Who Cleaned Up the Carnage After Napoleon’s Battles?

T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Picture this: you’re at home, minding your own business, when two enormous armies roll into town and start hacking and shooting each other to pieces. When the smoke clears, the battlefield by your house is strewn with the mangled bodies of people you’ve never met. To you, this probably sounds like a nightmare. But to the people who lived near the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, it was an opportunity.

A brief history refresher: At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte pretty much declared war on everyone. For 12 years, the self-styled emperor and his army slashed their way across Europe, battling forces from more than 20 different countries. By the time of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, his invasions and the resulting battles had claimed somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million lives. Of those casualties, at least 2.5 million were soldiers. That’s a lot of bodies. 

It’s also a lot of boots, and a lot of guns, and a lot of jackets. Staring down the barrel of wartime scarcity, soldiers and civilians alike wasted no time in stripping the battlefield’s bodies completely bare. Whose side the late soldiers had taken was no longer of any concern; sturdy shoes were sturdy shoes, and it would have been a waste to just leave them lying around. Many of these items were later sold or kept as souvenirs, explains historian Shannon Selin on her blog, but just as many likely wound up on the feet of local farmers and the backs of their children. Necessary for survival or not, the looters’ work resulted in bizarre and gruesome landscapes blanketed in hundreds of dead, naked bodies. 

The plundering didn’t end there. These were the days before minty toothpaste and fluoridated water, which meant a lot of missing teeth, which meant a lot of people wearing dentures. Dentists (such as they were) could and did make false teeth from porcelain, ivory, and other animal products, but human teeth were by far the most popular for their apparent comfort and realistic appearance. Consequently, healthy human teeth were both in high demand and low supply in most places. On the battlefield, however, a determined scavenger could pick them from the mouths of the deceased like fruit from a tree.

A set of "Waterloo Teeth". Image Credit: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

To their credit, the survivors frequently made attempts to bury or burn their dead, but the numbers were overwhelming. Many bodies were left to the mercy of the elements and nonhuman scavengers like vultures and wolves.

But even in their decay, the fallen still had more to give to those willing to take. Long after the violence had ended, enterprising companies sent workers to the battlegrounds to collect any remaining bones. Those bones were then ground down and sold as fertilizer.

Napoleon may have had grand and romantic ideas about his conquest, but the consequences to ordinary people were anything but.

[h/t Shannon Selin]

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