Researchers at Cranfield University have validated the authenticity of a jacket worn by a British Army officer at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The red military jacket, which is over two hundred years old and carries several bullet holes, was worn by Sir Thomas Noel Harris, a British Brigade-Major who was shot and had his arm amputated in the battle.
Harris’ family asked if Cranfield Forensic Institute (CFI) could undertake a forensic examination of the jacket to prove or disprove if it was the original uniform worn by their descendant at Waterloo.
Professor Andrew Shortland, Director of CFI, said: “CFI is regularly involved in the analysis of historical objects for museums and other clients – especially objects made of glass, metals and ceramic. This was a very unusual item for us, but particularly interesting, being involved as it was in a key moment in national and international history.
“We were able to safely confirm the authenticity of the jacket and place it on the Waterloo battlefield. In so doing, we also gained further insight into the grievous wounds suffered by Harris during the battle, which themselves reflect the experience of those who fought, and died, on that day.”
CFI were able to establish the provenance of the jacket by bringing together the results of a forensic examination and the known history of the jacket and its wearer.
A diary kept by Harris, together with other military history and research, was also used to gain an insight into what happened to the officer.
The forensic examination focused on three areas: the retrieval of DNA samples from the jacket to compare with a living ancestor of Harris to clarify if the jacket was worn by their family member; the extraction of soil samples from the jacket to compare with samples from the Waterloo battlefield to place the jacket at the location; and analysis of the ballistic damage to the jacket to see if it was consistent with the reported injuries sustained by Harris in the battle.
DNA from blood stains on the jacket had degraded to a level beyond use for analysis. However, soil samples taken from the British side of the battlefield site were compared to mud on the jacket and showed a very strong similarity in mineral content. An account from the time identified Harris as lying overnight in this section of the battlefield after he had been wounded and fell from his horse.
Although family history suggests that Harris was shot twice, examination of three holes on the right sleeve and right side of the jacket showed that they line up with each other. This gives rise to the possibility that Harris was only shot once and the musket ball passed through both his arm and side.
There is no exit hole on the jacket and it is not inconceivable that the ball shattering Harris’ arm saved his life – if it had penetrated his torso directly it may have proved fatal.
Harris was found on the battlefield the following morning and taken to the nearest dressing station at Hougoumont farm where his right arm was amputated immediately.
The material on the right sleeve of the jacket has been cut from cuff to shoulder, and forensic examination of the cut’s smooth edges suggests that it was made by an instrument sharper than scissors, such as a knife. The way that the sleeve was cut – from the cuff up, and then from the neck down – could also have been a precaution against the risk of further injury, such as a cut to the neck, with research showing that the jacket was worn by Harris when it was cut. It is probable that the surgeon who undertook the operation used the same knife to cut the sleeve as to amputate the arm.
A video produced by Cranfield’s Learning Services department telling the story of the jacket is now being featured on the UK National Army Museum website.