Europe unites for bicentenary of battle that made Napoleon history

Mon Jun 15, 2015 4:42pm EDT
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By Alastair Macdonald

WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) - Kings and commoners gather at Waterloo this week to mark the battle's bicentenary in a show of European unity not seen for a major anniversary at the site since history changed course there on June 18, 1815.

Days of official ceremony, a music-and-fireworks spectacular and re-enactments of the bloody summer day that finally ended Napoleon's French domination of the continent have been heralded by a flurry of academic reassessment of the conflict and renewed debate, and discomfort, over its meaning for Europe today.

At the site, 20 km (12 miles) south of the headquarters of the European Union in the Belgian capital Brussels, descendants of the British, Dutch, Belgian, German and French combatants will gather alongside state representatives in a spirit of unity.

It is a contrast not just to the 1915 centenary, under World War One German occupation, but also to 1965, when France snubbed British events for the 150th anniversary. Its president, Charles de Gaulle was busy keeping Britain out of the Brussels club while, deep in the Cold War, West Germany and Belgium muted celebrations for fear of alienating France, a key NATO ally against the Soviet Union.

Now, as the EU faces new struggles to keep Britain (and Greece) in and a resurgent Russia out, part of the exercise lies in reviving the name of Waterloo.

Some 40,000 men may have been killed or wounded in a battle that brought a century of fitful peace, but these days to many people the word means little more than a 1974 Eurohit for Swedish popsters ABBA.

"Remembering sacrifices made is only the start," said the British ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose. "We must put at least as much effort into making a difference today -- in promoting respect, justice and reconciliation."


Frenchman Frank Samson (C) takes part in the re-enactment of the battle of Ligny, as French Emperor Napoleon, during the bicentennial celebrations for the Battle of Waterloo, in Ligny, Belgium, June 14, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman