Dig Diary Day 7: Military Medicine and Well Diving

Military Medicine at Mont‐Saint‐Jean

This morning, retired consultant,  curator of the Royal College of Surgeons and curator of the Military Surgical Museum at Ferme de Mont‐Saint‐Jean Dr Mick Crumplin kindly gave our veterans, archaeologists and students a tour of the Ferme de Mont‐Saint‐Jean museum, which houses his personal collection of medical artefacts relating to the era of the Battle of Waterloo.

In Mick’s collection are several sets of surgical instruments that he is particularly fascinated by. One such set from 1830 is made of shear steel, and includes an amputating saw with an ebony handle that would not have been sterilized between patients, forceps for removing bullets and gouging out bone, scalpels and amputating knives, a trephine for trepanning (drilling holes in the skull to relieve the pressure of compound fractures), and a urethral syringe for treating venereal diseases.

When you look at instruments like this you realise that surgery may have been crude without any anaesthesia or pain relief, without any idea of sepsis, but they are so well‐made there must have been something to surgery more than just crude butchery.”

Dr Mick Crumplin
One of Mick’s collections of surgical tools in the Military Surgical Museum at Ferme de Mont‐Saint‐Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Another of Mick’s most interesting objects is a vertebra set in silver which had been damaged by a piece of shrapnel. The vertebra belonged to Captain Holmes of the 27th Inniskillings; when he was killed at Waterloo, his wife had his body boiled and removed the damaged bone as well as the missile in his chest that had killed him. She kept it by her bed as a reminder of her late husband for many years, and when Mick acquired it, it was covered in drops of wax from her bedside candles.

The farm of Mont‐Saint‐Jean was occupied by the British and designated as a field hospital by Lord Wellington, who slept for several hours in the farmhouse on the evening of the 17th of June, 1815. The large barn at Mont‐Saint‐Jean, which this week is housing the Waterloo Uncovered communications and administration teams, once served as the main operating theatre at Mont‐Saint‐Jean during the fighting, and would have witnessed unimaginable scenes of suffering.

The hospital was under the command of Dr John Gunning, a surgeon at St. George’s Hospital of London. He was one of very few surgeons at the Battle of Waterloo who had practical experience working with the wounded. Most surgeons studied for around five years, conducting dissections and attending anatomy lectures, before being launched into the thick of battle with little to no hands‐on experience.

They would come and learn the hard way — they would be apprentices on the battlefield.”

Dr Mick Crumplin
A drawing of a soldier missing an arm after the Battle of Waterloo. By surgeon Charles Bell, held by the Wellcome Collection.

In addition, field hospitals such as Mont‐Saint‐Jean would have been severely understaffed – while there was officially one surgeon and two assistants assigned to each regiment, there would often be even less. But the Allied surgeons were often aided by local people, as described by hospital assistant Isaac James in a personal letter from Brussels in 1815;

I have been extremely fatigued having so many wounded to attend. We have had lots of legs and arms to lop off. The inhabitants [of Brussels] have been particularly kind to the wounded; their attention to them is unremitting.”

Surgeons did not only treat their countrymen – they were also responsible for wounded prisoners:

I have 37 French prisoners as well as my own officers and men to look after, mostly sword cuts. One, a Marquis de Touraine, who all the time I was extracting a bullet and splinters of bone from his shoulder blade, kept apologising for the great trouble he was giving me. As hardly any of my officers and none of the men can speak a word of French, you may guess I am kept pretty busy translating. They are not half bad fellows and are far more grateful for anything done for them than our chaps are.”

Surgeon David Slow, Royal Horse Guards in a private letter to his sisters

Field hospitals like Mont‐Saint‐Jean would have been a horrific sight; overcrowded and filled with dead and dying men who could not always fit in the building, according to Mick:

This whole courtyard would have been full of men lying around bleeding, in pain, groaning. I don’t think we can imagine what a horrible sight it must have been.”

Surgeon David Slow of the Royal Horse Guards expressed a similar sentiment after surviving a French attack:

By the great mercy of God I am spared to write to you once again, although around me lie the unburied bodies of thousands of dead and still more of the wounded, many in such pain that they only wish they were dead.”

