Dig Diary Day 3: Of Reading, Remembering and Ridges

Reading to Remember 2019

When Private John Peter Leonhard first laid eyes on Hougoumont farm, he recounted the utter hopelessness the sight instilled in him;

“The doors were open, one could see the freshly broken loopholes in the wall. Ha, I thought to myself, here you’ll settle in but leave nevermore. Good night world.”

Private John Peter Leonhard

Private Leonhard’s evocative account is one of many moving descriptions of the events of June 1815, which would change, and take, tens of thousands of lives and shape the 19th century as we know it. 204 years later, the Waterloo Uncovered team sat down in the same farm that Private Leonhard described so vividly to remember the victims and victors of the Battle of Waterloo, in their own words.

The team begin their marathon Reading to Remember event in the chapel of Hougoumont farm. Photo by Chris van Houts.

During the Reading to Remember event, members of our team including veterans, students, archaeologists and staff sat down in the chapel of Hougoumont farm where wounded soldiers took refuge on the 18th of June 1815, to read personal accounts of the horrors and triumphs of the Battle of Waterloo. Taken from a variety of Allied, Prussian and French memoirs and letters, participants have been reading contemporary accounts of gruelling marches, homesickness, heroic acts and devastating injuries; of loss, suffering, friendship and hope. As always, we have brought a diverse team to Belgium, and we were lucky enough to have native speakers of a variety of languages, meaning participants could read accounts in their original Dutch, French and English.

The team have been reading continuously for the full length of the Battle of Waterloo; where fighting continued for around 11 hours on the 18th of June 1815. During our 11 hour long event, each participant had the chance to reflect on the personal cost of one of the most famous battles in history. Our marathon reading session acted as a fundraiser for the important work of Waterloo Uncovered. Donations of any amount are greatly appreciated and contribute to allowing veterans and serving military personnel to join us in Belgium, where our programme of archaeological education and practice aims to support their recovery, welfare, and transition into civilian life. If you would like to support Waterloo Uncovered, check out the different ways you can donate here: http://www.waterloouncovered.com/donate/

A redcoat once more holds the line beside one of Hougoumont’s famous chestnut trees as Trevor dons his Chelsea Pensioner’s uniform. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Reading in Red

This year, Sergeant Trevor Rafferty honoured the soldiers of Waterloo during Reading to Remember by donning the iconic uniform of the Chelsea Pensioners, a residential community of 300 veterans based in the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London, founded by King Charles II in 1682. Chelsea Pensioner Trevor described himself as “honoured to be able to read about the Battle of Waterloo”, and shared why he feels remembering the soldiers of Waterloo is so important, even 205 years on:

“As an ex-British soldier, we are very proud of our heritage. The danger is that as we progress through the 21st century, our heritage gets lost, especially military aspects.”

He also explained what Waterloo Uncovered means to the former and current military personnel who have joined us in Belgium:

“I’ve spoken to a few veterans who have suffered PTSD, and they’ve said to me without coming here they wouldn’t have been able to open up and face their demons.”

Trevor reads from a soldier’s personal account of the battle in his iconic scarlet uniform. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Trevor, 72, tells us that the camaraderie of the dig has also helped our veteran participants – he feels that soldiers are able to talk openly with other soldiers as they share key experiences, even when they have seen vastly different conflicts. Trevor enjoys the diversity of the group of veterans and civilians that make up this year’s team, and appreciates that people of different ages, nationalities and backgrounds have come together to discover and celebrate our joint heritage – but he feels the students of the team definitely “need to work a bit harder digging the trenches!”

Royal Chelsea Hospital was also home to some of the last surviving veterans of the Battle of Waterloo. Read more about these extraordinary men on the Chelsea Pensioners website here!

To watch Trevor take part in Reading to Remember, and to hear more of his thoughts on the project, check out the video at the link below:

A Coldstream Guards Discovery

Early on in our third day of digging, serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle made an exciting discovery at Hougoumont farm – a Coldstream Guard button. The battle to hold the farm of Hougoumont in the face of repeated French attacks was one of the most epic exploits of the Coldstream Guards regiment, fighting alongside German light infantry and British troops from other regiments like the Scots Guards. The battle for the farm reached a crisis point when French troops burst through the north gate. British soldiers were able to fight their way to the gates and slam them closed behind the French. The destruction of the French troops who had broken in, and the sustained defence of Hougoumont, is seen by many one of the major turning points of the battle. The Coldstream Guards button was found by Oliver amid the ruins of buildings destroyed by French bombardments, barely 10 yards from the north gate.

