The 18 June 1815 was a very special day in the history of Europe. Napoleon, fresh from his escape from exile on Elba, had gathered an army and was advancing across Belgium towards Brussels. Very little stood in his way except for the Allied army commanded by the Duke of Wellington. Historical accounts of the Battle of Waterloo have described events of that savage encounter, and many include details of the stubborn defence by Allied troops at Hougoumont Farm. Wellington selected his battlefield with care, assembling his army along the crest of a ridge overlooking and blocking Napoleon’s advance. This location incorporated four walled farms: Hougoumont on the right flank, in the west; La Haye Sainte in the centre; and Papelotte, further east; with Frichermont on the extreme left flank – forming forward bastions of defence against the French. Of these, Hougoumont was by far the most impressive in layout. It was constructed around two courtyards, with a smaller upper one to the south, serving the residential quarters which comprised a chateau complete with its own chapel, and a larger, lower-walled farmyard to the north. Around this enclosed yard stood barns, stables, and outbuildings, their brick-and-stone walls providing a largely impenetrable fortress-like façade against any attacking force. The French assault on Hougoumont Farm opened proceedings at Waterloo and continued largely uninterrupted throughout the day, a battle within a battle.
Following the Allied victory, the ruinous farm soon drew tourists and artists, including J M W Turner, who came to record its remains. A more detailed report was commissioned for Captain William Siborne, a soldier and qualified surveyor, in order to create a scale model of the entire battlefield and to compile a written account of the battle, published under his son’s name in 1848. Despite this impressive record, archaeological excavations on the site have been limited. Although investigations were undertaken by the local archaeological authority (SPW) in advance of restoration of the farm for the 2015 bicentennial celebrations, these were concentrated on the upper courtyard, defining the residential buildings – principally the chateau – and did not deal with the farm buildings in the northern courtyard. There was therefore very little to show what the north part of Hougoumont Farm may have looked like at the time of its construction, what evidence of the battle survived, or how the site may have altered in the aftermath of the conflict. This situation was set to change, however.
In 2015, Waterloo Uncovered – a charity designed to assist physically and mentally traumatised service personnel and veterans in their recovery – started archaeological investigations on the battlefield. Directed by Tony Pollard and Stuart Eve, and run in collaboration with the Belgian authorities (SPW/AWAP), this major project has included work to examine largely unexplored building foundations on the east and north sides of Hougoumont Farm’s lower courtyard. Siborne’s 19th-century account indicates that cow sheds and stables were apparently arranged along the east side, with additional stables on the north. These buildings were all destroyed by French artillery-fire, when incendiary howitzer shells set the buildings alight soon after 2.30 in the afternoon. Ensign Thomas Wedgewood of the Scots Guards, who witnessed the destruction, described in a letter to his mother how ‘They then sent fire balls upon the house and set a barn and all the out houses on fire’ (Glover, 2010; see ‘Further reading’ on p.43). Allied troops, many of whom had been wounded in the early stages of the battle, were sheltering inside and were unable to escape. Siborne described the carnage: ‘not a man could be spared to assist in extricating the sufferers from their perilous situation’ – a fact confirmed by Ensign Wedgewood, who noted the loss of ‘nearly one hundred men having now been consumed in the flames’.
Another area of interest in this part of the site is the North Gate, which lies in the angle between the former building on the north side of the courtyard and a large barn (now part of the visitor centre) on the west side. This access point remains of special significance to the Coldstream Guards, who famously repulsed an incursion of French infantry there and closed the gates, preventing the fall of the farm and Wellington’s right flank.
The stable block and the barn
Waterloo Uncovered opened its first trench within Hougoumont Farm in 2016: lying along the east side of the courtyard, it aimed to locate traces of the cow sheds and stable block. This range, as befits its purpose, was probably built with an upper hay loft, making it potentially highly flammable. Buildings of similar design still line the upper courtyard, providing some hint of their probable appearance. Our first trench uncovered traces of the stone foundations, showing the building to be approximately 7m wide, but, totally unexpectedly, also located a superbly engineered drain that ran across the width of the building. The drain included a carefully constructed silt trap designed to winnow out sediment, an admirable embellishment to this utilitarian building that indicated the wealth of the original owners. Fortuitously, the silt trap also contained fragments of slate, which shed light on the construction of the roof.
Subsequent excavations to expose more of the foundations to the south have shown that the building containing the drain was constructed with deeper foundations than those elsewhere along the east side of the yard and may have been a later addition, infilling a gap between a shorter, earlier version of the eastern range and the barn to the north. The floor of this stable block had long- since been lifted but was undoubtedly formed by stone cobbles, which Siborne’s model confirms extended beyond the building to provide a paved border around the fringes of the courtyard. The model also shows a series of other drains across the courtyard, features which may have been overworked following the extensive deluge on the day preceding the battle.
