File No.: Case File # 20
Title: "The dead soldiers in the Waterloo well"
Subject: Post 1815 Waterloo battle tale having it that 300 French casualties had been thrown into a water well
on the Hougoumont Farm located in the center of the battlefield.

Investigation made at: Hougoumont Farm, Chemin du Goumont 1, 1420 Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium
GPS Location: 50°40'15.1"N 4°23'40.8"E
Period Covered: 18JUN1815
Case Classification: Battlefield myth
Status of Case: Solved


In his book "Les Misérables" written in 1862, Belgian author Victor Hugo described that after the Battle of Waterloo on 18JUN1815 the bodies of three hundred French soldiers had been thrown down a well in Hougoumont, as a quick burial to protect the survivors from an outbreak of diseases. This is the story:
"This well was deep, and it was turned into a sepulcher. Three hundred dead bodies were cast into it. With too much haste perhaps. Were they all dead? Legend says they were not.
It seems that on the night succeeding the interment, feeble voices were heard calling from the well.
Although Les Misérables is known to contain a number of historical inaccuracies, the tale of 300 French soldiers in the Hougoumont Farm became a legend. In early 20th century postcards tourists are reminded of the "puits aux cadavres" and that bodies were thrown in the well because the fire of the farm hadn’t consumed all the dead.

Several contemporary publications state that this story is a myth.
This agency looked into it.

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Monument in honor of Belgian author Victor Hugo on the Waterloo battlefield

In recent publications, the myth of 300 corpses thrown into the Hougoumont well is usually considered untrue for three reasons:
1) No human remains were found in the well when it was dug out in the 1980's.
2) It is unlikely that 19th century contemporaries would dispose of cadavers (either animal or human) in a potable water source; rendering it poisonous.
3) The volume of the Hougoumont water well would not be sufficient to accommodate the mortal remains of 300 French soldiers.

We didn’t find grounds to contest the first two reasons for the unlikelihood of the myth which Victor Hugo created,
but we will describe them here. We did however investigate the claim that 300 soldiers would never fit in the well.

1) No human remains in the well
On page 118 of author Gareth Glover's 2014 book "Waterloo. Myth and Reality" (Pen and Sword,
ISBN 978-1-78159-356-1) we read:
"The draw well at Hougoumont
Victor Hugo, in his epic description of the battle, promoted the French claim that numbers of dead and wounded Frenchmen were heartlessly thrown into the deep well of Hougoumont to save burying them: '
300 bodies were thrown down the well … the faint cries of those not yet dead haunting the memory …'
However in 1985 Derek Saunders rediscovered and excavated the draw well -
and discovered a few animal bones but not a single human bone.
Another Victor Hugo myth debunked!
2) Improbability of corpses deliberately thrown in a drinking water source
In "Waterloo Busting the Myths: History essay, Untold Stories" (Jourdan Publishing, 2015, ISBN 2390090907, 9782390090908) historian Yves Vander Cruysen wrote:

"Captain Mercer himself said that his men discovered, on the day after the battle, a good well of uncontaminated water at Hougoumont and they filled their canteens there. He also went in person to the scene to gather enough
for the needy. The most compelling evidence was supplied by the archaeologist Derek P. Saunders.
Performing deep underground excavations in and around the well, in 1980 and 1982, also having completely emptied the well, he concluded that it did not contain the slightest sing of human remains.

This is the description of Station 6 “Well” within the precinct walls, booklet of the Hougoumont Project,
Tempora™ (as issued to this agency in the Hougoumont farm on January 30th 2016):
"The Hougoumont well has become legendary.
In his novel, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wrote that the bodies of French prisoners were thrown into the well:

Considering that the well was the only source of water for Hougoumont, it is unthinkable
that it would be used as a burial pit.
Somehow, the well and the wooden dovecote that surrounded it survived the battle, but by the time the first photographs of Hougoumont were taken only the stone base remained and, perhaps because of the grim
reputation accorded it by Hugo, by the end of the 19th century the entire structure had gone.
In 1985 the shaft was excavated by Derek Saunders who found nothing but a few sheeps’' ones.
Today, the well head is flush with the ground and the shaft protected by a grating.

