Dig Diary Day 10: 2019 Recap

A Cornucopia of Cornfield Finds

Where have we been? A large cornfield near Mont-Saint-Jean farm.

What did we find?  A large amount of musket balls, a 6-inch unexploded howitzer shell and coins and buttons likely dropped by soldiers on the reverse slope of the battlefield.

Many of the musket balls discovered in the cornfield being catalogued by the finds team. Photo by Chris van Houts.

We were lucky enough to visit Waterloo when the crops in the nearby cornfield had been recently harvested, allowing our metal detectors and surveyors to examine what lies beneath.  Our team have found a large amount of musket balls in the cornfield – 58 in the first half a day of surveying, and dozens more since. In amongst the musket balls, our metal detectorists discovered several small objects which may have been dropped by soldiers during the fighting including a French revolutionary period coin which would have still been in circulation, and several buttons from soldier’s uniforms.

Towards the end of the second week, we discovered a large metal ball around a metre below the ground in the cornfield. Initially thought to be a 12-pound cannonball, it became clear that the object was far too heavy and was most likely a 24-pound cannonball. But as Professor Tony Pollard examined the ‘cannonball’ further, he found a fuse hole, indicating that our ‘cannonball’ was in fact an explosive 6-inch howitzer shell!

The howitzer shell in situ. Photo by Chris van Houts.

What does it tell us?

The musket balls and howitzer shell are most likely related to Wellington’s ‘reverse slope defence’. The cornfield in which they were discovered sits along the reverse slope where Wellington commanded British soldiers to lie down to protect themselves from incoming French fire. Some of the musket balls are likely to have been fired by carbines used by French cavalry, but many could instead be from the I Corps infantry assault on the left flank of the Allied line, led by French marshal D’Erlon in the afternoon of the battle. This infantry assault, preceded by a swarm of French Light Infantry skirmishers, was starting to push back some Allied battalions on the ridge. Suddenly, British cavalry swept over the top of the ridge and crashed into the French columns. The Union Brigade (comprising regiments of Heavy Cavalry from England, Ireland and Scotland) and including the famous but doomed Scots Greys, destroyed the French Infantry formations and sent them fleeing back down the hill. The mixture of British and French musket balls discovered around the reverse slope provides hard evidence of this fighting. Fired up by their success, the British cavalry careered across the valley, going for the French cannon. They were cut off by regiments of French cavalry, including the deadly Lancers, and payed the price for their reckless bravery. But that’s another story…

In contrast to the close-range fighting of the cavalry and infantry charges, explosive howitzer shells are used when firing at long-range targets. The discovery of the shell near the reverse slope tells us that a French battery, consisting of four cannons and two howitzers, was stationed within 1100 metres – the maximum range of a 6–inch howitzer. The shell would most likely have been fired from La Haye Sainte, just over 600m away, after it was captured by the French at around 6pm on the 18th of June 1815. Horse Artillery batteries of the Imperial Guard were brought to La Haye Sainte, to allow for the bombardment of the Allied lines, causing massive devastation. At one point, the bombardment threatened to break Allied lines, but was prevented from doing so by the arrival of the Prussians on the left flank, which helped tip the balance in the favour of the Allies. The musket balls and howitzer shell found in the cornfield constitute evidence of the point at which the Battle of Waterloo, which Wellington described as “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”, came closest to being lost by the Allies.

The French revolutionary period coin found in the cornfield. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The coins and buttons found in the cornfield can give information about the nationality and regimental affiliation of those present on the reverse slope, as well as what they would carry with them onto the battlefield. Though many are too degraded to see any identifiable iconography, we hope that after cleaning and thorough analysis by experts, we will be able to assign several of the buttons to specific regiments to determine precisely who was involved in fighting on the reverse slope.

Where can I find out more?

These discoveries were discussed in more detail in Dig Diary Day 6 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-6-mass-musket-balls-and-scots-guard-buttons/) and Dig Diary Day 9 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-9-bombs-and-buttons/)

The Coldstream Guards 1815 reenactment group at our open day. Photo by Alex Cauvi.

What else have we been up to?

We have been on a guided tour with Professor Tony Pollard, from the Memorial 1815 museum, past the Lion’s Mound, and towards Hougoumont farm. We also held a highly successful #WaterlooWeekend open day with help from the Coldstream Guards 1815 reenactment group and with a visit by the British Ambassador to Belgium Martin Shearman. We then went on a tour of the Ferme de Mont-Saint-Jean museum with Dr Mick Crumplin, who told us all about his collection of historical military medical instruments, and celebrated not one, not two, but six birthdays with a fantastic pair of cakes baked by Mike Mortimore!

Professor Tony Pollard takes the team on a tour from Memorial 1815 to Hougoumont. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Musketballs at Mont-Saint-Jean

Where have we been? The east side of the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean farm.

What did we find? British and French musket balls, and a 6-pound cannon ball.

Our team have discovered several Allied Brown Bess infantry musket balls and smaller calibre French musket balls in the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean. Amongst the musket balls was another remnant of the French army’s weaponry: a 6-pound cannonball, which would have had a maximum range of around 1350m, and could travel straight through five or six men in formation, killing or severely maiming them.

