First, a bit of background: In 1814, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated his crown and was exiled to the Italian island of Elba. He escaped, made his way back to France, and took power again. No way, said the British (under the Duke of Wellington) and the Prussians (led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher), who were poised to invade France.
Napoleon took the initiative and led his army to confront the allies near the tiny Belgian village of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Some 185,000 troops fought, 48,000 were killed or wounded, and the English language gained the classic expression to “meet your waterloo” (ultimate defeat) as Napoleon certainly did.
“If Napoleon had won at Waterloo, the catchphrase to the history of the world would be different,” says military history expert Caleb Carr. “There were just a lot of impressive guys on both sides. Start with Napoleon, one of history’s greatest figures. You also had the Duke of Wellington, and von Blücher, an amazing character who was 72 years old and charging around the battlefield.”
Join the battle at the hamlet of Lion’s Mound, where a visitors center offers a treasure hunt book for children and two movies chronicle the conflict. Across the road is the Waterloo Wax Museum, where a giant fresco brings the conflict alive.
From there is a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield and its memorial, the Lion’s Mound, a 131-foot-high, man-made cone of earth named for the iron lion that crowns it. On summer weekends, the battlefield reverberates with cavalry, cannon fire, and reenactors in uniform. “Waterloo has taken on the status of a great battle,” says Carr, “but it was really something that transcended military history.”
This piece was adapted from Editor in Chief Keith Bellows’s book 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life and appeared in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.