Ireland and Waterloo: Looking Back and Looking Forward

In Ireland we’re thinking of centenaries but this month we should spare a thought for the bicentenary of an event that involved or affected many Irish and whose outcome influenced the country’s fate.

From an Irish perspective, the echoes of Waterloo are faint. But they are worth recalling because the Irish dimension to the battle was an important one.  The nature of Ireland’s multifaceted response to the French Revolution and to Waterloo also tells us much about Ireland at the time. Moreover, how we reflect on Waterloo tells us much about Ireland today and how in looking back, we are also looking forward.

***

On 18 June 1815, the Irish-born Duke of Wellington, aided by the decisive late intervention of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher of Prussia, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. Since his escape from Elba, Napoleon had enjoyed hopes of triumph for ‘One Hundred Days’. With Waterloo those hopes ended and with them an era.

News of Napoleon’s escape from Elba electrified Europe. Hearing of Napoleon unbound, the recently restored Bourbon Louis XVIII fled Versailles.  The heads of states, diplomats and notables devising the post-Napoleonic shape of Europe in Vienna condemned Napoleon as an outlaw and assembled a coalition of armies to engage him.

From his landing on the Cote d’Azur, Napoleon advanced north through France like some force of nature, gathering troops and intent on splitting and defeating the coalition forces of the Anglo-Dutch and the Prussians. They in turn were scrambling to combine their forces and crush him. He intended to engage them in turn on the plains of Belgium, the game board of European struggles for many centuries.

Napoleon just missed the mark, failing to keep the two armies apart.  His staff officers were rusty; even his famed Marshal Ney showed hesitation, failing to capture the vital crossroads of Quatre Bras on 16 June. That engagement saw three Irish captains die defending it.

On the day of the battle at Waterloo, Napoleon was fatigued or unwell.  Stubborn defence by Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch force held off the ferocity of Napoleon’s trademark mobility of horse and use of artillery. That was fatal because it meant that the French had not won the field before Blücher arrived.  Even still, the climactic battle was, as Wellington remarked, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Had Napoleon won, he might just have fought again and even won again. Whether he would have reasserted his mastery of Europe seems questionable. Too many European powers had determined to fight him together.

Napoleon returned to Paris to reassemble an army as the British and Prussians surrounded the city. Rather than see the city stormed, the French surrendered. For Napoleon, the game was finally up and after abdicating he boarded HMS Bellerophon to capitulate to the British.  He was soon was on his way to exile on the island of St. Helena, accompanied by Irishman and surgeon Barry O’Meara, who became his doctor and wrote of Napoleon’s last years there.  Louis XVIII was escorted back into the city by the Prussians who returned him to the palace at Versailles that he had so recently and rapidly vacated.

Waterloo ushered in an era of peace after twenty-five years of war. However not everyone welcomed Napoleon’s defeat.  For many he was the avatar of modernity, the destroyer of ancien régimes, the harbinger of a new era of liberalism.  Irish nationalists had waited for the arrival of his troops in Ireland to rebel once more but such hopes were finally extinguished. For progressives and radical reformers across Europe, his defeat at the hands of the established powers returned the reactionaries to dominance.

With Waterloo Britain achieved its strategic objective in Europe; a balance of power in which it was the central source of influence.  It took this opportunity to establish itself as a world power of a scope unprecedented in modern times. In the16th century Spain had been Britain’s continental rival, followed by France in the 17th and 18th centuries. But because of Waterloo Britain would not face another European rival until the rise of industrialised, imperial Germany in 1871. In a twist of history, the rise of Germany was in part due to Napoleon’s reorganisation of the hundreds of Rhineland principalities into what became the thirty-nine states of the German Confederation.

***

In many ways, Ireland’s destiny was shaped by the strategic threat that Britain perceived it to represent. There is something of the ‘folly of the consequent’ in this. Having conquered and colonised Ireland as its first overseas possession, it had created a resentful population because of land expropriate and systematic anti-catholic discrimination that was designed to ensure that catholics could wield no influence or develop a political leadership. Looking to throw off the English yoke, Irish nationalists naturally turned to Britain’s European enemies for succour and support when opportunity allowed.

