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Wellington – the Iron Irishman

Sir Arthur Wellesley: a true Irishman

The Duke of Wellington is still Ireland’s unclaimed son. Perhaps the greatest soldier these islands have ever produced, he is neatly cut in two by the bizarre and contradictory term “Anglo-Irish”. This allows England to claim him, though he wasn’t English, and Ireland to disown him, even though he was Irish-born, and spoke with a thick Meath brogue until elocution lessons (from an Irish Catholic woman) supervened. Even today many Irish people declare that he was the author of the most famous disclaimer of Irishness ever uttered: “Because one is born in a stable doesn’t make one a horse.”

But he never said that, and it reveals more about the querulous and ungenerous sense of Irish identity of those who repeat the tale than it does about a man who never denied his Irishness. The declaration about the stable was falsely attributed to him by Ireland’s great national leader Daniel O’Connell. No doubt O’Connell was smarting at the encomium from the Irish Catholic hierarchy after the Duke, as Prime Minister, had brought about Catholic Emancipation. The Irish bishops hailed “the conqueror of the tyrant and the liberator of the altar” as the greatest living Irishman. In creating the Duke’s fictional rebuttal of his own Irishness, O’Connell was laying the basis for much of the emerging national psychology of Irish nationalism, which became obsessed with lesser forms of Irishness, such as “West Brit”, “Castle Catholic”, and of course, “Anglo-Irish”.

Neither Wellington nor his peers would have understood any of these terms. Certainly, the notion of “the Anglo-Irish” didn’t exist in the England of the time, where, after the 1798 Rising, anti-Irish feeling was undifferentiating. When the Irish peer Lord Hervey entered a London coffee house, a customer drawled loudly: “Hello, I smell an Irishman.”

Hervey grabbed a carving-knife, and, slashing off the man’s nose, remarked sweetly: “You shan’t smell another.” Arthur Wellesley’s primary loyalties were threefold: to the Anglican Church of Ireland, to the Empire, and to himself. No man becomes a duke through reticence. Arthur’s generation were born with the surname Wesley, which they changed to Wellesley, presumably to distance themselves from the low-church founder of preachy, fustian Methodism. Such nomenclatural camouflage was a common practice right into the 20th century: did not the resoundingly Hanoverian Saxe-Coburg-Gotha become the equally resoundingly English Windsors?

But Wellington’s essential Irishness was evident in his choice of aides de camps: these included Captain J Jackson, of Foxford, County Mayo, Major de Lacy Evans from Limerick, Captain Canning, from Summerhill, Dublin, and Captain Edmund L’Estrange. Moreover, Wellington’s intelligence network in Spain and Portugal was built around fiercely anti-republican Irish Catholic priests, led by Irishman Mgr Patrick Curtis.

The army that Wellington led to Waterloo was probably about 40 per cent Irish. After the Act of Union of 1801, the large corps of Irish Artillery was absorbed into the Royal Artillery. Thereafter, 42 per cent of all new artillery recruits were Irish, so by the time of Waterloo, around half Wellington’s gunners were Irish. Infantry regiments tell a comparable story. Only 150 NCOs and men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1807 were Welsh: most of the other 840 were Irish. By the early 1800s, largely because the Irish diet produced fitter young men with the healthy mouths required to eat heavy army tack, many “English” regiments were in fact strongly Irish.

So too were some of Wellington’s senior officers. Major General Sir William Ponsonby from Cork led the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, and Major General Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur led the 4th Cavalry Brigade. A Vandeleur cousin commanded the 10th Hussars: his mother was Frances Frances Pakenham, the daughter of the first Lord Longford. The 9th Infantry Brigade was commanded by Major General Sir Denis Pack, whose father was the Dean of Ossory, and his mother Catherine was the daughter of Denis Sullivan of Berehaven, County Cork. And Lt Colonel Patrick Doherty of the 13th Hussars even brought his subaltern sons George and Joseph to the battle. Wellington’s assistant quartermaster was Captain Edward Fitzgerald, from Mayo, and Irish officers in the Gloucesters included John Coen, JP Clarke, Richard Kelly,

W Lynam and Robert Nixon. Captain Ross-Lewin and his brother Thomas of Kildysart, Clare, were serving with the 32nd (Cornish) Foot. The Regimental song of the so-called “Cornishmen” ran: “Erin go bragh [pronounced ‘go braw’, meaning ‘Ireland for ever’] go hand in hand with one and a’.”

