Dig Diary Day 9: Bombs and Buttons

An Explosive Discovery

In a field in the vicinity of Mont-Saint-Jean farm, an earth-shaking find was discovered yesterday afternoon. Serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle, whom you may remember as the lucky man who discovered both the first find of the 2019 season and a Coldstream Guards button at Hougoumont, picked up a large signal while metal detecting in a cornfield on the reverse slope where Allied troops were stationed during the Battle of Waterloo. As our team of archaeologists and veterans dug down, they discovered an enormous metal ball deep in the earth. Initially, the find was thought to be a 12-pound cannonball, twice the weight of the cannonball discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean last week – you can read more about that in our dig diary:

The ‘cannonball’ in situ at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

But when the ball was excavated, it appeared to be far larger than first thought, leading our archaeologists to consider the possibility that this was a 24-pound cannonball. But a French 24-pound cannonball has no place on the battlefields of Waterloo, as there is no record of the French using a 24-pound cannon in this period. Professor Tony Pollard, Waterloo Uncovered Archaeological Director, decided to examine the ball further due to this discrepancy. He made a startling discovery: as he turned the ball over, he saw the hole where a fuse would once have been. Our cannonball was actually a bomb!

“To say that the battle raged most furiously the ground was actually covered with the dead and dying […] and that the terrors of the scene were heightened by the constant bursting of shells, and, at times, even by the explosion of a tumbril or an ammunition-waggon [sic], is but to give you a faint idea of what actually took place during those tremendous hours of destruction and death.”

James Ridgway, An Account of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815
The fuse hole in the howitzer shell. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The object has now been identified as a French 6-inch explosive howitzer shell. A cannonball is a solid ball of metal which could smash through the ranks of soldiers, causing massive devastation. In contrast, a howitzer shell is a hollow iron sphere filled with gunpowder, with a slow burning fuse fitted to the case. Once lit, it was intended to explode above the heads or at the feet of the Allied soldiers, causing enormous amounts of damage to their formations. A howitzer throws it shells high into the air with a sharp trajectory, and is designed to bring ‘indirect fire’ down on enemy formations either in buildings as at Hougoumont, or, as here, behind a ridge and out of direct sight. While the shell discovered is known as a 6-inch howitzer shell, an Old French inch is actually equivalent to 1.066 modern inches, so our shell is in fact 6.4 inches in diameter – and was found significantly deep in the earth:

“[Cannonballs] obviously would have been fired nearby so it’s not a surprise that it’s here [near Mont-Saint-Jean], but it was a metre down – it’s a surprise that we managed to reach that depth.”

Professor Tony Pollard

Upon exploding, the outer iron shell would shatter and the fragments would fly outwards. In 2015, the team discovered fragments of howitzer shell at Hougoumont farm, but this is the first time a full, unexploded shell has been found by the Waterloo Uncovered team.  The shell pieces were discovered in the sunken lane by which ammunition was transported to the Allied troops defending Hougoumont farm, and the prominent theory amongst the team at the time of discovery was that the fragments could have belonged to the howitzer shell that burned down the chateaux at Hougoumont. However, other experts claim that howitzer shells were not effective at setting fires, so it is unlikely that this shell was responsible for the razing of the chateaux.

Oliver Horncastle and Alastair Eager removing the howitzer shell. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The artillery of the French army was almost completely redesigned by Jean Baptiste Grimbeauval from 1765 onwards, standardising gun calibres and making gun carriages lighter and easier to transport, allowing for more flexible and efficient manoeuvring.  A typical French artillery battery during the Napoleonic Wars was made up of four to six cannons with the support of two 6-inch howitzers. The shell we discovered would have had a maximum range of around 1100m and would have been most deadly at a range of 640m. Our shell would have been shot from a 6-inch (or 24-pound) howitzer, the largest of the 3 sizes of howitzer used by the French during the battle of Waterloo, which would have required 4 horses to draw it and 13 crewmen to fire it – an efficient team would have been able to fire one round ever minute. 

