200 Years After Battle,

Some Hard Feelings Remain




The region around the Belgian city of Waterloo is busily preparingto commemorate the 200th anniversary in 2015 of one of the majorbattles in European military history. But weaving a path throughthe preparations is proving almost as tricky as making one’s wayacross the battlefield was back then, when the Duke of Wellington,as commander of an international alliance of forces, crushedNapoleon.

[2] A rambling though dilapidated farmstead called Hougoumont, whichwas crucial to the battle’s outcome, is being painstakinglyrestored as an educational center. Nearby, an underground visitorcenter is under construction, and roads and monuments throughoutthe rolling farmland where once the sides fought are beingrefurbished. More than 6,000 military buffs are expected tore-enact individual skirmishes.

[3] While the battle ended two centuries ago, however, hard feelingshave endured. Memories are long here, and not everyone here sharesBritain’s enthusiasm for celebrating Napoleon’s defeat.

[4] Every year, in districts of Wallonia, the French-speaking part ofBelgium, there are fetes to honor Napoleon, according to CountGeorges Jacobs de Hagen, a prominent Belgian industrialist andchairman of a committee responsible for restoring Hougoumont.“Napoleon, for these people, was very popular,” Mr. Jacobs, 73,said over coffee. “That is why, still today, there are some enemiesof the project.”

[5] Belgium, of course, did not exist in 1815. Its Dutch-speakingregions were part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while theFrench-speaking portion had been incorporated into the FrenchEmpire. Among French speakers, Mr. Jacobs said, Napoleon had a“huge influence – the administration, the Code Napoléon,” or reformof the legal system. While Dutch-speaking Belgians fought underWellington, French speakers fought with Napoleon.

[6] That distaste on the part of modern-day French speakerscrystallized in resistance to a British proposal that, as part ofthe restoration of Hougoumont, a memorial be raised to the Britishsoldiers who died defending its narrow North Gate at acritical moment on June 18, 1815, when Wellington carried the day. “Everydiscussion in the committee was filled with high sensitivity,” Mr.Jacobs recalled. “I said, ‘This is a condition for the help of theBritish,’ so the North Gate won the battle, and we got themonument.”

[7] If Belgium was reluctant to get involved, France was at firsttotally uninterested. “They told us, ‘We don’t want to take part inthis British triumphalism,’” said Countess Nathalie du ParcLocmaria, a writer and publicist who is president of a committeerepresenting four townships that own the land where the battleraged. As in the case of the North Gate memorial, however,persistence paid off.


[15] In 2000, a group of Belgian taxpayers brought suit, demanding thatthe government rescind an agreement dating back to just after thebattle under which the Duke of Wellington was given the rights to2,600 acres around the battlefield. The lands were bringing inabout $160,000annually for the Wellington family, and the taxpayers argued it wastime to end the arrangement. The case stagnated until 2009, whenthe finance minister, Didier Reynders, told Parliament that thegovernment had no intention of backing out of its commitment, whichwas anchored in the 1839 Treaty of London guaranteeing the independence of Belgium.

[16] Of course, if the Wellingtons continue to benefit from the lands,so do the communities around Waterloo. In good years about 300,000people visit the battlefield, though recently the number has fallenas word of the restoration work got out. Clearly, the organizershope that the farm’s revival and the new visitor center will raisethe numbers, perhaps as high as 500,000 a year. In discussions,organizers frequently mention Gettysburg, which attracts more thantwo million people a year.

[17] But the economy is only part of the picture. “Our concern is theexperience of the visitor,” Ms. Du Parc said. “What is the message?What is the legacy, what purpose does it serve?” She contrasted theNapoleonic wars with World War I, which was followed only twodecades later by an even greater war.

[18] Mr. Jacobs agreed. “Still today, you find Belgians on both sides,”he said, “but thanks to the British this foolish Napoleonicexperience was brought to an end. It changed the history of Europe.It brought a hundred years of peace.” ■



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