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The First Investigation Into the Allied Waterloo Field Hospital Is Unearthing Cannonballs—and Limbs

The dig, conducted by military veterans and service members, suggests just how close Napoleon’s forces might have come to victory in the epic battle

(Waterloo Uncovered/Chris van Houts)
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Archaeologists conducting the first excavations into the Allied field hospital from the Battle of Waterloo have announced new finds that shed some light on the final face-off of the Napoleonic Wars.

Daniel Boffey at The Guardian reports that on Monday alone, the team recovered 58 musket balls. Four leg bones have also been recovered from the site, including one from above the knee that bears the marks of a surgeon’s saw and one that appears to have suffered a catastrophic wound. It’s believed that during the battle, which took place on June 18, 1815, some 6,000 wounded soldiers passed through the temporary hospital, where legs and other limbs were amputated without anesthetic.

According to Waterloo Uncovered’s Dig Diary, archaeologists didn’t expect to find human remains in their excavations. But after metal detectorists picked up a strong signal while examining a nearby orchard, researchers excavated the site. There they found the first leg bone among the metal fragments. When they determined that the remains were not more modern, they continued trenching in the area, locating three more limbs.

It’s estimated 7,000 Prussian troops, 15,000 Allied soldiers and 25,000 French soldiers were casualties of the bloody battle. By its end, some 20,000 corpses littered the field. Some bodies were either buried or repatriated, but many remains were disposed of in mass graves and large funeral pyres. It’s believed in the decades that followed the bones were scavenged by English fertilizer companies that turned them into bone meal; soldiers’ teeth, meanwhile, were used for dentures. That’s one reason that just one complete set of remains has been recovered from the battlefield by archaeologists.

“Finding human remains immediately changes the atmosphere on a dig. Suddenly there is a very poignant connection with the people who suffered here in 1815, a connection that has not been lost on the Waterloo Uncovered team of veterans and serving personnel,” says Tony Pollard, lead archaeologist of Waterloo Uncovered and director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.

The team plans to continue its search for more bones or indications that the area may have been an amputation pit.

Earlier this week, the team also recovered a rusting, six-pound cannonball near the field hospital believed to have come from French artillery. The hospital was a third of a mile from the front lines of the battle, reports Reuters, so the cannonball suggests just how close Napoleon came to victory. “It represents the point at which Napoleon came closest to winning the battle of Waterloo,” says Pollard, who calls the artifact an “amazing discovery.”

The findings are especially meaningful for many of the excavators; there are 25 British and Dutch military veterans and active service members participating in the dig as part of Waterloo Uncovered. The charity, founded by Mark Evans and Charlie Foinette who studied archaeology together at University College London before joining the military, uses archaeology to help veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan recover from PTSD.

After Evans returned home from Afghanistan in 2010, he himself was suffering from major PTSD and looked to therapy, including archaeology, to help in his recovery. Later, the two friends decided to start their archaeological organization focused on Waterloo. Both Evans and Foinette had served in the Coldstream Guards, a storied regiment that once played a critical part in the Battle of Waterloo.

Despite its fame, the two found that very little archaeology had taken place on the battlefield. In the past two centuries, the land was farmed and scavenged by souvenir seekers and metal detectorists. So they enlisted corporate sponsors and archaeologists to join their project to excavate the battlefield before it was too late. “[It was] like knowing where Pompeii was buried, but never lifting a trowel to excavate it,” Foinette says.

Since the project began in 2015, the team has unearthed 2,200 artifacts. Digging into the field hospital, however, has proven particularly special for the group. “It will be thought-provoking and moving to be excavating on the site of the field hospital. Some of our team have themselves experienced battlefield first aid,” Evans told Daniel Boffey at The Guardian before this year’s dig began. “The men of 1815 would have hoped for very little. Many of those who survived returned to an uncertain future because of their injuries. The care and recovery process has changed so much today.”

The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Europe. For over a decade, the French military commander and emperor had consolidated control over the European continent. But in 1812, he began an ill-advised assault on Russia, which decimated his army and demonstrated weakness to his enemies. That led to the 1813 Battle of Leipzig in which Austria, Prussia, Russia and Swedish forces defeated the French. They eventually captured Paris, forcing Napoleon to abdicate. He was sent into exile on the Isle of Elba in 1814. But less than a year later, he escaped and returned to Paris where he raised a new army and began a new military campaign, hoping the destroy each Allied army before they could unite against him.

He met British forces at Waterloo, commanding 72,000 troops against the Duke of Wellington's 68,000. But later that day, a 30,000-strong Prussian force joined the battle, forcing the French to retreat. Days later, Napoleon once again abdicated and was forced into exile on the remote island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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