Archeologists have uncovered ‘extremely rare’ remains of men and horses killed during the Battle of Waterloo more than 200 years ago.
Academics and a team of military veterans digging near Brussels in modern-day Belgium have unearthed the complete skeleton of a man, believed to be a soldier under the command of the Duke of Wellington, who died during the pivotal clash with Napoleon’s French army.
The soldier’s remains have been unearthed in a ditch close to a farmhouse in Mont-Saint-Jean, south of Brussels, which is thought to have housed one of Wellington’s field hospitals. His body is thought to have been dumped there after he died during treatment, alongside severed arms and legs removed during amputations.
Elsewhere, dig teams have uncovered the bones of horses killed during the battle – which were used to pull cannons and ammunition, as well as being used by mounted soldiers.
‘I’ve been a battlefield archaeologist for 20 years and have never seen anything like it. We won’t get any closer to the harsh reality of Waterloo than this,’ said Professor Tony Pollard, an archeologist from Glasgow University.
As many as 20,000 men were killed on June 18, 1815, when an allied army under the command of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington met forces under the command of Emperor Napoleon on the battlefield at Waterloo.
Napoleon, fresh out of exile off the coast of Italy after defeat to a coalition of his European neighbours the year previous, was once again trying to establish a French empire on the continent.
Outnumbered by his opponents, he was trying to divide and conquer: First by engaging and defeating the Prussian army led by Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher at the Battle of Ligny on June 16.
Blücher suffered heavy losses and was forced to retreat, before Napoleon turned his attention to armies under the command of Wellington which had withdrawn to Waterloo.
June 18 dawned calm as Napoleon waited for the muddy battlefield to dry out before attacking – a tactical mistake as, unbeknownst to him, the Prussians were regrouping close by and only needed Wellington’s men to hold up the French for long enough for them to rejoin the fight.
Wellington withstood multiple attacks by the French against defensive positions at Mont-Saint-Jean that afternoon before the Prussians were able to arrive in sufficient numbers to inflict heavy casualties.
A last-ditch attack on allied positions with the Imperial Guard that evening failed and ended with the route of Napoleon’s army, the capture of the Imperial Coach, and the end of the French dictator’s wars in Europe.
The excavation in Belgium is being carried out by Waterloo Uncovered – a project to support military veterans and current servicemen who are struggling due to experiences in the armed forces through field work.
Created in 2015, the project takes a team to Belgium for two weeks each year to excavate sections of the battlefield including the field hospital and Plancenoit village, where some of the bloodiest fighting took place.
Rod Eldridge, who is assisting with the dig, said :’Finding human remains can invoke a range of strong emotions, from excitement at their discovery to understandable sadness and reverence, as this is likely to be a soldier, just as those excavating it with Waterloo Uncovered are.
‘There are strong feelings amongst the team that the bones must be treated with respect and dignity at all times.’
Whilst the battle itself was bloody and brutal, the attitude to the dead on both sides seems callous in the light of modern attitudes.
Many Waterloo dead are thought to have been burnt on pyres, while others were shipped to the UK as part of a gruesome trade in fertiliser made from human bones.
In addition, many bodies were likely piled into mass graves that have not yet been discovered, in order to clear the battlefield of the thousands of bodies that littered it.
Waterloo Uncovered is exploring this possibility in 2022 with the first ever large-scale geophysical survey of the Waterloo battlefield.
Led by PhD candidate Duncan Williams, the survey will identify anomalies in the landscape – potentially indicating mass graves, large collections of metal or lost structures – which will be explored by the team.
The skeleton found at Mont-Saint-Jean was uncovered in what was likely a roadside ditch beside the farmhouse. In 2019, the charity discovered amputated limbs in the same ditch, not far from the field hospital where an estimated 500 amputations took place, and limbs were said to have ‘piled up in the corners of the courtyard’.
Véronique Moulaert from AWaP, one of the project’s partners, explained the grim picture painted by the proximity of amputated limbs and an articulated body.
‘Finding a skeleton in the same trench as ammunition boxes and amputated limbs shows the state of emergency the field hospital would have been in during the battle – dead soldiers, amputated limbs and more would have had to be swept into nearby ditches and quickly buried in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of disease around the hospital,’ she said.
The dig has uncovered other, poignant evidence of the scale of suffering resulting from a Napoleonic battle, in the form of a number of horse bones. It’s estimated that several thousand horses were also killed during the battle, as the glittering glory of the cavalry charge ended in death for all too many.
Previous discoveries made by the team at the same site including French musket balls, suggesting Napoleon’s men may have attacked the hospital during the battle.
They have also uncovered evidence of the vital role played by the Scots Guards in the closing of the North Gate at Hougoumont, which has previously been attributed almost entirely to the Coldstream Guards.
The current dig will continue until July 15.