From 18th July-1st August 2015, I took part in an archaeological dig at Hougoumont Farm on the Waterloo Battlefield. This is part of a 5-year project called Waterloo Uncovered, which aims to cover the whole battlefield. I went as part of a group from The Defence Archaeological Group (D.A.G.). This group is an M.O.D. Group set up to help the recovery of wounded Servicemen & women & also, if they wish to, set them on a career path to become an Archaeologist. At least one man has already done this. However it is also open to veterans (such as myself) or those serving with an interest in history or archaeology. It does a superb job & the cost of the trip was only £20 and you get a T-Shirt as well! The numbers varied, but we had about 30 people on the dig, a mix of D.A.G., professional Archaeologists, some students from Holland, and some serving Soldiers. It was run by Mark Evans, a former Coldstream Officer, with help from a serving one. There were about 10 serving or Old Coldstreamers on it. One, Ben Hilton, lost both his legs in Afghanistan and is in a wheelchair and 2 others had also been wounded there. It was a mixed group of people, but we all rubbed along pretty well. Some of the veterans had P.T.S.D. unlike someone in a wheelchair, it is not a visable wound.
It as very much like Time Team and we were split into groups, with each group under an archaeologist. Some people got moved around, but I remained in the same group all the time. Preliminary work had already been done on a recce in April, so once the mechanical diggers had removed the topsoil and the metal detectors had done a sweep, we commenced digging or troweling, which was quite physical work, but when you see men with no legs, or who are in constant pain from their wounds, you shut up. I am not obviously an archaeologist, but what they do is often misunderstood. It is not about treasure-hunting or being Indiana Jones, but trying to work out, by the objects that you find or changes in the soil, what actually happened. For example a musket ball on its own tells you nothing, what matters is the context in which it is found. Although it is illegal to do so, in 200 years, the battlefield has been very heavily looted, though less so at Hougoumont, because some of it is enclosed & it was also a working farm. I dug in 2 areas, one inside the formal garden and, for much longer in an area called ” The Killing Zone ” This is an area about 30-40 yards wide from what was a wood and a hedge to the loop-holed walls. It is completely open and The French attackers suffered heavy casualties in it, hence it’s title. It would have taken great courage to cross it. Here we did find British musket balls which clearly had impacted on something, as they were mis-shapen. We also found some French ones (they are smaller), which had probably not been fired, just dropped. My team didn’t but some French ones were also found inside the walls of the formal garden. This is why context is so important. All the eye-witness accounts state that The French never got inside the garden, how then to account for the French musket balls? Some no doubt would have come over the walls when they were aiming at the defenders, but if British ones, in numbers, were found inside as well (other than unfired ones) then it could imply that the French did get over the wall and that a fire-fight took place. If that could be proved, it would change our view of what happened.
I dug every day bar one, when I was put on cleaning finds. It was whilst doing this that I noticed that the woman next to me was cleaning what appeared to be a badge of some sort. Having a good look at it, it looked like a Coldstream Star. It had been found in The Hollow Way, which was used to send in supplies and in which some of The Coldstream has rested. It most certainly wasn’t a Grenadier or Scots Guards badge, so the prospect is very exciting. It was believed to be made of iron, so may not be off a uniform, but maybe off a box, or a piece of regimental property. Along with most of the finds it has been sent back to England for analysis, but they have promised to fast track it, so we may get an answer fairly soon. In total about 1,100 items were found, but only about 25% date from the time of the battle, which still doesn’t mean they are actually from it! All the items have been labeled and items like musket balls (over 200 were found) plotted by GPS. All this data will be analysed and in the end the results and conclusions announced. All the items have been labeled and items like musket balls (over 200 were found) plotted by GPS. All this data will be analysed and in the end the results and conclusions announced. In our area I believe that we found one of the mass graves. At the end of the battle there were about 1,350 dead, from both sides, in and around the farm. There is a painting, done at the time, which shows the bodies being tipped in to a mass grave, in the area by the South Gate, which is now a small car park, but no mass graves from the battle have ever been found. It may just be a pile of stones put there by the farmer, but if so, why are they roughly in the shape of a cross? Also this is an entrance to the killing zone, where there was a gap in the hedge line that the French could get through, so they would have taken a lot of casualties in this spot. Surely it would make sense to bury the bodies there, rather than drag them somewhere else. I do have an ally in this a local battlefield guide and an expert not only on the battle, but particularly on Hougoumont. The area has been covered in plastic (the only place where they have done this) and the soil put back on. Hopefully it will get dug next year. If I am right (and I am probably not), then this would be a very important find. We shall see. Overall it was fantastic 2 weeks with some great people some of whom were truly inspiring. It was a huge honour to be able to dig at such an iconic place in The regiment`s history. Hougoumont is much as it was and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the desperate fighting which took place there, with very brave men on both sides. I would urge you to go there.
As the great Duke Of Wellington said ” The Battle Of Waterloo hinged upon closing the gates of Hougoumont Farm ”