Archaeologists have uncovered some gory evidence of the Battle of Waterloo: several lower leg bones. The limbs are believed to have been amputated at a field hospital during the skirmish, and belonged to members of the Allied army.
On June 18, 1815, Anglo-Allied soldiers led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s French forces. The battle, which took place near Waterloo in modern-day Belgium, was a bloody one, with an estimated 7,000 Prussian, 15,000 Allied, and 25,000 French casualties.
Surprisingly, only one complete skeleton of a Waterloo soldier has ever been found, thought to be German soldier Private Friedrich Brandt. Many soldiers were disposed of in mass graves, while others, along with horses, were just left to decompose.
Now, archaeologists from the Waterloo Uncovered project have found evidence of a field hospital in the orchard of Mont-St-Jean farm. Having never encountered human remains before, the team were surprised to find at least three leg bones. One of the legs appears to have suffered a “catastrophic wound” while another has been marked by a surgeon’s saw – signs that these legs were amputated.
As many as 6,000 soldiers were treated at the Mont-St-Jean Field Hospital, which belonged to the Allied forces, and would have received “primitive care”. Those with serious injuries to their arms and legs would have had to undergo amputations without anesthetic.
“Finding human remains immediately changes the atmosphere on a dig,” Professor Tony Pollard, lead academic at Waterloo Uncovered, wrote in an emailed media release. “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.”
The team didn’t just find bones at the site of the hospital, they also discovered evidence of fighting that took place there. Digging trenches within the orchard, they came across a large collection of musket balls (projectiles fired by long-range guns called muskets) used by both Allied and French soldiers. The team notes that for so many musket balls to be present – they found 58 in just half a day – a “fierce fight” must have occurred in very close proximity to the farm.
“Given that the farm lies about 600 meters [1,900 feet] behind the main Allied line, we think that the musket balls relate to a cavalry action – French cavalry must have swept down the hill into the grounds of Mont-St-Jean, where they were engaged by the defenders, and a firefight developed,” Pollard wrote.
“We’re finding evidence of a previously unknown action at the very doors of the Mont-St-Jean Field Hospital.”
The researchers have also uncovered coins from various periods and buttons that may belong to soldiers that fought in the battle. They also found a 2.7-kilogram (6-pound) cast-iron cannonball belonging to the French. It’s believed this cannonball is linked to a victory for Napoleon’s forces as they managed to capture the farm of La Haye Sainte when German soldiers ran out of ammunition. This allowed them to bring horse artillery to the site, inflicting serious injuries on their opponents.
Waterloo Uncovered is a UK-based charity that combines a leading archaeology project focused on the Battle of Waterloo with support for veterans and the military community. Team members include veterans, serving members of the military, and archaeologists who work together on digs. Archaeology can help provide focus and relaxation to those affected by war.