Waterloo Uncovered – In the steps of the 52nd and 95th

I was lucky enough to take part in an archaeological expedition to Waterloo in Belgium for 2 weeks in July this year.  The expedition was the 3rd annual event to be run by the charity, Waterloo Uncovered, a charity founded in 2015 by a former and serving officer of the Coldstream Guards, Mark Evans and Major Charlie Foinette. Waterloo Uncovered is a collaboration between military, veterans and archaeologists. It has become a world-class archaeological project while at the same time supporting wounded servicemen and veterans towards rehabilitation.  

From 8 – 22 July 2017 a team of 30 veterans and 35 students, archaeologists and welfare support team travelled in a convoy of mini-buses from London to Nivelles in Belgium, where we were to be based for the duration of the expedition. Nivelles is a short, 15 minute journey by mini-bus to the battlefield of Waterloo.   On Sunday 9th July we headed off on a tour of the battle field in the company of Professor Tony Pollard, well known for his TV series of “Two men in a Trench” and “Nazi Mega Structures”.  Over the course of the day we were shown the locations of the various stages of the battle and listened as he expertly described the various opposing force elements, their composition, formations and tactics, bringing the almost unchanged landscape to life for all of us.  This year, for the first time, the excavation was also attended by Dutch veterans through the Veteraneninstituut and the Royal Netherlands Army.  Later in the excavation we also welcomed a number of French personnel as the vanguard for future collaboration on the project, making it a truly international affair.  There were a few light-hearted exchanges between the two sides, but always a quiet understanding that soldiers of both sides fought, suffered and died during that bloody engagement.    

On Monday we received a series of presentations and demonstrations on the use of archaeological instruments and the art of trench digging and recording in the grounds of Hougoumont Chateau.  On 18th June 1815 the chateau and its walled garden was considered to be of significant strategic importance to both sides.  Wellington had bolstered the defence of the chateau during the lead up to the battle and with the help of his engineers almost overnight had turned it into a formidable defensive position.  During the battle it was under almost continual assault by French artillery fire and direct infantry assault.  The Light Companies of the 2nd and 3rd Coldstream Guards repelled gate breaches on at least two occasions, though some accounts attribute the closing of the gates to elements of the 52nd who were also engaged in the defence, both inside and outside of the walls!  This controversial view is one that might not be supported by the Coldstream Guards themselves who pride themselves on this aspect of the battle - and quite rightly too.   

Over the two week period the 30 service WIS personnel and veterans were able to take full part alongside the archaeologists, digging trenches, photographing and charting the excavations and recording artefacts that were to be found in abundance.  Amongst the many highlights was the discovery of grapeshot within the walled garden of Hougoumont, effectively producing the first evidence that the French artillery had attempted to clear the walls for the infantry assault.  That, coupled with the discovery of French and English musket balls in the interior of the garden, within feet of the walls provided support to the theory that the French had breached the wall in addition to the well recorded gate breaches.  Our team had been able to add another page to the account of the battle.  

In a trench that was headed up by the TV archaeologist Phil Harding (Time Team), Army veterans recovered a button from the uniform of a Coldstream Guards soldier, possibly lost during the battle. The news caused considerable excitement amongst all those taking part, being found as it was almost directly in front of the gates so competitively fought over during the battle.  Also unearthed in the same trench were French and English musket shot. Nobody could have felt closer to the battle of Waterloo than those that took part in the discoveries that day.  

On 12th July, all participants on the project took part in a day of reading. Using soldiers personal recollections, letters and journal extracts, for 11 hours (the duration of the battle of Waterloo), we heard the harrowing accounts of the horror and heroism that took place in equal measure. Those readings were recorded and can be accessed on the Waterloo Uncovered site. For my part I chose a letter from Lieutenant Richard Cocks Eyre of the 95th. This young officer in writing to his mother recalled how he and his skirmishes were deployed to cause havoc amongst the French the night before the battle. Lieutenant Eyre was twice wounded during the battle, but in the true spirit of the Light Division carried on with a musket ball in his hand until being removed from harm by one of his men. He recounts that up to 6 days later the French wounded were still lying on the battlefield. A most horrendous landscape.  

Other opportunities were available for those taking part that enabled those less physically able to still play an important part in the project. These included: finds photography under the tutorage of a professional photographer, metal detecting the battlefield, recording finds, model making, sketching, geophysics, and even taking part in a meditation programme. There was absolutely something for everybody regardless of physical condition or ability.  

The Waterloo Uncovered project will continue for at least another 5 years and will be able to uncover other parts of the immense battlefield as yet unexplored. Those excavations will hopefully include the 95th rifles involvement in the Sand Quarry adjacent to La Haye Sainte. The 95th were posted as sharp shooters at that point, causing immense casualties to the French.   

The involvement of the then recently formed Light Division throughout the Waterloo Campaign and Peninsula Wars played a significant part in the defeat of Napolean.  The 52nd and 95th of Foot demonstrated the highest shooting and skirmishing skills of their day.  As one Hussar officer noted of the 52nd:  “so well-directed a fire was poured in, that down the bank the Frenchmen fell and I may say, the battle of Waterloo was gained.”  On seeing that same event on his left flank Wellington reputedly ordered, “Go on, Colborne, they won’t stand.”  The rest as they say is history. The battalion advanced diagonally towards the French, following up with a bayonet charge.  The French Guard broke and fell into full retreat.  

All in all a fascinating two weeks of history and archaeology that resonated with every serviceman and veteran that took part. The insight that the mix of young and old servicemen brought to the archaeologists was well received as was the reciprocal knowledge, friendship and support that they provided in return.  

Waterloo Uncovered continues to grow. Over the two week periods we were visited by journalists from The Times newspaper and also featured on ITV’s News at Ten. Representatives from several organisations supporting wounded servicemen and veterans also came to see the good work that the charity is doing, with a view to sending further WIS personnel on future excavations. I have no doubt that it will continue to grow. The impact it made on those taking part was visible and impressive. I felt privileged to have been allowed to take part in the event, but would have loved to have seen other, more deserving soldiers from the regiment benefitting from the experience.   

Waterloo Uncovered is an ideal opportunity for service charities such as Rifles Care for Casualties to latch on to. In terms of therapy there could be little to surpass the scenic beauty of the Waterloo landscape, moderate climate and professional team behind the project. In every aspect Waterloo Uncovered lends itself towards rehabilitation through education and active participation. I cannot recommend it highly enough.  

Major (Retired) David Hamilton – RIFLES