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Museums around Europe have rallied a troop of artifacts to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo’s 200th anniversary. The Waterloo200 website launched last month includes a 200 Objects of Waterloo online exhibition, with everything from a deeply indented penny that stopped a bullet and saved a British soldier’s life, to teeth made from the corpses of the unfortunate deceased.
The initiative is a collaboration from the bicentenary committee, the National Army Museum in London, and publishers Culture24. With the launch, 100 objects were revealed, with another 100 to be added over the weeks leading up to the June 18 commemoration of the 1815 battle. The artillery, uniforms, and curios, like a lock of hair from the Duke of Wellington’s warhorse Copenhagen, come from major institutions like the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, Windsor Castle, the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, and the Royal Collection Trust, along with smaller places like the Stratfield Saye House and the Household Cavalry Museum, and private collections. Each object is represented with a high-resolution image and detailed backstory.
As an engagement, the Battle of Waterloo wasn’t just devastating in ending Napoleon’s reign as emperor, it was grotesquely gory. Some 65,000 soldiers are estimated to have died from the 200,000 who took part. Alongside objects like bagpipes played by the Highlanders regiments and battle instructions written by Wellington is the visceral evidence of the brutal fight, objects such as a breastplate pocked by a cannonball. There’s the surgical saw and glove from the amputation of the Earl of Uxbridge’s leg, still stained with blood, and the artificial limb that served as its replacement, engineered with kangaroo tendons for springiness.
The battle was horrific, but it was also a great victory for Britain, so the dead were commemorated grandly. The wife of Captain Holmes had her lost husband’s body boiled and his vertebra damaged by a bullet removed, then outfitted with a silver gilt container inside as a sort of memento mori. There’s also a cast of the skull of boxer and soldier John Shaw, whose gargantuan body was exhumed by author Sir Walter Scott, who then kept Shaw’s skull in his library. The Duke of Wellington himself eventually got a funeral carriage cast from over ten tons of bronze cannon captured at Waterloo, and during his life was so famous he put up a sign at his house requesting snoopers to stop looking in his windows.
Waterloo almost instantly became iconic, attaching its name everywhere, but perhaps none so odd as “Waterloo teeth,” a name for dentures made from the molars of dead soldiers. One British plunderer named Butler reportedly declared prior to the battle: “There’ll be no want of teeth, I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.” His prophecy proved grimly true, and after the battle dentists advertised “Waterloo ivory” crafted from teeth taken from the young soldiers.
Not surprisingly, the Waterloo anniversary is more of a hullabaloo with the victors, and Britain is swarming with exhibitions from Windsor Castle to the British Museum; even the Fan Museum is hauling out its Waterloo-related accessories. In June, 5,000 people will participate in a reenactment in Belgium. Together the 200 objects show the battle from its grandest to its most basic of elements, and collage a portrait of one of the 19th-century’s most influential battles.
The first 100 museum artifacts of 200 Objects of Waterloo are viewable online. New additions will be revealed each week through June.