Last modified: 2020-09-20 by ivan sache
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Flag of Waterloo - Images by Ivan Sache, 22 December 2007
The municipality of Waterloo (29,398 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 2,103 ha) is located 16 km south of Brussels, on the linguistic border between French and Dutch, here the border between Walloon Brabant and Flemish Brabant.
Waterloo was, until the Middle Ages, nothing more than the crossroads,
located in the then big forest of Soignes, between the road to Brussels
and a smaller road heading to an estate; the very same place was
already settled from the Paleolithic to the Age of Bronze. In 1128,
Francon, lord of Brussels, wrote down a list of villages transferred to
the abbey of Forest / Vorst, including a piece of land located in "Waterlots" and donated by the widow Emza for the sake of her son's soul. The place, still hardly inhabited at the time, was not named as a
"place without water". While loo means "a clearing" or "a pasture",
"water" should be understood in Waterloo not as "water" but as "wet",
making of Waterloo "a wet pasture". A map from the beginning of the
17th century indeed shows wet lowlands; a small brook, subsequently
drained, crossed the primitive village of Waterloo. The name of the
village evolved as Waterlos (1145), Waterloes (1245) and Watreloys
A fief of the lord of Braine-l'Alleud, Waterloo did not develop significantly before the 17th century, with the increase of the "Walloons' Road" linking Brussels to Genappe and to the coal-mining basins. A few farms and houses for lumberjacks were built along the road, together with several inns. The Herberge van Waterloes was mentioned in 1570, followed by the Hostel À la Couronne, La Joyce, Le Petit Paris, Jean de Nivelles, L'Ange, La Grande Béguine, Les Vieux Amis and Le Risque à Péril. At that time, crossing the forest of Soignes, scoured by rascals, required two days, which explained the proliferation of inns along the road. Paved in 1662, something then very unusual, the Walloons' Road reached Mont-Saint-Jean in 1666 and Genappe in 1680. Waterloo became a popular trade and recreational stopping place on the road.
Visited by famous people who drank the water of the Légàre Eau (lit, "Light Water") against gastric pain, Waterloo thrived under the influence of Don Francisco Antonio de Agurto, Marquis of Gastanaga and Lieutenant-Governor of the Low Countries. Wanting to please King of Spain Charles II, the marquis decided to dedicate a religious building to the king, both as a gift to God so that the king has a male heir and as a symbol of the Spanish power in the region. The Royal Chapel of Waterloo, built halfway of Brussels and Charleroi, was consecrated on 19 February 1690. However, Charles II died ten years later without a heir, while Gastanaga was jailed in Spain after the seizure of Mons by the French in 1691 and ended his life in Catalonia. The Royal Chapel is considered as the last significant monument built during the Spanish rule in Belgium, but its building did not contribute to the development of the local architecture.
Until 1796, Waterloo was one of the 17 hamlets forming the domain of
Braine-l'Alleud and was even divided into two parts (Grand Waterloo and
Petit Waterloo) depending, respectively, of the parishes of
Braine-l'Alleud (Bishopric of Namur) and of Sint-Genesius-Rode (Bishopric of Mechelen). The "border" was the cause of several
conflicts, such as the quarrel on the opening hours of the pubs, that
differred in the two parts of the village.
In 1789, the Brabantian revolutionaries attempted to make of Waterloo an independent municipality, to no avail. After the French Revolution, several burghers of Waterloo lobbied for the secession of Waterloo, which was officialized on the 12 Germinal of the Year IV (2 April 1796). It took years to fix the borders of the new municipalities with the neighbouring villages, officialized on the 20 Thermidor of the Year V (9 August 1797) with Sint-Genesius-Rode, sixteen days later with Braine-l'Alleud and only in 1807 with Plancenoit.
