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Pioneering excavation project in Waterloo uncovers explosive finds
It was one of the most spectacular finds on the Waterloo battlefield for years: more than two centuries after the 1815 clash that ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign, two British army veterans dug up a 12kg cannonball that had been lying about a metre below the surface of some wheat.
Serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle and Alastair Eager, the soldiers who discovered it with their metal detectors, were photographed proudly brandishing the heavy metal projectile, alongside television archaeologist and professor Tony Pollard, who is the lead academic for the excavations.
But within hours, Pollard revealed that the find was not actually a cannonball at all. It was an unexploded howitzer shell, still packed with ammunition, whose fuse had simply failed to burn through on that fateful day. The cannonball was actually a bomb.
This was just one of the artefacts dug by the team at Waterloo Uncovered, a pioneering project that uses military veterans for battlefield excavations. It is providing new perspectives on the battle, showing how close Napoleon came to winning the Battle of Waterloo. It is also giving some 25 veterans – including amputees and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder a new sense of purpose.
This year, the two-week dig has been around the allied army’s Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital during the battle, and the Hougemont farm where some of the fiercest fighting took place. It was near Mont-Saint-Jean that the shell was discovered, indicating evidence of a previously unknown skirmishes between French cavalry and the British troops led by the Duke of Wellington.
Other finds include more than 50 French musket balls that were probably fired by carbines - short-barrelled muskets carried by mounted troops. The musket balls are believed to have been fired late in the day of the battle, at about 18.00 after French troops captured the farm of La Haye Sainte. At that point the French were able to bring up horse artillery batteries of the Imperial Guard to bombard the allied lines with round shot and canister from very close range.
Pollard, who is the director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University and co-presenter of the BBC series Two Men in a Trench, says this was a pivotal moment. "The most logical conclusion is that it is the closest that Napoleon came to breaking the allied line," he tells The Bulletin. With the battle hanging in the balance, it was only the arrival of the Prussian army led by Field Marshall Blücher that helped tip the balance for Wellington and the allies.
The Mont-Saint-Jean dig also unearthed four sawn-off leg bones, found in what Pollard says would have been part of the harrowing medical activities that took place day. “The severed limbs look like they were thrown on a rubbish tip,” he says.
Around two-thirds of injuries sustained in the Battle of Waterloo were to limbs, and wounds would have been delivered by cannonballs, musket balls, sabres and lances. The Mont‐Saint‐Jean field hospital saw an estimated 500 limb amputations. "Medical practice of the time was often primitive," Pollard says. "Surgeons operated without anaesthetic and under enormous pressure, to amputate shattered limbs and suture appalling wounds caused by shot, sword and shell. Many of the wounded succumbed to shock, blood loss or infection. And yet many lives were saved."
While there was always a chance of finding bones near the field hospital, Mr Pollard said that finding human remains immediately changed the atmosphere on the 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 says.
Mr Pollard said the bone finds were exceptionally rare, as many of the mass graves were plundered and bones ground to be used as fertiliser in the mid- to late-19th century. English fertiliser companies collected the ground bones, shipped them to Hull and spread them across British fields. The teeth of the soldiers of Waterloo were also scavenged, and were made into extremely popular "Waterloo dentures" - false teeth.
The Mont-Saint-Jean medics treated around 6,000 patients, including William II of the Netherlands, known as the Prince of Orange, and Wellington’s military secretary, Lt Col Lord FitzRoy Somerset, who had his arm amputated. It was about 600m from the front line, and the rules of engagement at the time did not provide it with any sanctuary. "There was no Red Cross at the time," Pollard adds. "There was not much recognition that they should leave it alone, and nothing to indicate to fast moving cavalry that it was special. Although there were rules of war, but Waterloo was particularly brutal."
The Waterloo Uncovered charity was founded by Major Charles Foinette and Captain Mark Evans, who are both officers in the Coldstream Guards. Captain Evans suffered from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan.
Mike Greenwood, part of the Waterloo Uncovered team, said 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. "Archaeology, among a group of fellow servicemen and women, can be beneficial to veterans for a number of reasons," he says. "It provides a supportive environment of like-minded people, especially when dealing in military history. There is also something about the practical process of archaeology which is meditative, even therapeutic."
Alex Mitchell, 63, who served in the Scottish Yeomanry, said he endured a severe bout of PTSD after serving in Bosnia in 1996, where he uncovered mass graves from the Balkan wars. “I was brought to see a trench where 187 shiny, smelly bodies had been dug up, all with their hands tied behind their backs and a bullet in head,” he tells The Bulletin. “These digs can really help us. We have guys here who are totally withdrawn, but they come out of their shell because of the team environment.”
For Pollard, who also brought seven of his own students out to the dig, the experience shows the endless value of history discovery. "This is the most rewarding project I have ever been involved in," he concludes. "While this is not changing history, it is definitely adding to the history. And I think that people will still keep finding things here in Waterloo 50 years from now."
Photos: Chris Van Houts