Our principal area of work in the lower courtyard, though, has centred on the barn – which was also listed by Siborne as a stable block – on its north side and immediately east of the North Gate. This area was at the epicentre of the epic action attributed to the Coldstream Guards, and our excavations focused on the south-west corner of the building. Between 2016 and 2019, trenches were extended systematically to expose an area covering approximately 27 square metres. We began to hope that archaeological layers in this part of the site might be well-preserved, following the discovery of a block of undisturbed brickwork in an initial exploratory slot opened during our first year of investigations. We noted that it apparently coincided with the expected line of the building’s south wall, as indicated on a survey of 1899, by which time the building seems to have been demolished; however, the results of subsequent campaigns in 2017-2019 showed that this was, in fact, an internal brick plinth, which probably supported an internal column of a timber-framed barn. It soon became clear that the building was much bigger than we had expected, and could indeed be better classified as a barn. We might imagine a structure with aisles approximately 4m wide, a design that mirrors the size and construction of the barn on the west side of the courtyard that today houses the visitor centre.
Our investigations have revealed that both barns were terraced into the sides of a shallow, natural bowl-shaped depression, around which the courtyard was built. The effect of the terracing was to create a building that probably existed on two levels, with an upper floor extending over an undercroft. Archaeological layers were relatively shallow where they outcropped at the base of the slope on the west side, but were thicker and remarkably well-preserved to the east where the undercroft was terraced into the hillside. These findings, together with contemporary sketches and Siborne’s model, have added important archaeological evidence to the buildings, the battle, and its aftermath, providing us with a new, improved focus to this part of the story.
We now know that the building, which was requisitioned by Wellington’s troops, was constructed with a west gable that had foundations approximately 1m thick and 0.35m deep. A fragment of 17th-century Delft pottery in the backfilled foundation trench indicated that it was undoubtedly contemporary with the original development of the present farm. The foundations were built of stone, and it is still possible to see where they continued upwards and were bonded into the farm’s outer perimeter wall to form a substantial stone pediment. This was surmounted by a brick superstructure above the levelling course, undoubtedly replicating the design of the western barn. We also know that the bricks were made on-site: some of the earliest Waterloo Uncovered excavations on the site, in 2015, located traces of a post-medieval brick kiln in the field immediately north of the farm.
Other trenches have been dug to trace the line of the barn’s south wall, identifying important architectural features including an internal buttress at the building’s mid-point, which also coincides with one of the major doorways shown on Siborne’s model. This model indicates that the undercroft was apparently entered through a separate door in the centre of the gable; a single limestone ashlar quoin stone, found in the first year of digging, may well represent the only surviving traces of that doorway. We know, by observing other doorways at Hougoumont Farm, that similar limestone quoins were used throughout the farm. Many of Wellington’s troops, some possibly wounded, may have passed through these doorways to seek refuge, later groping through the smoke as they attempted to relocate the entranceway to escape from the inferno. Images showing the farm soon after the battle suggest the barn was constructed with a half-hip roof, a design that is replicated in the barn on the west side of the courtyard. Vast quantities of slates have provided previously unrecorded detail of the roof, which was itself capped with ceramic ridge tiles that were highly fired to a dark-grey colour, blending in with the adjoining slates.
Perhaps the most-significant discovery, though, related to the dimensions of the barn itself – a development which directly influenced how we now view events within Hougoumont Farm during the battle. Our excavations showed that the building measured 13m wide, comparable to the western barn and far greater than we had expected. This revelation made us appreciate that the gap, approximately 7m wide, between the two buildings, which may have been suitable for agricultural traffic, actually formed a strategic ‘pinch point’ in the battle. Attackers passing through this gap could be exposed to concentrated musket-fire from all sides, although the defenders surely faced similar restrictions as they fought to reach and close the gates.
The intensity of the fire that engulfed the buildings was vividly illustrated by the discovery of spreads of charcoal and roof slates which were found across the interior of the building, confirming that the roof had ignited and collapsed inwards. Charcoal is a material that is a familiar part of most excavations, valued for its archaeological importance for radiocarbon dating and for preserving environmental detail, but at Hougoumont Farm it offers more, providing a connection with this catastrophic phase of the battle.
Fragments of stone cobbling, which we found in the excavation, together with the absence of burning to the natural sediment, confirmed that the floor of the undercroft had originally been paved. Large parts of the courtyard were undoubtedly covered in this way: the underlying silty geology turns to sticky mud when it is wet, as Napoleon discovered, prolonging the start of the battle by several hours as his troops struggled to manoeuvre into position.
William Siborne described the condition of the farm in a footnote to his account of the campaign, noting that ‘the buildings surrounding the old farm-yard, present to the eye nothing more than crumbling walls, scattered stones, bricks and rubbish’. This suggests that demolition had not yet started, and our excavation was able to clarify this process, showing that the highly desirable and costly cobblestones had been lifted and salvaged before the walls of the barn were pushed into the centre of the building. Some of the broken slates from the collapsed roof had been dumped in a demolition pit, while others were systematically cleared away and spread on areas of the floor that had already been reclaimed to expose additional cobbles that could be reused.
