Shonagh Lowerson-Head, our learning and audiences officer tells us about her favourite object in the collection.
My favourite object in the museum is not the oldest, the rarest or most impressive artefact on display. In fact, in isolation it is really quite unremarkable. A musket ball. What makes this object so special is its story. For me that is what makes museums such wonderful places; their ability to reveal something that on the surface is quite ordinary, as something extraordinary by telling the stories of these objects.
The musket ball in question was fired during the battle of Toulouse in April 1814 where it struck one Lieutenant Thomas McNiven of the 1st Battalion, Black Watch. Despite the injury that McNiven himself describes as ‘being all but fatal’, he recovered and was able to record his experiences on the battlefield at a later date.
McNiven was carried from the battlefield by Sergeant Ross, ‘a kind old soldier, long habituated to war’. The wounded Lieutenant spent three days in a nearby farm house before he, and the other wounded men were reunited with their fellow British soldiers. McNiven spent a further three months in Toulouse, recovering under the care of a French family, before making his way home in June 1814.
Despite the apparent severity of his wound McNiven evaded the intervention of a surgeon until his return to Britain, where the musket ball, still lodged in his side was eventually remove.
Considering the mortality rate for battlefield wounds and the rudimentary nature of early eighteenth century surgical techniques it is really quite incredible that McNiven lived to tell the tale. If the initial wounding did not prove fatal then the almost inevitable infection would claim the majority of men injured on the battlefield. Furthermore, McNiven encountered further risk when having the lead ball removed months after his initial wounding, presumably after it had already begun to heal. Surgical techniques during the Napoleonic era remained fairly rudimentary with no anaesthetic, no antiseptic and generally poor standards of hygiene. While undergoing surgery at home, rather on the battlefield would certainly have mitigated some of these risks, surgery was not a routine procedure, with infection again being the biggest killer.
From this simple ball of lead we have a gateway to an incredible life of an individual; his experiences, his resilience and endurance on and off the battlefield.