Leading military historians have launched Project Hougoumont to restore the Belgian farm complex central to the June 18, 1815, Allied victory at Waterloo. As we noted in our last issue, Richard Holmes —noted historian, host of the BBC television program War Walks and editor of the popular Oxford Companion to Military History— chairs the project. Here, Holmes explains the importance of preserving Hougoumont and shares his thoughts on other militarily significant sites.
Why is it so important that Hougoumont be restored?
Hougoumont was the epicenter of the Battle of Waterloo. It was the focal point of Wellington’s defense. It really was a battle within a battle, and it was decisive. In a sense, you can’t understand Waterloo without understanding Hougoumont.
Can you actually see the key role it played?
Yes, it’s one of those places that always give me that rather strange tingle. You can walk along the orchard wall, which still has got the holes through which the garrison fired, and you can see the short strip of open ground across which the French assaulted repeatedly.
What’s the condition of the site?
The main building was destroyed during the battle. The gardener’s house survives. The wall around the whole complex survives. The chapel is partly original. What you’ve got is quite a lot of original building.
How large is the complex?
Perhaps 300 yards by 200 yards. Only one end of that has buildings; the other end is now rough pasture. What’s round it is now open farmland.
How did you get involved with Project Hougoumont?
Because I wear many hats: I’m president of the British Commission for Military History, president of the Battlefields Trust and patron of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. In all those, I’ve got an interest in the public aspects of the way we teach and commemorate military history. I contacted a group of likeminded individuals, not just military historians, but businessmen, historians, battlefield tour guides. We formed Project Hougoumont and determined to give it our best shot.
Is this a British effort?
No. I’m really anxious that this is not perceived as a British attempt to hijack the battle. Hougoumont was held by the British Foot Guards, the Coldstream Guards and 3rd Foot Guards (now the Scots Guards). But there were German troops and Nassau troops also defending it. It’s very important that we remember Waterloo as a coalition battle, an Allied victory.
What draws you to the world’s great battlefields?
Every year I will be tour guide on eight or 10 tours. Some are civilian tours, and some are military tours, which we these days call “staff rides,” because we’re trying to link the lessons of the past to the campaigns of the future. I particularly enjoy taking the Higher Command and Staff Course. We take them to Normandy from Portsmouth. We consider landings, battles inland, and then drive across France and pick up the Panzer drive in 1940. We look at bits of the First World War; we go up to near Saint-Omer to look at the V-weapons sites. And we come back having looked at Dunkirk. So we look at the two world wars and a bit of the Franco-Prussian War.
By what means do you travel?
I try to ride on a horse through a historical campaign once a year or every other year. I do that because you get a fantastic feel for the country. You’re four feet higher and can see what commanders would have seen at the time. And it’s always a good idea to spend long days in the saddle, because it enables you to feel the impacts of terrain and climate and tiredness. You can’t understand the feel of battle unless you’ve looked at the battlefield. You need to ride over it, sleep on it, shave on it, watch the sun going down and have a malt whiskey on it.
What insights emerge?
Combat is often more terrain-related than we like to think. We say that weapons are becoming much more sophisticated, they go farther and they’re more accurate. None of that does away with understanding terrain and how it relates to movement and to visibility.
Do similar truths emerge from both ancient and modern battlefields?
Yes, I think they do. You see across history the importance of what I call “purposeful activity.” Often, no one is going to tell you what to do, no one knows what to do, but it’s the ability to do the right thing even though no one has told you. Battles are won by the side that generates purposeful activity.
Do you have a favorite battlefield?
I always feel slightly embarrassed about answering that question; I mean these are battlefields after all. But the Somme is a battlefield I’m drawn back to. I go there several times a year. If you want to trace the way Britain now is to a single event, then the Battle of the Somme is a good start. It was the bloodiest day in British military history. We lost nearly 60,000 men in one day. We lost probably 420,000 killed, wounded and missing in the whole of the battle. Those are shocking figures. So for me it’s those windswept uplands above the River Somme in northern France that draw me back. I wouldn’t mind having my ashes scattered over that landscape.
What is the terrain like at the Somme?
It is chalk downland, a big, open, broad-shouldered landscape. I normally spend a day walking the line of the front, and then I’ll do the depth of the battle in another day or two. One depressing thing is that you can walk from the July 1 start line to the November line of ultimate penetration in less than a day. That puts ground and space and suffering in the First World War into context. You can’t understand Britain without understanding what the First World War did to us.
Just as you can’t understand America without understanding the Civil War?
Absolutely right. Antietam remains America’s bloodiest day. These are important parts of our culture.
Which of the battlefields you’ve toured is the most instructive?
Cassino in Italy. There, you suddenly realize that for the U.S. 36th Division to cross the rapidos of Cassino was never an operation of war. You look at the flooded approach, at the fast-flowing river, at the fact that it is dominated by Monte Cassino, and you think, This is never going to work. There are times on battlefields when you smack yourself in the forehead and say, “Ah, yes, I understand.”
Which are the best-preserved sites?
One of the big differences between the U.S. and Europe is that many battlefields in the U.S. have been properly preserved. I was at Guilford Courthouse not long ago, and Cowpens is terrific. I also like Chancellorsville. The combination of having informed specialists on the ground and being able to restore the landscape the way it was is enormously valuable. You’ve managed to preserve your battlefields; we have an unhappy knack of running up supermarkets on ours.
Does seeing a battlefield affect the way history is written?
Battlefields are important because if you look at the way someone deploys, you might think, What an odd thing to do. But if you look at the battlefield, you think, Of course, I now understand why he did it that way.
How did you come to edit the Oxford Companion?
A former colleague of mine, John Keegan, was going to write it, but he concluded that it’d be a killer in terms of time and coordination. The difficult thing wasn’t writing the pieces myself, it was getting subject matter from experts who had lots of other things to do. Many would say, “Yes, of course, I did agree to do it. Now when did you say you wanted it? Surely not this year?” It gave me a lot of gray hairs, but it was well worth it.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.