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One of the human leg bones being excavated at Mont‐Saint‐Jean Field Hospital. Source: Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered.

Amputation Pit with Sawn-Off Limbs Found at Battle of Waterloo Field Hospital Site

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A team of archaeologists working with army veterans has uncovered four amputated limbs at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. The team also unearthed a French cannonball and evidence of a previously unknown fight during the battle, demonstrating just how close Napoleon came to victory in 1815.

The find was made by a unique team of archaeologists and army veterans, working with a charity called Waterloo Uncovered . This was founded by two former army officers “Charles Foinette and Mark Evans, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a tour in Afghanistan” according to The Guardian . Twenty-five British and Dutch veterans are working on the project, who range in age from 19 to 70.

The dig is helping the former soldiers to come to terms with their often terrible experiences. According to the group’s spokesperson Mike Greenwood “There is also something about the practical process of archaeology which is meditative, even therapeutic,” reports The Guardian .

Amputation Pit Discovered at the Field Hospital for the Battle of Waterloo

The group was working at the site of the Mont-Saint-Jean Field Hospital, not far from Brussels, which today is an orchard. Researchers used a metal detector and found what they believed to be an old ammunition box.

While excavating the area they made a grisly discovery . The group’s spokesman stated that they had uncovered “evidence of four amputations – three legs and a foot,” according to Fox News .

The third leg discovered at the field hospital for the Battle of Waterloo. (Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered)

The third leg discovered at the field hospital for the Battle of Waterloo. (Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered )

Mont-Saint-Jean, a converted farmhouse, was the main field hospital of the allied army led by the Duke of Wellington. It is estimated that some 6,000 wounded, allied soldiers were treated at the site and even some French prisoners. Countless wounded soldiers had limbs amputated at the hospital, the only treatment for badly mangled arms or legs.

The Daily Telegraph reports that “Surgeons would use bone saws to amputate limbs without anesthetic after cutting flaps of skin away from the wound”. This would leave a stump and the hope was that the wounded man would not die of shock or infection. The amputated limbs would have been discarded in a pit or trench.

One of the amputated limbs was almost shattered indicating that it was caused by a musket ball . Another bears the marks of the surgeon’s saw. This is a very rare find because many bones were routinely ground down for fertilizer. The discovery of the human remains moved many of the former soldiers.

Pollard told the Daily Telegraph that “suddenly there is a very poignant connection with the people who suffered here in 1815”. The team established the amputations were from 1815, after they discovered some metal items that date from the Napoleonic Wars, near the remains.

Archaeologist Eva Collignon excavating the human bones at Mont‐Saint‐Jean from the Battle of Waterloo. (Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered)

Archaeologist Eva Collignon excavating the human bones at Mont‐Saint‐Jean from the Battle of Waterloo. (Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered )

Firefight at the Hospital

The group found a treasure trove of musket balls , both English and French, very near the hospital. The French musket balls size indicates that they were fired by carbines, which were often used by mounted troops.

Professor Tom Pollard, one of the team’s leaders stated that “we’re finding evidence of a previously unknown action at the very doors of the Mont-Saint-Jean Field Hospital,” reports the Daily Telegraph . It appears that the French cavalry and allied troops fought a skirmish here.

Significantly, in evidence of the previously unknown conflict, they found a cannonball from a French howitzer. Woodward told Fox News that “The 6-inch French howitzer shell, complete with fuse, still contained gunpowder”. The group, in the interests of safety, contacted the local authorities who sent a bomb disposal squad to safely remove the shell.

Oliver Horncastle and Alastair Eager removing the howitzer shell from the Battle of Waterloo. (Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered)

Oliver Horncastle and Alastair Eager removing the howitzer shell from the Battle of Waterloo. (Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered )

How Close Napoleon Came to Victory

The discovery of the Howitzer shell would show that the French had penetrated the allied lines. They had overcome the resistance of some German units after they had run out of ammunition and had advanced to the field hospital, which meant that they could have outflanked Wellington’s army.

Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. (Hohum / Public Domain)

Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. (Hohum / Public Domain )

This cannonball illustrates how close Napoleon came to victory. It was only the timely intervention of Blucher and his Prussian army that turned the tide of battle in favor of the allies. If the French emperor had won, the entire course of world history in the 19th century would have been changed.

The human remains have been deposited with a local archaeology authority. The trench has been sealed for this year, but the Waterloo Uncovered group intend to return to the site, next year. It is hoped that they will make more discoveries and continue to rewrite the history of the most important battle of the 19th century.

Top image: One of the human leg bones being excavated at Mont‐Saint‐Jean Field Hospital. Source: Chris van Houts / Waterloo Uncovered .

By Ed Whelan

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