By Gareth Glover (Guest Contributor)
The 18th of June 2015 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which ended the career of Napoleon Bonaparte and brought relative peace to Europe for nearly a hundred years. But the human cost in the short campaign was very severe, with it is estimated over 20,000 dead and over 15,000 horses having to be destroyed as well. Carnage on such a vast scale caused huge problems and whilst the horses were burnt in huge pyres, the bodies of the soldiers were buried in mass graves, so shallow that visitors to the battlefield reported on the sponginess of the soil and that occasionally hands or feet were still visible above the soil!
Even before they were buried, all the bodies were stripped of any valuables and clothing, making it impossible to identify friend from foe, all shared the same fate. But during the first days after the battle, other visitors arrived to remove other less obvious valuables from the corpses awaiting burial: their teeth! With the introduction of sugar into Europe and with poor understanding of the need to clean teeth, tooth decay was rife, with most over the age of thirty requiring numerous tooth extractions and therefore dentures to hide the damage. Teeth had regularly been supplied by the body snatchers, but these teeth were often already in a poor state when removed from the corpses.
A better source of good quality teeth was from the young men killed in battle and so many were collected at Waterloo that they were carted away in huge oak barrels. Indeed for many years afterwards, dentures were referred to as ‘Waterloo teeth’, although the practice of collecting them continued until after the American Civil War.
Once finally buried, their bones could not rest in peace! In the early nineteenth century it was discovered that bone was an excellent fertilizer and the great battlefields of Europe were dug up to extract the bones so that they could be ground up.
In 1822 a correspondent wrote that it was now clearly established that a dead soldier was worth more than a live one. He also pointed out that the farmers of Yorkshire were probably enjoying bumper crops with the very bones of their own sons.
For this reason, only one skeleton has been discovered on the battlefield over the last two hundred years, which was recently identified by this author as Private Friedrich Brandt of the King’s German Legion, a German unit in the British Army who died on 18 June 1815 but was buried alone by his colleagues and therefore was probably missed by the bone hunters.
Gareth Glover is an ex Royal Navy officer who has studied the Napoleonic Wars for some forty years. He is renowned as an expert on the archival material on the Battle of Waterloo and has published 6 volumes of this material entitled “The Waterloo Archive”, the new evidence from which has caused him to rewrite the history of the battle in ‘Waterloo, Myth & Reality’ and present his findings to a new audience in ‘Waterloo in 100 Objects’.