Close range targets would be shot at with canister shot, while exploding shells would be used when firing at long-range targets – it is possible that the explosive shell found near Mont-Saint-Jean was shot from a distance, possibly from the French battery at La Haye Sainte, at Wellington’s men positioned on the reverse slope. Wellington ordered his troops on the reverse slope to lie down, in order to protect themselves from French fire, which was ultimately successful:

“Terrific was the noise, awful from time to time the effect of exploding shells and round-shot telling; but the slaughter in the French ranks was double that to which the Anglo-Belgians were exposed; for not a soldier, either of infantry or of cavalry, yet showed himself unnecessarily beyond the crest of the English position.”

George Robert Gleig, Story of the Battle of Waterloo, 1848.
French Artillerist by Keith Rocco.

Upon realising what the metal object actually was, Professor Pollard put into effect protocols that he learnt while digging on First World War battlefield sites; the Belgian authorities were contacted, and police officers arrived at Mont-Saint-Jean, accompanied by Army Bomb Disposal personnel. The Bomb Disposal squad determined that the shell was not an immediate threat as the gunpowder within is most likely inert, but as there is a possibility that it could still be live, it was removed into the care of the authorities. The authorities hope that they will be able to empty out the gun powder with minimum damage to the shell, and then return the shell to Waterloo Uncovered to catalogue along with the rest of our finds – but it is too early to tell whether this will be possible.

The Battle of the Buttons

Historian Martin Mittelacher writes:

“Descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo are in some places quite contradictory, particularly with respect to time and troops involved, and no less so in regard to the action around Hougoumont, that strong-point in front of the right of the allied line.”

Reports of which regiments were involved in the defence of Hougoumont, and their contributions to the closing of the gates, have been particularly vague. The action at Hougoumont is most famously associated with the Coldstream Guards, though the 3rd Guards, now known as the Scots Guards, would also have been present alongside the 2nd Nassau Regiment and 1st Hanoverian Brigade. Mittelacher goes on to comment on the unwillingness of British accounts to acknowledge the Dutch or German regiments;

“Their contribution to its defence has been treated with silence in most English-language accounts, primarily, it seems, so as not to detract from the heroism of the British Foot Guards in this battle within the battle.”

Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, Robert Gibb, 1903, held by the National War Museum – depicting exclusively British soldiers fighting against the French assailants at Hougoumont.

While we have not yet identified any buttons belonging to French or Dutch soldiers, last year we found one most likely belonging to a German Light Infantry regiment outside the walls. This year, we have been able to find hard evidence of the Scots Guards’ heroic contributions. At the site of Hougoumont farm, at least 17 buttons have been found in the last two weeks, including five found today. The soldiers of each regiment wore specific buttons decorated with the insignia of their regiment – while we have not yet been able to identify some of the buttons, many have been attributed to the Scots Guards. We first discussed these findings in a previous dig diary, which you can read at the link below, but have discovered around a dozen more buttons since then:

Two of the Scots Guards buttons in situ at Hougoumont. Photo by Emily Glass.

The buttons were unearthed in a trench near the famous north gate of Hougoumont farm, where Allied soldiers including members of the Scots Guards fought off repeated French attacks to defend the farm, including an attack which broke through the north gate.

Two of the most famous men in the battle for Hougoumont belonged to the Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards regiments respectively. John Macdonell, though Scottish by birth, was a Colonel in the Coldstream Guards, described by Wellington as “the bravest man at Waterloo.” He is known for leading the charge to close the north gate, trapping the French assailants inside and allowing the Allies to hold Hougoumont. Matthew Clay of the 3rd Guards (now the Scots Guards) is known for saving the life of a young, unarmed French drummer boy, who had followed the French attackers inside and became trapped when the gates were slammed shut behind him. Private Clay hid the boy in the stables – though those same stables later burned down, and it is not known what became of the boy.

Several of the buttons where they were found at Hougoumont. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Despite the existence of first hand accounts and documentation which speaks to the contributions and brave sacrifices of regiments other than the Coldstream Guards, they are still popularly remembered as the victors of Hougoumont. We hope that our discovery of a large amount of Scots Guards buttons will go some way towards remedying this, and setting the record straight on the participation of other regiments alongside the gallant Coldstream Guards.

Stay tuned for updates on our final day of digging as the 2019 season comes to an end and a recap of what we have discovery in this fantastic two weeks!