Professor Tony Pollard is a renowned battlefield archaeologist. He has uncovered astonishing truths about Jacobites, Bannockburn, the Second World War, Britain's wars of empire and even the Falklands campaign – and used his skills to bring peace to traumatised soldiers struggling to come to terms with the past. He talks to our Writer at Large

TONY Pollard deals in ghosts. He communes with the dead to help ease the pain of those who are living but haunted by the past.

Pollard, a professor at Glasgow University, has taken the discipline he effectively built in Britain from the ground up – battlefield archaeology – and now uses it to heal the lives of military veterans left with shattered minds and broken bodies after their own experiences of warfare.

You will know Pollard’s face – he has been in dozens of TV history documentaries. He even helped launch the TV career of Neil Oliver, an old university buddy of his – though the pair have drifted apart since Oliver became a central figure in Britain’s culture wars. “We went our separate ways,” Pollard says. “I very much have a different perspective on things.”

Pollard’s official title is director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, but to military veterans suffering from PTSD or profound life-changing injuries, he’s a guide – in more ways than one. Pollard takes former combat soldiers to the sites of some of the world’s most bloody battles, where they assist him in archeological digs. But he’s not just a physical guide, leading to them to places like Waterloo and teaching them the art of archaeology. He’s also, in many ways, a guide for their souls. Those archaeological digs see soldiers undertake a much more important journey.

Working with Pollard and his team means veterans can reach a place emotionally where they are able to confront the past and learn to live happier lives in the present. It’s archaeology as therapy – a groundbreaking notion in this era of wellbeing.

Along the way, Pollard has made some astonishing discoveries, including uncovering the horrible truth that the bodies of dead soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo were turned into fertiliser. He has also “scotched” – pun intended – some very Caledonian myths, particularly around the romantic legends which festoon Scotland’s Jacobite Risings.

Pollard is now a famed archaeological detective. He pinpointed the actual site of the Battle of Bannockburn, lost to the mists of time for centuries. He also found lost mass graves from the First World War, giving allied soldiers a decent resting place a century after their deaths. Pollard has even balanced the scales when it comes to Britain’s colonial past: telling the stories of those who resisted imperial rule like Zulu warriors – people often forgotten when it comes to Britain’s own romantic notions of its history.

Ghosts of Waterloo

THE battle which brings much of Pollard’s work together is Waterloo, one of the most famous showdowns in military history, where Britain and its allies, including Prussia, faced down the might of Napoleon and sunk France’s grand ambitions. The battle was to spell the end for Bonaparte.

Pollard, already a well-known TV archaeologist, was asked by officers from the Coldstream Guards in 2014 if he would take “military veterans who have either been wounded or are suffering from mental health problems like PTSD” to the site of the Battle of Waterloo. The idea grabbed his imagination immediately. “One of the things I’ve learned over the years,” he says, “is that I’m more interested in the living than the dead.” It’s something of a motto for him: the idea that archaeology only really matters when it’s used to help people right here, right now, in the present day.

The dig began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the battle. Initially, the project was to be called “Waterloo Underground” but that seemed a little too tongue-in-cheek so it became known as “Waterloo Uncovered”. Eventually, 30-40 veterans would be working with professional archaeologists.

During the dig, Pollard’s team uncovered some human bones. Now, that might not sound unusual given around 20,000 soldiers died during the battle but one of the mysteries of the Waterloo battlefield has always been the lack of any bodies found. Pollard’s team started to uncover a number of amputated legs. One leg contained “a shattered French musket ball”. What Pollard had discovered was the site of one of Wellington’s field hospitals. The limbs had been buried after amputation, along with a mass of “surgical debris”. Nearby were bones of injured horses – shot in the head and put out of their misery. Around 10,000 horses died at Waterloo.

One member of Pollard’s team was “a young veteran of Afghanistan who was a double amputee, he’d lost both his legs through an IED [improvised explosive device]. Yet he, with his almost bionic legs, was with our lead metal detectorist”. Rather than it being a traumatic event for the former solider, the discovery of the amputated limbs at Waterloo became a crucial part of his therapy. “This was a positive experience,” Pollard says. The veteran was given a “historical perspective. He could see that if he’d been those soldiers, the chances are he wouldn’t have survived the experience”.


DURING lockdown, Pollard pored over contemporary accounts of Waterloo, particularly reports from James Ker, a Glaswegian merchant in Brussels. Pollard believes Ker “was there the day after the battle. He talks about wounded soldiers dying in his arms”. From Ker’s writings, Pollard believes the merchant may have developed PTSD. Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott also visited the site, two months after the battle.

