The Telegraph, April 2015
Archaeologists are excavating Hougoumont, a Napoleonic farmhouse that was defended by the Coldstream Guards against seemingly impossible odds.
Archaeologists and veterans excavating the Waterloo battlefield have found spent musket balls from some of the first shots exchanged between the French and Allied troops.
The discovery was made at Hougoumont farm in Belgium, a Napoleonic farmhouse that was defended against seemingly impossible odds by the Coldstream Guards.
Military historians hope the excavations will uncover mass graves of the tens of thousands of soldiers who died on the battlefield, an area of a former woodland which was bitterly fought over in 1815.
Dr Tony Pollard of the University of Glasgow, who is leading the team, said he is “confident” that the spent musket balls found at the southern part of the wood from “shots fired very early in battle, probably in the first exchanges” of fire during the Battle of Waterloo.
“We know that shots were exchanged between the French and Allied armies in these woods during the night before the battle, as the French probed the allied position and the first real fighting took place in the same spot,” Dr Pollard said.
Experts also discovered three horse chestnut trees which they believe are riddled with musket balls, after sophisticated metal detectors revealed a high concentration of metal inside the trees.
This is the first time the Waterloo battlefield has been subject to a large scale and systematic archaeological excavation using sophisticated technology.
Two weeks prior to the team’s arrival, experts in soil sensing from Ghent University, Belgium used sophisticated detectors to identify any anomalies in the ground indicating potential areas of interest for excavation.
Archaeologists plotted the GPS co-ordinates of their finds on the the military historian William Sibourne’s battlefield map from the 1830s, which showed a distinct pattern of heavy fighting on the western side of the wood.
The yellow marks show musket balls and pistol balls – both French and British – while the white marks show other metal items form the Napoleonic era such as badges and buttons in a clear line leading back from the edge of the wood back to the farmhouse.
“Those woods were heavily contested in the battle,” said Stuart Eve, a partner at L P Archaeology and a member of the excavation team.
“When the battle started, the fighting was on the southern end of the wood, we know this from eyewitness accounts.
“The Allies held the woods at first, but the French came in and pushed them back towards the chateaux. What’s interesting is that it looks like a running pattern going up that pathway.”
During the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, thousands of Napoleon’s troops attacked Hougoumont farm, which was held by British forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington.
The French army had been told by Napoleon to seize the farm, a cluster of 12 buildings situated in woodland and a strategic position on the Mont St Jean Ridge, a few miles from Brussels.
The battle reached a critical moment with 14,000 French soldiers on the brink of breaking into the chateau compound and securing victory, when Corporal James Graham, a 24-year-old guardsman, closed the large gates of the farm while under fire.
Napoleon’s forces were eventually defeated and Wellington later declared that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont”.
The archaeological project is part of Waterloo Uncovered, devised by two Coldstream Guards officers, Major Charles Foinette who currently serves with 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, and Mark Evans, who suffered from PTSD following his experience in Afghanistan.
British veterans, some of whom were wounded in recent campaigns and some who are still serving in the Coldstream Guards make up part of the 30-strong excavation team.
They arrived at Hougoumont on Sunday for a week-long dig, which is the first phase of an excavation project spanning three to five years.
This article was originally published via the Telegraph in April 2015. Read it online here.