Mercer’s Tour of Ghent

Mercer dedicated an entire chapter of his famous Journal of the Waterloo Campaign to Ghent. Yet most of us omit Ghent from a trip to Belgium. Waterloo (of course), Brussels the busy architectural capital, and the compact stunning medieval beauty that is Bruges are the main stopping points. Yet Ghent is easy to find, standing half-way between Brussels and Bruges, a vibrant City in its own right, and at the heart of the British build-up to the Waterloo campaign. Ghent deserves a visit, and once again Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign is the ideal tour companion.

A few words of wisdom to get you there: In the old days there were no road signs and few maps, so troops improvised their journeys from town to town with the help of a local guide. Often the guide had never travelled beyond their immediate boundaries, and confusion often arose with villages having numerous different names. Relying on road signs or maps or train destinations to find Ghent is equally tricky these days with the Flemish name for Ghent being Gent, and the Walloons calling it Gand. Just be prepared for a variety of confusing signs, and head onwards with confidence!

Having spent just one night in Bruges (see here) Mercer travelled via Eccloo, where he faced his first awkward encounter with the Duke of Wellington, the next day arriving in Ghent. Reaching the City at the Barriere de Bruges (also known as Brugge Poort or Brugsche Poort), a boundary gate and meeting point of canals and rivers, his G Troop Royal Horse Artillery of 6 guns, over 200 horses, almost 200 men, with their limbers, wagons and baggage made their way right across the City “into the very heart of bustle, business, fine shops, and crowds of people” to the cavalry barracks adjoining the Barriere de Bruxelles.

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The cavalry barracks was full, so having “parked up our guns and put up our horses” the men headed back to the other side of town. Those searching for the cavalry barracks today will search in vain, but there is an interesting story to tell. Now the site of a 1990s social housing project, Hollainhof, in 1815 the cavalry barracks already had a long history. Created as a hospital in 1582, the Pesthuis (Pesthouse) could accommodate 200 patients, and in epidemic free periods soldiers were cared for. The dead were buried on site. Rebuilt just in time for the capture of Ghent by the French in 1678, it became an army billet. During the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714) the hospital treated British, French, German, Prussian, Spanish and Swedish soldiers. As the site evolved by 1735 it boasted 34 chimneys and became a full-time regimental cavalry barracks, a ‘cazerne’. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars diminished the maintenance and furnishing of the barracks, degrading to such an extend that in 1814 the Prussians would house only their horses, but not their men, on site. Over the last century the barracks became known as the Hollainkazerne, in memory of a Belgian officer who died in WW1.

Mercer records that he was billeted in ‘Bruge Straet’. The most likely candidate is Brugsche Poort Street, leading to the Brugsche Poort, both of which have mostly been subsumed into modern streets and road junctions. But there is much else to see. Just around the corner Mercer writes that he established his breakfast mess with one of his officers in a palace on Pepper Street, with rooms of ‘magnificent dimensions’ but ‘very bare of furniture’. This 1724 palace built by Baron Reylof is now the premier hotel of Ghent, the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof, the ideal base for your stay, grandly and brightly furnished and boasting the finest restaurant in the City. Parts of the old interior and high garden wall described by Mercer remain intact.

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Mercer’s men had the honour of furnishing a guard for King Louis XVIII of France, who had fled from Paris, via Bruges, to Ghent. The 1767 rococo Hotel d’Hane-Steenhuyse in Veldstraat is now on one of the major shopping street of the City. During 1814 the Hotel and neighbouring buildings saw much of the activity leading to the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war between Britain and America, but not before the British burned the White House and the Americans imposed numerous ignominious defeats on the British. It is interesting to note that the French King used retired grey horses from our very own ‘Scots Greys’ for his stud, kept at the same cavalry barracks as Mercer’s horses.

A few hundred metres from the Reylof, towards the City Centre, along Poel, is the Hotel de Flandre, one of two places where Mercer and his fellow officers kept their council over supper in the company of Frenchmen who Mercer ‘shrewdly suspected … were spies’. At the time Hotel de Flandre was also the base of the French minister, writer and historian François-Rene de Chateaubriand who fell in and out of favour with both Royalists and Bonapartists. The hotel’s balcony above the main entrance, and the entrance hall remain original.

