“After they had been stripped, the bodies were either burned, buried, or left in the open to decompose, a process aided by vultures, wolves and other scavengers.”
By Shannon Selin
SOMEWHERE IN THE range of 3.5 million to 6 million people died as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1803 to 1815. This includes both military and civilian casualties, and encompasses death from war-related diseases and other causes. Estimates of the number of soldiers killed in battle vary from 500,000 to almost 2 million. But what happened to all of those bodies? What did cleaning up the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars entail?
The depiction of post-battle scavenging in my novel Napoleon in America is based on fact. Soldiers were typically the first to pick through the dead and wounded, taking weapons, clothing and valuables. There was little sentimentality involved. The victors looted from the fallen of both sides. It was a matter of survival, or profit. Camp followers – civilians and women who accompanied the men on campaign – also stole and salvaged from the battlefield. So did the local inhabitants, who had to deal with the mess the armies left behind. British General Robert Wilson described the scene after the Battle of Heilsberg (1807):
The ground between the wood and the Russian batteries, about a quarter of a mile, was a sheet of naked human bodies, which friends and foes had during the night mutually stripped, although numbers of these bodies still retained consciousness of their situation. It was a sight that the eye loathed, but from which it could not remove. (1)
Stretched on the snow among the piles of dead and dying, unable to move in any way, I gradually and without pain lost consciousness…. I judge that my swoon lasted four hours, and when I came to my sense I found myself in this horrible position. I was completely naked, having nothing on but my hat and my right boot. A man of the transport corps, thinking me dead, had stripped me in the usual fashion, and wishing to pull off the only boot that remained, was dragging me by one leg with his foot against my body. The jerk which the man gave me no doubt had restored me to my senses. I succeeded in sitting up and spitting out the clots of blood from my throat. The shock caused by the wind of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that my face, shoulders, and chest were black, while the rest of my body was stained red by the blood from my wound. My hat and my hair were full of bloodstained snow, and as I rolled my haggard eyes I must have been horrible to see. Anyhow, the transport man looked the other way, and went off with my property without my being able to say a single word to him, so utterly prostrate was I. (2)
One of the unusual things about the remains of a soldier unearthed in 2012 at the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) is that the man does not appear to have been robbed.
Some scavengers came with pliers. Teeth from dead soldiers were in great demand for the making of dentures. In Spain in 1814, the nephew of English surgeon Astley Cooper received a visit from a tooth hunter sent by his uncle. (Image source: Military Museum, Dresden, Germany)
Upon asking this Butler, who appeared to be in a state of great destitution, what might be his object, he said it was to get teeth…but when I came to question him upon the means by which he was to obtain these teeth, he said, ‘Oh Sir, only let there be a battle, and there’ll be no want of teeth. I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.’ …
Butler was not the first…to make the Peninsula the scene, or the Duke’s achievements the means, of such lucre; for Crouch and Harnett, two well-known Resurrectionists, had some time prior to his visit, supplied the wealthier classes of London with teeth from similar sources. (3)
The flood of teeth onto the market after Napoleon’s final battle was so large that dentures made from them were known as “Waterloo teeth.” They were proudly advertised as such, since it meant the teeth came from relatively healthy young men.
Burning, Burial and Decomposition
After they had been stripped, the bodies were either burned, buried, or left in the open to decompose, a process aided by vultures, wolves and other scavengers. Captain Jean-Roche Coignet wrote after the Battle of Marengo (1800):
We saw the battlefield covered with Austrian and French soldiers who were picking up the dead and placing them in piles and dragging them along with their musket straps. Men and horses were laid pell-mell in the same heap, and set on fire in order to preserve us from pestilence. The scattered bodies had a little earth thrown over them to cover them. (4)
Depending on the size of the losses, the weather, and the capacities of the army and the local population, battlefield cleanup could take some time. On March 2, 1807, three and a half weeks after the Battle of Eylau, the 64th Bulletin of Napoleon’s Grande Armée reported:
It required great labour to bury all the dead…. Let any one imagine to himself, upon the space of a square league, 9 or 10,000 dead bodies, 4 or 5,000 horses killed, whole lines of Russian knapsacks, broken pieces of muskets and sabres; the ground covered with cannon balls, howitzer shells, and ammunition; 24 pieces of cannon, near which were lying the bodies of their drivers, killed at the moment when they were striving to carry them off. All this was the more conspicuous upon a ground covered with snow. (5)
During Napoleon’s Russian campaign, remains lingered for months. French General Philippe de Ségurdescribed the scene at Borodino (1812) during the retreat from Moscow, almost two months after the battle.
After passing the Kologa, we marched on, absorbed in thought, when some of us, raising our eyes, uttered a cry of horror. Each one instantly looked about him, and there lay stretched before us a plain trampled, bare, and devastated, all the trees cut down within a few feet from the surface, and farther off craggy hills, the highest of which appeared misshapen, and bore a striking resemblance to an extinguished volcano. The ground around us was everywhere covered with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, with broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards dyed with blood.
