Irish blood, English brass neck – An Irishman’s Diary about who really won Waterloo

A day to remember

 An 1806 recruitment poster in Irish outlining pay and conditions in the wars against Napoleon. National Museum of Ireland

An 1806 recruitment poster in Irish outlining pay and conditions in the wars against Napoleon. National Museum of Ireland


In a breezy feature on battlefield tourism recently, the Sunday Times (no relation) mocked the French about this year’s major anniversaries of two famous battles – Agincourt and Waterloo. Both involved the “drubbing” of French armies by “numerically inferior English forces”, twitted the writer. And we’ll give him Agincourt. But dear God, where to start with his suggestion that “numerically inferior English forces” won the Battle of Waterloo?

First of all, the army commanded at Waterloo by Meathman Arthur Wellesley was a multinational coalition, as most “English” land armies tended to be after the mid-1600s, when England decided to concentrate on a navy. The combined British, Dutch, and Germanic forces under Wellington were only slightly less numerous than Napoleon’s. So when you add the separate 50,000-strong Prussian army under Von Blücher, who made a decisive late appearance, the French were heavily outnumbered.

As for the “British” part of the forces facing Napoleon – about a third of the total – the English were a minority even in this. Up to 40 per cent may have been Irish, a figure vastly out of proportion to the countries’ populations. Many of the rest were Scots, including the “Highland squares” whose defiance of the French Imperial Guard (mostly Poles, by the way) was critical.

The bravery of the Irish impressed even Napoleon. But Wellington, who had had them for company throughout his campaigns in Spain and Portugal, would not have been surprised. On the eve of Waterloo, he commented of his troops in general: “I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God they terrify me.”

Collective courage aside, some of the most conspicuous individual gallantry in the battle was also Irish. I wrote here recently about James Graham, from Clones, called “the bravest of the brave” for his heroics in the pivotal closing of the gates at Hougoumont Farm and later rescuing his wounded brother from a burning barn. A plaque at Graham’s regimental headquarters in Aldershot describes him as “the bravest man in England”, which may have been technically true during his years there, although he spent his retirement back in the old country, at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. And if the most courageous veteran of Waterloo was Irish, so was the longest-living. The last known “British” survivor was Kerryman Maurice Shea – 97 when he died, in 1892.

So I suppose, getting back to the Sunday Times’s claim, the “English” forces at Waterloo were certainly inferior in numbers to the French. The travesty is the implication that they were wholly, or even mainly, responsible for victory. They weren’t. But for various reasons, we in this country have tended to conspire in the folklore that informed the travel writer, forgetting – deliberately or otherwise – the huge Irish part in the battle.

In part it’s because Napoleon, despite his death in exile, has won the posthumous PR war. He remains a more compelling figure than Wellington, who off the battlefield had none of the Frenchman’s flair for big ideas. Yes, he supported Catholic emancipation but he was a bad postwar prime minister of Britain, out of touch with the more democratic age he inherited.

The amnesia is also partly due to sheer passage of time. And yet as usual, this coming weekend will see several GAA clubs take to the playing fields of Ireland bearing the sub-title “Fontenoys” – a reference to an even older battle in Belgium, from 1745. The British forces then were part of another coalition, the “Pragmatic Allies”. But the Irish participants (or the ones we’ve chosen to remember) fought for the French and made the crucial victory charge. Thus the name “Fontenoy” still resounds across Ireland, whereas to the best of my knowledge, no GAA (or rugby, or soccer) team commemorates Waterloo.

The great battle makes up a surprisingly small part even in the magnificent permanent military exhibition at Collins Barracks in Dublin, “Soldiers and Chiefs”. But then again, as curator Lar Joye says, Waterloo was “12 hours of hell” in the 400 years of war covered. In any case, it is represented, mostly in the form of medals won by Irishmen.

The story is also told in Dan Harvey’s new book, Bloody Day – The Irish at Waterloo, a conscious attempt to reclaim forgotten history. Harvey is himself a military man, and in another strategic coalition is joining forces with the aforementioned Collins Barracks to mark the bicentenary. He will be talking about his book this morning at 10.30, as part of the museum’s day of commemoration, and on Sunday at 3pm.