On a cold, gray December day, I set out across the muddy fields where on June 18, 1815, the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte were defeated by a coalition of forces led by Great Britain and Prussia. The battle, which as every schoolchild knows, Napoleon lost, is now the subject of an epic, 1,214-page novel by Ildefonso Arenas called Álava en Waterloo (Álava at Waterloo).
He admits that there is no shortage of books about the Battle of Waterloo, but until now, none have celebrated the role played by General Miguel de Álava (born 1772; died 1843), and who is the only man known to have fought at both Trafalgar and, 10 years later, Waterloo.
At Trafalgar he was the captain of a Spanish corvette, and at Waterloo, dressed in the uniform of an British general, he was no less than Wellington's aide de camp, and a close personal friend of the Iron Duke, having fought with him during the Peninsular War, when British forces entered Spain to help oust Napoleon.
Álava emerges from the pages of Arenas' novel as "brave, loyal, efficient - Wellington owes part of his victory to him - and outgoing. He was the most international military man we have ever had."
Today, the field of Waterloo is empty but for a murder of crows to our left, a distant reminder of the black-uniformed hussars and ulans of Prussia's General Blücher, whose arrival in the final hours of the battle turned the tide against Napoleon. Arenas, his thick eyebrows reminiscent of some field captain's frozen tufts, seems unperturbed by the freezing weather, and points around the bleak landscape, bringing to life with a few words and gestures the devastating attack by Marshal Ney against the English squares, or the final, desperate attack by Napoleon's Old Guard, conjuring up the cacophony of the cannons and the muskets and the thunder of the cavalry's hooves.
Arenas is my guide on a tour around the Belgian town of Waterloo, close to Brussels, where the destiny of Europe was changed 198 years ago, and Napoleon defeated once and for all. We have already seen more villages, hilltops, monuments and historic sites than I can take in, but the historian is hungry for more. At the Wellington Museum in Charleroi, located in Arthur Wellesley's headquarters, I was about to ask if I might be allowed a short siesta in a handy bed, but was cut short when the indefatigable Arenas told me that this was where Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon, he of the Gay Gordons, expired after a French cannonball had ripped off his leg.
Amputations and many other horrors of war abound in Arenas' book, but Álava en Waterloo puts the battle into historical and social context, detailing Napoleon's final campaign after escaping from Elba in February 1815, and then putting together an army for one final attempt at imposing French hegemony on Europe. The book provides portraits of all the major historical figures involved - among them Tallyrand seducing his own niece, in the bath - along with the political intrigues before, during, and after the battle that consolidated Britain's position as the global power for another century.
Prior to visiting the Wellington Museum, Arenas had taken me to the Naveau windmill, used by Napoleon to inflict defeat on the Prussians on June 16 at Ligny, two days before the main event. "The Battle of Waterloo took place over four days and involved six battles," he points out. Arenas says that Napoleon allowed the Prussians to escape, and then foolishly sent his forces chasing after them. "It was the beginning of his defeat," he says laconically.
Arenas clearly has a soft spot for the Prussians, seeing them as the real heroes of the day. "It was they who defeated Napoleon, but Wellington had better marketing." The Prussians were also more disciplined than their French enemies, says Arenas.
"Napoleon's army was full of prima donnas: he had 25 field marshals: the Prussians just two."
As I revive over a delicious lunch in Lasne, Arenas explains that Álava's dedication to the military life was in part due to a war injury. "During the Spanish campaign he was shot in a very delicate area, and was ruined in terms of procreation."
The next day, after dreaming about dragoons and lancers, we make our way up the steep steps that lead to the top of the Butte du Lion, the conical earth mound built in 1826 to commemorate the spot where William of Orange was injured during the fight, and which now provides a panoramic view of the battlefield. But it is at la Haye Sainte, the farmhouse that was fought over, lost, and then won again, where it is possible to evoke the "thousands and thousands of bodies, of men and horses, twisted in the most impossible positions" that Arenas describes.
As the afternoon turns darker, we visit the monument to the Prussians at Plancenoit, one of Arenas' favorite places, and the cemetery next to the church, where Napoleon's forces murdered more than a hundred Prussian prisoners. Our mood somber, we reach Genappe, and by the bridge over the River Dyle, now next to a haberdashers, Arenas describes how the fleeing French forces were trapped here, forcing Napoleon to take the charge of one his lancers and make his escape, pursued by the Prussians: "It was the end of the Grande Armée." The nearby furniture shop unintentionally captures the mood with a poster covering a dreary window display: "Closing down. Everything must go." And night falls.