This June the fields of Waterloo in Belgium again reverberated to the roar of canon fire and the crash of muskets as 5,000 military re-enactors from all over the world gathered to mark the bicentenary of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.
While Wellington’s victory marked the end of the Napoleonic wars it was only the last in a series of engagements over 12 years in what was truly the first global war.
To date I have been unable to link any Athy men with service amongst the ranks of the British Red Coats on the battlefield of Waterloo but given that in excess of 30 per cent of Wellington’s army was Irish it is not unlikely there were Athy men amongst their ranks. The answer may be found in a forthcoming book by Lieutenant Colonel Dan Harvey titled ‘A Bloody Day – The Irish at Waterloo’
Kildare men and indeed Athy men can be found in some of the most significant engagements of the Napoleonic wars. William Henry Grattan, a cousin of the Irish patriot and politician Henry Grattan, who spent the final years of his life in Kilcullen and is buried in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery, Athy was an officer in the Connaught Rangers. He joined the regiment in 1809 and served with great distinction in it until 1817. He participated in some of the most significant actions of the peninsular campaign in Spain and Portugal including the attack on the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo. Grattan wrote vividly of his experiences of war in all its cruelties including this description of the aftermath of the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo:
‘the smell from the still burning houses, the groups of dead and wounded, and the broken fragments of different weapons, marked strongly the character of the preceding nights dispute; and even at this late hour, there were many drunken marauders endeavouring to regain, by some fresh act of atrocity, an equivalent for the plunder their brutal state of intoxication had caused them to lose by the hands of their own companions, who robbed indiscriminately man, woman, or child, friend or foe, the dead or the dying!’
The participation of Athy men was not restricted to war on land. The Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain was the defining naval engagement of the Napoleonic wars in which Admiral Nelson led the British forces to victory, though dying at the height of his triumph.
Two men from Athy were present, serving together on the ship HMS Spartiate, 30 year old William Molloy and a teenager the 18 year old Barney Dempsey. The ship originally called ‘Sparti’ was one of nine ships captured by the Royal Navy from the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It became involved in the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. The ship itself was at the rear of the Fleet and was not involved in the first few hours of the battle; however it eventually entered the battle in the company of HMS Minotaur where they found themselves up against four French and one Spanish ship. The English ships performed very well and apparently the rate of fire of both Spartiate and Minotaur was so strong that the French ships ultimately fled, leaving the Spanish ship Neptuno alone to fight against the two British ships which was soon captured it.
The ship returned to England for Nelson’s funeral with Captain Laforey being the flag bearer walking behind Nelson’s coffin.
On occasions Kildare men could be found fighting on the French side. The Kildare man Hugh Ware was an Officer in the Irish Legion of Napoleon. Ware, from Rathcoffey, was by profession a land surveyor. He played a prominent role in the 1798 rebellion in County Kildare, particularly in the North of the county. After a period of imprisonment he went to France where he had a very distinguished career with the French army. The Wicklow rebel Myles Byrne who served with Ware in Napoleon’s Irish Legion regarded Ware as ‘the bravest of the brave.’
Although Ware’s regiment spent four years in Spain and Portugal it never joined battle directly with British troops. Ironically had the Legion confronted Grattan’s regiment the Connaught Rangers at Fuentes de Onõro in 1811 they would have faced many former 1798 rebels who had joined the Connaught’s after the failure of the rebellion. The Legion was disbanded after Waterloo and Ware retired to Tours where he died on the 5th March 1846.