Waterloo Dig Helps to Heal Life’s Wounds

George Mair

The Herald, June 2020

Military personnel who have suffered physical and mental injuries are being helped in their recovery by taking part in archaeological work on one of Europe’s most famous battlefields, a report published today reveals. The Battle of Waterloo, fought in Belgium on June 18, 1815, ended the Napoleonic era and created modern Europe.

Since 2015, veterans and serving military personnel suffering from a range of physical and mental injuries including PTSD sustained as a result of their service have been working with the charity Waterloo Uncovered to excavate the battlefield.

The new report by the charity, published ahead of the 205th anniversary of the conflict, highlights the results of a nine-month pilot Veterans and Military Personnel Support Programme run in conjunction with the excavation on the Belgian battlefield. The Peace from War report reveals how the project has had a range of benefits including helping improve mobility and physical and mental wellbeing, reducing social isolation and building confidence among participants.

Fifty British and Dutch veterans and serving personnel took part in the dig last July, alongside a team of archaeologists led by Professor Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.

In all, more than 800 finds were made. The excavations examined key areas of the battlefield, including Hougoumont Farm, where British Guardsmen foiled a French attack. The dig found evidence of the destruction wrought on the buildings, as well as personal items such as uniform buttons from the Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards who heroically defended the structure.

At Mont-Saint-Jean Farm, the location of the British field hospital during the battle, participants uncovered grim evidence of the struggle to save lives, in the form of amputated limbs from the wounded bearing marks from the surgeon’s saw. The ruins of the lost Chateau of Frichermont were rediscovered in woods on the Allied left wing, and large numbers of musket and cannon balls from the fierce fighting showed how close the French came to winning the battle.

Mr Pollard said: “There’s an extra dimension to working with veterans. Some of our team in Waterloo Uncovered have had first-hand experience of close-quarter fighting. You can be kneeling next to them in a trench on the dig and they’ll notice something you haven’t. That’s a uniquely valuable perspective for an archaeologist to have.”

The archaeological work went hand-in-hand with a nine-month programme of recovery and rehabilitation. Participants came from a variety of service backgrounds, from Chelsea Pensioners to serving soldiers, and were set personal goals to overcome challenges such as significant physical, or mental, injury and the struggle to adapt to civilian life.

Goals included improving mobility and physical wellbeing; reducing social isolation; building confidence through achieving tasks; learning new skills; managing anxiety and improving mental wellbeing. Findings from the evaluation process, intended to produce hard, measurable evidence of the impact of the programme, reveal that 81% of these goals were met “in full, or mostly”, while a further 13% of goals were met “in part”.

In addition, the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale – a respected method for measuring mental wellbeing developed by the Universities of Warwick and Edinburgh – was applied. This revealed an average improvement of 28.8% in the assessed mental wellbeing of participants by the end of the dig and a sustained improvement of 20% at the end of the nine-month programme.

One participant said: “Waterloo Uncovered has given me a handrail to life — it has helped keep me focused whilst dealing with day-to-day stress.”

Dame Clare Marx, Chair of the General Medical Council, who visited the dig in July 2019, said: “Waterloo Uncovered is using a really practical, physical environment to help people with their lives, with their belonging, with their control of what they do.”

Mark Evans, former captain in the Coldstream Guards and now CEO of Waterloo Uncovered, said: “Archaeology isn’t a panacea for all ills, but it can be massively positive for individuals. Our wellbeing and support team is made up of professionals with vast experience. This report shows the evidence of the benefits people can achieve, both in the short term and over a longer period.”

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer, added: “The programme addresses areas close to my heart of recovery, health and wellbeing, transition into civilian life, education and employment. It’s a good story to tell.”

The Battle of Waterloo has been described as “one of the world’s most decisive battles”. It started when the French launched an offensive against the British position at Hougoumont, a cluster of farm buildings situated a few miles from Brussels. The Duke of Wellington, the Allied commander, asked the Coldstream Guards to defend the farmhouse. It would turn out to be the Guards’ finest hour.

Article originally published online here.