They have come from all over Europe, an army of people who have given up their day jobs to fight the Battle of Waterloo once more, two centuries after the original.
The nearly 6,000 history enthusiasts taking part in a giant re-enactment of the clash on June 18, 1815, have been camping for days in the fields of Belgium to make the experience seem even more real.
The tiniest historical details are all respected, from the gilt-lined uniforms and plumed hats to the marching formations and even the food. Needless to say there is also a smartphone ban.
“I am a notary assistant in civil life and I love history. Here in the bivouac, I am “Corporal La Gaule”, Grenadier Corporal of the 8th line of the infantry regiment,” says Romain Vadam, from Lille, northern France.
The re-enactors playing Napoleon’s army have come from France, Italy, Russia and elsewhere across the continent to Waterloo, these days a drab dormitory town twenty kilometres (14 miles) south of Brussels.
Napoleon himself — played for the past ten years of re-enactments by Parisian lawyer Frank Samson, 47 — is camped out on the road to the industrial town of Charleroi while his forces are a little further off in a rolling field.
– Men, women and children –
The white tents of the rival British-Dutch bivouac are in a separate field near the Hougoumont Farmhouse, where 200 years ago the allies beat back a force of Frenchmen led by the emperor’s brother General Jerome Bonaparte, at immense cost.
Most are men but there are also several women playing cooks and washerwomen in the army camps, along with a few children in bonnets and even a baby being pushed along in a wooden wheelbarrow.
They are all there for the big re-enactments on Friday and Saturday, watched by 60,000 spectators from all over the world, packed into huge stands and clapping as the battle is replayed with deafening cannon blasts and a classical music soundtrack.
The real Battle of Waterloo was carnage, with 47,000 soldiers killed or wounded, and survivors left wading through blood past the mutilated bodies and limbs of their colleagues.
The risks for the re-enactors are minimal despite the pyrotechnics during the big shows, but they say the excitement is real.
“We feel the adrenaline mounting when we march against the enemy,” says Sebastien Vigneron, a 27-year-old Belgian with a rugby player’s physique who goes here by the name “Grenadier Le Roc”.
– Smartphones banned –
Life in the bivouac is also kept as realistic as possible.
Between leading weapons drills, Romain Vadam says that all modern machinery is banned from the camp, especially mobile phones.
The food is also historically accurate, despite the fact that the exhausted troops at the time in 1815 complained bitterly about their provisions in the run-up to the battle.
“Most of the time we eat vegetable soup that has been cooked on a wood fire, because the soldiers’ rations consisted of vegetables and smoked meat. They used to liven up the soup with black powder, the powder from their gun cartridges, to replace salt or spices that they lacked,” he said.
“You can feel it much better in your flesh when you are bundled up in these uniforms, you have the haversack on your back, a five kilo (11 pound) gun, the sound of cannon balls, the shoes have nails sticking out. It is extremely uncomfortable, you become much more aware of what they felt than by just reading a book.”
Manfred Tscherwinka, nicknamed “The Prussian” in the bivouac, has also taken part in the battles of Austerlitz and Iena during 11 years of re-enactments.
“I love the spirit of camaraderie and the way of life in the bivouac,” said the 58-year-old telecoms worker, who has a white beard and an earring.
Last week, he also took part in a reconstruction of the Battle of Ligny, Napoleon’s last victory, on June 16, 1815.
“We marched on foot for two days to Waterloo and we slept out beneath the stars,” he says with a smile, adding that he will not turn on his phone again until after the end of the last battle on Saturday.
The result of that too is kept historically accurate — Napoleon loses.