Mysteries of Waterloo

Where are the bodies of the 50,000 people who died at Waterloo?
14 August 2018

Interview with 

Tony Pollard, University of Glasgow; Phil Harding, Time Team Archaeologist


Napoleon’s forces were advancing towards Brussels. Wellington's smaller army had to hold them off, knowing Prussian reinforcements were on their way. The fighting was fierce at Hougoumont farm, with the allied forces trying to hold off a French onslaught; the field outside the compounds became suitably-dubbed “the killing zone”. Meanwhile, outside the field, there were infantry, cavalry, cannons and muskets all firing salvoes into each other. It was a mess of blood and musket smoke. Over 50 000 people are estimated to have died. So where are their remains? Speaking with Georgia Mills, University of Glasgow archaeologist Tony Pollard...

Tony - There are several theories that could be drawn from that. One is that in the decades following the battle, the mass graves at Waterloo and other battlefields from the Napoleonic era across Europe were actually exploited for the human bone because, prior to the modern phosphates industry, bone meal was a very important fertilizer along with things like bird poo. And it was a bit of an industry, so teams would go out scouring these big battlefields and, no doubt, asking the locals where the big graves where that would be worth their while literally quarrying. Given that this one is represented in a painting it’s highly likely that even 20 years later it would be remembered and they may well have come here and dug out the bones and shipped them back to Hull in England where they’re ground up and spread on the fields. Yeah - unpleasant. These were hard times. The idea that people are coming here and moving those bodies, the evidence is here to suggest that might be the case because we just don’t have them.

Georgia - Now there is a less gruesome theory, and that’s that there is a war grave but it’s just somewhere no-one’s thought to look yet. And the team are keen to emphasise that they’re not actively looking for human remains, but there are still lots of items telling the story of the battle being unearthed minute by minute. I paid a visit to one of the trenches from inside the compound…

Paul - It’s quite exciting actually, yeah.

Georgia - That voice is Paul who was a soldier for 24 years and is now very well acquainted with an archaeologist's trowel. What’s that?

Paul - I don’t know. I really don’t know! It’s just trying to add to the stories eh, that’s what we want to do. And as I soldier I get it, you want to add to the soldier’s story. The (02.36) history, these voices, unheard voices, are they coming back to life again or in my mind they are. They’re coming back to life. It’s given them that opportunity.

Phil, there’s loads of stuff coming up. I’m all excited.

Phil - He’s found a buckle, eh.

Georgia - That laugh you can hear is the trench supervisor.

Phil - Well, I’m Phil, Phil Harding. I suppose everybody knows me off the the tele programme Time Team.

Georgia - It’s Phil’s fourth year with Waterloo Uncovered.

Phil - They aint sacked me yet.

Georgia - I sat down with Phil to find out about this trench inside the compound and what they’d been finding…

Phil - well, where we’re conducting this interview would have been an enormous barn at the time of the Battle of Waterloo and we know the barn was set fire at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and it is a crucial part of the battle. We are as close as we can get to the north gate and, if you’re a Coldstream Guardsman the north gate is holy ground. They famously shut the north gate at the Battle of Waterloo.

Georgia - Is that the gate we’re looking at there?

Phil - That is the gate that’s there. I mean it’s a modern reconstruction of course. But had the French broken in the could have taken Hougoumont farm, and if Hougoumont farm had have fallen then that would have very very strongly weakened Wellington’s right flank. So the closing of it really was a very very important part of the battle.

One of the great discoveries of what we’ve been doing is masses and masses of grey slate. Now, you look at all the reconstructions and they all tend to show red ceramic tiles and, apparently, some people even think the barns were thatched. Absolute rubbish!

In my humble opinion it’s a slate roof and I believe the whole of Hougoumont farm would have been slate roofed and that’s a brand new discovery.

Georgia - What have you found so far?

Phil - We have exposed vast areas of slates and they, we believe, are part of that roof that fell in at 3 o’clock on June 18th, 1815. And believe you me, as an archaeologist, if you can deal with something in spans of 50 years plus or minus you’re probably doing quite well. But when you can actually pinpoint the day and the actual time, that is something else.

Georgia - We know that it’s hard to think of when we’re sitting here; it’s very peaceful, it’s a lovely bright sunny day but this would have been a massive barn in a battle, that was on fire and collapsed?

Phil - That’s the awful thing. I mean, it’s the obvious place for people that were wounded to crawl away for a little bit of a safeguard. And, of course, when you’re in a building and you watch the roof set fire and you haven’t got the strength or the energy to make it back out of the building and there’s smoke everywhere, you probably can’t even find the doors.

Georgia - What is it like? You’ve been doing this project for four years but you’ve done all kinds of archaeology, what is it like working with this team of veterans?

Phil - Oh it’s great, you know. I’ve been an archaeologist all my life; that’s what I was put on this planet to be, sadly I suppose. It’s nice to have a bit of purpose in it really? You’re only here for a short while I might as well make use of the time. And so I’ve always wanted to be a an archaeologist and so I’ve been happy with my life.

I get so sort of blinkered, so narrow minded about archaeology being the be all and end all of it that is kind of nice to be able to sit back at times and reflect that, actually, it can be beneficial. Not just in finding stuff and understanding about the past but actually serving people who are alive now and giving them a break, and giving them fresh ideas and fresh insights and all the rest of it. It’s very very rewarding and it’s really an accolade that archaeology can be one of those things that can help benefit people. I’m a dry old stick, you know. I’ve been doing archaeology a long time now. But I still get a buzz of finding stuff and, of course, these guys they’re finding stuff for the first time and they’re getting that buzz that I’ve had all my life. I’m sure you’d agree, you were here when Paul found that buckle. There he is, he’s a grown man, but he was behaving like a five year old schoolchild.

Georgia - I was that excited as well though.

Phil - Yes, well you were just behaving like a three year old.

Georgia - I’m going to cut that out of the tape. No-one needs to know that!

And the project ideally works two ways. As well as providing therapy, having people who’ve seen battle can actually provide unique insights into what might have happened. Tony Pollard again…

Tony - There’s the old phrase they’ve seen the elephant, they’ve been in battle. None of us archaeologists we’ve not experienced battle. And to have people here who’ve been through that incredibly unique process is very rewarding. One example is the walled compounds here. They’ve stormed walls, they’ve defended walls and every now and again one of them will look through the loophole in the wall go well, that’s too low for me that field of fire isn’t great. It makes you step back and draw breath really because it is an amazing connection that reaches out across the centuries to the time of the battle. I think we’re very privileged to have these people here.


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