WATERLOO, Belgium (AP) — To the victor go the spoils: So Waterloo became synonymous with Napoleon’s demise, even if the worst of the battle never happened there.
Ignoring the bloodied grounds of nearby towns, the victorious Duke of Wellington picked the name of the battle as the place where he slept after it was all over. And nothing has been the same since for the once-sleepy village — or for the world.
Prince Charles led a host of dignitaries Wednesday to kick off four days of commemorations Wednesday of the battle that changed the course of history 200 years ago Thursday. Napoleon’s defeat in the half-day battle against an overwhelming international coalition ended France’s supremacy in the world and opened the British century with the biggest of bangs.
Little wonder the French are still gnashing their teeth two centuries later. “It is not easy for them — psychologically speaking,” said military historian Professor Luc De Vos.
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Earlier this year, the Belgians wanted to mint a commemorative Battle of Waterloo euro coin which many of the belligerents in the fight now share. Paris blocked the idea.
Belgium promptly turned them into commemorative coins that do not need approval from other eurozone nations before minting.
But France’s bruised ego over Waterloo has healed somewhat. Descendants of Napoleon and the French ambassador will show up during the four days of Waterloo commemorations just south of Brussels.
On the battlegrounds themselves, kept intact down to the lush wheat that stands near full ripeness this time of year, everything has been prepared for official ceremonies and re-enactments.
At the heart of the battle was the pivotal French assault on Hougoumont Farm, on whose wooden gate, in the Duke of Wellington’s words, the outcome of the entire world hinged.
“Wellington was clear about the critical importance of this moment” said British general Sir Richard Shirreff. “The success of the battle of Waterloo depended on closing the gates of Hougoumont.”
It remained closed at the critical point and once the smoke of battle lifted, France’s Grande Armee was in retreat and 26 years of Napoleonic warfare to unite Europe under French rule had ended.
On the small battlefield, over 10,000 soldiers lay dead — and as many horses.
On Wednesday, Prince Charles unveiled a memorial at the lovingly restored Hougoumont farm and surveyed the battlefield with the descendants of the troop leaders — the Duke of Wellington and Prince Charles Bonaparte of France.
Through Saturday, some 5,000 re-enactors will roll the drums, fire the guns and cannons and walk through the gunpowder smoke, only to come to the same result: Napoleon lost.
Napoleon “was 46, but in bad health. Wellington was fit. His staff was not functioning well. There was hesitation. At the end of the battle, he only had 70,000 men and his opponents had nearly double,” said De Vos.
So off went Napoleon, eventually to die in exile in Saint Helena, a speck of an island in the south Atlantic.
Instead of France, Britain came to rule the waves of the 19th century, reaping a rich harvest in colonies around the globe and firing the furnaces of the industrial revolution in Europe.
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rcasert
This story has been corrected to show that not all belligerents are now part of the euro currency