“Had I chosen to fight in Ireland instead of Egypt, what would England be today?”
Napoleon’s comment from exile in St Helena about his decision in May 1798 is one of Ireland’s – and Europe’s – great counterfactual historical speculations. This month’s 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo in 1815 reminds us how much was at stake in his defeat there for Europe’s future political order.
The 100th anniversary in 1915 found Britain fighting with France against Germany, reversing the Waterloo alignment which brought together British, Prussian, German and Dutch troops against Napoleon. It was to last for most of the 19th century. In contrast Nato commanders speak of Waterloo as their first operation, given the multinational alliance it represented.
The Cambridge-based Irish historian Brendan Simms argues that Britain should consolidate its political links with Germany now rather than marginalise itself outside the European Union.
He has written a riveting account of the battle’s key episode in the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte on June 18th, 1815, in which 400 troops of the British army’s German legion held out for four hours against a French assault.
The legion was formed in 1803 to honour its monarchy’s Hanoverian links after Napoleon conquered that state. Their valour gave crucial time for Prussian forces commanded by Blucher to be deployed alongside those of the Duke of Wellington.
Thirty-six per cent of the troops in Wellington’s army at Waterloo were English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish, 10 per cent were King’s German Legion, 10 per cent were Nassauers, 8 per cent were Brunswickers, 17 per cent were Hanoverian regular army, 13 per cent were Dutch and 6 per cent “Belgian” (Walloons and Flemings).
Ireland’s fate was settled by the bloody suppression of the 1798 rebellion and the Act of Union in 1801. Thereafter Irish regiments and troops played a prominent role at Waterloo and in the Peninsular War against French occupation of Portugal and Spain, where Wellington forged his military skills in 1809-13.
About one third of the British troops at Waterloo were Irish, perhaps 12,000 in all. Most were labourers or weavers, according to an illuminating MA thesis by Peter Molloy on Ireland and Waterloo, available online.
He gives details of the other Irish commanders, in addition to Wellington, and of the much smaller numbers of Irish officers and troops in the French and German armies.
Wellington was born Arthur Wesley (later changed to Wellesley) in what is now the Merrion Hotel, Dublin, in 1769. His family were gentry, from near Trim in Co Meath, where they had land. He was in the British military in India during the 1798 rebellion. He returned from there to Ireland as chief secretary in 1807-09, when he first voiced his opposition to the penal laws against Catholics.
After Waterloo he was widely commemorated in Ireland – by what is now called the Ha’penny bridge over the Liffey, by the subsequently renamed Griffith Barracks in Dublin, by a monument and sculpture in Trim, by several roads in Dublin and Cork and by the huge obelisk in Phoenix Park, completed in 1861, nine years after his death.
Among the contributors to the obelisk was Daniel O’Connell, who worked with Wellington to deliver Catholic Emancipation in 1829, when he was prime minister.
In his speech announcing the measure, Wellington paid tribute to the Irish Catholic troops who fought with him in Portugal and Spain – during which time he also relied on Irish priests and monks there for intelligence on the French.
It was O’Connell, not Wellington himself, who in 1843 coined the famous aphorism about his birthplace: “The poor old Duke! What shall I say of him? To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”
In fact Wellington remained proud of his Irish heritage. The anniversary has been marked by ceremonies in Trim and elsewhere. In Dublin the Military History Society and other organisations are marking it on June 18th, including with a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral commemorating “the fallen of all nations who died at Waterloo”. Conferences in Maynooth University today and in UCD on November 6th will further examine the record.
Napoleon is commemorated in Irish street songs of rebellion sung right through the 19th century. The Green Linnet and the The Royal Eagle recall his military triumphs.
In The Bonny Bunch of Roses, Napoleon's son, who wants to restore his might, is told by his mother how difficult that will be – as if to answer Napoleon's own intriguing question.