Ker “witnesses the burial of the dead” on the battlefield. Contemporary artists were there “to see the burials take place”. So, Pollard’s team started hunting for more remains, beyond the site of the military hospital where the amputated limbs were found. “The thing is, we haven’t found any,” he says. “We’ve come up empty-handed.”

Here’s the awful truth: Pollard now believes the war dead were dug up by “commercial contractors” and their bones ground down to make both fertiliser and provide a means of “filtering” sugar beet to make refined sugar. It was the era of the body-snatchers, after all. Newspaper reports at the time have been found recounting how bones were brought into England and Scotland and “pulverised and used as bone meal because of the high phosphate content”. Perfect for fertilising crops. Animal and whale bone was also used.

“They’re emptying cemeteries in Germany to do this. It’s consistent with Waterloo. My hypothesis is that they’re quarrying these mass graves, which in some cases contained hundreds of bodies.” Pollard also believes ground bone was used in the sugar beet “filtration process”. There was even a sugar beet factory near Waterloo. “There was a saying in France at the time that ‘you’ll be stirring the remains of your ancestors into your tea’.”

Some of the grave-robbing was legal, some illegal. The bodies of both British and French soldiers were desecrated. The dead were also looted for souvenirs and anything usable. “The only thing left on the bodies was the socks of the Highlanders. For some reason they weren’t recycled – but everything else was.”

Zulu wars

POLLARD’S work at Waterloo helped highlight wrongs done to Britain’s war dead in the past. His work in South Africa, however, helped give some redress to the Zulu people.

The Anglo-Zulu war is basically only remembered by Britons as a moment of imperial glory through the 1964 movie Zulu starring Michael Caine, which tells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift where about 150 Red Coats saw off thousands of Zulu warriors and were showered in Victoria Crosses for their bravery.

During Pollard’s digs at the site of Rorke’s Drift, and the lesser-known Battle of Isandlwana where British forces were wiped out, Pollard discovered evidence of Zulu settlements. One Zulu woman told Pollard: “My people were here at the time of the battle.” He asked if they were participants, and she said: “No, we just got out of the way and then we came back.” They were refugees.

He sees parallels that can be drawn to the war in Ukraine today. What he learned “just smashed these romantic illusions”. He says: “They’d been invaded. I don’t want to go into too many parallels but there are similarities.”

Pollard felt the ghosts of the dead all around him.

At Isandlwana, he watched a Zulu family arrive and make offerings to their fallen ancestors. He sees “parallels” here to how Britons pay respects to the war dead at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. The idea of “closure” exists in all cultures, showing that there’s more which unites peoples around the world than separates us.

First World War

INDEED, Pollard’s work around First World War battlefields showed that respect between enemies and human empathy can be found in even the bloodiest of conflicts. On what was once the Western Front, Pollard made a landmark discovery of a lost mass grave which would have been impossible to locate without the decency shown by one German officer during wartime.

There had long been suspicions that around 250 Australian soldiers had been buried in a mass grave by Germans following the Battle of Fromelles in 1916. Pollard was eventually commissioned by the Australian government to begin the hunt. An initial dig turned up one key artefact: a simple medallion. Such medallions were given to all Australian volunteers and this one bore the name of one recruit’s home town Alberton. With “Sherlockian deductive genius”, the team worked out that a volunteer from Alberton had indeed fought and died at Fromelles. The dig began in earnest, involving experts who had dealt with the aftermath of September 11 and the Bosnian genocide. Pollard himself has assisted police in murder investigations when they need the skills of an experienced archaeologist.

Eventually, the Australian troops were recovered. The burial order from the Germany army was also found in Bavarian archives, and it was discovered that one rather infamous Austrian corporal was in the area at the time: Adolf Hitler. Did Hitler take part in the burial? It’s impossible to say.

What is possible to say is that without express orders from one German major, the Australian dead would never have been identified. German soldiers were ordered to bury their enemies and remove anything which identified them. Their officer warned of “the harshest of penalties” if they looted the dead or treated them with disrespect. The Australians’ possessions were then shipped to the Red Cross. Once the bodies were found, this helped provide each with a name for a war grave.

It’s a lesson, from a century ago, that shows human decency can survive in the midst of carnage. Pollard was able to fashion other lessons for today from events of the Great War. He even reconstructed the Somme’s infamous trenches in Glasgow’s Pollok Park to allow schoolchildren to experience the horror of what their ancestors went through.

