‘A battle of giants’: Waterloo, Wellington and Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Volume 23

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, 1812–14. (National Gallery, London)

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, 1812–14. (National Gallery, London)

Lord Sidmouth, the British home secretary, acknowledged that Irish troops, many of them Catholic, had ‘turned the scale on the 18th of June at Waterloo’. Nevertheless, within a couple of years it became evident that there would be no reward for Irish loyalty, merely a continuation of existing policies: claims for civil rights would be answered with ‘Papists lie down’. It was a point seized upon by Daniel O’Connell during his election campaign in 1828, when he declared that ‘the soldiers who achieved that unparalleled victory are bound in chains’. No wonder, he insisted, that ‘the field of Waterloo was as disgraceful to England as it was disastrous to France’. It made no difference that the victorious general at Waterloo was an Irishman. It is worth clarifying that the duke of Wellington never said anything about being born in a stable. This was a joke told by Daniel O’Connell at the monster meetings in 1843—a joke so good that it quickly took on a life of its own and is now attributed incorrectly to its victim.

In the popular imagination Wellington was the hero of the battle, and it helped make him prime minister of the United Kingdom in the years ahead. Numerous honours followed: he was created a field marshal in seven armies and made chancellor of Oxford, and Queen Victoria even named her third son ‘Arthur’ after him. In Ireland a new bridge was opened in Dublin in 1816 and called the Wellington Bridge. Later it became the Liberty Bridge and is now known popularly as the Ha’penny Bridge. In 1817 work began on constructing a large obelisk in Dublin in his honour, what became the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park. But not everyone was convinced that Wellington deserved all the credit for the victory. O’Connell frequently dismissed Wellington as ‘the chance victor of a battle’, playing on the view that Napoleon had out-thought his opponent comprehensively and had been defeated only by ill luck and Prussian reinforcements.

The armies and the commanders
Waterloo battle mapNapoleon had about 77,500 troops at Waterloo (including artillery men for 246 guns); Wellington had roughly 73,000 men (about 53,800 infantry, 13,350 cavalry and artillery men for 157 guns) in his Anglo-Allied force. Wellington, 46 years old at Waterloo, had established his reputation as a military commander in the Peninsular campaign, when he had drained French forces by opening up another front in Portugal and mastered the art of the ‘reverse slope’. Perfectly suited to defensive operations, he did not delegate, rarely asked for advice from subordinates and was determined to do things his own way. During the battle he constantly moved around, checking that his orders were being implemented and directing the defence, a man clearly in command.

Napoleon, two months away from his 46th birthday at Waterloo, had won his reputation as an ingenious attacking commander, creating the legend of a genius who could out-think and outfight any opponent. But at Waterloo he seemed struck by a strange lethargy; he fell ill during the battle and had to lie down in the afternoon to recover. Whether physically or mentally exhausted, he was not the commander of old who had inspired thousands to die for him. A mention should also be made of the third commander, General Blücher, in charge of 49,000 Prussians. Despite having had his horse shot from under him during Ligny and having been trampled over by a number of cavalry charges, he had fortified himself with copious amounts of brandy, gin and coffee, and was able to provide crucial reinforcements at a critical turning point in the battle.

The battle
The battle of Waterloo can best be understood in terms of five distinct phases. It began after 11am on the morning of 18 June. In the first phase the French attacked Wellington’s right flank at the farm at Hougoumont. This was a crucial strategic location, as capturing it would allow Napoleon to outman-oeuvre Wellington, and the French failure to break through the gates proved decisive. There followed a mass infantry assault on Wellington’s left centre, which was repulsed by a dramatic charge of the British heavy cavalry: 2,300 horsemen of the Union and Household Brigades ploughed into 15,000 French attackers, causing panic and confusion, and scattering them. Next it was the turn of the French cavalry, and in the third phase they assaulted Wellington’s centre right. Wellington’s infantry formed into squares and repulsed wave upon wave of attacks for over two hours; the squares held.

The capture by the French around 6pm of La Haye Sainte, a walled farmhouse that was another key strategic position, threatened to change everything, offering as it did the possibility of breaking the allied centre. Wellington is alleged to have prayed, ‘Give me night or give me Blücher’. His prayer was answered. The arrival of the Prussians helped turn the tide, and their attack on the French right changed everything. Fearing the end, the French Imperial Guard led a final, last-gasp assault after 7pm, but Napoleon had almost certainly left it too late. The attack failed when confronted by British artillery, and the British counter-attacked in the flanks, triggering a French collapse. Famously, Wellington appeared on the skyline waving his hat to give the signal for a general pursuit of the enemy. By 10.30pm, with the French recoiling and the Prussians in pursuit, the battle was over.

Irish heroism and cowardice at Waterloo
Some Irish soldiers left the field of Waterloo with their reputation enhanced, some with their reputation diminished, and some never left it at all. It is impossible to state precisely the numbers of Irish who fought at Waterloo, although the excellent work of Peter Molloy shows that it is likely to have been thousands. The vast majority were in the British army, although there were small numbers of Irish (or soldiers of Irish descent) in the Prussian and French armies. The key Irish units in the British army present at Waterloo were the 1st Battalion of the 27th (Inniskilling) and two cavalry units—the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and the 18th (King’s Irish) Hussars.

