Ireland’s Wars: The Irish At Fontenoy

In the decades following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Irish Brigades of Europe, most notably in France, found themselves as soldiers without a war, relegated to garrison duty and minor adventures on unimportant campaigns, usually just to settle down areas with the potential for revolt. Irish born generals in French service would serve in foreign fields, but the record of the Irish Brigade itself in this period is fairly unremarkable.

Further, as the 1710’s became the 1720’s and into the 1730’s and 40’s, the Irish Brigade began to change. More and more of their rank and file were not Irish, but descendents of Irish or non-Irish, usually commanded by Irish officers. More and more of these officers were not fully fledged Jacobites, politically influenced in their decision to join up and seeking to get the Stuart’s back on the throne of Britain, but just Catholic nobles from Ireland, looking for fame, fortune and position away from a homeland where none of these things were possible anymore due to the Penal Laws. But the fighting character of the Brigades was never extinguished, and they played their part in the next great bout of political violence to engulf Europe, as the major powers of the day lined up against each other once more.

The War of the Austrian Succession, which took place between 1740 and 1748, was a battle over the rights of a woman, Marie Therese, to succeed her father to the Hapsburg Throne in Austria. France, Prussia and Spain, eager to grab territory and influence in Europe, didn’t think she had that right. The Hapsburgs themselves, Britain, Hanover and the Dutch Republic thought that she did. Drawing in numerous smaller states, Kingdoms and principalities, the war fought in Europe would spill over into North America, the Caribbean and India.

The conflict swung back and forth in Europe and elsewhere for several years, marked by the growing emergence of Prussia as a great power, France’s lack of support for its colonies and hesitance from Britain to commit large scale ground forces to the fight. Through the first few years, there are little records of the deeds and actions of the Irish Brigade, but this was to change in 1745. Fighting in the Low Countries had been continuing for some time, and a major French offensive in 1744 had firmly established them there, with the capture of places like Menin and Ypres. A army of around 60’000 men had been given by Louis XV to Marshal Maurice de Saxe, one of France’s most able generals. He aimed to initiate a grand offensive in the Spring of 1745, to force the enemy further back in Flanders and directly threaten what remained of the Hapsburg holdings in the Low Countries. Facing him would be an army of the “Quadruple Alliance”, also known as the “Pragmatic Allies”: Britain, the Dutch Republic, Saxony and Austria, commanded by the 24 year old Duke of Cumberland, the son of Britain’s King George II.

Saxe’s offensive went well: he successfully tricked the Allies into thinking his aim was the besieging of Mons, when the bulk of his army actually went after Tournai, arriving there on the 30th of April. Deceived, Cumberland reacted late, and by the time he had marched his 50’000 or so men to the area, Tournai had been under siege over a week. Saxe, having gained the advantage of picking the site of the coming conflict, fortified a position near the small village of Fontenoy, a few miles away from Tournai, and awaited an inevitable Allied attack.

Six regiments of the Irish Brigade – those of Dillon, Bulkeley, Clare, Rooth, Berwick and Lally – were with Saxe, commanded by Charles O’Brien, the Viscount Clare who claimed the title Earl of Thomond.  Somewhere in the region of 4’000 men – battalion sizes on a campaign are a notoriously tricky thing to discover – would have been with the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy, with an addition cavalry regiment, that of Fitzjames, joining them. Saxe himself was no stranger to the capabilities of the Irish Brigade, having witnessed the slaughter at Malplaquet when he was just 14, and trusted them enough to give them an important placement in his order of battle.

Saxe placed his army in a strong defensive position, just ahead of Fontenoy at the centre, and behind several slopes that could be used to pour fire down on any advancing enemy. The construction of several earth and wood redoubts made the position even stronger. The Irish were placed on the French left, alongside Norman and other French units, near the village of Ramcroix and behind the Barry Wood.

Cumberland attacked on the 11th of June, by which time Louis XV and famous French writer/philosopher Voltaire had arrived to witness the fighting. Initial Allied assaults on the centre and right were driven back by skillful French cannon fire, and after the repulse of these efforts Cumberland turned to the French left, hoping to use the cover of the Barry Wood to his advantage, personally marching 15’000 troops in a column towards an apparent gap in the French line. But the gap was actually well covered, especially by the redoubt at d’Eu, and Cumberland’s advance suffered terrible casualties from enfilade fire as it went up the hill. But the Allied column, a mix of British and Dutch primarily, persisted, and despite taking great hurt, was able to engage and drive back several French regiments, creating a dangerous breach in the French line.

It was at this point that the Irish Brigade, still waiting behind the wood, was sent forward for the first time, with Dillon’s regiment attacking with the Normandy troops. But they were repulsed, the Dillon losing its Colonel in the process, with Fitzjames’ horse also suffering terribly from enemy cannon fire at the same attack. The Allies pushed forward through the created gap, and for a time it seemed as if the French were beaten, Louis XV preparing to ride off.