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Daytime wanders around the City lead you to the magnificent Place d’Armes, now known as Kouter, the flower square, where Mercer first laid eyes on the Duc de Berri, a French royal who was later to cause so much amusement to G Troop and the entire British cavalry force. Close by is where Mercer, along with many other Waterloo diarists, were hugely surprised to see French Marshal Auguste de Marmont, with two good arms, whereas it had been common knowledge in England that he had lost one in his defeat at Salamanca in 1812. Mercer spotted Marmont exercising his horse near the Place d’Armes beside the river; then as now there is only one candidate for such an open space, Koop Handelsplein, now the car park in front of the Law Courts.

Mercer visited and admired the countryside views from the Citadel. Search a modern map and you will head for the wrong Citadel, a park to the South of the City. In 1815 the Citadel was a huge but ancient defensive structure on the East side of the City, actually known as the Kasteel, now mostly subsumed within industrialised Ghent and over-run with rail tracks. A visit to the romantic ruined remains of St Bavo’s Abbey, which used to sit within the Kasteel, will have to satisfy the modern traveller.

If you do wander towards the modern Citadel Park, en-route you’ll find the hill where Mercer stumbled on an old abandoned square monastery with a central court – which became part of a more modern barrack complex, the Kattenberg, now part of Ghent’s huge University. The Citadel park was laid out in the 1870s, on the site of a Citadel erected by none other than the Duke of Wellington from 1819 to 1831 whilst Belgium remained part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Walking back to his billet from the Kasteel, Mercer passed through the Marche aux Grains, another huge square, before reaching an enormous cannon, the Basilisc, 18 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. This clearly intrigued him and he quotes various sources for his research. The cannon still stands proud in Groot Kanonplein, a wonder of solid construction weighing 12,500 kg dating back to 1431. It was probably more of a threat than a weapon having never been fired in anger.

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A keen observer of architecture, Mercer was intrigued by the old castle, Castle Ganda, or Gravensteen, which now forms such a major feature at the heart of the old City. In Mercer’s day the castle was crumbled, industrialised as a textile mill and housed working families. Much of the destruction of medieval Ghent, and its subsequent restoration, is due to Ghent’s pre-eminent role in the continental industrial revolution. A brave Ghentois smuggled an English spinning machine piece by piece from England; had he been caught his treason would have carried the death penalty, but he survived to kick-start the continental industrial revolution. Ghent’s pre-eminent industrialisation led to the 1913 World Fair when the city received a major facelift and rebuilding programme.

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Mercer admired the cleanliness of the meat market, writing “If ever I could relish a sausage it would be a Ghent one.” The architecture of the Town Hall and the Cathedral St Bavon inspired him, just as much as the behaviour of Catholics intrigued him. The Cathedral’s marble tombs and wooden pulpit that he so admired are there to be seen, and the Cathedral also houses the medieval Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, an altarpiece by van Eyck. This, the most stolen piece of art in history, was at the time of Mercer’s visit was sitting in the Paris Louvre, one of many art treasures looted by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The Cathedral’s interior is simply staggering.

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A must-visit is the Ghent City Museum, STAM. But beware, all museums and public places have different opening days and sometimes very limited opening times, so forward planning is absolutely essential.

In Belgium you also need to know the best Chocolate shops in town. Fear not, your author has done all the hard testing and sampling for you. The very best is Yuzu, in Walpoortstraat. Here, Nicolas Vanaise, a former middle-east archaeologist whose grandparents ran a top traditional Ghent cake-house, hand-makes chocolates of stunning simplicity and beauty, yet with taste of enormous complexity and richness. Pricey, yes, but the flavour just lasts and lasts, and lasts, so you only need consume one at a time. As a historian Nicolas will also engage in active debate on the what-ifs of the Waterloo campaign!

And finally, do enjoy a stroll after dark. The City’s most beautiful old guild houses, along Korenlei and Graslei, are shown off at their best.

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Hougoumont, A History in Postcards

This article was kindly published in the Waterloo Journal Vol.38 No.4 Winter 2016.

Hougoumont, Hougomont, Goumont, Gomont. This multi-named, tight-knit assemblage of château, home, farm, chapel, woodland, orchards, gardens, walls, hedges and gates, ditches and lanes has impressed itself upon our psyche as a stoically defended killing ground of huge international significance.

Often argued as the “key to victory” of Waterloo, the shattered remnants of fruit-trees, flowering shrubberies, woodland and alleys of holly and yew that bore witness to the events of 18th June 1815 are long gone. Yet three great lighting-scarred Sweet Chestnuts still stand near the South Gate, and of these just one clings to life, our enduring witness to the heroism and horrors of war and the trials and tribulations of Private Clay. Peppered with musket balls, massive, gnarled and ancient, this tree is our one surviving link with this place on that famous day.

