On Sunday June 18 1815 at around 6pm in the evening, at the height of the Battle of Waterloo, ten miles south of Brussels, a 33-year-old captain in the 7th (Queen’s Own) Regiment of Hussars named William Verner, born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, was hit in the head by a French bullet — one of 47,000 casualties that day.
Our interest in Verner, of all those men involved in what one of the most pivotal battles in world history, 207 years ago today, is that his story gives us the trivial – but still, in terms of beer history, if not world history, significant – first mention of Guinness being available in continental Europe.
Verner and his regiment, part of the 25,000 British troops and 43,000 allies soldiers under the command of the Duke of Wellington, had several skirmishes with the enemy during the battle before they came under fire in the early evening from French infantry sheltering in trees near to where they were stationed. The officers were maneuvering their horses backwards and forwards, to try to stop the infantry taking deliberate aim at them, and Verney had just turned his horse when he was hit by a French bullet on the right side of his head.
It struck the metal links of his hussar helmet’s chinstrap with a loud clang, which saved his life, but stunned him, leaving him bleeding and badly enough injured that he departed the field for the nearby village of Waterloo, where a surgeon sent him to Brussels for treatment. His wound dressed, he found a billet in Anderlecht, then “about a mile out of Brussels”. There, within a few days, he became dangerously ill with a fever, writing later: “I was nearly a month in bed, reduced almost to a skeleton, and when I attempted to get up, unable to stand.
“By degrees my strength returned but was not fully restored for many months. A curious circumstance occurred, which I have often thought of since. When I was sufficiently recovered to be permitted to take some nourishment, I felt the most extraordinary desire for a glass of Guiness’s [sic] porter, which I knew could be obtained without difficulty. Upon expressing my wish to the doctor, he told me I might take half a tumbler or a small glass, but no more, as if I exceeded it it might prove very injurious. It was not long before I sent for the porter, and I shall never forget how much I enjoyed it. I thought I had never tasted anything so delightful. It was only for a very short time I was satisfied with prescribed quantities; the dose soon became increased, and I am confident that it contributed more than anything else to the renewal of my strength.”
Verner’s story, lightly tweaked, was used by Guinness in its advertising some 120 years later. Guinness continued to be available in Belgium, with adverts for “première qualite de Bière Anglais [sic], dite Porter, de la brasserie de Guinness’s” in newspapers in Ghent in 1838, and Guinness’s stout, alongside ”Lard Anglais” on sale in Brussels in 1862.
Verner’s father James was an MP in the Irish parliament, and had a house in Dawson Street, Dublin from 1794, which is presumably where William became familiar with Guinness‘s porter. He was promoted to major after Waterloo, and eventually rose to be a lieutenant-colonel in the 7th Hussars. He was later an MP for County Armagh for 34 years, and created a baronet in 1846, dying in 1868, aged 86, doubtless after many more pints of Guinness.