War /

It’s not an obvious destination for those seeking closure from combat. Waterloo’s rolling hills and patchwork fields have known carnage on a continental scale, playing host to a battle that altered history. But on the hallowed ground of Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat, modern-day veterans are finding solace. Together with a team of historians and archaeologists, ex-military personnel from the United Kingdom are excavating the battlefield – and in doing so, helping heal their own wounds of war.  

This summer has seen dozens of ex-troops participate in Waterloo Uncovered, a rehabilitation scheme devised by two British soldiers – Mark Evans and Charlie Foinette – after their tour of Afghanistan. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Evans turned to the duo’s shared passion: archaeology. The sedate pace of excavation, the attention to detail it demands and the reward of unearthing an artefact aided his recovery, and he resolved to involve other suffering veterans in the activity. 

One enthusiastic member of the project, Ben Mead, was aboard a helicopter shot down in Afghanistan in 2012. He sustained a catalogue of injuries – but it was PTSD that plagued him the longest. “Over time the guilt really does build up, and it breaks you as a person,” he recounts. His road to recovery was slow – akin to learning to walk again, he says – but the Waterloo dig has played an important role. 

“The buzz I get from being in a trench and finding something, it gives you an adrenaline boost. Something that’s been shot 200 years ago, that’s not seen daylight since, it’s like you’re the first person in human history in 200 years to find it. It gives you an uplift.”

With surprisingly little of Waterloo excavated over the years, the battlefield promises to yield evermore archaeological bounty to the veterans. Being on the front-line of historical discovery instils a sense of purpose in participants’ work, organisers say, helping cast out the mental negativity that dogs many of them. The team-driven nature of the excavation resonates with the ex-soldiers also, and has proven an effective remedy to the psychological isolation of PTSD.

“Seeing people from different backgrounds does actually help people come together and improve on their own,” says Matt Weston, who lost his legs and right hand in an explosion in Afghanistan. “It was quite apparent really even from the first day that people started to come out of their shell a bit and bond. You’d see people jumping between each different group and start socialising, which is a really important thing to do, especially when you’ve got mental conditions”.

Marshalling the group’s team spirit, organisers have focused their attention on Mont St Jean – a previously unexcavated field hospital used by British commander Lord Wellington. Thousands of wounded soldiers passed through the site during the battle, receiving primitive first aid under the most brutal conditions. The modern-day veterans have unearthed remains of amputated limbs, almost certainly removed without anaesthesia. There’s also evidence that the hospital itself came under attack, curtailing the wounded troops’ respite and forcing them to flee. “Mont St Jean became a place of suffering and endurance,” says Professor Tony Pollard, Waterloo Uncovered’s lead archaeologist.

The misery endured by the 19th century troops strikes a chord with their modern-day counterparts, who know all too well the horrors of war. The equipment, the tactics and the opposing sides have changed – but the soldier’s experience remains the same, notes Ben Mead. The dig has given him the opportunity to better understand warfare through the ages, and appreciate the fact that “the only thing that changes is technology, not the human”.

This focus on the past is inherent to all archaeology, but nurturing a forward-looking feeling is fundamental to the project, organisers say. For those stuck in a mental health rut, the importance of discovering new interests and developing skills can’t be overstated. Paula Rogers, an air force veteran injured in 2004, describes her immersion in amateur archaeology as “like learning a new trade”.    

“I find it really rewarding… learning how to do the plans, how to do the sketches, how to measure the levels between the different layers of the soil and the cuts,” she says. “I’m that interested in it that I’ve actually signed up with [a] university”.

The fact that a study of the past can furnish fresh opportunities for the future is tremendous – especially when it’s for the good of those suffering in the present. Building the confidence and prospects of its participants is as important to Waterloo Uncovered as its world-class archaeology. Having cracked the formula of combining the two, it’s little wonder the scheme is proving so successful. Founding member Mark Evans says it has “grown arms and legs”, and is scheduled to run until at least 2020. For the sake of those carrying the wounds of war, long may it continue.