Today(actually June 20th) was pretty intense. It would be when you start your day going through what is left of Chateau Hougoumont. For some reason, that section of the Waterloo battlefield has always spoken very clearly to me. I truly think that people write history because in a way they can hear it, taste it, smell it better than others. And it’s always worse when you do it inside closed walls. And Hougoumont is enclosed. And I felt it.
The original chateau was a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall, extending to a garden surrounded by a wall. Today the chateau itself is gone, lost to the horrific fighting that day. The house split the farmyard in two, and was connected to the tiny chapel that remains. Beyond that, the farm buildings along the walls have been restored, even the great barn, where so many of the wounded, put there for protection, were killed in a fire caused by shelling.
I didn’t go into the great barn. I just couldn’t. Instead, thinking it was a better idea, I walked into the chapel. Silly me. It’s tiny and stone, and above the door hangs a giant wooden crucifix that looks as if its right leg was amputated and charred–because it was burned in another of the fires. I’d forgotten that. More wounded burned to death in this tight, tiny place, thick with stone and age. More terror and pain and despair caught irrevocably in the thick walls. It’s hard to breathe in a place like that. The old pain is like a weight on your chest. And yet, for the longest time, I simply couldn’t move. It was as if all of Hougoumont–the fierce, frantic fighting, the screams and shouts and pounding of cannon-fire, the sharp snap of rifle-fire, the desperate yet futile attempts to save the wounded, the inevitability of another wave of French battering against the walls–was caught light lightning in what is now a cool, echoing little sanctuary, where Jesus watches in commiseration, his own leg lost to the battle. It feels as if you had been left behind, a survivor of this hell.
In Les Miz, there is an absolutely shattering song: Empty Tables, in which Marius sings of his lost friends and how painful it is to have survived when they didn’t. Can you imagine the pain of those men at Hougoumont who saw their friends burn and couldn’t stop it, or else the enemy might take the position and put countless more men at risk? Can you imagine going on, with those shades always following you, their cries for help still harsh in your ears? Can you imagine going back to the normal world and having to put that away, where no one else is scarred by it?
When you go around to historic sites, inevitably there will be people laughing and joking. There were none within the walls of Hougoumont. The walls caught us all and wrapped us in the weight of that terrible moment. And then, as a way of walking back out from hell, there is a monument. Simple, striking, a portrayal of the desperation, the incomprehensible bravery, the fierce determination of the men inside to hold their positions(which they did. It was a pivotal point in the battle) The monument was unveiled just this week by a committee including Prince Charles, the current Duke of Wellington, Prince Joseph Bonapart and Prince Blucher von Wahlsatt. The last three shook hands, a lovely symbol that signifies the lasting effects of what happened here that day. I just wish we could have learned something from it. Like there should be better ways to solve differences. That we shouldn’t force our sons and daughters to carry the burden of our political stratagems. They don’t rest easy from it. Not after a dozen years, not
after fifty. Not even after 200. They wait for those who came later, I think, so we take some of that memory home.
Tomorrow, I’ll continue with the day, culminating with the second and larger reenactment.