Heritage Trips

My hero’s footsteps

A couple of days ago I visited Waterloo, one of the most famous towns in Belgium. It is only because of the defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo that the place has become so notorious. This year in June several crowned and uncrowned very important persons came to Waterloo for the commemorations of the bicentennial of this historical event. Thousands of volunteers took part in re-enactments of the battle. It was not for the anniversary events that I drove to Waterloo. My main reason to visit the region was because I wanted to follow my 4x great-grandfather Maarten van Leeuwen (1794-1889). I wanted to be in the area where my ancestor endured all the atrocities of the battle. What made me so interested in Maarten’s life? Well, it all started more than fifteen years ago when I saw a piece of silver that once was made especially for him. Maarten was a member of the Saint Ambrose Guild in Loon op Zand, a small village in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. In 1825 he shot the (wooden) bird that made him ‘king’ of the guild. For this occasion he had a silver shield made. The shield had his name on it, together with a text and the image of two sides of a medal. That medal intrigued me. Was it a royal decoration, was it a military medal? From that moment on I wanted to get to know this man, who probably lived an interesting life. In the years that followed I learned more and more about him. And now his life story brought me to Waterloo.

This blogpost is not to tell you about my ancestor in great detail. I will only give a short description of his life. Maarten’s life is the object of a more comprehensive story, that I will compile once I have found all the pieces of the puzzle. Maarten grew up in a small village in the province of Zuid-Holland, close to the ‘cheese’ city of Gouda. Only fourteen years old, Maarten joined the navy for a period of five years. In 1814 he volunteered for the army and he became a gunner in an artillery battalion. One year later his battalion was part of the big Anglo-Dutch army, commanded by the Duke of Wellington. Maarten and his comrades took position in the fields behind the farm ‘La Haye Sainte’. As reserve-troops, they were never ordered to move towards the line of fire. After the battle was over his battalion accompanied the rest of the victorious army towards Paris. In the beginning of 1816 Maarten’s battalion was back in Belgium. He stayed in Mons and in Ath. In 1817 Maarten saved the church of Ath from total devastation when lightning struck the tower. He got injured and could not serve as a soldier anymore. As an invalid he left the army in 1819. For some reason he came to Loon op Zand, married a local girl and became a father of eight children. In 1859 he saved the church of Loon op Zand when lightning also struck the tower of this church. For both heroic actions he was awarded a royal decoration. Hence the image on his silver shield. And for his involvement in the Battle of Waterloo he received a third medal in 1865. He was often mentioned in regional newspapers, the inhabitants of Loon op Zand considered him a great hero. After a long and adventurous life, Maarten died at the age of 94.

Memorial at Waterloo, Belgium

Although his actions during the battle were not really significant, I wanted to see the farm ‘La Haye Sainte’ and all the other remains of the Waterloo war field. On a sunny Sunday morning in November, I drove to Waterloo. Just outside the village, on the road to Genappe, the Lion mound caught my immediate attention. I started my visit in the new museum, that is recently built underneath the fields of the Lion mound. In the first rooms I was overwhelmed with information about the French revolution, the way Napoleon became the most powerful man in France and later in Europe. What I found really nice were the interactive paintings of important events in Napoleon’s political and military life. The second part of the museum showed me all the uniforms, worn by the English, Dutch, Prussian and French soldiers. One scene showed Napoleon, sitting with his back to a group of generals who discussed their strategies. The part of the museum that impressed me most was the movie that tells the story of the battle. The 3D effects scared me several times, for example when the cavalry moved in my direction and it was almost as if I was trampled by their horses. The young drummer boy at the beginning and at the end of the movie really made an appeal to my emotions. My visit to the museum took almost two hours and I decided to have lunch first. In the restaurant I could see people climbing the Lion mound, a 40 meters high hill with a big bronze lion in top of it. After lunch I first visited the panorama, a big circular painting that was created in 1915. One can oversee the whole area: the Anglo-Dutch troops in the north and the French troops in the south. Fifteen minutes later I was outside, staring at the 215 steps that lead towards the top of the Lion mound. When I climbed them all, I was out of breath. But I was also overwhelmed by the view. On this bright day I could see the whole area: Waterloo, the farms, the monuments, the last headquarters of Napoleon. And… I could see the farm ‘La Haye Sainte’. I was thrilled and could not wait to see more of it. Unfortunately this farm is not open for visitors, so I could only see the outside. I drove a little bit further on the road to Genappe and visited Napoleon’s last headquarters. In this little museum I saw one of the six field beds that were made for the French emperor.

On my way back I stopped in the center of Waterloo and I visited the Wellington museum. This was once a tavern, but became the Duke of Wellington’s headquarters. In one of the rooms he wrote the letter to inform the English king about his victory. When I stepped out of the museum, I felt there was one more place to visit: the church on the opposite side of the street. Here several plaques were places to remember the names of English and Dutch officers who were killed in action: Dutch names like Van Haren, Van Wijnbergen, Coenegracht, Van Pallandt van Eerde, and many more. The only thing that came into my mind was… how lucky was Maarten van Leeuwen that his battalion was never ordered to move towards the lines of fire. And how lucky am I, because if he would have been killed here in Waterloo, like all the 40.000 other soldiers, I would never have been here, I would not be alive at all! There is so much more research to do. And this trip to Waterloo made me even more enthusiastic to continue. I need to follow in my hero’s footsteps…