Soldier archaeologists unearth musket balls and amputated leg bones at Battle of Waterloo field hospital site

James Crisp

The Telegraph, July 2019

Three amputated legs and evidence of a previously unknown firefight between French cavalry and the troops led by the Duke of Wellington have been found at the site of the Battle of Waterloo by British veterans.

Finding human remains at the battlefield is extremely rare as many of the mass graves were plundered and bones ground to be used as fertiliser in the years after the 1815 battle in Belgium.

25 veterans and serving soldiers, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,  were taking part in the first dig at the Mont St-Jean farm buildings with British and Dutch archeologists.

Mont St-Jean served as the Duke of Wellington’s field hospital and was about 0.3 miles behind the Allied front line facing Napoleon’s French army.  The dig found 58 French and English musket balls on Monday in a concentrated area, which suggested French cavalry had swept into the grounds of Mont St Jean before a shootout with allied defenders. The dig was expanded after the surprise find. 

The veterans' dig revealed previously undiscovered action at the site
The veterans’ dig revealed previously undiscovered action at the site.

“The French musket balls were probably fired by carbines – short-barrelled muskets carried by mounted troops. So we’re finding evidence of a previously unknown action at the very doors of the Mont St Jean Field Hospital,” said Professor Tony Pollard, the lead academic on the dig.

As many as 6,000 casualties, including French soldiers,  are thought to have been treated at the field hospital, which came under fire during the battle. Hundreds of amputations took place, which was the only treatment for smashed limbs. 

The old famhouse has yeilded some important historical discoveries
This farmhouse south of Brussels has yielded some important historical discoveries.

Surgeons would use bone saws to amputate limbs without anaesthetic after cutting flaps of skin away from the wound. They would sew the skin flaps over the wound to create a stump and hope their patients did not die of their injuries or shock.

The leg bones, two right legs and one left, were unearthed after a metal detector had shown a large metal object in one ot the trenches. One showed catastrophic damage and the other marks from a surgeon’s saw. 

The archaeological dig at the Battle of Waterloo site has unearthed amputated limbs
The archaeological dig at the Battle of Waterloo site has unearthed amputated limbs.

“These appear to be the remains of amputated limbs from some of the operations carried out by surgeons,” said Professor Pollard.

“Finding human remains immediately changes the atmosphere on a dig. Suddenly there is a very poignant connection with the people who suffered here in 1815, a connection that has not been lost on the Waterloo Uncovered team of veterans and serving personnel,” he said.

The French cannonball fired at a crucial point when Napoleon could have snatched victory.
The French cannonball fired at a crucial point when Napoleon could have snatched victory. 

The team also found a six-pound cast iron French cannonball, which experts link to a crucial point in the battle with the allied Dutch, Prussian and British troops when Napoleon nearly secured a victory that would have changed European history. 

French soldiers captured the farm of La Haye Sainte after its Prussian defenders ran out of ammunition at about 6pm. They brought up horse artillery batteries and bombarded the Allied line with round shot and cannister from close range, inflicting huge casualties and threatening to break the line.

One of the Waterloo Uncovered team with a musket ball
One of the Waterloo Uncovered team with a musket ball.

With the battle hanging in the balance, the arrival of the Prussian army led by Field Marshall Blücher on the extreme left of Wellington’s army helped tip the balance in the Iron Duke’s favour. 

Waterloo, which Wellington described as the “nearest run thing you saw in your life”,  marked the end of the Napoleonic wars. Wellington offered Napoleon battle close to Brussels, in the knowledge that Prussian reinforcements would eventually turn the tide of conflict.  

Cataloguing musket balls is part of the fun
Cataloguing musket balls is all part of the fun.

The dig was organised by Waterloo Uncovered, a charity founded by Major Charles Foinette and Captain Mark Evans, who are both officers in the Coldstream Guards. Capt Evans suffered from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. 

Capt Evans said that the Waterloo Uncovered project offered a nine month programme of support to the veterans, who include a 19-year-old, a Coldstream Guards soldier recuperating from training injuries, to a man in his mid-70s.

Organisers said that soldiers’ experience gave them an excellent feel for the ground of a battlefield, making it easier to interpret where an attack may have begun or ended. The veterans and serving personnel played a full part in the dig, including the uncovering of the three limb bones.

Mike Greenwood, part of the Waterloo Uncovered team, said, “Archaeology, among a group of fellow servicemen and women, can be beneficial to veterans for a number of reasons. It provides a supportive environment of like minded people, especially when dealing in military history, and it allows them to see a broader context to their own service. 

“There is also something about the practical process of archaeology which is meditative, even therapeutic.”

Mike Greenwood, Director of Public Engagement

This article was originally published via The Telegraph in July 2019. Read it online here.