WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) - The first tourists to the site of one of the most decisive battles in European history arrived the very next day to inspect a scene of carnage where tens of thousands lay dead or wounded.
They came by carriage from Brussels on a roughly 8-mile journey. Nearly 200 years after the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, a trip to the site in present-day Belgium by train, bus and then on foot through a tangle of roadworks won’t end in a blood-stained vista, but can still pose a challenge.
But to mark Waterloo’s bicentenary in 2015, organizers of the battle’s biggest re-enactment yet, with a record 4,000 uniformed volunteers, are working on a complete overhaul of the faded facilities for tourists.
Excitement is building among historians, battlefield enthusiasts and descendants of those whose struggle entered the English language as a byword for an irreversible defeat and has given its name to more than 120 places the world over.
Waterloo’s significance all depends on your vantage point.
“For the British it was the end of tyranny. It was the military end for Emperor Napoleon. For the French, it was the end of a momentous revolutionary period, which brought a lot of positive things, not just two decades of war. For the Belgians, it marked the end of French annexation and made national independence possible 15 years later,” said Bernard Snoy, a Belgian baron.
One of his ancestors fought in Napoleon’s armies. He was released from his allegiance after Napoleon abdicated in 1814 and at Waterloo, he fought under the Dutch Prince of Orange against Napoleon with the victorious British forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington.
The baron is chairman of the Waterloo Committee, one of a network of charitable organizations that date back to the 1970s and the successful efforts of the current Duke of Wellington to stop a motorway being cut through the battlefield.
The committee and its British sister organizations are taking an active interest in the renovation of the battle site.
But prime responsibility for events is with the Belgian non-profit organization Bataille de Waterloo (Battle of Waterloo) and the Intercommunale Bataille de Waterloo 1815, which brings together the four Belgian communes straddled by the battle site.
They have a Waterloo 2015 budget of 40 million euros ($53.38 million) provided by the local and regional governments, some of the multiple layers of authority in a country still characterized by troubled allegiances and uneasy cohabitation between French and Dutch-speaking communities.
‘A VICTORY FOR OTHERS’
Belgium’s complexities can give the impression of a total absence of planning, but the Waterloo 2015 organizers insist everything is under control.
Yves Vander Cruysen, alderman of Waterloo and head of the Bataille de Waterloo group, says organizers are in the process of awarding contracts and the outline program for 2015 events will be presented in November in London.
The French are not expected to get involved.
“For us it’s a defeat. I know it’s a victory for others,” one French government official said on condition of anonymity.
But the British have vowed to ensure a successful bicentenary. At the same time, they stress the events will be a commemoration not a celebration.
In June, George Osborne, the British finance minister, issued a statement committing around a million pounds ($1.6 million) to the restoration of the Hougoumont Farm at the battle site and pledging that the British government will “make sure that the site of the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium, will be restored for the 200th anniversary”.
Defending the position of the Hougoumont Farm was considered crucial to the battle’s outcome.
More important still was the power of alliances.
The forces that Britain’s Duke of Wellington led were as much German, Dutch and Belgian as British and without the support of the experienced Prussian Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Bluecher, he would have almost certainly failed.
With English understatement, Wellington acknowledges his debt to Bluecher in the victory despatch he wrote from Waterloo, which gave its name to the battle fought just outside the town of Waterloo itself.
“I should not do justice to my own feelings, or to Marshal Bluecher and the Prussian arm, if I did not attribute the successful result of this arduous day to the cordial and timely assistance I received from them,” he wrote in the despatch published in The Times of London on June 22, 1815.
For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose headquarters are in Belgium, Waterloo is the clearest example of the need for alliances.
“This was neither a British victory nor a Prussian victory, but an allied victory,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, wrote in a blog earlier this year following a trip to the battlefield.
“Individually these two armies would most likely have been defeated by Napoleon. Together they completely destroyed his army and ushered in a long period of peace for Europe.”
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Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels and Natalie Huet in Paris, editing by Paul Casciato