Spain landed troops in Ireland to support the O’Neill rebellion at the end of the 16th century. Revolutionary France sent forces in both 1796 and 1798 to support an Irish rebellion. The military thinking of both Spain and France was similar: deploy a relatively small expeditionary force to spark rebellion in Ireland and tie down a disproportionate number of British troops, diverting them from the main theatre of war. (Nazi Germany pondered a similar diversionary campaign though since Ireland was independent at that stage one has to consider its planning as little more than a feint. One might even counter-factually speculate that had Ireland been left alone by England and developed as an independent country, it would not have been inviting invasions from Spain or France.)

Denied opportunities at home because of their religion, leading Irish Catholics had long emigrated to France for education in the Irish colleges there and to seek careers in the church, banking and medicine. They also joined the military, notably the ‘Wild Geese’ of the Irish Brigade, whose decisive intervention had swung the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy in favour of the Franco-Prussian alliance against the British and their allies. That intervention handed the Bourbon dynasty a new lease on power.

Well before the Revolution, then, links between Ireland and France were strong, if tilted toward the establishment. The Irish community in Paris had carved out a niche for themselves under the Bourbons.  Through their wits they survived the threats and turmoil of the Revolution itself.

Back in Ireland and inspired by the French Revolution, the United Irishmen comprised Protestants and Catholics together demanding more liberties from London, in effect self-determination. For the elite Protestant members of the movement this was a particularly principled and brave demand since any realization of their ambitions would have inevitably led to Catholic demands for a reversal of the land appropriations on which the Protestant Ascendancy was established, the very class from which they themselves came.

The United Irishmen sent emissaries to Paris to lobby the Revolutionary government and then Napoleon for support for an uprising back home. These emissaries were in effect leaders in exile, determined to return and lead an Irish revolution. They added a new dimension and much intrigue to the Irish community in Paris in the 1790s and early 1800s.

The United Irishmen were actually initially very successful in their efforts with the Directory and with Napoleon. The Directory dispatched some 15,000 troops along with Wolfe Tone in 1796 but events and one of the stormiest winters in a century conspired to frustrate its landing. For two vital years, the British had the opportunity to weaken the rebels though paradoxically the repression also helped generate the rebellion it was designed to forestall. By the time a French force actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to support the rebellion, the balance of forces were in Britain’s favour and the rebellion savagely repressed.

After the rebellion, Dublin Castle, the seat of British power, used draconian laws, force and intelligence gathering to ensure that any lingering rebelliousness was leaderless and lack organisation.  Robert Emmet’s 1803 rebellion was quickly snuffed out and he executed. The British military built roads deep into the wilds of Wicklow to thwart future rebels taking refuge there again. The squat Martello towers erected to warn of a French invasion were dotted all around the coast except for the loyal northeast.

The political response by London to 1798 was in many ways it most fateful. By abolishing the Irish (albeit Protestant) parliament through the 1801 Act of Union, Britain created a precise and singular demand for Irish nationalists that would define and dominate their agenda until its achievement, namely the restoration of local autonomy.

Despite the defeat of the Irish rebellions in 1798 and 1803, Napoleon still thought that Ireland could play a key part in his plans to invade England. He formed the Irish Legion in 1804 to catalyse rebellion and then lead it, hoping that the sight of the Legion landing on Ireland’s shores in its green livery would foment revolution. But its mandate was uncertain – was it a nascent political elite for an independent Ireland or a spearhead military force? This would dog its development and frustrate the United Irishmen in Paris. The problems of the Legion played into a broader frustration and growing disillusion with Napoleon, leading many United Irish leaders to emigrate eventually to America, much to the satisfaction of watchful British officials.

The Irish Legion’s history was not then a happy one, its officers mainly Irish but its ranks mixed, including amongst Irish soldiers English prisoners of war, Poles and Prussians.  Yet it would earn its place in Napoleon’s Army on European battlefields, the only foreign regiment to be granted a regimental eagle standard.

The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar stunted Napoleon’s ambitions of conquering England, though he would revisit the notion again and with it the role that Ireland might play. As Marianne Elliott notes: “Napoleon’s treatment of the Irish Legion after 1806 became the temperature gauge of his attitude towards Irish liberation in general…..but the conflict between the military and the political conception of the Irish Legion’s role was never quite resolved, in the minds either of the Irish themselves or of the French officials.” (See suggested reading below, p.349)

***

Exiled rebels working with the French is a romantic and compelling part of the Irish story, satisfying to the nationalist narrative. However, it is a partial one because the vast majority of Irish fighting at Waterloo did so in the livery of the British Army, just as they had done throughout modern history. If there were plenty of Irishmen willing to rebel if the odds were good, there many on the other side of the equation; the loyal Anglo-Irish aristocracy filled the ranks of the British cavalry and Irish labourers and weavers (unemployed thanks to the French blockade and then war with America) joined the ranks for an income, adventure and a career.

