Sometimes you hear a story which seems so wild that it cannot possibly be true. Were the bones of dead British soldiers really dug up from the battlefields of Waterloo, crushed and used as fertiliser in Yorkshire? Did farmers really use the bones of their own compatriots to grow crops?
Modern Brits do not think very much about the Battle of Waterloo — but maybe we should as 2015 is the 200th anniversary. In the single day of the battle there were 60,000 casualties. Some believe that the total number of dead from the Napoleonic Wars numbered more than 6 million.
This much I established from wikipedia, I know as little about it as everyone else. But one thing stuck in my mind about Waterloo.
A quote from a hardened war correspondent.
After Waterloo, the bones of the dead — Wellington’s Britons and Napoleon’s French and Blücher’s Prussians — were freighted back to Hull to use as fertiliser for England’s green and pleasant land, military mulch from the 1815 battlefields which also yielded fresh teeth to be reused as dentures for the living.
Robert Fisk in The Independent, 3 August 2014
Can this wild-sounding claim really be true?
The first thing I did was to track down some scholarly views on 19 century attitudes to the Battle of Waterloo. Naively, I was assuming that there would have been a sense of gloom at the loss of life, but it appears that this was not the case. In fact Waterloo prompted the development of a whole new form of business: tourism. Astonishingly, there are accounts of British tourists actually going to the battle to witness it in real time like spectators at a sports game. In the next few years organised tours from new companies like Thomas Cook took wealthy tourists to experience the continent’s glories and to visit the site of the British victory.
Dr Stuart Semmel, a historian at Yale University wrote a fascinating article about the behaviours of tourists visiting the Waterloo battle site. In it, Dr Semmel quotes contemporary accounts of visits by the rich and famous of the time, of poets and painters using it as the background for their work and of tourists with little moral compunction about taking souvenirs. Even, it seems, human bones. Apparently it was fairly normal to have body parts, or even the head of a named soldier, on display in fashionable society.
This all seemed to give some credence to at least part of the story: namely that 19 century society was less concerned about the fate of human bodies than 20 century society.
The article also refers to “Waterloo teeth” (said to be pulled from the dead to use in dentures) and I soon found out that many museums in Europe have sets. Dental history books even point to catalogues from manufacturers of dentures which include human teeth.
How many teeth actually came from the Waterloo battlefield is hard to say, although the timing of a glut on human teeth on the market in the mid 19 century certainly seems to point towards raiding of the battle dead. Some say that many of the teeth may have also come from the dead of the American Civil War.
OK, so it looks like teeth were taken from battlefields and used in dentures.
What about bone? Wouldn’t this require a trade on an industrial scale to produce enough bone to be useful on agricultural fields?
To try to answer this, I delved back into the contemporary newspapers and periodicals.
One of the earliest articles I can find talking about the importing of battlefield bones is from the London Spectator of 7 November 1829.
Traffic in Human Bones— A ship from Hamburg arrived at Lossiemouth last week, laden with bones, the property of an agriculturalist of Morayshire, and intended for manure. The master of the vessel states that the bones were collected from the plains and marches of Leipsic (sic), and are part of the remains of the thousands who fell in the battles fought betwixt France and the Allies in October 1813
Other reports assert that traders, particularly from Britain, were rapidly vaccuming up all the available bone in continental Europe:
A sidenote: A quintal was another name for 100 lb, so this report is talking about a shipment of 200 imperial tons of bone. According to the Nautical Register of 1822, more than a million bushels were imported. A bushel is an imperial measurement of volume — a significant number of individual ship loads.
According to other sources, the British had form for this kind of behaviour. The London Quarterly of 1819 reports that “many tons of human bone are sent every year to the North” from the large London graveyards and that “bones of all descriptions are imported, and pieces of half-decayed coffin attire are found among them.”
The Farmer’s Cabinet, which seemed to have been an American periodical, had this extraordinary contribution (pdf) sent in by a reader in 1838, apparently from Britain. It is an imagined conversation between a farmer and his son.
I have sometimes thought that the “Life and Adventures of a Bone” might be worked up into a very interesting book for children.