The share of the municipal goods between Waterloo and Braine-l'Alleud was a long matter of dispute; on the 23 Friamaire of the Year XIII, it was decided that the share should be made proportionally to the population of the two municipalities, but the Mayor of Braine complained that Waterloo had been, unduly, added the population of Petit-Waterloo, once part of Sint-Genesius-Rode and not eligible for the share, since it had only been taken into account during the share between Waterloo and Sint-Genesius-Rode. Waterloo gave up but Braine subsequently refused to share the franchise, claiming it belonged only to the town of Braine-l'Alleud. On 9 January 1813, the Prefet of the Department of the Dyle decided a share of 11/33rd for Waterloo and 22/33rd for Braine, which did not accept the share. The conflict resumed under the Dutch rule; a Royal Decree signed on 29 October 1825 fixed the official borders of the municipalities of Waterloo, La Hulpe, Ohain, Braine-l'Alleud and Sint-Genesius-Rode, while the share was eventually completed in 1834, to the benefit of Braine (according to Waterloo!).
Anyway, the historical international fame of Waterloo is due to the
three battles that took place "in" Waterloo - but not necessarily "on"
the municipal territory of Waterloo, yet another source of dispute with
the neighbours. The strategic location of Waterloo on a paved road, close to Brussels, explains the recurrence of battles there.
On 17 August 1705, the first battle of Waterloo opposed the Anglo-Dutch troops commanded by Duke of Marlborough and the local militia commanded by Jacques Pastur, aka Jaco, born in Waterloo. In 1702-1705, Jaco served King of France Louis XIV and was in charge of the control of Marlborough's army, which supported the Austrian Habsburgs. For more than one hour, Jaco's troops blocked the Anglo-Dutch troops sent to take the control of the Brussels-Charleroi road. Jaco withdrew in the forest while Marlborough plundered Waterloo, but counter-attacked early in the next morning, causing a big disorder in the Anglo-Dutch troops, reconquering the forest and the village and killing several soldiers. Not too proud of the issue of the battle, Marlborough considered it as a non-significant skirmish; Winston Churchill, a proud descendant of Marlborough, called it "The battle of Waterloo that did not happen". In contrast, the "victory" of Waterloo was considered in France as a triumph; Jaco was presented to the Court on 17/18 March 1806 and awarded a golden collar and a medal, and even the Cross of the Order of St. Lazar and the Mount Carmel, in spite of not having the four required nobility degrees. Rich and famous, Jaco lived then in a big estate in Waterloo until his death in Brussels in 1723.
On 6-7 July 1794, the second battle of Waterloo opposed the French Sambre-et-Meuse army, commanded by Kléber and Lefebvre, to the army commanded by the Prince of Orange and supplemented by the rear-guard of the Austrian army. A charge by the grenadeers and the cavalry gave the advantage to the French on the evening of the 6 July, which was confirmed the next morning. The battle then moved from Mont-Saint-Jean to the village of Waterloo and the Prince of Orange had to withdraw to Mechelen through the forest. Exhausted, Lefebvre spent the night in Waterloo and triumphally entered Brussels the next day.
However, "the" battle of Waterloo marked in 1815 the end of Napoléon's adventure known as the Hundred-Days (les Cent-Jours). Napoléon escaped from the island of Elba, landed in Golfe-Juan on 1 March 1815 and entered Paris on 20 March, with a 200,000-men army. Moving
northwards to Belgium, the Emperor planned to seize Brussels and to
defeat, separately, the English and Prussian allied armies. Declared
"outlaw" by the allied powers on 13 March, Napoléon had to face a front
of 150 km in width. The chronicles report that the first soldiers to
enter Waterloo, on 16 June 1815, were very discipline and elegant
Scots, while Duke of Wellington set up his headquarters in Catherine
Bodenghien's inn, located near the Royal Chapel. On 18 June, all the
soldiers left the village because the battle was scheduled at
Mont-Saint-Jean by Wellington. The battle, which lasted from 11 AM to
21 PM, is considered as one of the bloodiest fightings ever, with
10,000 killed and 35,000 injured. Late in the evening, Wellington
started to write the record of the battle but fell asleep and signed
the document only the next morning. He added beside his signature the
name of the village, Waterloo, so that the battle would be then known
as "the Battle of Waterloo", even if very few events actually happened
in Waterloo! This topographical mistake definitively changed the life in
The European powers were so relieved by the defeat of Napoléon that the battlefield became quickly a place of political pilgrimage. King George III, King William of the Netherlands, Czar Alexander and the King of Prussia and several other princes of lower ranks visited the battlefield. The families of the allied officers killed during the battle put some thirty funerary plaques on the walls of the Royal Chapel, which was eventually dedicated to all the allied soldiers killed in Waterloo. Ten years later, King William ordered the building of a mound surmounted by a lion ("Lion's Mound", aka "Hillock of the Lion") at the very same place where the Prince of Orange had been injured. Several other monuments were built here and there, and the battle of Waterloo is probably the historical event that aroused the highest number of studies and books, provoking endless controversies. Every year, the site of the battle is visited by hundred thousands of tourists, not to mention the famous re-enaction of the battle.
