Napoleon in Flanders: The battle lost, but history conquered


This month marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, after which Europe would never be the same. The emperor also left his mark in Flanders: from forts and canals to trees and beets

Local legacy

Napoleon Bonaparte, who always saw things big, left behind a series of buildings in Belgium that still stand today. And the Frenchman also lives on in folk tales. He visited Flanders, at the time called the Southern Netherlands, several times, including various trips to Ostend and Antwerp, two cities that were of great importance in his strategy against England.

Napoleon’s passages in the region echo in many local folk tales. In May of 1810, for instance, he stayed in Bruges and made a trip to Sluis, now on the Dutch side of the border, to inspect the defence of the town in the estuary of the Scheldt. At one point he walked thoughtlessly through a group of children who were playing with their marbles. One of the children boldly snarled at him that he had ruined their game. Fortunately for the boy, Napoleon didn’t understand Dutch, and his guide was careful enough not to provide a translation.

A year later, Napoleon travelled the same route to check how the defences along the coast were advancing. At what is now the Zwin nature reserve, then still a partially open watercourse, he was ferried by a boatman named Hennefreund.

Napoleon asked the man how much of his precious time the crossing would take. Hennefreund made an estimate, and Napoleon – control freak that he was – timed the crossing on his watch. When the boatman’s estimate proved to be exactly correct, the emperor praised his punctuality and granted him an annual payment of 100 golden napoleons (the currency of the time). The region’s archives show that this premium was paid  effectively until the Battle of Waterloo.

A dig at the French

Napoleon was also a builder, and his reign over Flanders has left many traces. One of the most famous is Fort Napoleon in Ostend, a massive pentagonal brick fortress in the dunes near the coastal city. Work began in 1811, and in 1814 the last stone was laid.

By then, Napoleon had already suffered serious blows in Russia and Leipzig, and the fort was never used for military purposes. Until later: The Germans used it in their coastal defence during the Second World War. To the west of Ostend, a second, similar fort was under construction but wasn’t finished before the Battle of Waterloo. The British later finished it and called it Fort Wellington as a dig at the French. It was demolished after the Second World War to make way for the Wellington race track.

In front of the MAS museum in Antwerp,  meanwhile, lie the city’s two oldest docks, the Bonaparte and Willem docks. Both were dug at Napoleon’s behest and changed the nature of the harbour. Previously, Antwerp had been a river port, dependent on the tides, but the Frenchman saw things differently. Antwerp was, in his words, “a loaded gun pointed at the heart of England”.

The two new docks, therefore, had a primarily military function, to harbour warships. However, it wasn’t Napoleon who chose to give his name to the dock. Until 1903, they were known as the Little Dock and the Big Dock. Only later were the docks named after, respectively, Napoleon and King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Ambitious plans

Staying with a watery theme, the Damse Vaart is also known as the Napoleon canal, for it was the emperor who, in 1810, gave the order to dig the canal.  The 15 kilometre waterway links Bruges to the Dutch border town of Sluis and is one arguable the most beautiful canal in Flanders.

Napoleon’s intention was to connect Bruges with the western Scheldt estuary, and the waterway was part of a planned network of canals along the coast that would make it possible to quickly move troops and supplies. Doing this by sea proved impossible because of the English naval force; using the canals, a confrontation with the English fleet could be avoided.

Antwerp is a loaded gun pointed at the heart of England

- Napoleon Bonaparte

But Napoleon would never get to see it in all its glory, as the last part was completed only in 1856, long after Waterloo. However, he unintentionally gave Flanders a beautiful waterside bike path.

He also had ambitious plans in the north of Limburg, though it’s hard to find any traces of them nowadays. To revive the port of Antwerp, he envisioned a complex of canals that would connect the Scheldt with the Meuse and the Rhine and, in 1804, digging began on this “Grand Canal of the North”.

In Lozen, in the extreme north of Limburg, a supply channel was planned to carry water from the river Meuse, where a huge statue of the emperor would be raised. (Napoleon was a stranger to modesty.)

The canal between the Scheldt and the Meuse was never completed. Still, all that work wouldn’t be for nothing: Part of the course was later used to create the Zuidwillemsvaart and the Bocholt-Herentals canal. In the Netherlands and Germany there are still obvious traces of Napoleon’s Grand Canal, but in Lozen, you really need to know where to look. Between the bushes and fields, there are excavated portions to be found from Napoleon’s canal, and on aerial photos the course is clearly visible.

Sweet legacy

The beet is quite a common sight in Flemish fields, and it’s another of Napoleon’s legacies. He enforced a continental blockade to bring his arch enemy England to its knees. No English products could reach the mainland, like, for example, sugar from the colonies.

The process of producing sugar from beets was already known, but it wasn’t economically viable because imports of sugar cane were very cheap due to slave labour. Napoleon dictated that certain areas must concentrate on cultivating sugar beets, and so it happened.

After his defeat at Waterloo, beet cultivation collapsed, but following the abolition of slavery, Flemish farmers quickly switched back to beet production, as they do to the present day.

Another legacy that stirs the imagination rather more is that of the eponymous trees, where Napoleon would have tied his horse during his many travels. The stories behind these sites are usually very similar, except for a few details. Brasschaat, Antwerp province, has such a tree, for example, as does Sint-Agatha-Berchem in Brussels, where an old lime tree had the honour of guarding the emperor’s horse. Flanders also has a number of  “Napoleon beds” where he laid down to rest on his many trips.

Napoleon appeals to the imagination, then as much as now. Ghent was home to a fan club-cum-veterans association for quite a long time. As Napoleon enforced conscription, many Flemings fought in the French army. After Napoleon was defeated and banished for the first time in 1814, all non-French soldiers were dismissed from the army.

When Napoleon’s remains were sent home to France in 1840, the veterans from Ghent united, and the Fraternal Philanthropic Society of Veterans and Brothers of the French Empire was born. The Napoleonites celebrated the birth and death of the emperor each year and, at one point, came up with a plan to erect an enormous statue of their hero.

The massive monument should have stood the test of time, but in the end it was never built. The new Belgian government didn’t trust the veterans completely because, with the revolutionary wave of 1848, many former combatants turned out to still have that revolutionary fire buring in their bellies.

In the Campo Santo cemetery in the Sint-Amandsberg district of Ghent, a relic of the veterans’ association can be found: an obelisk (probably a reference to Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt) with the imperial eagle on top, tucked away in the branches. At each corner of the monument stands an iron letter N.

Napoleon may have lost the battle of Waterloo two centuries ago, but his memory still lingers on in Flanders.