Drawings of soldiers with eye and face wounds sustained during the Battle of Waterloo. By surgeon Charles Bell, held by the Wellcome Collection.

But Mick tells us that in the early 19th century, soldiers would have been slightly more prepared for extreme injury and death, due to the mortality rates of the period:

They were accustomed to loss of family, loss of children, loss of wives in childbirth […] they are used to death and suffering, and they didn’t expect survival.”

Mick estimates that at least 10% of the wounded men who entered the farm would have died here – around 6000 wounded men were treated at Mont‐Saint‐Jean over the four days of the battle. Their wounds would have come from a variety of weaponry:

Of the total loss, one in 7 or 8 may be killed, the rest are wounded. A great number of the wounds are from cannon balls. Officers have compared the discharge from the cannon to discharges of musketry. Most wounds of the limbs are in the lower extremities. There are perhaps 15 or 16 legs taken off for one arm, there are not many bayonet wounds. There are sabre and lance wounds, the French cavalry have lances, we have none.”

Assistant Surgeon Donald Finlayson, 33rd Regiment of Foot

Some soldiers miraculously managed to survive catastrophic injuries, such as those suffered by Lieutenant Henry Duperier, who was not English by birth, of the 18th Regiment of Light Dragoons, who wrote the following to his Major:

I am in great pain, caused by a ball which is received in my head, charging a French battalion, with about 40 of our men. It would have killed an Englishman, having passed through my skull head, opened the skull and out the other side. When I say it would have killed an Englishman it is because he has brains, but you know that I have none.”

Around 65% of wounds received in the Battle of Waterloo would have been to limbs.  Mick explains that the position of an injury on a limb changes how likely it is that the wounded soldier will die:

The mortality is less as you go down the limb, but joint injuries were severe.”

Often, the only chance of survival from a limb injury was to amputate, as explained by the Earl of Uxbridge in a personal letter to his wife, shortly after his leg was amputated:

Dearest Charlotte, Be bold, prepare for misfortune, I have lost my right leg. A miracle might have saved it, but for the sake of you and my dear children, I have taken the better chance of preserving my life.”

But even after a successful amputation, there were still dangers for the wounded, as explained by Assistant Surgeon Donald Finlayson in a letter from June 1815:

What misery war causes! Part of it we have seen, the rest we may dread. Many may die hereafter, some necessarily from their wounds, others from want of attendance. Hospital gangrene may be expected, famine may be dreaded.”

Not every injured soldier experienced the horrors of field hospitals, however. Some officers with less severe wounds were tended to by the families they were billeted with. And some lucky officers even found convalescence after injury to be an enjoyable experience…

I am quite at home in the family, and have three young ladies who make a point of applying the poultices to my leg themselves. So who would not be wounded?”

Captain Alexander Kennedy Clark, 1st Royal Dragoons, letter from Brussels, 26 June 1815

Let’s Get Geophysical

Jim Glenister, a former civil servant, retired 9 years ago, and decided to fill the new time on his hands with a lifelong interest — archaeology. Jim begun volunteering on archaeological digs to gain experience, and soon became interested in geophysical survey. Now affiliated with Liverpool John Moores University, Jim and PhD student Megan Quick arrived in Belgium with two pieces of equipment: Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT).

Jim Glenister setting up a geophysical survey at Frischermont. Photo by Chris van Houts.

GPR is a non‐invasive technique that allows us to detect subsurface structures without needing to open a trench – this is particularly useful in protected or restricted areas that cannot be dug. A GPR unit is pushed along the area of ground that will be examined, where it emits high frequency radio waves, which bounce off buried objects. When the waves are transmitted back to the GPR unit, the display will show how deep a potential structure is (and therefore how old it is) on the vertical axis and where the structure is in space on the horizontal axis. It is a common misconception that GPR can see through the ground like an X‐Ray – we wish this was the case!

