The Waterloo Campaign: Ireland’s Soldiers in Red
The final definitive defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, placed Irish soldiers and civilians at the very heart of events.
By Peter Molloy
Cover image: The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler II, June 1815. (Source: Napoleon.org)
First published in Autumn 2015 issue.
Even for an experienced soldier, the sight was jarring. It was the early morning of Monday, 19 June 1815, and Captain Harry Ross-Lewin was picking his way gingerly through the fresh carnage of a battlefield just outside the Belgian village of Waterloo. The Irish infantry officer from Co. Clare was no stranger to bloodshed, having served with the British Army in a score of engagements from the West Indies to the Iberian Peninsula. The scale and sheer intensity of the violence which had taken place here on the previous day, however, succeeded in shocking him. ‘The mangled bodies of men and horses,’ he would later recall, ‘that were strewed abundantly in all directions and the crops levelled by the trampling… plainly marked the extent of the field, and gave undeniable evidence of the fury of the conflict which had raged there’.
Barely three months earlier Europe had been enjoying a period of unprecedented peace, the calmest since the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The former French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, undisputed military and political titan of the age, had finally been defeated by the Continent’s great powers and despatched to exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. France’s Bourbon monarchy had been restored, and European ambassadors and diplomats were gathered in the Austrian capital of Vienna to thrash out the peace settlements that must follow victory.
Everything changed in an instant in early March 1815, with the astonishing news that Napoleon had slipped away from Elba and landed in southern France at the head of only a few hundred die-hard followers. Just three weeks later, after an almost bloodless coup, he had reached Paris and seized power once more. Rather than sit and wait to meet the inevitable counter-invasion of France that would be mounted by his vengeful European adversaries, Napoleon elected instead to use offence as the best form of defence. On 15 June 1815, he struck across the border into neighbouring Belgium at the head of the 123,000 strong ‘Armée du Nord’. His objective was to separate and defeat in turn the two closest enemy armies to France: a Prussian force of approximately 130,000 led by Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, and a combined British, Dutch and German army, some 112,000-strong, commanded by the Irish-born Duke of Wellington. Over the next four days, history would be violently made amongst the crop fields and farm buildings of southern Belgium.
Long before the first volleys of musket in Belgium, the incredible drama of Napoleon’s return to power had already had a deep impact on Ireland. Irish civilians avidly scrutinised newspapers and journals for fresh updates on the unfolding European crisis, and private correspondence reflected a fascination with developments. Among the most receptive segments of the island’s population for news that dramatic spring were the personnel of British regiments stationed in garrison towns like Dublin, Belfast and Cork; many of whom would ultimately participate in the Waterloo campaign, and many of whom were actually Irish themselves. For some, like ambitious young officers seeking promotion or new recruits anxious to prove themselves in battle, the likelihood of renewed hostilities against France was far from unwelcome. To other soldiers, veterans who had only just begun to adjust to peace, the prospect of war once more was a crushing blow. ‘How soon are all my fine prospects and flattering hopes blasted,’ wrote Captain John Sinclair of the 79th Highlanders to his sister from Belfast, ‘by the escape of that Destroyer of Mankind’.
Throughout the spring and early summer of 1815, Irish roads became clogged with ponderous and dusty columns of marching troops, horse and guns, as British regiments moved to take ship and begin their journey to face Napoleon. An officer of the 30th Foot would remember that his battalion’s very first fatality of the Waterloo campaign was an older soldier who slipped and fell from a gangplank while boarding a transport at Dublin’s quays, drowning in the murky waters of the Liffey. By 1815, Irish soldiers had long established themselves as an integral part of the British army. Recruitment from the island, whether motivated by economic necessity or by other factors, had always been reliably high over the previous century or more. The manpower demands of the long recent wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France had spurred even wider enlistment of Irishmen into Britain’s forces. Three of the British units that would fight under Wellington at Waterloo bore specific Irish identities: the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, the 18th (King’s Irish) Hussars, and the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot. But even those regiments not formally linked to Ireland still generally contained a very significant portion of Irish. In the 3rd Battalion 1st Foot (Royal Scots), for example, at least 37 per cent of the unit’s privates and NCOs were Irish – despite the regiment’s ostensible connection with Scotland. Likewise, the 1st Battalion 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot was theoretically affiliated with south-west England, yet contemporary records reveal that more than a quarter of its men were Irish when it took to the field in 1815.
“Donnybrooke Fair was nothing to the fight we had here… there were a great number of wigs on the green.”Captain Edward Kelly, Portarlington, Co. Laois. 1st Life Guards, 1815.
