What happened to the bones of Waterloo? Namely, the remains of the thousands of soldiers and horses who died at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815? This is a question that has puzzled historians and archaeologists for decades, as the exact location of the mass graves remains unknown. I was stunned to read that ONLY TWO human skeletons have been found on the battlefield: one in 2012 and another in 2022. Where are the rest of the bones of Waterloo?
A fascinating article in the Journal of Belgian History (JBH), the most important scholarly journal for Belgian contemporary history, unearths some amazing discoveries. The article is entitled “The real fate of the Waterloo fallen. The exploitation of bones in 19th century Belgium.” It is authored by Bernard Wilkin, Robin Schäfer and Tony Pollard. It’s available to download free of charge from the JBH website here. It’s well worth a read. As it’s quite a long read I will try to summarize it below in the hope that it will inspire you to read the whole article.
Thousands of bodies
The article begins by explaining the context of the Battle of Waterloo, which marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of a new era in Europe. It describes the scale and horror of the battle, which left between 10,000 and 20,000 men dead on the field, as well as thousands of horses.
It describes the early attempts to bury the bodies, which were often hasty and incomplete, leaving many bones exposed or shallowly buried. The article then questions the widely accepted theory that the bones were removed in the 1820s and sold to England as bone meal, a phosphate-rich fertilizer that was in high demand in agriculture. It argues that this theory is based on weak and contradictory evidence, and that it does not account for the large number of bones that remained on the battlefield.
A “bone rush”
The authors propose an alternative theory, supported by historical records and archaeological findings, that the bones were mainly unearthed after 1833, when the sugar beet industry created a new and lucrative market for bones on the Waterloo plain.
It explains how the sugar beet industry, which emerged in the early 19th century as a response to the British blockade of cane sugar, revolutionized the agricultural and industrial methods of the time, including the use of bone meal phosphate as fertilizer and bone char as a refining agent. It shows how the sugar beet industry increased the value and demand for bones, leading to a “bone rush” across Europe. This led to people collecting and selling bones from various sources, such as animal carcasses, cemeteries, and battlefields.
Of course, the battlefield of Waterloo offered rich pickings. Here, farmers, facing a shortage of raw materials for sugar production, resorted to digging up the mass graves to obtain bones. It reveals how the bones were used to make bone char, a black substance that was used to filter and decolorize the sugar beet juice. It also exposes the illegal and systematic nature of the bone trade, which involved local peasants, Belgian and foreign investors, labour contractors, trade unions, and religious organizations.
Evidence for the theory
The authors cite historical sources, such as reports and letters from municipal archives, that document the extent and frequency of the bone trade. They also quote foreign witnesses, such as a German geologist who visited Waterloo in 1840 and saw open pits full of bones, and heard rumors about the trafficking of bones for industrial purposes.
Also discussed is the reaction of the local authorities to the bone trade, which was officially prohibited and condemned. Proclamations and threats of legal action were apparently issued by the government and the church, but the authors suggest that these were ineffective and ignored, as the economic benefits of the bone trade outweighed the moral and legal concerns.
More research necessary
The authors conclude by calling for more research on the fate of the battlefield casualties after the Napoleonic Wars, arguing that Waterloo is not an isolated case, but part of a larger and global history of industrial-scale exploitation of bones on battlefields.
Altogether, the article is an interesting, well-researched and highly readable account of how the bones of Waterloo became a valuable resource for the farmers and industrialists who sought to profit from the sugar boom.
More info on Waterloo
- The original article which is free to download.
- Waterloo Uncovered is a (literally!) groundbreaking charity that combines world-class archaeology on the battlefield of Waterloo with veteran care and recovery.
- The main touristy information on visiting the Waterloo Battlefield.
- The excellent Waterloo Memorial Museum.
- Walking the Waterloo Battlefield is my own 14 km walk taking in 17 points of interest on the Battlefield of Waterloo.
- Co-author Bernard Wilkin shares his favourite locations in Belgium
(Images created by DALL-3 AI)