In an isolated corner of bucolic Belgium, down a dusty track that cuts through great fields of lettuce and shivering wheat, stands the farm that won Waterloo. Of the 170,000 people who visit the battlefield each year, few find their way to this particular spot. Fat wood pigeons coo undisturbed from the crumbling walls. The view across the miles of rolling fields over which Napoleon launched waves of attacks, is unspoilt by any building. The only sound of modern life is the faint roar of a motorway, hidden by a bank of trees.
Hougoumont is largely unchanged from where, on Sunday June 18, 1815, it was the centre of action throughout the Battle of Waterloo. Of the tens of thousands who died that day, 6,500 men were killed, or suffered terrible injuries, at Hougoumont. Many were dumped in a mass grave there to deter thieves.
The Duke of Wellington, joint commander of the Allied army who took on the French alongside Field Marshal Blücher’s Prussians, regarded the farm on the right wing of his position as the anchor that secured his line. The French launched ceaseless attacks; pounding its walls with artillery and eventually burning down a château that occupied the centre of the farmstead. At one point, Napoleon’s troops surged inside after a burly French lieutenant called Legros smashed through the main gate with an axe. But still the 4,000 defenders held strong.
“No troops but the British could have held Hougoumont,” declared a triumphant Wellington following the battle, “and only the best of them at that.”
But despite its status as one of Britain’s most important battle sites, one that, according to the man nicknamed the Iron Duke, “turned the outcome of Waterloo”, Hougoumont has been left to rot. Following the death of the cattle farmer who owned it a few years ago, the site has become derelict. The masonry and roof tiles of its outbuildings are crumbling. Trees spring out at improbable angles from locally quarried limestone walls. A 15th-century crucifix that adorned a chapel in the centre of the site and miraculously survived the blaze that gutted the château during the battle, has been looted.
Now a new defence of Hougoumont is under way. In his spending review in June, Chancellor George Osborne announced that more than £1 million would be spent on helping restore the site in time for the 200th anniversary of the battle in 2015 – an event that has understandably been overshadowed by next year’s centenary of the First World War. The money is going towards Project Hougoumont, a joint £3.5 million initiative between Britain and the Belgians launched two years ago by the present Duke of Wellington, Arthur Valerian Wellesley, 98. This autumn, the refurbishment will finally begin.
I visited the site, about 10 miles from Brussels, on a still summer’s day with Martin Drury, the former director general of the National Trust and chairman of Project Hougoumont, and his Belgian counterpart, Count Georges Jacobs. In addition to Mr Osborne’s largesse, the pair have secured close to £1 million from the Walloon government (one of three regional governments in Belgium), which is also spending £23 million on a separate refurbishment of the rest of the battlefield. While £600,000 has been secured in private donations, a further £600,000 is needed to complete the project.
Drury admits he reacted with “disbelief” to the pledge made after Mr Osborne visited the site. “Before the Chancellor’s announcement we were fairly worried,” he says. “We had a long way to go.”
We leave our car by three giant sweet chestnut trees that guard the South Gate. They are all that remains of the wood that gave cover to the French troops, and their bark still bears the scars of volleys of grapeshot. A few cows munch on the grass that is overgrowing a memorial to a French brigade commander, General Bauduin. The farm is eerily deserted.
“If you know the details of the battle, the feeling here is incredibly strong,” says Drury. “It’s a very atmospheric place. In the past, people could go and knock on the door and ask the farmer to look around, and that would be fine. But nowadays, nobody is here.”
We walk past the perimeter wall where the soldiers of the Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards and Grenadier Guards knocked holes through to fire muskets at the French, and we crawl under a barbed-wire fence into the former orchard. In the corner are two largely hidden memorials. One is to Capt John Lucie Blackman of the Coldstream Guards. The other is to Sgt Maj Edward Cotton of the 7th Hussars. Drury, who completed his national service with the 3rd Hussars in 1958, doffs his Panama hat.
“There’s such interest in Waterloo,” he says. “It’s seen as a great British victory. But if you come to the battlefield there is very little sense of that. It’s all about the defeat of Napoleon instead. On an international level, the battle is seen as the start of a long period of peace in Europe.
“Before I got involved in this project, I knew about Hougoumont but had no idea of the details of the battle. The French attacked Hougoumont seven times during the course of the day. Its significance was that it was slightly in front of the British side and partially surrounded by wood. Wellington knew the importance of that.”
We walk past the gardener’s house, its heavy chestnut door still riddled with musket ball holes, and into the main courtyard. Here the floor is designed in swirling cobbles, over which the blood must have run ankle-deep in 1815. Drury points out the dilapidated Great Barn, which is to be turned into an educational centre. The gardener’s house is to become an apartment available for rent to those wanting to study the site. A smaller, mouldering barn will house a permanent exhibition, while a place of remembrance will be established in the empty chapel.
Key to the project is the restoration of the North Gate, the closure of which after the French burst through was said by Wellington to have sealed victory. The moment is immortalised in a painting by the artist Robert Gibb in 1903. This is being funded by the family of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wyndham of the Coldstream Guards, one of the soldiers who helped force the gates shut during bloody hand-to-hand fighting.
The replicas are being made in the estate yard at Petworth House in Sussex, home of Lord Egremont, head of the Wyndham family, using original fragments preserved in the Guards Museum. Currently a flimsy unlocked metal barrier is stretched across the entrance to keep out thieves and vandals.
The project will also create the first memorial to the British soldiers killed during the battle. Barry Van Danzig, a committee member of Waterloo 200, which is overseeing the anniversary, is contributing tens of thousands of pounds to install the memorial. As he picks his way over the uneven farmstead floor, Count Jacobs, immaculate in a light blazer and trousers, says it is this memorial that has sparked the most controversy among Belgians.
“There was a bit of opposition locally to a memorial,” he says. “Of course there were Belgians that fought for the French side as well. For some local politicians, Napoleon is a more emblematic person [than Wellington]. A lot of administrative organisation stemmed from the time of occupation under Napoleon.
“Waterloo is an important place in our history. We are used to wars in Belgium. But Waterloo is particularly important because it is the end of Napoleon and marked the first step towards our own existence.”
The Prince Regent’s military painter, Captain Denis Dighton, recorded Hougoumont in three sepia-wash drawings a few days after the battle. Turner, too, sketched it in 1817. Despite, or perhaps because of, the years of neglect, it is remarkable how little the farm’s appearance has changed. Drury says preserving this haunting atmosphere is key to the project.
The first memorial at Waterloo was the 131-ft high Butte du Lion, a statue of a lion on an artificial conical hill erected between 1824 and 1826 on the spot where the Prince of Orange (later William II of the Netherlands) was knocked from his horse by a musket ball. The mound was created by scraping away the ridge behind which Wellington had hidden part of his Army. When the Duke visited the site again in the 1830s, he declared “they have ruined my battlefield”.
Were he to wander through the crumbling gates of Hougoumont today he would find an unsullied testament to his victory. The ghosts of Wellington’s men still echo around this living tomb. Keeping their memory alive is as important as anything else.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/1021 ... erloo.html