Rifleman Edward Costello, from Dublin, asserted in his autobiography that many of the famous green-jackets of the 95th Foot at Waterloo were also Irish – and not just the foot-soldiers. Their commanding officer, Lt Colonel Bernard – grandson of the Bishop of Derry – was from Donegal (100 years later, a kinswoman, Eva Barnard was to compile “Ireland’s Memorial Records”, listing the dead of the Great War). Other Irishmen serving with the 95th included John Prendergast Walsh, Thomas Sheehan, Thomas McNamara (later Justice of the Peace in south Munster) and Charles Rochfort, son of Gustavius Roche, MP for Westmeath. (Needless to say, in Bernard Cornwell’s famous Sharpe novels and films about the 95th, just one Irishman appears.)

Nor were Irishmen confined to the fighting business. Surgeon Joseph Bourke and Assistant Surgeon Thomas McCabe were with the 95th. Other Irish surgeons serving in the Waterloo campaign included Oliver Halpin and James O’Malley.

The British essentially fought two battles of Waterloo. The first (and forgotten) was a holding action at the crossroads of Quatre Bras on June 16, 1815, where Costello received the injury that would keep him out of the main battle, and where his fellow Irishman, James Burke from Kilkenny – a “wild, untameable” veteran of the Peninsular – was fatally wounded. Three Irish officers servingwith Harry Ross-Lewin were also killed at Quatre Bras, and Peter Cooke of Stourbridge, Tipperary, was killed defending his battalion colours. The 69th Lincolnshires deployed to protect the 95th, and advanced to form a square. But the youngsters – many of whom were new Irish recruits – were caught in the open and almost destroyed. Irishmen with the 69th included Charles Cotter and Edward Hodder of Cork, Henry Anderson of Kilkenny, and Christopher Clarke, who killed three cuirassiers (breast-plated cavalrymen) before being felled with 22 sabre cuts.

The real Battle of Waterloo occurred two days later. Perhaps the most famous single engagement within the battle was at Hougoumont Farm, an improvised fortress held by the British upon which the French hurled themselves with suicidal futility. Many of the Grenadier Guards holding the farm were originally Irish militiamen who had been transferred. Wellington later declared that one of these men, James Graham, from Clones, County Monaghan, was the bravest British soldier on the battlefield.

But who could genuinely identify the bravest amid the bloody and blinding chaos and fog of war? In just a few hours many thousands of men were killed. Of the 750 men of the overwhelmingly Irish 27th Foot, or Inniskilling Fusiliers, 450 were killed or wounded, with just one officer left standing. The usually alert Wellington seems to have been utterly unaware of the Calvary befalling them.

A comparable fate awaited the Union Brigade (containing a cavalry regiment each from England, Scotland and Ireland), which was led by William Ponsonby – like Wellington, formerly an MP in the Irish House of Commons. Wellington despised his cavalry as headstrong and undisciplined, a sentiment thoroughly vindicated by Ponsonby’s reckless charge, deep into the French lines. Being counter-attacked by Polish lancers, and trapped in mud, he resignedly handed over his personal effects to his ADC, and then waited for his inevitable end.

Wellington spent the entire day on his horse Copenhagen, imperturbably visiting wherever it was that the fighting was heaviest. “A shell fell amongst our grenadiers, and he checked his horse to see its effect,” reported Ensign McCreedy. “Some men were blown to pieces, and he merely stirred the reins of his charger.”

Napoleon, conversely, remained static, receiving reports from staff officers, pausing at one stage to have leeches applied to his piles. Perhaps a Napoleon at the height of his powers might have defeated Wellington, but either way, both men survived the day – unlike many thousands of their soldiers.

After the battle, scavengers removed the teeth from the dead, which were then inserted in wooden plates for recycling. For years afterwards, dentures among the aristocracy in England were called Waterloo Teeth. Thus it was that the mouths of the great and grand of London came to sport the teeth of dead Irish peasants: yes, for once, the term Anglo-Irish really does apply.

Kevin Myers is a journalist and author of Watching the Door (Atlantic Books)