Just ten miles south of Brussels, you will find yourself in Waterloo. Waterloo itself is not much unless you like posh houses, big corporations and five-star restaurants. But 200 years ago, a battle took place nearby Waterloo that changed European history forever. This is an excellent day-trip if you’re staying at Brussels.
The battlefield of Waterloo is visited by hundreds of thousands visitors every year, and even after your visit, it will be hard to imagine that more than 300.000 people died here in the Battle of Waterloo, the 18th of june, 1815.
At the time of the Battle, Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
1. Climb the Lion’s Mound
If you’re not afraid of heights or stairs, then you should definitely climb the Lion Hill. You’ll get an awesome panoramic view of the fields where the battle took place.
The hill was constructed by King William I of the Netherlands, five years after the battle, to honor his son, the Prince of Orange (later King William II). He got hit during the battle and fell from his horse. The Lion is facing France.
During that time, Belgium was part of the Netherlands, but here’s a fun post-war fact: 15 years after the battle of Waterloo, the Belgian revolution started, calling for independence. The Dutch attempt to suppress the Belgian revolution eventually failed, because Belgium received support from the French. When the French marched through Waterloo again on their way to Antwerp, they cut off the lions tail and turned the statue around, facing the Netherlands. Today, the statue is back in its original form.
The Dutch aren’t known for their nationalistic views. Ironically however, this statue is the most patriotic Dutch monument you will find, and it’s not even in the Netherlands.
2. The Hougoumont Farm
Château d’Hougoumont is one of the most interesting parts of Waterloo’s battlefield. In this farmhouse, the Allied forces faced Napoleon’s Army as a battle within a battle.
The battle started at 11.30am with shots from the Grand battery. Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell was in charge at Hougoumont. When he asked Wellington what he should do if he died during the battle, Wellington replied: “Defend Hougoumont to the last extremity”, stressing that Hougoumont was a vital strategic part of the battle.
Even though Wellington’s numbers were small, the Allies managed to keep Hougoumont, surviving many blows from the French. The battle was nearly lost when a Frenchmen with a huge axe managed to break through the northern gate, but the Allied guards managed to close the gates, and more than 30 frenchmen were trapped inside. Only a young drummer-boy was spared.
The house inside the farm was burnt to the ground, but the chapel survived and is the only original part of the building complex. The place was dilapidated, but has been restored in 2015. Inside the large shed, you can watch a video with light effects, showing what happened here.
3. Memorial 1815 Museum
The same tunnel that gets you to the Lion’s Mound also houses a very modern museum, opened in 2015.
The museum really tries to bring the atmosphere of the battle to life. There’s also a 360 degree 4D movie, as the museum calls it (3D with odors, basically).
4. The Wellington Museum and the Church of Waterloo
Inside the old town of Waterloo, you will find the Wellington museum. To some it may be a bit over the top, but if you are interested in every little detail about the war, this is for you. It explains the strategies into detail, how the clothing and ammunition was made, and a little history about the man itself: Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington.
The backyard is also worth a visit.
Just across the street, you’ll find the Waterloo’s Church of Saint Joseph (Église Saint-Joseph).
The building, which also dates from the 18th century, contains several memorial plaques and statues to honor those those who have fallen in the Battle of Waterloo.
5. The Panorama
Perhaps outdated, but the Panorama de la Bataille de Waterloo still looks very impressive. The painting was made in 1915, hundred years after the battle. You can find it in the rotunda-building next to the Lion’s Mould. Watching this image, with the sound effects of slaughter on the background, almost feels like you’re watching the battle from a watchtower.
6. Visit a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo
A reenactment is held every June on the weekend nearest to june 18th, when the Battle of Waterloo took place. Watching a reenactment is the perfect way to have a slight idea of what was going on back then. I was fortunate enough to see it on the 200 year anniversary, when 5000 reenactors, 300 horses and 100 pieces of artillery were part of the scene.
And there’s more..
– Napoleon’s last headquarters, 4 kilometers south of the Lions Mound. Here, Napoleon Bonaparte devised his battle strategies. The museum is full of items that were worn by the French army during the battle and they also run temporary exhibitions.
– Go south to Quatre-Bras. Two days before Waterloo, the Battle of Quatre-Bras took place. First with Dutch and Nassau forces against Napoleon, and later the British arrived. The Allies won, but the French prevented them from helping the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny, which was lost. Napoleon followed Wellington to meet him again, two days later, at Waterloo.
Getting there from Brussels
There are direct buses from Brussels Midi (South) station. It’s a cheap option but they take forever to get there.
You best take the train from Brussels Central or Midi station to Braine-l’Alleud (Dutch: Eigenbrakel), then walk 30 minutes or hop on the bus to the Waterloo Battlefield (>5 minutes).