On 18 June 1815 the Duke of Wellington’s army of British and allied soldiers met the French under Napoleon Bonaparte at the ridge of Mont-Saint-Jean, some 15km south of Brussels. Wellington’s forces numbered 74,300 men, Napoleon’s about 74,500. By the end of the day, the French had been driven from the field – helped by the arrival of Prussian forces under Field Marshal Blücher – and the Napoleonic era came to an end.

Now, the bicentenary of what became known in Britain as the Battle of Waterloo has been marked by an outburst of commemorations, central to which was an enormous re-enactment that took place at the battlefield on 19 and 20 June 2015.

The 1st regiment of French Cuirassiers, Second Dragoons (green jacket) and a trumpeter (red coat).

The logistical details of this event read like an army Quartermaster General’s report: over 6,000 re-enactors came from 47 nations, including participants from as far afield as China, Uzbekistan, and Chile.

There were 1,153 from the UK, marginally fewer than from Germany, the largest contingent, with 1,156. These were augmented by 300 horses, 100 cannon, and four tonnes of gunpowder. The event took 18 months to plan, cost €6.5 million (£4.6 million), and used up over 16,000 hours of labour.

All 60,000 tickets for each ‘show’ were sold out, and spectators sat in 24 large grandstands, as if watching a Grand Prix; there were VIP areas, including corporate hospitality, and standing areas for those with shallower pockets. This was an organisational feat of arms, with road closures, diversions, and the creation of 20,000 parking spaces, including 1,500 for bicycles.

French infantrymen in formation.

Living History bivouacs

Accompanying the main re-enactments were a number of bivouacs that gave a highly realistic flavour of camp life in the Napoleonic era. In the British camp, hundreds of uniformed infantrymen drilled with perfect discipline under martinet officers, who shouted ‘Make way for the King’s soldiers!’ at unsuspecting spectators. Camp sutlers lay casually in the grass smoking clay-pipes among lines of white tents, and blackened kettles, battered by the campaign, boiled over sweet-smelling campfires.

Green-jacketed men from the 95th (Rifles) Regiment of Foot, who played such a key role in Wellington’s centre on the day, marched past in column, followed by bright red Highlanders. There was an incessant low drumbeat, the melancholy skirl of bagpipes, and the shrill sound of fifes. A long line of Dutch cavalrymen trotted into the arena shadowing the Prince of Orange, who commanded the Allied I Corps.

45ème Infanterie Régiment de Ligne advancing through gun smoke.

As an historical representation, the bivouacs succeeded in capturing the viewer’s imagination and demonstrated the intense effort that went into preparing an army to give battle. Although some re-enactors had gone out of their way to dirty their uniforms and faces, the encampments were overall quite sanitised and a bit too perfect. Nevertheless, the great variety of uniforms on display here demonstrated brilliantly how, on the eve of Waterloo, Wellington commanded a hybrid army made up of only 35% British troops; the rest were from Hanover, the Netherlands, and Nassau.

Waterloo: the performance

The re-enactment took place in the evening on what was the British left wing over about a quarter of the original area of the battlefield. From our grandstand vantage-point, a line of about 20 cannon lay in front on a ridge representing Napoleon’s Grand Battery. Hundreds of dark figures marched into position, including a distant line of redcoats to our left, partly obscured by a shallow valley.

Frank Samson as Napoleon.

A kidney-red building represented the Hougoumont, a large farm to the right of the British centre, and another La Haye Sainte in the centre. These were key British strongpoints, now built in replica, which sucked in thousands of French troops during the battle.

A group of horsemen rode up to our stand; among them was the green-coated Napoleon, who waved his hat. The crowd were ecstatic, crying repeatedly, ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, a demonstration of the enduring popularity of the Emperor.

Suddenly the crackling of musket-fire in the dip between the newly arrayed forces betrayed the presence of skirmishers. Both sides threw skirmishers out in front of their main infantry to fire into the densely packed ranks of columns. Smoke started to drift across the field. A loud boom sounded, also from in front of us, followed by another and yet another as the Grand Battery opened up on the British lines; this is how the battle started, at around 11.30am, as Napoleon waited for the ground to dry out after the previous night’s rain.

45ème Régiment de Ligne in action.

The commentary over the loudspeakers encouraged us to think of this field in 1815, as the highly dramatic music of Orff’s Carmina Burana (O Fortuna) attempted to drown out the intensifying cannon-fire. Huge billows of white smoke started to drift across the corn, and curious smoke-rings created by the circular cannon barrels were propelled into the air, spinning energetically up over the stand before dissipating. There were explosions in the corn, and vortexes of white smoke rose several metres into the air, reflecting the impact of cannon shot.

Columns of infantry now started to march towards the British: Hougoumont was under attack. The cracks of musketry become more concentrated, and through the pale smoke we started to see flashes of fire from distant gun barrels. French heavy cavalry rode past us to attack infantry in the British line. Squares were formed, and redcoats blasted away at moving horses and their riders, who swirled around waving swords in the air.

It was all very exciting: the noise, the flashes, the smoke, the canned cries and screams over the loudspeakers, and the pungent smell of black powder, like some huge municipal fireworks display. But I was confused. All I could see in the distance were masses of figures – it was difficult to make out what was really happening. I was reminded of Wellington’s comment that a battle is like a dance: the little events are often recounted, but ‘no individual can recollect the order in which, or exact moment at which, they occurred’.

The charge of the French Cuirassiers.

I took comfort in this, and resigned myself to enjoying the spectacle and not trying to relate what I could see to any recorded battle sequence. As the light failed, the smoke mixed imperceptibly into the pale blueness of the clouds above, and a silhouette of Wellington appeared near the British lines.

The fog of battle

Through the smoke came an enormous series of cracks, like a box of fireworks being ignited. Great tongues of fire spewed from musket barrels in one long sweep down the lines of redcoats. It was incredibly realistic, and I began to think that this was what it would really have looked like.

I could not see much, but neither could the son of a local schoolmaster watching the battle, who commented, ‘We could see the flashes of guns and heard quite distinctly the sound of firing, but smoke prevented us from making out the actual fighting’. Nothing brings home the difficulty of assessing the battlefield situation in a gunpowder age more than this.

A regiment of blue-coated French started to move from our right and over into the dip; this was the march of Napoleon’s Guard, often used to provide the coup de grâce, but sent now by the Emperor in a last-ditch effort to crack the British line.

There was a great intensity of musketry as they neared the red line, and I could just make out a small body of British attacking their flank, the legendary action of the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot, which is claimed to have unnerved the Guard who then started to retreat. We could now see the French moving back, a bit slowly in my view, and it became evident that the French were in full retreat. Napoleon and his entourage galloped to the exit, and it was all over.

Displays inside the 1815 Battle of Waterloo Memorial.

A Requiem

As we left our seats, Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor was playing; this provided a poignant and reflective ending to the re-enactment of an event that produced carnage on a vast scale. British losses are estimated to have been 17,000 killed, wounded, and missing; the equivalent for the French forces was between 24,000 and 26,000, for the Prussians about 7,000.

It was chilling to think that the battle happened on the very ground over which huge crowds now jostled. The remains of many of those men must still lie beneath the fields we were walking on. I was uncomfortable with this, and questioned why the event had to take place actually on the site. Nevertheless, the re-enactment brought us nearer to appreciating what the day must have been like, with incessant noise, choking smoke, and a level of confusion that is otherwise difficult to comprehend. .

For more information on the Waterloo 200 project, visit www.waterloo2015.org; for other events taking place in Belgium, visit www.belgiumtheplaceto.be.