Prince Charles unveils Waterloo memorial for bicentenary
Britain's Prince Charles on Wednesday unveiled a memorial to the soldiers who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, kicking off days of commemorative events to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle.
Descendants of the generals who led the French, British and Prussian armies that fought on the plain south of Brussels on June 18, 1815, joined Charles and his wife Camilla for the ceremony.
The new memorial stands at the Hougoumont Farmhouse, where allied forces fought off a bloody French advance two centuries ago, marking one of the most decisive moments in a battle that shaped modern Europe.
Charles, who is heir to Queen Elizabeth II, unveiled a statue of two life-size soldiers closing the renovated farm's north gates to pay tribute to the British, Prussian, Dutch and Belgian soldiers who died.
"Closing the gates on war," said the words carved into the marble base of the statue.
In a symbol of reconciliation, relatives of the troops' commanders shook hands: the Duke of Wellington, descended from the famous British general of the same name; Prince Nikolaus Bluecher von Wahlstatt, whose ancestor Field Marshal Bluecher led the Prussians; and Napoleon's descendant Prince Charles Bonaparte.
- Days of events -
The event is the opening salvo in a series of commemorations of the Battle of Waterloo, including a ceremony on the formal anniversary on Thursday and two days of battle re-enactments on Friday and Saturday.
Historians say up to 2,500 men died in the fighting at Hougoumont, where 7,000 troops led by Napoleon's brother General Jerome Bonaparte launched wave after wave of attack.
But the British and Prussian forces held their ground and played a pivotal role in winning the day-long battle at Waterloo that crushed the French emperor's dreams of European conquest.
Wellington said later that "the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont."
In the afternoon of the pivotal day, a dozen men from England's Coldstream Guards managed to close the north gates of the farm that the French troops had managed to force.
The exploit is still celebrated in Britain, particularly by the modern-day members of the northern English regiment.
- 'Last Post' played -
Ten men from the Coldstream Guards, wearing the red uniforms of the period, symbolically opened the farm gates on Wednesday for Charles and Camilla, while a bugler played the Last Post and a band played the British national anthem "God Save the Queen".
In addition to the British royals, Princess Astrid, sister of King Philippe of Belgium, as well as Prince Pieter-Christian of the Netherlands and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg joined the ceremonies under a warm summer sun.
The farm, which was practically destroyed during the battle and abandoned for years, was renovated for the bicentenary. The last vestige of the fighting, it will serve as a memorial for soldiers on all sides who fell in the battle.
European royals will attend a solemn memorial service on Thursday at the battlefield.
Nearly 200,000 spectators are also expected to flock to the site for a giant sound-and-light show on Thursday, followed by two days of battle reenactments described as the largest of their kind in the world.
Waterloo is still a sensitive topic in France and organisers are treading carefully to paint the event as a celebration of a modern continent united by the 28-nation European Union after centuries of war.
© 2015 AFP