March to the Sound of the Guns
- Categorized in: October 2011
If this section of the ride through Europe seems a bit heavy on the military history it is only because the nations of Europe have often been at each other’s throats.
And the fate of Europe seemed determined by such conflicts. The Battle of the Bulge had been the death throes of one attempt to unify Europe. 140 years earlier, another “giant among men” (albeit one who stood no more than 5 foot 6 inches tall) in the shape of Napoleon had seen his efforts to bring all of Europe under his thrall blow away with the cannon smoke of Waterloo.
A cataclysmic reckoning to eclipse all others, one might imagine the Battle of Waterloo as a sort of European “referendum by force” – the general feeling among the nations of Europe being that “Non” means “Non”.
But where la gloire et la majesté failed, and the Eagles of both the 19th and 20th centuries were shot dead in their nests by a band of Anglo-Saxon marauders, it seems the idea of political union in Europe remains on the table. Whether the pen will one day prove mightier than the sword is an unanswered question. But whatever the outcome, it doesn’t seem it will come about from any popular assent of the people of Europe, if the current collection of Eurocrats have anything to do with it.
(It seems to me a lesson of history that Europeans (of any flag) do not want to be unified under one leader, or one set of leaders. Let a whole crowd of them sit around and bicker and bleat, and run home and score points off one another in the papers. Fine. Let them work together (however ineffectually) to make life better for the lot of us. Great. But God help us if it all comes together under one power and one authority, all in the name of efficiency. Perhaps I needn’t worry though. Based on prior experience, it seems he probably would.)
Leaving all that aside, if you had to pick one, of course life under the “monster” Napoleon would be infinitely preferable to his more deplorable counterpart Adolf. Hard as it is to endure the insufferable self-glorification and posturing of a small man, especially one of Gallic origins, it’s a lot better than wondering where your family and friends keep disappearing to with the men in long leather coats week after week.
But it is interesting (to me at least) to consider Europe as a whole. One thing that struck me, listening to the conclusion of my book about the Allied armies’ advance into Germany and the final surrender of that nation, was who it was that was actually doing the liberating.
The British – yes; the Canadians, of course; but significantly, the Americans. And who were they? Well, for example, the unit that captured the first bridge over the Rhine, at a place called Remagen, was made up of a half-German lieutenant, a Pole, a Czech, a Norwegian, and an Italian (to name a few of them), all fighting as American citizens. The number of ethnic Germans who served in the US Army during the Second World War is remarkable, not the least of whom was General Eisenhower himself, the Allied Supreme Commander. It starts to look to me very much like the best of Europe was saving the worst of Europe from devouring itself.
Maybe you couldn’t say this of the US Army now, but then these were first and second generation immigrants. Dutch and Belgians, Germans and Italians, Scandinavians, Jews, Poles and Russians, Central Europeans who’d settled in the US, all sent their sons (and a few daughters) back over the Atlantic to fight against the Europe they’d left behind, the Europe that was becoming a monster.
All I can think is thank God they succeeded.
What else links Hitler and Napoleon? Well, you can probably think of a few things. But for the purposes of this article, the very practical link for me was simply my route through Belgium. From Bastogne to Brussels, the road goes straight through the field of Waterloo.
It can only be a coincidence of history that most of the significant decisions of Europe during the late 20th and now 21st centuries have been taken in the Belgian capital of Brussels, not 20km from which probably the most decisive action of the entire 19th century took place as well.
Waterloo is a byword for finality – a grinding, crushing, never-to-be-recovered thwarting. A shattering of grand illusions, a destruction of idols, a falling of the mighty, the most emphatic “Game Over” of modern history. And yet, it hung on a knife-edge. Even several knife-edges, each of which seems providential in the light of the outcome’s tremendous finality.
As such, it is a powerful hook for the imagination. Waterloo remains renowned as the most written about battle in history, and I suppose it is unavoidable that I’m going to chuck in my tuppence-worth with all the rest.
The woods of the Bulge and the field of Waterloo are not much more than 100km apart. A day’s ride, and a very enjoyable one at that.
Eastern Belgium is not Holland. Meaning it’s not all flatlands and dykes and straight roads as I had imagined.
The undulating country of the Ardennes continues most of the way to Brussels, about 140km to the northwest, long after the road has left its denser forests. The fields and woodland of Wallonia pitch you up and down, handing you on from village to village, through market towns, and outlying cities like Namur, which straddles the River Meuse.
I had woken before dawn in the gloomy quiet of the Bois Jacques outside Bastogne. Everything remained dark as I packed up, and since it was already pushing on for 6 o’clock, I figured any roving lost souls had by now missed their chance to get me.
It was extremely cold though, having been a completely clear sky all night, and the first thing to do once I rejoined civilization was sit in a service station café munching on croissants and drinking hot chocolate until the sun came up.
Morning light - heading towards Namur
But once it did – well, what a glorious morning!
Now there are two words I didn’t think I would ever string together.
Slowly but steadily I approached Brussels from the southeast, crossing the Meuse at the small city of Namur, where I had to say goodbye to only the second tyre that I had worn through since setting off from Hong Kong. Not bad for 16,000 kilometres!
