Napoleon: Close to a Win at Waterloo?

Waterloo Uncovered Reveals How Close Napoleon Came to Winning at Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington once described Waterloo as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Evidence uncovered by Waterloo Uncovered at Hougoumont and Mont-Saint-Jean has revealed just how true that statement is – and just how close Napoleon came to winning at the Battle of Waterloo.

Fighting Came Perilously Close to the Allied Field Hospital

In 2019, we began excavating at Mont-Saint-Jean, Wellington’s Allied field hospital, and have discovered several Allied Brown Bess infantry musket balls and smaller calibre French musket balls in the orchard. Mont-Saint-Jean lay 600m behind Allied lines, and therefore was thought to have largely avoided French attack – in theory, we should not have found so many musket balls here, as the immediate area did not see major fighting, according to almost all accounts of the battle. But the discovery of several fired musket balls, both British and French, as well as a large cannonball, contradicts what we expected to find. The French musket balls discovered are most likely carbine shot, indicating the presence of cavalry carrying short barrelled muskets in the vicinity of the field hospital. All this shows that Mont-Saint-Jean was far more involved in the fighting than we thought, and possibly subjected to a previously unknown cavalry charge.

Our discoveries provide direct evidence for a little-known account of an attack on Mont-Saint-Jean hospital, recorded by Major George Simmons in his memoirs ‘A British Rifleman’, in which French cannonballs “riddled the walls” of the farmhouse and the walking wounded were forced to evacuate or risk becoming French prisoners. This is the only known account of an attack on the field hospital, or of the subsequent evacuation of the patients – but it is now substantiated by our discoveries, changing the known history of the Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital, and indicating that the French may have come further behind enemy lines than we previously thought.

Artillery on the Reverse Slope

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

On the reverse slope near Mont-Saint-Jean, where Wellington commanded his troops to lie down to protect themselves from French fire, we discovered a 6-pound French cannon ball and a 6-inch French howitzer shell that required a call to the Belgian bomb disposal squad!

In contrast to the close-range fighting of the cavalry and infantry charges, explosive howitzer shells were used when firing at long-range targets. The discovery of the shell near the reverse slope tells us that a French battery, consisting of four cannons and two howitzers, was stationed within 1100 metres – the maximum range of a 6–inch howitzer. The shell would most likely have been fired from La Haye Sainte, just over 600m away, after it was captured by the French at around 6pm on the 18th of June 1815. Horse Artillery batteries of the Imperial Guard were brought to La Haye Sainte, to allow for the bombardment of the Allied lines, causing massive devastation. At one crisis point in the battle, the bombardment threatened to break Allied lines, but was prevented from doing so by the arrival of the Prussians on the left flank, which helped tip the balance in the favour of the Allies. The musket balls, cannon ball and howitzer shell found in the cornfield constitute evidence of the point at which the Battle of Waterloo came closest to being lost by the Allies.

Evidence of the Attack on Hougoumont

The Scots Guards buttons in situ. Photo by Emily Glass.

Wellington once said that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont”. Over the course of our five seasons of excavation at Hougoumont, we’ve discovered evidence of the point at which the French came closest to taking this important defensive position – when they forced their way through the North Gate and into the courtyard where they would meet their end.  Here, we’ve discovered a number of Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards buttons by the North gate, lost by the men defending the farm from a French incursion. The closing of the gates is often attributed to the Coldstream Guards alone, but the discovery of Scots Guards buttons reasserts their role in the famous defence of the farm at the time when the French came closest to overwhelming it.

Amongst our discoveries at Hougoumont were a number of objects that show the French presence in the Killing Zone (the open strip of land outside the south wall of the garden that French troops had to cross under heavy Allied fire), including numerous French musket balls, a stud from a French uniform and several late 18th century French coins. It has previously been believed that the French soldiers’ journey through the killing zone towards the garden wall was largely a futile one, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the battle, but little advancement. However, the concentration of French and Allied musket shot discovered within the garden, much of which appears to have been fired at close range, indicates that a number of French soldiers were in fact successful in scaling the wall and gaining entry to the garden. Waterloo Uncovered’s Archaeological Director Professor Tony Pollard commented on the discoveries during our 2017 excavation:

“We have been finding grapeshot – a kind of iron artillery shot, that is smaller than a golf ball, but fired in groups in bags or tins like a giant shot gun shell, and very effective against infantry. Now these have been found scattered across the Killing Zone where we have evidence for really heavy fighting, and given their location our initial interpretation is that these are French artillery fire directed against the wall. This cannon might have been deployed to rake the wall with shot and push back the defenders to support the infantry attack. It looks increasingly likely that the French got over the wall at this point, possibly after the wall was cleared by cannon shot.”

Professor Tony Pollard

Here our work has shed light on a previously unknown event, as the historical record would suggest that the invasion of the farm’s courtyard was the only successful French incursion, and makes no mention of fighting in the garden. In fact, our findings directly contradict the recollections of Major Alexander Woodford, of the Coldstream Guards, who wrote: “The French as I recollect never got into the garden. They were in the orchard but did not scale the walls.”

The Destruction of Hougoumont Château

Elsewhere, excavations have revealed evidence of the destruction that took place when the farm came closest to falling. In the same trench that revealed the bricks and mortar of a wall which likely formed part of the barn that originally stood in the courtyard, our team also discovered burnt slate pieces – hard evidence of the destruction of the roof of the chateaux and its buildings, said to have been set ablaze by French bombardment during the battle. On the edge of the Killing Zone, we also discovered a French marine artillery button, indicating that marine artillery troops may have been positioned much closer to Hougoumont farm than previously thought.

Find Out More

Learn more about our work and our archaeological discoveries through our series of videos and lectures…

An Archaeological Bombshell

In the summer of 2019 we excavated at Mont-Saint-Jean, the main Allied field hospital during the Battle of Waterloo, with a group of archaeologists, veterans and serving military personnel. Check out the explosive discovery we made on the reverse slope!

The French Break In at Hougoumont 

In this Lockdown Lecture, Professor Tony Pollard explains how the French attempted to break through the North Gate of Hougoumont Farm, one of the Allies’ major defensive positions during the Battle of Waterloo.

Battle of the Buttons

In one of our series of short films covering our 2019 excavation in Belgium, Professor Tony Pollard gives you a run down of our activities, including searching for the lost remains of Frischermont Chateau and discovering a plethora of buttons at Hougoumont.

Malcolm’s French Finds at Hougoumont

Malcolm Iliffe, a Coldstream Guards veteran, describes the French finds he discovered while digging at Hougoumont.

Excavating the Killing Zone

Archaeologist Sam Wilson explains the work done by Waterloo Uncovered in July 2016 in the Killing Zone at Hougoumont Farm. In this important location of the Waterloo battlefield, the French assaulting the farm had to cross a strip of ground between a hedge and the wall due south of the farm, held by Allied defenders.