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British Army was ‘40% Irish’ in Battle of Waterloo

When people think of Ireland’s military history, they often think of rebellions against the British and men such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Michael Collins.

There are countless more Irish men who fought for independence, and many of them are now celebrated as national heroes.

However, there are several wars and battles that claimed the lives of thousands of Irish men that are somewhat overlooked. These forgotten Irishmen were fighting as part of the British Army.

Thousands of Irish soldiers took part in the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo is one of these battles. The defeat of Napoleon is considered a British victory, and is celebrated as an event of great national pride by Britons.

What many forget, is that Ireland was a part of Britain right up until the early part of the 20th century.

Up until that point, the British Army was always packed with Irish soldiers. The country was a rich recruitment ground with a surplus of young men in need of work. Unlike in Britain, where there was an industrial revolution taking place, young men in Ireland had few prospects of earning a living.

For that reason, there were always as many Irish people willing to go to war for Britain, as to go to war against them.

A considerable amount of the Duke of Wellington’s army was Irish in the Battle of Waterloo, 40% in fact according to historian Kevin Myers.

Wellington was himself an Irishman, born in Dublin in 1769. His army contained thousands of Irish men and it wasn’t just foot soldiers either; many of Wellington’s commanding officers were born in Ireland.

The Act of Union of 1801 merged the Irish Artillery with the Royal Artillery. It is estimated that the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was made up of roughly 150 Welsh soldiers and 840 Irish. The regimental song of the 32nd (Cornish) Foot contained the phrase ‘Erin Go Bragh’, meaning Ireland forever. The British Army also contained several Irish surgeons and medics, brought along to tend to the wounded.

The Battle of Waterloo was split into two main conflicts. Before the main battle there was a holding action at the crossroads of Quatre Bras on 16th June 1815. There were several fatalities at this point, many being suffered by Irish soldiers. One Irish soldier named James Burke, a veteran of the Peninsular War, was fatally wounded, as were a group of young Irish recruits who were badly positioned and left helplessly exposed to an attack by Napoleon’s men. One Irish soldier named Christopher Clarke took out three enemy soldiers before being slashed and killed himself by 22 sabre cuts.

Two days later the main Battle took place. Both sides had already lost significant numbers of men in the conflicts of the previous days. One of the main sites of the battle was at Hougoumont Farm, which the British used as a fortress.

Many reckless decisions were made by the commanding officers of both sides. Hundreds of French soldiers were sent forward towards the British fortress to be mercilessly killed.

Major-General Sir William Ponsonby, a member of the Irish Parliament, was commanding officer of the Union Brigade. He foolishly led his men on a charge into enemy lines, only to get trapped by the sticky mud. He immediately recognised his error and handed his personal effects over to his deputy and waited for his inevitable fate.

There were Irish soldiers in almost all of the British regiments that took part in the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington described Co Monaghan soldier James Graham as the bravest man on the battlefield after he saved the life of one of his comrades who was about to be shot by a French sniper, and also rescued his brother who lay wounded in a burning building.

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6 comments

  1. Stephen Hollywood

    As Gerry Adams has said on Easter Sunday remembrance for 1916. The Irish men that fought for Britain against Germany should not have happened as they had no fight with Germany?. I’m sure his words would apply to this war also.

  2. Well said. This ridiculous notion that Irishness equates to Catholicism and Protestants are British is utter nonsense, but it has been pandered to and exploited by politicians and extremists on both sides.

  3. Why would this be more telling. Your sectarian analysis sounds a tad suspiscious.

  4. What was the religious makeup of this “40 % Irish”? What percent were Roman Catholic Irish, versus the percentage of Protestants? That would be a more telling set of numbers!

  5. It was tragic to have so many brave Irishmen fighting on the wrong side! Am much prouder of the battle of Fontainoy, 1745, when some 3000 Irish soldiers helped the French to a decisive victory over our traditional oppressorss.

  6. These stats of 40% invariably underestimate, as many Irish joined as residents of GB. Not including second and third generations. The most glaring example of this is the Irish contribution to the first and second world wars, which would be greatly enhanced if the contributions of not only of Irish based in UK, were added, but those fighting for USA South africa, Canada and Australia, New Zealand.

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