Vũ Ký

Visitors to Brussels, capital of Belgium, have an opportunity to contemplate the novel and marvelous sights of a city widely considered to be the capital of Europe; not because it is home to the offices of the European Commission and Council, nor because it is the seat of the NATO Military Headquarters, but because one of its suburbs is a mere 20 kilometers from Waterloo, the site of a famous battle that changed the course of Europe’s history nearly two centuries ago. It was there that Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, suffered the most serious defeat of his military career.

Napoleon was an ambitious general who won fame from to Egypt to Russia for his battles. Under his command, the French Grande Armée successfully defeated the Austro-Italian force in Italy at the close of the 18th century; then fought Egypt, pacified Germany, threatened Great Britain, countered the coalition of Prussian-Austrian-Spanish armies, and struck into Russia, achieving famous victories in the early years of the 19th century. He led his army to numerous victories, always fighting for every inch of terrain. Unfortunately, in what is now the Kingdom of Belgium, he suffered an unexpected and serious defeat at Waterloo, and his dreams of becoming an invincible hero were buried forever. “Waterloo” has been synonymous with the fall of the mighty ever since.

This paradox has been celebrated by later generations, who have erected splendid monuments and museums in Belgium to his memory, cementing his place as a tragically defeated general. By contrast, few people take time to glorify Wellington, the British general who valiantly defeated him at Waterloo. A parallel might be drawn here between French history, and the monument to Napoleon’s greatest failure, and the infamous Brass Pillar in the history of Vietnam, which was built near the Vietnam-China border in the 1st century B.C by the Giao Chi people on the orders of Ma Vien, their Chinese invader. But in Vietnamese hearts, the pillar stands not for the glorification of his immortal victories but for the veneration of the heroines Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, two sisters who fought an extraordinary struggle for Vietnam’s independence. It has also served as a reminder to the Southern Vietnamese people of the brutal military invasions of their homeland by the North.

On the Brussels-Charleroi highway, visitors catch sight of a giant lion on an artificial hill rising from a plain. The so-called ‘Lion Mound’ was built in 1826 to symbolize the terrific Waterloo battlefield, and its symmetrical appearance recalls a huge Vietnamese cone hat on an immense field, or a grass-covered Egyptian pyramid. The earth was brought by female laborers from Liege in Southern Belgium in backpacks, and the result is a fantastic achievement, with 226 steps rising to a height of some 45 meters. The lion on top of the mound, a four-and-half meter bronze sculpture weighing 48 tons, represents the two victorious countries of Holland and Britain, and rests on a pedestal believed to go almost as deep underground as the base of the tower.

There are now some seventy places around the world that have taken the name “Waterloo”, from Australia to the United States. Semantically, Waterloo means a damp meadow. The French poet Victor Hugo, writing the history of the battle in one of his finest epic poems, called it a “morne plaine” – “mournful plain” – and was fascinated by the heroism and tragedy of the place, where soldiers fell from their horses among the crashing of swords and the roar of cannon.

I visited it one autumn afternoon in the company of former Lieutenant Colonel T.T.C of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (AFRV), a former head of the AFRV War College and a member of AFRV General Staff. He talked a group of us through the military strategies and tactics used by both sides in this battle. The local museum features a Panorama that recreates the whole battle on a large scale. The scale of the struggle and the courage of those men is almost overwhelming, and the reconstruction is the work of talented artists. Visitors follow the troops of Marshal Ney, one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals, as rows and rows of soldiers fall on the forces of the British-Prussian alliance. You relive men fighting to the death, tumbling off horses, and bleeding horribly, as the sound of horses neighing and guns blazing is piped through hidden speakers. On the horizon, Napoleon, in full dress uniform, on a white horse surrounded by guards, oversees and commands the order of battle, while on the other side the Duke of Wellington’s great army stretches away across the plain. Similar battles between the Chinese and Vietnamese, equally heroic and terrific, came to my mind.

The battle of Waterloo began at noon on June 18, 1815, when 70,000 French troops and 250 guns took on Wellington’s army, which was of equal strength but had only 200 guns. The French had an early advantage, due to some murderous charges; but a counterattack at 8:30 p.m. by troops commanded by 72-year-old General Blucher resulted in the defeat of Napoleon’s General Grouchy, and led to Napoleon’s capture. He was then exiled and forced to spend his remaining years in exile on the lonely island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, where he died 6 years later, in 1821, at the age of 52, under questionable circumstances.

The Panorama brings the battle to life in a remarkable fashion, and you feel surrounded by shouting troops and glittering weapons. It reminded me of Emperor Quang Trung Nguyen Hue, our Vietnamese hero, and his glorious victory over the Chinese during the first days of a distant Tet years ago, in contrast to the shameful defeat by a renowned but unfortunate French hero at Waterloo. It’s almost impossible not to be moved by the image of Napoleon dressed in his white uniform, majestically astride a white horse near the horizon.

The French, looking back and pondering their defeat at Waterloo, probably feel far less patriotic than the Vietnamese when they recall the historic battles of Emperor Quang Trung, a popular hero from Binh Dinh, and his untimely death at the age of 40, when his great dream for our country also died. The Vietnamese have been grieving ever since, as they have for the sister queens Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who drowned themselves in the Hat River rather than face defeat. How painful and sad!

