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

More than 200 years after Napoleon was defeated in the battle of waterloothe bones of soldiers killed on that famous battlefield continue to intrigue Belgian researchers and experts, who use them to look back at that moment in history.

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

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

He was in an autopsy room at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Liège, in eastern Belgium, where tests are 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 at the Battle of Waterloo, located 12 miles south of Brussels.

That armed clash on June 18, 1815 ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions to conquer Europe to build a great empire, resulting in the deaths of some 20,000 soldiers.

Since then, the battle has been pored over by historians, and with advances in the genetic, medical, and scanning fields, researchers can now piece together pages of the past from remains buried in the ground.

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

That excavation also uncovered many horse bones. Several thousand horses are estimated to have died during the battle, “as the shining glory of the cavalry charge ended with the deaths of too many,” according to archaeologists.

But the remains examined by Wilkin surfaced another way.

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

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

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

A key item of interest in the collection is a right foot with almost all its toes, that of a “Prussian soldier,” according to the middle-aged man.

“Seeing such a well-preserved foot is quite rare, because usually the small bones of the limbs disappear into the ground,” said Mathilde Daumas, an anthropologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles who is part of the research work.

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

The place where it was discovered was the town of Plancenoit, where troops from the Prussian and Napoleonic sides fought bitterly, Wilkin said, ruling out the possibility that the remains were those of French soldiers.

The remains of boots and metal buckles found among the wreckage point to the uniforms worn by soldiers on the Germanic side arrayed against the French.

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

Clothing and accessories are not reliable indicators of the nationality of the skeletons found on the Waterloo battlefield, he stressed.

More reliable, these days, are DNA tests.

Dr. Philippe Boxho, a forensic pathologist working on the remains, said there were still parts of the bones that should yield DNA results, and he believed another two months of analysis should yield answers.

“While the subject is dry we can do something. Our biggest enemy is humidity, which causes everything to disintegrate,” he explained.

Teeth in particular, with traces of strontium, a naturally occurring chemical that accumulates in human bones, can pinpoint specific regions through their geology, he said.

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

Among the dead 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, may you be consoled by the memory that the happiest days of my life have been your love and affection, and that I die loving only you. What dear children, my Mary, I leave you. My Mariana, sweet girl, may God bless you. My Ana, my Juan, may heaven protect you… Let my children comfort you, my love, my Maria”.

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