On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half-devoured corpses; while a pile of skeletons on the summit of one of the hills overlooked the whole. It seems as though death had here fixed his throne. (6)
Napoleon had ordered the Westphalian VIII Corps to stay and guard the battlefield, transport the wounded to hospitals, and bury the dead while the rest of the army continued on to Moscow. However, the corps could do little for the wounded, as the hospital system was rudimentary and no wagons or other means of transport could be found in the deserted villages.
The Westphalians remained on the battlefield surrounded by corpses and dying men, and they were forced to change position from time to time on account of the stench…. [S]oldiers, at the request of some of the wounded in extreme agony, shot them dead and turned the face away while shooting… When von Borcke was riding on horseback over the battle-field on the 5th day after the battle, he saw wounded soldiers lying alongside the cadaver of a horse, gnawing at its flesh. On September 12th the Westphalians moved to Moshaisk, which was deserted by all inhabitants, plundered and half in ashes…. Burnt bodies were lying in the ruins of the houses which had been burnt, the entrance of these places being almost blockaded by cadavers. The only church…contained several hundred wounded and as many corpses of men dead for a number of days…. Soldiers, Westphalians as well as Russian prisoners, were ordered to remove the corpses from the houses and the streets, and then a recleansing of the whole town was necessary before it could be occupied by the troops. (7)
Given these conditions, the Westphalians had managed only a rudimentary burial on the battlefield, as attested to by Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne, who came across the same sight as Ségur:
[A]fter passing over a little river, we arrived at the famous battlefield [Borodino], covered all over with the dead, and with debris of all kinds. Legs, arms, and heads lay on the ground. Most of the bodies were Russians, as ours had been buried, as far as possible; but, as everything had been very hastily done, the heavy rain had uncovered many of them. It was a sad spectacle, the dead bodies hardly retaining a human resemblance. The battle had been fought fifty-two days before. (8)
After the Battle of Waterloo, local peasants were hired to clean up the battlefield, supervised by medical staff. The allied dead were buried in pits. The French corpses were burned. Ten days after the battle, a visitor reported seeing the flames at Hougoumont.
The pyres had been burning for eight days and by then the fire was being fed solely by human fat. There were thighs, arms and legs piled up in a heap and some fifty workmen, with handkerchiefs over their noses, were raking the fire and the bones with long forks. (9)
Bones for Fertilizer
Human remains could still be seen at Waterloo a year after the battle. A company was contracted to collect the visible bones and grind them up for fertilizer. Other Napoleonic battlefields were also reportedly scoured for this purpose. In November 1822 a British paper reported:
It is estimated that more than a million of bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and of the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull, and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders, who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery, for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sent chiefly to Doncaster, one of the largest agricultural markets in that part of the country, and are there sold to the farmers to manure their lands. The oily substance, gradually evolving as the bone calcines, makes a more substantial manure than almost any other substance, particularly human bones. It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment upon an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for ought known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil! (10)
After Napoleon’s final defeat, Britons hurried across the Channel to visit Waterloo, Paris and other sites associated with the French Emperor. The sightseers played a role in battlefield cleanup through their enthusiastic quest for souvenirs. In 1816, satirical poet Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote:
Every one now returns from abroad, either Beparised or Bewaterlooed…. I know one honest gentleman, who has brought home a real Waterloo thumb, nail and all, which he preserves in a bottle of gin. (11)
Scottish journalist John Scott, who visited Waterloo on August 9, 1815, seven weeks after the battle, found a 12-pound British shot, which he planned to bring home “with the cuirass and other spoils of battle which I have secured.” (12) Scott wrote:
The extraordinary love of relics shewn by the English was a subject of no less satisfaction to the cottagers who dwelt near the field, than of ridicule to our military friends…. Our own party did not pass over the field without following the example of our countrymen; each of us, I believe, making his own little collection of curiosities. The ground was strewed so completely with shreds of cartridge paper, pieces of leather, and hats, letters, songs, memorandum books, &c., as to resemble, in a great measure, the place where some vast fair had been held, and where several parties of gypsies had lighted fires at intervals, to cook their victuals. Several of these we picked up as we walked along; and I still have in my repositories, a letter evidently drenched with rain, dated April 3rd., which, from the portion still legible, must have been sent from Yorkshire; and also a leaf of a jest book, entitled ‘The Care Killer.’
At Hougoumont I purchased a bullet of grape shot, with which the wood in front of it had been furiously assailed, as was evinced by the marks visible on every tree.
The time which had elapsed since the date of the action had taken from the scene that degree of horror which it had recently presented; but the vast number of little hillocks, which were scattered about in all directions, – in some places mounds of greater extent, especially near the chausée above La Haye Sainte, and above all the desolate appearance of Hougoumont, where too the smell of the charnel house tainted the air to a sickening degree, gave sufficient tokens of the fearful storm which had swept over this now tranquil rural district. (13)
The demand for Waterloo relics soon outstripped the supply, though the locals continued for decades to hawk souvenirs that were claimed to be genuine battlefield artefacts.
Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Bonaparte had escaped from Saint Helena in 1821 and wound up in the United States. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonSelin.
If you liked this story, you might also enjoy Shannon’s other articles:
What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?Napoleon’s Nemesis: the Duke of Wellington
10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte
Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?
A guillotine execution in Napoleonic times
Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death