Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Lion

We were on the seventh day of our visit before we finally went to the Lion Monument and adjacent visitors centre. This was deliberate, as we wanted to save the best for last. However our first impression was this was not by any means the best!

This fine aerial photographs shows the location of the Lion Monument, and it also shows clearly the damage building it has done to the battlefield. This was one of the most important parts of the whole battlefield, and the tons of earth removed to build the monument has changed the lie of the land beyond recognition. You will probably be aware that this monstrosity was constructed to celebrate the part played in the battle by the Prince of Orange, and the fact that he received a minor wound during the battle. This may not immediately strike you as the most important event of the many which occurred on that fateful day in June 1815. However when you consider that his dad was the King of the Netherlands you begin to understand why it was done. The single good thing to come of it, is that it can be seen from any part of the battlefield, and makes orientation very easy.

It was another warm and sunny day when we arrived. Yet our first impression of this long awaited visit was that it was quite depressing. The whole area, and in particular the buildings, were very much past their best. Clearly not much money had been spent on the area in recent years, and it was beginning to show. Our second impression was that it was a shrine to Napoleon, with very little reference to Wellington. If the battle of Waterloo, and the winner, were not so well known by every Englishman, it would be easy to come away from Waterloo thinking that Napoleon must have won!

Our first visit was to the imposing, if somewhat faded, museum and film show. The most impressive part of the museum was this excellent Grenadier of the Old Guard. Jan looks quite impressed, and indeed impressive in her fancy straw hat. The rest of the museum, including this diorama of Napoleons marshals poring over a map, was less impressive.

Least impressive of all, indeed downright disappointing, was the film show. We were delighted to see that Waterloo was on show. We had recently seen it, but were more than happy to repeat the performance, and at Waterloo itself. Imagine our disappointment when we sat down in the tiny cinema and discovered it was a silent, black and white version which, in 1971, must have been at least 30 or 40 years old. It was similar to one of those Charlie Chaplain films which always feature a car race. I would not have been surprised if he had appeared in the middle of the most unconvincing battle scenes I have ever seen. Now it might well be that this was actually a well known classic, and that I am showing my ignorance. However we were bitterly disappointed to find that it was not the wonderful, colourful movie with Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington.

I am pleased to be able to confirm, and you will be happy to learn, that this was the last of the disappointments of this day. Our next visit was to the fantastic Waterloo Panorama in the circular building which stands beside the Lion.

As we entered the dark circular room we were blown away by the scale of the panorama. The whole wall is covered by a life sized painting depicting the massed French cavalry charge. The foreground is littered with battle debris, such as broken artillery wheels, muskets etc. The room is filled with the sound of battle from the surround sound system. It may not be too impressive by modern standards, but we had never seen anything like it before. And it is by far the most impressive recreation of a Napoleonic battlefield that I have ever seen. We spent at least an hour walking around the room soaking up the sights and sounds.

Emerging into the bright midday sunshine, we climbed the 226 tall steps to the top of the Lion Monument. It was well worth the effort. It may have done massive damage to the battlefield, but the view from the top is quite breath taking. You are immediately orientated when you see Hougoumont to the right and La Haye Sainte to the left. We opened our well thumbed copy of Jac Wellers "Wellington at Waterloo" and I read aloud to Jan from Chapter IX The French Cavalry Attacks. We were so engrossed that it took some time to realise that we were surrounded by a small group of visitors who obviously found my account more interesting than the pre-recorded machines which tell the story of the battle in many languages.

We were in no hurry to leave our matchless view point, and we had come prepared with a picnic lunch. Having orientated ourselves, and read an excellent description of the cavalry charges and studied the ground over which it took place. We then turned to our second battlefield companion, the excellent "Waterloo, A Near Run Thing" by David Howarth. This book contains the first hand accounts of a number of soldiers who took part in the actual battle. Unfortunately I no longer have my copy, it disappeared over the years. So I cannot quote from it now. But I do remember how exciting it was to read the actual words of participants in the battle while looking at the ground they were describing.

It was late afternoon when we came back down the 226 steps to return to the car. This had been the least energetic day so far, and we had not really done any battlefield walking. However we felt we had really explored the area through "Wellington at Waterloo" and "A Near Run Thing". We had an excellent grasp of the battle, the battlefield and personal accounts of different participants. We were ready for tomorrows excursion. In the photo below you can see a clue to the location of our next visit.

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