Dr. ASI [II]

[an interview with Dr. Adrian-Silvan Ionescu]

by Adrian Ioniţă and Silvia-Alexandra Zaharia

As promised, we continued our interview with  Dr.  ASI, exploring the wonderful world of re-enactment. We talked at length about Waterloo and his 2008 re-enactment, and poured the story in a cup too precious to be mixed by interventions. Here we have: Dr. Asi at Waterloo!

[For the first part of the interview  click here]

[Waterloo re-enactment © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

Dr. ASI:  The battle of Waterloo, fought on the 18th of June 1815, was one of the most important events in modern European history. Even though the fighting took place in several other spots such as Mount-Saint-Jean, Chateau d’Hougoumont, Papelot, Plancenoit, and Haie-Sainte while the tiny village of Waterloo was spared, Duke of Wellington named the battle after it. He thought that Waterloo sounds more British than the other names and was easier for his countrymen to pronounce it correctly.
It was also in Waterloo that the imposing knoll with the cast-iron lion on top was erected in 1826. There was the spot where the young Prince Wilhelm d’Orange, son of King Wilhelm I of the Netherlands, was wounded trying to stop the attack of the French Imperial Guard. The women of Liège helped to the building of this knoll. They carried in their backs the soil dug from the battlefield. Thus the uneven ground of that field, full of ravines and ridges (to say nothing about the „Sunken Lane” which was such a formidable obstacle for the charging French cavalry who had such terrible casualties there), was turned into a plain, to the Duke of Wellington’s great distress when he visited it again, years later. The Lion Hill is 40.50 meters high and 228 steps lead to the top. The iron lion, 4,45 meters high and weighing 29 tons, is the work of the sculptor Van Geel of Malines.

On the first decade of the 20th century, a circular building was erected at the foot of the hill for mounting in it the Waterloo Panorama. The painting is 12 meters high and 110 meters long and was completed, in 1912, by Louis Dumoulin, with the add of three other artists, Robiquet, Malespina and Desvarreux. All these preparations were meant to celebrate, in 1915, the hundredth anniversary of the battle but all ceremonies were concealed at the outbreak of another war, World War I.

[On the battle field © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

Any explanation of the battle, no matter how detailed, remains meaningless without experiencing the real nerve of fighting or the relaxing hours in camp. Re-enactors from all over the world gathered, on 21st and 22nd June, at Waterloo for the „10ème Bivouac Napoléonien”. We, two Romanian re-enactors, packed our uniforms, cleaned our muskets and joined the party. We were friendly received by Mr. Jan De Coster, President of the A.B.R.R.Hi., who, for the event, was using the name and rank of capitain Sacristain  de la 8-eme Demi Brigade de ligne. He kindly showed us the place for camping and lent us a tent. The French troops were camped at Plancenoit and around the Dernier Quartier Général de Napoléon while the British-Netherlander troops were camped in the Hougoumont garden. The re-enactors were provided with wood, straw, hay and water, as well as black gun powder. The organizers limited the participation to no more than 1.200 re-enactors.

Valahii la Waterloo

Wallachians at Waterloo © 2008, Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu

Each group provided its own food and cooking utensils. Women in white aprons and bright bonnets were already busy frying sausages or boiling the soldiers” soup. In the meantime, their husbands or friends were cleaning their weapons, polishing their boots or adjusting their uniforms. It was getting dark. Fires were alighted everywhere and jolly soldiers sat around them, mugs in hand and pipes in the corner of their mouths. Some sang old tunes. Others spoke loudly about former campaigns in which they fought. Soon, everybody went to sleep and a deep silence covered the camp. We immediately fell asleep on our straw beds, over which were spread our blankets. It was a restful sleep.

