The remains of the warriors who died on that illustrious battlefield more than 200 years after Napoleon was routed at the Battle of Waterloo continue to fascinate Belgian scholars and experts, who use them to look back at that period in history.
One of these historians, Bernard Wilkin, stood in front of a forensic pathologist’s table holding two skulls, three femurs, and hip bones and exclaimed, “So many bones — it’s absolutely remarkable!”
He was in a room used for autopsies at the Forensic Medicine Institute in Liege, eastern Belgium, where tests were being done on the skeletal bones to ascertain where regions the four troops were from.
Even that presents a hurdle.
At the Battle of Waterloo, which took place 12 miles south of Brussels, soldiers from six different countries in Europe were present.
Around 20,000 men died in that battle on June 18, 1815, stopping Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to conquer all of Europe and establish a vast empire.
Since then, historians have studied the war, and with developments in the genetic, medical, and scanning areas, researchers are now able to piece together pages of the past from the remains buried in the ground.
Archeological excavations have helped retrieve some of those remains. For instance, one last year allowed the reconstruction of a skeleton discovered next to a field hospital the British Duke of Wellington had established.
The dig also turned quite a lot of horse bones. According to the archaeologists, thousands of horses are said to have perished during the conflict “as the glittering splendor of the cavalry charge ended in death for all too many.”
Wilkin was able to access the remains through a different path, though.
The historian, who works for the historical records of the Belgian government, recalled that after giving a conference, “this middle-aged man came to visit me and told me, Mr. Wilkin, I have some Prussians in my attic.”
The man “showed me images on his phone and told me someone had given him these bones so he can put them on exhibit… which he declined to do on ethical reasons,” Wilkin claimed, grinning.
The body parts remained hidden until the guy met Wilkin, whom he thought could examine them and provide them with a respectable resting place.
A right foot with virtually all of its toes, which the middle-aged man described as belonging to a “Prussian soldier,” is a significant piece of interest in the collection.
Since the little bones on the extremities typically fall into the ground, seeing a foot that well preserved is unusual, according to Mathilde Daumas, an anthropologist with the Universite Libre de Bruxelles who is involved in the study.
The specialists are cautious about the supposed “Prussian” provenance.
According to Wilkin, the remains were found in the village of Plancenoit, the scene of a bloody battle between troops from the Napoleonic and Prussian armies. Wilkin speculated that the remains might actually be those of French soldiers.
The ruins do contain fragments of boots and metal buckles, which do suggest that the soldiers fighting the French wore Germanic-style uniforms.
But the historian said that “we know the soldiers robbed the bodies for their own kit.”
He emphasized that clothing and accessories are not trustworthy markers of the nationality of skeletons discovered on the Waterloo battlefield.
These days, DNA tests are more reliable.
A forensic pathologist working on the remains, Dr. Philippe Boxho, stated that portions of the bones should still produce DNA results, and he thought another two months of analyses should produce results.
“We can take action as long as the subject matter is dry. Humidity, which causes things to dissolve, is our main adversary “He clarified.
He said that teeth in particular, which contain traces of strontium, a naturally occurring component that builds up in human bones, can identify particular geographic areas through their geology.
An “ideal scenario,” according to Wilkin, would be for the investigation to discover that the “three to five” soldiers’ bodies under examination were from both the French and Germanic sides.
Major Arthur Heyland, an Irishman of 33 who had written a letter to his wife the day before he died, was one of the men who perished at Waterloo.
Heyland penned: “Let it comfort you, Mary, to know that you made the happiest days of my life possible and that you are the one person I will die loving. I leave you with what, my Mary, darling children. May God bless you, my sweet Marianna. My Anne, my John, may God keep you safe. Let my kids comfort you, my Mary, my love.”