In an ERT survey, metal stakes are planted in the ground, and an electric current is passed through them into the subsurface below. From here, variations in conductivity are measured by a pair of electrodes, which can be used to map the stratigraphy of a site, meaning the different layers of archaeological remains. By examining the stratigraphy of an area, we can see the different periods of occupation it has gone through, and identify where different structures and features may have once stood on the site.

A team of volunteers, students and veterans help Jim (foreground, left) and Megan (background, with computer) set up a geophysical survey. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Jim and Megan were asked to bring their equipment to Waterloo Uncovered in order to detect possible burial pits, subsurface structures and anomalies. They first examined the orchard of Mont‐Saint‐Jean, and were disappointed not to find any buried structures. But they were more successful when they moved on to Hougoumont farm. In the courtyard of Hougoumont farm, they believe they have found the potential remains of structures in the courtyard which are not visible from the surface, and have not been dug before.

We’re currently processing the data and recording it, and trying to plan it. But we think we have potential structures and the remains of structures which are not visible from the surface, and haven’t been dug before.”

Jim and Megan then moved onto the site of Frischermont. During the Battle of Waterloo, Frischermont was garrisoned by Dutch soldiers from the 28th Orange‐Nassau regiment. Once the site of a chateaux, there are almost no known architectural remains on the surface at Frischermont. But Jim and Megan believe they have found the edge of a barn that once stood at the site. Unfortunately, the site of Frischermont is vastly overgrown, and needs to be cleared in order for the team to continue their work or begin digging to uncover these possible structures. Regardless, Jim is happy with what the team have found, and would like to return to Waterloo Uncovered next year to continue their work, particularly at Frischermont:

Frischermont is quite exciting because it’s the unknown. Generally, we try to work from the known to the unknown, but here we’re just stabbing in the dark.”

Plumbing the Depths

Elsewhere at Mont‐Saint‐Jean, the deep stone well in the courtyard was being explored by specialist Olivier, while archaeologists Stuart Eve and Véronique Moulaert monitored his progress from the surface. Olivier discovered that the well was 32 metres deep, with 4 metres of water in the bottom that Véronique described as “swampy”- but there was little else to be seen there.

Olivier climbing down the well at Mont‐Saint‐Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

However, there are more wells to explore at our other sites of Hougoumont farm and Frischermont.

There are two known wells at Hougoumont, one of which was excavated in 1985 by Derick Saunders. The aim of this examination was to prove, or disprove, a claim made by Victor Hugo in his 1862 novel Les Miserables. Hugo wrote of the well at Hougoumont;

On emerging from the chapel, a well is visible on the left. There are two in this courtyard. One inquires, Why is there no bucket and pulley to this? It is because water is no longer drawn there. Why is water not drawn there? Because it is full of skeletons.”

Hugo claimed that the well had been used as a depository for human remains after the Battle of Waterloo – and some of the men may not even have been dead when they were thrown in:

After the engagement, they were in haste to bury the dead bodies. Death has a fashion of harassing victory, and she causes the pest to follow glory. The typhus is a concomitant of triumph. This well was deep, and it was turned into a sepulchre. Three hundred dead bodies were cast into it. With too much haste perhaps. Were they all dead? Legend says they were not. It seems that on the night succeeding the interment, feeble voices were heard calling from the well.”

A postcard of Hougoumont farm by an unknown photographer, showing the well referenced by Hugo. From gtrooprha.co.uk.

Though this passage is widely believed, Saunders’ excavation did not discover any bodies, or any evidence that they had been there. During the restoration of the buildings at Hougoumont farm for the 2015 bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, another well was discovered. This well had been bricked up in a wall of the courtyard, and as far as we know, has never been examined – but our archaeologists hope to explore it before the end of the week.

At the nearby site of Frischermont, the only remains of the building that are still standing are a small wall and the well – though the current well head is a modern reconstruction, the well itself is most likely untouched, and will also be explored this week.

Fingers crossed the finds will keep on coming as our team further explores our sites of Mont‐Saint‐Jean, Hougoumont and Frischermont. Watch this space for an extremely exciting announcement coming tomorrow afternoon…