The bugler sounded the reveille at 7 o’clock sharp. We were anyway awaken an hour earlier for we were too excited to sleep late in such a day. After breakfast, we were included in a multi-national company. Our comrades came from Italy, Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and, among them all… we, the Wallachians. The captain was an American whose orders were swiftly translated into French, Dutch and Flemish by a plump, multi-lingual sergeant. A half-hour drill was enough to prepare us for the review. The sergeant smiled contented: in spite of our different nationalities, we were all full-fledged soldiers of the Empire. Napoleon might have been proud of us!

[The Imperial Guard © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

We were reviewed by Marshal Ney, „the bravest of the brave”. He passed by on horseback, with his glittering staff, at a slow trot. He had a commanding bearing. Slim, tall, with auburn whiskers, and wearing a coat with a stiff embroidered collar and golden epaulettes, Marshal Ney looked at his part.

After the review, we were dismissed. A French voltigeur informed us that there was a sutler at Hougoumont, in the British camp. Of course, we were not at war yet, so that we decided to go there. In the wide garden, there was a camp like ours. A British drum major rehearsed with his bandsmen. Some Scotsmen were preparing their breakfast. One of them braided the pigtail of one of his comrades. Three colorful pipers toured the camp  playing old warlike tunes. Sergeants drilled their subordinates.

Two blue-eyed, fair-haired little girls were dragging a heavy loaded garbage cart. For a moment I thought that, at least one of them was indeed Causette, the poor little girl from Victor Hugo’s „Les Misérables”.

[Causette with the buggy © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

The sutler opened his shop under a large tent, in the middle of the camp. He was royaly provided with everything necessary for soldiers during the campaign : thread and needles, buttons, clay pipes, linen shirts, leather or wooden shoes, stockings and gloves, canteens, earthen jars and mugs, tin pans, cutlery, candles and lanterns, powder flasks and flint for guns, etc. We bought everything we needed at convenient prices and left.

Our next stop was at the imperial headquarters where a pageant took place. The Emperor reviewed the troops and, when he saluted the soldiers, everybody shouted from the bottom of their hearts: „Vive l’Empereur!”. Afterwards he retreated in his tent where a war conference was held among his generals. The entrance was guarded by grenadiers of the Old Guard, who wore their huge bearskin caps. Rustam, the emperor’s faithful mameluke bodyguard, proudly rode his Arabian thoroughbred in front of the admiring infantrymen. In the courtyard, Capitain Sacristain promoted to the rank of corporals some of his gallant soldiers of the 8-eme Demi Brigade.

We returned for lunch to our camp and, in the afternoon, the sergeant called for volunteers to roll cartriges. Then, each man got his amount of ammunition and was ready for the march. It was still hot. The American captain gathered his company and led it to the battlefield. The five-mile-march was tiresome. To keep the infantrymen’s pace, the drummers – among whom there were a few boys of six or seven-year  old – beat rithmically.  In order to revive his men, a corporal sang‚ La Carmagnole’ and other revolutionary songs. He had a nice tenor voice. Cantinières and other women who followed the column offered water and candies to tired soldiers. Stops were made from time to time either for giving the men a few minutes rest or to make room for the cavalry. Whenever a cavalry troop passed by, the infantrymen shouted joyously „Vive la cavalerie!”

[Lighting the cannon © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

In spite of heat and exhaustion, rank and file hurried to the sound of  guns. The battle had already begun. Through thick clouds of gun smoke we perceived the thin red line of the British army. A strange thing which captured my attention was an obese officer who was in command of the Royal Fusiliers. On our side, six unbelievable short French artillerymen passed the infantry dragging their heavy gun. They soon opened fire towards the enemy. We were also ordered to fire a volley. Our captain gave his orders in French but with a conspicuous American accent. We were ordered forward and, soon, we found ourselves in the front line, facing the Belgians. A bayonet charge followed and we stand it, bravely. Among our enemies were also some… friends whom we hadn’t met since our last participation to Passchendaele. Instead of crossing arms with them, we changed cheers and shook hands. However, this joyous state hadn’t lasted long for we were ordered to withdraw. In perfect order, we returned to our point of departure. Bang! Bang! The fusillade continued intermittently. At a moment, my comrade’s gun detonated with such a roar and the recoil was so strong the  gun’s butt left his shoulder and was about to knock me in the chin. In order to avoid the imminent accident, I stepped to the left. With eyes wide opened and a scared face, my Wallachian friend looked behind to assure himself that nothing wrong had happened. The explosion was probably caused by a double charge. Our hands and faces were black with gun powder. „Still clean?” asked me, ironically, a ragged rifleman in my left, whose face was covered with a thick mixture of sweat and black powder, as if he was bathed in shoe polish.

