Sometimes battles sort of take over a place. The place is world renowned, but only because something happened there. It almost loses its identity as a location. One such place is the small Belgian town of Waterloo. With the growth of early industrialisation many new towns and villages developed in the tweleth century, and in Forêt de Soignes, Waterloo was one such place. It was located in a convenient place for travellers to stop off on their way to bigger exciting places, as it sits on the long established road between Brussels and Grenappe. Stopping off was a very important thing when travelling in the early medieval period. This was not only because you don’t want to be so tired that you fall off your horse, but because the Sonian Forest like many other forest was filled with bandits and thieves. Forêt de Soignes was part of the huge Forest of Ardennes, and extended from below Brussels to Hainaut. Its vast size, which made for good hiding, was diminished when Napoleon made use of its resources for his planned invasion of the United Kingdom…Waterloo itself was also nicely located for the door to door salesmen of the 1100s, sitting north of those all important coal mines.
The small hamlet, which was named for its marshy location, though remained a place you passed on the way to the bigger more exciting towns for a long time. Though Brussels was growing in importance in Europe, and thanks to some convenient mariages by the 15th century had become part of the Low Countries. The Low Countries being significantly more prosperous bunch than Brabant.
In the late 1600s though Waterloo began to develop as a town, gaining at first a Royal chapel. Which, perhaps doesn’t sound much, but any kind of royal seal of approval meant your town was moving up in the world. If you had a place the royal family might want to worship in, there was every chance they might start hanging around a bit more. By the 18th century the Holy Roman Emperor (who was neither Roman nor particularly Holy) was ruling much of Belgium. Whether Belgium liked it or not. However, the French Revolutionary Wars were on a mission to free Europe from the monarchial yokes and decided to invade in 1794. The French, loving their compartmentalisation, and red tape, divided the whole region into administrative départments in 1795. By the start of the 1800s the population was over 1500, and then in 1813 it was decided that it would swallow up the nearby town of Chenois, and it expanded once more.
Two years later though, Europe was in the grip of yet another war. Battles weren’t something unusual for the middle part of Europe. If you were a Belgian in the 1700s or 1800s you would likely have heard of battles making it to nearby towns if not yours. The Hundred Days War had moved across Europe, travelling as far south as Italy, and up North to Belgium. By mid June much of the action was taking place only a few miles down the road from Waterloo. By the 15th of June fighting had made it to where the road for Charleroi and Brussels meets with the Nivelles-Namur Road. This crossroads traversed by hundreds and thousands of those travellers stopping off and salesmen flogging their wares to the folk of waterloo, was more usually known Quatre Bras.
waterloo stood between Napoleon and Brussels, and Wellington and Blücher most definitely did not want him getting there. Thus this small town, that had for centuries been a traveller’s rest stop, suddenly became the most important place in Western Europe. The three day event (nowhere near as enjoyable as Three Day Eventing it has to be said) ended with, of course, Napoleon’s defeat.
Taking place about a mile from the town itself the main battle took place alongside the main road to Brussels. To the west, the La Haye Sainte Orchard, which was home to the King’s German Legion for the battle. The farmhouse that the British were garrissoned in, Hougoumont, was the site of one of the battles during the Waterloo campaign. The house losing its gate to the axe of Sous-Lieutenant Legros, was then shelled under a direct order from the emperor.
However, despite the warfarring and farmhouse abuse, the town soldiered on. In 1835 the De Meeus family built the grand Agenteuil. Which was rather unfortunately burned down a mere 12 years later, but replaced by a bigger better version. Recent events clearly had not put people off, and the population had grown to over 3200 by the mid 1800s.
Though small Waterloo is a well known place. Mostly in thanks to the battle Waterloo has also given its name to many other places and structures across the world. There are at least 26 Waterloos in the United states alone, and far flung Waterloos in places as spread as Hong Kong and Sierra Leone. There are memorials to the battle in Scotland and London, and the Waterloo Bridge in Lambeth. There are songs by Abba, and The Kinks (although technically that’s more about the aforementioned bridge).
These days it is still a relatively small place with a population hitting just about thirty thousand. Every summer it plays host to hundreds of history fans and military enthusiasts. Despite its diminiutive size it is home to MasterCard, so though it may not have the people it certainly isn’t short of credit.
If you’ve visited Waterloo, or are planning to tell us about your battlefield trips by commenting or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you fancy recreating your own Forêt de Soignes or battlefield we have some suitable scenery you could use.