The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot

Event
Sunday, June 18, 1815
Mrs Peter McMullan Waterloo
Private McMullan Tableau in the Inniskillings Museum.

The only Irish infantry regiment at Waterloo

Enniskillen had the unique honour of being the only town in Great Britain and Ireland that gave its name to two regiments, later known as The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, now part of The Royal Irish Regiment and Royal Dragoon Guards. The spelling of the town name is derived from the Irish Inis Ceithleann (Ceithlenn's island) which has been anglicised many times over the centuries with ‘Inniskilling’ the spelling at the time the regiments were raised.

The history of the regiments began in 1688 when the inhabitants of Enniskillen took up arms in defence of their island town against the threat of occupation by the forces of James II. The troops raised, the Inniskillingers Foot and Horse, were so successful that they were incorporated into the army of William III at Dundalk and included Colonel Zacharia Tiffin’s Inniskillings Regiment of Foot. In 1751 the system of numbering regiments was introduced and what had been Tiffin's Inniskillings became the 27th Regiment of Foot and was invariably referred to as the 27th (Inniskilling) to preserve its ancient territorial title, the oldest in the Infantry of the Line.

The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot that fought at Waterloo, some 747 officers and men, was a regiment with a strong family tradition and recruited largely in Ireland. In fact they were the only Irish infantry regiment to be present at Waterloo. Brothers served with brothers and cousins, sons followed fathers. Most of the ordinary soldiers were Roman Catholics and a considerable number were Irish speaking. The average soldier of those days was small by modern standards. Today, the surviving uniforms look as though they were made for boys rather than grown men! The average height seems to have been about 5 foot 5 inches. These men would have been tough and fit: they marched long distances, they carried a heavy musket and ammunition, a pack and rations. They wore newly designed headgear, issued in 1812, called the Belgic shako. It was made of leather or felt, had the regimental badge in front, a peak at the crest and a feather or plume at the side.

When the war broke out, the Inniskillings were in North America engaged in the campaign against the United States. On the way back, a severe storm scattered the fleet and some ships had to put into Bermuda for repairs. As a result HQ Company and some others did not get back in time. The majority of the regiment arrived in Portsmouth on 10 May, and after receiving reinforcements it embarked on 17 May for Ostend.

On 16 June, the regiment marched 30 miles from Ghent and a further 21 miles on the 17 June, reaching the village of Waterloo that evening. On the way they were employed clearing the road which had become blocked with upended baggage waggons and carts abandoned by refugees. Clearing a line of retreat was as important as ensuring a clear re-supply route from Brussels. This was described by Lieutenant Edward Drew of the 27th, who was wounded in the knee and arm early in the battle. Soldiers would have taken the opportunity to pick up food and smash open the numerous abandoned gin and rum casks. There was quite a bit of drunkenness as the regimental sergeant major and regimental colonel were still at sea.

The regiment arrived on the battlefield about 1100 hours, part of the 6th Brigade, in reserve, under Major General Sir John Lambert. Soaked from the torrential rain overnight, the Inniskillings would doubtless have been pleased at this respite in reserve to attempt to dry out their uniforms and equipment, and clean their muskets. They would have been tired and hungry. It was over three hours before they were moved into the front line in a key position in the centre of Wellington’s line of battle. There, they were on the forward slope of the ridge, in a very exposed position. The hours between 1600 and 1800 hours were particularly horrendous.

Painting Archer WaterlooFrench artillery and sharpshooters hammered their lines. They were mowed down, often without the opportunity of returning a shot. Cavalry attacks were something of a relief because the artillery ceased and the regiment formed square and the men could fire volleys at their attackers. With mounting casualties, it took extraordinary courage and the leadership of Major John Hare for the regiment to stand its ground. Casualties among the officers were so high that a neighbouring regiment offered to loan some of theirs. The reply was, ‘the sergeants of the regiment like to command the companies, and I am loath to deprive them of the honour’.

