By Peter Molloy, CCA&E Vote; Defence Vote.

The battlefield of Waterloo might seem a long way from Government Buildings, but the road to it began for the Duke of Wellington closer than you might think. Just across the street, to be precise.

Born in 1769 in what’s now the Merrion Hotel, the Anglo-Irish soldier had risen to become Britain’s foremost military commander by the time he faced Napoleon south of Brussels on 18 June 1815. Earlier this month, 203 years later, I found myself retracing that journey from Merrion Street to Waterloo.

I was in Belgium for a week as a volunteer with Waterloo Uncovered. It’s a charity with a difference. The multinational project assists the recovery of both serving military personnel and veterans suffering from physical or psychological injuries by providing them with the opportunity to carry out archaeology on the battlefield.

I’d visited Waterloo on plenty of previous occasions to explore Ireland’s role in the battle, but this stay was to prove unique. Over a long week under a hot Belgian sun, I worked and lived amongst one of the most diverse groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering.

That scene was set on our first morning on the battlefield. Moving from archaeologist to archaeologist to learn the rudiments of what we’d be putting into practice on the dig, my group included a young archaeology undergraduate from London, a pair of Dutch Army veterans and a former Royal Engineer severely wounded in Afghanistan.

The main focus of our work was around the farm complex of Hougoumont, a key defensive position for Wellington’s army in 1815. When French attackers burst into the farm at one point during the battle, a group of British guardsmen fought their way to the gates to close them and bar any further intrusion. Among them was Corporal James Graham, a Coldstream Guardsman from Clones, County Monaghan. Graham was feted for his bravery at Hougoumont. By the time he died in Dublin as an in-patient at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in 1845, the Irishman was notable enough for a number of journals and magazines to publish fulsome obituaries. A portrait of him in full uniform is still held around the corner in the National Gallery on Merrion Square.

Now, in the shadow of the farm walls held by Graham and his comrades, Waterloo was giving up its secrets.

Conflict archaeology, I quickly learned, is rarely about front page discoveries. It’s a process instead of methodically piecing the bigger picture together: what happened, where and how. A concentration of lead musket balls recovered from the soil can show how a brisk firefight developed. A mud-encrusted tunic button might help to identify where a particular regiment was positioned.  My job for most of the week was surveying – logging the location of excavation trenches and finds by GPS so that they could be plotted later by the archaeologists.

Those finds ranged from significant quantities of material directly attributable to the battle to items from both earlier and later periods in the site’s history. The latter category included everything from a medieval seal to a First World War German uniform button, lost perhaps by a wartime battlefield visitor. All of it helps to build that bigger picture.

Irish soldiers served in significant numbers in nearly all of Wellington’s regiments at Waterloo, but some units with especially prominent connections to the island were present. A highlight of my week was helping to dig on the ground held by the soldiers of the Irish 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot during the battle. The Irish redcoats of the regiment suffered a particular ordeal under French fire on this spot, their tightly packed ranks the target for hours of devastating cannon fire and musketry. To one shaken British officer, it appeared by the evening of Waterloo as though: ‘… the twenty-seventh regiment were literally lying dead, in square’. Sweeping across the crop stubble of the site with metal detector and shovel two centuries on, some traces of that violent afternoon were still there, from musket and pistol balls to uniform buckles.

For all the intimacy of this hands on history, Waterloo Uncovered is about much more than simply archaeology.

Some of those on the dig had obvious injuries as a result of their military service. Others were dealing with hidden scars like PTSD from places in more recent history like South Armagh, Srebrenica and Helmand. All visibly flourished as the week progressed and the rapport between participants from more than half a dozen different countries grew.

Age and background rapidly became irrelevant. There’s a special surreality to chatting about the prospect of a hard Irish border with a Troubles veteran in the middle of Napoleon’s last battlefield.

Waterloo Uncovered was originally conceived as a once-off initiative to mark the battle’s bicentenary in 2015, but the charity has carried out excavations on the site every summer since. The dig returns to Belgium in 2019.