Yesterday on our first day of digging, the first trenches to be opened were in the “Killing Zone”. The Killing Zone has been a key area of investigation for the past three years, as the site that reportedly saw the most intense fighting in the battle for Hougoumont. An open area of land in front of the garden wall, separated by a decorative hedge line, the French advancing from the south found themselves trapped here as they tried in vain to breach the wall.
Each field season has seen us systematically open up strips (roughly 30 metres in length and 5 metres wide), which are littered with Allied and French lead musket balls, pistol balls and artillery shot buried just underneath the surface. These are easy pickings for our expert detectorists, who place flags to pinpoint the location — red signifying iron, and yellow for higher grade metal. Following this, a team member will excavate the find, and record its location using top notch survey equipment, kindly loaned to us by Opti‐Cal. To date we have excavated 9 trenches in ‘spits’ across the area to get a broad view of the action. This is the first year we will start to join up those spits and get a more ‘total’ picture of what’s going on.
Prof Tony Pollard has been excited by the finds so far:
We have been finding grapeshot – a kind of iron artillery shot, that is smaller than a golf ball, but fired in groups in bags or tins like a giant shot gun shell, and very effective against infantry. Now these have been found scattered across the Killing Zone where we have evidence for really heavy fighting, and given their location our initial interpretation is that these are French artillery fire directed against the wall. This cannon might have been deployed to rake the wall with shot and push back the defenders to support the infantry attack. It looks increasingly likely that the french got over the wall at this point, possibly after the wall was cleared by cannon shot. This year we continue to look inside the garden for evidence of this incursion.
Also today we opened up three new trenches in the courtyard and excavation is beginning to start here in earnest. The interior of the Hougoumont complex was left in ruins in the days following the battle. Some buildings left derelict fell neglected and structures were demolished completely.
Last year Phil Harding’s team discovered fascinating evidence of building foundations relating to the stables and a substantial culvert. This year aims to build on this work chasing these remains and uncovering even more of the building footprint. Based on the work last year, it would seem that these building remains match up with the alignment shown on a cadastral plan of the complex from 1816. With more uncovered, we will be able to prove if these building remains were in fact standing at the time of the battle, giving us a clearer insight into the fighting conditions inside the complex and a better understanding of the nature of the buildings at the time of the battle. Today has been a hard day in this area, hand digging from ground level in order to get down on to the archaeology. Recording has only just begun!
Another exciting part of the day was welcoming two French and Belgian Historians, François Houdecek and Bernard Coppens, to see the excavations and share their invaluable knowledge of the battle. Both are experts of the Napoleonic wars (François is a member of the Fondation Napoleon, and Bernard has authored seminal works on the Battle of Waterloo), and it was fascinating to compare accounts and share different viewpoints across our international team.
One particular point of interest shared between all involved, was a point of difference as to why the French chose Hougoumont as their first target for attack at 11am on the day of the battle. The British explanation was always broadly that Hougoumont was targeted as a diversionary tactic, to draw Wellington’s forces away from the centre line, so that it could be weakened and easily broken through. The French accounts seem to offer another perspective however, which suggest that both Napoleon and Prince Jérôme who mounted the particular attack on Hougoumont, were simply unaware of the Chateau or ‘Castle’, and their actual objective was just to clear the woods of skirmishers.
We hope that François and Bernard found the experience equally as edifying and we would be thrilled to welcome them back next year!
Click here to browse François’s publications.
Click here to learn more about Bernard’s seminal work on the battle “Waterloo les mensonges: Les manipulations de l’histoire enfin révélées”.