How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

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 range from 500,000 to almost 2 million. What happened to all of those bodies? What did Napoleonic battlefield cleanup entail?

The Battle of Borodino, September 7, 1812, by Albrecht Adam

The Battle of Borodino, September 7, 1812, by Albrecht Adam

Scavenging

The depiction of post-battle scavenging in 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)

French soldier Jean Baptiste de Marbot, wounded in the Battle of Eylau (1807), gives a sense of what it was like to be one of the bodies:

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.

Tooth hunting

Dentures with Waterloo Teeth - Military Museum, Dresden, Germany

Dentures with Waterloo Teeth – Military Museum, Dresden, Germany

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.

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 the Battle of Waterloo 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

A pyre at Hougoumont after the Battle of Waterloo, by James Rouse, 1816, an example of Napoleonic battlefield cleanup

A pyre at Hougoumont after the Battle of Waterloo, by James Rouse, 1816

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 Ségur described 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)

Souvenir hunters

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.

You might also enjoy:

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

  1. Robert Wilson, Brief Remarks on the Character and Composition of the Russian Army and a Sketch of the Campaigns in Poland in the Years 1806 and 1807 (London, 1810), p. 147.
  2. Jean-Baptiste de Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, translated by Arthur John Butler, Vol. 1, (London, 1903), p. 216.
  3. Bransby Blake Cooper, The Life of Sir Astley Cooper, Vol. 1 (London, 1843), pp. 401-402.
  4. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), p. 81.
  5. Jacques Peuchet, Campaigns of the Armies of France, in Prussia, Saxony, and Poland, translated by Samuel MacKay, Vol. 4 (Boston, 1808), p. 201.
  6. Philippe de Ségur, History of the Expedition to Russia Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812, Vol. II (New York, 1872), p. 119.
  7. Achilles Rose, Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812: Medico –Historical (New York, 1913), pp. 32-34.
  8. Adrien Bourgogne, Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne, 1812-1813, edited by Paul Cottin (New York, 1899), p. 60.
  9. Bernard Cornwell, Waterloo: The True Story of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles (New York, 2015), p. 325.
  10. The New Annual Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, Arts, Sciences and Literature for the Year 1822 (London, 1823), p. 132.
  11. Eaton Stannard Barrett, The Talents Run Mad; or, Eighteen Hundred and Sixteen: A Satirical Poem (London, 1816), pp. 18-19.
  12. Richard Henry Stoddard, ed., The Life, Letters and Table Talk of Benjamin Robert Haydon (New York, 1876), p. 152
  13. John Scott, Journal of a Tour to Waterloo and Paris, in company with Sir Walter Scott in 1815 (London, 1842), pp. 46-48.

63 commments on “How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?”

  • Pier Kuipers says:

    Great article, macabre as it may be. You mention the remains of a British soldier at Waterloo – would that be in reference to the skeleton that was found during the construction of a car park, and turned out to be German? See http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/7011508.html

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Many thanks, Pier. That’s the one. I was working from an earlier article, which said the remains were British. I’ll update the post.

  • Mark Anderson says:

    Very interesting post Shannon.

  • Addison Jump says:

    Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon.

    William S. Burroughs

  • Hels says:

    Were the names of the dead soldiers recorded, so that the parents and widows could be notified?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Good question, Hels. I’d like to think that in cases where a regiment was able to identify its dead members, an effort was made to notify the next of kin, and I’ve come across references to Napoleon occasionally dictating such letters, but I don’t know how often this happened in practice.

      • Bas de Groot says:

        In Scottish Regiments, this was often done through the kirks/parishes, where news about enlisted men, including their deaths, was often nailed to the church door or a nearby bulletin board. In Scotland this was possible because the Regiments often were close-knit societies, with many men from villages enlisting in a single Regiment together.
        On reading a number of Flemish/northern French soldiers’ letters (http://janvanbakel.nl/menu6.htm), it becomes clear that quite often soldiers, when writing home, also conveyed news about soldiers they knew from their home towns, and so often would ask their own family members to let family X or Y know that soldier X or Y had died, or was in hospital.

      • Jason St.Just says:

        Wherever possible it was written down how the soldiers died. Of course it was not very detailed and of course medical knowledge then was not as advanced as today. If we research the records of those fallen we will see the following causes of death: fever, wounds, dysentry and just ‘died on such date’ which is usually the date of or just after a battle. When I look into my own personal records, I have a young forefather of 19 serving in the infantry who died of ‘fever’ in Toulouse in March 1814. Probably was sent to Spanish front for a year but did not survive too long…poor fellow. Another one was serving in the infantry of the Guard in 1813 and together with a friend was allowed to go on leave after the battle of Bautzen in May. When hostilities resumed in August 1813, the young lads were not back yet, so they were given up as ‘deserted’. Their families were arrested instead which prompted the young lads to return to their regiment by the end of August. Hard times!

        • Shannon Selin says:

          Hard times, indeed! Those poor men and their families. Thank you, Jason. I’m glad there are some records (however imperfect) of how the soldiers died, which could presumably reach their loved ones.

  • Tim Sutherland says:

    An interesting article. Your readers might be interested in the television documentary we made recently called ‘Waterloo Dead’ (UKTV Yesterday Channel). It covers some of the same issues. I also made a Facebook page which contains some of our research https://www.facebook.com/ArchaeologyWaterloo/. There is also a website
    http://tls509.wix.com/archaeologyawaterloo
    Best wishes, Tim

  • David Hollins says:

    After Wagram, the French forced the citizens of Vienna to go out on to the Marchfeld to clear up. Constable drew a series of sketches of Waterloo about a year later. I seem to remember that Janetschek includes a memoir about Austerlitz about a year after the battle. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=aOotAQAAIAAJ&dq=editions:WZENEB7-7Q0C

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, David. Re. Wagram, James Arnold, in Napoleon Conquers Austria (1995), writes, “under the July heat, the battlefield quickly became a stinking abattoir. Whereas the dead soldiers could be buried relatively quickly, the bloated bodies of the thousands of dead horses…soon putrefied.” (p. 172).

