Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sharpe practices in the Napoleonic Wars

The Duke of Wellington, or Arthur Wellesley, as he was known to his family, is perhaps the most famous Irish soldier of all time. He is credited with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and securing peace for Europe for the succeeding 50 years. Wellington’s Irishness was a source of embarrassment to him and he played down his Irish origins throughout much of his life. To him is attributed the quote, which is possibly apocryphal, that ‘being born in a stable does not make one a horse’.

Notwithstanding the discomfort that his Irish connections caused Wellington, he had cause to be thankful for his birth place in the service that its soldiers rendered to the Crown in the Napoleonic Wars. In the period preceding the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, somewhere between one fifth and one quarter of the British Army was composed of Irish soldiers.

After Napoleon’s defeat and his final exile to St Helena, there was an explosion in the publication of literature relating to the wars. Particularly prominent were the officers who served under Wellington. This was not to be unexpected as literacy levels among the private soldiers of the time would have been very low. I wrote some years ago of William Grattan, a relation of the great Irish orator and statesman, Henry Grattan, who wrote a series of books about his service in the Connaught Rangers during the Napoleonic wars and who retired to Kilcullen after his military service was over and was buried in Old St Michael’s Cemetery, Athy, Co Kildare.

Notwithstanding that tens of thousands of Irish men served in the ranks of Wellington’s armies, very few of them published accounts of their service and to the best of my knowledge no Athy man ever put pen to paper to record his wartime experiences. However, a young Laois man by the name of Edward ‘Ned’ Costello did, publishing in 1841 Adventures of a Soldier and following up with a revised edition of this book in 1852. Costello was born in Mountmellick on 26 October 1788. He spent his formative years in the town, but at the age of seven, his father moved to Dublin, where he secured an appointment in Dublin Port with the Custom Services. His father was a ‘tidewaiter’, this being an officer empowered and employed by the Customs Service to board ships entering into the port to examine their cargo to ensure there were no attempts by the merchants of the day to evade customs duty. At a young age, Costello himself was apprenticed to a cabinet maker in William Street in Dublin. He was restless and did not stay at this employment long and soon went to live with his uncle, who was a shoemaker. It seems while working with his uncle, he came across an old soldier who had fought in Egypt in 1801, losing a leg.

Fired up by stories of martial endeavour, he enlisted in the Dublin Militia in 1806 and in the following year his regiment was stationed in Derry. There, he volunteered to join the 95th Rifles, being a regular regiment in the British Army. He adapted quickly to the army life and in the summer of 1809 found himself with his regiment in Portugal, where Wellington’s armies were fighting prolonged campaigns against the invading French forces. Life on campaign was very tough. Troops at the time had to endure excessive heat, poor food and disease. Costello was in the thick of the fighting when his regiment stormed the French citadel at Ciudad Rodrigo. Although the battle lasted less than half an hour, the fighting was intense and uncompromising. In the aftermath of the battle, through which Costello emerged unscathed, he went to inspect that portion of citadel in which a mine had been exploded prior to the commencement of the assault. He wrote:

“The sight was heart-rendering in the extreme. The dead lay in heaps, numbers of them stripped. They displayed the most ghastly wounds. Here and there, half buried under the blackened fragments of the wall, or reeking on the surface of the ruin, lay those who had been blown up in the explosion, the remains dreadfully mangled and discoloured. Strewed about were dissevered arms and legs. The 88th Connaught Rangers had suffered most severely at this spot and I observed a number of poor Irish women hopelessly endeavouring to distinguish the burned features of their husbands.”

William Grattan, then a junior officer in the Connaught Rangers, wrote about the battle as follows:

“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 night’s 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!”

Costello, like many soldiers of the time, was not above helping himself to the spoils of war. In the aftermath of the Battle of Vittoria, he came across a Spaniard serving in the French Army carrying a heavy case. In Costello’s own words:

“I compelled him to lay it down, which he did, but only after I had given him a few whacks on the ribs with my rifle. On inspection, I found the portmanteau contained several small bags filled with gold and silver in dublons and dollars. Although I never knew the exact amount, I should think it was not less than £1,000. As I had contributed most towards its capture, I took it as booty and with my comrades gone in another direction, I had no-one to claim a portion of it.”

Costello retired from the Army in 1819. His soldiering did not end there. He returned to Spain in 1819, joining the British Legion to fight in the Carlist wars, essentially a war fought between competing factions in the Spanish monarchy over succession to the throne of Spain. By 1838, he had retired from active service and was appointed a yeoman warder of the Tower of London by the Duke of Wellington, who himself had been appointed the Constable of the Tower in 1826. With his soldiering now behind him, it allowed him to sit down and compose his memoirs. He remained at the Tower for the rest of his life and died there on 27 July 1869.

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