There is not a great deal written about the Irish in British ranks at Waterloo. On the Irish participation in Waterloo there is one piece of research available on the internet. Peter Molloy’s thesis is, as far as I know, unpublished but it is a vivid and engaging piece of work. He captures well the ferment caused in Ireland by the return of the “Destroyer of Men” (a well earned epithet, since Napoleon’s wars cost about six million lives). You can find his thesis here

Ireland was thrown in excitement and movement by the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. For most people the immediate visible impact was the surge towards the ports as troops and supplies were moved to embarkation points around the coast.

The Inniskilling Dragoons and Fusiliers prepared for action in what for them would prove to be a brutally heroic engagement. They were joined by the 18th (King’s Irish) Hussars. Molloy records that these regiments comprised the three official Irish contingents at Waterloo. Other Irish regiments that had fought under Wellington’s command in the Peninsular Wars had been deployed to America for the War of 1812. A convoy of troops just out of an Irish port and heading to Bermuda were overtaken and told to head to Belgium, much to their relief. Dublin and Cobh bustled as ships were loaded, anchors weighed and sails raised. You can easily imagine the flutter of conversation at homes and taverns throughout the island at this thrillingly awful turn of events.

Irishmen were enlisted in many British regiments, not just those associated with Ireland. Young James Graham from Monaghan, who had some years before joined the Louth Militia, was now a serving NCO with the Coldstream Guards as the orders came to mobilise.

How many Irish were actually in the British Army at Waterloo is a surmise. By 1830 it has been reckoned that over 40% of the British Army were Irish and while probably not far off one cannot assume this to have been case at Waterloo. From Molloy’s sampling, it would seem that somewhere in the region of 30% of British regiments comprised Irish enlisted men and NCOs. Add to that a good quotient of officers (including three generals) plus camp followers and one can firmly state that Irish representation at Waterloo was very significant indeed and probably not far off 40% even with so many Irish units absent.

Molloy writes:

“Indeed, it is possible to go a step further and argue that the British army of the Waterloo campaign offers a genuinely representative cross-section of Irish society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Irishmen of all descriptions saw active service in 1815. Some, mostly members of the officer class like Major General Sir William Ponsonby or Captain Edward Thomas Fitzgerald, hailed from relatively privileged and influential backgrounds in the country. At the opposite end of the rank and wealth scale at Waterloo were common soldiers like Private Terence Gallagher of Kilmore, County Mayo; a twenty five year old former weaver who had enlisted into the 1st Foot for a term of unlimited service in December 1813.” (p. 35)

The pace of events accelerated as the confrontation approached, the Waterloo campaign itself lasting a mere four days of furious movement and intensive fighting. Some 200,000 combatants fought in an area about half the size of the Phoenix Park, often hand-to-hand and no more than a couple of hundred yards apart when firing at each other. Casualties have been estimated at up to 54,000 men killed or seriously wounded, along with 10,000 horses dead or injured. The carnage of men and horses in such a concentrated area shocked even hardened veterans.

The 1st Battalion of the 27th (Inniskillings) Foot found itself in the centre of Wellington’s line after a two-day forced march to the battlefield. Their square formation endured repeated assaults by French cavalry and artillery fire. By the end of the day more than half of their 750 troops were casualties. Indeed Molloy writes that “Due to its frequent featuring in secondary literature, as well as the references to the battalion’s stand in a large number of British primary accounts from the battle, it is probably no exaggeration to suggest that the ordeal of the Inniskillings at Waterloo remains perhaps the single most widely discussed and visible element of Irish participation in the campaign” (p. 37).

Our Sergeant James Graham found himself as part of a garrison at a farm complex called Hougoumont on Wellington’s right flank. The French attacked it repeatedly, since if breached and taken they could outflank the Allied forces. They broke in but Graham rushed forward to close the gate and save the day. For that and other heroics, he was recognised as one of two of the bravest soldiers on the day.

