When a mass grave of 18th century soldiers was discovered in the Dutch town of Vianen in November 2020, it was assumed that the victims had been killed in action.
However, new research has now confirmed that the 82 people – most of whom were British – in fact died of illness at a nearby field hospital.
Located in the center of the Netherlands, Vianen experienced two wars in the 18th century, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and later the Flanders campaign of 1793-1795. Only the latter involved British soldiers. This was part of the larger War of the First Coalition between post-revolutionary France and other European powers, including the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and Russia.
Although the war ended with a French victory in 1797, the conflict resumed the following year with the War of the Second Coalition. The Coalition Wars – seven in total – did not end until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, nearly 20 years later.
The men in the graves were reportedly treated in a field hospital at Batestein Castle in Vianen, near where they were buried. The hospital was established and run by British soldiers.
The contents of the grave reflected the international nature of the Coalition. Samples taken from six of the skeletons suggested that one came from southern England, possibly Cornwall, another from southern Cornwall and a third from an urban environment in England, possibly London.
Two others were possibly from the Netherlands but of English descent, while the sixth came from the Hanover or Hesse region of Germany.
Forensic anthropologist April Pijpelink, who conducted the research, said her findings challenged initial assumptions about the soldiers’ deaths.
“At first we thought these men had died of battle wounds, but during my research it became clear that approximately 85% of them suffered from one or more infections, while virtually all of their wounds trauma had healed,” Pijpelink told the BBC.
Meningitis, pneumonia, sinus infections and other non-specific inflammations have been identified. Most of these infections had a cause – pneumococcal bacteria – which poor living conditions and the brutality of the countryside allowed to spread.
Many of the skeletons showed evidence of the extreme violence inflicted on them, with further analysis suggesting saw marks in a number of cases. These marks indicate the medical care given to the wounded, such as amputations and autopsies.
However, although they were buried close to where they were treated, the men may not have sustained local injuries. Field hospitals of this era tended to be located some distance from the battlefield.
The men, most of whom were either teenagers or in their early twenties, all died within a short time of each other. The manner of filling the pits indicates a burial period of days rather than weeks.
The skeletons have been well preserved due to the clay outside the historic city walls.