The Duke of Wellington has many remarks attributed to him, but most are likely to be inventions of Victorian romanticism: early fake news. One thing we can be sure he did say, because he wrote it, was that the success of the battle of Waterloo turned upon the closing of the gates of Hougoumont. This famous action was painted almost a century later by Robert Gibb of The Thin Red Line and other war paintings. What was the importance? I’m sure many of you are aware of it, but it bears repeating that Wellington’s right wing rested on the farm complex which stood almost half way between the opposing lines. Over the years historians have argued that Napoleon intended only to mask the farm with enough of a threat to draw forces away from Wellington’s centre, allowing for a crushing infantry assault. In fact, the reverse happened and the struggle over the farm became a drain on French manpower. Others contend that Napoleon was fully committed to occupying the stronghold and to roll up the English line. There is no room for debate over Wellington’s view of the outpost’s importance. He sent an aide-de-camp twice to ensure that his order to hold the farm at any cost was quite understood.
At the time of the battle Hougoumont Farm was a small chateau and chapel with a walled perimeter enclosing a garden. Beyond the walls lay a large orchard and woods. The farm had a unfortified north gate leading on to a sunken road, and a south gate enclosed by buildings, used by the gardener. It is this building that was recently refurbished by the UK Landmark Trust, which specialises in preserving buildings of character and worth, but unlike the National Trust, offers the properties for short-term stays to the public. Mrs Bassman used to work for Landmark as a senior housekeeper in a restored priory in East Sussex, so we have spent time in many of the extremely varied Landmark properties dotted about the countryside and towns, including Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, southwest of Paris, home for many years of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Landmark has a small portfolio of properties abroad. Mrs B spotted a bargain three-night stay at the gardener’s house at Hougoumont. I jumped at it as I am a great believer in genius loci, spirit of place. I don’t have to have all the holiday trappings and constant activity. I derive all I need from contemplation of where I am, over a beer or a coffee. I once spent an afternoon of reverie on the burial mound at Marathon, never succeeding in imagining the horror or forming a clear picture of the warriors, but for all that it was a rewarding sensation.
The two hour drive to Hougoumont via the Tunnel is straightforward, or was once we had put the idea of the Brussels ring road out of the satnav’s head. Follow the road down to Lille and all should be well. The first sight of the farm is one of those moments when something so familiar to you becomes a reality. Without its illustrious history the building would not perhaps excite too much enthusiasm, but that’s hardly the point. History and association are everything. Landmark’s style, from which it seldom departs, is to make its restorations authentic by paring away modern structures till the old building reappears in its original clothes. The properties are comfortable and warm, but do not stray into luxury. We installed ourselves into the familiar surrounds of the Landmark house style having negotiated a tricky staircase that made our decision to use a heavy suitcase a bad one. Soft bags next time. The apartment is geared for four residents so it was very spacious for us. We opted not to use the top room, so I expect the housekeeper will have been pleased. One of the first tasks in these properties is to read the log book with visitors’ entries beginning right from the start of the letting. It’s an invaluable guide on where to go and what to do, and gives useful tips on household matters. There is no television, radio or wifi provided, but the selection of appropriate books always compensates.
Over the next couple of days we immersed ourselves in the history, which was there before our eyes. The car was parked by the last remaining chestnut trees from the original woods, peppered with still visible musket ball holes. The loopholes in the walls betray the source of the bullets. The chateau was burned to the ground when the French resorted to incendiaries from howitzers, and many wounded died in the conflagrations. Both the north and south gates were breached, and the story of the spared French drummer boy is conflated into the account of the northern breach (in fact, it may not even have been shut at all as it was used to evacuate the wounded and to bring in supplies and reinforcements) when an account by a survivor called Matthew Clay states that he took the boy into care after a breach of the southern gate caused by artillery fire. There are really too many aspects of the battle-within-a-battle to go into here. Wiki is your friend, or better, Bernard Cornwell’s book on Waterloo (Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles), found on the bookshelf. Give me a couple of bottles of Trappiste Rochefort and the book, and I was away. (I know, Belgian beer gets a poor press round here, but chacun a son gout.)
We bought tickets at the on-site centre for the tour of the battleground which began with an extraordinarily elaborate film in the Hougoumont barn where we were the sole spectators. We caught a useful shuttle bus to the Lion Mound, the completely OTT monument raised by the locals. It is obvious from the tourist complex that the Belgians have more time for Napoleon than the English and Germans (nearly all the fridge magnets are of Boney), and Wellington certainly had no confidence in his Belgian troops. There are splendid recreations of the combatants’ uniforms and yet another 3-D film which again gave the impression that Napoleon really, you know, should have won. Mrs B and I overcame the 200 or so steps leading up to the lion monument, and the reward for that bit of aerobics was a marvellous panorama of the battlefield, Hougoumont clearly visible. We walked back to the farm along the track which marks the English and allies line. One last evening of reading and finishing the wine.
There was plenty to think about and to let the mind wander. Waterloo was an assault on all the senses and its echoes refuse to die away. People will never stop debating where Napoleon went wrong, and how he even so came within an ace of pulling it out of the fire, and what the consequences would have been. We haven’t gone to war with the French since, so that is something considering the history of the two nations. I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to spend some time in a place so central to European history. No one could fail to be moved by the ordeal the men of the day went through. I understand what Dr Johnson meant when he wrote “Every man thinks meanly of himself who was not a soldier.” We owe those hard men a great deal, and continue to do so. Closing the gates of Hougoumont closed the chapter on Napoleon, who, although the British troops thought highly of him, was just a complete nuisance to the safety of Europe.
The ghost? One of the first couples who stayed in the apartment wrote in the log that the wife had seen an apparition of a redcoat soldier in the corridor, and that her husband had smelled gunpowder. They described themselves as level-headed, and observed that the apparition did not appear threatening. No recorded sightings since.