The heroic dash of the Royal Waggon Train through enemy fire to supply troops at Waterloo is a British military legend.
Part of a clash that ended the Napoleonic age, soldiers with a horse and carriage packed with ammunition are thought to have charged along a “hollow way”, a ground-level track leading to Hougoumont Farm, a key defensive position for British troops.
But an archeology project involving veterans has now found it was actually about six feet lower for much of the route, covered from French fire, and not as death-defying as previously thought.
The veterans have combined working on a new diorama of the battle with archaeological work at the site in Belgium.
Mark Evans, the chief executive of Waterloo Uncovered, a wider project incorporating the diorama, said: “Now we know [the hollow way] is six feet deep it changes the understanding of the battle. It suddenly makes the hollow way a significant defensive feature.
“Sadly for the [Royal] Waggon Train it means their eleventh-hour dash with the ammunition resupply was about 99 per cent under cover from fire. It’s not quite the story that has evolved.”
Eventually, the Waterloo Remodelled diorama, worked on by 85 veterans over two years, will be the size of a tennis court. Sections of the piece will go on public display for the first time on Oct 20 at the National Army Museum.
Mr Evans said producing the diorama “is sociable…there’s a purpose”.
“For soldiers and veterans who, for whatever reason, have developed anxieties which may be holding them back, doing things like this that are very clear is a really important and satisfying thing to be involved with.
“Projects like this can be so good for mental health. It’s about being positive and getting involved, it’s not about saying ‘woe is me’.”
The idea for Waterloo Uncovered came from a battlefield visit in 2015 by the Coldstream Guards to take injured serving soldiers to Waterloo for archeological work as a welfare support activity.
Ten soldiers and an equal number of archaeologists spent a week researching the site in Belgium. Many of the troops said they felt a “positive uplift” as a result of the trip.
The regiment ran a further five two-week summer excavations, with around 150 people, before Covid paused activity. Work will recommence in 2022 when British veterans will be joined by groups from France and Belgium.
Mr Evans served seven years in the Coldstream Guards, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was medically discharged in 2010 and diagnosed with PTSD.
He said the diorama informed the archaeology as a way of better understanding the environment at the time of the battle.
During the visit in 2019, Mr Evans said a corporal in the Rifles found an old musket ball and burst into tears. He explained how he had thought about the defence of Hougoumont Farm and his brother Rifleman who would have been at Waterloo and what that meant.
“He then had a moment and thought about his own time in Afghanistan, his friends who had been shot and the people he had shot and how that had affected him.
“He felt better for it. It does allow you to have these conversations in a way that isn’t quite so confrontational as talking therapy.”
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