Emperor Napoleon – 200 Years on and Waterloo will Be a Fresh Battleground
As he was 200 years ago so today Napoleon remains a highly divisive figure: many worship him as an outstanding national hero, a ruler of stature and influence, others see just “a brilliant, utterly brutal military dictator”. The view largely depends which side of the coin one is looking at..
Few historians resort to shades of grey when describing one of France’s most extraordinary battlefield commanders and his heroic (or otherwise) exploits. Nor indeed is Napoleon a man that Europe might soon forget. So it is that come June 18 this year the battlefields of Waterloo in Belgium will resonate to a huge sound-and-light show as Europeans gird up to commemorate the 200th anniversary of a military showdown that pitched the French Emperor against his assorted enemies and left indelible traces on the history of the continent.
The plan is to mark the anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of an allied army including Russia, Great Britain, Prussia and Austria — commanded by the Duke of Wellington — with a re-enactment which is generating some “coin-troversy“.
For as Dan Snow writes in London’s Daily Telegraph :”Napoleon was an unacceptable threat to European stability. He embodied a terrifying mix of age-old French expansionism married to a fresh, visceral, liberal stirring that, combined, spelt the absolute destruction of ancien régimes.
“It is true”, writes Snow, “that Napoleon Bonaparte, as a politician, favoured the application of enlightenment principles in government, having little time for religion and other medieval practices. But he was also responsible for the deaths of millions of men, women and children across Europe and beyond. He was a military dictator. A brilliant, utterly brutal and callous one. He, alone in European history, conquered an empire that stretched from Portugal to Moscow. His cunning, speed, firepower, concentration of overwhelming force, charisma, energy and ability to inspire loyalty made him virtually unbeatable. However, the rapacious reality of his rule belied his lofty ideas. The financial costs of his conquests were imposed on the defeated.”
That’s of course the view from the side of France’s traditional enemies — the English. In his homeland France, views of Napoleon are in the main those of praise singers and are far more triumphal.
Despite these historic divisions arrangements for the commemorations are well in hand and indeed in some quarters the battle of Waterloo is being refought in a number of smaller skirmishes as anniversary preparations are finalised.
Luc Petit who is directing the Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo arrangements on behalf of Waterloo ASBL 1815-2015 told journalists earlier this year: “Hundreds of performers will take part in the open-air evening event titled ‘Inferno’, which will have space for up to 12,000 spectators. A special battle reconstruction on June 19th and 20th with 6,000 participants — twice the size of the annual Waterloo re-enactment staged by history enthusiasts — has already been announced. Inferno will not be a re-creation but a personal vision, full of emotion and with a lot of the spirit of cinema. Up to 300 actors will take part in the show on a stage 150 metres long, with giant screens, pyrotechnics, dancers, classical musicians and local choirs promising a noisy experience. A small contingent of history enthusiasts in costume will take part in the sound-and-light show as well as the official re-enactment involving some 5,000 people over the following two days. The first day will show the French cavalry charge, the second the victorious British-led riposte, featuring horses and cannon. Up to 60,000 spectators are expected to turn out. French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was forced into exile after his grand European ambitions were crushed at the hands of the forces under the Duke of Wellington at the June 18th, 1815 battle.”
Full details of the commemorations running from 18 to 21 June 2015
can be found here.
“Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at Waterloo in present day Belgium but many of the final battles of the 1814 campaign actually occurred in the northeast of France near Reims in the heart of the Champagne district. The advancing coalition troops, led by the Russians, captured Reims, the French briefly recaptured it, and then it fell again to the Russians in the days before Napoleon’s surrender. Both Russian and French troops celebrated their respective victories with a little-known local drink called Champagne”.
