The mystery surrounding Waterloo’s dead soldiers is set to be re-examined by scientists archeology
It was an epic battle commemorated in words, poetry and even a legendary Abba song, but exactly 207 years to the day after the troops clashed at Waterloo, one grim question remains: What happened to the dead?
While tens of thousands of men and horses died at the site in modern-day Belgium, few remains have been found, including amputated legs and a skeleton unearthed under a parking lot south of Brussels among the few discoveries.
The long-held explanation is gruesome: the bones were reportedly collected shortly after the conflict, pulverized and made into fertilizer for agricultural use.
“It is certainly a unique fact that Britain should send out multitudes of soldiers to fight that country’s battles on the European continent, and then import the bones as an article of trade to fatten her soil!” The London Observer reported in Nov. 1822.
Now, a battlefield expert has said that while the theory is credible, new field research is needed to examine such claims.
Prof Tony Pollard, director of the Center for Battlefield Archeology at the University of Glasgow, has compiled in the Journal of Conflict Archeology vivid descriptions and images of those who visited Waterloo after the 1815 battle in which Napoleon’s forces fought against a British-led coalition and a under Prussian leadership.
The reports reveal the horror of the scene, including a morbid encounter with “a human hand, reduced almost to a skeleton and stretched out above the ground,” as writer Charlotte Eaton described it.
Pollard added that the research yielded a number of surprises, “including the discovery of female bodies — at least one of whom was wearing a French cavalry uniform,” he said.
But while the accounts include evidence of bodies being cremated, they also refer to burials, often with information about their location.
“Bodies were buried in large pits by the hundreds in some places, but in other places they were buried individually or in small groups – the burials were likened to molehills stretching across fields,” Pollard said.
As chief scientist and archaeological director of the charity Waterloo Uncovered, Pollard and his team are now poised to return to the battlefield next month to continue their archaeological investigation, supported by the testimony.
“Even if the stories of bone removal are true, I don’t expect all the graves to have been emptied, and we have little evidence as to the whereabouts of the surviving graves,” Pollard said. “It would be really interesting to find evidence of pits that have had bone removed — that’s the kind of fault that would create a geophysical anomaly.”
Among other things, the team will begin a battlefield-wide survey using geophysical techniques such as electromagnetic methods.
dr Kevin Linch, a University of Leeds expert on the Napoleonic Wars who is not involved in the work, said there is a good case for the bones of the dead being used as fertilizer, although other activities such as plowing or scavenging by animals, could have led to their spread.
Linch added that Waterloo Uncovered is important not only because of the insights it can provide, but also because the charity engages modern veterans who are living with injuries or trauma.
“As recognized by the Napoleonic & Revolutionary War Graves Charity, finding and recognizing war graves from this period is just as important as any other, and archaeological investigation has the potential to tell us much about the life and death of soldiers . and can even identify the burial of some people,” he said.