Were bones of Waterloo soldiers sold as fertilizer? It’s not yet case closed

The Morning after the Battle of Waterloo, by John Heaviside Clark, 1816.”/>
Enlarge / The Morning after the Battle of Waterlooby John Heaviside Clark, 1816.

When Napoleon was infamously defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the conflict left a battlefield littered with thousands of corpses and the inevitable detritus of war. But what happened to all those dead bodies? Only one full skeleton has been found at the site, much to the bewilderment of archaeologists. Contemporary accounts tell of French bodies being burned by local peasants, with other bodies being dumped into mass graves. And some accounts describe how scattered bones were collected and ground up into meal to use as fertilizer.

It’s that last claim that particularly interests Tony Pollard, director of the Center for Battlefield Archeology at the University of Glasgow. He has examined historical source materials like memoirs and journals of early visitors, as well as artworks, to map the missing grave sites on the Waterloo battlefield in hopes of finding a definitive answer. He recently provided an update on his efforts thus far in a recent paper published in the Journal of Conflict Archeology.

Napoleon had initially been defeated and deposed as emperor of France in 1813, ending up in exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. He briefly returned to power in March 1815 for what is now known as the Hundred Days. Several states opposed to his rule formed the Seventh Coalition, including a British-led multinational army led by the Duke of Wellington, and a larger Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal von Blücher. Those were the armies that clashed with Napoleon’s Armée du Nord at Waterloo.

Map of the Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815, showing major movements and attacks.  Napoleon's units are in blue, Wellington's in red, Blucher's in gray.
Enlarge / Map of the Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815, showing major movements and attacks. Napoleon’s units are in blue, Wellington’s in red, Blucher’s in gray.

Historians still argue about exactly when the battle began, but Wellington’s dispatches indicate that Napoleon “commenced a furious attack upon our post at Hougoumont” at about 10 AM on June 18. This was a large country house partially obscured by trees, one of several key locations on the Waterloo battlefield. The fighting raged for eight hours across multiple sites.

In the end, Wellington’s consequence amounted to some 15,000 dead or wounded, while Blucher’s forces suffered 7,000 dead or wounded. Napoleon’s forces fared worse: between 24,000 and 26,000 men were killed or wounded, including several thousand who were captured. An additional 15,000 French soldiers deserted over the ensuing days.

This made for a monumental clean-up task. One contemporary account, by a Major WE Frye, described the battlefield on June 22 as “a sight too horrible to behold.” Frye recounted “the multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger.”

Artwork by James Rouse depicting the burial of the dead at Chateau Hougoumont after Waterloo.
Enlarge / Artwork by James Rouse depicting the burial of the dead at Chateau Hougoumont after Waterloo.

Soldiers stripped the bodies of weapons, clothing, and other valuables, followed by locals and tourists eager to salvage what souvenirs they could: bits of leather, bullets of grape-shot, hats, letters, pages from books, and in one gruesome instance, a bona fide “Waterloo thumb, nail and all.” Some people used pliers to remove teeth from the deceased to sell abroad for the manufacture of denture replacements. (Because “Waterloo teeth” came from healthy young men who had died in battle, they were highly prized.)

Typically, during the Napoleonic wars, once the bodies of fallen soldiers had been stripped, they were burned, buried, or left to decompose as nature intended, with scavenging animals like wolves and vultures helping to speed the process. There are reports of local peasants being hired for cleanup at Waterloo, burying the dead of allies in mass graves and pits and burning the French corps. A visitor to Hougoumont reported seeing burning pyres “fed thigh by human fat. There were, arms and legs piled up in a heap and some 50 workmen, with handkerchiefs over their noses, were raking the fire and the bones with long forks.”

There were accounts of visible bones being collected and ground up for fertilizer—the focus of Pollard’s research. He believes that many of the dead soldiers were buried in mass graves, perhaps thousands of corpses, and has pinpointed the locations of three such graves that visitor accounts described as being filled with as many as 13,000 bodies.

Pollard also found at least three newspaper accounts from the period describing the practice of looting human bones to sell as fertilizer. One 1822 account from The London Observer, for instance, reported that “more than a million bushels of ‘human and inhuman bones'” had been imported from Europe into the UK port city of Hull.

Map of locations of grave sites or grave concentrations, based on historical sources.
Enlarge / Map of locations of grave sites or grave concentrations, based on historical sources.

T. Pollard, 2022

“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, and the likely conclusion,” Pollard said. Locals could have directed purveyors of bone to the mass grave sites, since they would have known the locations. They may even have helped with the digging.

That said, only circumstantial archaeological evidence for Pollard’s hypothesis has been found at the Hougomount site, and a detailed examination of available historical sources isn’t sufficient to make a final determination as to the veracity of the claim. “Artistic license and hyperbole over the number of bodies in mass graves notwithstanding, the bodies of the dead were clearly disposed of at numerous locations across the battlefield,” said Pollard. “So it is somewhat surprising that there is no reliable record of a mass grave ever being encountered.”

Pollard believes that additional fieldwork is needed, and the Waterloo Uncovered —where Pollard serves as archaeological director—will do just that charity survey beyond an extensive geophysical Hougoumont into larger tracts of the battlefield to match historical locations of grave sites with those described in the source materials. Pollard argues that, if the fertilizer claims are true, then few human remains will be recovered, although there should be at least some archaeological evidence of the pits from which the bodies were dug up.

“Covering large areas of the battlefield over the coming years, we will look to identify areas of previous ground disturbance to test the results of the source review and distribution map,” he said. This, along with a bit of excavation, “will provide a much more definitive picture of the fate of the dead of Waterloo.”

DOI: Journal of Conflict Archeology, 2022. 10.1080/15740773.2021.2051895 (About DOIs).

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