Year 1807, at the end of the bloody battle of Eylau: the French soldier Jean Baptiste de Marbot wakes up, after several hours unconscious, covered in blood and on a cart, surrounded by corpses. He is completely naked and only keeps his hat because all his clothes and belongings have been taken away because he was considered dead. That unpleasant experience was narrated by him in a story.

It is one of those questions that history books do not usually explain because they usually stop their narrative with the victory or defeat of armies and the subsequent political consequences. But, in the meantime, the European battlefields were littered with dead people, both men and horses, not to mention the enormous quantities of material. And it is estimated that between 1803 and 1815 the Napoleonic wars took the lives of between 3.5 and 6 million people, some by warlike actions (500,000 to 2 million) and the rest by related diseases. What happened to all these bodies? Who was in charge of cleaning up those Dantesque scenarios?

In a curious imitation of Nature, in which the scavengers are relieved by order of arrival or by force to then give way to worms and bacteria, there were several successive actions that gradually cleared the terrain (of course, we will ignore the work of archaeologists). The first were the winning soldiers themselves, who collected weapons and equipment from the enemy, as well as footwear, part of the clothes and personal valuables (watches, liquor cases, medals, cigarette cases …) to compensate their meager wages. In the next wave their women would join in and then, if the collision had been nearby, even the neighbours of the surrounding localities would arrive to see what they could find.

Later the looters appeared, human scavengers, who were no longer going to find material and focused on the body itself: equipped with pliers they worked to pull out the teeth of the fallen ones. Not only the gold ones, whose price could only afford the commanders, but the normal dental pieces, highly appreciated to make dentures. It is known that after the battle of Waterloo the market of dentures lived a buoyant moment, since the number of victims provided material in abundance and in addition of great quality, given the youth of the soldiers who died there; something that was specified in the announcements, to the point that the prosthesis of that time received the name of Teeth of Waterloo as synonym of guarantee of perfect state.

After this community dispossession, it was normal for the winner to designate a contingent to proceed with the burial of the corpses – often in a mass grave or with a few shovels of earth shallowly covering the pile – or their burning – to prevent epidemics. It depended, in part, on how fast one was in a hurry, for perhaps the campaign required resuming the march without stopping any longer. In that case, it was up to nature to deal with the matter: vultures, crows, wolves, foxes… All the carnivores had a feast at their disposal.

Napoleon’s retreat (Adolph Northern)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In any case, it was something that took time, depending on climatic factors, the magnitude of the casualties and the predisposition of both soldiers and local people. On March 2, 1807, three and a half weeks after Napoleon’s bitter and difficult victory in Eylau, issue 64 of the Bulletin of the Grande Armée left a shocking vision: It takes a great deal of work to bury all the dead… Imagine in the space of a hooded league nine or ten thousand corpses; four or five thousand dead horses; entire lines of Russian backpacks; broken pieces of rifles and sabers; the ground covered with cannonballs, howitzers and ammunition; twenty-four artillery pieces, near which lay the bodies of their servants, fallen in the attempt to take them away in their retreat. All this was most remarkable in a snow-covered terrain.

The French general Philippe de Ségur also gave a striking description of the Borodino battlefield, in 1812, when he passed through it again two months later during the withdrawal of the Napoleonic troops: All the surroundings were covered with fragments of helmets and breastplates, broken drums, groups of cannons, shreds of uniforms and blood-tinged banners. In this desolate place lie thirty thousand half-eaten corpses next to a pile of skeletons that crowned one of the hills and oversized the whole. It seems as if Death had placed its throne here.

Napoleon had ordered the 8th Corps of Westphalia to bury the dead and transport the wounded while the rest of the army was on its way to Moscow, but one thing was theory and another was practice; military health at the time was rudimentary and based on amputation to prevent gangrene, plus there was no way to find enough chariots for those who could not walk. Extreme measures had to be taken, therefore, and the seriously wounded had to be killed at their request; others died slowly and were later found biting the flesh of the bodies of their horses. The inhabitants of the Russian villages did not have a better time and burned churches were found with hundreds of charred dead inside; others were luckier and were forcibly recruited to carry the wounded. Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne completed the terrible vision by telling us that in Borodino there were arms, legs and bodies scattered everywhere, that they had buried their own (not the Russians) but the rush forced them to dig shallow pits and the torrential rain had removed the earth and brought the debris to the surface.

In Waterloo, local peasants were hired to clean up the battlefield: fifty workers with handkerchiefs covering their faces (through the stench) under the supervision of medical personnel. The dead allies were buried and the French burned. The pyres were burning for more than a week, the last days fed only by human fat. Even so, the bones of the fighters could still be seen a year later, so a company was commissioned to collect them; the bones were intended to be ground for use as fertilizer (apparently of high quality), something that spread to other war scenarios: a British newspaper estimated in 1822 that the previous year a million tons of human and equine bones had been imported from those places, entering through the port of Hull and being sent to the Yorkshire steam crushers; from there they were sent to Doncaster, where the main national agricultural market was, to sell to the peasants. The article posed the paradox that casualties on the front would also be useful.

One last cleaning agent is the memory hunter. After Napoleon’s final defeat, it became fashionable among many well-off Britons to travel to Waterloo, Paris and other sites related to the Emperor, in a precedent of organized tourism. Wandering the battlefields in search of objects -regardless of the smell of death and burnt flesh that still floated in the air- was a real hobby: hats, letters, various ammunition, books, shells (better if pierced by projectiles), helmets, buttons, sometimes even some forgotten bone. Soon the demand for relics was greater than the supply, and so a new business was born, that of collecting. It’s no wonder that recently, in 2012, the big news on the subject was not so much the discovery of the remains of a soldier in that battle as the unusual fact that he had all his equipment with him; someone missed it.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 13, 2016. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo se limpiaban los campos de batalla de las guerras napoleónicas


Shannon Selin / Adrien Bourgogne, Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne, 1812-1813 / Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.