Another Irish hero of the day was cavalryman Captain Edward ‘Waterloo’ Kelly whose exploits in the thick of battle earned him his sobriquet. As he wrote to his wife, as quoted by Molloy, “Donnybrooke [sic] Fair was nothing to the fight we had here… there were a great number of wigs on the green” (a figure of speech about gentlemen taking to Stephen’s Green to settle arguments in combat where words had failed them).

***

Had events allowed, the Irish in the British Army could well have found themselves facing off against Napoleon’s Irish Legion. As it happened, on Napoleon’s first abdication the officers of the Irish Legion had sworn loyalty to Louis XVIII, re-establishing the pre-revolutionary commitment of the Irish Brigade to the Bourbons.  Napoleon’s arrival on French soil prompted them to swear loyalty anew to him.  Garrisoned at Avesnes near Calais, they were not called into the battle. One has to think that uncertainty about their loyalty might have played a role in this. After Waterloo and in retaliation for the oath to the great usurper, the restored Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII disbanded the Legion, burned its flags and destroyed its regimental eagle.

Ireland was enthralled and deeply engaged by the ‘One Hundred Days’ of Napoleon’s return. His defeat was widely celebrated throughout the island, notably in Dublin where a new bridge was named Waterloo Bridge in 1816 though today it is better known as the Ha’penny Bridge.  To this day the Wellington Monument dominates the Phoenix Park and Waterloo graces a brace of place names.

After 1815, Irish nationalist agitation for political reform and home rule would dominate the rest of a century bisected by the Great Famine of 1845-51. Daniel O’Connell, a champion of democracy of truly international repute and significance, fought politically for catholic emanicipation, home rule and relief of famine victims.  Wellington actually played a key role in securing catholic emancipation.  This did not stop O’Connell from taking pleasure in goading Wellington, inventing the spurious claim that Wellington responded to jibes about his brith in Ireland by saying birth in a stable did not mean one was a horse.

While constitutional politics would dominate Ireland for the next one hundred years, the republican tradition of armed revolt inspired by the French Revolution would live on in Ireland in secret, a subterranean drumbeat kept alive by oath-bound revolutionaries. The next time Irish nationalists looked to Europe for support, it would be to Germany or “our gallant allies in Europe” in the salutation of the 1916 Proclamation.

Elliot’s masterful account of the United Irishmen and France, Partners in Revolution, makes a crucial point about their legacy: “…it was the myth of noble failure, the sanctity of the hopeless struggle, which paradoxically was to exercise most influence on nationalist imagination, and in the 1848 and 1916 risings, republican nationalists used the myth in justification of rebellions pre-ordained to fail” (p.370).

And as she notes, “in fairness, it was a myth initiated by the United Irishmen themselves when things started to go disastrously wrong.” As we look back on our history, even with the best intentions, Elliot’s points is an important cautionary one about how self-conscious history making is not history but its abuse.

The tragedy of Ireland’s divided loyalties were starkly illustrated when in one engagement in Dublin the rebels of 1916, very much sons of the French Revolution, faced off against the descendent unit of the heroes of Waterloo: The Inniskilling Fusiliers (12th Reserve Battalion) were dispatched to help deal with the Rising and suffered two fatalities and some injuries in the fight.

***

Waterloo lives on in many different ways. Napoleon’s vision of a European power bound under one (his own) rule recalled Charlemagne’s ambitions. Its peaceful manifestation today is the European Union. The EU may not excite British antagonism as Napoleon did but the island-nation’s relationship to Europe remains unsettled enough to generate an upcoming referendum on continued membership.  The United Nation’s reputedly got its name from Byron’s description of the Allies at Waterloo when he wrote ‘Here, where the sword united/nations drew…’ (see History Ireland, May-June 2015, p. 26).

In literature, Stendhal called on his own experiences with Napoleon’s campaigns to paint a vivid picture of the Battle of Waterloo in his famous and charming novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. That would in turn inspire Tolstoy’s famous account of the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the climax of War and Peace when Napoleon’s Grand Armée stumbles and fatally loses its momentum on the way to Moscow. (Indeed, one might note en passant, that Waterloo is unimaginable without the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian campaign since Russian pursuit and Allied convergence led directly to his tenure in Elba: see Russia Against Napoleon by Dominc Lieven and as a companion piece read Count de Ségur’s diary of Napoleon’s Russian campaign pubilished as Defeat, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign with an introduction by Mark Danner. Lieven contradicts Tolstoy by arguing that it was not merely Russian stoicism that won but logistical organisation by the Russian Army that sustained the pursuit of Napoleon all the way to Paris.)

