Soil fertiliser

Is it true that the pulverised bones of soldiers and horses who died at the battle of Waterloo were later sold on as soil fertiliser?
Illustration by Glen McBeth

By the early 19th century it was widely realised that bones, rich in calcium, were a valuable fertiliser, and within a few years of Napoleon’s defeat, agents of fertiliser manufacturers were scouring battlefields. The bones of men and horses were removed from places such as Austerlitz, Leipzig and Waterloo and shipped, usually to Hull, and on to bone-grinders, many in Doncaster.

This was not a well-documented business, but it was reported on and became part of popular folklore. In 1822, a correspondent wrote in The Observer: “It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for aught known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread.”

It seems a shocking disrespect to us, but times were different. For centuries, corpses on battlefields had been stripped of valuables by other soldiers, camp followers and local peasants, and the Napoleonic Wars were no different.

Long before the bone merchants moved in, many bodies at Waterloo were stripped of their teeth. This was such a bonanza for Britain’s denture industry that all false sets made from human teeth were known as ‘Waterloo teeth’ for years after. The corpses of the poor were a commodity, whether as a source of fertiliser, teeth, or anatomical instruction for medical students.

Answered by: 
Eugene Byrne, author and journalist
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