What, is it already nearly seven years since my son and I took part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo? How time flies!
I was recently browsing though my old Favourites (as you do!) and found myself re-reading my old article about our experiences at Waterloo in 2005. I thought it might be worth resurrecting it here for those you who didn’t see it at the time.
“Vive l’Empereur!” comes the enthusiastic cry, as the familiar grey-coated man on a white horse canters past, escorted by his Chausseurs à Cheval de la Garde. Like the rest of my comrades in the 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne, I place my pokalem hat on the end of my musket and wave it up in the air. It is as if I have stepped back 190 years, and really am shouting out my allegiance to my emperor.
But, no, the time is the present, and this is not the real Battle of Waterloo, but the 190th anniversary reenactment, which is taking place near the village of Plancenoit, part of the original battlefield. Along with about 2,500 other reenactors, I am playing the part of a Napoleonic soldier, in my case a French fusilier in the 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne.
For some time I had been planning to visit Europe with my teenage son, and decided that it would be interesting to watch a reenactment event whilst we were there. So I posted on The Miniatures Page to find out what events were happening in mid-2005 that we could see. Fons Libert of the 85ème promptly replied, saying that not only could we watch Waterloo, but we were welcome to join his regiment!
So here we were, a few weeks later, camped near Plancenoit with a large group of fellow “French” reenactors. Our camp was just one of several dotted over the Waterloo countryside. The Imperial Guard was quartered at Le Caillou (Napoleon’s headquarters), the British and Dutch at Hougoumont, and the Prussians at Plancenoit.
Fons had asked us to ensure we had white trousers and shirts, but all other uniform and equipment would be loaned to us. At the depot tent we were supplied with greatcoats, cartouche boxes or gibernes, gaiters, and pokalem undress hats.
I decided I would like to have a hat to keep afterwards, so I had commissioned Eunice, a member of the 85ème, to make me a pokalem beforehand.
The campsite itself was a sea of small white tents, most containing just straw and old blankets for bedding. Cooking was all done on open fires. In our case, the cooking was done under the charge of Dèsirée, a lovely Swedish/Dutch lady who seemed to have everything well under control. And what wonderful food she and her crew produced from such a rudimentary kitchen!
One thing I found interesting was how much of a family hobby reenacting is in Europe. There were nearly as many women as men in our unit, most portraying camp-followers and civilians, but some dressing as men in the regiment. There were even several children. One of the women told me that she loved reenactment events even though she was not at all interested in military history, because she just enjoyed leaving the stress of modern life behind and camping in a simple back-to-basics style. No mobile phones, no barbeques, no refrigerators, no computers!
The 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne is a particularly interesting reenactment unit, as it is so multinational. Unlike most other groups, which are based in individual countries, the 85ème has separate files in various countries, all of whom come together for important events such as this one. So we had members of the Dutch, Belgian, French and English files all taking part, not to mention some Germans, Australians, Poles, a Mexican and even some New Zealanders!
The regiment is broken up into a number of pelotons (platoons), which are each divided into escouades (squads) led by a caporal (corporal). Our caporal was Ian Dickie, the editor of the well-known wargaming magazine ‘Miniature Wargaming’.
With myself and my son Oliver, and also my brother-in-law Robert, representing New Zealand, and David, Tracy and Patrick from Australia, we joked that the 85ème even had an Anzac file! This was emphasized by David wearing his Australian slouch hat during light-hearted moments – though from a distance one could be excused for thinking it was a civilian hat that might well have been worn by French soldiers on campaign.
The first task was to learn the drill – firstly just the recruits, then the whole company, and finally joined by another unit (the 45ème Régiment) to drill as a battalion.
The commands were, of course, all in French. “Peloton, garde à vous!” (platoon, attention). “Peloton, par le flanc droit , à droite!” (platoon, right face). “En avant, marche!” (forward march).
I was especially impressed with our Sergent and Sergent-Major, who had to instruct us in both fluent English and French – they did this seamlessly.
Only veterans were allowed to fire their muskets during the reenactment. But we recruits still had to learn how to load and fire, as we were given replica muskets to carry. Before long, we could follow the commands, and were able to simulate loading and firing with the best of them. “Armez!” (cock the hammer). “En joue!” (present). “Feu!” (fire). “Chargez!” (reload).
After the drill sessions, I had a bit of time to wander over to some nearby stables where the horsemen of both armies were quartered. What a sight to see such resplendent uniforms that I had only seen before in books and on model soldiers!
The day of the battle dawned. We were woken by the rattle of drums, and emerged to a sultry hot day. In fact, the heat during the whole of this event was incredible, and caused quite a few cases of heat exhaustion. We carried as much water as we could, and had to continually stop to take sips and keep hydrated. Although Oliver and I wore heavy greatcoats, their looseness apparently makes them feel a little cooler than the tight jackets worn by most reenactors. I can now see how such heat must have been a killer back in Napoleonic times.
After falling in and receiving a pep-talk from our Captain (and founder of the 85ème, Mark Evans), we marched off down the lane towards Plancenoit village itself. I felt moved to be marching along the same roads that Napoleon’s men would have tramped on their way to meet the Prussians during the final hours of the real Waterloo.
The battle was in three stages. First there was a short spell of street fighting in the village of Plancenoit. We then made our way to a large field, where several aspects of the real battle were recreated, including the massed infantry attack, the cavalry charges, and the artillery cannonades. This was all done in front of huge crowds of spectators.
During this battle an incident occurred which shook even the most experienced members of our unit. A lone British cavalryman charged towards the 85ème. But instead of swinging away at the last minute, as reenactors are supposed to do, he charged straight into our ranks and lunged at the eagle. The guys who were in the way of the horse had to jump aside, and were lucky not to have been injured. He didn’t quite manage to grab the eagle, so galloped back to his squadron. [The above picture of this incident is well worth clicking and enlarging.]
I have never seen someone as angry as our Sergent-Major, who stormed over to the British cavalry unit and almost hauled the man off his horse. I understand that non-scripted actions such as those of this cavalryman are an absolute no-no for safety reasons, and that our unit has since lodged an official complaint with the organisers. But my son Oliver, who was standing near the eagle, will forever dine out on the time he was charged by a heavy cavalryman!
The last part of battle recreated the final square of French retreating as the battle was lost. For this iconic moment of history, all the French units present joined together to make one large square, whilst all the allied units (British, Dutch/Belgian, and Prussian) massed around and fired into the square in a series of ripping volleys.
Many of us in the 85ème decided this would be an appropriate moment to “die”, so fell down after the next British volley. This gave us an impressive view as the British redcoats advanced to mop up the square.
After the battle, we came back to life and marched back into camp, to the applause of the many thousands of spectators. Back in camp we formed an inwards facing square and performed the moving ceremony of wrapping the flag and casing the eagle. Even though we were just reenactors, and the eagle was a mere replica, one could still feel the homage that Napoleon’s soldiers paid to these symbols. This was another moment I felt I slid back into time.
Later on, several of the 85ème “Anzacs” ventured over to Hougoumont to meet another group of Australians reenacting on the allied side. What a shame I had not thought to bring a New Zealand flag!
Hougoumont itself is an eerie place to walk through, with so many memories of the hard fighting that went on there 190 years ago. In front of a small chapel in the chateau confines, the allied reenactors placed several wreaths and an honour guard. This, I felt, was entirely appropriate to remember the sacrifices of those real soldiers of so long ago, who had had to combat much more than just the heat and the charge of a lone horseman.
Many thanks to the wonderfully hospitable men and women of the 85ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne, for giving Oliver, Robert and myself an experience that will always live in our memories.