Napoleon lost battle of Waterloo, but still dominates the battlefield

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There's a new battle being fought here - one that Napoleon could win. It has its roots in the original battle of Waterloo, which, of course, the diminutive French emperor lost to the Duke of Wellington in 1815. But what's at stake today is cold hard cash - not land and lives.

Local residents living at the battle site (now a tourist attraction) are contesting the payment by the Belgian government of 2 million Belgian francs ($ 40,000) a year to the current Duke of Wellington to use about 2,500 acres of rich farmland near the battlefield.

The case dates back to 1815, when King William of the Low Countries, who ruled the territory that had been the Waterloo battle site, awarded the then-Duke of Wellington the tithe rights to the farmland in gratitude for having whipped Napoleon. King William decreed the funds were to be paid to the Duke of Wellington's male descendents in perpetuity.

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When Belgium became an independent state in 1830, it signed a treaty with the Netherlands saying it would pick up the payments.

''It's absolutely crazy that we pay the Duke of Wellington this fantastic sum ,'' says Maurice Ghyssels, who has sold entry tickets at the Waterloo battle site since 1944. ''Do the Argentinians pay (British Prime Minister) Maggie Thatcher because they lost the Falklands war to England? What's more, many of our ancestors fought alongside Wellington, not against him.''

So far, the Belgian government has refused to respond to the residents' plea. But they remain hopeful.

The clash over cash to the duke is, in fact, part of a wider battle between the local residents and the British over how Napoleon and Wellington are commemorated - or not - at the battle site today.

For years, the British have complained that it's not at all clear at the Waterloo site who won in 1815 and who lost.

Tourists who are not history buffs could well come away believing Napoleon had been victorious. Souvenir shops are stuffed with Napoleonic memorabilia - plates, mugs, busts, paintings, posters, playing cards. Mementos of Wellington are hard to find.

Residents explain the Wellington vacuum by saying Napoleon was the more important historical figure.

''Everyone knows who Napoleon was,'' says Jacques Brassine, who runs a cafe at the battle site. ''But who was Wellington? A minor figure in history, that's all.''

Minor or not, the British think Wellington ought to be properly honored. A few years ago, they set up the Waterloo Committee, an organization of British and Belgian citizens.

Not long ago, the committee placed three commemorative plaques at key points around the battlefield - in English. The French-speaking Belgians of the region quickly issued a formal complaint over the ''Britainization'' of the battlefield.

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