The green fields of Waterloo

To mark W.G. Sebald's birthday, books editor Marcel Krueger followed in his footsteps to the Waterloo battlefield…

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

When we got out of the car it started to rain. In front of us were the fields that 200 years ago had been covered in blood, gore and debris. Now, it was a pleasant sight, the green fields rolling away into the rain, dotted with a few copses here and there. To our right was the Lion's Mound, a 43-metre high artificial hill erected to mark the spot where William II of the Netherlands was wounded. It offered a good view of the field, but it cost seven Euros just to walk up the mound, admission to the panorama from the late 19th century included. We ditched the mound and walked over to the beige round building with the panorama, which we found accessible without ticket. Up creaking wooden steps we walked up to the rotunda and surveyed the colorful carnage. On the inside walls of the cylindrical building was a massive canvas painted by Louis Dumoulin in 1912, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the battle. At the base of the painting were life-size diorama figures, dead horses, smashed canons, and soldier’s boots, all bleached out and covered in dust.

Outside the panorama building and in the rain workmen were busy renewing the cobblestones, seemingly for the bicentennial in a month. It did not look as if they would be ready in time. But so did Belgium in general, so maybe there’s a pattern there.  

On the way back to the car we climbed a small pile of clay next to the parking area, to look down the gentle slope that the French and all their Old Guards and Cuirassiers and Polish Lancers had tried to overrun all day on June 18, 1815, only to end up as smashed corpses, just like many of the the English and Dutch and Prussians and Brunswickers standing on that slope. As we walked back, a cavalcade of motorbikes roared into the parking area, 30-40 bikers on heavy machines and in high-visibility vests, a very late reinforcement, perhaps, for Wellington's cavalry.