A Fallen Veteran of Waterloo

Three majestic Chestnut trees have stood guard over the Waterloo battlefield for centuries.

We’re sad to report that as of the 11th of March, only two chestnuts remain standing. After months of heavy rain and storms, a landslide beneath the roots of the middle tree caused it to fall to one side. It’s hollow, petrified trunk exploded upon impact with the living tree to its left, which was luckily undamaged. The fallen tree lies between its two surviving peers outside the gates of Hougoumont farm, protected from souvenir hunters by a new fence and regular surveillance. Although the loss of such an iconic symbol of the battle has upset many, it will provide a unique opportunity for in-depth archaeological investigation that would not have been possible while the tree remained standing.

Witnesses to History

The trees can be found to the south of Hougoumont, an area which used to be managed woodland, and was the scene of some of the earliest fighting of the day on the 18th June 1815. At first held by Nassau troops, the area was quickly overrun by Jerome Bonaparte’s infantry, and the allied defenders were pushed out of the woodland.

The woodland was originally so thick that it likely would have obscured the chateau of Hougoumont from the view of the French attackers until they had broken through the treeline. Amidst the fighting, trees were so badly damaged by musket fire that almost all were felled not long after the battle concluded.

Landscape painter Robert Hills gave this description upon visiting the site a month after the battle:

A 19th century postcard showing one of the chestnuts; provenance unknown.

“…in that part of the wood nearest to the house, nearly half the trees had been utterly destroyed by cannon shot, shells, and grenades, which had swept the upper parts from the stands, and those which remained standing, or scathed around their branches, and so closely covered on every side with marks of musket shot from their roots upwards, that the survival of a single individual and gauge there, would seem almost a miracle.”

R. Hills, Sketches in Flanders and Holland, 1816.

Contrary to Robert’s assertion, not one but three chestnut trees remained standing after the felling of the forest; although only one is still living.  The other two remain standing, but are dead, hollow trunks, thought to have been petrified by a lightning strike some time ago. The third tree has survived to this day, making it the oldest survivor of the Battle of Waterloo, and a witness to the changing of the battlefield landscape since then.

All the trees bear scars from the battle, as the three survivors stood in the direct line of fire of the British guardsmen defending the south side of the gatehouse against a French attack.

Upon her visit to the battlefield about a month after the battle as a tourist, English travel writer Charlotte Anne Eaton wrote:

Sergeant Trevor Rafferty in front of one of the chestnuts in 2019.

“The trunks of the trees have been pierced in every direction with cannon-balls. In some of them I counted the holes, where upwards of thirty had lodged: yet they still lived, they still bore verdant foliage, and the birds still sang amidst their boughs”

C. A. Eaton, Narrative of a Residence in Belgium, 1817.

To this day, musket ball holes are still evident on the trunks of the dead trees, although fresh bark has grown over the scars in the trunk of the living chestnut.  Although many of the trees of the woodland were stripped by souvenir hunters shortly after the battle, running a metal detector across the trunks of the surviving chestnuts reveals that these trees may haves escaped the same fate; and that musket balls may still be embedded within them.

Three Become Two

These chestnuts are an iconic sight on the battlefield, and have been witnesses to not only the battle, but the centuries of history that followed. The trees are considered to be an important and symbolic part of the heritage of the battlefield, and the loss of one of the three has been keenly felt by tourists, archaeologists, historians and enthusiasts alike.

According to the Memorial of Waterloo 1815 museum which reported on the fall shortly after it occurred, one of the petrified trees (situated in the middle of the living tree and the other dead chestnut) had already been looking worse for wear in recent weeks, and was leaning heavily to one side. The area around the battlefield had been subject to repeated heavy rain for months, and a partial landslide of wet ground beneath the chestnuts had weakened the roots of the middle tree. In the early hours of the morning, the tree finally fell, after valiantly holding on through several storms. The hollow, petrified trunk shattered upon impact with the tree to its left, which is still living. Fortunately, those on site have reported that the living tree was undamaged.

Dominique Bosquet (left) and Antoine Charpagne (right) in front of the fallen tree.

Antoine Charpagne (the Cultural Affairs Manager for Kléber Rossillon, the organisation responsible for maintaining the battlefield), lives on site at Hougoumont, and was the first to find out about the incident.

“I was woken up at 5 a.m. this morning by a tremendous crash outside. There had been a storm during the night and I went outside to find that one of the three remains trees had fallen in the wind,” Antoine said of the tree’s fall, “It’s a great shame – these trees are the last proof of the forest that once stood outside Hougoumont. Knowing about the forest helps with an understanding of the way the battle developed. Personally, I feel like I’ve lost a limb! I see these trees from my kitchen window. It’s very sad!”

In order to protect the remains of the tree from souvenir hunters and scavengers, Antione monitored the area from 6 in the morning. Eventually, a police cordon was arranged to block the tree from public access, and the area was placed under heavy surveillance.

In the afternoon, Dominique Bosquet, the Archaeological Director for both AwAP (L’Agence wallonne du Patrimoine) and Waterloo Uncovered, and WU trustee Michael Mitchell joined Antoine on the scene to assess the situation.

“The fall of the tree presents all sorts of opportunities for archaeologists,” Dominique explains, “We’re planning to carry out scientific research on the tree, and hopefully to preserve the parts of it as a relic of the battle.”

This research will include a metal detector survey of the fallen trunk, to recover any musket balls that may still be embedded within. But this survey will be much more than just the simple retrieval of musket balls – the evidence uncovered could change our understanding of the desperate fighting that took place outside Hougoumont, as Dominique explains:

“The signs so far are that the fire was hitting the tree from the North – from the walls of Hougoumont, and therefore fired by British and Allied troops, but if we were also to find French musket balls, in could mean that the fighting was much more fluid, and that French troops pushed well North of the tree.”

Metal detectorist Gary examining one of the chestnuts in 2018.

In addition, dendrochronological investigation will be carried out on the trunk of the fallen tree. This will involve taking a cross section of the wood to examine the growth rings within, in order to determine the age of the tree, and more besides, according to Dominique:

“The tree rings will tell a fascinating story: they will allow us to date the tree with a degree of certainty and also to establish what the growing conditions were like during its lifetime. At the moment, we believe the tree was planted between 1675 and 1775. Knowing a more precise date will allow us to estimate the age of the trees in the now-vanished wood and so give us a glimpse of what the battle might have been like. For example, if the trees were planted in the late eighteenth century, we would know that the French troops were attacking through a more open wood of relatively young trees. An older date would suggest they were attacking through dense trunks and undergrowth.”

The two remaining trees will be subject to a 3D scan to preserve them for the future, and measures will be taken to see how they can be secured in the case of future storms. We’ll bring you more news as the archaeological investigation and conservation measures progress.

“The tree is an emotional touchstone. Long after the bodies and the artefacts were removed from the battlefield, it stood as a living connection with the events. As does the surviving living tree. It was a symbol of the devastation wrought during the battle, almost like a relic. It’s been a backdrop for WU’s work on the site since 2015 and I feel a personal sense of loss. In addition to the monuments in stone and the buildings that still stand, this tree was a living memorial.”

Professor Tony Pollard, WU Archaeological Director.
The trees in better times in 2017.
The fallen and surviving trees.