June 18th will mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. There are hundreds of books which examine the battle in fascinating detail, but for those unfamiliar with the basics: on June 18, 1815, the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by the Anglo-Allied army led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army under Marshal Blucher.
Of the 77,000 men in Wellington’s army, only 28,000 were British. Of those British troops, it is estimated that up to a third of them were Irish.
One of those Irishmen was Patrick Corbett, a former stone mason from the County Clare. He was a private in the First Battalion, 27th Regiment of Foot, the Inniskilling Regiment. While there were Irishmen in nearly every regiment in the army, the Inniskillings were the only all-Irish infantry regiment at Waterloo.
The Inniskillings suffered horribly at Waterloo, holding a key part of Wellington’s line while being flailed by French cannon and musket fire. Of the 752 men of the regiment, 103 were killed, and 360 wounded. It was the worst casualty rate of any unit at Waterloo.
One of those killed was Patrick Corbett. He would not return to Clare; he would do no further stone work. His name was entered into the regimental casualty roster, between Michael Carsons, a dead weaver from Fermanagh, and Thomas Carrigan, a dead cordwainer from County Monaghan. None of the hundreds of books about Waterloo will mention them.
The valiant stand of the Inniskillings at Waterloo is renowned amongst military historians, yet their service is often ignored, or even derided, in Ireland and by many of Irish extraction. There is a notion amongst those who support the Republic that any service to the British Crown was treason of the first order, but we must understand those are modern sensibilities; in 1800 Irishmen did not join the British army, they simply joined the army.
Certainly many of the Irishmen who joined the army in those days had little love for the Crown, as hunger and disease haunted the native Irish, their poverty enforced by oppressive British law. Their enlistment was prompted more from privation that patriotism. But once in the army, they were typical soldiers, and as such they were more bound to one another than to any notions of national loyalty. At Waterloo the Inniskillings did, however, prove atypical in their astounding display of tenacious bravery.
There is a movement afoot, led by many modern Irish soldiers, to honour the men who served before them, not matter what war, or in what uniform.
The fact that Irish soldiers served with distinction at Waterloo, or during any of England’s many wars, cannot be viewed as an insult to the republican cause. Those men were neither fools nor traitors.
Mark Bois, whose mother was a Cashman, is the author of Lieutenant and Mrs. Lockwood, a novel based on the Inniskillings at Waterloo.