The battle that killed the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte was fought nearly 170 years ago on 1,000 acres of farmland near the Belgian village of Waterloo. But residents here are still bickering about how to tell the story and whether to reward the victor, the Duke of Wellington.
The questions might seem moot after all this time, for most historians agree that the battle on June 18, 1815, was decisive: the French Army fled in disorder down the road to France, and Europe found peace for the first time in 22 years.
But Europeans, possessed by their own history, refuse to let the dust settle. Last month, a senator from the French-speaking region of Wallonia in southern Belgium charged that the battlefield, now a tourist attraction, had become too British. Sen. Jean Humblet, in a statement published in the Brussels newspaper La Lanterne July 26, decried the public relations "offensive" mounted in the past few years on behalf of the Duke of Wellington and denounced six plaques erected on the site since 1980 in honor of British regiments.
Humblet also took aim at the "feudal arrangement" under which the Iron Duke's descendants--currently his great-great-grandson, Arthur Valerian Wellesley--receive about $40,000 annually in rent from farmers who still till the land given to the duke a month after his victory. The 2,500 acres near the battlefield were a gift from the grateful king of the Netherlands, William I.
The angry senator denounced, too, the Belgian government's payments of $1,600 a year to the duke's heirs under a 19th century bond that carries interest in perpetuity.
"The personal privileges which the duke enjoys today are not worthy of our century," Humblet said.
The senator insisted that the Belgian government arrange to break its commitments to the Wellington family and return the property to the people of Wallonia.
British sensibilities were offended by the senator's assault. Anne Appels, secretary of the Wellington Museum here, in a recent interview deplored Humblet's "sheer ingratitude."
"How many times have the British had to bail out the Belgians and get rid of the tyrants walking around their country?" she asked angrily.
But Humblet is unmoved. Wallonia, he said, is the only region in the world that has been penalized for hosting one of history's most critical confrontations.
Is Libya's Col. Mummar Qaddafi, he asked, forced to pay the descendants of Gen. Bernard Montgomery because the Briton defeated the Nazi forces of Gen. Erwin Rommel at El Alamein 41 years ago? [Actually, El Alamein is in Egypt. The Germans, defeated there in 1942, retreated to Libya.]
Humblet is not the first to complain about the way the battlefield has been groomed for the 400,000 tourists who visit Waterloo every year. Ten years ago, a group of Wellington partisans founded a Waterloo Committee to appease the British tourists incensed at the ubiquity of Napoleon memorabilia on the battlefield.
"The average British tourist would get a little bit mad and come away saying, 'Who won the war, anyway?' " recalled Appels.
But the Waterloo Committee wields only history, and the forces of Napoleon have a more powerful weapon--marketing. Wellington won't sell, acccording to souvenir vendors around the battlefield. Their shops are populated with little Napoleons--on bronze plaques, postcards, plates and pipes--and the two museums closest to the site are devoted to the emperor.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people who come through here want some Napoleon," explained Albert Crauwels, a shop owner, in an interview last week.
Dealers in Napoleon memorabilia are careful not to remind their customers that, after all, the Corsican general was a dictator who ravaged Europe with 22 years of war. The tourists just don't want to hear it.
Said Crauwels: "Even the British--the young especially--ask for more Napoleon . . . because they say that Napoleon gave the people of Europe the chance to elevate themselves."
While the British are duly remembered on the battlefield, the monuments and plaques designating where their leaders were wounded or killed are discreet. They are overshadowed by memorials to the French and to the allies of Britain--the Prussians, who lent Wellington crucial support under the army of Marshal Gebhard von Bluecher; the Dutch, and those Belgians who fought in the Dutch Army.
The Dutch paid the most lavish tribute to their dead, building in 1827 a 130-foot mound with a giant stone lion on top to symbolize the victory. The French preserved their pride by erecting a bronze eagle on a pedestal--wounded, to be sure.
The merchants admit that their hearts belong to Napoleon--not because he earns them more money today, but because, in their view, he was the heroic son of the French Revolution who sowed the seeds of freedom in his path.
Crauwels, for one, said history has saddled his country with an injustice because Belgium owes nothing to Wellington. The king of the Netherlands, he said, had good reason to reward the duke for freeing his country from the voracious French emperor. But 15 years later, the Belgians seceded from the Dutch kingdom to form their own country. Besides, said Crauwels, most Belgians fought on Napoleon's side.
Ultimately, Wellington may lose the latest Battle of Waterloo because he made the mistake of fighting it in French-speaking Wallonia. Said one long-time resident of the Waterloo area: "People here have always been Bonapartists."