The battlefield where Napoleon Bonaparte was definitively beaten – near Waterloo – is to be re-drawn to give the Prussian army the credit it deserves, writes Justin Stares.
Today’s battlefield boundaries – a major tourist attraction – mark the fields where the the French emperor fought a British-led alliance under the Duke of Wellington, ignoring the late and decisive arrival of Prussian troops under field marshall Gebhard von Blücher.
To rectify this wrong, the Walloon government in the French-speaking southern half of Belgium will redraw the battle map ahead of next year’s bicentennial celebrations.
In an advisory addressed to the town councils of Waterloo, Braine-l’Alleud and Lasne – which all oversee land on which the 1815 battle was fought – the government says it plans to double the area of historical interest.
The advisory boasts that, thanks to land preservation measures taken a century ago, today’s fields largely resemble those Napoleon would have seen on his final military outing. It was Blücher who delivered the knock-out blow and almost captured the Frenchman himself, the regional government points out. Without his arrival, Wellington might even have been defeated.
The downplaying of the Prussian role dates back a hundred years. In 1914, Belgium’s King, Albert I, passed a law ensuring the area was preserved for posterity. But with World War One looming, there was no desire to recognise any German involvement at Waterloo. The law therefore only covered the Franco-British battlefield. The Franco-Prussian zone of engagement was in the original plan but was withdrawn just before the law was approved – so late that there was no time to draw up a new map. The original legislation still shows the contours that include the Prussian zone – poorly rubbed out.
The purpose of the land preservation scheme now underway, the advisory explains, is to “extend protection to the totality of the historical perimeter”, including the “Franco-Prussian combat zones” that have until now been ignored.
While more historically correct, the plan has not gone down well with the 1,600 residents in the enlarged zone, as it brings with it strict rules on property development.
“Back in 1914 we were on the verge of World War One and King Albert didn’t want to give the Prussians any credit,” explains Vincent Scourneau, mayor of Braine L’Alleud. “Now relations between Belgium and Germany are obviously a lot better, and some of these so-called patriots want the battlefield enlarged and Prussian lines included on the map.
“Historians think this is a great idea but local residents think it is a catastrophe. They are panicking. They know that under Belgian law they won’t be able to do what they want with their property. If you have a two-storey house, for example, and you’re located within the enlarged area, you won’t be able to build a third storey. The residents fear their houses will be worth a lot less. All the mayors in the areas affected are opposing this plan”.
The mayor of Waterloo has criticised “the fantasy of a handful of excited individuals who think they are the great custodians of history”. Francoise Govaerts, head of urban planning at the Waterloo council, said residents will need planning permission for “everything” – even building a garden shed. “But Waterloo is already well protected,” she said. “The fields here have already been designated for agricultural use. You can’t just build on them. I can’t quite see the point of adding another layer of protection”.
There has until now been no protest from British historians.
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