Ireland’s Wars: The Early Years Of The Irish Brigade

Before the War of the Two Kings had even ceased, Irish troops had travelled to France to join the armies of Louis XIV.

Of course, Irish soldiers had been serving in continental armies, in dribs and drabs, for a while before that. But this was different. In May of 1690, a specific unit within the French Army was created, for the purpose of accommodating Irish soldiers within the larger military. Initially just five infantry regiments sent to France in exchange for more professional, experienced French troops – an exchange that didn’t gain James and the Jacobites all that much in the long run – these units formed the centre of what would be known as the “Irish Brigade”. Initially under the command of Justin McCarthy, the Viscount Mountcashel, they numbered somewhere in the region of 5’000 men, whose subdivisions would soon be better known by their initial commanders: the regiments of Mountcashel, Butler, Fielding, Dillon and O’Brien.

The Irish were there to serve Louis XIV since he was one of James’ staunchest allies, and any service for the French King was a service for the larger Jacobite cause. The dream was still for Ireland to be turned into a Jacobite stronghold and for James to be placed back on the throne in London: after the end of the War of the Two Kings, when a huge influx of “Wild Geese” came to France and swelled the size of the Irish Brigade, the larger goal became the execution of an invasion to liberate the homeland from Williamite control. Of course, the Irish Brigade, as big as it got for a time, couldn’t do this on its own.

Initially, it had other problems. The huge numbers of Irish troops that had travelled to France after the end of the war in Ireland, many bringing wives and families with them, could not all be initially taken care of. The Irish Brigade was billeted in Brittany initially, in the north-western corner of France, to train and join in coastal defence duties, but there were never enough billets for a unit that may have grown to the size of 15’000. So numerous were they that a large proportion did not become part of the Irish Brigade proper, instead classified as James Jacobite army, though still in the pay of France. Soldiers sleeping rough became a problem, then desertion, ill-discipline and all the other associated problems of garrison duty reared their heads. Troops, though given new uniforms and a place in the armed forces, were paid less than they had in Ireland and were given less to do, things that traditionally have resulted in poor morale in troops. Combined with the fact that nearly all of these soldiers were recent immigrants, unsure of their decision to leave Ireland and many already regretting it, and you did not have a picture of a battle-ready brigade.

But people like Mountcashel, Patrick Sarsfield and others had a more optimistic outlook, seeing in the brigade an army that, when supplemented with French allies, could prove very capable of resuming the war, be it in Ireland or Britain. The first possible opportunity came only a year after the Treaty of Limerick, when Louis gave his blessing and support for a combined Franco-Irish army to cross the channel and land in England. James expected that a successful landing would lead to widespread support and the raising of additional Jacobite forces in England. With a large army assembled in Normandy, the operation might well have stood a chance of success if a crossing could be achieved. But it was not to be: the French fleet and transports were roundly defeated by a larger Royal Navy fleet at the Battles of Barfleur, Cherbourg and La Hogue in May and June of 1692, ending any possibility that the Irish Brigade would reverse the outcome of Limerick quickly.

The Irish units were somewhat scattered in the aftermath, Mountcashel’s brigade remaining in being, others being subsumed into other parts of the French army, navy and Marines and many being simply cast out of the armed services altogether in the years that followed, to become homeless vagrants throughout France, hardly the glorious life in exile many had been hoping for. High ranking men like Sarsfield became Marshal’s of France and took part in the war against William afterward, but the Irish Brigade’s service in this conflict, for the rest of the war, is not especially well noted. They served in numerous clashes, most notably at Steenkirk, Landen, Neerwinden and Marsaglia, in places like Flanders and northern Italy. While considered solid and reliable, Irish regiments would not create their lasting reputation in this conflict, which came to an end in 1697.

It was in the “War of the Spanish Succession” that this reputation would start to be created. This was a dynastic conflict that, as the name suggests, centred around a disputed succession to the Spanish throne, a dispute that eventually drew in most of the major European powers of the day, with France and Britain locked on either side. The war began in 1701, and 1500 Irish troops were part of a French campaign in Italy, facing Austrian soldiers under the famed Prince Eugene. At Chiari in September 1701 Irish troops drove Austrians from fixed positions in farmhouses and mills, taking heavy losses, in a battle that would eventually become a French defeat. But in later actions in the same campaign, most notably through the performance of a cavalry regiment made up largely of Westmeath men, the Irish gained some renown, to the extent that Louis soon increased their number and their pay.

After a difficult few months of campaigning, a large section of the French army retired to winters quarters at Cremona, a walled city on the Po River, not too far from Milan. The 5’000 or so French garrison included 600 Irish. In February of 1702, Cremona was the target for an audacious surprise attack by Eugene’s Austrians, several thousand of which were able to bypass the city’s outer defence in the dead of night via a sewer entrance, while an additional force attacked one of the gates. The operation went smoothly at first, with most of the town secured while the garrison was sleeping. But Irish troops were not taken completely unawares, holding the Po Gate and a few other vital points, such as the town’s citadel, despite repeated Austrian attacks and volley fire at close range. Their resistance broke the back of the Austrian attack, and resulted in an unlikely rally: though the French commander was captured, the Irish and the French were able to force the Austrians out of the town, despite heavy losses. Saving the position and the French garrison was vital to extending the war in Italy: “The Irish performed there the most important piece of service for Louis XIV, that, perhaps any King of France ever received, from so small a body of men” said one English commentator. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a book of poetry, declared “The Austrians failed to take the town, for better men were there, from Limerick and Clare.”