Napoleon was no Vietnamese hero. He fought bravely, and was outnumbered at last, but he fought only to achieve his ambitions, aiming to establish a large empire across Europe that he would rule for the nation and for himself. Our Vietnamese forebears fought heroically, according to ancestral traditions, to defend our country and protect its sovereignty from colonialists and invaders. The image of Napoleon, his serious gaze brimming over with uncommon energy, his sword pointed at the ground, reminded me of the French propaganda of my youth. An old friend of mine, Phan Ngoc Quang, who now lives in Brussels, told me a story about an oral exam he had sat in the 1940s at Khai Dinh secondary school in Hue. Young, scared and embarrassed, he found himself confronted with an aging but unmarried lady, who stared at him severely. He respectfully attempted to address her as Mrs. Crayonne, but despite his politeness and his bow, she answered angrily that she had never married, and should not be addressed as such. He corrected himself quickly and called her ‘Miss’, and apologized for any offense, assuring her it was unintentional. She ordered him to sit down, and asked him questions about Napoleon’s height and the strength of the unit he had commanded in the Nile Estuary in Egypt. He was speechless: such things were never covered in the curriculum, and this infamous examiner then failed him outright simply for his innocent yet evidently upsetting mistake, which had nothing to do with the content of one of the most important examinations he had ever sat in his life. To vent his anger at failing the history test, despite excellent marks in other subjects, and in search of illumination, that afternoon he rushed out to see two other history teachers at the Thuan Hoa school, Ton Quang Phiet and Tran Dinh Dan (who later cooperated with the Vietnamese communists in North Vietnam, respectively as the founder of the Tan Viet [New Vietnam] party and a non-communist collaborator) who, after a lengthy and fruitless search in the books and among their colleagues, gave up with a sigh. One last try in Hue Citadel library revealed that Napoleon was about 1.58 meters high, and his unit had been a single squad. I was quite surprised. How could such a small man have become so powerful a soldier? Oriental physiognomy and astrology have an answer: his prominence was probably due to his five ‘shorts’, one of which was his height.

Napoleon has always been surrounded by fascinating legends. It’s said he would order his subordinates to let him doze for five minutes in the heat of battle, and that he would sit under a tree to dream, gazing passionately at a photo of his lover Josephine before resuming his command. He was a great motivator, typically having the family situation of some of his men reported to him prior to a parade, then walking up to them in the ranks, at pre-arranged positions, singling them out by name and making comforting remarks about their loved ones. It never failed: these men, who thought they were merely anonymous soldiers, were amazed that their famous general knew them and cared for them. Napoleon loved cologne, and perfumed his bath and his body, and would use some 60 bottles a month (as a brain stimulant like opium); every day his aide-de-camp would place large bottles of eau-de-cologne by his desk, in his pocket, in his room, almost everywhere.

Following his defeat at Waterloo, he was exiled to the island of Saint Helena and died there, humiliated, of what was believed to be cancer of the stomach. Later generations and historians believed that Hudson Lowe, his British warden, had introduced small doses of mercury into Napoleon’s food, probably on orders from above. Years later, an autopsy was performed in Paris and the poison was reportedly found in his brain.

Napoleon has been exploited in strange ways, as his body parts were believed to have played a certain significant role in his fame. John Vernon, an American writer on Napoleon, recounted an interesting story about J. Latimer, a U.S. urologist, who bought a tin box containing Napoleon’s embalmed penis in 1971 at an auction at Christie’s in London. The organ had been carefully severed from his corpse and preserved as a souvenir by a French physician who served on Saint Helena, hoping he could make some money selling it later to researchers. A strange kind of admiration!

When Napoleon surrendered in 1815, it came as a surprise that his career should end in such humiliation at Waterloo.  His army was almost intact, which was certainly not the case after the retreat from Russia, when General Eble suffered the near total loss of his army after the disastrous retreat from Russia in November 1812. Despite that failure, he still managed to raise another army to fight valiantly in the final battles. Was it destiny, or was his ambition out of control? I thought of our own AFRV, and its self-destructive, humiliating 1975 retreat in the Highlands of Vietnam during the war against the Vietcong. A withdrawal like that was unprecedented in our military history.  A former Vietnamese general confirmed that he had crushed human skulls under the tracks of his tanks during his escape from death.

In his book ‘It’s Now’,Captain Coignet, Napoleon’s subordinate, wrote about the incredible horror of the retreat from Russia: “It was very cold, minus 28 degrees. Horses died of cold and hunger. Troops roasted horsemeat to eat whenever fire was available. Great numbers of soldiers were unable to carry their weapons and outfits. All had dirty uniforms and struggled to keep moving. Anyone who bent down to help a comrade found he was unable to stand up again. They  had to constantly rub their eyes and noses to keep them from being frozen. Whenever a fire was started, a horde would rush towards it to get warm. War booty from Moscow, including gold and precious items assigned to a general to take to France, had to be dropped in a lake on the way as his troops were too weak to carry it. Even the blackbirds fell from the sky, as though their wings were weighed down with the heavy snow.”

History and later generations, however, had less pity for the Great Army’s self-destructive crossing of the Beresina in the winter of 1812 than for his final decisive battle at Waterloo. Watching a reconstruction in the Waterloo Museum archives, I thought of the rousing speech he delivered to his expeditionary troops from the top of an Egyptian pyramid: “Officers! We must complete our great achievement, and die here or return victorious, like our dignified and undaunted predecessors! Soldiers! Remember, right here on the top of this tall pyramid, forty centuries are watching your marvelous achievements with appreciation!”

Perhaps he was no different from the simple Vietnamese peasant Lam Son, who went on to become Emperor Le Loi, and was renowned for his strong statements both to his people and to the Chinese invaders: “Young men were born to serve great causes and complete significant achievements for eternal fame, not to become humble servants of others!” And let’s not forget Mrs. Trieu Au, another Vietnamese heroine, who motivated her people and troops as follows: “I want to ride the strong winds, crush the violent waves, kill the largest fish in the South China Sea, and wipe out all enemy of my country to save my people from hell. I’ll never side with those ordinary persons who bend down to be exploited.”