Butte du Lion ("Lion's Mound")
Waterloo Battlefield, Braine-l'Alleud, Walloon Brabant, Belgium (1993, 1998)
Butte du Lion
A great battle raged on June 18, 1815 just south of Brussels, Belgium near Braine-l'Alleud and Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington commanding allied troops from several nations defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and his fearsome army after a punishing eight-hour conflict. This has been recognized as one of the monumental battles in European history and the final defeat for the emperor Napoleon and his dreams of conquest after his return from Elba.
This location has special meaning to me since we have one version of a family legend that claims my 3gr.-grandfather fought on the English side and received a saber wound in combat. It felt strange to stand in the same location where a family member may have stood in battle more than 180 years earlier.
The King of the Netherlands commissioned the construction of this large conical earthwork between 1823 and 1826 in tribute to his son the Prince of Orange. This marked the center of British forces and was believed to have been the approximate spot where the Prince suffered a gunshot wound to his shoulder during the conflict.
Approaching the Summit,
Getting to the top of the Butte du Lion required a climb of 226 steeply angled steps straight up the side of the earthen cone. Legs began to ache even with nearby railings to steady oneself on either side. There weren't any landings along the way for intermediary resting places, but people coming up and down used the same narrow staircase so there were several opportunities to take a break while allowing others to pass from the opposite direction. The top of the hillock rose more than 140 feet above the battlefield with a base circumference measuring a third of a mile. Think about the amount of dirt that had to be moved to create this mound. No wonder it took three years to construct and was considered an engineering marvel at the time.
Reaching the Top, 1993
Coming closer to the top of the summit it's easier to read the inscription on the base of the statue , "XVIII JUNI MDCCCXV," the Latin version of the decisive battle date, 18 June 1815. We heard that the weight of the pedestal and statue were so great that a brick pylon had to be built through the entire center of the cone, from the bottom of the pedestal all the way down to the surface plane below. I have no way to confirm this and I don't think anyone is going to let us dig down and prove it, so I'll take their word for it. Just the lion itself weighs 28 tons. It is constructed of cast iron, transported to the site by barge and then carted in pieces by wagons pulled by teams of 20 horses, then assembled on site. A lion was chosen because it's part of the coat of arms of the monarch of the Netherlands and symbolizes bravery and courage. Its front paw rests on a sphere, representing the sweeping global victory attained in this pivotal battle.
Notice that the people in this photograph are wearing jackets. I took this photograph in June. While I've seen lots of picture-perfect postcard images of the Butte du Lion, this is probably a more accurate rendition of what sightseers should actually expect on a typical visit.
A View of the Waterloo Battlefield, 1993
We surveyed the battlefield and the surrounding countryside from the top of the Butte du Lion. More than 300,000 soldiers clashed here on that June day in 1815. Within a few hours nearly 10,000 men had died, 30,000 wounded, and Napoleon's aggressions crushed.
Wellington's Anglo-Dutch forces withstood an attack then a counterattack. Prussia's Gebhard von Bl¸cher came onto the field as Wellington's center continued to hold, and smashed into Napoleon's flank. The French front disintegrated and a retreat became a route. Wellington and Blucher advanced on Paris. Napoleon abdicated less than a week later on June 24 and he spent the rest of his days exiled on Saint Helena.
I have a photograph of this same patch of the battlefield taken in 1998 but the conditions apparently were even more overcast. I could tell it was the same location by that dark green patch of plants near the center of the photo. It's probably a rock outcrop unsuitable for farming that has been overgrown by scrub vegetation.
Waterloo Battlefield Overlook, 1998
The brick landing that circled the statue pedestal provided 360-degree views of the entire battlefield. Notice that little spyglasses were mounted at various points around the circumference, which I'm sure must allow visitors to see far off into the distance on a clear day. The one thing to keep in mind is that even though the battlefield remains a rural island free of modern clutter, it is not exactly the way it appeared in 1815. So much earth had to be scraped from the surrounding landscape to build the Butte du Lion that its construction obliterated many of the significant military features of the battlefield. Nonetheless it's still a great view and worthy of a breathless climb.