Waterloo: Living History

Mike Greenwood

Army Museums Ogilby Trust, September 2020

In a sun-baked field in Belgium, a group of men and women dressed in an assortment of shorts, T-shirts and High-Vis vests are on hands and knees paying close attention to the parched clay soil.  The heavy afternoon air is pierced by the scraping of trowels and the urgent beeping of electronic sensors. Nearby, under the close scrutiny of a professional eye, a man is crumbling the soil from a lump he’s teased out from a spot pinpointed by the loop of a metal detector. He raises a heavily tattooed arm (a clue perhaps, to his own military origins) and grins. Between his fingers he holds a rounded lump of lead: definitely a musket ball; probably British; possibly fired by brothers in arms from his own regiment, two hundred years earlier. A minor archaeological discovery perhaps, but in that moment, he’s made an important connection with history and, in some small way, found a way to put the troubling experiences of his own past into a more positive perspective. This is Waterloo Uncovered, at work on the battlefield of Waterloo.

Few events can be as decisive as that which played out in the quiet countryside south of Brussels one Sunday in June, 1815. Over the course of the day, three armies collided on the rain-sodden ridge of Mont-Saint-Jean; in a space of less than three square miles, nearly two hundred thousand men from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France fought a cataclysmic battle that brought an end to a quarter-century of warfare among the European powers. By the close of the day, perhaps 10,000 men lay dead on the field, with tens of thousands more wounded and maimed, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s vision of a European Empire was ended forever.

The Battle of Waterloo is situated on the edge of Modern History: few other battles were recorded in such detail by those eyewitnesses who survived, in letters, journals, memoirs and monologues; few battles have freighted bookshelves with such a cargo of subsequent histories and reinterpretations, which continue to be produced to this day. What new things remain to be said, therefore? What discoveries are still to be made?

The charity Waterloo Uncovered has been addressing that challenge since 2015 with a project in which archaeology, history and the experiences of contemporary servicemen and women converge to forge compelling new insights into this most iconic of battlefields.

Waterloo Uncovered combines world-leading archaeology with the recovery and wellbeing of veterans and serving military personnel (VSMP), many of them suffering from the physical and mental impacts of their service. The project had its origins in the shared experience of two men, Mark Evans and Charlie Foinette. Both had studied archaeology together and both subsequently served as officers in the Coldstream Guards – a regimental connection that was to prove key in opening up this closely protected battlefield to archaeological exploration.

Mental Legacy

Upon leaving the Army, Mark was encouraged to revisit archaeology as a means of working through the mental legacy of his own experiences in Afghanistan. Meanwhile Charlie, still serving with the battalion, took his men on a tour of Hougoumont Farm on the battlefield of Waterloo. Hougoumont is “sacred ground” to the regiment: the walled compound of farm buildings, gardens and orchards served as a fortress out in front of the allied line and became the scene of a dramatic “battle-within-a-battle”. It’s one of the Coldstream Guards’ proudest battle honours (although, as the archaeological evidence was to show, one that they share with other regiments!).

Mark and Charlie made two important realisations: firstly, that little archaeological work had taken place on the battlefield; and secondly, that being part of a team working through the processes of an archaeological dig has the potential to help people with their recovery and rehabilitation. Building on the regimental connection, and with the cooperation of Project Hougoumont who maintain the site, the first group of archaeologists, VSMP, and experts in an assortment of specialisms began their explorations in the year of the battle’s bi-centenary, 2015. Since then, participants have made important new discoveries about the battle – and about themselves.

Committed from the start to achieving the highest standards in both archaeology and welfare, partnerships have always been at the heart of Waterloo Uncovered. World-leading archaeological expertise is provided by The Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, led by Professor Tony Pollard, and by L-P: Archaeology practice. Local expertise has been key: the Belgian regional archaeological service, Agence Wallonne du Patrimoine (AWAP) has been involved from the start, facilitating access and adding their own knowledge of the site, as has the University of Ghent, whose expertise in techniques of scanning and visualising the landscape have become increasingly important as the dig extends to new areas of the battlefield. The University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, allows the educational potential of the enterprise to be developed: they run two summer schools in conjunction with the dig, and students work alongside archaeologists and veterans.

And then there are the volunteers. They come from a range of backgrounds and disciplines: professional archaeologists supervise the teams working on different aspects of the dig (one face familiar from TV is that of Phil Harding, archaeologist and veteran of Time Team); experienced metal detectorists train veterans to work alongside the archaeologists; other volunteers provide support with logistics, transport, or communications. Artists, poets and photographers lend their expertise to help create complementary activities to keep participants engaged and able to try new experiences.