Waterloo is one of the cradle of organized tourism. Short after the battle, a mail coach service was set up in Brussels, transporting rich tourists to the battlefield, where they were welcomed by self-proclaimed guides, museum owners and veterans from the battle. For decades, the children of Waterloo earned their pocket money by selling nails and buttons "from" the battle, several of this "genuine" souvenirs having, of course, being ingeniously fabricated.
Attempts of industrial development in the village failed until the
building of the railway station in 1873. Waterloo became famous for its
cobblers, known in the village since the end of the 17th century and
in charge of the revamping of the Walloons' Road. The cobblers of
Waterloo formed in 1891 a workers' union, one of the first in Belgium
to have obtained a decent hourly wage, then 30% higher than in other
jobs. The cobblestones from Waterloo were highly prized in France,
Germany, Poland and Russia, but also in Egypt and America.
During the First World War, Waterloo was transferred into the Province of Hainaut and the plain was of Pachy transformed into an airfield for two air squadrons, with 5,000 soldiers. After the liberation, soap factories were set up in the village, producing internationally known perfumed soaps while Léon Cheval built in Mont-Saint-Jean a chemical fertilizers plant employing 120 workers.
After the Second World War, the urbanization of Waterloo increased at the expense of arable lands and forest, while most industries disappeared. Waterloo became an international, residential town, settled by the officials of the European Commission, of OTAN and SHAPE.
Several places all over the world (but none in France!) were named
after the battle, 35 in the USA, 15 in Britain, 8 in Australia, 5 in
Jamaica, 3 in Canada, as well as others in Sierra Leone, Germany,
Ireland, Surinam, Trinidad and Saint-Vincent. However, the saga of
Waterloo has been much more efficently spread by writers (and
especially by French ones(!).
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was the first writer to visit the battlefield; he noticed, quite ironically, that the price of the coffee had been tripled in the main inn, just because the bed in which Wellington had slept before the battle was shown there. Lord Byron (1788-1824), fond of historical battlefields, was very impressed by the site and described it in "Child Harold".
The French novelist Stendhal (1783-1842) related the battle of Waterloo in La chartreuse de Parme. The novel's hero, Fabrice del Dongo, came from Italy to support Napoléon but arrived too late in Waterloo and was "only" marginally injured during an unsignificant event. Beside the description of the facts, Stendhal proposed his personal analysis of the disaster, which he attributed to the division and lack of efficiency of the generals, most of them being fed up with the Empire and taking the Bourbons' party.
The international fame of Waterloo has to be credited to Victor Hugo
(1802-1885). The writer visited the battlefield in 1852, guided by the
colonel and historian Charras. His poem L'Expiation, part of the
anthology Les Châtiments (1853), begins with the famous verse:
Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Morne plaine ! (Gloomy plain).
The complete poem has been very brillantly "hijacked" by René Goscinny (1926-1977), the scenarist of Astérix chez les Belges (drawings by Maurice Uderzo, credit to Victor Hugo on the title page!). The book ends with a big battle opposing the Romans to the Belgians and the Gauls, with pastiches of the poem placed in cartouches "captioning" the images. As usual with Goscinny, several verses are also reused, in a less proeminent way, in dialogues all over the book, the most famous of them being: Waterzooie ! Waterzooie ! Waterzooie ! Morne plat (Gloomy dish, waterzooie being a traditional Belgian dish).
