A first hand account of developments at Hougoumont

For an opening salvo, it hasn’t been half bad.

The Waterloo Uncovered team has been hard at it for three days now, and already Hougoumont farm is starting to yield up some of its secrets.  

Of course, it has thrown up more questions than it has answered but, at this stage, that’s the idea.   

However, excitingly, Dr Tony Pollard and his international, multi-faceted (and multi-talented) team have already turned up what may well be the first shots of the battle of Waterloo.

On Mondaythe team’s metal detectorists found spent musket-shot, both French and English, along the southern perimeter of the woodland that, at the time of the battle, lay to the south of Hougoumont farm – the exact position where Napoleon launched his initial assault, at around 11:30am on June 18, 1815.

The ensuing battle for control of the farmhouse complex, the vital western anchor for Wellington’s Allied army, surged northwards after that initial contact between French and Allied skirmishers, and never returned to that original position.  So team leader Tony is confident that the lead musket shot found along that southern perimeter signaled the opening of this brutal and titanic confrontation.  

Metal detecting needn’t be limited to the ground.   Three ancient chestnut trees, standing just south of the main gatehouse of the farm, appear to be riddled with lead shot, if the detectors are to be believed.  Unsurprising, since the trees stand in the line of fire of the British guardsmen defending the south side of the gatehouse, who would have been pouring fire onto the attacking Frenchman. 

The so-called “killing ground” – a narrow strip of open ground between the high garden wall and the northern edge of the wood was less fruitful.  Although expectations were high on finding a dense distribution of battlefield artefacts in this area of intense combat, it seems that unauthorised metal detecting – which is illegal in this part of Belgium – has significantly reduced the concentration of material in that area.   

Although treasure hunters may make a quick buck selling such mementos on ebay or elsewhere, or even build up their own collections, it is a shame, since thearchaeological information that could have been gleaned from all the material removed like this, has now been lost forever. 

Meanwhile, the team of expert geo-physicists from Ghenuniversity, led by Marc van Meiervenhave been using world pioneering technology to survey the various contested areas around the farmhouse.  The Belgian archaeologists use a quad-bike to drag a long, white sensor in the shape of a log over the ground they are surveying.  Firing out various types of electro-magnetic signals down into the subsoilthe equipment produces extraordinarily rapid and clear results.  Any anomalies that turn up under the surface demand investigation.  

Indeed, finding out what these anomalies are is one of Tony’s prime objectives for the week.  They could signify things like mass graves, ditches, sunken roadsor the remains of buried constructions.

So far, the geo-phys has turned up a possible gravesite in the small orchard to the north, and a structure in the woodland to the south.  This is where the digging takes over – sinking trenches to find out just what is down there.  In the wood to the south, the trench turned up a small “structure” which, if it was there at the time of the battle, is likely to have affected the flow of combat in that sector.

Also at work is the team from LArchaeology led by Stuart Eve.  They are using hi-tech GPS surveyingequipment to identify the exact position of each find unearthed by the detectorists.  They then correlate the spread of finds against the most accurate maps recording the layout of the landscape and various structures at the time.  Yesterday this turned up a fascinating spread in the wood, with a concentration of musket-ball finds bordering a path that runs north/south through the wood and is recorded on Siborne’s 1830 maps, but is not mentioned at all in any of the eyewitness accounts.  

Another question concerned the three great chestnut trees, struck dead by lightning, but still standing 200 years later.  But where are these on Siborne’s maps?  Well, they are there on some of his, but apparently not on his best-known map, which he circulated to all Waterloo veterans in his survey of 1830.  Further analysis may help answer the question: how meticulous was Siborne in compiling his famous maps of the battle?

Early in the afternoon yesterday, the site received an expected visit from the local Belgian farmer, who turned up to do some fertilizer spraying on the very field that used to be the southern wood, and which was just then swarming with archaeologists and press.  

 The farmer was very sporting that he couldn’t get back on his field until Friday.  Instead, he hung around for a chat.  “The strange thing is, people round here still respect Napoleon, but they don’t respect Wellington.  But Napoleon lost, and Wellington won.”  When it is suggested that maybe this is because Napoleon was a genius, his reply is dry as dust.  “It’s not very genius to make war,” he shrugs.

 For such a disparate team, drawn together from a variety of different backgrounds, the positivity and unity of purpose of the Waterloo Uncovered recruits are palpable.  Of course, the banter between archaeologists and guardsmen can fly thick as a volley of musket-fire at times.  But Tony seems to have done a great job bringing everyone together.  

 What unifies Belgians, Australians, Brits, South Africans, career archaeologists, together with the British veterans, is a fascination with Waterloo itself.  And the opportunity to be involved in the first concerted effort to open out the archaeology of this momentous site.  

“It’s a dream to be here,” says Gary, from East Lothian, hand-picked for his reputation as a meticulous detectorist, and willing to give a week of his time for free.

You hear similar things from anyone you ask on site.  But this week has been particularly satisfying for Mark Evans and Charlie Foinette.  They first conceived the idea of getting together a bunch of Coldstream Guards to get stuck into some archaeology, over a pint, way back in 2004.  This then coalesced into doing something here at Hougoumont, the site of the regiment’s finest hour, only last year. 

Hougoumont and the Coldstream Guards’ part in the closing of the gates is drummed into you from day one as a new recruit,’ says Charlie, who still serves with the Guards.  ‘The idea grew out of wanting to do something to connect the Guards of the present with those of pastas part this 200th anniversary year.’

Mark, the director of Waterloo Uncoveredhas another angle.  A veteran of Afghanistan, he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since leaving the army in 2010.  One of the goals of Waterloo Uncovered has been the partnership with Operation Nightingale, which enables veterans affected by PTSD to get involved in doing archaeology.  “Among other things, it’s therapeutic,” he says.  

Rowan, a veteran of 5th Battalion, Rifles, who first worked with Operation Nightingale 4 years ago, agrees.  “It’s good when you’re concentrating.  It keeps your mind on what you’re doing, and stops you feeling depressing or anxious or whatever. So you’re not thinking about the stuff that causes all that in the first place.”

Of course, it can also be frustrating.  One team of veterans spent two days sinking a trench outside the main gate at the possible site of a mass grave.  But in the end, it turned up nothing but modern day rubble, much to the consternation of one guardsman, Sean. 

“It seems a bit a pointless when there’s nothing there.  I’ve spent enough time digging trenches in the army,” he says.

When Stuart, one of the professional archaeologistsexplains that sometimes finding out what is not there can be just as important, Sean is unconvinced.  

Stuart smiles and shrugs, “Welcome to archaeology.”