Whatever happened to the missing dead from Waterloo?

One of the big mysteries about the epic Battle of Waterloo may have been solved. There are several big battles in British history where despite large numbers of recorded casualties, few oil any human remains or skeletons have been found. Sometimes it is because the bodies were taken away, sometimes the exact location of the battlefield is open to some some as a combination of the chaos of war and changes in geography and written records over the years have led past and present historians to concentrate on the wrong sites.

Possibly the most recent and certainly amongst the most significant such battles is that of the Battle of Waterloo where the imperial dreams of Napoleon are foiled once and for all by the Duke of Wellington and his victorious army alongside timely assistance from his Prussian allies. However despite there being 50,000 recorded dead at the battle that ended the Napoleonic Wars, virtually no remains have ever been found. Just two skeletons, and several amputated leg bones, have been recovered to date, with experts speculating that the bulk of the dead were burned en masse on makeshift pyres.

However new research indicates that the bones of fallen Waterloo soldiers may have been ground down to be used as fertiliser and spread on Britain’s crops, new research suggests.

The Battle of Waterloo

Researchers at the University of Glasgow have studied accounts of people who visited the battlefield in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat, and found detailed descriptions of mass graves containing up to 13,000 bodies, and their locations.

The team believes that the reason that these graves were never found is because the pits were raided by fertiliser salesmen, and the bones removed.  The researchers found three newspaper articles from the 1820s which suggest that human bones from battlefields were imported into Britain to be used as fertiliser.

The fertiliser theory has surfaced before, but has largely been dismissed as an urban myth or newspaper propaganda designed to stir up anti-war sentiment. Professor Tony Pollard, of the Centre for War Studies and Conflict Archaeology at Glasgow said that new evidence of mass graves showed it was “feasible” that the pits were emptied and the bones removed.

“European battlefields may have provided a convenient source of bone that could be ground down into bone-meal, an effective form of fertiliser,” he said. “One of the main markets for this raw material was the British Isles.”

Accounts from the time show that Waterloo was besieged with grave robbers and opportunists after the battle, with thieves coming to take the belongings – and even the teeth – of the dead.

The flood of dentures sold following the battle became known as “Waterloo teeth”.

“It’s likely that an agent of a purveyor of bones would arrive at the battlefield with high expectations of securing their prize,” added Prof Pollard.

“Primary targets would be mass graves, as they would have enough bodies in them to merit the effort of digging the bones.

“On the basis of these accounts, backed up by the well-attested importance of bone meal in the practice of agriculture, the emptying of mass graves at Waterloo in order to obtain bones seems feasible.”

In 1822, The London Observer, reported that: “It is estimated that more than a million of bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull.

“The neighbourhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and of the horse which he rode.”

The account suggested most of the bones were sent to Doncaster, “and sold to farmers to manure their lands”.

The article concluded: “The good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread.”

Jacques_Louis_David_-_Bonaparte
Iconic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte. Conquerer of Europe and inspiration for middle managers and public officials everywhere.

A separate article from the London Spectator in 1829 reported that a ship had arrived in Lossiemouth “laden with bones” for a farmer in Morayshire and “intended for manure” which were in part “the trains of the thousands who fell in the battles fought betwixt France and the Allies”.

Several experts have dismissed the articles as implausible, but Prof Pollard and his team believe the absence of mass graves supports the fertiliser theory and is planning a geophysical survey at Waterloo in which he hopes to find the original grave sites and look for evidence of plundering.

He has identified several areas to search on the battlefield where historical accounts show there were once mass burials.

“If human remains have been removed on the scale proposed then there should be, at least in some cases, archaeological evidence of the pits from which they were taken, however truncated and poorly defined these might be,” he added.

If all that sounds a little bit grossly, it’s really nothing compared to what was happening London at the time. Dancing on the Dead at Enon Chapel – The Victorian Sensation!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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