It is hard to imagine a situation where a kindly farmer sits down with his son and describes how an unfortunate agricultural accident might lead to his death, but in turn might lead to better crops.
But then, looking at the reports throughout the next 80 years, this this a recurring theme.
The Observer of 1874 reported on the import of bones from Egypt. “It certainly seems hard on the great and might of past ages that their remains to be utilised for commercial purposes,” the Observer reporter said “but business is business.”
A reader’s letter to The Times of London in 1870 claimed to have been an eyewitness to having met an English trader in Egypt buying bone for export.
Bell’s Weekly Messenger in 1890 ran a long column surveying the trade. It claims that “vast quantities” of bone had been imported to the port of Hull from the battlefields of Europe and the ancient tombs of Egypt, and that one shipment had been known to be carrying 30 tons of bone — representing the skeletons of “no fewer than 30,000" men. The Times of London of 1881 seems to be reporting on the same shipment, stating that it was the Austrian brig Malovie and that the bones had been collected in Bulgaria. “Among the bones,” the report claims, “were portions of artillery horse-gear, Oriental tobacco-pipes, metal spoons etc.”
Cassell’s Saturday Journal of 1896 ranted that England was the world’s “greatest trafficker in human bones.” It claimed that “England has also rifled Continental charnel-houses, the mummy-pits of Egypt, and in fact almost every accessible place which would yield bones, particularly human bones. Even cats, whole or in fragments are not objected to, as is proved by an incident which everyone will recall — the arrival at Liverpool, two years ago, of nineteen and a half tons of embalmed pussies.” The piece concludes:
“..and the reason that human bones are in such demand seems to be that they are richer in mineral constituents than the ordinary ones of commerce. If this is not consoling to us poor mortals, it ought to be.”
There even seems to be evidence of a transatlantic bone industry, with bones being sent to and from North and South America.
Andrew Isenberg describes in a graphic chapter of the book “Animals in Human History” how the massive demand for hides in the second half of the 19 century tamed the wild-lands and bought the railroad, which enabled the hunters to send the skins east. At the Hunt’s peak, more than a million bison were being slaughtered each year, but by 1883 they were “hunted out” and all that were left were bones strewn across the landscape.
But this sparked a resurgent bone manure industry, and soon thousands of tons of bones were being collected and crushed into ash. The Chicago Carbon Works alone produced more than 5,000 tonnes of the bone ash per year by the mid 1880s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the scale of this industry, there are also references in the American media to the use of human bone in fertiliser.
The Pittsburgh Gazette of 1868 claimed that human bones from Civil War battlefields at Tennessee were being imported. And… this:
Can these reports, spread across a period of more than 80 years and in media in different countries really have been repeating a myth? They appear to be describing a huge demand for bones which was leading English merchants to seek out bone and import it for crushing. The earliest reports are within a few years of the Napoleonic so it might be imagined that readers would know if the things being described were untrue. Also some of the reports are several generations apart, so it seems unlikely that they are just reporting a widely known myth.
On the other hand, archaeologists who study the battlefields of the period told me they could not be sure whether there had been such widespread grave-robbing as the grave sites are often hard to find. Clearly the quantities involved in the trade were greater than could be supplied even by one very large battle, and so was likely to include bones from the great abattoirs of Paris — as one Waterloo tourist guide suggested to me.
But I don’t think this necessarily excludes the idea that human bones were regularly dug up from battlefields to be used on agricultural fields.
For that, I thought I would look to the agricultural pamphlets to see if they made any reference to the use of human bone. I found Justus Von Liebig.
Great Britain deprives all countries of the conditions of their fertility. It has raked up the battle-fields of Leipsic (sic), Waterloo and the Crimea; it has consumed the bones of many generations accumulated in the catacombs of Sicily; and now annually destroys the food for a future generation of three million and a half people. Like a vampire it hangs on the breast of Europe, and even the world, sucking its lifeblood without any real necessity or permanent gain for itself.
