Two hundred years ago today an antecedent of the Royal Irish Regiment played a critical role in the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot held the centre of Wellington’s line in such fashion that, after the battle, Napoleon is reputed to have observed: “That regiment with castles on their caps is composed of the most obstinate mules I ever saw; they don’t know when they are beaten.”
Wellington also went on to pay tribute, describing the Ulster body as “the regiment that saved the centre of my line at Waterloo”; military historian Richard Holmes observed that his line held “by the thinnest of margins”.
Neil Armstrong, curator manager at The Inniskillings Musuem at Enniskillen Castle, told the News Letter that the regiment marched 51 miles for two days to reach the battle, arriving soaked by torrential rain.
“They were moved into position around 4pm and occupied a key position in the centre of Wellington’s line on a forward slope of a ridge,” he said.
“It was a very exposed site. They faced French sharpshooters and artillery for two hours.”
Wellington had 53,850 infantry, 13,350 cavalry and 157 guns to Napoleon’s 53,400 infantry, 15,600 cavalry and 240 guns. The two sides were evenly matched until Blücher’s Prussian army arrived later to support Wellington with 38,000 infantry, 7,000 cavalry and 134 guns.
“Some 180,000 soldiers fought on a field of only three square miles. The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot would have only been responsible for holding some 20-30 metres of line, but they had no cover whatsoever,” Mr Armstrong said.
“Of their 747 soldiers 486 were killed or wounded. They took a huge hit compared to the other regiments. However, they held firm and did not allow Napoleon’s forces to break through.”
Organised into three rows, the front row were firing muskets from the kneeling position, the middle row were firing from a standing position and the third row were reloading muskets and passing them back to the other two rows.
In the hollow of their square were the regimental colours, the commanding officer and the dying and wounded.
The casualty rate of their officers was so high that neighbouring regiments offered to lend them some, but the Ulster regiment declined, saying their sergeants liked to command.
The regiment was made up of men from “Waterford, Cork, Coleraine, Leitrim, Monaghan ... the vast majority of them would have been Irish-speaking Catholics”.
“The fate of Europe was at stake ... Britain did not want to be ruled or dominated by another country. So the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot played a key role.”
Historian Gordon Lucy said it was widely regarded as “a defining moment in the history of the British nation and its people”. He added: “It was one of those moments in our history when we defeated the would-be invader and asserted our determination to remain British.”
Today the descendants of the 27th Inniskilling Regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment, will remember their regimental heritage and bear their colours through St Paul’s Cathedral.
Lieutenant Marcus Riley, 25, and born in Londonderry, will carry the Queen’s Colour at the national commemoration service.
“We will never forget the sacrifice and courage of the men of our oldest antecedent regiment, The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot, who ‘died in a square’ holding the centre of the British line at the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago,” he said. “Now, as then, the Irish soldier is a loyal friend and a ferocious enemy. It is my privilege to lead them and to serve my country.”