Dig Diary Day 2: Musket Balls at Mont-Saint-Jean

Evidence of Evacuation?

In our freshly dug trenches along the east edge of the Mont-Saint-Jean orchard, an exciting discovery is in progress. The farm of Mont-Saint-Jean, which served as a field hospital during the fighting, is widely considered to have been several hundred yards behind the front lines of fighting, safely out of harms way. But recent discoveries by our veterans and students could completely change our understanding of Mont-Saint-Jean’s role in the Battle of Waterloo…

On our second day of digging, the team have unearthed several musket balls of both British and French origin, indicating that Mont-Saint-Jean farm was not, as previously thought, a safe retreat for wounded troops behind Allied lines. In fact, it may have been the site of a previously unknown confrontation between French and Allied troops – or even the victim of a French cavalry attack which forced the staff and patients of the hospital to evacuate.

The team were not expecting to find evidence of a French attack so close to the farm itself – there is, after all, no record of French infantry approaching Mont-Saint-Jean farm, let alone mounting an attack. But the attackers may not have been infantry – Professor Tony Pollard suggests that some of the ammunition found may be carbine shot, which would indicate a cavalry attack. The ammunition discovered so far may constitute evidence of the attack on the Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital described by Major George Simmons, in which French cannonballs “riddled the walls” of the farmhouse and the walking wounded were forced to evacuate or risk becoming French prisoners. While Major Simmons’ account of his time in Mont-Saint-Jean hospital is evocative, his description of the French attack which led to him being placed, severely injured, onto a horse to ride towards Brussels is the solitary account of this incident yet identified. The work of our veterans, archaeologists and students this year could be vital in reinforcing this account with physical evidence. A battle fought on the edge of Mont-Saint-Jean farm would also corroborate the scene depicted by William Mudford in his 1817 illustrated book ‘An Historical Account of the Campaign in the Netherlands’, in which bodies of French and Allied soldiers lay scattered around the farmhouse.

Plate H from ‘An Historical Account of the Campaign in the Netherlands’ by William Mudford, 1817, showing Mont-Saint-Jean farm.

Over the next week, our veterans and students will be collaborating with specialist metal detectorists to conduct surveys of the east edge of the orchard, which will shed further light on the nature of the fighting in the vicinity of the farm. Alongside evidence of a French attack, supervisor Sam Wilson explains that the team are aiming to recover the metal objects left behind by wounded soldiers that were carried into the hospital, such as personal effects, elements of uniform such as buttons and buckles, and ammunition. The orchard has not been ploughed in recent years, so artefacts from the early 19th century may have sunken further into the soil than can be discovered by our metal detectorists. To combat this, the team will deepen the trench one layer at a time, and re-detect the area to pick up on any missed objects once they are in range of the detectors. This technique was used to great effect in previous seasons of Waterloo Uncovered in the so called ‘Killing Zone’ at Hougoumont farm, and we hope to replicate our prior success at Mont-Saint-Jean.

Grace with one of several musket balls recovered today. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The Fate of the Dead at Waterloo

Elsewhere, veterans and students working with Alistair Douglas are focusing their efforts on a small grass area in the courtyard of Mont-Saint-Jean. The circular area in the heart of the former field hospital was previously a cesspit, but was backfilled and turned into a small garden in the last century, when the farm fell out of use. Alistair and his team have so far dug a small test pit which has turned up modern farming equipment such as nails, and evidence of rats – including a mostly complete rat skull. They aim to excavate down until they find the base of the cesspit – and hope to find evidence that this area was used as a disposal area for medical waste during the Battle of Waterloo. We may even find evidence of the many limbs amputated at Mont-Saint-Jean, which were said to have ‘piled up in the corners of the courtyard’. Around 65% of all injuries during the battle were to limbs, and roughly 2000 limbs were amputated between the 15th and 18th of June 1815. Many of these amputations would have taken place at Mont-Saint-Jean, including the amputation of the arm of Wellington’s military secretary, Fitzroy Somerset.

The team in the cess pit in the farm’s courtyard. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The field hospital was established by Wellington, who slept at Mont-Saint-Jean farm for several hours on the night of the 17th of June in preparation for the battle to come, and placed the hospital under the command of Dr John Gunning. An estimated wounded 6000 soldiers passed through the doors of Mont-Saint-Jean, although it is not known how many the field surgeons and nurses were able to save – there was, after all, no understanding of bacterial infection, and wounds caused by musket balls, cannon-shots, sabres and lances often quickly became infected.

Strangely, of the estimated 25000 French, 15000 Allied and 7000 Prussian casualties of the Battle of Waterloo, only one complete skeleton has ever been discovered in the area: a German soldier found under the car park of the Lion’s Mound in 2012. The objective of the Waterloo Uncovered project is not to find human remains, but rather to discover, through archaeological evidence, the truth of what became of the many casualties of the battle – were they buried, incinerated on mass funeral pyres, or perhaps even scavenged?

The disappearance of the dead has been largely attributed to the popularity of bone meal as an agricultural fertiliser in the 19th century – the bones of the dead are believed to have been dug up and shipped to the port of Hull in the UK, where they were ground down for use on British farms. The teeth of dead soldiers were also scavenged, and were used to make dentures known as ‘Waterloo teeth’. It is possible that Mont-Saint-Jean farm, being removed from the main battlefields of Waterloo, may have avoided the scavenging for body parts that has plagued the rest of the Waterloo landscape.

Return to Hougoumont

While the majority of the team will be based at Mont-Saint-Jean farm this year, we haven’t abandoned our previous site of Hougoumont farm. A small team of veterans and students have accompanied Phil Harding back to Hougoumont, to reopen last year’s trench. They have spent day 2 of the dig removing the backfill from the trench, which has exposed a large amount of mortar and brickwork which formed part of the original Hougoumont farmhouse. Phil and the team must now decide whether to dismantle the brickwork in the hopes that some bricks may have been graffitied by Allied troops stationed at Hougoumont, or whether it is preferable to leave the wall fragment complete and in situ.

Phil Harding leading the re-opening of the trench at Hougoumont.
Photo by Chris van Houts.