Waterloo: The Irish Dimension

As we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Britain’s epoch-making victory at Waterloo, we examine the contribution made by Irish soldiers who fought in the battle, and in particular the men who later sat in the reformed Parliament for Irish seats.

While only three Irish regiments fought at the battle, recent research has demonstrated that as many as one in three of the soldiers in some of the British regiments that participated were Irish-born. Indeed Wellington was himself born in Dublin, and three of his brigade commanders were also Irishmen.

Of the eight Irish MPs known to have served in the battle, four had aristocratic backgrounds. Lord Arthur Moyses Hill (1792-1860), was the second son of the marquess of Downshire, and served as an aide-de-camp to Wellington during the battle. He sat as a Conservative for County Down, 1817-36.

George Lionel Dawson Damer (1788-1856), third son of the 1st earl of Portarlington, a major with the 1st Dragoon Guards, was an assistant quarter-master-general to the Prince of Orange during the Waterloo campaign, in which he was wounded. One of ‘the Regency dandies’ of the Prince Regent’s social circle, he married Mary ‘Minnie’ Seymour, the adopted daughter of the prince’s unlawful wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1835 he was elected as a Conservative for his family’s borough of Portarlington, for which he sat until 1847, serving as comptroller of the household under Peel’s ministry, 1841-6, before representing Dorchester until 1852.

Another Irish aristocrat to fight was William Browne (1791-1876), a younger son of the 1st earl of Kenmare. A lieutenant in the 52nd Foot, Browne had fought at the siege of Bergen op Zoom in 1814, and took part in his regiment’s famous charge on the flank of the Imperial Guard, in which he was severely wounded. A supporter of Catholic emancipation, he was elected for County Kerry in 1830 and backed the first reform bill before being forced out by the Repeal party in 1831. He sat again for his native county as a Liberal in the 1841 Parliament, and then retired to life as ‘an inconspicuous country gentleman’.

Standish O’Grady (1792-1848) served as a lieutenant with the 7th Hussars at Waterloo, where he demonstrated his skills by leading his regiment in a successful rear guard action against the French cavalry during the army’s withdrawal from Quatre Bras. He sat as a Whig for County Limerick on three separate occasions between 1820 and 1835, and is the only one of these eight MPs to leave a substantial record of his involvement in the battle, his letters to his father, whom he succeeded as 2nd Viscount Guillamore in 1840, being preserved in the archives of the National Army Museum.

Sir James Charles Chatterton

Four commoners also fought in the battle. James Charles Chatterton (1794-1874), who had the longest army career of this group of MPs, was decorated for his services in Portugal, Spain, Flanders and France, and fought at the battle with the 12th, or Prince of Wales’s light dragoons. He was returned as a Conservative for Cork in 1835, only to be unseated on petition, but sat again from 1849 to 1852, when he carried ‘the great banner’ at Wellington’s funeral. Having succeeded to the family’s baronetcy in 1855, he was made a knight commander of the Order of the Bath in 1862 and was promoted to the rank of general in 1866.

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Wiiliam Verner (c) National Museums Northern Ireland; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Irish veteran who served longest at Westminster was William Verner (1782-1871), another experienced soldier who had served with distinction in the Peninsula campaign. Like O’Grady, he was an officer of the 7th Hussars and was wounded in the head at Waterloo, where he was given the field rank of major, and subsequently served on Wellington’s staff. One of Ireland’s leading Orangemen, he entered politics in 1820 and sat as a staunch Conservative for his native county of Armagh from 1832 until he retired aged 85 in 1868. He was created a baronet in 1846.

William Henry Watson (1796-1860) was an Englishman who fought at the battle but went on to represent an Irish constituency. After his father had been killed on active service in 1811 he was ‘left an orphan in the establishment at Sandhurst’, and entered the army aged 15. He served in the Peninsula with the 1st Royal Dragoons before exchanging into the 6th Inniskillen Dragoons shortly before the battle and entered Paris with the allied army. The following year he left the service to pursue a highly successful legal career and represented Kinsale as a Liberal from 1841-7. Returning to parliament as MP for Hull in 1854, he criticised the ‘scandalous’ system under which ‘nepotism and patronage’ rather than merit determined the composition of the army’s officer corps. He was knighted and became a judge in 1856.

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (c) National Portrait Gallery, London; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sampson Stawell (1785-1849) the son of a Cork flour merchant, also joined the army aged 15 and in 1809 served on the ill-fated Walcheren expedition. Like Chatterton, he fought with the 12th light dragoons in many of the major battles of Wellington’s Peninsula campaign. Although he was only a junior captain at Waterloo he assumed command of his regiment after all of its senior officers had been killed. Given command of the regiment in 1827, he was elected for Kinsale in 1832 as a supporter of the Whig ministry. Not finding politics to his taste, however, he retired in 1835 to resume his military career, and regularly attended the annual Waterloo dinners given by Wellington to the officers he had commanded.

The political views of the MPs considered here ranged widely, but on 18 June 1815 they were united in a common cause which ushered in almost a century of relative peace in Europe.

For more on MPs who fought at Waterloo, see our editor Philip Salmon’s post on the main History of Parliament blog:

https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/mps-and-waterloo/

Further reading:

  • J. & D. Bromley, Wellington’s Men Remembered. A Register of Memorials to Soldiers Who Fought in the Peninsula War and at Waterloo, vols. 1 (2011) & 2 (2015).
  • P. Molloy, ‘Ireland and the Waterloo campaign of 1815’, (MA thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2011).
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