William Ponsonby at the Battle of Waterloo

James Durney

An aquatint drawn by Manskirch and engraved by M. Duourg (1817), titled the ‘Death of Major General Sir William Ponsonby, 1815,’ shows the fatally wounded Irish general on the ground surrounded by enemy lancers. William Ponsonby commanded the Union Cavalry Brigade at the battle of Waterloo. He rode too far after their charge against Marshall Drouet D’Erlon’s I Corps. His horse became mired in mud near the enemy lines and he was killed by Polish lancers during a French counter-attack.

William Ponsonby was born on 13 October 1772, the second son of William Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby, and his wife Louisa (née Molesworth) fourth daughter of Richard, 3rd Viscount Molesworth. After attending Eton and Kilkenny College, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1795. Commissioned into the 83rd Foot, he was promoted to captain, and then major, in the Royal Irish Fencibles (1794). He transferred to the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1798 and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel two years later. His family’s political influence contributed to his rapid military advancement.

His Dublin-born father, William Brabazon Ponsonby, was a landowner, MP, and speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He was a leading opponent of the union and voted against it in 1799 and 1800. During his career William Ponsonby was MP for Bandon Bridge, Co. Cork (1776), and also MP for Co. Kilkenny (1783). He retained his Kilkenny seat until he was raised to the peerage in 1806. A keen horseman and foxhunter William Brabazon Ponsonby kept what was perhaps the best hunting establishment in Ireland at his seat in Bishopscourt, Co. Kildare.

Bishopscourt was once owned by the Bishops of Kildare and came into the hands of the Ponsonbys when Sahara Charlemont married Brabazon Ponsonby, 1st Earl of Bessborough. John Ponsonby, who succeeded to the estate on the death of his father, was a leading Irish politician of his day. He entered Parliament in 1739 and was later elected Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Apart from taking a prominent part in the political welfare of the country he was also a keen sportsman, and kept the finest pack of hounds in Ireland at that time, which were known as ‘the Bishopscourt Hunt.’ It seems that the ownership of Bishopscourt passed to Frederick, the youngest of the five Ponsonby brothers.

Young William Ponsonby was also MP for Bandon Bridge (1796-7), and Fethard, Co. Tipperary, which he held from 1797 until the Act of Union in 1801, and Co. Londonderry (1812-15). His main residence was at Goldsmith’s Hall, Co. Londonderry. Despite his military commission, he followed the family line and voted against the act of union in 1799 and 1800. In 1811, as colonel, he took his regiment to Spain, where he was present at numerous actions and played a prominent part in the victory at Salamanca (22 July 1812). He became a brigade commander and was promoted to major-general but took leave of his brigade in France in January 1814.

The French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, had subverted the idealism of the French Revolution and transformed its republican government into a dictatorship run by himself. However, he posed a threat to the whole European order and was forced to abdicate in 1814 and exiled to the island of Elba. Napoleon escaped the following year and returned to France in triumph. He staked all on one last desperate gamble. A European alliance called the immediate mobilization of the Continental armies and Britain’s greatest military commander, the Duke of Wellington, was appointed commanding officer. Arthur Wesley (the family later changed the name to Wellesley), the Duke of Wellington, was born in Ireland in 1769. His father was a descendant of an English family that had lived in Ireland for generations. The Wellesley’s country house was Dangan Castle, in Co. Meath, and their town house in Dublin’s Upper Merrion Street. The family also owned thousands of acres of land in Meath and Kildare.

On 13 June 1815 Napoleon crossed the Belgian frontier making for Charleroi. His aim was to defeat Field-Marshal Gebhard Blϋcher’s army of 120,000 men and drive him to retreat eastwards; he would then turn on Wellington before entering Brussels. Napoleon hoped for a Belgian rising – the Belgians were pro-French and hostile to the Dutch alliance – a France united behind him, the fall of the Tory government in England, and that his father-in-law, the Austrian Emperor, deprived of British subsidies, would sue for peace.

The French attacked Blϋcher’s Prussians at Ligny driving them from the field with heavy loss and sending them in retreat eastward towards Wavre. Napoleon detached Marshal Grouchy with 30,000 men to follow the Prussians while he dealt with Wellington. The two armies met at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Having thrashed the Prussians Napoleon was confident that he would finish off Wellington’s Allied army on the day and be in Brussels by nightfall.

The British contingent of 34,000 men was part of a massive Coalition army that included Dutch, Belgian and Prussian troops. At that time between 30 and 40 per cent of the British line regiments were Irish, so on this basis at least 10,000 Irishmen stood on the battlefield at Waterloo. During the Waterloo campaign Irishman William Ponsonby commanded the Union Brigade, so called because it was made up of English, Scottish and Irish regiments – the 1st Royal Dragoons, the Scots Greys, and the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. He wrote a letter to his mother, Louisa, seven days before the fatal battle:

‘… There seems to be in England a decided feeling for war & perfect confidence as to the successful result. How far this confidence is well founded a few months will show. Bonaparte will certainly have need of all his extraordinary abilities to resist the immense force about to attack him & I should think it impossible for him to do so, unless he is backed by the cordial & nearly general support of the population of France… The Duke of Wellington, however, considers himself very strong & is very confident…’

Early in the battle Ponsonby’s Union Brigade were bunched together in close columns to the left of the Brussels road when shot and shell began to wreck havoc among them. They had only moved position to avoid cannon fire bouncing over the ridge and a frustrated William Ponsonby yelled, ‘Greys, they have found us again!’ The cavalry dispersed into open columns of half squadrons to reduce vulnerability, but it was in vain as the cannon continued to seek them out.

