This bizarre relic of the Battle of Waterloo is a ‘memento mori’ (reminder of death) and demonstrates the personal sacrifice of conflict. It is part of the spine of a soldier who died fighting at Waterloo. His wife had the bone removed from his corpse and kept it as a personal memento.
It is the 2nd thoracic (high chest level) vertebral bone, 12 of which make up the backbone. Captain Holmes was the senior officer of the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment killed during the fighting on 18 June 1815. His widow clearly wanted a souvenir of his death, so she had his body macerated (boiled) and the damaged vertebra along with the missile that caused the injury removed, dried, varnished and set in silver. The body (main weight-bearing part of the bone) was hollowed out and a silver-gilt container put inside – rather like a snuff box. On the silver lid the word ‘Waterloo’ can be seen and a cluster of weapons, a drum, trumpet and helmet.
The Inniskillings took significant casualties at Waterloo, coming up into line later in the action, having marched 51 miles (82 kilometres) in two days, with little to eat since 16 June. They mustered 698 men and were commanded by a captain (the commanding officer and their sergeant-major were still at sea, travelling from the Bahamas). Placed at the left centre of Wellington’s position, the battalion was subject to skirmishing fire and heavy artillery bombardment. It was said that the many of the battalion lay dead in square formation.
They suffered 478 casualties, 103 killed in action. Captain George Holmes was struck on his back and the lead ball entered his chest, after damaging the vertebra. He died from internal haemorrhage and a leak of air into his chest cavity.
There is a monument to these brave men on the battlefield and four years ago, the owner of this macabre and poignant relic placed it on the stone near where Holmes died.
Some objects - such as this one - are owned by private collectors. Waterloo 200 cannot give information on the ownership or location of these items.