The Lion’s Mound with Alain Lacroix



Experienced Waterloo battlefield tour guide Alain Lacroix speaks to Waterloo Uncovered’s Camille Machiels about the history of the most famous landmark on the Waterloo battlefield.

An image of Alain Lacroix next to the Lion's Mound

Introduction

Alain Lacroix is a tour guide for the 'Guides 1815; association at Waterloo. He began giving tours in 1995, and has since had the opportunity to climb the Lion's Mound approximately 400 times – the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest twice! In addition to guiding tourists around the battlefield, he has done a great amount of research on the construction of the famous Lion's Mound. The 'Guides 1815' is an association which offers guided tours around the battlefield of Waterloo, the monuments, and the museums. It is composed of a group of 50 people speaking a variety of languages. More information about how to plan a visit with them can be found on their website.

Why did the Dutch King – Guillaume I – commission the construction of the Lion’s Mound?

The Lion's Mound at WaterlooWhen Guillaume I arrived on the battlefield in July 1815, he expressed the desire to build a monument on the spot where his son, the prince of Orange, was injured, to commemorate the battle. To understand why he want ed such a monument, it is worth mentioning that Guillaume I provided Wellington with at least 20 thousand men in the Belgo-Dutch army who participated in the battles of Quatre-Bras and Waterloo. At the end of the 18th of June, it was the Prince of Orange who decided to lead an attack on La Haye Sainte which has just been taken back by the French.

This was a great tactical error as there were French infantry men everywhere,  and the attack ended in a blood-bath. During the attack, approximately 50% of the Dutch soldiers died and the Prince of Orange was injured at the shoulder. It was not a significant injury, as his arm did not need to be amputated and, apparently, he took part in the victory parade in Brussels with his arm in a sling. It is surprising because when we guide groups of Dutch tourists, they think that the Prince of Orange conducted a heroic action and the King wanted to commemorate that. This is how Dutch history books tell the story. However, all the strategists say that the decision of the Prince of Orange to attack La Haye Sainte was really a monumental tactical error.


What is the significance behind the different elements of the Lion's Mound?

It was the royal court’s architect, Charles Van der Straeten, who submitted his idea of the Lion’s Mound to Guillaume I as the victory monument. His idea would cost 300,000 florin which was reasonably cheap for the time. Charles Van der Straeten explained thoroughly that the Lion Mound was a victory column with soil around it as he did not want it to be understood as a funerary monument (like the Celtic tumuli). He also specified that if they put a victory column with a lion on top in an empty field it would look quite small and less impressive. So, he decided that it would be encircle by soil (300,000 cubic meters) to make it look bigger.

The official narrative says that the lion is the symbol for victory, and, in this case, it is a symbol for peace returning in Europe since the lion has its paw on a globe and not on a cannon ball as it is commonly though. The unofficial version of the narrative states that the lion represents the different kingdoms of Europe as all the armouries of each great house have one or several lions represented on them. The lion is turned in an aggressive manner toward France, sending the message that these houses did not want to be disturbed any longer by revolutionary ideas from the French.

A close up of the brick column at the base of the lion on the Lion's Mound

Part of the brick column can be seen from the pedestal. Photo by Alain Lacroix.


How was the Lion's Mound constructed and who were the labourers?

The Lion's Mound at WaterlooWhen Guillaume I approved the idea of the Lion’s Mound toward the end of December 1820, it was the sculptor Jean-Louis Van Geel who was hired to design the lion. He first made a model based on a stuffed lion found at the University of Leiden one in clay and then one in plaster. These were not approved, and so he decided to resubmit his proposition, but this time he based his model on a living lion from the zoo in London. This was approved by the court.

The actual construction of the mound started with some delays (in 1825) due to the amount of soil needed. Guillaume I bought the land that is right underneath the mound, but they needed a lot more soil to create the mound and did not have the intention of buying all of the land around. Instead, they negotiated with the owners of La Haye Sainte and other farmers if they could use their land and lower the level of the ground. To do this, the farmers put aside the first 30 cm of arid soil. Then, workers took 2.5m of clay to use for the mound.

The Lion's Mound at WaterlooOnce all of this was done, the farmers put back their 30 cm so they could continue their farming. This surface goes from the farm of La Haye Sainte toward the current road of Brussel-Charleroi and follows the sunken way all the way to the mound. With all of this surface soil, they were able to collect the 300 000 m of soil needed to pack around the brick column. There were 1300 workers hired to construct the lion mound. These workers were diggers, masons, brick makers, and supervisors. The workers lived in tents or cabins at the foot of the mound. There was even a well dug.

The brick column is made out of more or less 1 500 000 bricks and it measures 10 m by 7 m. The bricks were made at the foot of the mound. In 1826, women called les botresses arrived to finish the mound. These women would carry on their back the soil and the bricks needed to construct the top of the mound as it was impossible to carry the materials needed all the way to the top with a cart. These women could carry a lot and were cheap labour. Once they finished their job, the pedestal was constructed and the lion was placed on top of the brick column. It arrived in nine pieces and was made out of iron instead of bronze. This is because Guillaume I wanted everyone to see that the iron produced by Jon Cockerill was the strongest. It was basically a marketing decision.


Do you think that if the Lion’s Mound was to be excavated it could uncover new elements of the battle?

In my opinion, there would be nothing new to be found if the Lion’s Mound was to be excavated. It is all soil and there were no burials in the area. Some people say that there are tunnels underneath the Mound but these are just stories.

Do you have any stories from your time as a guide you want to share with us?

I had the opportunity to do a tour with James Mattis (the American secretary of defence from 2017 to 2019) when he came back from Afghanistan. James Mattis is a great person who is also greatly passionate about history and knows a lot about the Battle of Waterloo. It was an interesting tour because all I had to do was to take him around in his armoured car to the different sites (La Haye Sainte, Hougoumont, Papelotte, …) as he knew the events of the battle.

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