Dig Diary Day 8: Poignant Proof of the Human Cost of Battle

A Possible Amputation Pit?

In the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean, Waterloo Uncovered’s metal detectorists picked up a signal that indicated the presence of a large metal object, which was promptly excavated by a team of archaeologists, students and veterans. Although it is too degraded to identify at this time, it may be the remains of an ammunition box, or simply a collection of metal scraps. While excavating around the metal pieces, our archaeologists made an amazing discovery – a human leg bone. Waterloo Uncovered liaised with the local authorities here in Belgium, as well as with forensic anthropologists, to determine that the remains were not related to a modern burial, and work was able to continue swiftly.

One of the human leg bones being excavated at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

As the trench was expanded, another leg bone was uncovered, and several days later yet another was found. This morning, a fourth leg bone was discovered: we now have at least four lower leg bones concentrated in a small area of the orchard. The location they were found in appears to be an area where amputated limbs would have been thrown, associated with the field hospital. One limb shows possible evidence of trauma caused by a catastrophic wound, while the most recently discovered limb appears to bear the marks of a surgeon’s amputation saw above the knee.

This is the first time the Waterloo Uncovered project has encountered human remains, which are an exciting and relatively unusual find on the battlefields of Waterloo. While there were an estimated 7000 Prussian, 15,000 Allied and 25,000 French casualties at the Battle of Waterloo, only one complete skeleton has ever been discovered in modern times in the area. A German soldier, believed to be Private Friedrich Brandt from Hanover due to the monogrammed wooden box found buried with him, was discovered under a car park during construction of a new museum near the Lion’s Mound in 2012. There have been several other discoveries of bones around the battlefield, but they have rarely been found in the context of an archaeological dig.

The around 20,000 bodies that littered the battlefield at the end of the Battle of Waterloo were dealt with in a variety of ways. Many were buried in mass graves dug by Belgian peasants for minimum pay, while others, such as Friedrich Brandt, may have been buried where they fell in rare individual graves. Those who could not be buried were piled onto mass funeral pyres and incinerated. Of those who were buried, some were turned up by farmers during ploughing, then interred elsewhere. Rarer still were bodies
that were moved to cemeteries in the Waterloo area or Brussels when their bones were discovered, and bodies that were repatriated to their home countries and families – these would have only been the bodies of high ranking officers. Horses, and some soldiers, were simply left out in the open to decompose. At Mont-Saint-Jean, the incontrovertible evidence of the suffering experienced by these men and the uphill struggle surgeons faced to save their lives created an arresting sight that caused many of our team members to reflect.

Archaeologist Eva Collignon excavating the human bones at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The disappearance of the vast majority of dead bodies has been attributed to the effectiveness of bone meal as an agricultural fertiliser:

“The reason that human bones are in such demand seems to be that they are richer in mineral constituents than the ordinary ones of commerce. If this is not consoling to us poor mortals, it ought to be.”

Cassell’s Saturday Journal, 1896

The bones of the dead are believed to have been collected by English fertiliser companies throughout the mid to late 19th century and shipped to Hull in the UK. From there, the bones were ground down and spread across British fields. The teeth of the soldiers of Waterloo were also scavenged, and were made into extremely popular “Waterloo dentures” – false teeth – as the teeth of healthy young men were preferable to those pillaged from the bodies of people who died of old age or disease.

Local peasants collecting and burying the bodies littering the fields of Waterloo. The Morning After the Battle of Waterloo, John Heaviside Clarke, 1816.

Our Mont-Saint-Jean site served as an Allied field hospital during the Battle of Waterloo – to read more about military medicine and the kind of wounds that would have been treated at Mont-Saint-Jean, check out yesterday’s dig diary:  http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-7-military-medicine-and-well-diving.

Around 65% of injuries sustained in the Battle of Waterloo were to limbs, and wounds would have been delivered by cannonballs, musket balls, sabres and lances. While many soldiers were taken to interim hospitals in Brussels, around 6000 of the Allied soldiers (along with some of their French prisoners) wounded during the battle would have been treated at Mont-Saint Jean. The Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital saw an estimated 500 limb amputations, including the amputation of the arm of Wellington’s military secretary, Fitzroy Somerset.

