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A Soldier's Story

The battle that changed European history, told through the lens of a young man’s remains

Friday, February 08, 2013

UPDATE: In early 2015, the soldier's remains were identified as possibly being those of Friedrich Brandt, a member of the King’s German Legion, made up of German soldiers who fought with the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars.

 

Waterloo Skeleton SoldierTens of thousands of men were wounded or died at the Battle of Waterloo, but, remarkably, the remains of this lone solider are the only ones to have been found near one of the battle’s main staging grounds. The musket ball that likely killed him is visible in his right rib cage.

The battle began mid-morning, Sunday, June 18, 1815. Throughout the day, more than 200,000 soldiers met on a piece of land only 2.5 miles square near the small Belgian town of Waterloo. Blinded by smoke from gunpowder, deafened by cannon blasts, and in constant fear of long-distance gunfire, close-range saber fights, or being trampled in a cavalry charge, the soldiers fought on. By evening, the battleground was completely covered with the wounded, dead, and dying. The Allied forces, led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian General von Blücher, had defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée by the slimmest of margins, signaling the end of the emperor’s reign in France and ushering in a period of prosperity and peace in Europe that would last for nearly half a century. But a battle’s stories are not only those of dethroned monarchs, victorious generals, or territory gained or lost. Sometimes the remains of the men who died on that day tell the richest tales.

 

 

Behind the British lines, away from the battlefield, a single soldier lay mortally wounded by a musket ball. Perhaps he dragged himself behind the front line, dropped to the ground to rest, and died not long after. Or maybe he expired before he could be transported to the infirmary, less than 1,000 feet away. He likely died in the early to middle part of the day and was quickly buried by his comrades or by an explosion that churned up the earth and covered his body. Had he died at the end of or after the battle, his corpse would have been recovered by soldiers collecting their dead. But this soldier would have to wait a while longer for someone to tell his story.

 

Waterloo Coins DiscoveredArchaeologists uncovered 22 coins minted in different countries where the soldier's hip pocket would have been.Almost two centuries after the soldier’s death, the role of storyteller fell to archaeologist Dominique Bosquet of the Université libre de Bruxelles. He found the soldier while excavating before construction near the battle monument known as the Lion’s Mound. For Bosquet, the discovery was a complete surprise. “I think this is a unique case,” he says. “We excavated 120 trenches in this area, covering more than half an acre, and found almost nothing and no other remains.” In fact, the soldier is not just the only one to have been found in this area—he is the first and only British soldier to have fought and died at Waterloo ever discovered on the site. (Another soldier was supposedly found in the early twentieth century; however, later DNA analysis showed that the remains came from two different people and that that “soldier” was a forgery.) Although the soldier’s head and one of his knees were destroyed by a bulldozer, and some of the bones of his hands and feet were damaged either by a plow—the area has long been a wheat field—or perhaps by a battlefield explosion that tore them away, the skeleton is remarkably intact. Bosquet is able to say that he was between 20 and 29 years old, about five feet three inches tall, with a slender frame. 

 

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