When a mass grave of 18th-century soldiers was uncovered in the Dutch city of Vianen in November 2020, it was assumed the victims had been killed in battle.
However, new research has now confirmed that the 82 individuals – most of whom were British – actually died of illness in a nearby field hospital.
Located in the centre of the Netherlands, Vianen saw two wars in the 18th century, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and later the Flanders campaign of 1793-1795. Only the latter involved British soldiers. It was part of the wider War of the First Coalition between post-revolutionary France and other European powers, including the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and Russia.
Although the war ended in a French victory in 1797, the conflict resumed the following year with the War of the Second Coalition. The Coalition wars – of which there were seven in total – did not conclude until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, almost 20 years later.
The men in the graves would have been treated at a field hospital at Batestein Castle in Vianen, close to where they were buried. The hospital was established and run by British soldiers.
The contents of the grave reflected the international nature of the Coalition. Samples taken from six of the skeletons suggested that one came from southern England, possibly Cornwall, another from southern Cornwall, and a third from an urban environment in England, possibly London.
Two more may have been from the Netherlands but of English descent, while the sixth was from the Hanover or Hesse region of Germany.
Forensic anthropologist April Pijpelink, who conducted the research, said her findings challenged initial assumptions about the soldiers’ deaths.
‘At first, we thought these men died of injuries in battle, but during my research it became clear that around 85% of them suffered from one or more infections, while basically all their trauma wounds had healed,’ Pijpelink told the BBC.
Meningitis, pneumonia, sinus infections, and other non-specific inflammations were identified. Most of these infections had one cause – pneumococcal bacteria – which the poor living conditions and brutality of the campaigns allowed to spread.
Many of the skeletons displayed evidence of the extreme violence visited on them, with closer analysis suggesting saw-marks in a number of cases. These marks indicate medical treatment given to the wounded, such as amputations and autopsies.
However, although they were buried close to where they were treated, the men may not have been injured locally. Field hospitals of that era tended to be situated some distance from the battlefield.
The men, most of whom were either teenagers or in their early 20s, all died within a short time of one another. The manner of filling the pits indicates a burial period of days rather than weeks.
The skeletons were well preserved due to the clay outside the city’s historic walls.