Friday 30 September 2016

Time to claim Wellington of Waterloo as one of our own

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Thursday marks the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo, Britain's greatest military victory. But it was won by an Irishman.

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At six o'clock the Duke of Wellington

Rode out on Copenhagen, his fresh horse,

A chestnut bought first day at Cahirmee,

To view the scene at Waterloo.

Furthermore, as Lt Colonel Dan Harvey shows in his new book, A Bloody Day: The Irish at Waterloo, one in three of Wellington's troops at Waterloo were Irish too.

Let me pause for a moment, as Wellington surveys the scene of the coming battle, to prick some poisonous prejudices which tribal trolls have been peddling.

First, Wellington did not say, "because a man was born in a stable that does not make him a horse." Daniel O'Connell did.

What Wellington did say was, "I glory in the name of Ireland."

Bringing in the first measure of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, he paid tribute to the Irish troops who had fought under him across Portugal, Spain and France, all the way to Waterloo.

"Of the troops which our gracious Sovereign did me the Honor to entrust to my command...at least one half were Roman Catholics...without Catholic blood and Catholic valour, no victory could ever have been obtained...it is mainly to the Irish Catholics that we all owe our pre-eminence in our military career."

My two great military heroes are Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and the Duke of Wellington. My Wellington worship began in boyhood when my republican father gave me half a crown to buy bound volumes of the Boy's Own Paper at a local auction.

Later, I learned that Wellington had sailed from Cork in 1809, well provisioned from the Cork Butter Market, to begin his brilliant seven-year campaign that, with the help of hard-bitten Irish troops, would beat Bonaparte out of the Iberian Peninsula.

Waterloo features prominently in my 1985, screenplay, Major Parker, which led to my working on the Sharpe series.

Matt Sullivan, a spalpeen, boasts to the British Major: "My father stood at Waterloo." Parker: "So did mine: now he lies there."

In 1992, my passion for Wellington persuaded producer Kenny McBain to hire me to adapt Bernard Cornwell's epic series of Sharpe novels for television.

Kenny knew that British screenwriters, all anti-imperial angst, would balk at waving the Union Jack. But I did so with gusto. Because the big Irish presence in Wellington's Peninsular Army allowed me to make some pluralist points, mostly in the guise of broad comedy.

Sharpe's Eagle, my favourite, features three Irishmen - the Duke of Wellington; Major Hogan, a Dublin Protestant; and Patrick Harper from Donegal.

Major Hogan ribs Sean Bean (channelling Roy Keane) "Three Irish heroes standing between Britannia and Bonaparte. Time you played your part, Sharpe."

Alas, I could only hint at the rich themes of language and religion among the rankers in Wellington's Peninsular Army.

Mark Bois, in a thesis for the University of Lousville shows that as late as 1829 a Scottish regiment had a squad that drilled only in Gaelic.

Lieutenant Grattan, in his memoir of the Connaught Rangers, shows that some Irish soldiers spoke little English.

The other theme is religion. The legendary Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, recruited men of all creeds, in what became a pluralism of courage.

Back to Waterloo. At 6:30pm, the French finally captured the key strongpoint of La Haye Sainte farm, the subject of a recent brief and bloody book The Longest Afternoon, by Dublin-born historian Brendan Simms.

The French could now fire their cannon straight into the 27th Foot's formation. But the Inniskillings did not give an inch. At the end of the day, they were described as "lying dead in a square".

But as Peter Molloy shows in his Maynooth thesis, Ireland and the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, there were scores of other Irish soldiers seeded through the ranks of all the other regiments at Waterloo.

All day long, literally from dawn to dusk, standing in square, beating off Marshal Ney's cavalry charges, choking on black smoke from their hot muskets, these Irish troops knew there was worse than cavalry to come.

These were for show; the shapes that made us chill

Were silent in their patient waiting ranks.

With gold rings in their ears and powdered wigs,

And murder in their eyes the Old Guard stood.

Late in the day, a desperate Bonaparte launched these crack troops of the Imperial Guard, the unbeaten heroes of a hundred battles, straight at Wellington's command crest.

When Boney breathed into these dark forms,

Their custom was to take one steady pace

Forward: then another, and continue so,

Until the end of time, or Boney whispered

Stop; when all their foes lay dead.

But Wellington, always sparing of his soldiers, had kept them sheltered from French cannon on the far side of the crest, from which they watched the Old Guard struggle up the slope.

But we Irish veterans, fresh from Portugal,

Just waited till the rye grass broke their step.

When the Old Guard was only 30m away, Wellington gave the signal. Suddenly 1,400 soldiers stood up, in four ranks, and fired at point-blank range.

We only fired one volley, then waited for eternity,

Watching these giants, all holed and bloody in their clotted ranks,

Ripple in their files like wind-blown corn,

And then we saw their backs, "La Garde recule!"

Wellington was shaken by the carnage. In a space of less than three square miles, nearly 50,000 men lay dead and wounded, their red uniforms marking another kind of thin red line.

The bloodshed suffuses The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher by the Cork painter Daniel Maclise which today hangs in the House of Lords - a painting which emphasises the crucial contribution of the Prussians to Wellington's victory.

And did Wellington in his hour of glory recall how much he owed to another great Irishman, Viscount Castlereagh, the subject of John Bew's briliant Castlereagh?

Thanks to pluralists who stood firm in the past, you can now visit the vast diorama of Waterloo in the Prince August factory in Kilnamartyra, Co Cork, without being called a West Brit.

Finally, only Wellington could make me break my lifelong vow never to write verse and compose a blank-verse epic, An Irish Veteran Remembers Waterloo.

Sunday Independent

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