For centuries there was no trace of the 20,000 who died at the Battle of Waterloo. Now it becomes clear: her bones were ground for sugar production.
For those who fell at Waterloo, the promise of “a happy death for the fatherland” has been treacherously fulfilled. After Napoleon Bonaparte, the conqueror of France, lost his final battle against the forces of Britain and Prussia in June 1815, more than 20,000 soldiers and their horses were found dead in the fields south of Brussels. However, the dead did not find their final resting place in cemeteries, but in the factories of the burgeoning European sugar industry.
Waterloo Bone Shop
It has long been thought that Waterloo’s bones were exhumed in the 1820s, shipped to England, made into bone meal and spread over fields as manure. As reported by the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ), a team of three historians has now found decisive clues to the truth. He has a research report that Bernard Wilkin, Robin Shaffer and Tony Pollard intend to present on Thursday. According to this, Waterloo’s business with the dead began about 20 years after the war.
Since 1834, the illegal excavation of bones in mass graves is recorded in the municipal documents of Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit, according to the Belgian Wilkin, the ancestors of the region were farmers. In an announcement, the mayor of Braine-l’Alleud pointed out that disturbing the peace of the dead “is punishable by imprisonment of three months to one year and a fine of ten to 200 francs.” But that didn’t help, the researchers’ additional findings show.
Sugar beet displaces potatoes and cereals
Thus, the researchers quote from an article in “L’Indépendant” of August 23, 1835, which states that “an industrialist was given permission to excavate the battlefield in order to find the bones of brave men who died in the field. The honor of removing the bones to make charcoal lies”. As early as 1830, the German geographer Carl von Leonhard wrote in a letter about his visit to the La Haye St. plantation, which was defended by 400 German soldiers during the war.
Now von Leonhardt discovered “mighty piles of horse bones” and “deep ditches filled with people and animals.” One of the workers particularly admired the “bones of the guards’ grenadiers” because they “weighed as much as horses,” von Leonhardt wrote.
Indeed, local dignitaries were not interested in stopping the business, the researchers write: a “small fortune” could be made with at least 1.7 million kilograms of bones. Because by 1833 the sugar industry was booming in Belgium and other parts of Europe. As a result, sugar beet pushed potatoes and grains out of the fields, especially in the Waterloo region. However, for yam cultivation, farmers had to plow the soil deeper than other crops. In doing so, they inevitably encountered human remains and mass graves, the researchers explain.
“Discovery is very important”
Growing sugar mills, not just in Belgium, craved human and animal bones. Grinding in bone charcoal, the organic matter filters out the sugar, thereby discoloring it. A contemporary statesman estimated the demand for cooking at one-third that of manufactured sugar. Another sign of a profitable business was the decision by the Belgian Parliament in 1834 to facilitate foreign trade in animal bones.
Among historians, the findings of Wilkin, Shafer, and Pollard should inspire excitement. “The discovery is very important because it completely changes the information we had before,” French historian and Napoleon expert David Santeron told FAZ. This is the scandal exposed by the trio. The authors themselves have suspended their judgment of the time: after all, people were concerned with improving their daily lives with the bone business. Especially for Belgian player Bernard Wilkin, the joy of solving the puzzle was overwhelming.
Wilkin told the newspaper that he couldn’t believe what they had found: “An answer to a question that has been open for the last 200 years.” This is possible because many of his primary sources were previously inaccessible to other researchers. Community archives, for example, do not exist in any digital database. Anyone who does not work in the Belgian state archives, like himself, has practically no chance of finding reports. Plus, you’ll need to speak a few languages to collect all the clues, says Wilkin.
. “Amateur alcohol specialist. Reader. Hardcore introvert. Freelance explorer.”