The ground and property are also giving up their secrets, with the current superb works of archaeologists challenging and adding to the received wisdom of the past two centuries. The bicentennial restoration of the property now preserves this great fortress for future generations, but what of its history before the battle, and what can we learn about its evolution following the battle?

The local historian Jacques Logie found two mentions of “Gomont” in the 1300s, the second as a “tenure and home”. In 1474 the Order of St John of Jerusalem (the Knights of Malta) sold, for 100 crowns, ‘the Goumont’ comprising 24 bonniers of land (a bonnier being a measure of the amount of land that could be sown with around 8 bushels of seed). As the estate passed through various hands and grew in size the château was built, before passing in 1671 to a Spanish Lowlands courtier, whose grandson became Lord of Gomont. Left to a childless widow in 1791, the land then passed through marriage to an Austrian Knight, Philippe Louville, who had previously built a large house ‘Hotel d’Hougoumont’ in Nivelles in 1771.

The layout of the extensive woodland and formal gardens surrounding “Chateau d’Hougoumont” in 1771 is recorded in the beautiful cartography of Ferraris. By 1815 the land-use was much changed, mostly turned over to farmland, with a gardener living on site. In May 1816, the 86 year old Louville finding that he was unable to restore his damaged estate, sold it. Whilst the new owner pledged to preserve Hougoumont, the long-suffering gardener who’d survived the travails battle was required to leave his home. Hougoumont remained in private hands until 2003.

The extensive paintings following the battle show us varying and often misleading images, so it is good to jump the decades to the age of photography to get a ‘feel’ for what Hougoumont and its surroundings were like to the Victorian and Edwardian traveller. But to prove the point, our first postcard is just a drawing, giving a wild interpretation of how the Chateau looked prior to the battle. This image is very different to other images of the Château (such as those now on display at Hougoumont and the model beneath the Panorama), in design, style, layout and finishing, a warning that artistic licence knows no bounds!

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Postcards of Hougomont are numerous, so we can only show a small selection here. Our second card is typical of the familiar scene taken of the chapel, connected to remnants of the Chateau that was destroyed on the day. Rustic workers are often a feature of these images:

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Moving back we take in a wider view of the working farm complex, looking on to the gardener’s house and the South gate, above which today is the cosy and tasteful apartment now let by the Landmark Trust:

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Turning around to look down towards the North Gate, various postcards over the years show many different forms of gate, heights of wall and changes in land-use beyond the gate up towards the allied ridge. In the foreground is the well, much collapsed since the end of the battle, which itself became a popular photography spot thanks to Victor Hugo and his myth of 300 French bodies:

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This famous view from outside the North Gate appeared on many cards, echoing the famous ‘closing of the gates’ event. Again showing many different sections and levels of brick and stone, confirming that the walls that we see today are not what the soldiers of 1815 saw. Just visible are pillars which used to extended the main barn out into the courtyard:

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Walking around to the South Gate we have two images. The first shows the onset of organised tourism, with the Victoria to Waterloo coach with some very well dressed ladies and gentlemen:

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The second, older view without the ugly extension, is particularly unusual, showing two glazed windows above the South Gate with a view right through the Gardener’s house, into the courtyard and up to the ridge beyond:

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Walking along the South side of the wall, we reach the corner of the formal garden wall. The preparation for the defence of these walls on the night before Waterloo has consumed much ink, and it is intriguing to reflect on the latest thinking that the loopholes were actually prepared by Frenchmen, loyal French royalists, as they prepared to defend Hougoumont against the revolutionaries back in 1794!

7Climbing back in to the formal garden (not encouraged today!) we head back to the courtyard and a very unusual view showing the internal West wall of the complex with low farm buildings that today are simply not there, and from studying many maps from 1816 and 1820 they appear to have been erected long after the battle:

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This final evocative image of the crumbling North Gate amply shows the state to which Hougoumont can deteriorate without love and care. It also serves as a reminder that restoration did not just occur for the recent bicentennial, but has been an essential and necessary part of the Hougoumont story ever since the battle:

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Can you help?

If you can help to date the cards, or have additional information to offer, your contributions and suggestions are most welcome. Please do get in touch with the author at www.GTroopRHA.co.uk. This is the second of a series of articles covering the evolution of different buildings on the battlefield, and if you missed La Belle Alliance in the last journal the full article is on the author’s website. The next article will feature the Lion Mound complex.

Recommended further reading:

The recent output of high-quality analysis on Hougoumont is quite extraordinary. This list is a selection of my favourites, mostly on the web. Finding the time to read them will richly repay those with an enquiring mind: