuirassiers. We remind waiting, in front of us in the valley below were wooden copies of the farms of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. Behind the Allied position and to our left were the huge stands were thousands of spectators were seated ready to watch. We waited for some time as the Ango-Allied army slowly marched onto the battlefield, it turned out that a bridge had collapsed and this had led to the tardiness of our foes.
While this occurred the General in command of the division we were part of rode by in front of us, Oleg Sokolov. He wasn’t an impressive figure, short and old and the officers and NCOs of my regiment told us that the man was, in diplomatic terms, a pompous maniac. I had also heard that Sokolov believed that he was the reincarnation of Marshal Soult. He rode by each battalion, it seemed he only had one setting on his horse and that was gallop, he galloped everywhere he went. He spoke to the officers and then made speeches to the troops, encouraging them to cry “Vive L’Empereur!”. We stood there at ease, waiting, then suddenly we heard cheering to our left and more cries of “Vive L’Empereur!”, then the Emperor came riding by the troops, escorted by his Chasseurs a Cheval. He waved as the troops cheered, some put their shakos on top of their muskets and raised them in cries of “Vive L’Empereur!” The atmosphere was ecstatic and it truly felt like we were soldiers in Napoleons army, cheering for our Emperor, fully confident of victory and glory, these moments when the Emperor rode by were very immersive.
At last the Allied army finished marching in and took their positions, shortly afterwards the first cannon shots were fired, it must have been around 8:40pm. There followed five or ten minutes of artillery fire from both sides, the gunfire was loud and the battlefield began to fill with smoke. We saw riders riding here and there, giving orders, we knew our time was coming to advance. Then, almost one by one the battalions of line infantry were ordered to advance, it was truly a sight to see almost all the French army marching down into the valley. This video provides an excellent view of it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9yTIu5SUwY
Spoiler:
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We marched in line to the beat of our drums, we dressed on our eagle, the cries of serrez le rangs! were frequent as we descended the French ridge and then entered the fields of waist high wheat. Marching through this was somewhat difficult but we managed, as we trampled the wheat beneath us swarms of insects took flight around us. The columns were to march past the right side of La Haye Sainte to engage the Allied centre, the same place that General D’Erlon’s I Corps had attacked 200 years before. When our big line began to have difficulty, our officers decided to form us into column so it would be easier to manoeuvre. Our advance began again, we marched past La Haye Sainte and we began shout “Vive L’Empereur!” followed by cries of “Je Passe Quand Meme!” (I will pass nevertheless!)by my regiment, as it was our regimental motto. Advancing into the smoke filled valley with the sound of gunfire, drums and fifes and the shouting as we advanced was an experience I’ll never forget. This short video, taken from the rear of our battalion column, shows our advance and gives you an idea of what we experienced.
https://www.facebook.com/martin.ijdo.7/ ... 486530392/

In front of us we saw the other columns had reached the Allied ridge and were now trading volleys with the Anglo-Dutch units up there. We then saw the Scots Greys and Dragoon Guards charge the battalions in front of us, our battalion halted and we closed the gaps between the sections in our battalion column to turn it into a makeshift square. Some of our other battalions did this as well, others fell back in disorder, it was an impressive and immersive sight to see. We stayed in this formation until the cavalry had charged a distance away and then our battalion marched back the way we had come, but then we marched in column of route towards Hougoumont, where we were to attack for the rest of the battle.
At Hougoumont we fired volley after volley at the Coldstream Guards inside, we fired so many that our barrels became scolding hot from the firing. At one stage we charged the barricades the redcoats had put up before retiring. After firing away most of our ammunition and with Allied units approaching slowly on our left flank, we decided to withdraw from Hougoumont deciding our job had been done. We retired about halfway up the French ridge before halting and watching the last stage of the battle play out below us.
Spoiler:
Fantastic photo of my unit firing a volley
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To our right in the distance and through the huge cloud of smoke that now lingered across the battlefield, we could see columns of infantry advancing up our army’s far right flank. We saw the black flags fluttering in the wind and realised the Prussians had arrived, the sight of them from our position was incredible. The other incredible sight we saw was the Imperial Guard advancing and getting repulsed. We saw a square of the Old Guard surrounded as Allied cavalry rode circles around them. The volleys of the British battalions were incredible, hundreds of muskets firing in unison, the flash, the noise the sound. The end of Friday’s battle I will never forget.
We formed into column of route and made our way to the exit from the battlefield, there was some congestion as units waited for each other to go through. Thankfully the organisers had arranged for a bunch of people to share our water bottles, which were used up thankfully, many of us had drunk the water we had brought in our canteens and we would need more to prepare us for the long march back to camp. Once we got onto the main road all order was dismissed with, we carried our muskets however we liked and marched in no particular formation, looking at us a spectator would definitely say we looked like a retreating army, it certainly felt like it. I don’t remember much of the march back except just staring at the feet of the men in front of me and keeping myself marching despite my exhausted legs.
We were all relieved to return to camp, some went almost straight to sleep, including myself, whilst others stayed up a little longer and had a drink before settling down. It was around 11pm by the time we returned to camp and we were in for another exhausting day on the morrow.

