On the 18 June 1815, the French Armée du Nord, led by the Emperor Napoleon himself, confronted a coalition of British, Dutch-Belgian, and Prussian armies over a low ridgeline straddling the Brussels–Charleroi road. The ensuing battle was a close but decisive French defeat that led directly to the Emperor’s second abdication and the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Two hundred years later, the rolling farmland over which this climactic battle was fought are subject to an ongoing archaeological project. Despite the historical significance of the battle, and the growing recognition of battlefields as archaeological sites, this is the first comprehensive survey of the Waterloo battlefield.
For the past seven years, Waterloo Uncovered, a registered charity, has combined the archaeological exploration of the battlefield with a support programme for Veteran and Serving Military Personnel (VSMPs).
Every summer, the charity assembles an international team of archaeologists, students, and VSMPs to survey and excavate various sections of the battlefield. In 2019, the team focused their attention on three farms that played a key role in the fighting.
Archaeology for wellbeing
Waterloo Uncovered is one of several charitable organisations that uses archaeology as part of its welfare programme. Archaeology is increasingly being recognised as therapeutic for individuals struggling with injury or mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Each year, about half of the excavation team are either serving or veteran military personnel, ranging from injured servicepeople in their late teens to venerable Chelsea Pensioners. They are drawn primarily from NATO forces, including the British, Dutch, and American military, with plans to include Belgian, German, and, hopefully, French military veterans in the future. Most have served in conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, and Former Yugoslavia.
The unique knowledge and insights these individuals can provide is often invaluable when working on conflict sites. However, VSMPs are not simply consultants, but active participants on the project. Archaeological digs are holistic environments and they are involved in all aspects of the work on site.
Many of the physical, outdoor archaeo-logical tasks can seem familiar to those with military service. One participant, gravely injured while using a Vallon detector for IEDs in Afghanistan, returned to metal-detecting on the project and, despite the legacy of his injuries, proved very adept at locating the detritus of a historical battlefield.
Other tasks, such as excavating and recording trenches, photography, or processing finds, offer the chance to get up-close and personal with the history. Some find that the careful work required can provide a meditative focus that is beneficial for those suffering from anxiety disorders.
Participation in the archaeology is a vocational experience, as VSMPs learn new skills and improve their confidence and sense of self-worth. At the same time, the project’s team-based nature allows participants to develop their personal support network with new friendships and interests.
A number of participants in Waterloo Uncovered’s support programme go on to work in archaeology or return to higher education. However, every participant leaves the project with the satisfaction that they have contributed in some way to the history of the Battle of Waterloo.
In previous years, Waterloo Uncovered has focused primarily on the archaeology of the Château d’Hougoumont, a large farm complex located on the western edge of the battlefield. For the 2015 bicentenary of the battle, the surviving farm buildings were refurbished with a small museum, and this now forms one of the main attractions for tourists.
During the battle, Hougoumont and its surrounding orchards and gardens were the linchpin of the Anglo-Dutch right flank. The farm was fiercely defended throughout the day by a mixture of British, Hanoverian, and Dutch-Nassau light infantry, including several companies of Coldstream and Scots Guards.
It was against this fortification that the French launched their first attack of the battle. The recovery of over a thousand pieces of spent musket-balls from this area attests to the intensity of fighting here. Despite several incursions into the complex, the French never succeeded in capturing the farm, although they did manage to burn down a large portion of the Château and surrounding buildings.
One of these buildings was the large barn that sat against the northern wall of the courtyard, adjacent to the North Gate. It was through this gate that the most famous French incursion – by 30 soldiers of the 1ère Légère – forced their way into the complex, only to be repulsed by a handful of British Guardsmen. The closing of the gates to seal off the assault is sometimes seen as the turning-point of the action. It is an episode that features proudly in the regimental history of the Coldstream Guards.
The barn was demolished after the battle, but excavation, led by archaeologist Phil Harding (of Time Team fame), gave further details of the French failure to push deeper into the complex. Based on the surviving foundations, this building turns out to have been much larger than expected, about the same size as the surviving ‘Great Barn’ on the courtyard’s west wall.
This means that, when the French entered through the gate, they were caught in a narrow bottleneck between the two barns. Trapped in this small space, their attack was contained and destroyed before it could undermine the defence.
Further evidence of fighting close to the gate was found inside the barn itself. Amid layers of burnt slate from the collapsed roof, a dozen copper buttons were recovered intact. Decorated with the star of the Order of the Garter and the Scottish thistle, these buttons almost certainly belonged to members of the Coldstream and Scots Guards defending the farm.
A number of VSMPs in the team – including the founders of Waterloo Uncovered, Mark Evans and Charlie Foinette – served with the Coldstream Guards and can be seen as the military descendants of the soldiers who wore these buttons. For them, finding evidence of the uniforms and kit of their predecessors was particularly poignant.
Searching for Châteaux Frischermont
On the far side of the battlefield, hidden amid dense woodland, is the site of the vanished Châteaux Frischermont. Occupied by the 28th Orange-Nassau Regiment, this farm guarded the extreme left flank of the Anglo-Dutch battle-line. Three days prior to Waterloo, these Dutch troops had bought time for the Allied armies to concentrate by making a stand at the village of Quatre Bras.
Originally of similar size to Hougoumont, Frischermont farm was demolished in the 1960s following a catastrophic fire. With the buildings gone and the site accessible only by a dirt road, the role this position played in the battle had been largely forgotten.
It was near this location that arguably the first shots of the battle were fired, when French cavalry patrols encountered Dutch pickets. Later in the afternoon, Frischermont became the first part of the Anglo-Dutch line to be relieved by the arriving Prussians. This makes the farm particularly significant for Dutch VSMPs, who regularly make up nearly a fifth of all participants on the project.
