T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Who Cleaned Up the Carnage After Napoleon’s Battles?

T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
T. Sutherland and D. Havell via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Picture this: you’re at home, minding your own business, when two enormous armies roll into town and start hacking and shooting each other to pieces. When the smoke clears, the battlefield by your house is strewn with the mangled bodies of people you’ve never met. To you, this probably sounds like a nightmare. But to the people who lived near the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, it was an opportunity. 

A brief history refresher: At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte pretty much declared war on everyone. For 12 years, the self-styled emperor and his army slashed their way across Europe, battling forces from more than 20 different countries. By the time of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, his invasions and the resulting battles had claimed somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million lives. Of those casualties, at least 2.5 million were soldiers. That’s a lot of bodies. 

It’s also a lot of boots, and a lot of guns, and a lot of jackets. Staring down the barrel of wartime scarcity, soldiers and civilians alike wasted no time in stripping the battlefield’s bodies completely bare. Whose side the late soldiers had taken was no longer of any concern; sturdy shoes were sturdy shoes, and it would have been a waste to just leave them lying around. Many of these items were later sold or kept as souvenirs, explains historian Shannon Selin on her blog, but just as many likely wound up on the feet of local farmers and the backs of their children. Necessary for survival or not, the looters’ work resulted in bizarre and gruesome landscapes blanketed in hundreds of dead, naked bodies. 

The plundering didn’t end there. These were the days before minty toothpaste and fluoridated water, which meant a lot of missing teeth, which meant a lot of people wearing dentures. Dentists (such as they were) could and did make false teeth from porcelain, ivory, and other animal products, but human teeth were by far the most popular for their apparent comfort and realistic appearance. Consequently, healthy human teeth were both in high demand and low supply in most places. On the battlefield, however, a determined scavenger could pick them from the mouths of the deceased like fruit from a tree.

A set of "Waterloo Teeth". Image Credit: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

To their credit, the survivors frequently made attempts to bury or burn their dead, but the numbers were overwhelming. Many bodies were left to the mercy of the elements and nonhuman scavengers like vultures and wolves.

But even in their decay, the fallen still had more to give to those willing to take. Long after the violence had ended, enterprising companies sent workers to the battlegrounds to collect any remaining bones. Those bones were then ground down and sold as fertilizer.

Napoleon may have had grand and romantic ideas about his conquest, but the consequences to ordinary people were anything but.  

[h/t Shannon Selin]

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

The Surprising Reason Why Pen Caps Have Tiny Holes at the Top

If you’re an avid pen chewer, or even just a diehard fan of writing by hand, you’re probably well acquainted with the small hole that tops off most ballpoint pen caps, particularly those classic Bic Cristal pens. The reason it’s there has nothing to do with pen function, it turns out. As Science Alert recently reported, it’s actually designed to counter human carelessness.

Though it’s arguably unwise—not to mention unhygienic—to chomp or suck on a plastic pen cap all day, plenty of people do it, especially kids. And inevitably, that means some people end up swallowing their pen caps. Companies like Bic know this well—so they make pen caps that won’t impede breathing if they’re accidentally swallowed.

This isn’t only a Bic requirement, though the company’s Cristal pens do have particularly obvious holes. The International Organization for Standardization, a federation that sets industrial standards for 161 countries, requires it. ISO 11540 specifies that if pens must have caps, they should be designed to reduce the risk of asphyxiation if they’re swallowed.

It applies to writing instruments “which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years.” Fancy fountain pens and other writing instruments that are clearly designed for adult use don’t need to have holes in them, nor do caps that are large enough that you can’t swallow them. Any pen that could conceivably make its way into the hands of a child needs to have an air hole in the cap that provides a minimum flow of 8 liters (about 2 gallons) of air per minute, according to the standard [PDF].

Pen cap inhalation is a real danger, albeit a rare one, especially for primary school kids. A 2012 study [PDF] reported that pen caps account for somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of “foreign body aspiration,” the official term for inhaling something you’re not supposed to. Another study found that of 1280 kids (ages 6 to 14) treated between 1997 and 2007 for foreign body inhalation in Beijing, 34 had inhaled pen caps.

But the standards help keep kids alive. In that Beijing study, none of the 34 kids died, and the caps were successfully removed by doctors. That wasn’t always the case. In the UK, nine children asphyxiated due to swallowing pen caps between 1970 and 1984. After the UK adopted the international standard for air holes in pen caps, the number of deaths dropped precipitously [PDF]. Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof; in 2007, a 13-year-old in the UK died after accidentally swallowing his pen cap.

Even if you can still breathe through that little air hole, getting a smooth plastic pen cap out of your throat is no easy task for doctors. The graspers they normally use to take foreign bodies out of airways don’t always work, as that 2012 case report found, and hospitals sometimes have to employ different tools to get the stubbornly slippery caps out (in that study, they used a catheter that could work through the hole in the cap, then inflated a small balloon at the end of the catheter to pull the cap out). The procedure doesn’t exactly sound pleasant. So maybe resist the urge to put your pen cap in your mouth.

[h/t Science Alert]

Carnivorous Hammerhead Flatworms Are Invading France

It’s no hammerhead shark, but the hammerhead flatworm has become a real menace in France. Or at least a menace to earthworms, as Earther reports.

Believed to be an invasive species from Asia, the hammerhead flatworm was only recently recorded in France, as is documented in a new study (titled "Giant worms chez moi!") published in the journal PeerJ. However, based on reports, photographs, and videos sent in by citizens across the country, scientists determined the pests have gone undetected for nearly 20 years. This came as a shock, especially because the worms can measure more than a foot in length.

In recent years, three species of the carnivorous worm have quietly taken over French gardens and have even been spotted in metropolitan areas. Some species immobolize their prey with tetrodotoxin, the same powerful neurotoxin that makes pufferfish so poisonous. The worms secrete digestive enzymes, allowing them to dissolve earthworms and slugs their size.

Jean-Lou Justine, co-author of the study, says their eating habits are a concern. "Earthworms are a major component of the soil biomass and a very important element in the ecology of soils," Justine tells Earther. "Any predator which can diminish the populations of earthworms is thus a threat to soil ecology."

Archie Murchie, an entomologist who was not involved in the study, told The Washington Post that the worms will continue to spread in step with global trade. The worms were also seen in overseas French territories, including one worm with a blue-green hue that is probably a newly detected species, Murchie tells the newspaper.

[h/t Earther]


More from mental floss studios