For 350 casualties, the Irish helped Cremona hold and sealed their reputation in the French army. Honours, pay rises and promotions resulted, and the opinion of the Irish Brigade as a sort of crack force really begins to be seen more clearly from this point on. Additional fighting in Italy shortly after, at Luzzara, Bondanello, Riga and Brescello, heavily involved the Irish Brigade and Irish commanders.

In 1703 most of the Brigade was redirected to fighting in Germany. Irish cavalry distinguished itself at Spyerbach on the Rhine, helping to drive forward a right flank attack that resulted in victory over a combined Palatinate/Hesse-Kassel force. Irish troops formed a major part of a storming party at the Siege of Kehl that same year, as part of a larger French campaign to clear German resistance along the Rhine River.

In 1704, many Irish were heavily engaged at the famed Battle of Blenheim, in August of that year. It was a terrible experience for the French, one of the largest land victories that an English commander – none other than the Duke of Marlborough, facing a more difficult challenge than Cork or Kinsale – ever won, as a dangerously unsupported French centre was unable to deal with an unexpectedly ferocious assault. Irish regiments served in that centre, and helped to prevent the complete destruction of the larger army, but were still forced to retreat with not inconsiderable loss.

Irish regiments continued to serve in the back and forth war being fought in Italy. Victory at Cassano and stiff resistance at the Adda River were triumphs, but unsuccessful efforts to take Turin eventually resulted in the French armies having to withdraw from Italy altogether, notwithstanding a victory, featuring a crucial Irish bayonet charge, at Calcinato in early 1706. Further defeats were to occur in other parts of the war, such as at Ramillies in Belgium, though again, Irish regiments distinguished themselves by going toe to toe with enemy units, capturing colours and inflicting sizable casualties.

By 1708, the French position in the war was not great, following a series of defeats and territorial losses. Several Irish regiments were present at the titanic clash at Oudenaarde, when over 150’000 men were engaged. Another French defeat, it was followed by the loss of the key fortress at Lille, that was partially defended by Irish troops in a vicious four month siege.

The most famous battle of the war, Malplaquet, followed the next year, as French armies scrambled to repel the invaders. With 86’000 men of the “Grand Alliance” of Britain, Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch besieging Mons, 75’000 French soldiers marched to the nearby village of Malplaquet to attempt a relief. Five Irish regiments were part of the force. The Grand Alliance attacked this position several times, and early in the battle a combined defence of Irish, Swiss and French regiments repulsed these efforts, before a counter attack sent Prussian soldiers flying from their own positions. At the Sart Wood location of the battlefield, one French Army Irish regiment exchanged fire with a Royal Irish Regiment – both were led by Kilkenny officers. It was not until after the fighting had come to an end that the opposing units realised they were from the same land. Rolling British fire won this particular engagement, and the Irish Brigade regiment had to withdraw. Soon the whole French army was obliged to retreat, despite having attempted numerous attacks on the enemy – several were led by James Stuart, James II’s son, and the proclaimed Jacobite King James III. But despite the loss, the end result of the battle was a disaster for the Grand Alliance, due to the huge casualties that they suffered. The Irish suffered too: over 10’000 of them may have fought at Malplaquet, and nearly a third may have perished there.

Much of the attention on the War of the Spanish Succession changed afterwards, as Spanish and American theatres began to take precedence, and numerous political developments, temporary truces and peace negotiations became the norm. Battles and sieges were still fought on the continent and in France, but with less of the vigour that they had been prosecuted with earlier in the war and, by extension, less Irish involvement. Louis, his country suffering financially and socially from the fighting, wanted out, and eventually got what he wanted in 1714, with a peace treaty where France gave significant territorial concessions in their north-eastern frontier and in America in exchange for their candidate for the Spanish throne being recognised. Irish interests lay primarily with Louis’ recognition of the Williamite takeover of the British throne (again). While they had fought bravely in the war and become famous, the Irish Brigades would find no fulfilment of their political ambitions out of it, with “James III” left as a King in name only. Soon enough though, he would try changing that himself.

Before we concern ourselves with his travails though, we will go a bit further south. While the Irish Brigade of France is undoubtedly the most famous of the Wild Geese units, many Irish also travelled to Madrid to became part of the Spanish military. They had their part to play in the War of the Spanish Succession too, and I’ll cover that next week.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Early Years Of The Irish Brigade

  1. diflin says:

    The brigade was surley formed by the 14,000 men France wanted sent in exchange for the troops the sent to Ireland. It was they who insisted on wearing red coats (refusing to wear standard French white. Also insisiting that the Cross of St. George be on their colours as they were soldiers of the King (James of England taht is). The troops who arrived from Ireland when the war in Ireland was finished. Were used for a time, and then disbanded, some would be absorbed into the exisiting Irish Brigade. I am not in a postion to give sources as am on holiday. I have thought your histories very good until now. However if you have something that contradicts above I would be only to happy to know it.

  2. diflin says:

    Please disregard my previous posting got my wires crossed. Only saw part of your article had a problem with hardware I was using.

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Brigade Of Spain | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Irish At Fontenoy | Never Felt Better

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  7. James Molloy says:

    And to think Voltaire, in his poem on Fontenoy, ignored the Irish Brigade. What a moron, in this case, he proved and sullied himself. The Irish Brigade that day 8 May (Tues) 1745 turned, of
    course with their beloved French soldiers, defeat into victory;
    Some Poems deal wthith this, Thomas Davis, Emily Lawless etc; To which I respectfully add my own lines. Here in France at last we rest
    Here in France we have rerspect
    We will return it blow for blow
    From Dublin town to Aherlow;

    Cumberland is on the march
    We greet the news with Joy
    We’ll stoip the bastard in his track
    Right here at Fontenoy:

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