Around 2 pm the Union Brigade made a dramatic charge which routed the remains of D’Erlon’s I Corps. Carried away by their initial success the brigade continued on across the valley and seized two French batteries, but their momentum began to peter out as they crossed the bottom of the valley basin, which was slippery with deep mud. Some horses sank to their knees as they crossed the edge of a ploughed field, but the cavalry struggled on until they were right into the French gunners hacking them down left and right. The British officers quickly lost control of their men, whose bloodlust was up. Major de Lacy Evans, extra aide-de-camp (ADC) to General Ponsonby, recalled, ‘The enemy fled as a flock of sheep across the valley, quite at the mercy of the Dragoons. In fact, our men were out of hand. The General of the Brigade, his staff, and every officer within hearing, exerted themselves to the utmost to reform the men. The helplessness of the enemy offered too great a temptation to the dragoons, and our efforts were abortive.’

From his vantage point Napoleon watched the Scots Greys plunging into the French gun line. ‘These terrible Greys,’ he conceded with some awe, ‘how theyfight!’ But Napoleon saw the confusion, and sent two regiments of Cuirassiers and one of Polish Lancers to attack the disordered cavalry.

The Union Brigade had advanced too far and by this time their horses were completely exhausted. A high price would be exacted for their recklessness. They fled in disorder as the French cavalry counter-attacked, vainly trying to fight their way out of a trap. Nearly 2,400 French lancers and cuirassiers, on fresh horses, rode into the disorganized and exhausted British cavalry. The Union Brigade suffered 617 casualties out of 1,186 men, being effectively destroyed, and played no further part in the battle. Ponsonby, like many of his men, rode too far and his horse became bogged down in the heavy ground. Realising that he would be overtaken he called out to his ADC to take his watch and a miniature portrait of his wife. He was set upon by Polish Lancers, who recognizing his rank and worth as a prisoner beckoned him to surrender. However, when a group of Ponsonby’s own Union Brigade spotted him and rode to his rescue, the Lancers were left with no option but to kill him. Both Ponsonby and his ADC were speared on the spot.

Colonel Bro de Commères, leading the 4th French Lancers in the counterattack, said, ‘Sergeant Urban killed General Ponsonby with a lance thrust. My sabre cut down three of his captains. Two others were able to flee.’

Several survivors later reported passing William Ponsonby as he lay dead in the mud, still clutching the miniature portrait of his wife. His body was afterwards found with seven wounds, over which his faithful charger kept guard. The Union Brigade again encountered the Polish Lancers, almost every one of whom was killed, so that their commander did not fall un-avenged.

The Duke of Wellington in his report on the battle expressed his ‘grief for the fate of an officer who had already rendered very brilliant and important services, and was an ornament to his profession’. Ponsonby’s remains were returned to England and were buried in the Molesworth family vault in Kensington. A memorial was erected to him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There is a small collection of his papers in the National Archives (Kew). A son, William, was born some months later. He succeeded his uncle, John Ponsonby, as 3rd Baron Ponsonby.

William Ponsonby’s death highlighted some pertinent points about cavalry charging, but it also occurred because of a simple enough matter. According to some accounts, on the morning of the battle the groom in charge of Ponsonby’s best horse, a chestnut charger, could not be found. Other accounts state that Ponsonby deliberately did not take his best horse, as it was worth more than the government compensation price that he would have been paid if it were killed. Instead he chose a small black bay. It is certain, however, that he went into battle on an inferior mount, and this proved a fatal choice.

A second cousin, Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, son of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta Spencer, also fought at the Battle of Waterloo. He commanded the 12th Dragoons and was sabred from his horse, then speared by a passing lancer. As he lay severely wounded on the battlefield Ponsonby was robbed of valuables on several occasions, used as a makeshift firing platform by a French skirmisher and rode over by Prussian cavalry. ‘I thought the night would never end,’ he remembered. At last he saw an English soldier from the 40th Foot who had lost his regiment. Ponsonby offered him a reward if he would stand guard over him. The soldier picked up a discarded sword and stood over him until help arrived. Frederick Ponsonby survived his wounds and later became a major-general. He died in Basingstoke, in 1837.

Frederick Ponsonby, fifth son of William Brabazon, and the last of the family, died in 1849, and was buried in the little graveyard on Oughterard Hill. He was the last master of the famous Bishopscourt Hounds and had retired to Dublin after selling Bishopscourt to pay his brother’s debts. The bridge over the Grand Canal at Baronrath, Straffan, is named after the family and is known as ‘Ponsonby Bridge.’

It is stated in old family documents that Sir William Ponsonby’s faithful horse which had remained with him on the battlefield, was brought back to Bishopscourt after the battle of Waterloo. Captain Gerald Ponsonby, who wrote a paper ‘Bishopscourt and its owners,’ for the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society (1915) stated: ‘There is an old man still living in County Kildare who says his grandfather remembered the groom bringing Sir William’s charger back to Bishopscourt after the battle.’

Gerald Ponsonby also recalled an old man named Curran, a resident of Kill village, singing a song at a Tea Party given at Palmerstown House, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, in 1887. The song described a run of the hounds, in which Sir William Ponsonby, the then Master of the Bishopscourt Hunt, followed the hounds, swimming his horse across the Liffey, at Poulaphouca.