Thanks to our excavations, it is now possible to reconstruct almost entirely the full ground plan of Hougoumont Farm, and to recreate details of its appearance before, during, and after the battle. The most poignant and unexpected discoveries, though, were those that directly reflected on the men who fought in the conflict. Our investigations amassed a collection of 11 military brass and gilt buttons, all burned, together with threads of silver wire, which probably once adorned an epaulette. This assemblage of military objects undoubtedly relate to casualties of the battle, and was found in the north-east corner of our trench, immediately behind the brick plinth. The buttons represent not only the Coldstream Guards, based on the eight-pointed star of the Order of the Garter, but also the Scots Guards, who feature the star of the Order of the Thistle with the Cross of St Andrew. The insignia shown on the face of each button matched the designs that had been adopted by these respective regiments by 1815, and these artefacts are significant, acknowledging not only the famous actions of the Coldstream Guards in closing the gates at Hougoumont Farm, but also confirming the less well-known but equally significant contribution by the Scots Guards. This regiment was otherwise only known to have been involved in the action from contemporary accounts.
Two of the Scots Guards’ buttons were found ‘clasped’ together, suggesting that they had probably still been attached to fabric when they were buried. Our research suggests that they probably came from the tail of a coat used by sergeants and officers, who wore gilt or brass buttons. These men could be equipped with uniforms of better quality than those of ordinary ranks, who wore pewter buttons – a metal with a sufficiently low melting point that is unlikely to have remained unchanged by the heat.
So, how did these fragments arrive at this location? Soldiers are unlikely to have routinely removed their jackets during a battle: combatants needed to recognise their comrades, and visible officers could serve as a rallying point. Discarded uniforms were probably worn by men whose names may have been registered on the casualty lists. Siborne actually names eight officers of the Coldstream Guards who were wounded or killed in the defence of Hougoumont, including General Sir James Macdonell, who commanded the infantry defending the farm and was actively involved in closing the North Gate. Colonel Daniel Mackinnon was listed, too: shot through the knee at an early stage of the battle, he was later transferred to reinforce the defenders at Hougoumont Farm, and ultimately collapsed through loss of blood after victory was assured. The fatalities included Lieutenant John Lucie Blackman, who was hit in the temple by a musket ball as the French retreated from the battle. Siborne also names 13 officers from the Scots Guards, a figure that is similar to that quoted by Ensign Wedgwood in his letter: 16 officers either killed or wounded.
It is unlikely that our burnt buttons were once worn by any of these named individuals, but it is tempting to think that they could have been. We can perhaps envisage that the cluster of buttons represents all that remains of a concentration of decomposed, torn, likely blood-stained uniforms, which were gathered up and discarded after the battle. Contemporary illustrations of the South Gate depict corpses being stripped before they were buried; this scenario was undoubtedly replicated across all parts of the battlefield. These last remnants of the campaign contained nothing of value for the hordes of people who scavenged the site after the battle, and the traces remained hidden in the debris long after the conflict had ended. They were probably still there, unnoticed, when Siborne undertook his survey, only to be unceremoniously moved aside to allow removal of the under-lying cobblestone floor before the buildings were demolished.
Very little remains of this final act of demolition; however, we found 12 courses of mortared brickwork that were preserved in the top of the demolition pit. The bricks were bonded together with white creamy mortar, the exterior surface of which was reddened by heat, which we might assume resulted from the 1815 fire. This block of brickwork extended over the shattered slates, showing that walls had been pushed over in a final act before the site was cleared. The vast heaps of demolition rubble were undoubtedly carted away as landfill.
Today, Waterloo Uncovered’s charity work continues, though our annual archaeological fieldwork at the site has inevitably been interrupted by the effects of the pandemic. Much still remains to be done, now in reduced quantity at Hougoumont Farm but more especially as we extend our investigations to address other issues across the entire battlefield. The work at Hougoumont Farm strives to maintain a balance between telling the archaeological story of an ordinary Belgian farm and focusing on what made it famous in a few shattering hours. No matter how well recorded the battle may have been, excavation has an uncanny ability to disclose new information that brings this historic episode to life in a way that documents cannot.
It seems appropriate to end by thanking all those people who actually did the digging. Most of them had never done any archaeology before; our task was to mould them into an efficient digging team. Emily and I have merely filled the roles of storytellers from the information they uncovered. We hope all our diggers have enjoyed the experience and realise how important their contribution has been to telling that story.
H T Siborne (1848) History of the Waterloo Campaign: the Classic Account of the Last Battle of the Napoleonic Wars (Frontline Books, £25, ISBN 978-1848329614).
G Glover (2010) The Waterloo Archive: Volume 1 – British Sources (Pen & Sword, £25, ISBN 978-1848325401).
To find out more about Waterloo Uncovered, see www.waterloouncovered.com.
For more international archaeology, including further coverage of Waterloo Uncovered’s excavations, see CA’s sister-magazine Current World Archaeology: www.world-archaeology.com.
ALL IMAGES: Waterloo Uncovered, unless otherwise stated.