Saturday 20th June, Day Three: The Second Battle
The schedule of the day was much the same as Friday, breakfast followed by morning drill with both pelotons and battalion drill. During battalion drill the Emperor arrived to go through the camps, when he came to use we presented arms and shouted ‘Vive L’Empereur!’ The Emperor spoke to our officers and then went on his way. After this we had several hours to relax, have lunch, cook our early dinner and get some rest before the march. After we got a nice hot meal in our bellies we formed up around half past five and began the march to the battlefield, singing songs to keep spirits up.
The first part of the battle went pretty much the same ways as the day before, we advanced again into the ridge below toward the Allied centre before retiring. However after that things became very different. After being attacked by cavalry our regiment got separated from the rest of our battalion! We tried to march to Hougoumont to re-join them but we were attacked by cavalry and had to form an adhoc square to fend them off, but thankfully our own cavalry came to our rescue but we still fought off the British dragoon guards, here are three videos of their attack from different perspectives in our square, they tried to break us but we did not give them the satisfaction, we jeered them and yelled ‘Vive L’Empereur!’ and ‘Je Passe Quand Meme!’ in defiance.
https://www.facebook.com/alfred.page.73 ... 475696239/
https://www.facebook.com/john.gretzer.9 ... 380575751/
https://www.facebook.com/michael.mathew ... 080392216/

Finally, after the British cavalry buggered off, we began marching to re-join the battalion which was attacking Hougoumont. It was quite a ways away from where we got pinned down so it took time and the high wheat became a nuisance. It was at this point the fatigue people were feeling after yesterday’s excursions became evident as some of the older gents in the unit started to lag behind.
Eventually we reached Hougoumont and fired our ammunition into the redcoats. We fired so many volleys once again, but eventually a corner of my flint snapped rendering it almost useless, I had many misfires before I decided to stop wasting my cartridges. Eventually our battalion slowly withdrew, we had to fend of Allied cavalry as we made our way back up the French ridge. When we reached the top word got around that the entire French army was going to advance with the Imperial Guard, but our officers, knowing how exhausted many of us were, said that anyone who did not feel up to another march up and down the valley could fall out and wait. Myself and three of my comrades decided to fall out, I was incredibly exhausted and we still had a long march to go through. But we stayed and watched the entire French infantry advance with the Old Guard, it was an incredible sight despite the smoke, I was glad I hadn’t gone down with the attack because the view we had from our position allowed us to see the entire attack. We watched as the columns advanced and then disintegrated. We watched volleys of the Allies and the gunfire from the artillery batteries. Eventually our unit came back up from the battle and we moved to fall back in, then we heard the shout of “Cavalry!” so we ran for the safety of our unit. Sure enough, the Scots Greyss charged us and we repelled them, they looked greedily at our eagle but we made clear that they were not getting their hands on it.
The march back was just as atmospheric and exhausting as the night before. I fell behind from the rest of my unit and was completely shattered. But I persevered to catch up with my unit, therefore I began singing quietly myself a French marching song and my pace quickened, I was soon marching among my unit again. The Sergeant Major ordered that the unit was to march in order as much as possible, though the rest of the French army around us was in no semblance of order. We sang songs to keep us going as we marched down the road, passing the Victor Hugo memorial and the fallen eagle memorial.
We arrived back at camp after 11pm again and after a speech from the officers thanking and congratulating us on our hard work, most of us retired from some well-earned kip.

Sunday 21st June, Day Three: Sightseeing
After a slightly later start in the morning and breakfast, we all kitted out into battle order except our heavy backpacks and we all got on out coach would us take us into the small village around the Lion Mound. Once there we all got off and marched down the road in the direction of Papellote farm, it was in that direction we would find our regiments monument, placed where the real 21eme Regiment d’Infanterie de Ligne engaged General Pack’s brigade. The regiment was repulsed but managed to fall back in good order from the British cavalry.
Spoiler:
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After taking photos and paying our respects we marched back and then had some leave to go to the food vendors and look around the local stalls. After this many of us went on the coach and did a small tour around the battlefields. We went to the crossroads of Quatre Bras, visiting the Anglo-Dutch memorials and we saw a farm house used in the battle which was sadly condemned. I hope it gets saved somehow. We then went to the village of St Amand La Haye on the Ligny battlefield, we stood outside the farmhouse where the French attacked the Prussians and General Girard was mortally wounded.
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We then drove back to Le Caillou as we didn’t have time to go around the entire battlefields, we went around Le Caillou museum before driving back to the Lion Mound. Later, as evening set in, myself and a small group of others decided to go to Hougoumont, it was quite a walk to and from I must say and I really struggled that evening after all the marching over the past two days. We walked by quite a few monuments on the track we followed to Hougoumont as we were on the spot where the French made many of their cavalry charges during the battle. Hougoumont was very impressive, fully restored for the bicentenary celebrations. Prince Charles had been to Hougoumont on the Wednesday before to unveil the new monument to British troops who fought at the battle. The North gate had also been replaced.
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As I said the walk back was very hard on me, I was completely shattered but that night was very chilled and relaxing. The next morning we got back in our civilian clothes and packed up.

So those were my experiences at the Waterloo bicentenary reenatment, my first visit to the battlefield I’ve read so much about. I loved every minute of it and have taken so many great memories from it, the immersion, the battles, the marching, the comradery and the singing. This is why I do Napoleonic re-enactment and why I will always love it.


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 Post subject: Re: Waterloo @ 200 - My Experiences at the Bicentenary
Unread postPosted: 06 Aug 2015, 15:16 
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Kickstart a campaign to save the farm building?



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 Post subject: Re: Waterloo @ 200 - My Experiences at the Bicentenary
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I think there was already if I recall correctly. From what I remember there were many attempts to demolish the building over the years that have been prevented by petition signing and such but this time it seems it wasn't enough to stop it :(
Damn Belgian government!


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