Amazing tale of Battle of Waterloo survivor who died penniless on streets of Colchester (From Harwich and Manningtree Standard)
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Historic re-enactment enthusiast on remembering forgotten war heroes
4:30am Wednesday 17th November 2010 in Features
ON June 18, 1815, French troops, led by Napoleon, fought against the allied armies of six different nations, led by the Duke of Wellington and Marshall Blucher.
More than 191,000 men met on on the fields of Mont-Saint-Jean in Belgium, to fight a battle that would determine Europe’s future.
The intense battle began at 11.30am and finished at about 8.30pm.
By the end, more than 9,500 men lay dead and 33,000 were wounded. Some were lucky and came through the smoky disarray unharmed.
One such man was Thomas Plunkett, of the 1st Battalion of the 95th Rifle Regiment.
The 95th Rifles, perhaps better popularised in the Bernard Cornwell novels, played a prominent part in the battle.
On the east side of the Brussels road into Mont-Saint-Jean, they fought an onslaught from the French in an area known as the Sand Pit.
Dozens were inevitably killed, but Plunkett survived within an inch of his life, as a musket ball scraped and scarred his forehead, doing sufficient damage to force his return to England.
After the battle that ended the war, he married his girlfriend, who had suffered serious disfigurement from an exploding artillery wagon the day before at the Battle of Quatre Bras.
In about 1851, Plunkett and his wife, after losing his pension from the military through his own bad behaviour, ended up in Colchester almost destitute.
They had been roaming the country as peddlers because Plunkett, like many other ex-soldiers, found it difficult to hold down a job.
Upon their arrival, he dropped dead in the streets with his wife at his side.
On hearing of his death, retired officers came to his widow’s aid and the wife of an officer paid for Plunkett’s funeral and tombstone.
In memoirs of the time, the name Thomas Plunkett is mentioned for his earlier successes in the Peninsular Wars, after supposedly shooting a French general from as far away as 800 yards – a massive feat considering the weaponry of the time, and for his luck in surviving Waterloo.
But for many who fought in 1815, they remain faceless and nameless, melted into history.
With the 200th anniversary of the battle nearing, and an outstanding re-enactment held on the battlefields every year, many participants hope the memories of these brave soldiers will be remembered more widely, along with all those who have fallen before and after.
On a recent trip to the town of Mont-Saint-Jean, wreaths had been placed on memorials.
The Battle of Waterloo does not have as much resonance in England, probably because the remains are not on our doorstep.
Until my family and I discovered re-enactments, I did not give it much thought either.
Napoleonic re-enactors all share a love of history and, of course, an absolute respect for the people they are portraying.
It is also a social hobby, where people can meet other like-minded individuals of all ages.
Men, women and children all take part, if not in the battle itself, in authentic camps where the public can watch a living history.
Those with gun licenses carry real, working muskets. They use blanks, of course, but there is still a small element of danger and risk of injury.
Drills and rehearsals are carried out with health and safety in mind, well before the public see anything. There is a wealth of regiments to join, be they French, English or Prussian.
The 45eme Regiment d’Infanterie de Ligne is a French regiment I know well.
They have many members in north Essex, who all come from different backgrounds and have a variety of day jobs.
You will often see the 45eme at events. Some, like my own dad, were even present at an event for the French Embassy in London this year.
Events take place all over the country, but the biggest is the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo itself, held in Mont-Saint-Jean.
Re-enactors from all over the world fight on the site of the battle.
Everyone there quietly remembers the devoted and brave men who fought for their lives, their countries and their commanders.
It is for this reason I hope and believe all the men and women who died that day nearly 200 years ago should be given thought at this time of Remembrance.
We appropriately reserve reflection for those who died in more recent times but this battle must also be remembered.
Had the soldiers not put their lives on the line, Europe’s future could have been a different story.