Many Americans travel to historic battlefields, most typically sites in which we have a direct emotional stake: places where U.S. soldiers fought at home or abroad and where a piece of our history was made. But absent that direct link, one of the key European battles of the early nineteenth century has, for many of us, become little more than a catchphrase: "He met his Waterloo." Yet the outcome of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo in Belgium - in which Napoleon's French army was defeated by the combined forces of Britain (under the Duke of Wellington) and Prussia (under Marshal Blücher) and their allies - very probably determined the contours of Europe's and hence America's subsequent history. Certainly, writers of counterfactual history, imagining a fictitious victory by Napoleon, have speculated about French dominion over most of Europe and dictatorship in a Britain hobbled by war reparations (as the historian G.M. Trevelyan did in a 1907 essay).
June 18 marks the battle's two-hundredth anniversary. The First World War prevented any major centennial commemoration, but this year there are plans for a large-scale and painstakingly organized reenactment, plus substantial renovations around the site including new visitor facilities, which is of more enduring interest for the non-specialist traveler, whose schedule will probably not be dictated by the date of any event.
When we visited Waterloo earlier this year, the first surprise was how near it was to Brussels (where we were for one of our opera-centered vacations). I'd imagined it way out in some remote corner of the country, but by commuter train it's about half an hour from either the Gare Centrale or the Gare du Midi. There are buses too (the W or the 365 from the Gare du Midi) and in a way these are a better option because they stop right across the street from the Wellington Museum, which is where you should begin your day, and then continue on to the battlefield (as well as to Napoleon's headquarters, which we did not visit on this trip). Of course you can go by car, but if you're traveling via Brussels there's no need to rent one.
The Wellington Museum is spread throughout a former inn that served as Wellington's headquarters (in its collection you will see a picture of the main street in the old days; the inn and the church across the street were pretty much the extent of the place). It's one of those creaky old-fashioned museums that give the impression of being filmed with dust even though they're perfectly well maintained. And the contents, mostly in glass-and-wood display cabinets, would seem dusty too were they not so interesting and so nicely explained in the audio guide (which you should accept when it is offered - just be sure to select a language you can understand). When you've spent an hour or more here, you will have a good sense of the battle's background and participants and of the way it unfolded in the course of the day's engagement. You'll also learn about related subjects such as field surgery. Even if you think you know all about the Battle of Waterloo you should stop at this museum before continuing to the battlefield: At the least, it will refresh your memory - and it will probably add to your store of knowledge.
As you approach the battlefield (all of which is protected as a historical monument), the first thing you'll see is the Lion's Mound (Butte du Lion), a man-made hillock surmounted by a bronze lion on a stone plinth; it marks the spot where the Prince of Orange was unhorsed by a musket ball - but not killed: he lived to become King William II of the Netherlands, so this massive memorial, commissioned by his father, may seem excessive. Depending on your vantage point, the mound may not look all that big, but it is more than 140 feet (43 meters) high and a third of a mile (half a kilometer) around. If you buy a combination ticket to the Wellington Museum and the battle site (which you should), you can sprint up the 226 steps (the equivalent of 16 typical flights of stairs) to the top, from which you'll have the best of all battlefield views.
In the visitors' center as we saw it, two films are shown, one a costumed recap of the battle (with English subtitles) and the other a compendium of scenes from the 1970 film Waterloo, directed by the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk. This is vividly atmospheric - spectacular, in fact, which is no surprise considering that it was produced by Dino De Laurentiis. By the time of the anniversary, this unprepossessing building will have been replaced by a subterranean center that will not mar the vista, as the current one does; it will contain improved exhibits and a new film. Restoration of the nearby farmhouse of Hougoumont was well under way when we visited too.
All of this work is not solely for the sake of tourism: it is part of a plan to devote serious archeological study to the battlefield, which surprisingly has not been fully examined using modern techniques.
I'm not sure everybody will agree, but for me the best part of the visit was an artifact of the centennial that never came to fruition: a 1911 panorama, a vast 360-degree painting of the battle lining the wall of a purpose-built circular building. When you ascend the stairs into the room, it is as though you are climbing onto an observation platform smack in the middle of the action. To viewers of the time, the illusion would have been as convincing and impressive as people tell me a 3D IMAX film is nowadays. If you suspend disbelief and shed your skepticism about an effect attained by such modest means, the experience will delight and amaze you.
If you're a real Waterloo enthusiast, you've probably already got your binoculars (or muskets) packed for the bicentennial reenactment. If you're not, chances are you won't be making that particular trip. But once the dust has settled and the cavalry horses' contributions have been plowed into the local fields for fertilizer, anyone traveling to Brussels would do well to include Waterloo on the itinerary.
The Wellington Museum and the Waterloo battlefield are open every day (unlike most other museums in Belgium). You will find information at http://waterloo1815.be/en/home; the bicentennial events are covered at https://www.waterloo2015.org/en.