The Coldstream Guards button discovered by Oliver at Hougoumont. Photo by Chris van Houts.

You may remember Oliver as the man who unearthed the first find of the 2019 season – and it seems his luck has continued! Oliver is a serving Coldstream Guardsman who was injured last year, and joined the Waterloo Uncovered team this summer as a way to aid in his rehabilitation and return active service. Oliver has been enjoying Waterloo Uncovered and his first experience with archaeology, but he’s been especially enjoying the social aspects of the dig, describing the team as “like a big family”:

“We’ve only been here for 3 days, and everyone’s really gelled – I’m sure there will be friends for life made here.”

Serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle and the Coldstream Guards button. Photo by Chris van Houts.

As a Coldstream Guardsman himself, Oliver was happy to find a button belonging to his regiment – but he is looking forward to finding objects which will tell the stories of soldiers beyond the Coldstream Guards:

“One Coldstream Guards button is excellent, but there was so much more at play here – so many people made so many sacrifices here, and there are other people to represent.”

A Cannonball in the Orchard

One of today’s most exciting finds has been a solid shot iron cannonball found in the Mont-Saint-Jean orchard. The 6-pound French cannonball would have had a maximum range of 1350 metres, but would have been at its most deadly within 750 metres.

Wellington’s troops stationed on the reverse slope, just beyond the ridge overlooking the farmhouse and field hospital, were ordered to lie down in order to protect themselves from French fire – but although Wellington’s reverse slope defence was ultimately successful, it was not without casualties. The French fired blindly over the reverse slope, and blocked by the crest of the ridge, a large proportion of the cannonballs would have missed the hidden Allied soldiers – but those that hit had the capacity to cut a soldier in two. While cannonballs such as these do not explode on impact, a direct hit from above would have killed any unlucky soldiers in the line of fire instantly. The hidden troops had no choice but to maintain their position regardless of the threat – Wellington’s forces would have had to sit quietly as the cannonballs rained down upon their ranks, hoping they would not be the next unfortunate soul in the firing line. Historian Gareth Glover describes the profound psychological impact this experience would have had on the Allied soldiers beyond the ridge:

“Calmly sitting or lying down waiting patiently for death to call sorely tested the nerves of novice and veteran alike. Such sights sapped morale as the men felt impotent in the face of it.”

Gareth Glover, Waterloo: Myth and Reality, page 124.
The 6 pound French cannonball found in the Mont-Saint-Jean orchard.
© 2019 Paula Cagli.

Late in the battle, the French made a breakthough; they were able to capture the farm of La Haye Sainte, 600 metres south of Mont-Saint-Jean farm. This may be the point at which the battle was most nearly lost by the Allied forces. In the early evening, 2 batteries of 6-pounder guns had been positioned at La Haye Sainte by the horse artillery of the Imperial Guard, who proceeded to engage the Allied line with cannister shot and cannonballs, causing severe damage, as described by French officer Lieutenant Pontécoulant:

“Each of our shots struck home, and we were so close to the enemy, that we could distinctly hear the cries of the English officers, closing up the thinning ranks of their weakened battalions with strong curses and the flats of their swords, to fill the gaps that we were making.”

Lieutenant Pontécoulant

It is possible that this cannonball was fired from the batteries at La Haye Sainte, and shows just how close the French came to breaking through Allied lines – as well as how heavily involved the farm of Mont-Saint-Jean was in these scenes of brutal fighting.

The cannonball was detected by Waterloo Uncovered team metal detectorist and Dutch army engineer Moos Raaijmakers, and was excavated by former British army engineer officer Piers Sanders (pictured) at Mont-Saint-Jean this morning.

To hear Professor Tony Pollard’s analysis of the cannonball, check out this short interview at the link below:

The discoveries have been coming thick and fast so far this season – it’s hard to believe that it is only day 3! Stay tuned for updates as we continue our work at Mont-Saint-Jean and Hougoumont farm over the next two weeks.