Friday, August 12, 2022

British veterans dig at the Battle of Waterloo site to process trauma while unraveling history

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“We all bring some luggage with us. We all come with a different story’

Lisa Randall, a former Royal Navy medical officer, stands on the edge of the Waterloo battlefield and beams as she talks about finding the remains of sawed-off arms and legs. “I think it’s fabulous,” she says, her eyes sparkling with delight. She is conducting an archaeological dig at the Allied Army’s field hospital at Mont-Saint-Jean. Around 500 amputations took place that day, with just 236 reported as ‘successful’, and Ms Randall is helping to unearth a ditch where the limbs are believed to have been discarded.

Ms Randall, who developed a hearing impairment during her 12-year stint in the Navy, is part of the pioneering charity Waterloo Uncovered, which is bringing together 20 military veterans and serving for battlefield rehabilitation archeology this summer. She is excited about the project to learn more about the Battle of 1815, one of history’s most famous altercations. “We get history and archaeology, but there’s also a huge feel-good and supportive environment,” she says. “It boosted my self-confidence. I feel accepted, I don’t feel handicapped, I feel activated.”

The battlefield of Waterloo, about 12 miles south of Brussels, was Napoleon Bonaparte’s last stand, defeated by a Confederate army led by the Duke of Wellington. Waterloo Uncovered, which began in 2015, brings veterans to the site to help discover new finds while aiding their recovery after leaving the armed forces.

“We all bring some luggage with us. We all have different stories,” says Charles Foinette, a lieutenant colonel who co-founded Waterloo Uncovered with Mark Evans, a former Coldstream Guards captain and archeology graduate.

Mr Foinette says veterans could suffer for a variety of reasons, from injuries to trauma to a simple struggle to adjust to civilian life. “You don’t have to have been to war to fight. Some leaving the ministry may think, “What I did, what I was good at, what I built my life on is no longer available to me. So where do I fit in?’ We’re restoring some of the camaraderie they had. And then hopefully they go back to life with a different perspective.”

Amidst the therapeutic benefits is real archaeology, with more than 6,000 finds over the years. TV archaeologist and professor Tony Pollard, the lead scientist for the dig, says the dig is shedding new light on the battle. In the Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital, for example, he learns about the almost industrial amputation and disposal of corpses. “Medical practice at the time was often primitive,” says Pollard. “Surgeons operated without anesthetic and under tremendous pressure to amputate shattered limbs and sew up horrific wounds inflicted by gunshot, sword and grenade.”

Almost 50,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle. The bodies of the dead were stripped of everything, including their teeth, before being thrown into mass grave pits or burned at the stake. Mr Pollard, a Glasgow University professor and co-host of the BBC series Two Men in a Trench, links the findings to the current war in Ukraine. “When Ukraine started bringing crematoria to the battlefield, I had a look back,” he says. “But what they did was automatic. They had to dispose of the bodies. They wouldn’t bother with an informed state funeral or reuniting with family.”

The team is also digging at Plancenoit, a French defensive position attacked by Prussian troops, and secured permission to dig in the village for the first time. Using geophysical survey methods and metal detection, Waterloo Uncovered found anomalies in a local field that may indicate a mass grave. “It’s wonderful to tell the French part of the story. It’s almost a laboratory for testing techniques that battlefield and conflict archeology can use elsewhere,” says Pollard.

The project has already attracted the attention of a number of historians and writers, including author Ken Follett, who visited last week, Napoleon biographer Andrew Roberts, Waterloo historian Andrew Field, Channel 4’s Time team and Dan Snow’s History Hit Podcast.

For the organizers, however, the human connections from the project are the most rewarding. The veterans are carefully selected to ensure they are physically and mentally fit to conduct the two-week session – not least because they will likely be handling human remains. But the chosen ones settle in quickly.

“Whether you’re blinded, missing a limb, or mentally ill, it’s just wonderful,” says Rod Eldridge, who leads Waterloo Uncovered’s welfare support team. “I just saw magical moments. There were people who didn’t smile at all, but then their faces suddenly lit up vividly. People really forget their worries and hardships at home. You come here and have a great time. And it’s kind of a catalyst for change in their lives.”

At Plancenoit, Liam Telfer, who served with the Royal Scottish Dragoon Guards in Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2011, says the project has helped him cope with social anxiety. “It was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more comfortable in a group of people,” says Mr Telfer, who is currently a firefighter with the London Fire Brigade. “It was amazing. They all took part. It was one of the best experiences of my life to be honest.”

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