Waterloo – battle site as tourist attraction

As the Irish people have embraced the fact – and the associated implications – of their significant involvement in the First World War, it is being borne in upon us the extent of the role of the Irish in many of the so-called great battles instigated by our neighbours. The Battle of Waterloo is no exception; there may have been as many as 12,000 Irishmen there – a third of the British contingent – and the name of Arthur Wellesley from Trim, as the Duke of Wellington, is the best known of them all.

A small exhibition has been curated in the Long Room to acknowledge, firstly, the Irish presence at Waterloo and, secondly, to prompt thought about the manner in which scenes of murderous human self-destruction swiftly become tourist attractions.

Flowers taken as souvenirs from the site of the Battle of Waterloo (TCD MS 11054)
Flowers taken as souvenirs from the site of the Battle of Waterloo (TCD MS 11054)

General Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur (1763-1849),  son of Richard and Elinor Vandeleur, of Co. Laois, achieved prominence during the Hundred Days campaign of 1815 during which he commanded the fourth cavalry brigade. On 18 June 1815, Lord Uxbridge, the commanding officer at Waterloo, had his leg shattered by a cannon ball and, as the next senior officer, Vandeleur then commanded the whole of the British cavalry during the battle. He was mentioned in Wellington’s Waterloo despatch, and he was awarded the silver Waterloo medal.

On display in the Long Room are letters from the general to his wife, written before and after the battle. These letters are interesting for two principal reasons. They contradict a number of published biographies which claim that Vandeleur was married in 1829; these letters prove that by 1815 he was already married and the father of at least two children. Secondly they show the level of detail about his activities on the day which Vandeleur felt it was appropriate to give his wife. That is to say, very little.

Tourism began the day after the battle when, on 19 June 1815, ‘a carriage drove on the ground from Brussels, the inmates of which, alighting, proceeded to examine the field’ upon which many thousands had recently died. These first visitors were met with the sight of ‘the multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger’ as one early visitor put it.

It was not until the First World War that the remains of dead soldiers were treated with the kind of respect that has since become the norm. In the exhibition are two accounts of later visits to the battlefield. One was undertaken in 1816 by Irishman Sir Edward O’Brien who recorded:

‘The bones of forty thousand gallant soldiers lie interred in this famous field & afford in many instances something of worth to the occupiers of this soil – as in many places the crops appear to be enriched from the bodies both of men & horses – which have been buried – & as the entire field of battle is under cultivation each succeeding year the plough will turn up the bones of these illustrious men who fell on that well-fought day’.

Ivy taken by Emma Howard as a souvenir from the site of the battle (from TCD MS 11054)
Ivy taken by Emma Howard as a souvenir from the site of the battle (from TCD MS 11054)

Also on display is a journal of a trip by Englishwoman Emma Howard in 1883. Of her visit to the Château d’Hougoumont, the principal focus of the fighting in June 1815, Mrs. Howard records: ‘A young man … gave me a bunch of violets plucked from the ruins of the Château some of which I have pressed. I also gathered some chestnuts and pulled some ivy from a tree on the battlefield, designated “rubbish” by my good husband!’

The anniversary of Waterloo has been marked by ceremonies in Trim and elsewhere. In Dublin the Military History Society and others are marking it with a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral commemorating ‘the fallen of all nations who died at Waterloo’. There will be a conference on the subject in University College Dublin in November.

Jane Maxwell