      • David Hollins says:

        Many Wagram bodies were burned near Markgrafneusiedl and the bones are now interred in the church crypt. I think the ossuary at Marengo dates from 1805 and there has been some research on some of the bones.

        Many of the bodies from Aspern finished up in the Danube and reappeared when the river level fell.

  • Nico Tak says:

    A very good article, just as shocking as the 24 hours at Waterloo by Robert Kershaw, stripped from all the glory and heroics, which gave me another look at the battles fought in those days.

  • Sarah says:

    Really interesting article Shannon. This is actually the topic I’m researching for my PhD, except I’m looking at a slightly earlier period (15th-17th century England). Have you found that most references to the disposal of the dead are in memoirs and other personal accounts or other types of source too?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That sounds like a fascinating topic, Sarah. So far the references I’ve come across are mainly in personal accounts, but there must be some references in things like financial records, military orders, etc. I just haven’t looked for them.

  • Mary Grant says:

    I’m glad to see this. People seldom realize that these wars did not produce cemeteries or even great memorials, which came later. We have an entirely different take now, and glorify war as never before. I was shocked when visiting Westminster Abbey, the war applause that exists there in statues of generals and heroes applauded in marble, along with images of their swords and regalia. Meanwhile, Hastings and Clechy are just a grassy field of ‘hallowed ground’, which really means blood soaked.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Mary. There was a fair amount of glorification of war at the time (e.g., Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806), but people saw more of the gruesome effects than we do today (at least in the West), as war has become more technologized.

  • Michael N. Escobar says:

    Thénardier encounters Colonel Pontmercy (the father of Marius) at Waterloo while scavenging after the battle.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That’s right! Thanks, Michael. It’s so long since I’ve read Les Misérables, I’d completely forgotten that.

  • Erwin Muilwijk says:

    I am very much reluctant to believe that there is any truth with regards to Waterloo in 1815, that bones were in later years unearthed to be used as fertilizer. This seems to be a perpetuated myth. Also, there is no overall evidence for Waterloo that much of the bodies were burned, instead of being interred in mass graves.

  • Andrew Salmon says:

    Grim but fascinating research, thanks. While researching my own book on the battle of Imjin River (Korea, April, 1951) veterans interviewed recalled their worst experience as being, not the combat, but the battlefield clearance. (They returned to the field a month after the battle to recover equipment and recover the dead.) It was a hot May day, and a subaltern of the 8th Hussars, dressed in overalls and rubber gloves and was disentangling the decomposing body of one of his men from the wreck of a Centurion tank. It was a warm day. He reached up to brush the sweat off his brow with his hand – and the decomposing matter on his glove mingled with his sweat and ran down his face into his mouth. Traumatic stuff that – like dressing stations and field hospitals – is not usually featured in war movies. “Orderly – put him down on the table, so./ Easily, gently – thanks, you may go./And it’s war! But the part that is not for show.”

  • James Sullivan says:

    I think you are doing a great job here.

  • Siger says:

    The other side of the glorious medal… thank you.

  • Ermanno Gizzi says:

    Thanks, Shannon, for your presentation. It’s very well done with a wide perspective. I knew only about Wagram and Borodino after-battle depiction.

  • Ricard Sánchez Pérez says:

    The most realistic point of view I’ve ever seen

  • Joseph Kirn says:

    Absolutely, awesome; loved it!

  • Graham Clayton says:

    A very detailed and fascinating overview of a part of warfare that is often totally ignored.

  • Alphonse-Louis Vinh says:

    It was General Robert E. Lee who said, ‘It is well that War is so terrible–otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” I come from a family that has borne arms professionally for 700 years, all the way back to the days of armour & swords–and ending with F-14 US fighter planes, machine guns, & B-52 bombers.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for this very appropriate quote, Alphonse-Louis. Sounds like your family truly knows the meaning of it.

  • luciano tanto says:

    …a very normal, decent, useful and pretty “human” job.

  • Karen says:

    Outstanding article on a subject that is rarely given prominence. It has crossed my mind on many occasions when watching battlefield scenes in films and on tv – who cleans up the mess afterwards? This has inspired me to do some further reading now.

  • Lane says:

    Very sharp looking site, impressed and relate with the ‘about’ info. Looking forward to reading your Nap in America book as well.

  • Mary says:

    Love this site!

  • Chris Maine says:

    If one were to watch the movie “Colonel Chabert” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8kU6FhOBBY there’s a great little scene after the battle that shows all of the nuances of battlefield cleanup. In “Waterloo” there’s an after battle scene as well where the soldiers are shooting at the civilian looters in order to scare them off from the scene.

    I saw this recently as well and thought it might be of interest also? http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/orchard-clue-to-lost-legion-of-waterloo-dead-mvrcpd29f

  • Josh says:

    A much needed post on a question everyone was too afraid to ask.

  • Joe McCarthy says:

    This was fascinating. It is a good thing to see this aspect of battle dealt with. It makes the history more real and more immediate. Life is never a sanitized Hollywood movie.

  • Ian says:

    The scene of the most serious fighting at Waterloo was significantly changed by the creation of the Lion mound. Subsequent farming techniques may have further changed the contours significantly removing buried remains as a consequence. Can you recommend any sources of paintings/sketches that give a good sense of the field as it appeared at the time – that can be compared with the field today?

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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.

Jean-Roche Coignet