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At Waterloo Re-Enactment, History So Real You Can Taste It

Re-enactors fire weapons during the bicentenary commemoration of the battle of Waterloo in Belgium this weekend.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert
Re-enactors fire weapons during the bicentenary commemoration of the battle of Waterloo in Belgium this weekend.

Tens of thousands of people have been gathering in the Belgian countryside over the last week to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. The bloody battle of June 18, 1815, marked the final defeat for Napoleon at the hands of a coalition of his enemies. The re-enactment is attracting history buffs, tourists and wannabe soldiers.

Napoleon himself is also a big draw. At one intersection where police have blocked a road, a crowd gathers to watch the spunky, 19th century French emperor jump out of a car and take on modern-day Belgian traffic cops. "Uh, we've got Napoleon here," says one policeman into his walkie-talkie.

With 6,000 people dressed in period costumes wandering around the countryside near Waterloo, there were bound to be a few interesting incidents. The 2015 version of Napoleon is embodied by 47-year-old Paris lawyer Frank Samson, who has played Napoleon for more than a decade and is quite a celebrity at Waterloo. With his black wig and jaunty gait, Samson bears a striking resemblance to the emperor. People throng him wherever he goes, yelling, "Sire!" and "Vive l'empereur!" as if he were the real thing.

Napoleon, played by Paris lawyer Frank Samson, shares a moment with a Belgian traffic cop during Waterloo reenactment festivities.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
Napoleon, played by Paris lawyer Frank Samson, shares a moment with a Belgian traffic cop during Waterloo reenactment festivities.

The fervor for the anniversary of Waterloo is huge. And the re-enactors take it very seriously. For the last week, they've been camping in bivouacs. They hold drills, cook in cast iron pots over campfires and soak in the atmosphere.

Matthias Kretchmar has been dressing as a Prussian officer and participating in mock battles for the last 25 years. He says playing this role, especially at Waterloo, is intoxicating.

"This is history you can touch, you can feel and you can live inside," says Kretchmar. "It's not only a book you can read. You can have the taste, you can have the feeling."

For Emilio Multari from Bordeaux, re-enacting a battle is like stepping into another life. Multari says the adrenaline and stress of the battle transport him. And it's sometimes hard not to want to rewrite history, "especially because we know their mistakes," he says. "We know how close this battle was. It came down to a question of a couple of hours. For instance, if Napoleon could have stopped the Prussians from linking up with the British and [the Duke of] Wellington, the outcome would have been completely different."

Inside a mess tent, re-enactors from Napoleon's Imperial Guard sing songs about hardships from the era. Soldiers from all sides were exhausted and famished. The only thing they were given plenty of was wine.

Waterloo spelled the end of Napoleon's empire and French hegemony in Europe. The humiliated emperor was sent into exile and never returned. But today, people of every nationality are fascinated by this leader's image as self-made man and military genius.

Binghamton University historian Howard Brown, who's written about Napoleon, says the French general motivated and inspired complete loyalty from his troops because he promoted them on the basis of merit — not aristocratic birth — and got down in the dirt with them.

"Napoleon doesn't work like Wellington did, strictly through the officers, and disdain the men," says Brown. "He was quick to get onto the field of battle after the carnage and find heroes and decorate them in front of others at all ranks."

Many women at Waterloo are playing male soldiers in the re-enactment. They're also playing women of the day. Ute Grab and Nicole Mayer, who describe themselves as Prussians, are pulling children in a wagon. They have baskets filled with bread slung on their backs.

"We're the wives of soldiers and we come out to the battlefield to give them water and food," Grab says.

But surely the women left when things became too violent, I say.

No, they often stayed, they tell me. Sometimes they'd even bring the children because they couldn't leave them alone. The whole family would be there.

The re-enactment is glorious. Colorful regiments on horseback sweep across the lush, green wheat fields as cannons fire and 100,000 spectators look on from the grandstands. But the real battle of Waterloo was one of Europe's bloodiest. By the end of it, on a single day in a small area of farmland, some 50,000 men and 10,000 horses lay dead and dying.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.