The Battle of Waterloo… the human cost

If you’ve read Fighting Lion, Part 4 of The Pride of Lions, and my description of the aftermath of the famous battle where the book’s central character and hero, Nicky, got injured, that was a just a glimpse of the reality of the terrible cost in both human and horses’ lives.

As the Duke of Wellington famously said afterwards: “It has been a damned nice thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw”

The Battle of Waterloo, fought on Sunday 18 June 1815, marked a significant turning point in European history. It finally brought an end to Napoleon’s reign and significantly impacted the political landscape of Europe. The battlefield itself has become a site of remembrance and historical significance, attracting visitors and scholars alike.

Today, 208 years later, we remember the soldiers who lost their lives or suffered grievous wounds during this pivotal battle. It was a monumental clash between the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and an allied coalition led by the British Duke of Wellington with Prussian General Blücher and included Prince William of Orange, the 23-year-old heir to the throne of the Netherlands who commanded the Dutch and Belgian forces. This decisive battle lasted for a single day, left an indelible mark on the course of history and Europe stayed mostly at peace for decades after. However, the price was the staggering number of soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice and endured life-changing injuries… and not just them, there was also their horses.

According to The Waterloo Association, in an area of ground of only approximately 3 square miles, over forty-three thousand dead or injured men and nearly twelve thousand horses were spread out at the end of that terrible day. To put this into perspective, the entire area was covered with a body (human or equine) for every 50 square yards; but as the conflict was much more localised than this, in many areas of heavy fighting, the bodies literally carpeted the ground and it was difficult to walk across the fields without standing on flesh of some kind. The tally was as follows:

Allied Army: 3,500 Killed 10,200 Wounded 3,300 Missing

Prussian Army: 1,200 Killed 4,400 Wounded 1,400 Missing

French Army: 25,000 Killed and Wounded 8,000 Prisoners , 15,000 Missing

Horses: 12,000

Heavy rainfall in the area the night of the 17th had turned the fields into a quagmire. Napoleon put off the battle on the 18th until midday, in the hopes that it would allow the ground some time to dry out – essential for his heavy artillery and guns. This would, however, prove to be a fatal choice as it allowed time for the Prussians to arrive, save the day and finish them off.

Once the dust had settled and the armies withdrew, there was still the matter of clearing the approximately 50,000 dead and severely injured men from the battlefield. 50 local peasants armed only with shovels and handkerchiefs, supervised by medical professionals, were hired to clear the battlefield of the dead and dispose of the vast amount of bodies in the best way that they could.

Once the bodies had been stripped of all earthly possessions, the deceased Allied soldiers were dragged into poorly dug graves, while the bodies of the French soldiers were piled and burned in pyres.

The pyres burned for well over a week, and the smoke and flames could be seen for miles. Those tasked with the battlefield clean-up could be seen stoking the flames and adding more bodies to the pile.

However, no matter how intense the heat of the fire got, there were still scores of bones and human remains that lingered. Tourists collected bones as memorabilia on visits to the site, and human remains could still be easily seen above the ground a year after the battle was won.

And a final macabre note,  did you know that one of the more popular spoils of war came from teeth. The collection of teeth was sold to dentists to make dentures. It became a selling point for the dentists, who referred to the teeth used in their dentures as ‘Waterloo porcelain’.

When I visited the battlefield a few years ago, ironically well before I wrote Nicky’s story, there seemed to be an eerie silence hanging over the site… more than the peace and quiet of deserted grassy fields that surrounded the famous mound. I can’t describe it, or maybe it was my overactive imagination. But it was if I could hear the booming guns, the rattle of musket fire, the clash of sabres, and the cacophony of men shouting and screaming as they fought desperately against their opponents, and then the sound of horses neighing and crying out. It has stuck in my mind to this day…