Last summer I stood in bright mid-morning sunshine in a Belgian field where the course of British and European history changed forever. Here, at the gates of the now tumble-down farmyard of Hougoumont, on a similarly mild morning 199 years ago, the first shots were fired of the most important battle of the modern age. By nightfall over 35,000 men had died and the megalomaniac French emperor Napoleon was finally defeated. If I were to make a list – and I never need much encouragement – of the 5 days of the past millennium on which European history was made, the battle of Waterloo would be an instant addition. You might reasonably assume such a visit was holiday sightseeing, but – such is life at the Landmark Trust – I was in the company of colleagues and was, amazingly, working.
The scale of Napoleon’s ambition was limitless. At his height a few years before Waterloo he had occupied almost the whole of continental Europe, had launched invasions of Egypt and Russia and held Britain clearly in his sights – remarking ominously that the Channel was a ‘just a ditch’ which he would shortly cross. In 1815 he faced an alliance of seven European states, their combined armies commanded by the Duke of Wellington who, over a career of fighting Napoleonic France, had until that day never yet fought the man himself on the battlefield or even seen him. On that June morning nothing lay between these great adversaries and their armies but hedgerows, the odd barn and acres of gently rippling crops. Among the occasional isolated buildings in this open ground was one more substantial property, the walled manor house of Hougoumont. Here Wellington sent troops at dawn with instructions to hold the chateau at all costs, knowing that while he had this outpost in the no man’s land between them, Napoleon would find it next to impossible to get the upper hand. And so it would prove to be, and after eight unimaginably horrific hours of fighting Hougoumont was held and the most successful military commander of all time was finally defeated.
As we pushed through the temporary metal gates into the remnants of Hougoumont it was impossible not to be deeply moved. The chateau itself, a tall squarish building, was burned that night, and is now only a few shattered half walls. But the rest of the site remains amid the same fields of swaying crops. Its soft brick outer walls are peppered with shot and firing holes, its gatehouse stands blind-eyed, its vast beautiful barns gently sag with their own age. Around the buildings are the orchard and paddocks where thousands of soldiers fell that day. Here long-lashed cattle graze among stone memorials that bear the names of the dead in looping copperplate script. And when they stood to scratch their backs, it was against the spreading trees into which the hedgerows of 1815 have now grown.
It is only very rarely that the Landmark Trust takes on a building outside the United Kingdom. But as we boarded the Eurostar in Brussels and sped back to London beneath the great ditch that, thanks to the events of that day Napoleon was never to cross, we all felt it was unthinkable that Hougoumont should not be among them.