In a one-horse town called Hestrud, on the Franco-Belgian border, there’s a monument which encapsulates Europe’s enduring fascination with Napoleon. The story carved upon this plinth is more like poetry than reportage. As Napoleon passed through here, on his way to Waterloo, he struck up a conversation with a bold little boy called Cyprien Joseph Charlet. ‘You think victory will always follow you, but it always disappears,’ this audacious lad told him, apparently. ‘If I were you, I’d stay at home. Tomorrow your star will surely dim.’
Well, that’s the story, anyway. Fact or fiction, or a bit of both? In a way, it hardly matters. Napoleon recorded this incident in his memoirs, casting himself as a tragic hero, and much of Europe has taken him at his own estimation. Napoleon met his Waterloo, but today his star burns brighter than ever. ‘Living, he failed to win the world,’ wrote Chateaubriand. ‘Dead, he possesses it.’ And his ultimate monument is the European Union.
Naturally, in France Napoleon is still revered. Had Britain produced such a military maestro, we’d probably forgive his many flaws. It’s elsewhere in the eurozone that his veneration is so intriguing. These were countries that he conquered, at the cost of almost a million men, but in the lands he bled white there’s no sense that he’s despised. In Britain he’s a pantomime villain. Here in the Low Countries he’s a sort of Caesar. He personifies the growing division between Britain and the EU.
If you swot up on your European history, it’s easy to see why Napoleon is regarded far more benevolently here. For the beleaguered Belgians, Napoleon was one in a long line of foreign despots. Before the French revolution, they were subjects of the Austrian Emperor; afterwards, of the Dutch king. No wonder they quite liked Napoleon. He curbed the worst excesses of the revolution. He fostered trade and industry. He created wealth. He promoted talent. Belgium’s legal system is still based on the Code Napoléon.
Belgium’s illicit affection for L’Empereur is revealed in the sites along the country’s newly signposted Route Napoléon, from Hestrud to Waterloo, in the makeshift memorials in the chateaux where he stayed. Here he’s portrayed as a tormented genius, not the absurd tyrant of English folklore.
Two hundred years after Napoleon came and went, this Francophone part of Belgium still feels like a département of Napoleonic France. In the pretty market town of Thuin, where Napoleon fought off Blücher’s Prussians, military marches are an annual event. Colourful religious processions have been a tradition here since the Middle Ages. Banned by the Habsburgs, they were reinstated by Napoleon. Today they’re re-enacted in Napoleonic uniform.
This Napoleonic nostalgiafest reaches its climax at Waterloo. Despite its proximity to Brussels, the battlefield is almost unchanged 199 years on. A wide expanse of open fields, shielded by wooded hills, it’s a natural amphitheatre. You can see why Wellington chose to fight here. The houses in which the two commanders spent the night before the battle are both still standing, preserved as museums. In the gift shops, Napoleonic knick-knacks far outnumber Wellingtonian souvenirs. A lot of Europeans have never heard of Wellington. Many of them assume Napoleon was the victor at Waterloo.
This ambivalence about Wellington’s victory is a rude shock for British visitors, but if you’re from the Low Countries, it makes perfect sense. Belgian soldiers fought on both sides at Waterloo. Some of Wellington’s Belgian troops had previously fought for Napoleon. Annexed, occupied, conquered and reconquered, prudent Belgians have long since learned to keep their heads down. It’s no surprise national sovereignty isn’t such a burning issue over here.
Waterloo has been a tourist attraction since 1815. A local farmer who briefed Napoleon before the battle became the first tour guide. There are several Allied memorials scattered around the battlefield, but the legend of Napoleon surpasses them. In 1912, a panoramic painting of the battle was installed here in a purpose-built gallery. It’s still here today. It shows Napoleon on a white charger, rallying his troops. Actually he was too ill to ride around and spent most of the battle in a comfy chair. No matter. Immortalised by storytellers and actors, from Victor Hugo to Rod Steiger, Le Petit Caporal has passed from history into mythology. Preparations are already underway for next year’s bicentenary. Five thousand enthusiasts will re-enact the battle, watched by 200,000 spectators, the biggest battle re-enactment in the world.
How ironic that Napoleon was defeated here as he tried to enter Brussels. Today it seems inconceivable that any future battles will be fought here, but looking out across this windswept plain you realise that, in some ways, not a lot has changed. Ideologically, at least, the battleground remains much the same. Britain still wants a Europe of independent nation states, just as we did 200 years ago. Belgium and her neighbours are far more accustomed to confederations, just as they were back then. In 1815 we fought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. In various ways, we’ve been fighting the same battle ever since.
My Belgian friends protest when I venture this vague comparison. ‘The EU is a democracy!’ they exclaim. ‘Napoleon was a dictator!’ Actually, I didn’t mean to sound quite so critical of the EU — or Napoleon — as they suppose. Without his wars of conquest, a Napoleonic Europe sounds like quite an attractive concept; a sensible solution to the countless conflicts that have plagued the continent. All I meant, and all most Britons mean, is that it feels incompatible with British history. Our island story is very different, in no small part because of Waterloo. In 1815 we won a battle that shaped Europe for a century. Today, despite our best efforts, the course of European history seems to be moving the other way. Rotten weather rescued Wellington. Heavy rain turned these fields to mud, slowing Napoleon’s advance and rendering his cavalry and artillery ineffective. As we leave this famous battlefield, bound for Brussels and the Eurostar back to London, the sun shines down on Waterloo from a cloudless summer sky.