Team member Grace holds one of several musket balls found at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

What does it tell us?

The former field hospital of Mont-Saint-Jean lies 600m behind Allied lines, and therefore was thought to have largely avoided French attack – in theory, we should not have found so many musket balls here, as the immediate area did not see major fighting, according to almost all accounts of the battle. But the discovery of several fired musket balls, both British and French, as well as a large cannonball, contradicts what we expected to find.

Our discoveries provide direct evidence for a little known account of an attack on Mont-Saint-Jean hospital, recorded by Major George Simmons in his memoirs ‘A British Rifleman’, in which French cannonballs “riddled the walls” of the farmhouse and the walking wounded were forced to evacuate or risk becoming French prisoners. This is the only known account of an attack on the field hospital, or of the subsequent evacuation of the patients – but it is now substantiated by our discoveries, changing the known history of the Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital.

The 6-pound French cannonball. Photo by Paula Cagli.

The 6-pound cannonball was likely fired at the troops stationed on the reverse slope, but overshot to land in the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean rather than the cornfield where the howitzer shell was discovered. This suggests it was most likely fired from La Haye Sainte, like our howitzer shell. Furthermore, the French musket balls discovered are most likely carbine shot, indicating the presence of cavalry carrying short barrelled muskets in the vicinity of the field hospital. All this shows that Mont-Saint-Jean was far more involved in the fighting than we thought, and possibly subjected to a previously unknown cavalry charge.

Where can I find out more?

The discovery of musket balls in the orchard is discussed further in Dig Diary Day 2 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-2-musket-balls-at-mont-saint-jean/), while the discovery of the cannonball is discussed further in Dig Diary Day 3 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-3-of-reading-remembering-and-ridges/).

A convoy of black cabs arriving at Hougoumont. Photo by Chris van Houts.

What else have we been up to?

We were visited by a group of veterans and OTC cadets in 6 iconic London black cabs through the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, and many of us relaxed by painting miniature model soldiers kindly donated by Perry Miniatures, Warlord Games, Bicorne Miniatures and Army Painter. We also collaborated to create a stunning clay model reconstruction of our Frischermont site with artist Beth Collar, went for a group meal, and enjoyed a beer courtesy of Ferme de Mont-Saint-Jean brewery, who have been graciously hosting us for the length of our dig!

The team paint miniature model soldiers. Photo by Chris van Houts.

An Amputation Pit at Mont-Saint-Jean?

Where have we been? The west side of the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean farm.

What did we find? Human bone – at least three lower leg bones, a possible foot and and now an arm, discovered under unidentified scraps of metal by our metal detectorists.

The leg of one of our archaeologists next to one of the leg bones discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

What does it tell us?

Four leg bones in such close concentration means we have likely discovered a section of the orchard where limbs amputated in the field hospital would have been thrown during and after the Battle of Waterloo. One of the leg bones even appears to bear the marks of a surgeon’s amputation saw just above the knee, while another shows possible evidence of trauma caused by a catastrophic wound. It has been estimated that 6000 wounded men passed through the doors of Mont-Saint-Jean hospital during the fighting, and that around 500 limbs would have been amputated here.

Now, we have conclusive evidence of amputations taking place in the field hospital. The soldiers treated here would have suffered immensely – and if we are correct about the attack on the field hospital and subsequent evacuation of Mont-Saint-Jean, they did not even have a safe place to recover away from enemy fire. Many may have been forced onto horses even when they were in no condition to ride, in an attempt to escape death or becoming a French prisoner, as Major George Simmons writes:

“[Sergeant Fairfoot] got me a horse. They tried to lift me upon it, but I fainted; some other officer took it. In consequence of a movement the French made with all their forces, our people were obliged to retire. If I stayed I must be a prisoner, and being a prisoner was the same as being lost. Poor Fairfoot was in great agitation. He came with another horse. I remember some Life Guardsmen helped me on. Oh what I suffered! I had to ride twelve miles.”

Major George Simmons on the evacuation of Mont-Saint-Jean in A British Rifleman
One of the leg bones discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The discovery of human remains on the battlefields of Waterloo is also important as it is a relatively unusual find, particularly in an archaeological context – the majority of the estimated 20,000 killed in the fighting were either incinerated on mass funeral pyres or buried in mass graves. But these mass graves were largely raided by fertiliser companies in the mid to late 19th century, due to the popularity of bone meal as an agricultural fertiliser, and the desire for the teeth of young, healthy men for use in dentures.

Where can I find out more?

The discovery of human bone is covered in more detail in Dig Diary Day 8 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-8-poignant-proof-of-the-human-cost-of-battle/)

What else have we been up to?

We listened to fantastic ghost stories organised by Ben Mead, held a creative writing workshop for our Dutch veterans organised by Amee Zoutberg, and listened to a talk on the Peninsular War by Libby Dineley using personal accounts of the fighting, and even sent a specialist down the well at Mont-Saint-Jean – though we unfortunately didn’t find anything. We also held our annual Reading to Remember event, where members of the team read personal accounts of the Battle of Waterloo for the full length of the battle, 11 hours, to raise money for Waterloo Uncovered.