Justus Von Liebig, 1863 — quoted in Farmer and Gardener
Von Liebig was an interesting guy. As a celebrated Chemist, he sought to reduce the hunger of people he saw around him using the principles of chemistry to improve crop growth. He was one of the first to suggest that there was such a thing as “Agricultural Chemistry” and that crop growth was improved by the addition of substances because of chemicals they contain. In 1840 and 1842 he published pamphlets describing the use of (as we might describe them today) agricultural fertilisers and in 1843 after a trip to England he identified the problem as being soils short in “phosphate of lime” — or as we would call it today, phosphate.
Of course, in a sense he was just describing something that the farmers had already identified. Bones are high in phosphate.
Some authors today claim that Von Liebig’s quote about Britain’s collection of Waterloo bone was simple unproven hyperbole, brought on by a sense of German nationalism and envy about British agricultural improvement. But that idea does not seem to me to be credible, given that the problems Von Liebig identified in British agriculture were due to a lack of agricultural improvement in the period.
Support for the use of human bone in British agriculture comes from another source — Sir John Sinclair. His book, The Code of Agriculture published several editions throughout the early 19 century, and the fifth edition of 1832 has a section on the benefits of using bone as manure. One table gives a chemical analysis of human bone and a footnote says that “the importation of bone should be encouraged by a public bounty, and some allowance given to captains of vessels who bring bones as ballast in their ships.”
Von Liebig himself was only a child in 1815, having only been born in 1803 so may not have had first hand experience of the war, however the newspaper articles and the writings of Sir John Sinclair show that human bone was well-known to be in use before the influential writings of Von Liebig. It is not possible to be absolutely sure that Von Liebig was correct about the use of human bone from the Napoleonic battles, but there appears to be strong evidence to indicate it.
The overwhelming impression from the newspaper articles and agricultural pamphlets was that it was humdrum and unremarkable. Whilst Von Liebig criticised the English attitude to the use of bone, it seems mostly to have been on the basis that it was unfair of them to leave future continental farmers without the resources that they needed.
Popular Science of 1874 has another window into views about the dead, a reprinted article called “Disposal of the Dead” by Sir Henry Thompson, Professor of Clinical Surgery at University College, London.
“London was computed, by the census of 1871, to contain 3,254,260 persons, of whom 80,430 died within the year. I have come to the conclusion, after a very carefully-made estimate, that the amount of ashes and bone-earth — such as is derived by perfect combustion — belonging to and buried with those persons, is by weight about 206,820 pounds. The pecuniary value of this highly-concentrated form of animal solids is very considerable. For this bone-earth may be regarded as equivalent to at least six or seven times its weight of dried but unburned bones, as they ordinarily exist in commerce.”
Sir Henry Thompson appears to be arguing here for the cremation of human bodies, on the basis of their economic value.
Thompson also adds:
“Value of bones imported into the United Kingdom, of which by far the larger part is employed for manure, has been in 1866, £409,590; 1869, £600,029; 1872, £753,185.”
So to sum up, there is evidence from newspapers throughout more than 80 years that a) there was an international bone import trade b) that bones from battle fields were being dug up. Cultural attitudes to the dead suggested in agricultural and scientific journals seem to support this.
I think it is quite likely that bones really were dug up from battlefields, imported to England and used in agriculture, along with any other bones which could be obtained anywhere else. The demand was very high, and only displaced in the late part of the period by imports of another phosphate source — guano. Bird poo mined in Peru and the Caribbean.
As a final footnote, I found an interesting series of letters to the Editor of the Cairn’s Post (in Australia) of 1917. In them, a reader reported that he used to work in a bone manure plant and that with the “unlimited supply” of bodies on the battlefields, they should be dissolved in acid and sold to farmers.
“There is a sentimental side to the question,” RW Holloway wrote, “and surely it will be comforting for combatants to know that they have not died in vain, and that their bodies after death will still do good by helping to grow food for the living also .. it should be a pleasant idea that their remains will help make explosives and assist in carrying on the war.”
Holloway got a rough ride from other readers, perhaps showing that the public attitude to the reuse of human bones had been changed by the carnage of the First World War.
Thanks for reading!
© J Turner, March 2015