Irish soldiers, indeed, were liberally represented at just about every possible rank and position in Wellington’s army that fateful summer, and many would take a notable role in events. A number of battalion commanders, like Donegal man Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Barnard of the famous green-jacketed 95th (Rifle) Regiment of Foot, or Lieutenant Colonel John Millet Hamerton who came from a Co. Tipperary family and commanded the 2nd Battalion 44th Regiment of Foot, while Derryman Major Arthur Rowley Heyland was killed at the close of battle while at the head of the 1st Battalion 40th Regiment of Foot. Other Irish officers led larger formations including the 2nd British Cavalry Brigade: known by contemporaries as the Union Brigade on account of its constituent heavy cavalry regiments coming from Ireland, Scotland and England. Irish peer Sir William Ponsonby would die at the head of the brigade during a pell-mell charge down the boggy slope of Wellington’s position at Waterloo. Ponsonby’s fellow Irish brigadiers Major General Sir Denis Pack and Major General Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur led the 9th British Infantry Brigade and 4th British Cavalry Brigade respectively, with both formations seeing hard fighting during the campaign.
Irish civilians were also present in large numbers in Belgium. Camp followers were common in all armies of the Napoleonic era: women and children who accompanied military loved ones in the field and eked out an income by providing services like laundry or cooking. These military dependents were often perilously close to the fighting. When Co. Down Private Peter McMullan of the 27th Inniskillings fell wounded in action at Waterloo, his heavily pregnant wife is reputed to have helped to carry him from the battlefield.
At the helm of all the battalions was the 1st Duke of Wellington himself, Arthur Wellesley. Born in Dublin to an Anglo-Irish aristocratic dynasty in 1769, Wellington had been raised in Meath and entered the British army as a junior officer in 1787. The Irishman had made his military reputation fighting in India, before going on to lead British troops to ultimate victory in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War, Britain’s main theatre of land operations against Napoleon’s France from 1808 to 1814. By 1815, Wellington was Britain’s foremost soldier: a highly experienced commander with a shrewd eye for defensive generalship. Every last bit of that experience would be called upon that June. Wellington had to exercise effective command over a jumbled, multinational and multilingual Allied force of British, Dutch-Belgian and German troops, while all the time striving to maintain cohesion with his Prussian allies in order to prevent Napoleon from overwhelming and defeating both armies separately.
On 16 June, two distinct battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny marked the first major clashes of the Waterloo campaign. Around the crossroads of Quatre Bras, Wellington fought a bruising but largely inconclusive engagement against one wing of Napoleon’s invading French army. Further to the east, at Ligny, Napoleon himself inflicted a sharp reverse on Blücher’s Prussians. After an intervening day for all three armies of marching and counter-marching through the driving rain of a summer storm, Wellington’s Anglo-Allied force had taken up defensive positions along the muddy ridge of Mont St. Jean, just outside the small village of Waterloo. Throughout the following long and bloody Sunday, 18 June, his battered army would be required to hold its ground against vigorous attacks from Napoleon’s main force until the eventual intervention of the Prussian army made final victory possible.
For all the bright military uniforms and pomp of the Napoleonic era, the practical experience of battle for the many Irish soldiers present during the Waterloo campaign was invariably horrific. The short range and unreliability of contemporary black powder firearms and artillery made a necessity of fighting in close order ranks, at relatively intimate distances with the enemy. Even today, the relatively compact size of the battlefield at Waterloo is one of the first things to strike visitors to the site. Infantrymen in particular were required to remain in tight formations for hours at a time, half-deafened by the noise of their own weapons and those of the enemy, choked and parched by the thick clouds of acrid powder smoke that enveloped the battlefield, and with no opportunity even to relieve themselves save where they stood in the ranks. So disorientating was the thick powder smoke at Waterloo that Co. Armagh officer Major Dawson Kelly remembered that enemy movement could sometimes only be discerned: ‘by the noise and clashing of arms which the French usually make in their advance to attack’. Though crude by modern standards, Napoleonic weaponry was still capable of inflicting devastating damage. A fellow officer recounted the death at Quatre Bras of Irishman Edward Whitty, killed when a bursting French projectile: ‘took away the silk of the regimental colour and the whole of the right section of the fifth company, amongst whom was my lamented friend, Captain Whitty; his head was literally blown to atoms’
Ordered forward into the centre of Wellington’s line on the afternoon of 18 June, the Irish infantrymen of the 1st Battalion 27th Inniskillings were forced to endure a brutal attrition from French artillery and musket fire which remains one of the most emblematic elements of Irish involvement in the campaign. Required to remain in a square formation to ward off enemy cavalry attacks, the redcoats of the 27th suffered by some modern estimations the highest casualty rate of any single British unit at Waterloo. French cannonballs ploughed through their dense ranks, disembowelling men, shattering musket stocks and bayonets and tearing away arms and legs at will as they came. To one shaken British observer near the Irish soldiers, it appeared by the close of the battle as though: ‘the twenty-seventh regiment were literally lying dead, in square’.
