Archaeological dig planned for Waterloo battlefield

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A painting of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo by Irish painter William Sadler II, who died in 1839.
A painting of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo by Irish painter William Sadler II, who died in 1839.

It was a bloody battle that cost the lives of thousands of men and horses.

Now, 200 years on, archaeologists and veterans are about to explore what lies beneath Waterloo’s battlefield.

An international team of battlefield experts, led by the University of Glasgow’s Dr Tony Pollard, will start work in April 2015.

The research is being undertaken as part of Waterloo Uncovered, a new initiative that aims to transform our understanding of the battle that created modern Europe and ended the Napoleonic era.

Mark Evans, left, and Dr Tony Pollard who will lead the archaeology. They are pictured with the Waterloo battle honour on the State Colour of the Coldstream Guards. Photo: Crown
Mark Evans, left, and Dr Tony Pollard who will lead the archaeology. They are pictured with the Waterloo battle honour on the State Colour of the Coldstream Guards. Photo: Crown

Uniquely, the team will include British veterans, some wounded in recent campaigns, who will work alongside leading battlefield archaeologists and military historians.

Together they hope to answer questions that remain 200 years after the battle.

While the battle has been studied by generations of historians, little is known about the archaeological remains that exist under the surface of the battlefield.

There were tens of thousands of casualties in the battle and the locations of massed graves have never been identified and marked. This will be the first time that the battlefield has been the subject of a large-scale archaeological survey using the latest technology and practices developed by conflict archaeologists.

Pollard, who directs the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, will lead the archaeological work.

“History tells us who won the battle, but understanding what happened has until now relied on first-hand accounts and reports of the battle that in some cases are either confusing or biased.

“We hope archaeology can provide answers to many of the questions about Waterloo that remain unanswered.

These include the location of graves, which, from accounts, appear to have been scattered across a wide area. The team hopes to also cast light on confused fighting at locations such as Hougoumont and, on a broader scale, the effectiveness of the strongpoints of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte in blunting the force of the French attack on the Allied forces.

“As an archaeologist this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore such a famous battle, not least because the battlefield remains remarkably undisturbed 200 years later.”

Waterloo Uncovered is the brainchild of two Coldstream Guards officers, Major Charles Foinette, who currently serves with 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, and Mark Evans, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following his experience in Afghanistan.

The Waterloo Uncovered team will also work closely with Project Hougoumont, which has funded and overseen the restoration of the surviving farm buildings at Hougoumont and the creation of a new visitor centre focused on that area of the battlefield.

Count Georges Jacobs de Hagen, who chairs Project Hougoumont in Belgium, said: “It has long been a legend that bodies were buried on the battlefield on Waterloo where they fell.

“Having restored Hougoumont as a living memorial to the brave soldiers that fought and died to defend it, this current archaeological initiative by the Coldstream Guards, including wounded soldiers from current campaigns is both fitting and admirable.”

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