Scotland’s wars

OF course, here in Scotland, it’s the battles fought on our soil – against England – which most fascinate the public. When it comes to the archaeology of Jacobite battlefields, there’s only one man to turn to: Pollard. He even worked as the historical adviser on the TV series Outlander set at the time of the 1745 Rising and the Battle of Culloden, which ended the Jacobite dream in 1746. He was part of the team of academics which advised the National Trust for Scotland on the creation of the current Culloden visitors’ centre with its immersive film re-enacting the battle in all its bloody horror. Pollard appears in the film as both a Jacobite and Red Coat.

During filming he got a taste of how easy it would have been to die. While playing a Red Coat, Pollard cut his finger cocking his musket, filling the firing pan with blood. In real life that would have left him unable to shoot and an open target for charging Highlanders.

But here’s the thing: the Highland charge was nothing like we imagine it today, as Pollard’s battlefield discoveries prove. In the public imagination, the Highland charge sees Jacobites racing into the Brown Bess guns of Red Coats, sword in hand, valiantly risking all for victory. Well, that’s just myth. The Rising has long suffered from a “very romantic, very shortbread tin, presentation”, he says. First of all, it wasn’t a simple English v Scottish affair. There were Scots on the side of government troops and, particularly during the earlier 1715 rising, English on the side of the Jacobites. “Nuance” is vital, says Pollard.

Regarding the famed Highland charge and Culloden, Pollard says “we actually found more Jacobite musket balls on the field than [Red Coat] Brown Bess musket balls”. The Jacobite and Red Coat guns were of different calibres so identifying the two is easy. Some of those Brown Bess musket balls, however, also came from Jacobite guns as they had looted weapons from Red Coats after beating government troops at Prestonpans and Falkirk. So, more bullets were actually fired by Jacobites than by Red Coats. “It flies directly in the face of that old stereotype that the Jacobites were using swords against musketry,” Pollard adds.

The truth about the famed Highland charge is that it began with Jacobites firing their muskets then dropping their guns, drawing their swords and running at government lines while the enemy was in disarray.

The tactic worked brilliantly at another Jacobite v government battle, this time at Killiecrankie in 1689. Here, the government army – commanded, significantly, by Highlander Hugh Mackay – “was broken in half” by a Highland charge of gunfire followed by a sword-wielding dash.

Pollard warns that in the modern era fake romantic myths have led to the “politicisation” of historical events like Culloden, and fostered “very simplistic, nationalistic messages on either side”. Battlefield archaeology helps prevent the rewriting of history.

Battlefield archaeology also helps work out precisely where history took place. Pollard and his team were finally able to identify the exact site of the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert the Bruce beat Edward II’s English army – a fact that has eluded historians for centuries. His first attempt was a disaster. The team found what they hoped was a battle axe or war hammer but it turned out to be a plumber’s clamp. Later, they gathered enough evidence to settle on a site some distance from the current visitors’ centre and monument. “I’m satisfied we now know where the battle of Bannockburn was,” he adds.

One Scottish battlefield which Pollard won’t be hunting is Mons Graupius – the legendary clash between Rome and ancient Caledonians. “It’s the Moby Dick of battlefield archaeology”. Hunting it would become an all-consuming obsession and “my life is too short”, Pollard says. He does, however, believe a metal detectorist will discover some Roman artefact one day that will finally locate where the battle happened.

Neil Oliver

ON the other side of the gulf of history, Pollard is currently undertaking a series of digs at battlefields on the Falkland Islands. For the first time ever, veterans of a war are exploring the very battlefields where they fought, killed, and saw their friends die. One veteran, who worked on digs with Pollard in the Falklands, was initially badly shaken when he arrived at the site of the Battle of Two Sisters near Port Stanley.

The commando had lost “his best mate” in the fight and felt guilty about not being able to save his life. The soldier, however, was able to find closure during the dig when he was shown the place where his friend died and learned there was no way he could have helped him as they were too far apart during combat.

Therapy and archaeology “work in conjunction”, says Pollard. Mental-health experts work closely with Pollard’s teams of veterans during battlefield digs to help them come to terms with their past.

Pollard is garrulous, witty and good company. But as the conversation comes to a close, the question of Neil Oliver arises. This is one topic he’s not comfortable chatting about at length. The pair went to university together – Oliver also studied archaeology – where they were “genuine buddies”. After Pollard invited Oliver to a South African dig they were cast together in Two Men In A Trench, the BBC series which gave them both their break in TV.

Pollard “kept a toe in television”, but Oliver “became the celebrity”. He adds: “We both went our separate ways … I very much have a different perspective on things. Neil will find his own way through this. I’m not part of that journey … His take on life is not one I share, but many do.”

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