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Napoleon rides again as enthusiasts re-stage Waterloo

WATERLOO – But an army marches on its stomach, and among the white tents of the French military headquarters, canteen staff dished out the food into bowls.

And among them was one turncoat, the Englishman Graham Towers.

"I prefer the strategy and the military tactics of the French," said Towers, a member of Britain’s Napoleonic Association.

His compatriots, God-fearing Englishmen every one, preferred the solid tactics of the Duke of Wellington.

Once his meal was over, Towers would leave to join the ranks, where he would follow the orders of the officers — the only ones there to have memorised how the key battle unfolded.

For Towers, a 16-year veteran of these kinds of historical re-enactments, this is as close as it gets to living in the Napoelonic era.

But there are limits, he said: "Don’t ask me to spend my time camping. Their life expectancy wasn’t good."

Just a week ago, he was fighting in Bavaria at Eggmuehl, the scene of a famous Napoleonic victory in 1809.

On other occasions he has relived the battles of Austerlitz and Jena, both great Napoleonic victories.

Waterloo was a different story: on June 18, 1815, the French military genius was finally defeated after a bloody 10-hour engagement against the combined British and Prussian forces of Wellington and Field Marshal Bluecher.

Napoleon was sent back into exile and ended his days on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

At the camp, the order came to down plates and join the ranks.

"I’m ready to go fight les Rosbifs," (the Roast Beefs, the English) growled Nicolas Margolle, who in another life works as a lorry driver.

He gave his empire-era rifle a professional check: a perfect copy.

And off they marched, singing what was no doubt an authentic Napoleonic-era song: something about alcohol.

The dark-blue-and-white uniforms of the French infantry mingled with the splendour of the imperial guard. "Long live the Emperor!" they roared as Napoleon (French lawyer Franck Samson) rode into view.

Lucien-Charles Ple, a doctor wearing the long blue coat of a regimental surgeon, contemplated his impending death in the defeat to come.

But no matter: such is his enthusiasm for these kinds of re-enactments that earlier this month he was landing on the Normandy Beaches to drive the Nazis out of France and end World War II.

On that day, he was dressed as a US army medic.

Ple, a collector of Napoleonic-era objects, said he had read up on this historic battle. But books are books. "Here the smell of straw and horse dung, it’s in three dimensions."

So there he stood, in his authentically uncomfortable stiff leather boots, waiting for his orders.

On the battlefield, the 1,200 uniformed soldiers, who have come here from all over Europe, prepared to meet their fates.

About a hundred cavalry went galloping off, sabres drawn; the gunfire started and the infantry advanced, howling horribly.

On June 18, 1815, some 74,000 French veterans battled an allied force of 67,000, made up of English redcoats and Dutch, Prussian and other German mercenaries.

Nearly 12,000 men and thousands of horses died at Waterloo: and they were still taking the wounded off the battlefied three days later.

Wellington himself said it was the nearest-run thing he had ever seen.

For the weekend warriors however, the aftermath was a chance to savour the experience and exchange anecdotes, tired but happy.

"The English were solid this year: they didn’t give a metre," said one appreciative veteran.

"In the uniform, you forget everything," said another, returning gradually to the 21st century.

Catherine Marciano