But Saxe wasn’t done yet. What followed has been mired in some confusion due to conflicting first-hand accounts, but the rest of the Irish Brigade was sent forward by Saxe, along with whatever cavalry he could muster up. Allegedly going forward with cries of “Cuimhnigi ar Luimneach Cuimhnigiis ar fheill na Sasanach!” – “Remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy!” or “Remember Limerick and English lies!” as you like – they joined a last ditch assault on the advancing Allied column, smashing into it from the right, while other units and artillery hit it in the centre and left. It was one of the most famous attacks of the period.

The fighting was a vicious brawl, between Dutch and Scots on one side, Irish and French on the other. Rolling musketry fire wiped out entire lines, before bayonet charges struck deep. Withdrawals were ordered to prevent too far an advance, and then second lines would do it all again, with cannon fire adding to the slaughter. Despite taking huge casualties, the Irish Brigade, in concert with other French regiments but doing most of the fighting themselves, ground the Allied column to a halt, and then turned it back, with a Sergeant Wheelock of Bulkeley’s actually going as far as capturing an enemy colour, likely to have been one from Sempill’s Regiment of Highlanders, though it was oft claimed to be from the more famous Coldstream Guards. The Allies, having been battered and bloodied for hours, had nothing left for any kind of counter-attack, and instead opted for an ordered withdrawal, Cumberland ceding the ground and the day in the face of French advances on all parts of the field.

7’000 soldiers of Saxe’s army had been killed or wounded, and around 12’000 Allied men had been made casualties. 656 soldiers of the Irish Brigade are recorded as falling, along with roughly a ¼ of their compliment of officers, nearly all of them in that last desperate assault. For this sacrifice, their reputation within the French military and in the eyes of the British was made forever, their performance at Fontenoy considered the height of the Irish military diasporas’ achievements. Lauded by Louis XV and rewarded with promotions and pay rises, the Irish Brigade could exult in being, perhaps, the key military unit that had insured a French victory at Fontenoy, their victory noted in foreign courts as well as in France itself: one likely apocryphal story has George II railing against the Penal Laws in the aftermath of Fontenoy, as they prevented him from recruiting Catholic Irish into the British Army wholesale.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as all that. Voltaire, never one to willingly give credit to anyone other than Frenchmen, downplayed the role of the Irish, preferring instead to lavish praise on Norman regiments, rumps of which had accompanied the Irish into the last attack, and his much-distributed accounts were influential. Some British commentators, for obvious reasons, were also not keen to acknowledge the role played by Irish soldiers fighting for France, not least because of the lost colour.

But the Irish role in this moment of the battle has been confirmed by numerous other eye-witnesses, including Saxe himself and his immediate subordinates, one of whom said “whatever the Parisians may say, the victory is due to the Irish”. The Allies could have done more in their pursuit of victory – most notably, a failure to attack Fontenoy itself contributed to the overall Allied failure to send the French fleeing – but would likely have carried the day but for that final charge, in which the Irish Brigade played the central part. There was little tactical nuance to the moment of course, just fighting skill and one side reaching the breaking point before the other.

From Fontenoy, the French were able to launch further attacks throughout Flanders, severely destabilising the Allied position there and grabbing a great deal of territory. The Irish Brigade, following another stretch of coastal garrison duty, were heavily engaged again at the Battle of Lafelt, in modern-day Belgium, in 1747, pushing Allied forces from the village of Lafelt and helping to secure a French victory, taking even larger casualties than they had at Fontenoy in the process. The war would end the following year with the Treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle, which brought peace but was remarkably unpopular in France, with Louis XV giving up most of the land his armies had won. Regardless, the two battles, but Fontenoy in particular, became heavily associated with the Irish Brigade. In terms of the Wild Geese, the Irish performance at Fontenoy had a much more important outcome, helping to inspire one of the other major events of 1745. The Stuart’s had never given up their claim, and soon would try and enforce it once again.

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

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11 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Irish At Fontenoy

  1. Enjoyed reading that, thanks for posting. There’s an interesting display of material referring to Fontenoy etc in the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, if you haven’t been there yet.

    • NFB says:

      Oh, I love Collins Barracks, I’ve spent a large amount of time in there. The Irish Abroad exhibit was really well put together.

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  8. Doug Lucey says:

    Good article. Just to add … I’ve started a website dedicated to Irish involvement at Fontenoy. At the moment there’s a database and ‘Roll of Honour’, which are works in progress. Hopefully there will be blog posts in time. Here’s the link, feel free to share …

    Best wishes – Doug.

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