When it comes to the Battle of Waterloo, bookstore owner Augie Aleksy has a bit of a fixation. So much so that he spent 10 years of his life building a ping-pong-table-sized diorama of the battle, which he stores in pieces at his Centuries and Sleuths bookstore.
So when some local students wanted to hear about the battle for their world history unit on Napoleon, Aleksy was all-too ready to give them a special presentation.
Seven students attended the talk Jan. 23 at the shop at 7419 Madison St. They were not from the “playing fields of Eton,” but from the Classical Conversations home schooling group in the towns of Forest Park, Oak Park, Berwyn and LaGrange.
“The younger children build a foundation by memorizing the dates and a sentence about the historical event,” said mother B.J. Slusarczyk. “Then it’s up to the parents to help the children do the research about the event.”
Aleksy was happy to help.
“Napoleon was kind of like the bully on the block,” he explained to the children ages 4 – 10, describing the other European nations’ ganging up on the French emperor in 1815. Aleksy explained how Napoleon built a third French army and the citizens of France turned their backs on the Bourbon King Luis XVIII, who fled Paris.
“I guess the French royalty didn’t learn all that much from the Revolution,” Aleksy said.
Belgium has been the scene of many European conflicts. Even the word “Waterloo” represents the nexus of two cultures, two different ways of saying “water” in Dutch and “l’eau” from the French.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington gathered “The Infamous Army” a group of English, Dutch, Hanoverians and cut a deal with Prussian Marshall von Blücher to counter Napoleon’s march through France, Aleksy said.
Aleksy’s time researching and building a replica of the battleground helped him understand the battle, he said. For one thing, hand-painting 2,200 tiny French, British and Prussian soldiers and their distinctively colored uniforms made him see clearly how as evening fell on June 18, the advancing Prussian soldiers in their grey uniforms might have been confused as reinforcements by the French (who wore navy blue).
Aleksy said a life-changing visit to the Belgian battlefield in the 1970s also helped him better understand the scene. Two farms houses on the site remain essentially unchanged to this day, he said.
Students learned communication during military campaigns was carried out by handwritten notes. Innovations in weapons technology helped both sides in the battle: The British had the Baker rifle, which shot more accurately than the French Charleville muskets. But the French had actual rockets that shot into enemy lines — when they weren’t firing out of control and landing on their own troops.
Aleksy told the students he’ll display the diorama next year for the 200th anniversary of the battle in June 2015.
“It did take 10 years of my life to create, and five of those were spent doing research,” he said, noting the project started in an apartment and moved to the basement of the family home. “But the most important factor was having an understanding wife.”