Ireland’s Wars: Waterloo

Waterloo is, in my opinion, every bit the great “decisive” battle that it is made out to be. The French Wars had appeared to peter out in 1813 and 1814, as Allied armies overran France and Napoleon’s military found itself unable to defend its homeland from attacks coming from multiple directions. But then Napoleon escaped his exile, seized back control in Paris with the greatest of ease, and rallied the previously dismissed “Grande Armee” for one more shot at Imperial glory and European dominance.

The result was Waterloo, a climax to the French Wars that, through the scale of the fighting, the number of men involved and the disparate types of combat, is a truly worthy curtain call for the period in question. And several Irish regiments, and many, many Irish soldiers, were present that day, the 18th of June 1815.

The backdrop to the battle does not need too much going into. When Napoleon retook France and re-declared his Empire, the countries debating Europe’s future at the ongoing Council of Vienna labelled him an outlaw and vowed to bring him to heel once again. The Seventh Coalition, of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, the Dutch and a host of other smaller states, all committed themselves to a mass invasion of France.

Left with the choice of fighting a defensive war at home or striking out, Napoleon choose the offence. The initial moves were north, into the Low Countries, where Allied troops – British, Hanoverian, Dutch and others – under the command of Wellington had been gathered, along with a separate army of Prussians under their famous marshal Gebhhard Leberecht von Blucher. Napoleon hoped that a quick decisive victory would throw his enemies into disarray, raise rebellion in Belgium and perhaps present the possibility of his rule being recognised.

The resulting campaign, pre-Waterloo, is marked by two significant clashes. At Quatre Bras and Ligny, the French fought Wellington’s Allies and Blucher’s Prussians respectively, Napoleon seeking two separate victories before the two armies could join together. The French won partial victories, but no serious strategic gains: Wellington and Blucher took losses but retreated in good order, marching north parallel to the other. By the 17th, Napoleon had dispatched a large chunk of his army under Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to take care of the Prussians, whom he did not realise were not routing, while he retained the majority of his troops to face Wellington. The goal remained the same: defeat Wellington, turn around, and defeat the Prussians, taking care of the Allies in detail. Unwilling to continue a retreat north towards Brussels, Wellington set his army up just south of the hamlets of Mont-Saint-Jean and Waterloo, aiming to absorb the coming French attacks long enough for Blucher to tear into the French right.

The Waterloo battlefield was a wide one. Wellington’s force took positon on top of and behind a ridge to the north, and further occupied three key points ahead of them: the farmhouse of Hougoumont to the right, Le Haye Sainte in the centre, and the hamlet of Papelotte to the left. Napoleon, basing his HQ at an inn called Le Belle Alliance, massed his troops and prepared to attack, but remained mindful of the village of Plancenoit to his right, that lay directly in the path of the oncoming Prussians. Battle erupted in the late morning of the 18th.

The first serious fighting of the day took place to Hougoumont, on the French left and the British right.  Napoleon’s II Corps, under Marshal Honore Charles Reille, went forward in sections to attack the farmhouse, with Wellington responding with a constant stream of reinforcements and supplies. What might have started as a simple diversionary French attack, meant to draw Allied troops away from where the main blow was due to fall, sucked in a huge amount of troops by both sides in the course of the morning and afternoon: the French 88th Regiment d’Infanterie was likely involved in some capacity, part of Reille’s II Corps, a descendent unit from one of the Irish Brigade regiments, no longer Irish, but likely to have a much higher concentration of Irish and Irish-descended soldiers than other parts of Napoleon’s army. Regardless of how many troops Napoleon’s sent in that direction – probably over 14’000 before the end – Hougoumont held for the entire battle

Napoleon’s primary attack was actually going to come on his right flank, with his I Corps under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon. Over 14’000 men advanced around 13:30, heading straight towards a mixture of British, Hanoverian, Dutch and Belgian troops, while otherslaunched an unsuccessful assault on Le Haye Sainte. Though they took heavy casualties in the advance, the French held firm, and, after the death of British General Thomas Picton, in command of that area, the Allied line began to buckle.