Thus writes Tilar J. Mazzeo began the ascent of Champagne which was not always the big business it is today … In the second part of the eighteenth century, champagne was in a slump, destined to become a regional curiosity. Local winemakers were struggling to drum up even modest sales, and champagne might have faded into obscurity… “[However] the arrival of the Russians [in Reims in 1814] would … prove a brilliant marketing opportunity for the winemakers throughout the Champagne … These new men would never forget [the] sparkling wines [of Reims]. Watching the destruction of his cellars, Jen-Rémy [Moët] also saw the potential. ‘All these officers who ruin me today,’ he predicted. ‘will make my fortune tomorrow. All those who drink my wine are salesmen who, on returning to their own country, will make the product famous.’ “
Here Jon Catt, a British holiday organiser living in the area tells French News Online, Napoleonic-linked trails through the Champagne region are very popular.
He titles those he runs Bonaparte’s Battles and Bubbly.
“Napoleon’s French Campaign in the early months of 1814 took place mainly in the Champagne region. This means that you can discover many sites linked to the campaign and at the same time enjoy cellar visits and tastings in a host of nearby champagne houses.
“Napoleon stayed in Troyes in 1814. This is just a short drive from the Napoleon Museum in Brienne Le Château, housed in the military academy attended by Napoleon. The chateau where the emperor stayed dominates the town but can’t be visited. Brienne and La Rothière were the sites of important battles as was Bar sur Aube. Some of the champagne making villages near the town were also the scenes of battles.
“Troyes is also close to Bar sur Seine. The town’s only remaining old gate has an embedded canon ball from 1814. While just a few minutes down the road the more bucolic hill vistas are of slopes covered in vineyards with a wide choice of family run champagne houses to drop in on and visit.
“Reims of course, was the site of Napoleon’s last victory in France. At Epernay on the far side of the Montagne de Reims visitors to the region can take a cellar tour of Moet et Chandon where the Napoleon barrel is proudly displayed. Bergères lès Vertus is in the Côte des Blancs, while Mont Aimé the site of a large victory parade in September 1815 viewed by Tsar Alexander, is close by.
“Laon an hour’s drive from Riems and falling just outside the designated Champagne region has a cathedral in the upper town itself still surrounded by Medieval walls. From here a Napoleonic tourist would head to Craonne on the Chemin des Dames in the Aisne where an imposing statue of the general looks down on the site of the battle. Alla round champagne houses to visit can be found in the villages of the Massif Saint Thierry just north of Reims.
Epernay is the ideal place to explore part of the Marne valley’s champagne vineyards while Chateau Thierry and Montmirail were the site of battles in 1814.
“There are of course many other interesting places to visit with links to 1814. The Forêt d’Orient Regional Nature Park near Troyes has a Napoleon trail. Some churches in the towns and villages of the region have military tombs from 1814. There are other battle sites such as Fère Champenoise. Châlons en Champagne — one champagne house to visit — is nearby and trades on the fact that Napoleon passed through here several times. Many of the places mentioned suffered considerable damage in the Great War.” – Jon Catt of Growers Wine Tours
“History is written by the winners.”
― Napoléon Bonaparte
“Le mot impossible n’est pas français.”
― Napoléon Bonaparte
“You don’t govern men who don’t have religion, you shoot them.”
― Napoléon Bonaparte
Related article of interest (or amusement)
- For French historian Jean Tulard, Napoleon’s correspondence comes closest to showing the ‘real’ Napoleon, exposing his ideas, likes and dislikes, and deceptions. – See more
- French historian Georges Lefebvre, who detected ‘several personalities’ beneath the soldier’s uniform of the young Napoleon, thought that it was this diversity that ‘ma[de] him so fascinating.’ – See more
- A Unique And Not-To-Be Missed Commemoration Programme
- Napoleon – A good contemporary assessment – From Contradiction to Cartoon: Reflections of Napoleon Bonaparte
- Napoleon was the real winner of Waterloo… claim the French! Re-enactment set to mark bi-centenary will ignore history-
- 200 years on, Napoleon returns to southern France
- A bit of the history of Champagne from the Reims tourism office
- French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte sent his wife the most romantic love letters of all time
- Napoleon and the 1814 French campaign
Story: Ken Pottinger