The archaeology at Frischermont is still in its early stages, but the fact the buildings were demolished means that the site is ideal for excavation. Already, an underground vaulted cellar or latrine has been identified, as well as the external wall of one of the farm’s barns.
The excavation of these features provides useful details for the reconstruction of what the farm may have looked like at the time of the battle. It is hoped that further archaeological survey of the site will throw more light on the fighting on the Anglo-Dutch left flank and the arrival, in the nick of time, of Blücher’s Prussians.
Human remains at Mont-Saint-Jean
For the 2019 summer excavation, Waterloo Uncovered established its headquarters at the Ferme de Mont-Saint-Jean, now a museum and microbrewery. Situated 400m behind the centre of the Anglo-Dutch battle-line, the farm was designated as the main field hospital for the Allied 1st Corps.
Over the course of the battle and its aftermath, thousands of casualties were treated by the doctors at Mont-Saint-Jean. On 18 June, as many as 500 of these men, with limbs smashed by musket- or cannonball, underwent the most notorious procedure in battlefield medicine: limb amputation.
With the patient mortality rate at about one in ten, we expected that there would be at least one mass grave in the farm’s vicinity. The absence of mass graves has for many years remained an enigma of the battle. In 2016, for example, Waterloo Uncovered excavated under the car park at Hougoumont Farm, searching for a mass grave or funeral pyre depicted in contemporary illustrations. Except for a single burnt finger-bone, however, no evidence of either pit or pyre was discovered.
New research into the battle’s aftermath suggests that this should not come as a surprise. In the years after Waterloo, bone-meal became a valuable component of the fertiliser industry. At the same time, the mass graves of Napoleonic battlefields offered well-known and easily identifiable deposits of human bone.
It is now widely suspected that the graves of most of those who fell at Waterloo were robbed over the ensuing decade, their bones ground up by entrepreneurs supplying British farmers. In 1822, just seven years after the battle, the UK imported more than 4,500 metric tonnes of bones retrieved from the battlefields of Leipzig, Austerlitz, and Waterloo.
The industrial scale of bone extraction from Napoleonic battlefields suggests that very few, if any, mass graves, will be found at Waterloo. So the discovery of human remains in the orchard next to Mont-Saint-Jean at the end of the first week of the 2019 excavation was exciting.
In a feature that may have been a ditch by the side of an old track, three leg-bones and an arm were discovered. Some reveal the neat cut from a surgeon’s saw, and two show signs of the severe injuries that necessitated amputation.
The destructive power of Napoleonic firearms is hammered home by the presence in one of the legs of a lead musket-ball, still lodged in the shattered remains of the tibia (shin) and fibula (calf) bones.
It is uncertain if any of the men who suffered these wounds survived the amputation. However, as three were thigh amputations, which carried a 35% mortality rate, we can guess that at least one did not.
All four limbs were found lying on top of several badly rusted metal objects, with a copper-alloy frog from a bayonet scabbard recovered nearby. These items support the hypothesis that these bones were dumped, along with other rubbish, into a shallow ditch or pit. Work to conserve and analyse the fragile remains continues in a lab in Brussels, and we hope that further evidence may be found in this area.
Recovery on the reverse slope
The mass grave is just one of several discoveries to come from the vicinity of Mont-Saint-Jean. Metal-detecting and trench excavation in the farm’s orchard has produced dozens of musket-balls and even a complete 6-pdr cannonball.
These artefacts may be examples of overshot from the fighting on the ridge to the south, but they could also be evidence of the incident described in the letters of Rifles Lieutenant Simmons, who was evacuated from Mont-Saint-Jean when French shots began ‘riddling’ the farm.
Due to an early harvest, the team were also able to access a large field on the slope of the ridge south of the farm. This is the famous ‘reverse slope’ behind which British and Dutch troops sheltered from French artillery fire during the battle.
Metal-detector survey across this field has uncovered a plethora of battle-related artefacts, including hundreds of musket-balls, French and German coinage, and pieces of Napoleonic military equipment.
The most exciting find was the recovery of a 10kg iron sphere that was eventually identified as an unexploded 6-inch howitzer shell. Judging by its location, this shell may have been fired by a French howitzer operating near the farm of La Haye Sainte. Buried nearly a metre deep in the soil, it speaks to the projectile’s high trajectory and soft landing in the battlefield’s rain-soaked ground.
Although the shell’s fuse had long since decomposed, the mass of gunpowder inside the hollow sphere meant that the shell was still ‘live’. As such, it was handed over to Belgian authorities to be defused. Unfortunately, the shell proved too unstable to be made safe, and this unique survivor of the Battle of Waterloo had to be destroyed.
The howitzer shell, along with Guards buttons at Hougoumont and the amputated limbs at Mont-Saint-Jean, are some of the best archaeology revealed so far. Yet each of the farms surveyed in 2019 still contain a great deal more archaeology.
Waterloo Uncovered is an ongoing project. Those interested in keeping up with the charity’s activities can find out more and sign up to a monthly newsletter on the project’s website: https://waterloouncovered.com.
As a non-profit charity, Waterloo Uncovered relies on donations from trusts, foundations, and interested individuals to continue its work. It costs on average £1,200 to support a veteran or serving soldier for two-weeks’ archaeological work in Belgium. The charity is always grateful for any contributions that help it carry out its work. •
Images: Chris van Houts.
Euan Loarridge also discusses the work of Waterloo Uncovered on an accompanying episode of The PastCast. You can listen to the episode here.