Dutch Archaeologists Uncover 200-Year-Old Mass Grave of British Soldiers

Archaeologists in the Netherlands uncovered the mass grave of 81 British soldiers which is believed to be 200 years old. They believe there are more such mass graves in the area.

While working in Vianen to prepare for a new canal, Hans Veenstra and his team excavated the area to make sure there was nothing of historical importance buried there before the builders began digging.

When they thought they were nearly done, one of the archaeologists noticed a small piece of bone sticking out of the dirt. Excavating the bone led them to discover a skeleton and then another and another until they had found 81 of them.

The clues in the area are causing experts to believe that the soldiers, who were between the ages of 14 and 30 when they died, were casualties of the First War of the Coalition which took place from 1792 to 1797.

It is believed that they died when aged between 14-30 years old, where they were then placed in this mass grave. Image credit: Ton van Es – www.devliegendefilmer.nl
It is believed that they died when aged between 14-30 years old, where they were then placed in this mass grave. Image credit: Ton van Es – www.devliegendefilmer.nl

The Wars of the Coalition found the British fighting against the Kingdom of France and then the French Republic after the French Revolution.

The British had a rough time during the wars. Their diaries show that they were dealing with disease, malnutrition and difficult winter weather conditions.

Veenstra said that the discovery was exciting partly due to how unexpected it was to find the grave there. At the same time, he said that there was a sadness when realizing what difficult lives these soldiers lived and how young they were when they died.

At first the team thought they were finding evidence of extreme violence on the bodies of the soldiers. They soon realized that what they were seeing was saw marks from field surgeons who were either amputating limbs or performing autopsies. A field hospital had been set up in the ruins of the castle of Vianen nearby to where the mass grave was found.

The Amsterdam Courant (Amsterdam Journal) recorded that the field hospital was set up on December 28, 1794, and was staffed by the Brtitsh with help from the State Army and Prussian troops.

On December 30, 1797, the hospital was moved to Amersfoort.

The team was able to date the remains partly from specific wear on the teeth of the deceased which matches the round stems of pipes. Pipe smoking began in the Netherlands in 1600 among the wealthy. The poorer classes did not begin the widespread used of pipes until 1690. Since the evidence in the excavation indicated that the soldiers were poor, the researchers determined that the grave could not be older than 1690.

Marks on the bodies in the mass grave have been found, that indicate crude surgical activities. Image credit: Ton van Es – www.devliegendefilmer.nl
Marks on the bodies in the mass grave have been found, that indicate crude surgical activities. Image credit: Ton van Es – www.devliegendefilmer.nl

Carbon-14 dating will be performed on the remains to get a more accurate age. Additional research in the archives will also be used to help identify the soldiers.

A councillor of the municipality of Vijfheerenlanden stated that the British government had been informed of the discovery.

Joanna Roper, the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, called it an “extraordinary discovery” which serves as another example of the close ties between the two nations throughout history.

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She announced that the UK Ministry of Defense was working closely with the Dutch in order to identify the remains and in order to make sure they were treated with all due respect.