SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tens of thousands of people are gathering in Belgium for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. That bloody conflict was the final defeat for Napoleon by a coalition of his enemies. The re-enactment is drawing fans of history, want-to-be-soldiers and tourists, and though he may have lost, Napoleon is still a big draw. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was there and sent this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: With 6,000 people dressed in period costumes wandering around the countryside near Waterloo, there were bound to be a few interesting situations...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
BEARDSLEY: ...Like when Napoleon jumped out of a car at an intersection where the police had blocked a road. A crowd begins to gather as the spunky 19th century French Emperor takes on modern-day Belgian traffic cops. We've got Napoleon here, says one policeman into his walkie-talkie.
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BEARDSLEY: The fervor for Waterloo is huge, and the re-enactors take it very seriously. For the last week, they've been living in camps, or bivouacs, and holding drills, cooking in cast-iron pots over campfires and soaking in the atmosphere. Matthias Kretchmar has been dressing as a Prussian officer and participating in mock battles for the past 25 years. He says playing this role, especially at Waterloo, is intoxicating.
MATTHIAS KRETCHMAR: This is a history you can touch, you can feel and you can live inside. It's not only a book you can read. You can have the taste, you can have the feeling.
BEARDSLEY: Emilio Multari from Bordeaux says re-enacting a battle is like stepping into another life. The adrenaline and stress of the battle transport you, and it's sometimes hard not to want to rewrite history.
EMILIO MULTARI: (Through interpreter) Especially because we know their mistakes. We know how close this battle was. For instance, if Napoleon could've stopped the Prussians from linking up with the British in Wellington, the outcome would've been completely different.
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UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in French).
BEARDSLEY: Re-enactors in Napoleon's Imperial Guard sing songs from the time about the hardships they endure. Soldiers from all sides were exhausted and famished. The only thing there was plenty of was wine. Napoleon may have lost the battle of Waterloo and spent the remainder of his life in exile, but people of every nationality here are fascinated by the emperor's image of self-made man and military genius. Historian Howard Brown, who's written about Napoleon, says the French general inspired complete loyalty from his troops because he promoted him on merit and got down in the dirt with them.
HOWARD BROWN: Napoleon doesn't work like Wellington did, strictly through the officers and distain the men. He was quick to get onto the field of battle after the carnage and find heroes and decorate them in front of others, at all ranks.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
BEARDSLEY: Many women are playing male soldiers in the re-enactment. They're also playing women of the day. Uta Grab and Nicole Mayer, who describe themselves as Prussians, are pulling children in a wagon with baskets of bread on their backs.
You're a wife of a soldier?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
BEARDSLEY: Is this how it worked? The wives came?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And gave water and a little bit of food and everything.
BEARDSLEY: But when it was very violent, did they run away? Or...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No, they stayed there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
BEARDSLEY: But they didn't bring their children.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sometimes sure.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Sometimes, yes, because they couldn't stay alone.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The whole family.
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BEARDSLEY: The re-enactment is glorious. Colorful soldiers on horseback sweep across the green wheat fields as cannons fire and 100,000 spectators look on from grandstands. The real battle of Waterloo was one of Europe's bloodiest. In one day, in a small area of farmland, some 50,000 men and 10,000 horses lay dead and dying. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Waterloo, Belgium.
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