The third leg discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

One leg amputated during the Battle of Waterloo (though not at Mont-Saint-Jean) became particularly famous, even having a small shrine form around it. Henry Paget, known as the Earl of Uxbridge at the time of the battle, led a heavy cavalry attack of the Household and Union Brigades to counter D’Erlon’s I Corps, which were advancing on British and Dutch troops. One of the last cannon shots of the battle struck his right leg at the knee as he led light cavalry formations.  Legend has it that upon being struck in the leg by a volley of grapeshot, the Earl of Uxbridge turned to the Duke of Wellington and cried “By god, sir! I’ve lost my leg!” The Duke of Wellington allegedly responded “By god, sir! So you have!” Supposedly, he did not make a sound during the amputation of his leg other than to comment on the dullness of the amputating knife.

Uxbridge and Wellington after Waterloo, by Constantinius Fidelio Coene, showing Uxbridge recovering after the amputation of his leg. In possession of the Plas Newydd National Trust Property, Angelsey.

The leg of Uxbridge, who was created Marquess of Angelsey several weeks after the battle, was buried in the garden of the house it was removed in in the village of Waterloo, and a plaque was placed above the burial site. Uxbridge’s lost leg became something of a tourist attraction in the years following the Battle of Waterloo, and was visited by tourists including the Prince of Orange and the King of Prussia, until it was exhumed and incinerated in 1934. As is the case today, the loss of a limb does not equal the end of a life, and Uxbridge went on to have a career even more
illustrious than before; serving as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and became a Field Marshal and Knight of the Garter.

Amputations would have occurred without anaesthetic, and the patient often would have fainted from the pain and the sight of their own limb being removed. But for the majority of soldiers, amputation was their preferred method of treatment – infections were rife on the battlefield, and if a wound became infected, gangrene would lead to a slow and painful death.

“[The surgeon] told me that it was as bad a wound as he ever saw in a limb and that the first two days he had little hope of saving his arm. I think he owed the preservation of it as much to his own constitution, patience and fortitude as to their skill. He never uttered a groan or a complaint, his only regret was that he could not join his regiment, he said when told that amputation might be necessary he would prefer dying to the loss of his arm, but if it was necessary to the preservation of his life he would submit to it, because he knew his father and mother wished him to live.”

Captain George Evelyn, Scots Guards, writes of the amputation undergone by a member of his regiment

While the French had ‘flying ambulances’ invented by Baron Larrey (horse drawn wagons which carried the wounded from the battlefields to nearby interim hospitals), the British had no equivalent. Officially, soldiers were not permitted to leave their position and carry their wounded comrades to a field hospital or regimental surgeon – in practice, thousands of men could be missing from the battlefield at any given time, carrying injured soldiers to the rear. If you were not lucky enough to find someone willing to break the rules and carry you back, you would have to stagger to the nearest doctor yourself, despite your injuries.

A depiction of Larrey’s ‘Flying Ambulance’, held by the National Library of Medicine.

“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.”

Professor Tony Pollard, Waterloo Uncovered Archaeological Director

The bones discovered will be further examined by forensic anthropologists, and the archaeological trench in which they were found will be expanded outwards to determine whether there are any more limbs to be found. The decision of what will happen to the bones from there lies with the local Belgian authorities, not Waterloo Uncovered, but they will be treated with the utmost respect at all stages of the excavation process.

The Great Belgian Bake Off

The famous quote An army marches on its stomach” is often attributed to Napoleon, but the sentiment couldn’t be more true for our team! For the last two weeks, Mike Mortimore, Gwyn Evans, and several volunteers from the local church have painstakingly prepared lunch for the whole team every single day. Today, they went above and beyond when volunteer and veteran Mike baked a wonderful pair of birthday cakes for the whole team (over 100 of us!) to enjoy, to celebrate the birthdays of several team members:

“Normally we have 1 or 2 birthdays but apparently we have 6 birthdays this week. I suggested that I’m happy to make a birthday cake, and someone said it was a good idea, so away I went!”

Mike Mortimore
Volunteer Mike Mortimore. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Mike first worked with Waterloo Uncovered in 2017 as a veteran, digging with our archaeologists. He enjoyed the experience enough to come back the following year as a minibus driver, when he was asked to held Gwyn prepare lunches for the team. Since then, he’s expanded his cooking and baking skills, and was asked to come back for a third year to help feed us. But Mike goes further than just making us lunch; he supplies us with his selection of delicious baked goods every day, fuelling the work of our veterans, archaeologists and students!

One of the cakes supplied by Mike for the team. Photo by Chris van Houts.

With only 2 days left, stay tuned for further updates on our archaeological discoveries, including further finds from Hougoumont farm and an earth-shaking find from a field near Mont-Saint-Jean…