Today the farm has been restored and a sign at an exhibit, shown as the original wheel of the Hougoumont farm
well, also says that it is unthinkable that this water source would be used as a burial pit.
3) Well not large enough to hold 300 dead men
In an article titled "Excavations at Hougoumont, The well or Les Puits des Morts" published in The Journal of the Waterloo Committee, Volume 5, No. 2, September 1983 it is reasoned:

"[...] Given a well with a depth of some 60 feet, 300 bodies would produce not only a filled and packed well but a swaying column of bodies extending some 77 feet above the ground. To be fair one can only assume that Victor
Hugo was only repeating a story told to him by the peasants who lived at Hougoumont in 1861, some of whom
claimed to have been nearby on the 18th June 1815.
It does not take much imagination to realise that the disposal of 300 bodies down a well at Hougoumont is a most unlikely and impracticable method of disposal.
There are numerous accounts and contemporary prints illustrating the common sense attitude,
which was to strip the body of all that may be sold or of use,
then dig a shallow grave immediately alongside and when finished tip the body in and cover.
Why move or carry the body any distance?
Apart from those wounded outside and brought in, there would have been very few dead inside the farm,
the great majority were attackers who fell outside the wall, it is on record that most of these were
heaped up together with brushwood from the badly damaged adjacent wood and cremated.
These notes are being written at the end of May 1983 whilst preparations are under way for the dig to commence
in June.

Dimensions of the Hougoumont well in 1983
In the same Journal of the Waterloo Committee, Derek P. Saunders (whose initials are DPS) then Chairman of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee, reports on his excavation work at Hougoumont from
11JUN1983 to 21JUN1983:
"[...] DPS then climbed down to fix the ladders – with an overlap to enable one to step comfortably from one
ladder to another on the way to the bottom – found that all our ladders together did not reach!
Had to untie and then re-fix, by the way an extra ladder was expected to arrive from Germany.
No water at the bottom of the well but whole area very wet and slippery from the months of rain preceeding our arrival. 52’-0” to the bottom of the well.

Sunday 12th June – Very hot at the top of the well and cold and dark at the bottom. – diameter of well now 5’-0” .
Monday 13th June. -
Gordon digging uncovered water at the same depth as 1982 – level remaining all day as we gradually removed the fill – eventually working from an ever decreasing island, with 10” of water in the remainder of the well.
Friday 17th June.
[...] met the leader of a party of ‘French cavalry’ who upon learning of our activity advised us that there was no water in the well. "only rainwater".
Saturday 18th June 83
Perhaps I should pause here & endeavour to give an impression of the conditions at the bottom of the well. Imagine, you are over 50 feet below the ground, standing in a stone chamber about 5 ft in diameter,
narrowing off to 4 ft diameter just above head level.

We are nearly down to the 1815 level now and one becomes conscious of a strong feeling for the history of
the well that you are standing in – originally excavated in 1380, several centuries have passed by,

Once again, I must say ‘incredibly’' it is still possible to work at the bottom of the well without the aid of artificial light. To continue (no it is not over yet) having at last got this stone on its end into the bucket & secured it to the handle with a piece of string – you shout "take it away – slowly" the distance from the pulley to the bottom is now over 60 feet and the pendulum effect is quite pronouncing."

Current dimensions of the Hougoumont well

Saunders report described the well as 60 feet deep and 4 to 5 feet in diameter in 1983.
The establishment that there were no human remains in the well 170 years after the battle and that it is a bad
form to drop corpses into a used water supply, still does not prove it didn't happen.
Therefore this agency obtained permission from the owners of the Hougoumont Farm to measure the depth and diameter of the well.

(click to enlarge)

Measuring the depth and the diameter through the bars protecting the well shaft

On Friday 15FEB2019 we visited Hougoumont and lowered a measuring tape with a strong flashlight
attached to it, down the well. The weather was clear with bright sunlight and we were able to see the bottom
of the well in the light of the flashlight and also with the use of a light sensitive camera.