It was then that Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, commander of British cavalry and a future Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, ordered his heavy cavalry forward, acting on his own initiative, hoping to rescue a likely collapse in the Allied positon. Two brigades, the Household and the Union, charged at the attacking French infantry. The Union was so named because it consisted of an English, Scottish and Irish regiment: the 1st Royal Dragoons and Scots Greys were joined by the 6th Dragoons, “Inniskilliners”, a descendent of the Williamite militia cavalry that had once fought against James II in the War of the Two Kings. The overall Brigade was commanded by William Ponsonby, an Irishman.

The British heavy cavalry made up for their inexperience and general lack of composure with their skill at swordplay and quality of their mounts. 2’000 charging horses smashed into the French lines, who had been mostly unprepared for the assault, due to the ridgeline that had kept the cavalry concealed. Two eagles were captured in the initial fighting, and the French infantry thrown into disarray and flight. The 6th, in the centre of their own charge, had less success than the flanks as the particular French units they charged after were further back and in a better position to defend themselves: the Inniskilling Colonel, Joseph Muter, never got over his unit’s failure to capture an eagle, as the Royals and the Greys did.

A bigger problem was that Uxbridge lost complete control of his men, and had not even had the forethought to leave a reserve. His cavalrymen charged recklessly forward, ignoring calls for them to come back: soon the British cavalry was hopelessly lost all over the field, the charge having run out of momentum, the horses totally blown. Some had even gotten as far as the French artillery lines, despite the fact that they had neither the time, experience or means of capturing them or destroying them. Napoleon swiftly ordered a counter-attack with some of his own cavalry, light and lancers. The British were badly mauled in the process, with the Union Brigade suffering particularly badly. Ponsonby was captured during this time, and killed when a rescue was attempted: what elements of the Royals, Greys and Inniskilling that still could, fled back towards Allied lines, having stopped the French infantry assault at the cost of much of their own battle effectiveness. Nearly half of the British heavy cavalry were casualties, but so were 3’000 French, d’Erlon’s Corps scattered.

Elements of the British light cavalry went forward after the main charge, to support their heavier siblings in their retreat and to attempt to ward off the French. One of these units was the 12th Royal Dragoons. While not a named Irish unit, it had significant Irish connections, having been garrisoned in Ireland since its formation in 1715, as a response to the Jacobite rebellion of that year. The 12th suffered badly going up against French lancers, losing two-thirds of its overall strength in this attack: indeed, so vivid was the experience that the 12th would be reconstituted as a lance-wielding regiment the next year. The immense cavalry combat petered out soon after, but the French were only just getting started.

Next to get it was the more central part of the Allied line, with Marshal Michel Ney, seeing a withdrawal of casualties among the British and mistaking it for the beginnings of a retreat, ordering a large scale cavalry attack on that section of the enemy. Wellington responded the only way he could, ordering his infantry to “form square”, exactly as it sounds: the infantry regiments would form up into four sided boxes, several ranks deep, with a hollow space in the middle. With bayonets pointed outwards, the formations were an effective guard against cavalry attacks, as horses could not be driven to charge home against such an obstacle. The purpose of the many charges made – maybe as much as 12, although accounts differ – was to try and scare the squares into breaking, but the line held.

Things got more drastic though, as a second attack on Le Haye Sainte took the farmhouse, its defenders forced to withdraw after running out of ammunition. That left the French lines as close as 60 yards to that of the Allies at points, and Ney was thus able to organise a combined arms assault on the British squares, bringing up infantry and artillery.

Just north of Le Haye Sainte, occupying a position near a crossroads, was the 27th Regiment of Foot, another “Inniskilling” unit. They had the unfortunate position of being incredibly close to some higher ground that the French had seized, and were thus exposed to truly murderous fire, from an ever expanding group of infantry and cannon, not to mention the repeated attacks of the cavalry that aimed to pick them off one at a time. The British cavalry, so badly reduced already, could only offer so much support. Unable to break formation, as that would have resulted in them being easily ridden down, the 27th, like so many others, simply had to withstand.

