Was Napoleon Near Victory at Waterloo?

DM Chan

Asia Times, July 2019

Archeologists 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, the Smithsonian reported.

Daniel Boffey at The Guardian reported 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, archeologists 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 archeologists.

“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 archeologist of Waterloo Uncovered and director of the Centre for Battlefield Archeology 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, the Smithsonian report said.

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 archeology, to help in his recovery. Later, the two friends decided to start their archeological 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 archeology 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 archeologists 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, the Smithsonian report said.

“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.”

In “The Waterloo They Remembered,” Bernard Cornwell wrote, in the New York Times:

John Lewis, a British rifleman, was standing next to a man who was struck by a French musket ball: “He just said, ‘Lewis, I’m done!’ and died.” A half mile away, a French cavalryman, seeing a prostrate British officer stir, exclaimed in surprise, “Tu n’est pas mort, coquin!” and stabbed him with a lance.

Edward Macready, a 17-year-old British officer, was clutched by a friend who had just been wounded. “Is it deep, Mac?” he screamed, “Is it deep?” A Prussian conscript, not much older than Macready, wrote to his parents after the battle, “Tell my sister I didn’t soil my pants!” A French officer had his nose severed by a sword cut and cried out pathetically, “Look what they do to us!”

These are voices from a battle long ago and they bring life to callous casualty figures. Those figures were horrific. Johnny Kincaid, a British rifle officer, said that he had “never heard of a battle in which everybody was killed, but this seemed likely to be an exception.”

And it was not only men who died. After the battle, a British officer, Lt. Charles Smith, had the grim task of retrieving his unit’s dead, and while disentangling a heap of corpses found a French officer “of a delicate mould and appearance.” It was a young woman.

We will never know who she was, only that Lieutenant Smith thought her beautiful. I surmise she could not bear to be parted from her lover and charged with him to her death.

Franz Lieber, a young volunteer in the Prussian Army who would go on to teach in South Carolina and at Columbia, was astonished to discover that his sergeant major was a woman. She survived Waterloo and was awarded medals for bravery.

Wellington set the tone for commemorations when he wrote to a friend a month after the battle, saying, “It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained. I am now just beginning to retain my natural spirits, but I never wish for any more fighting.”

This article was originally published online by Asia Times here.