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Waterloo

At this time of year, it is polite to ask how your holidays went. This should not be confused with actual interest in how your holidays went. An even greater error would be to pull out your phone and start showing photographs.

The only exception to this rule is if your holiday went very badly indeed. In those circumstances, you will be expected to describe the details at great length. You may even pull out your phone.


I had people eating out of my hand as I described rude French waiters, bad Belgian food, terrible queues for the ferry etc etc. The part of our holiday that we spent in Germany was so idyllic that it cannot be mentioned in polite company.


Sweeping all these conventions aside, let me describe my visit to the great battlefield of Waterloo, where Wellington defeated Napoleon on the 18th June 1815.


One of the great mysteries of Waterloo that historians and archaeologists have agonised over for decades is literally the question of where all the bodies are buried. Both world wars in the twentieth century generated acres of solemn burial grounds across Belgium and France.


But there are no burial grounds associated with the Napoleonic Wars or the Battle of Waterloo itself.


Many French people still admire Napoleon for his achievements despite him being considered a tyrant by most of Europe in his day.


A good example of this is in a Netflix documentary, ‘Being Napoleon’, which describes the bizarre world of battlefield reenactments. Ahead of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo in 2015, two rival ‘Napoleons’ contend to become the great Emperor for the day.


A small platoon of ageing enthusiasts even march for days retracing Napoleon’s return from exile. One tells the documentary makers that if they are depicted in a negative light, he will go to America and slit the director’s throat.


On my visit, I went to the completely deserted Mont Saint Jean farm which has a museum, shop and cafe. On the day of the battle, it was used as a field hospital. At the rear is a small orchard where the ground has recently been disturbed. For the last 7 years, conflict archaeologists have been searching for evidence of the battle. In 2019 they found a single human skeleton.


Unlike the two world wars, there are no military cemeteries from the Napoleonic era. The mystery of ‘where the bodies are buried’ was not resolved for decades. The assumption today is that the bodies were burned in huge funeral pyres or buried in mass graves. Those that were in mass graves were later dug up, around the early 1820s and the bones ground down for fertilizer.


Historians have found evidence that bone dust was a critical part of the agrifood industry of the day and for a while selling bones was an important income supplement for the rural poor.


Later I visited the Normandy beaches, code-named Utah and Omaha during the D-Day landings in 1944 as well as some of the military cemeteries nearby.


Clearly, visits like this can be a bit of an antidote to the diminished sense of the reality of war that comes with living in Dublin in 2022. As we start a new term in the European Parliament, I know that Ukraine, and its consequences, will dominate policy responses in Dublin and Brussels.


Tragically, the victims of tyranny and war are accumulating again in the graveyards of Europe. Only by taking a long-term view of what is happening can we make the right choices.


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