Waterloo traditions developed after the war, most of them apocryphal. The Irish Sword in 1967 mentioned one such tradition, the story of two Irish brothers who encountered each other on the field of battle. One was a hussar in Wellington’s army, the other an officer in the French army. Rather than fighting against each other they flipped a coin to decide which side to join—an unlikely conclusion to a tale that reflects the power of romantic storytelling rather than reality.

The 2nd earl of Portarlington, an Irish peer, commanded the 23rd Light Dragoons at Waterloo with the rank of lieutenant colonel. An ex-perienced soldier from the Peninsular campaign, he went missing the night before the battle, as he left his regiment to travel back to Brussels. The next day he returned to Waterloo to find the battle raging and his regiment in the thick of it. Desperate to redeem the stain on his character, he threw himself into the fighting and had a horse shot from under him, but his reputation never survived the suggestion that he had fled on the eve of battle.

Major-General Sir William Ponsonby commanded the Union Brigade, the 2nd British Brigade, and found himself at the front of the action but on the wrong horse. After one charge he attempted to rally his formation and was attacked by French lancers. It seems that he rode into a muddy ploughed field, allowing his pursuers to catch him, and was speared to death while holding a small picture of his wife. His cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby, commanded the 12th Light Dragoons and was thrown from his horse during the battle. Too wounded to leave the battlefield, he was attacked later in the day by a French lancer, who shouted at him: ‘You are not dead, you rascal!’ Ponsonby survived despite being lanced through the lungs, and, unable to speak, struggled to fight off plunderers the next morning.

Captain Edward Kelly from Portarlington in Queen’s County was an officer in the 1st Life Guards. During the charge of the British heavy cavalry he unhorsed a French colonel and dismounted to remove the man’s epaulettes to bring home as a souvenir. Describing the fighting afterwards, he admitted that ‘Donnybrook Fair was nothing to the fight we had here … there were a great number of wigs on the green’.

There were other Irish success stories. Major-General Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur led the 4th British Cavalry Brigade at Waterloo and covered the withdrawal of the heavy cavalry after their dramatic charge, receiving the thanks of parliament afterwards. Major Charles Rowan, from County Antrim, was wounded while fighting with his 52nd Light Infantry. In 1829 he became one of the two first joint commissioners of London’s Metropolitan Police, alongside another Irishman, Richard Mayne, a barrister from Dublin.

Did Waterloo matter?
It is notable how perspectives of Waterloo and its significance can change according to geography. Some Russian and Austrian historians dismiss the battle entirely, pointing to earlier defeats by Napoleon as being far more decisive. They argue that even if Napoleon had won at Waterloo it would not have settled the fate of Europe but merely postponed things until their own armies went to meet him. Indeed, at least 300,000 Russian and Austrian soldiers were gathering to meet Napoleon. Some German historians point to the decisive influence of the Prussian allies and argue (almost certainly correctly) that only for their contribution Wellington would have been easily defeated. Some Irish historians claim it as an Irish victory, pointing to Wellington’s own background and the large number of Irish soldiers in the British army. Some British historians claim it simply as one of their greatest victories. And the French disagree with everyone.

The legacy of Waterloo
Writing about the ‘fatal’ battle of Waterloo in his Childe Harold’s pilgrimage, Lord Byron captured the epic nature of the grand alliance against Napoleon in the lines:

‘Here, where the sword united nations drew
Our countrymen were warring on that day!’

During the Second World War, when Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were looking for a name for their own grand alliance against Hitler, they returned to those words. It is said that Roosevelt wheeled himself into where Churchill was having a bath to tell him of the proposed new name, and thus the ‘United Nations’ became the name of the post-war organisation that was established to promote international cooperation.

Wellington found it difficult to find any glory in victory. He wrote the day after Waterloo that he hoped that he had fought his last battle: ‘It is a bad thing to be always fighting’. In the years ahead the name Waterloo was given to streets, monuments and railway stations. It even provided the title of the Eurovision-winning song in 1974 for ABBA. This year, on the bicentenary of the battle, it is worth reflecting on the significance of Waterloo. It can be claimed as both an Irish defeat and an Irish victory, but it represented something far greater. It was a moment when the fate of Europe was decided in battle, and when an Irish-born general led an alliance against one of the greatest military leaders the world has ever seen. It was, as Wellington later admitted, ‘a battle of giants’.

Professor Patrick Geoghegan teaches history at Trinity College, Dublin, and is the presenter of the award-winning Talking History on Newstalk radio.

Read More:The road to Waterloo
The butcher’s bill
Waterloo in poem, song and stage

Further reading

J. Black, The Battle of Waterloo: a new history (London, 2010).
Col. N. Lipscombe (ed.), Waterloo: the decisive victory (Oxford, 2014).
P. Molloy, ‘Ireland and the Waterloo campaign of 1815’ (unpublished MA thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011).

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