Resurrecting Napoleon

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In a few days, Frank Samson will lay down his lawyer’s hat and gown and don a ‘uniform’ of a very different kind. The French attorney has landed the plum role of Napoleon in the keenly-awaited upcoming re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo.

This isn’t any old re-enactment, of course, but the one that marks the 200th anniversary of the occasion when Bonaparte really did meet his Waterloo. And, as tens of thousands from all over the world descend on Waterloo on the weekend of 19 and 20 June, it is the 47-yearold Samson who will take centre stage.

One item missing from his attire though will be Napoleon’s original hat, one of 19 of his hats still in existence. The iconic two-cornered headpiece will, instead, be on display until July 31 at the new Wellington Museum near the Waterloo battlefield where Napoleon met his demise as Emperor of the French in 1815.

Even without the original hat Samson, from Orleans, will very closely resemble Napoleon in just about every other way. In the words of the organizers, Samson is “worthy of the exceptional nature of the re-enactment, the greatest that has ever been held.”

It was his physical appearance to the Emperor that persuaded judges to select Samson over an American actor Mark Schneider, who had been his closest rival for the much-coveted role.

The commemorations are being organized by asbl Bataille de Waterloo 1815 and, according to event coordinator Laurence Nelis, “not everyone can be a Napoleon”.

Laurence says: “In fact, apart from a physical resemblance to the Emperor, you have to have the human qualities that mean that you are appreciated by as many people as possible, have a knowledge and a mastery of the history of the Napoleonic period, be able to speak French, be sufficiently competent in uniformology to be able to reproduce it in exact detail, and, above all, be a good public speaker.”

Laurence adds, “These are all qualities that Samson possesses. However, the factor that really made the difference in comparison with his rivals was, without a doubt, his attention to detail.

“He rides a horse better than anyone and is very concerned to reproduce both the behaviour and the habits of the Emperor: the Corsican expressions, the habit of regularly pulling on his sleeve, the way in which he taps his whip on his boot, and even those Homeric outbursts during which Napoleon would trample on his hat!”

The legal trade may be Samson’s profession, but his passion for the Napoleonic era plays a major part in his already busy life and, in fact, he has been playing the role of Napoleon since 2005.

When it comes to re-enactments he is by no means a novice having already participated in more than 100 such events. Notably, he assumed the role of the Emperor during the coronation at the Basilica of Boulogne in 2011, in the XIIIth Napoleonic Encampment in Waterloo in 2012 and during the re-enactment of the Battle of Leipzig in 2013.

But Samson does not only play the role of the Emperor – he is the sovereign of a micro-nation himself. In 1996, well before he began to play the role of Napoleon, the lawyer started practising on a grand scale by founding the micro-empire of La Basse Chesnaie in the depths of Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany. This little nation even has a 53 article constitution and the national flag is adorned with an ‘F’, for Frank.

He has also passed his passion on to his family: it is expected that encamped by his side at the upcoming re-enactment will be his wife and two sons, respectively taking on the roles of Josephine de Beauharnais, a page and an imperial rifleman.

Samson has only a short time left to prepare. There have been no rehearsals scheduled but, rather, several rallies throughout the year. Four times a year – in the French towns of Golfe-Juan, Brienne and Boulogne-sur-Mer plus Eckmühl (Germany), Samson removes his glasses, dons his wig – he himself has little hair – puts on the celebrated bicorne hat and uniform of Colonel of the Guard so that he can carry out the famous military manoeuvres of the time and celebrate the legend that is Napoleon.

Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804 and waged war against European powers, conquering much of the continent before his defeat in 1815. The battle saw 25,000 French troops killed or wounded as the Duke of Wellington led Allied troops to victory, along with General Blucher, from Prussia.

Like Bonaparte, who abdicated in 1815, Samson is expected to give up both his uniform and the role having played his part in the bicentenary celebrations. It will be a good way to say goodbye for one who humorously calls himself “Sire”!

While Samson will very much be the centre of attraction, the 5,000 other re-enactors, or volunteers, who will also take part should not be forgotten. They include people like Jan De Coster, who lives and works in Brussels and whose life revolves around his passion for military re-enactments. He is one of the founder members of the Association Belge pour la Recherche et la Reconstitution Historique, responsible for organising the military side of the bicentenary.

Aged 56, his passion began with the little tin soldiers he played with as a child, and he was particularly attracted to the Empire period “in all its glory”. He says: “It is true it takes up a lot of my time. In fact, I prefer not to count. I do not play a character but a role, that of the Colonel of the 8th Line Regiment who has to lead a unit but that is as far as it goes.

“Of the 5,000 re-enactors who will be present there will be some who are convinced that they have to embody certain protagonists, right down to their individual character traits!”

Organizers believe the commemorative events for the Battle of Waterloo, which will last four days from June 18, should draw in approximately 200,000 people. Tickets have been selling fast for the various events, mainly the two re-enactments of the battle on June 19 and 20. They will involve as many as 5,000 participants, 300 horses and cavaliers and some 100 canons, a figure that has never before been achieved. More than 100,000 tickets have already been snapped up, a third by foreign tourists. The total budget for the commemorations hovers around the €5m mark. Performances, events for the whole family, and an official ceremony with several international personalities are planned over the four days.

Organizers say preparations have “run very smoothly” and groups from as far away as Australia and New Zealand have organized trips, while the bicentenary has been the subject of intense activity on the internet with ‘Waterloo 200’ committees set up in the UK and the Netherlands. Regular meetings have helped plan and put in place mobility, accessibility and security measures to cater for the tens of thousands of visitors.

As for the actual memorial monument, building work at the base of Butte du Lion is virtually complete and is due to be opened this month. At the same time, Napoleon’s last HQ, the Hougoumont farm, as well as several battlefield monuments, will be renovated in time for the bicentenary.