Those Irish soldiers unlucky enough to be wounded during the campaign were often almost better off dying more or less instantly from their injuries, since the plight of those wounded was truly dreadful. Military medical treatment of the period was still relatively crude, with hurried amputation a common recourse for wounds to extremities like arms or legs. A battle on the scale of Waterloo simply overwhelmed medical services, with the result that many wounded soldiers were left to lie where they had fallen, in appalling pain and discomfort, for up to days.
On the morning after Waterloo, one British officer exploring the battlefield came across: ‘two Irish light-infantrymen sending forth such howlings and wailings, and oaths and excretions, as were shocking to hear. One of them had his leg shot off, the other his thigh smashed by a cannon-shot. They were certainly pitiable objects’. Some Irishmen wounded during the fighting would linger on in agony for weeks before eventually expiring, like Dubliner Private James Cain of the 32nd Regiment of Foot, who died in hospital at Antwerp on 9 July, or his comrade from the same battalion, Fermanagh man Corporal William Ramsay who clung to life until 28 July.
For all the campaign’s horrors, some Irish soldiers earned fame from their exploits on the battlefield. The Hougoumont farm stood at the right extreme of Wellington’s line and was subjected to furious French assault throughout the battle. Amongst its defenders was Corporal James Graham of Clones, Co. Monaghan, a member of the Coldstream Guards. When a party of French attackers managed to burst through an open gate into Hougoumont at a critical moment in the fighting, Graham was amongst a party of Coldstream officers and soldiers reported to have dashed to the entrance to physically slam the gates shut and prevent any further penetration. For his exploits, he would be described as one of ‘the bravest of the brave at Waterloo’, and received a measure of celebrity quite remarkable for an ordinary British soldier of the Napoleonic period. His portrait was painted at least once, probably from life, and when he died as an in-patient of the Royal Military Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin in 1845, a number of newspapers and journals published fulsome obituaries. Other Irishmen were distinguished for less laudable reasons. Irish peer John Dawson, 2nd Earl Portarlington, was an experienced lieutenant colonel commanding the 23rd Light Dragoons. On the evening before Waterloo, for reasons which remain disputed, he absented himself from his regiment and so was not present to lead it when it went into action the following day. Though he attached himself to another unit and fought with marked bravery for the rest of the battle, Portarlington’s reputation never recovered from the unfortunate incident. He would eventually die dissolute in a London boarding house some thirty years later.
The post-war experiences of the Irish who had helped to contribute to final victory against France were remarkably mixed. Some would go on to subsequent fame and distinction. Staff officer Major George de Lacy Evans, for example, ended his military career commanding a British division during the Crimean War of 1853-56. A fellow Irish Waterloo veteran, Co. Antrim soldier Charles Rowan, would become one of the first two Joint Commissioners of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829. Others struggled with physical infirmity and poverty after leaving the army. In Co. Down in 1868, a subscription had to be raised by wealthy gentlemen of the area to assist local Waterloo veteran Henry Magee, who had been wounded by a musket ball while serving with the Royal Artillery at the battle.
All Irish veterans of the campaign received at least some tangible reward. The monumental nature of the victory at Waterloo encouraged the British army to institute a campaign medal – the first time such a measure had been undertaken. Every eligible veteran received an identical medal, regardless of his rank or role in the fighting. For many Irish soldiers, the Waterloo Medal was a cherished mark of distinction. Co. Laois veteran Corporal Edward Costello of the 95th Rifles recorded his pleasure at receiving what he termed ‘this honourable badge’ along with the rest of his battalion at the beginning of 1816. Irishmen who had served at Waterloo also benefitted from prize money granted for the victory, awarded proportionately based on rank.
Vivid memories of fighting at Waterloo remained alive with Irish veterans until very late in the nineteenth century. When Co. Armagh native Samuel Gibson died at a workhouse in Caterham, Surrey, in December 1891, speculation ensued about whether or not the former member of the 27th Inniskillings might be considered Britain’s last ever veteran of Waterloo. However, that distinction was ultimately to go to another Irish Waterloo veteran, Maurice Shea of Co. Kerry. Born in the townland of Trien in 1794, Shea had enlisted into the British Army at the age of eighteen in 1813, and fought in Belgium in 1815 as a private in the 73rd Regiment of Foot. When he died in Canada in March 1892, he was generally credited as having been the longest-living British veteran of the Waterloo campaign – an honour he retains to the present.
Peter Molloy is a military historian with a particular interest in Irish service in the British army. A graduate of University College Dublin and NUI Maynooth, his MA thesis examined the many links between Ireland and the Waterloo campaign of 1815. Having first visited the battlefield of Waterloo at the age of eleven in 1999, he has since explored the area on multiple occasions; most recently during the bicentenary of Waterloo in June 2015.