Wellington’s Headquarters, Waterloo

Gallica Belgica was the name of a Roman province in northern Gaul.  The region often called “the low countries” has been the scene of many wars, involving the French, the Habsburgs, the Austrians, the Spanish, and various Germanic peoples. Cities in the region were important trading partners of Britain across the North Sea. 

Today’s Belgium

Under Napoleon, France absorbed parts of the low countries, which were brought together as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 in a settlement agreed at the Congress of Vienna but carried out in effect by the man who became King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a prince of the House of Orange-Nassau.

King William I of the Netherlands in Coronation Robes by Josephy Paelinck  

In 1815, King William insisted that his son, the young William, Prince of Orange, be given a leading role in the upcoming battles against Napoleon. The Duke of Wellington and his staff thought little of the military experience and capabilities of Slender Billy (who incidentally had been a suitor of Princess Charlotte of Wales — for more about her, see below). The unfortunate Prince was wounded in the battle; the Lion Mound, constructed 1820-26 at the site of the battle, is a memorial to him.

The Lion Mound, over 140 feet high
 also showing the Panorama and other buildings

The Prince of Orange went on to be King William II of the Netherlands from 1840 to his death in 1849. The southern provinces had revolted and set up the Bellgian government in 1830-31. Shortly before William II died, Holland became a constitutional monarchy, which is the form of its government today.

William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, later William II  1792-1849

In 1830-31 the southern areas of the Kingdom of the Netherlands gained independence and set up the independent nation of Belgium as a constitutional monarchy. Chosen as first King of Belgium was Leopold I, formerly Prince of Saxe-Coburg, husband of the late Princess Charlotte of Wales 

Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, King of Belgium, crowned 1831

Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817),was the  daughter of the Prince Regent and his wife Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales (1796-1821). The current Belgian royal family descends from Leopold and his second wife, Louise of Orleans (1812-1850), but Leopold retained important influence over British affairs.

Princess Charlotte
In 1815, Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817) was the only legitimate grandchild of George III. Her father was the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and George IV after 1820. Charlotte had a difficult childhood. She became a pawn in the battles between the Prince and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The marriage was extremely unhappy to say the least. Charlotte eventually found a brief window of happiness when she married Leopold of Saxe Coburg Saalfeld. in May, 1816.  Sadly the young princess died in November 1817, after delivering a stillborn son, The national mourning that followed is said to have been matched only by that after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
Memorial to Princess Charlotte of Wales, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

The  grieving widower, Leopold, remained in Britain and participated in some political and governmental circles. For one thing, he advocated the marriage of his sister, Princess Victoire of Saxe Coburg Saalfeld to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.  Kent was one of several of the Prince Regent’s brothers who looked for a wife to provide another heir to the throne. Victoire was a widow herself, with two healthy children, thus a proven breeder; Edward and Victoria married in 1818.The Princess Victoria was born to the couple on May 24, 1819. Just a few months later, the Duke died in January, 1820. Thus Leopold was an important advisor to his sister and his niece, the future Queen.

Victoire, Duchess of Kent
After Victoria became Queen of Great Britain in 1837, Leopold advised her mostly from afar, and promoted the suit of his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who married the Queen in 1840 and fathered her nine children.
Victoria and her family 1846 by Franz Xavier Winterhalter
The Royal Family of Belgium in 20013

The town of Waterloo is a few miles south of the capital of Brussels, something now of a commuter bedroom community.  The Duke of Wellington had investigated the ground south of Waterloo, near the farm of Mont St. Jean, and chose it as the site where he would stand and repel the attacking French armies of Napoleon. Wellington spent the night before the battle in the village inn, now the Wellington Museum.

Waterloo 1815 – French guns being taken back to Brussels after the battle, 
 Wellington’s HQ on the left opposite St Joseph’s church.

St. Joseph’s church, Waterloo, completed in 1690

The battle ground was a mile or so south of Waterloo, near the farm of Mont St. Jean.

A contemporary  image of Mont St. Jean

The battlefield started as farmland, high with crops of rye and wheat, much as it is today.  Heavy rains of the night before had inundated the area, making a sea of mud into which the crops were trampled by guns, horses, and men’s feet.

Above, the battleground as it appeared when we visited in 2010.

Near the Lion Mound is a diagram of the positions of the armies in 1815

Two farms occupied the ground between the slight Ridge at Mont St. Jean and the opposing ridge before which Napoleon arrayed his troops on the morning of June 18, 1815. The smaller farm was La Haye Sainte, the largest Chateau Hougoumont.  Both are still there.

La Haye Sainte as it appears today
The Storming of La Haye Sainte by Richard Knotel
La Haye Sainte was defended by the King’s German Legion who abandoned it to the French only after their ammunition  ran out late in the day; of the original 400+ soldiers defending the farm, only about forty survived. La Haye Sainte was re-taken by the Allies late in the day as part of the final rout of the French troops.
La Haye Sainte after the Battle
Memorial to the defenders of La Haye Saint, on the outer walls of the farm
Chateau Hougoumont, after the battle in 1815
Chateau Hougoumont today, Left, the chapel, center the gardener’s house
Another view of Chateau Hougoumont
A model of Chateau Hougoumont as it might have appeared at the beginning of the battle
The chateau is still a working farm today, but the buildings were never restored after the battle and until recently simply deteriorated.  In the past few years, considerable renovations have been funded. Hougoumont was considered by the Duke of Wellington to be the key point of his defensive battle.  If it had fallen, he said, he thought the battle would have been lost.
Closing the Gate
Fierce battles raged all day around Hougoumont as the French sent wave after wave of troops to storm its thick walls. At one point they managed to get through the gates, but the British troops closed the gates and killed all the French caught inside with the exception of a young drummer boy, who was spared.
After the Battle
Print Burying the Dead by William Mudford, 1817
For an excellent collection of prints and documents related to Waterloo, visit the Wrexham Heritage site, here
One building that survived with relatively minor damage was the tiny chapel.  A fire inside singed the feet of the wooden crucifix that hung there, but it stayed form many years until stolen in 2011. Fortunately it was recovered and is there today. 
Today, many repairs have been made and the buildings will be further restored.  For more information on Project Hougoumont, click here.
During the ceremonies that marked the 2015 Bicentenary of the battle, a new monument to British troops was unveiled at Hougoumont, representing the defenders who so crucially closed that gate.
Prince Charles unveils the memorial, picture from the BBC
image copyright Getty Images
The pictures below were taken on the visit to the Battle of Waterloo site in 2010 made by Kristine and Victoria for the 195th anniversary.  It is easy to see why the chateau was chosen as a key strategic location to protect.  Its thick brick walls were impossible for the French troops to breach  as the Allied troops mounted their vigorous defense.
The encampment of the re-enactors of the British forces 
The British troop reenactors camped on the grounds of Hougoumont, and other than the above mod cons, lived as the defenders did in 1815.
The Waterloo battlefield and the nearby locations of the Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny (Fleurus) are easy to visit as long as you have transportation as the distances are much too far to hike. Memorials are dotted here and there where battles were fought and won — or lost.  Personally I recommend hiring a knowledgeable guide who can explain the sequence of events and show off the relevant sites, museums, and memorials.
The Old farmhouse at Caillou, where Napoleon spent the night before the Battle of Waterloo.
Inside Caillou  is a replica of Napoleon’s bed and other remembrances
In 2010, the French re-enactors camped at Caillou

If you can travel to Waterloo and visit the other fascinations of Belgium, we highly recommend it!

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