Story by Philip Blenkinsop for Reuters, June 15, 2012:
WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) – The skeleton of a soldier, probably British and with the initials C.B., has surfaced two centuries after he was shot in the chest during the Battle of Waterloo, in a find unrivalled in more than a century.
C.B. might have remained a few hundred meters (yards) behind the British and allied front line beside a field of wheat for centuries more, were it not for plans to build a car park in time for the 200th anniversary of the battle in 2015.
Dominique Bosquet, of the archaeological department of Belgium’s Walloon region, watched as a mechanical digger stripped away 120 sections of the future car park last week, shouting for it to stop as it broke into the soldier’s skull.
“We realized it was something exceptional,” Bosquet said, standing over the site where the remains were found. Behind him loomed the large “Lion’s Mound” memorial ordered by Dutch King William I to mark the spot where his son was knocked from his horse and wounded during the battle.
“It’s a soldier found probably at the site of his death.”
The Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, marked the final defeat of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to a coalition of forces under Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Bluecher’s Prussian army.
Napoleon, initially defeated in 1813, had escaped exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and returned to power for a period now called the Hundred Days.
After Waterloo, he was confined on the Atlantic island of St Helena until his death in 1821.
Finding a body near a battlefield may not seen unusual, particularly with some 30,000 believed to have been killed at Waterloo, 16 km (10 miles) south of central Brussels.
However, the British were particular about taking home their war dead, while French bodies were largely looted by locals before being pitched into mass graves.
“A soldier’s remains were discovered in 1912, but subsequent DNA tests on the bones showed it was made of two different people, so it was a fake,” Bosquet said.
He and other experts believe the soldier was probably from Britain, based on the location of his shallow grave behind the British lines.
“One possibility was that he crept away wounded from the front and settled down to die here. Another is that he was carried here by comrades,” Bosquet said.
“Again, we can only speculate about why he was apparently left behind. Perhaps comrades buried him, perhaps an explosion nearby covered him with earth.”
C.B.’s remains are an almost entire skeleton, albeit with a shattered skull and missing both hands and a foot. Experts are expected to determine the age and his height next week.
One tooth is worn down, possibly from ripping open paper cones containing gunpowder.
His possessions are also illuminating – a musket ball is lodged in his chest; where a pocket would have been are some 20 coins, a rifle flint and a piece of material, perhaps the pocket itself or from a purse.
One of the coins, a half franc, was minted in 1811.
Two further items found beside a leg could serve to identify the dead combatant – or at least to narrow down the possibilities.
Bosquet believes a small block of wood found with the soldier, and with the letters C.B. etched on it, could indicate his name.
An iron spoon, now covered in soil, could then prove key, if perhaps the handle is embossed with his regiment.
“We may never find out who this soldier was. C.B. could be fairly common initials, but we may definitely be able to narrow it down,” Bosquet said.