Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba on 1 March 1815, landed in southern France, quickly assembled a large force and headed north. British, Prussian, Dutch and Belgian forces were on red alert, and by mid-June they had coordinated to form a defensive barrier south of Brussels. A year earlier the Duke of Wellington had presciently identified the ridge of Mont Saint-Jean, and the undulating plain in front of it, as the place where he wanted to defeat Napoleon’s forces. It was just south of a village called … Waterloo.
On 16 June, Napoleon’s army entered Belgium at the south-west border village of Hestrud. Almost immediately the French launched into two fierce engagements with the Allied forces. They defeated the Prussians at Ligny - but not decisively - while at Quatre Bras a section of the French force faced the Belgo-Dutch army, who were rescued when Wellington’s troops arrived to force a stalemate. Napoleon’s first overnight stop in Belgium was at the pretty village of Ragnies, near Thuin, where the Biercée distillery still produces Mandarine Napoléon, a blend of cognac and tangerine juice that was the Emperor’s favourite tipple. His troops then advanced through Charleroi, where he linked up with Marshall Ney, and Fleuris. On the evening of 17 June, Napoleon halted at Caillou Farm, north of Genappe, and prepared his final battle plans. The town’s museum contains Napoleon’s death mask and numerous relics from the battlefield. A free map is available from tourist offices to help you follow the route and visit some of the 150 monuments, headstones and museums commemorating Napoleon’s advance across landscapes that have barely changed in two centuries. This fascinating, well-marked 90km trail ends at Waterloo itself.