[The British Army © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

The hand-to-hand fighting continued on the streets and in the main square of the tiny village. However, many soldiers already retreated. Marshal Ney, uniform in disorder, horseless and sword in hand, cried to the fleeing soldiers : „See how a marshal of France can die!”  It seemed that nobody listened to him. A huge sapeur tried to make prisoner a stout British soldier. The first caught the Brit from his white accouterments and dragged him to the French lines. Three resolute ‚redcoats’ came running to their comrade’s rescue and got him free in spite of the helping hand, I gave to the tall sapeur.

It was getting dark. Lacking ammunition or being too tired to continue fighting, many re-enactors played dead or wounded and lied on the ground. The hill was dotted with their bodies. Cantinières and other female camp followers, torch in hand, searched among the „dead and dying” as though looking for a lost husband, relative or friend. Anyway, the „dead” came to life and the column moved slowly towards camp.

Unlike the other night, there was no singing and no merriment in our camp. Except for some too thirsty privates who went to drink a beer of a glass of wine at the sutler’s, the rest fell asleep immediately.

We were awaken  this time by the bugler to another day of fighting. Our uniforms were still wet with the previous day’s perspiration. I spread my coat on the top of the tent, to dry. Simulating the Sunday Eucharist, a smiling cantinière gave a sip of rum to each man from a voltigeurs company. Just for their encouragement! After a swift and frugal breakfast, we marched to the Chateau d’Hougoumont. Today the fighting took place in a field of barley nearby the castle. It was difficult to advance through the waist-high barley. The artillerymen brought their guns with much more difficulties than the other day. The battery was places in our left and almost deafened us with its roar. The cuirassiers and other French cavalrymen charged many times the British squares. However, the Brits resisted. A horse fell upon his rider and the horseman remained motionless on the field. A 21st century ambulance came to his aid. Our sergeant joked : „You see, it’s better in the infantry: at least, you are on your own feet!”

We had a few clashes with British and Belgian infantry alike. At a time, the British cavalry – formed mainly of pretty, smiling amazons clad in hussar uniforms – attacked us, and we were ordered to form the square. In this way, we bravely resisted their shock. In early afternoon a last gun fire put an end to the fight. The British left the battlefield while the French paraded in the front of the emperor, shouting vigorously „Vive l’Empereur!”.

It looked more like a French victory than a British one. The „grand finale” took place on the main street of the town, just in front of the „Wellington Café” (was it just a coincidence!?) : the French troops were lined on both sides of the street and the emperor, followed by his magnificent staff, reviewed them, while the band played the Imperial Anthem.

[Dr. ASI, an overly exhausted grenadier © 2008 Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu]

Back to camp, we began packing. I was in such a state of exhaustion  that I laid down on my red blanket while my Wallachian comrade was taking down the tent. Even though the afternoon sun was quite hot, it was impossible for me to change my position or move in the shadow. A photographer came and took some snapshots with the „dying grenadier” advising me not to be bothered by his activity. As long as real life intruded in our 19th century dream, maculating with its meager presence the oversized Napoleonic shadow, it was time for us to leave.

So was the battle of Waterloo!

Dr. ASI [II]

2 thoughts on “Dr. ASI [II]

  1. Those uniforms are magnificent and the choice and quality of the pictures is superb. I commend you on your site it contains a lot of quality information and is well done.

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