Deeper and deeper into the well

 We discovered that the bottom of the well was dry with only tree leaves, some wooden sticks and a tennis ball there.

We also used an endoscope camera to film the descent into the well:

Now & Then comparisons of the well in early 20th century picture postcards

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Postcards attracting battlefield tourists, capitalizing on the cadaver well myth

For this publication we use the continental European metric system for measuring and calculation.
We found that the well is 15 meters and 70 centimeters deep and that the diameter at ground level is 1 meter
and 31 centimeters, measured towards the south gate and 1 meter and 36 centimeter measured towards the
formal gardens (average of 1 meter 33 1/2 centimeters).

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Depth (measured twice for certainty) and diameter in two directions

Volume of the Hougoumont well
The formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder is π (pi or 3,1416) x (radius or half of the diameter)² x height.
The Hougoumont well has a volume of 3,1416 x 66.8² x 1570 = 22(,009149)m³.

Math of the Myth: Volume of 300 human bodies
Humans stacked in a cylindrical shape are best visualized through the 1930’s monolith sculpture by the Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland (11APR1869 - 12MAR1943) in the museum park in Oslo named after him:

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© Vigeland-museet / BONO 2016

On the highest point of the park, on the Monolith Plateau, rise circular stairs towards the sculpture.
The figural part, with 121 human figures, male and female, is 14.12 meters tall and the total height, including the plinth, is 17.3 meters.

To establish if 300 French military aged (average of 22 years old) men in the early 19th century would fit in the cylindrical shaft of the Hougoumont well we first discovered that their average height would have been 164,1 centimeters as published in Steckel, Richard H. and Roderick Floud (Eds.)
Health and Welfare during Industrialization; University of Chicago, 1997 ISBN 0-226-77156-3.
At 164 centimeters one 22 year old soldier would weigh 61,025 kilograms based on the average of the Robinson, Miller, Devine and Hamwi (ideal body weight) formulas 300 men would then weigh 18.307,5 kilograms.
Various sources put the average density of a human body at 1.01 gram per cubic centimeters or
1 010 kilogram per cubic meter (m³)
which means that 300 men (18.307,5 / 1.01) had a net volume of
18(,126237) m³

The net volume of 300 French Napoleonic soldiers is less than the space inside the Hougoumont water well.
But human bodies are not liquid.
Human body volume is only useful for calculating the amount of water it displaces when submerged.
Because of their form, human bodies inevitably have pockets of air between parts or between other bodies
inside a given room such as a mass grave.
Both body volume and air in pockets will increase if uniforms and military equipment were left with the dead soldiers.
Also the soldiers were allegedly thrown into the well rather than being neatly stacked in it from the bottom up to ground level.


Animations of what human bodies thrown in a well would look like.
Left: showing space between bodies; Right: bodies compressed due to gravity and decomposition.
From: History Cold Case "The bodies in the well "(2011)

There would have been considerably more air in between each body than the difference in volumes of the total of
men and the interior of the well.
It is therefore impossible to dispose of 300 recently deceased soldiers inside the Hougoumont well.
Alternative mass grave for French soldiers killed in action
The area outside the south gate of Hougoumont, currently a car park, has long been associated with a mass grave thanks to the post-battle illustrations by British artists Denis Dighton and Rowse. In the 1820’s they painted scenes
of a mass burial and a mass burning in front of the south gate:

Mass burial scene by Denis Dighton (left) and mass burning scene by Rowse (right)

In 2016 the local heritage authority at Waterloo was asked by the owner of Hougoumont to excavate the car park
to ascertain whether the burials existed as depicted. The Waterloo Uncovered Project was asked to aid in the excavations. Seven trenches were excavated in this area, and no evidence of any mass graves were discovered. Instead it seemed to have been used a 20th century dumping ground by the local farmers, with no evidence of skeletal material at all; beyond the possible toe bone of a cow.


(click to enlarge)
If only the trees in the kill zone outside the south gate could talk....

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