Bones of Men and Horses: Unearthing the Horrors of War at Waterloo | History Hit

Bones of Men and Horses: Unearthing the Horrors of War at Waterloo

Amy Irvine

13 Jul 2022
An articulated skull and arm discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean
Image Credit: Chris van Houts

In early July 2022, the veteran support charity Waterloo Uncovered began excavations at the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium, where Napoleon’s forces met a bloody defeat in 1815. The charity’s team of world-class archaeologists, students and veterans quickly made a number of fascinating discoveries there. Crucially, they oversaw the incredibly rare excavation of a human skeleton at the site – one of just two skeletons ever found by archaeologists at the Waterloo battlefield.

The Waterloo Uncovered team investigated two key sites, Mont-Saint-Jean Farm and Plancenoit, focusing on areas where some of the fiercest fighting of the battle took place. As well as the skeleton, the team unearthed the bones of multiple horses and various musket balls.

These momentous discoveries tell us about the horrors that the soldiers of 1815 had to endure.

Discoveries at Mont-Saint-Jean Farm

Mont-Saint-Jean Farm was the site of Wellington’s main field hospital during the Battle of Waterloo and is now home to the Waterloo Brasserie and Microbrewery. Over the course of a week in early July 2022, excavations by Waterloo Uncovered there revealed parts of at least three horses, one of which looked nearly complete.

In addition, human bones were unearthed, including the skull and arm of one individual. Fascinatingly, this skeleton appeared to have been buried with a severed left leg over its shoulder. Whether the leg belonged to this individual or belonged to someone else, only time will tell.

The skeleton of a horse discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean

Image Credit: Chris van Houts

Professor Tony Pollard, one of the project’s Archaeological Directors and Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, said, “I’ve been a battlefield archaeologist for 20 years and have never seen anything like it. We won’t get any closer to the harsh reality of Waterloo than this.”

Véronique Moulaert from AWaP, one of the project’s partners, added, “Finding a skeleton in the same trench as ammunition boxes and amputated limbs shows the state of emergency the field hospital would have been in during the battle. Dead soldiers, horses, amputated limbs and more would have had to be swept into nearby ditches and quickly buried in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of disease around the hospital.”

Documenting the discoveries with History Hit

The story of the incredibly rare skeleton that was unearthed by Waterloo Uncovered will be featured in a short film on History Hit’s online TV channel and on Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, both released Wednesday 13 July 2022. In addition, History Hit are producing an exclusive documentary on the dig that’ll be out later in the year.

Dan Snow said, “This is a remarkable discovery, only the second-ever archaeologically recovered skeleton from Waterloo. It’s why I set History Hit up, to help cover remarkable discoveries like this one and help get the word of amazing organisations like Waterloo Uncovered out there.”

An astonishing find that tells the fate of the men who fought at Waterloo. Dan speaks to Rob Schaefer and Bernard Wilkin about the discovery of Battle of Waterloo skeletons found in an attic.
Listen Now

Other discoveries at the Waterloo battlefield

Waterloo Uncovered briefly started excavations at the Waterloo battlefield in 2019, before returning in July 2022 after a hiatus. In 2019, the remains of three amputated limbs were excavated there, with further analysis revealing that one of those limbs was found to have a French musket ball still lodged within it. Just a few metres away, what looked like horse bones were uncovered, but the whirlwind two weeks of excavation were over before the charity had the opportunity to investigate further.

After returning to the Waterloo battlefield in 2022, Waterloo Uncovered started excavations outside the village of Plancenoit behind Napoleon’s front line. There, metal detector surveying provided evidence, in the form of musket balls, of the heavy fighting that took place there between French and Prussian troops in the latter part of the day.

A close-up of a musket ball discovered at Plancenoit

Archaeologists and military veterans on the Waterloo Uncovered team also started excavating trenches at Plancenoit to examine below-ground anomalies recorded during the most intensive geophysical survey of a 19th-century battlefield ever to be undertaken. The site was selected as a vital yet often overlooked part of the battle. It remains to be seen whether this endeavour will unearth anything as thought-provoking as the discoveries made at Mont-Saint-Jean.

Veteran and serving military personnel involvement

Veterans and serving military personnel (VSMP), many of whom have experienced physical or mental injuries as a result of their service, form an integral part of the Waterloo Uncovered team. The charity uses archaeology as a tool to help service personnel find peace from the traumas of war, and in turn, VSMP offer a useful military perspective on the discoveries the charity unearths.

In 2022, the Waterloo Uncovered project welcomed 20 VSMP: 11 from the UK, 5 from the Netherlands, 3 from Germany and 1 from Belgium.

A group shot of the 2022 Waterloo Uncovered team in front of the lion mound.

Image Credit: Chris van Houts

The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 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. But despite many seeing the Battle of Waterloo as Britain’s greatest military triumph, inevitably the battle itself was a bloodbath on an epic scale, with an estimated 50,000 men killed or wounded.

It was the arrival of the Prussians from the direction of Wavre in the east which played a vital role in securing victory for the British, Dutch/Belgian and German troops fighting with Wellington. The village changed hands several times before the French, including elements of the elite Imperial Guard, were evicted for the last time, after which they joined the rest of Napoleon’s army as it retired south, carrying his shattered dream of European conquest with it.

Amy Irvine