And withstand they did, though at a truly terrible cost. The famous words of Edward Cotton still resonate, the officer of the 7th Hussars describing the 27th as “literally…lying dead in square”. The 27th lost two-thirds of its men as casualties in around four grim hours, the highest casualties of any unit at Waterloo: by the end of the day, the regiment was under the command of a lieutenant, and eight of its ten companies had no officers able to serve at all. But there’s was not an unnecessary sacrifice: had the 27th withdrawn or broken, the French would have been able to penetrate right into the heart of the Allied line, and likely would have been able to then force a more complete withdrawal. As it was, despite the immense punishment, the Allies held.

Though most of them did not know it at the time, salvation was at hand. To the north, Prussian troops under Hanz von Zieten had arrived, and now helped defend Papelotte from French attacks, and allowed Wellington to move elements of his left flank to reinforce the centre, while to the south, a Prussian Corps under Karl von Bulow now exited the Bois de Paris and attacked Plancenoit, threatening the right and rear of Napoleon’s position. The fighting in Plancenoit would be bitter for a few hours, the village changing hands a few times, as Napoleon threw some of what few troops he had left into holding off the oncoming tide for as long as possible.

That done, Napoleon played his final card: his hitherto undefeated Imperial Guard infantry, nominally his best troops, sent up the middle, just left of Le Haye Sainte, to try and smash a way through the Allied lines. The attack is one of the most famous of the period, and was repulsed by a combination of British and (less well reported) Dutch infantry. The sight of the Guard retreating had an electric effect on the rest of the French army, which began to fall back without much order. Wellington, seizing the moment, ordered a general advance of his entire army.

The last of the Irish regiments of Waterloo played their role here, with the 18th Hussars, aka, the Drogheda Light Horse, moving forward on the Allied left as part of the 6th Cavalry Brigade . This cavalry movement aimed to keep the French retreat going, and to combat those French cavalry units that were now attempting to cover that retreat. The 18th and others had partial success: the retreat was kept going, but they suffered bad enough losses in the process, the French cavalry still having enough energy and fight to occasionally turn and force the British backwards. Regrettably for the Allies, the failing light and the over exuberance of these units, now running into Prussians arriving from the east, resulted in numerous friendly fire incidents.

After a brutal bayonet-led struggle, Plancenoit fell to the Prussians for the last time, and Napoleon was obligated to fall back south with what was left of his army, Wellington and Blucher meeting at the same inn where the Emperor had been located during the battle. The Battle of Waterloo was over, the Allies having won a truly decisive victory.

The last footnote of Irish involvement is the Battle of Wavre, which took place the following day, to the east. Groucy’s force of French took on a Prussian army that was reduced owing to its numbers that had taken part at Waterloo. The 87th Regiment d’Infanterie, another descendent from the Irish Brigade, would have been present. Ironically considering the overall state of the campaign, Wavre was a French victory.

It didn’t matter. Napoleon was forced to retreat back to France with his armies, there finding that those that had previously backed him were now not so gung-ho. With the Allies marching into France and no popular will to either resist them or maintain the Emperors rule, Napoleon abdicated for the second time, and eventually wound up in a British guarded exile on the lonely island of Saint Helena, where he would die in 1821.

While the overall significance of Waterloo has been debated – a French victory there would not have been the end of the war, with 300’000 Austrian and Russian troops readying to invade the east of France – the Irish contribution is undeniable, and not just in the few regiments I have discussed. As previously stated, a huge portion of many other regiments present at the battle would have been Irish-born, and numerous officers too, not least Wellington himself. One infantry and two cavalry brigades were commanded by Irishmen, and battalions and regiments were littered with Irish officers. Having played their part in nearly every war between Britain and France through the previous century and a bit, it was fitting that the Irish should be so heavily present at their great conclusion.

And with that comes to an end this little section of Ireland’s Wars, though the 19th century will give plenty of opportunity to have a look at the experiences of Irish units in British service, and Irishmen in the service of other armies. The 18th century was a peaceful one in Ireland itself, for the most part, but that would come to an end at its very conclusion, 17 years before Waterloo, in 1798.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Waterloo

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