[Above, detail from the Peter Archer painting 'Prepare For Cavalry' commissioned by the officers of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Rangers]

As the battle progressed, the Inniskillings position in the centre became more and more exposed and at the same time more and more essential to the stability of Wellington’s line. Had the regiment broken, the entire line could have been breached, the road to Brussels would have been open and the consequences disastrous. The regiment did not break. At about 1900 hours that evening, an officer of the Rifle Brigade, describing the scene, said, ‘The 27th Regiment were lying literally dead, in square, a few yards behind us’. By then the Prussians were arriving on the battlefield. Wellington was able to bring all his reserves into the line, and when Napoleon tried his final throw, an attack by the veterans of the Imperial Guard, it failed and the French army began to disintegrate.

Wellington later said, ‘They (the 27th) saved the centre of my line at Waterloo’.

Napoleon commented, ‘That regiment with the castles on their caps is composed of the most obstinate mules I ever saw; they don’t know when they are beaten’.

Towards late evening the roll of the 27th was called and the extent of the dreadful casualties became apparent. Of the 747 officers and men who marched onto the battlefield that morning, 64% (486) were either killed or wounded. Only two other British regiments had similar casualties ~ the Cameronians and the Gordon Highlanders.

Some human stories of the Inniskillings have survived of both the battle itself and the aftermath. Private McMullen was born in County Down circa 1780, and enlisted into the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot on 17 January 1814 at the age of 33 years. He was a weaver by trade and served for only 1 year 342 days before being discharged on 31 December 1815. His discharge papers state that he was 35 years old, 5’ 6” tall, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a sallow complexion. He received an extra two years’ service for Waterloo giving him a pension of 2/6d per day. The story of Private McMullen and his wife at the Battle of Waterloo is a truly remarkable one.

Elizabeth, Private McMullen’s wife, although far advanced in pregnancy followed her husband onto the battlefield at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. In the heat of the battle she assisted in carrying a soldier severely wounded off the field, and in performing this humane act, her leg was fractured by a musket ball. Shortly after, her husband was shot three times, severely wounded, and lost both arms. It seemed there was little hope of either of them surviving and it was believed he was mortally wounded. However his wife refused to leave him and, despite being injured and extremely lame herself, carried Peter from the battlefield. They eventually ended up in one of the hospitals in Antwerp and then transferred back to York Hospital at Chelsea, where a few days later Elizabeth gave birth to a beautiful girl unhurt by the alarms of war.

In recognition of Private McMullen and his wife, His Royal Highness the Duke of York stood as Godfather to the child who was named Frederica McMullen of Waterloo. Unfortunately she only survived a few months.

‘It reflects equal honour on a humble warrior, his faithful wife, the Officers of the York depot,
and the kind-heartedness of His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief.’

(The Belfast Newsletter, Tuesday 28 November 1815)

Captain Tucker, wounded in the stomach, was also assisted off the battlefield by his wife. A few weeks later Captain Tucker faced a court-martial! He was charged with ‘scandalous and infamous conduct unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman.’ He was accused of being in possession of two horses not belonging to him, breaking into the baggage of a fellow officer who had been killed in the battle, and destroying his letters and papers. He was found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the army. However the Duke of Wellington and the Prince Regent intervened and his punishment was reduced to being placed on half pay. It appeared that there were certain irregularities in the court-martial, and a personal animosity towards Tucker from his fellow officers.

Another, Private Thomas Kerrigan, though wounded several times, survived the battle and died in 1862 at the age of 108, while the only officer to escape injury on the day, Lieutenant Batty, was given leave and went to County Kerry, where, sadly, he contracted typhus and died. Also, after the battle, four sergeants and 12 corporals were demoted to private for drunkenness. This was probably as a consequence of liquor that had been ‘liberated’ during the march to Waterloo!

You can read about the Battle Honour awarded by clicking on WATERLOO.