For the 27th Inniskilling Fusiliers, their heroic unflinching defence in the maelstrom of the battle became a part of their soldiering ethos. As the Royal Irish Rangers they were merged with the Royal Ulster Rifles whose own stout defence of Seoul against the formidable “Chinese waves” during the Korean War were pivotal to the communist defeat (see related blogs under ‘Korea’). Having been merged again with Ulster Defence Regiment in 1992, today the Fusiliers live on in the Royal Irish Regiment.

Molloy again:

“Quite apart from historical study, Waterloo remains a cherished battle honour for the British Army’s contemporary Royal Irish Regiment – ultimate successor, through a complex series of amalgamations, to the 27th Foot of 1815. On 18 June 2011, Waterloo Day, the 1st Battalion of that regiment marked its return from a demanding tour of Afghanistan with the awarding of campaign medals. At the close of the medal ceremony, the battalion was marched off the parade ground by its non-commissioned officers: a symbolic nod to Waterloo, with regimental tradition maintaining that so many of the Inniskillings’ officers had been killed or wounded by the close of that engagement that the unit was commanded by its NCOs instead.” (fn. 98)

***

That there is not much written about the Irish at Waterloo is undoubtedly a result to some degree of the great occlusion of British-Ireland created by the struggle for Irish independence. As Irish self-determination was frustrated throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the republican revolutionaries who had bided their time found events turning their way again. The Rising of 1916 and all that flowed from it sanctified a singular perspective on our historical narrative. The republican nationalist narrative focused attention on the lineage of the victors and their heroes: the United Irishmen, Wolfe Tone, 1798, and Robert Emmet’s doomed 1803 revolt.

We are re-stranding Irish identity with new lineages from history that suffered from the great occlusion. This is in part thanks to the liberation of the Northern Ireland peace process. It is in part a result of our evolution as a society which is increasingly inclusive, a sure sign of our security when it comes to our identity. Time and reflection allows us review our narrative as we approach one hundred years of independence. It is also in part a result of the decade of centenaries now upon us that demand our attention and consideration.

So, for example, Irish involvement in the British armed services during World War I is now acknowledged and commemorated. Irish defence force personnel who deserted to fight in World War II can be acknowledged rather than besmirched and penalised. As this process develops, the exploits of the Irish in the British Army throughout its Empire in the 19th century will overtime receive more attention.

In reflecting soberly and openly on our past, our history can no longer be considered, as Joyce termed it no doubt accurately at the time, a nightmare from which we must awaken.

And how we respond to Waterloo, as we respond to our history in general, tells much about Ireland today and our appetite for reflection on what constitutes our heritage and what it means to be Irish.

As we recover and embrace so many aspects of our past, that is a very positive story of where Ireland stands today, looking back on a far richer narrative than we have hitherto allowed and looking forward to a genuinely inclusive future.

 Eamonn McKee

Tel Aviv

Some suggested reading:

Peter Molloy, Ireland and the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, (MA Thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011)

Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty, The History of the Great Rebellion of 1798 (New York, 1993)

Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution, The United Irishmen and France, New Haven, 1982)

Liam Swords, The Green Cockade, The Irish and the French Revolution 1789-1815 (Dublin, 1989)

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, the true story of the campaigns of War and Peace (New York, 2010)

Mark Danner (ed.), Defeat, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur (New York, 2008)

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2 Comments

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

2 responses to “Ireland and Waterloo: Looking Back and Looking Forward

  1. Dear Eamonn,

    Many thanks for your kind words, and well done on a very thoughtful and well-considered piece.

    It’s wonderful to see the extensive Irish involvement at Waterloo receiving attention as the bicentenary looms.

    Best wishes,

    Peter Molloy.

    • Dear Peter,

      I am glad you liked it: your research was very well done and well presented. I’ve always had a fascination with the that period, near enough to be modern but old enough to be free of the sins of modernity. I hope you continue to research and write.

      Best wishes,

      Eamonn

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