Wellbeing and Support

The Wellbeing and Support programme is central to Waterloo Uncovered’s mission. Each year, working with related welfare charities and often with regiments themselves, a diverse group of new participants from a mix of service backgrounds is carefully selected to embark on a twelve-month programme focusing on five key areas: Recovery, Wellbeing, Transition to civilian life, Education and Employment. A team of professional support staff, with many decades of experience between them, work with all of the participants to identify personal goals to be achieved, monitor progress, give support and rigorously evaluate outcomes.

The programme begins with visits and tours run with supportive organisations such as the National Army Museum and the British Museum who provide an opportunity for people to meet each other, to handle finds and to get an overview of the historical context. The momentum then gathers pace until the dig each July- the highlight of the programme.

Once there, the experience of being reintroduced to a familiar service background, the chance to learn new skills in a very hands-on manner, the methodical, almost meditative nature of detailed archaeological work and the personalised support on offer can be life-changing for many participants, helping them to come to terms with difficult episodes from their past. So far, over 100 serving and veteran participants have been supported.

“Waterloo Uncovered has given me a handrail to life – it has helped me keep focussed whilst dealing with the day-to-day stress.”

Waterloo Uncovered participant

Working in an international environment is an important aspect of the project – in 2019, for example, the group of veterans, volunteers, students and support staff was drawn from 11 different countries. In addition, each year the dig welcomes a group of service people from the Netherlands, and there are plans to extend the collaboration to include veterans and service personnel from all the modern nations whose peoples fought in the battle 200 years ago, so that each nation is represented in an exploration of a shared history. Waterloo Uncovered is keen to work with organisations that can help build an understanding of the context of the battle, and of the people who fought in it, and help reach out to new audiences.

“Having to put your hand up and say “I need help” – that was the biggest shock. Waterloo Uncovered, for me, is really important. Studying the history of warfare through time, and the impact it has had on people, helps you realise that the only thing that changes is the technology, not the human.”

Waterloo Uncovered participant

Archaeological Discoveries

This year, Waterloo Uncovered was unable to excavate due to Covid-19. Instead, we turned our efforts to running a virtual programme of activities and information for participants and to communicating about our work to a wider audience via our website and our YouTube channel. A mix of short film features, audio interviews, articles and lectures has proved very popular with audiences, attracting over half a million views since March.

And what of the archaeology? Has it been possible in practice, to find new things to say and to uncover new revelations on this much-studied battlefield? Some of the 6000+ finds speak volumes:

  • A huge amount of musket balls and grape shot attesting to the series of vicious assaults on Hougoumont, with evidence of French incursions through the defences;
  • The remains of buildings destroyed in the battle, allowing archaeologists and historians to revise their understanding of the layout of Hougoumont-and why the French failed to succeed there;
  • Personal items including – most tellingly – uniform buttons from both Coldstream and Scots Guards, showing the mix of units involved in the desperate defence of the North Gate;
  • Moving the focus to the Farm of Mont-Saint-Jean – used as Wellington’s main Field Hospital – evidence was found of a fire fight around the hospital, well in the rear of the Allied main position and probably relating to a breakthrough by French cavalry;
  • French artillery rounds from the point in the battle where they came closest to victory, and a large, unexploded howitzer shell from their bombardment of the ridge sheltering the Allied infantry line;
  • Most poignant of all, grim evidence of the work of battlefield surgeons to save lives, in the form of the amputated limbs of badly wounded men, some showing catastrophic injuries and carrying embedded bullets;
  • The rediscovery of the remains of the “lost” chateau of Frichermont over on the left of Wellington’s line. Held by the Dutch during the battle, its site had been lost to view for decades.

Much has been found and much more remains to be discovered. Future plans include a dedicated PhD project to make the first Geophysical survey of the battlefield, and further excavation in a number of locations. And, as ever, the fusion of archaeology, history and the contemporary experiences and perspectives of participants will lie at the heart of the work of Waterloo Uncovered. Professor Tony Pollard, Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, and a Director of the excavation offers this final insight into what makes the project so special for him:

“There’s the extra dimension of working with veterans as part of Waterloo Uncovered. It’s brilliant to share a laugh and see the benefit people in the team are getting. But for me as an archaeologist there’s more. Some of our team on Waterloo Uncovered have had first-hand experience of close-quarter fighting in walled compounds in Iraq or Afghanistan – very like the layout of Hougoumont, for example. You can be kneeling next to them in a trench and they’ll notice something that you haven’t, and you’ll think: “Yes, you’re right!” That’s a uniquely valuable perspective for an archaeologist to have.”

Waterloo Uncovered participant

This article was originally published in the Army Museums Ogilby Trust’s Annual Review 2019-20. Read it online here.