This week: Waterloo Uncovered

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769–1852) by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1852).

It is regarded as one of history’s greatest battles, the moment that brought the Napoleonic era to its end, and a triumph that ushered in four decades of peace in Europe.

But Waterloo was no easy victory. Instead, as the Duke of Wellington wrote to his brother William, “It was the most desperate business I ever was in.”

On the morning of 18 July 1815, Napoleon’s 72,000-strong French army faced an Anglo-allied force of 68,000 under Wellington, supported by about 45,000 Prussians under Gebhard von Blücher, across a few square kilometres of rain-sodden Belgian farmland.

By nightfall, up to 50,000 men (and around 7,000 horses) lay dead or seriously wounded in a scene of almost-unbelievable carnage that would never be forgotten by all those who were there and somehow lived to tell the tale.

At the time, there was no medical recognition of the emotional impact of such a battle on survivors – but 200 years on, as we learn this week on The Past, a more enlightened attitude thankfully now prevails.

In the new issue of Military History Matters, and on the latest episode of the PastCast, Euan Loarridge explains how a major ongoing project, entitled Waterloo Uncovered, is combining archaeological exploration of the battlefield with a support programme for present-day military veterans.

Many of the veterans involved have experienced service-related injuries or suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD – but the camaraderie and sense of achievement gained from unearthing stories of the past is helping some to find peace following the trauma of war.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve also been delving into the archives to discover more about Waterloo and the commanders who fought there: we analysed how Wellington, a military leader said famously ‘never to have lost a battle’, was in fact able to learn from his past failures; we caught up with the grisly world of Napoleon-era casualty treatment; we joined an enormous re-enactment to mark the battle’s 200th anniversary; and we even reported on how one of the last witnesses to the fighting, a chestnut tree planted between 1675 and 1775 outside the Hougoumont farm complex, finally succumbed last year to a storm.

And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on Waterloo. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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