After failing to find any pleasant little bistro for my lunch, I headed straight off from Namur in the direction of Gembloux, then cut through cross-country towards the town of Waterloo itself.
Bridge over the Meuse at Namur
The little lanes get a little complicated the closer you get to the battlefield. The sun was still bright, but the slightly sunken roads typical of this region often led off under the shade of beech woods and along battered cobbled by-ways, amongst which I got quite lost for a while.
But eventually I was put on the right road by a helpful man and his dog, and found myself approaching the field of battle more or less from the direction that the Prussians had arrived, very late in the day on June 18th 1815, to bring relief to the stricken Anglo-Dutch army, and to bring down the hammer blow on the French. (More on the details of the battle later though.)
The battlefield is crowned with a mound, 40m high, on which stands the statue of a large bronze lion. Something that big should have been pretty obvious, I thought, to anyone approaching, but with all the winding about these back lanes, when I did finally spy it, it popped up almost as a surprise.
First glimpse of La Butte
Even then, I had my bearings enough to see that I was approaching the “Butte du Lion” along the sunken road that marked the Anglo-Dutch line of defence. To the south, the ground fell away from this road down the slope up which the French army had struggled in the mud. It was clear that they had to attack up quite a gradient. Wellington had chosen his position well.
Looking west across the field of Waterloo
It was late in the day. Too late to have a good look around just then. I had intended to stay near the battlefield and see it all the following morning. But when I realised how close Brussels really is to the site, I decided to press on that evening into the city. There I was going to stay with another friend, Lisa, who lives in Brussels with her family. I would then return to Waterloo on the train and have a good look around in a couple of days’ time.
La Butte du Lion de Waterloo
A phone call later, and my early arrival was all arranged, and within an hour I was knocking on Lisa’s door on the Rue Américaine in the little district of Ixelles.
Lisa, like Laura in Geneva, is another old colleague of mine from my days in Paris. She was my de facto boss at the time, and a very good one I am pleased to say. She’s Australian and has ended up in Brussels through marrying an Italian (Luka) who works for the European Commission. Since I last saw her, more than 3 years previously when we said goodbye in Paris, they’ve added two little girls to their number: Emily who is around 3, and Chloe who was just 1.
Chloe at work
A merry little household they’ve made too. Lisa has lost nothing of her wit or charm. She was by far the most amusing workmate I’ve ever had, but I would usually only figure out her witticisms several hours after she’d said them. Her delivery is drier than a Taklamakan tea leaf, so you had to watch and listen carefully to know when to laugh. It was fortunate that she had a good sense of humour since there was really nothing to laugh at about the work we were doing. Except that for all the valuation work we did on a case for the year and a bit I was in Paris, the arbitrators may as well have played “pin the tail on the donkey” in coming up with the figure they eventually awarded our client. That much was funny. A real good joke.
But much like old war buddies, old legal buddies can share a few laughs over the tough times and the little rays of light that carried them through it all together. “Remember that time when we had to type-check the entire document folder at 2 in the morning after they’d turned the aircon off? What was the name of that trainee? Good old Stuart… or was it Ben or….anyway, good old anyone-with-a-pulse-and-a-willingness-to-check-typos-instead-of-me.” or “…Remember when I got in the taxi ahead of the Senior Partner and he had to sit on the kiddies chair?” or “…when I went off and sung karaoke on my own to a bar full of people in Boston and no one clapped?” or “…when I completely forgot to prepare the correspondence file like you asked me to do for the opening of the hearing, and how embarrassing it was when they asked for it?” (Actually, Lisa didn’t laugh at that last one.)
I think I had a sense of humour failure too when she said I reminded her of one of the Bee Gees now I had longer hair. Needless to say, that is not the look I am going for.
Hey ho! The important thing is that, by now, we are both free. (Although she still works part-time for a very smart lawyer in Brussels.) And it was great fun catching up with her and getting a peek into her and her family’s world in Brussels. They were (all) very kind.
I ended up spending three nights in Brussels, although I can’t for the life of me recall doing much other than catching up with Lisa and sleeping and eating.
On a grey morning I went to have a very short look around the city centre, and wandered around with my nose in the air, thinking it all looked a bit like Ludgate Hill (that’s in London). But that’s probably wrong.
Certainly, the residential parts of Brussels are nicer than either I recall (from a single business trip there about 10 years ago) or imagined. Especially if you like Belgian frites.
The city’s cultural pièce de résistance, guaranteed to thrill and amaze – being the statue of the little boy doing a wee – I left for another time.
However, on one of my afternoons, as planned, I jumped on the train out to Waterloo with my bicycle and saw all that was to be seen there. I will write a separate article about this to spare those with less interest in history than me from my descriptions of thundering guns, flailing horses hooves and the wailing of bagpipes, if they so wish.
At the end of all this, as I set out from Brussels with just two destinations left on my journey across the Eurasian landmass, the heavens were tipping it down.
With the weather getting grimmer and grimmer as I approached the North Sea, it felt like I was going to arrive back in England not a moment too soon.
- Notes from the Road
- Join Me for the Ride!
- Press Articles & Clips
- Causes for your Support
- Voices in the East
- Distance Done
- Kit Inventory
- Maps of the Route
- Video Clips
- Norfolk Superheroes