More than 200 years after Waterloo, the bones of the soldiers killed remain a mystery

More than 200 years after Napoleon’s defeat in Battle of Waterloothe bones of soldiers killed on this famous battlefield continue to intrigue Belgian researchers and experts, who use them to trace this moment in history.

“So many bones — it’s truly unique!” exclaimed one such historian, Bernard Wilkin, as he stood in front of a medical examiner’s table holding two skulls, three femurs and hip bones.

Belgian anthropologist Mathilde Daumas shows the skull of a soldier who fought in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, in which the French army under Napoleon’s command was defeated and marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Liège, February 1, 2023. / Credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

He was in an autopsy room at the Forensic Institute in Liège, eastern Belgium, where tests are being carried out on skeletal remains to determine which regions the four soldiers they belong to came from.

That in itself is a challenge.

Half a dozen European nationalities were represented in the military ranks during the battle of Waterloo, located 20 km south of Brussels.

This armed confrontation of June 18, 1815 put an end to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions to conquer Europe to build a great empire and resulted in the death of approximately 20,000 soldiers.

The battle has since been studied by historians, and thanks to advances in genetics, medicine and digitization, researchers can now piece together pages of the past from the remains buried in the ground.

Some of these remains have been recovered through archaeological excavations, such as one last year which made it possible to reconstruct a skeleton found not far from a field hospital that the British Duke of Wellington had set up.

This excavation also uncovered many horse bones. It is estimated that several thousand horses were killed in the battle, “for the glistening glory of the cavalry charge ended in the deaths of too many”, according to archaeologists.

But the remains examined by Wilkin resurfaced through another route.

The historian, who works for the Belgian government’s historical archives, said he gave a talk late last year and “this middle-aged man came to see me afterwards and said, ‘M . Wilkin, I have Prussians in my attic.'”

Wilkin, smiling, said the man “showed me pictures on his phone and told me that someone had given him these bones so he could display them… which he refused to do. for ethical reasons”.

The remains remained hidden until the man met Wilkin, who he believed could analyze them and give them a decent resting place.

A key feature of the collection is a straight foot with almost all its toes – that of a “Prussian soldier”, according to the middle-aged man.

“To see such a well-preserved foot is quite rare, because generally the small bones of the extremities disappear into the ground”, notes Mathilde Daumas, anthropologist at the Free University of Brussels who participates in the research work.

As for the attributed “Prussian” provenance, the experts are cautious.

The location where he was discovered was the village of Plancenoit, where Prussian and Napoleonic troops fought bitterly, Wilkin said, raising the possibility that the remains were those of French soldiers.

Boot tips and metal buckles found among the remains indicate uniforms worn by soldiers on the Germanic side pitted against the French.

But “we know that soldiers strip the dead for their own equipment,” the historian said.

Clothing and accessories are not reliable indicators of the nationality of skeletons found at the Waterloo battlefield, he pointed out.

More reliable these days are DNA tests.

Dr Philippe Boxho, a medical examiner working on the remains, said there were still parts of the bones that should yield DNA results, and he believed two more months of testing should provide answers.

“As long as the subject is dry, we can do anything. Our biggest enemy is humidity, which makes everything disintegrate,” he explained.

Teeth in particular, with traces of strontium, a natural chemical element that accumulates in human bones, can point to specific regions through their geology, he said.

Wilkin said an “ideal scenario” for the search would be to find that the remains of the “three to five” soldiers examined came from both the French and German sides.

Among those killed at Waterloo was Major Arthur Heylanda 33-year-old Irishman who wrote a letter to his wife the day before he died.

Heyland wrote: “My Mary, let the memory comfort you that the happiest days of my life were of your love and affection, and that I die loving only you. What dear children, my Mary, I leave you. My Marianna, sweetest daughter, God bless you. My Anne, my Jean, may heaven protect you… May my children console you, my love, my Mary.

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