The Reading to Remember event in progress. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Battle of the Buttons at Hougoumont

Where have we been?

By the north gate at Hougoumont farm.

What did we find?

Around 17 buttons (yes, 17!), several of which are identifiable as Scots Guards or Coldstream Guards buttons by their unique regimental insignia, and more evidence of the brick and stone buildings by the north gate that were destroyed in the battle.

The first Coldstream Guards button discovered in our 2019 season. Photo by Chris van Houts.

What does it tell us?

Wellington said after the Battle of Waterloo that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont” – an act which has largely been attributed to the Coldstream Guards. The Coldstream Guards button was discovered by the famous north gate that was slammed shut on a group of French assailants, thus securing the farm and securing an important Allied position. Finding a Coldstream Guardsman’s button would appear to support this account. However, the Coldstream Guards were not the only regiment involved in the defence of Hougoumont and the closing of its gates – they fought alongside the 2nd Nassau Regiment, the 1st Hanoverian Brigade and the 3rd Guards, now known as the Scots Guards. Though the presence of these other regiments at Hougoumont is relatively well documented, their role in the farm’s defence is often overshadowed by the exploits of the Coldstream Guards. Now, through the Scots Guards buttons discovered by the north gate, we have hard evidence of the brave sacrifices made by the Scots Guards and their contribution to holding Hougoumont in the face of repeated French attacks.

Emily Glass showing visitors, veterans and Coldstream Guards 1815 reenactors one of the Hougoumont trenches. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The fragment of brick wall discovered at Hougoumont would likely have formed part of the barn. Combined with edges of the barn discovered during previous years of Waterloo Uncovered, we now have a relatively accurate footprint of where the original barn of Hougoumont farm would have stood. In the same trench that has revealed the bricks of the wall, some of which are still joined by mortar, our team have also discovered burnt slate pieces – hard evidence of destruction of the roof of the chateaux and its buildings, said to have been set ablaze by French bombardment during the battle.

Where can I find out more?

You can find more information about the first Coldstream Guards button discovered in Dig Diary Day 3 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-3-of-reading-remembering-and-ridges/). You can read about the discovery of the first two Scots Guards buttons in Dig Diary Day 6 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-6-mass-musket-balls-and-scots-guard-buttons/) and the discovery of even more buttons in Dig Diary Day 9 (http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-9-bombs-and-buttons/).

Waterloo Uncovered co-founder and Professor Tony Pollard talking to Gavin Lee live on BBC Breakfast. Photo by Chris van Houts.

What else have we been up to?

We held a Press Day where members of the media were invited to come and learn more about the work of Waterloo Uncovered, which led to coverage of the charity on the BBC, Sky TV, The Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Telegraph in Britain alone, as well as truly global coverage from Japan to Hungary. One Trustee of Waterloo Uncovered was surprised and delighted to find coverage of our dig in remotest Abkhazia, where he happened to be. CNN and Fox News also pitched in with coverage, amongst many others! We also relaxed by the pool, and held a quiz night, model sculpting workshops, life drawing classes, and a salsa dancing and karaoke night!

Members of the team relaxing by the pool. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Members of our team, particularly our geophysical surveyors and metal detectorists, have also been hard at work at Frischermont. The site of a ruined Chateau, Frischermont was garrisoned during the battle by Dutch soldiers from the 28th Orange?Nassau regiment. Now, there are few architectural remains present and the site is vastly overgrown. Through geophysical survey, we believe we have found the edge of the barn which once stood on the site, and through excavation have found evidence of a lavatory. Already we’ve found spent musket balls in the woods from the fighting. But the site must be cleared of the overgrowth and weeds to continue digging – we hope to return to Frischermont next year to carry on exploring the archaeology of the site.

The overgrown and wooded site of Frischermont. Photo by Chris van Houts.

That’s a Wrap!

Our 2019 season is officially over! Tomorrow morning, our team will leave Belgium and return home. It’s been an exhausting two weeks, but also an incredibly rewarding experience. We believe this has been once of the best seasons of excavation for Waterloo Uncovered so far – and not just because of the amazing archaeological discoveries we’ve made. Our team this year have been incredibly hard working, have gotten along like a house on fire, and have had an enormous amount of fun. We hope everyone has had an amazing time, and our participants have learnt new skills and discovered a new passion for archaeology. In particular, we hope our veterans have found the experience rewarding, therapeutic and beneficial. We expect to see some of our team return next year for what is sure to be an even bigger and better Waterloo Uncovered excavation season, along with a new batch of volunteers, students, veterans and archaeologists!

If you would like to get involved in Waterloo Uncovered, as an archaeologist, student or veteran, details will be available about the 2020 from mid January on our apply page:

If you have enjoyed following our progress and feel our work in supporting veterans is valuable, please consider donating to make sure we can continue the Waterloo Uncovered project next year:

We would like to thank everyone who has worked so hard to make Waterloo Uncovered happen this year, and everyone who has taken part, as well as everyone who has been reading, sharing and enjoying our online content. We’ll see you again next year!

The full 2019 Waterloo Uncovered team. Photo by Matt Weston.