Victor Hugo had not finished with Waterloo, since he settled in the village on 7 May 1861 to achieve his masterpiece Les Misérables, in which the battle is described once again. The manuscript of Les Misérables ends as:
J'ai fini "Les Misérables" sur le champ de bataille de Waterloo et dans le mois de Waterloo, aujourd'hui 30 juin 1861, à 8h30 du matin, jour de la kermesse de Mont-St-Jean, un dimancheFour years later, in September 1864, the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) visited Waterloo, slept in Victor Hugo's hotel and asked to be served Hugo's preferred dishes.
(I finished Les Misérables on the battlefield of Waterloo and in the month of Waterloo, today, 30 June 1861, 8:30 PM, the day of Mont-Saint-Jean festival, a Sunday).
Waterloo is world famous for the Chapelle musicale Reine Elisabeth. Founded in 1937 by Queen Elisabeth (1876-1965), herself a very good violonist, the Chapelle provides housing and funding for three years to young musicians, who are personally mentored by leading senior musicians and trained by a panel of professors. The current mentors are Augustin Dumay (violin), Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano), José Van Dam (song) and the Artemis Quatuor (chamber music). The buildings of the Chapelle musicale, built by Comte Paul de Launoit in 1949 and significantly increased since then, houses the twelve finalists (all together) of the famous Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition, also founded by the Queen.
Ivan Sache, 22 December 2007
The flag of Waterloo is white with a representation of the
The flag is described, still as a proposal, in Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones [w2v03a], as "White a green truncated pyramidensigned with a lion passant the dexter paw on a bullet and sitting on a pedestal all black".
The flag is a banner of the municipal arms, granted by Royal Decree on
3 March 1914, as "Argent a pyramid truncated vert ensigned with a
lion passant the dexter paw on a bullet and sitting on a pedestal all
The heraldic description of the arms is erroneous, since the bullet is indeed an orb. The architect Charles van der Straeten, who designed the monument, wrote: "The lion placed at the top symbolizes the victory of the monarchies. Leaning on an orb, he announces the rest conquered by Europe in the Waterloo plains."
[L4Avenir, 29 July 2013]
The adoption of this flag by the Municipal Council of Waterloo
triggered a sour reaction by the Mayor of Braine-l'Alleud, proving that
the old quarrel between the two neighbouring towns can still reemerge
from time to time.
Vincent Scourneau, Mayor of Braine, accused in the newspaper Vers l'Avenir, 3 November 2007, his neighbours of Waterloo of "using and abusing symbols that are not theirs". He is, to some extent, right, since the Lion's Mound is not located on the municipal territory of Waterloo, but on the municipal territory of Braine-l'Alleud (as said above, the battle of Waterloo took place only marginally in Waterloo). The Mayor of Waterloo answered that the Lio'ns Mound has been used on Waterloo's official documents for nearly one century, which is also true since the municipal coat of arms was adopted in 1914.
The controversial Lion's Mound is an artificial hill built in 1820-1826 (see above), after a design by the Dutch Royal architect Charles Van der Straeten. The mound is 43 m in height and 520 m in circonference, and reachable via 226 steps. Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables that the Duke of Wellington did not really enjoy the monument ("They have altered my battlefield!"). Recently, historians have even questioned the competence of the Prince of Orange and his merit in the battle.
The lion was cast from iron, and not from brass melted down from French cannons as the legend says, on a model sculpted by Jean-François Van Geel (1756-1830). Representing heraldically the King of the Netherlands, the lion weights 31 tons, has an height of 4.45 m and a length of 4.5 m.
Ivan SAche, 1 August 2013
Former municipal flag of Waterloo (1950-2007) - Images by Ivan Sache, 22 December 2007
Left, as used
Right, as originally prescribed but not used
Lucien Gerke (Miscellanées sur Waterloo) explains that Waterloo used until very recently a simple, vertically divided green-white flag, not mentioned in Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones.
This flag is indeed based on the first municipal flag produced in 1950, which was wrong. The Heraldry Council stated: "The municipal flag can be made of two vertical stripes, the first argent [white] and the second vert [green], the argent stripe being placed along the hoist".
The manufacturer inadvertently inverted the colours, and Waterloo, has been using, since then, a vertically divided green-white flag.
Pascal Vagnat, Cédric de Fougerolles & Ivan Sache, 22 December 2007