2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and there will be commemorative events going on across Europe. But they probably won’t be quite the same as the celebrations of 1816, just one year after the defeat of Napoleon.
(This extract from Redcoats Against Napoleon by Carole Divall)
The principal celebration in 1816, however, was the first anniversary of Waterloo. Invitations were sent out by an organising committee consisting of Major Howard, Paymaster Wray, Lieutenants Andrews, Elliot, Neville and Pratt, and Surgeon Elkington. Two days before the main celebration the battalion were already in full swing, as Macready reported. ‘On the 16 June the day of the action at Quatre Bras, our good men got drunk – so did the sergeants – so did the officers – so did the garrison staff – the Commandants of Corps and our worthy General, and all at the expense of the officers of the 30th Regiment.’ The next day the NCOs gave a ball at O’Brien’s Tavern at which there was, reportedly, a little drinking and a great deal of fornication. On the actual anniversary, the festivities began when the soldiers assembled ‘at an early hour, neatly dressed with white trousers, uncovered caps, and side arms, bearing numerous chairs, lavishly and really tastily ornamented with flowers, ribands, and laurels, and declared their intention of carrying their officers round the town. Entreaties were of no avail, resistance had a worse effect; accordingly, the band drew up, the men of our respective companies, after fixing a leaf of laurel in our caps, hoisted us up, and away we went to the quick steps of “Waterloo”, “The Downfall of Paris”, “Garryowen”, and the “White Cockade”. Thousands of people joined our fellows, and every five minutes greeted us with thunderous cheers. The Irish have a vivacity not unlike that of the French. Women would dash from their houses, and try to push through the crowds to shake hands with us, or give us an audible “Arrah, God bless your good-looking face, honey! I’m sure ye’re a brave one.” We halted opposite General Barry’s door, he came out, bowed to us all, and, giving a hip, hip, set three such cheers agoing as I never heard before or since.’
By early afternoon tables had been set out in the barrack yard, in the form of a hollow square. The whole battalion sat down to an excellent dinner of rounds of beef, legs of mutton, and bacon-hams, with an abundance of good beer. They were joined by a hundred friends from other corps, and there was also a cold collation for the ladies of Limerick. Buckets of whisky punch were emptied as toast after loyal toast was proposed by Sergeant-Major James Woods as president, so it is no surprise to read Macready’s opinion that within two hours the majority were happily drunk. The Limerick Evening Post described the scene more poetically: ‘In the course of a short time, many of these brave fellows before whom the conqueror of Europe fell, surrendered, in their turn, to the rosy God, and at every table songs of war and love, anecdotes of the past and enjoyments of the present, given when the heart is soft, added to the interest and novelty of the scene. The square being thrown open to the Public, a number of carriages and a vast concourse of our fellow-citizens moved round the several tables; the order observed and the unexceptionable good conduct of the men, were highly gratifying.’
The reporter from the Evening Post then gave his account of the evening celebration. ‘These scenes, though beyond any description we could give, were secondary in style and magnificence to the grand Ball and Supper given at the Assembly-Rooms by the Officers. The preparations had, for some days, excited such a curiosity and interest as to render it difficult, even with cards, to gain admission. At 11 o’clock the Rooms were opened, and presented a combination of rural enchantment, military trophies, and courtly splendour beyond any thing we have seen. The Hall and Stair-Case were covered with arbours of laurel and other shrubs; in the various compartments were fixed 1500 variegated lamps, which were so placed as to astonish and delight. On entering the ball room, a number of transparencies, painted by Mr Gubbins, gave an elegant appearance to the room; among these we particularly noticed, a full length of the duke of Wellington decorated with his numerous orders; in the background the bastion of St Vicente, with the French flag flying on the battlements. A full length of the Prince Regent, in a Field Marshal’s uniform, and a highly finished portrait of our venerable King, with the Crown, Sceptre, etc. Over the door was a large sphinx, couchant, resting on a pedestal with the word Egypt. Various smaller transparencies were placed round the room, presenting, in variegated letters, the names of the different other scenes of British Valour, in which the 30th were particularly distinguished: such as Salamanca, Badajos, Madrid, Villa Neave [sic], Fuentes d’Honor, Quatre Bras, Waterloo etc… A number of bronze figures, holding lights, mirrors, with wreathes of laurel and a profusion of natural and artificial flowers had a major influence on a first view. The floor was chalked in the best style – dancing Nymphs, piping Satyrs, with innumerable Figures, were in humble readiness to receive the animated guests that, shortly after, screened them from general observation. Cards of invitation, as we stated in our last, were sent to and accepted of by nearly 300 of our Fashionables, and a more brilliant assemblage of beauty and elegance we have not witnessed. At twelve, General Barry and Mrs Hamilton (the Colonel’s Lady) opened the ball. The dancers were relieved from pressure by standards intersected with silken lines, the card room was ruralised by a variety of rare exotics – here, and in the refectory, the company occasionally enjoyed a delightful promenade. Col. Hamilton, from his many wounds, was unable to join in the merry dancing.
‘At 2 o’clock the Supper-Rooms were thrown open, to which the company ascended by a shrubbery of evergreens. The brilliancy and taste with which the rooms were lighted, and the arrangements and splendour of the tables so eclipse description, that we can only say, that every thing, which could bewitch the fancy, or satisfy the taste, was here placed in rival excellence. Grapes, Melons, Ices, and Confectionary, of every kind, and in every shape, interspersed with all the delicacies of the season, with the richest viands and the most delicious wines. The entire under the arrangements of Mr Talbot.” At this point the reporter became carried away by military metaphor. ‘An engagement even more gratifying to our heroes and heroines than even the victory of Waterloo, now menaced the entire line – the right, left, and centre soon gave way – and in the order of attack, pillars and pyramids were levelled, legs and arms were scattered on the field; in short, every thing surrendered at discretion, and the entire Corps were either killed, wounded or missing. During the engagement some of the arch cupids hovered in the air, and no sooner was the battle ended than ‘the vivid flash from beauty’s eye’ irresistibly cheered and wounded the victors. Two rounds of grape were discharged to the Ladies of Limerick ‘and the heroes of Waterloo’.
‘After supper the dancing recommenced, and the party did not separate until a late hour next morning, delighted, not only with the excellence and variety of the entertainment, but with the minute attention and finished elegance of the Corps who entertained them.’
There was a price to pay, however. Excused from duty during the extended celebrations, the battalion was required to parade 500 men for duty on the 19 June, but only twelve were sufficiently sober. As a result, a punishment march of twelve miles was ordered to sober up the rest. Nor did such jollification come cheap. Macready estimated that the total cost was a thousand pounds and wondered how a corps with few men of property could have squandered so much money. Questions were asked, ‘but it was now too late – all we could do was to economise and forswear unrestricted committees for the future. Nothing is more dangerous for an unmarried Corps than to possess a few dashing fellows within it – they mislead young fellows of high spirits and thoughtless good nature by the specious argument of the credit of the Regt – the honor of the old and bold.’