At 6.am on Friday the 16th of June 1815 a cavalcade of staff officers rode into the little village of les Quatre Bras, on the main road to Brussels. It was a small community of farms and coaching inns, serried along the chaussée and around the four branching arms of the crossroads from where the place derived its name. The four arms.
At the crux of the junction, fitting neatly into the northeast segment stood a typical Belgian walled farm. The adjoining buildings were constructed around a central courtyard that just about formed a rough quadrangle. Entrance to wheeled vehicles was through a box like gate right opening onto the road.
Mounted by this gate was a group of officers wearing the blue uniforms of King William’s Netherlands troops and the green of the Nassau Usingen contingent. The newly arrived riders drew rein and an exchange of bows and hat doffing ensued. Four men, two young and two old were soon in earnest conversation. The Young Prince of Orange, booted and braided with a cocked hat and a lavish hussar pelisse listened to his stern old chief of staff, Constant Rebecque, the baby faced Prince Saxe Weimar and severe old Baron Perponcher as they outlined their dispositions.
In the silent, softly undulating fields around the similarly walled farm of Gemioncourt 1,500 yards south of the crossroads waited the Dutch-Belgian troops of Perponcher’s Division. Covered by some artillery to their rear, and in the gloom of the Bois de Bossu, which stretched out from the west side of the main road was Saxe Weimer’s Nassau brigade. It was the calm before the storm.
As the Prince and his now enlarged staff toured the outposts French troops were on the march to take the crossroads before Wellington’s overextended forces could concentrate. The fate of the 1815 campaign was hanging in the balance.
The Battle of Quatre Bras raged all day, thousands were killed and injured in the chaotic and confused fighting that boiled at times up to the very verge of the farm where the Prince of Orange had met his senior officers that morning. The Nivelles-Namur road was held by the steady veterans of the British 5th Division, it’s right flank, in sight of the farm, being held by the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, whose commanding officer was to fall within a stone’s throw of the gate. The Duke of Wellington was often to be seen in this critical area, as more and more troops arrived to bolster the defence, passing the unobtrusive gate in their thousands. One was the Duke of Brunswick, who would lead his men bravely until mortally wounded in the fields around La Bergerie, within sight of Quatre Bras.
With uncontested superiority in cavalry for the entire battle French lancers, Chasseurs and Cuirassiers were repeatedly seen to briefly overrun the crossroads. At one point chasing Wellington into the square of the 92nd. With daylight fading and thus hiding the horrors of the battlefield in shadow, the large collection of buildings around the four arms of the junction became one big hospital. The farm buildings at Quatre Bras were soon choked with wounded men, the courtyard filled up with casualties waiting for surgery. A steady stream of patients and dead crossed each other at the main gate.
There aren’t many buildings left that were present at battle, slowly they have been remodelled or left to decay. Gemioncourt alone now remains as the most untouched remnant. The monuments that came in the years that followed are markers rather than witnesses, and represent something very different to a site that was seen by people two centuries gone. As of 200 years later one of these landmarks, a neglected, crumbling and vandalised but yet somehow dignified farm complex remained at the crossroads. It should have stood as a testament to the passage of time, and the sacrifice of he soldiers who died around it in June 1815. Sadly it was not to be. Whereas the Chateau Hougoumont at Mont St Jean, on the battlefield of Waterloo has been carefully repaired and restored, there was no Project Quatre Bras to save one of the last pieces of what could have been the last battle of the 1815 campaign. After 8 years of gallant resistance to repeated attacks by commercial developers a proposal was slipped past the defenders. Despite the best efforts of heritage conservator Dominique Timmermans, the local Government accepted the new proposal before any impetuous could be gathered by the international historical community. On the 26th of October 2016 the last walls were photographed as nothing more than a pile of dismembered bricks.
A constant thought for humanity is the concept of what the world will be like when we are gone. In two generations who will remember if we don’t take steps to memorialise and preserve where we walked and why we walked there? The soldiers of Quatre Bras were there for a day and then moved onto become soldiers of Waterloo, leaving in the earth behind them men who would remain soldiers of Quatre Bras forever. Now a precious physical link that connected the present with the past has been removed from this old, mostly forgotten field. Reality has been disembodied from memory and a place that the soldiers of 1815; from Wellington and Napoleon down to the lowliest private or camp follower saw, touched and in some cases were taken to die, has gone forever. After 201 years, the old farm has fallen foul to the march of the great enemies of history; Generals Ignorance, Profit an their ally Marshal Progress. And I cannot help but wonder what will fall next?
It is so ironic that this should happen a year after the bicentenary of the 1815 campaign. When for an entire year there was nothing but big talk about commemoration and conservation. People proudly proclaimed the triumph of restoring Hougoumont, the raising of new monuments and the opening of the new visitor centre at Mont St Jean. There was nothing but praise for the giant reenactment to honour the sacrifice of the fallen and the trials of the survivors. One might be forgiven for bitterly reflecting on how well the mound of rubble symbolises how much all of that was worth in the end. How so many of those high ideals are now reflected in the pile of bricks that now adorn the roadside.
Perhaps some people reading this don’t care about Quatre Bras as a moment in history. Perhaps it is the fate of lesser fields of slaughter to fade like the old soldiers who walked away from them. But today it is a piece of 1815 heritage that has been lost, tomorrow maybe it will be one from 1915, or 1945. Perhaps at the very least we can think on that and guard against future heritage losses, heaven knows there’s little else to be done.