Rare remains of soldier found at Waterloo

Skeleton found in shallow grave on the field of WaterlooLast Friday, June 8th, Belgian archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of a soldier killed during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Buried under just 15 inches of soil, the position of the skeleton suggests the young man died where he fell and was hastily covered with a thin layer of dirt, probably by his comrades. This is a very rare find. The victorious armies cleared the battlefield of their dead, and the defeated French were eventually buried on site in mass graves. It’s the first time in a century that a body from the Napoleonic wars has been found on a Belgian battlefield, and this one is almost entirely undisturbed.

Lion MoundWaterloo was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, which is why there is a man-made conical hill called the Lion Mound memorializing the spot where the Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne, was hit in the shoulder by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo. The soldier’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Lion Mound.

Unfortunately his skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers prepping the area for the upcoming demolition and re-construction of the visitor’s center, shops, hotels and parking lots. The Ministry of Archaeology for the region of Walloon Brabant took over and excavated the rest of the skeleton, finding it almost complete. Only the skull, one foot and some hand bones are missing.

Coins found with skeletonThe body was spared any Thénardier-style looting. Coins were found in his pocket, one of them a half franc from 1811, the others too corroded to identify immediately. Experts are cleaning them now. He was also carrying a flint and a small red sphere in his right pocket. Next to his body were discovered a spoon and an unidentified wooden object, possibly a rifle butt, with the initials “C.B.” carved into it.

Wood fragment with initials "C.B." carved into itHis uniform has rotted away but his leather epaulets survived. Archaeologists are hoping they will be able to identify the soldier’s regiment from the epaulets, and possibly from the spoon if it’s army-issue. If they can discover his regiment, they’ll probably be able to find his name on the combatant records. The initial analysis of the bones indicates that he was around 20 years old, 5’1″ tall and had abrasion grooves on his molars from tearing opening gunpowder tubules with his teeth.

Musket ball in his ribcageOne particularly poignant artifact was a musket ball found inside the soldier’s ribcage. This is probably the smoking gun, as it were: he took a bullet to the chest, then either retreated or was carried by comrades 100 yards or so behind the front line. The location of his burial was 100 meters (109 yards) behind the British front line, close to the Duke of Wellington’s army infirmary. It’s highly unlikely that a French soldier would have fallen in this position. Although we don’t know for sure yet, the soldier was probably British.

The British cleared the field of their dead after their victory, burying them in consecrated ground. This fellow could have been overlooked because he was buried, albeit shallowly, where he died. The French dead, in contrast, remained unburied for days, their bodies robbed by locals, until they were put in mass graves and burned with quicklime. Any skeletal remains still recoverable from the mass graves were removed in subsequent decades for the grotesque practice of fertilizer production.

There is some footage of the skeleton being examined in the lab and of the battlefield in this BBC News video.

15 thoughts on “Rare remains of soldier found at Waterloo

    1. I think it would be in better shape if it had been made of glass. It could have been made of clay, I suppose, but even that wouldn’t look so mashed up just because it was buried for less than 200 years. Very mysterious.

    1. If you look at the full length picture of the skeleton, you can see the little corroded stack of coins right above the left hip. You can’t see the red ball in them, but that’s because of the angle. The detail picture of the coins shows the red ball. It looks like putty to me. Whatever it used to be, it has degraded noticeably.

  1. That red ball could be the remnants of the purse that contained the coins? Or maybe a gaming dice of some sort?

    Somthings don’t quite make sense about this find. That part of the battlefield was excavated extensively to form the Lion Mound not long after the battle so I wonder how they missed digging this chap up?

    Also, the teeth are said to be worn by biting cartridges, but the poor guy’s head is missing, so how anyone can tell much about his teeth is a mystery! There’s no explanation anywhere about the state of his left leg either – his foot is missing and the leg is clearly broken just above the knee. I wonder if he suffered multiple injuries? This would be more consistent with his position, which is in the area subject to heavy cannon bombardment prior to the charges of Ney’s cavalry. Could that musket ball in his chest just as easily be grapeshot? The wooden rifle butt is odd too. Would a fatality really have been buried with his rifle (or more probably musket)? I wonder if that piece of inscribed wood is acually from a wooden canteen?

    As for his nationality, he could be a French cavalry trooper, or a Brunswicker, or an infantryman from a British regiment (so Irish, Welsh, English or Scots), or maybe one of the artillery gunners who were positioned in that area, but who took shelter in the Britsh squares during the cavalry charges. Or perhaps there’s a more sinister explanation. maybe he was in fact a sentry posted there after the battle but who was bumped off by a wandering corpse-robber on the night after the battle. That could explain why he didn’t end up in one of the ‘official’ British graves, but was hurredly interred after a murder? Great story though!

  2. It said his skull was crushed by machinery, but I’d bet the teeth were relatively unharmed and therefore easy to study for wear.

  3. The musket ball is amazingly preserved, especially considering it was fired. From the pic I’d say it looks like it came out of a Brown Bess.

  4. Whoever this poor chap is and however he got where he is, it is good that he will now be studied and possibly identified by country if not by regiment and will then be given a proper burial.

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