The remains of up to 10 British and Prussian soldiers killed in the Battle of Waterloo have been discovered – this constitutes the largest assembly of Waterloo battlefield casualties found in recent times. The discovery was made by the Belgian-German team that was behind earlier groundbreaking research that had revealed that the bones of thousands of men and horses killed during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 may have been consumed by the emerging European sugar industry.
History Hit has partnered with this team, and in a special episode of Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, Dan discusses the discoveries with them. Dan Snow is also working alongside the Belgian team to make a full length documentary about the discovery, set to premiere exclusively for History Hit TV, who will also produce a short film about the remains.
As Dan says, “Waterloo was one of the bloodiest battles in European history, yet until now only two bodies have ever been found on the battlefield. The discovery of these human remains, from places on the battlefield where the fighting was fiercest is a stunning opportunity to learn more about the men who fought here. A chance to highlight the individual experience, the grim, violent reality, in telling the story of the battle where too often that story is lost. This is a huge find for anyone who cares about military history, and those who fought and died, and shaped our world; we’re honoured that History Hit gets to be part of documenting the discovery.”
A rare find
Due to the industrial exploitation of mass battlefield burials for the sugar industry in the middle of the 19th century, only two skeletons from the Battle of Waterloo had been found by archaeology in recent years.
These new skeletons – which have now been uncovered in two separate locations thanks to the assistance of Dominique Bosquet (AWap) of the Walloon Heritage Agency, as well as the research of Belgian historian Dr. Bernard Wilkin and German independent historian Robin Schäfer – therefore constitute the largest body of Waterloo casualties ever found.
One of the discoveries is compiled of the bones of what appear to be 4 Prussian soldiers killed in the fierce battle for the possession of the village of Plancenoit – less than 1,000 yards from the inn of La Belle Alliance, Emperor Napoleon’s headquarters at the Battle of Waterloo. They had been resting in an attic for more than 40 years and are now in the possession and care of the Belgian State Archives in Liege.
The remains of 6 more skeletons – British soldiers killed between Hougoumont Farm and the Lion Mound Memorial – were retrieved from another private household, having been found during illegal digs by metal detectorists, and have since been held in a private household. They will undergo further examination by Caroline Laforest at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
Based on objects found with the bodies, at least one of the British casualties was a soldier of the 1st Foot Guards. Interestingly, one iron cannonball was also found with the bodies.
What information can the skeletons tell us?
A number of the Prussian soldier’s bones bear witness to the brutality of the close-quarter fighting that had taken place for the possession of the village of Plancenoit. Several vertebrae show marks left by bladed weapons, one skull bears horrific damage caused by bayonet thrust or sword blow, while one front tooth seems to have been driven upwards into the jaw by a hard blow.
3D-Models of the skulls (by Toby Monks MSc):
Skull of a Prussian soldier killed during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It displays severe facial trauma. Discovered during construction work at Plancenoit / Maransart, Belgium.
Dan Snow will join the scientists as they uncover the results of the tests, and facial reconstruction will also be attempted by the Belgian criminal forensic services.
After further research, the mortal remains of all soldiers will receive a formal burial and a grave marker / memorial, if funds and land can be acquired. Negotiations have already been initiated for this.
The finds underline the fact that even though it is unlikely that major burials of casualties of the Battle of Waterloo still exist, individual graves themselves may still do.
Up until now, no remains of Prussian soldiers had been found. This discovery would link to the story of the Prussian Army’s decisive contribution not only at the battles of Ligny, Waterloo and Wavre, but also in bringing along the final downfall of Napoleon himself.
Continued fighting by the French after Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 is said to have brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars, thwarting Napoleon’s efforts to dominate Europe and ending a 15-year period of near-constant war. It also laid the foundations for a unified Europe for nearly a century.
However, today it is often forgotten that the Battle of Waterloo, which was ultimately decided by the timely Prussian arrival and by the fierce battle for Plancenoit on the French right flank, wasn’t the end of Napoleon or indeed the French Empire. Often ignored by anglo-saxon historiography – and not common knowledge in the UK – is that the French Army fought on after Waterloo.
At Versailles, Sevres, Rocquencourt and other places, French troops fought off the Prussian army, and it was the Prussians who continued to lead the race towards and into Paris, the French capital. In the Alps and along the Rhine, other French armies fought German Armies from Bavaria and Wurttemberg, and General Rapp defeated the Austrians at the Battle of La Souffel on 28 June 1815. This, and not Waterloo, was the final major battle and the last French victory of the Napoleonic Wars.
But still the fighting continued much longer after this. While Napoleon had abdicated 6 days before, on 22 June 1815, many of his commanders sought to reverse the defeat of Waterloo, seeking one more, decisive battle to turn the tables.
Marshal Grouchy, too late to come to Napoleon’s aid at Waterloo and was unjustly much criticised for it, conducted a fighting withdrawal to Paris by 29 June, with Prussian troops hard on his heels.
On 1 July 1815, Generals Vandamme, Exelmans and Marshal Davout also began the Defence of Paris with an engagement at Rocquencourt, not far from Versailles, in which French dragoons supported by infantry and commanded by General Exelmans annihilated an entire Prussian brigade of hussars under the command of Oberstleutnant Eston von Sohr.
Fighting continued well after the Battle of Waterloo, right into September 1815 when the last Bonapartist fortress surrendered to a Prussian force under Prince Augustus. Indeed the Napoleonic Wars only ended after the Second Treaty of Paris, on 20 November 1815.
Watch this space…
History Hit has partnered with the Belgian-German team who made the discoveries (including Belgian historian Dr. Bernard Wilkin and German independent historian Robin Schäfer, as well as with Dominique Bosquet (AWap) of the Walloon Heritage Agency), and are working alongside them to document their findings and assess what the skeletons can teach us about the men who fought at the Battle of Waterloo.
In addition to Dan’s podcast, later this year History Hit TV will exclusively premiere a full length documentary about the discovery and also produce a short film about the remains.