The Irish Brigade had made their reputation in the War of the Austrian Succession, at places like Fontenoy and Lafelt. When that war concluded in 1748, with the Treaty of Aix-le-Chappelle, the Brigade was left as one of the most noted military units in France, though they had failed to fulfil the long standing goal of getting the Stuart family back on the throne of Britain, though most of the Brigade had never got the opportunity to try.
Eight years of peace followed, with the Brigade back on garrison and coastal defence duty, its numbers of Irish born soldiers continuing to decline. In 1756, the Brigade was given the opportunity to go back into more active survive with the outbreak of what has become known as the “Seven Years War”. This is a single term to describe a wide range of conflicts that were fought around the globe, with varying reasons for the wars beginning. In Europe, it is seen as a pushback against the growing military power of Prussia by France and Austria, along with being the latest in the series of political, territorial and trade disputes between Britain and France, who found themselves butting heads in North America and India and well as in Europe.
It was 1756 when the conflict really flared up into a proper war, but lower-intensity fighting had been taking place in the years beforehand as well, some of which involved Irish troops. The war in North America – known as the “French and Indian War” in popular remembrance there – was fought between the denizens of “New France” to the north and the British colonies in the south, with much of the native population siding with the French. The French wanted to protect their interests in the region – modern day Quebec – from potential British expansion, the 13 colonies’ population heavily outnumbering that of the French.
In 1755, a French admiral named John MacNamera sailed to France along with a number of other Irish officers. They had been requested by the local governor – he had actually wanted a whole battalion of the Irish Brigade, but they were soon to be busy elsewhere – because he hoped that the presence of Irish troops might attract deserters from the British Army to the south, the London government finally starting to relax their prohibition against the recruiting of Irish Catholics by this time (a story for another day).
The plan wasn’t just idle talk, and an Irish unit was indeed formed from British deserters and prisoners of war who were captured in the course of the fighting. These men, faced with the choice between a dingy imprisonment in the colonies along with a possibly grim transportation back to Europe, or joining the opposition and being free again, often choose the French option. Just how many people made up this “battalion” is not very clear, but it was enough that it did come to the attention of the British, who mistook the unit for being a section of the French Irish Brigade, as opposed to being made-up of their own former soldiers. The men re-cut their British uniforms to add green facings, and took part in several notable campaigns of the French and Indian War.
They were present at an early French victory in the fighting, at the Siege of Fort Oswego, in the modern day state of New York. Oswego was an important outpost to the British, and a force of 3’000 troops took it in August of 1756. Firsthand accounts note the appearance of the “Irish Brigade” during the final fall of the fort. They also apparently were present at the infamous siege of Fort William Henry, when surrendering British soldiers and their families were attacked by natives as they marched out of the position.
They are next seriously noted at being present at the 1758 Siege of Louisburg, in present day Nova Scotia. The position was taken after a heavy naval bombardment, and precipitated a general collapse of the French administration in New France: first hand British accounts describe Irish troops, with Irish officers, taking part in sorties during the fighting. During one of these, Scottish troops cut off the retreat path for the Irish, and heavy losses were the result.
By 1759, the British upper hand in the war had been established, and though the fighting officially continued into the 1760’s, the French has essentially been pushed out of Canada. Whatever still existed of the Irish battalion was shipped to France, where it was incorporated into the Irish Brigade. They certainly couldn’t go home anymore, risking imprisonment and execution if they did so. One of the British regiments sent to garrison America in the aftermath was the Royal Irish, which would still be there when the American Revolution broke out in 1775.
The Irish also had their part to play in the fighting taking place on the Indian sub-continent. Thomas Arthur, the Comte de Lally, was a leading officer in the Irish Brigade at the beginning of the war. French-born to Irish parents, he was a committed Jacobite, and had been present at Dettingen, Fontenoy and Falkirk, reaching the rank of Brigadier General by the age of 55. He was a very well respected member of the French army, praised by the likes of Marshal Saxe, and commanded his own regiment – the Regiment of Lally – within the Irish Brigade.
Louis XV liked Lally, and approached him about the possibility of campaigns against Britain directly, in North America, or in India. Lally favoured India, feeling that a strike back against British influence in the region was in French interests. Lally was subsequently appointed governor-general of India by Louis and given command of an ambitious expedition to the region. 2’500 troops on several ships were sent, over a thousand of them being from Lally’s own regiment.
The expedition’s departure was delayed by bad weather and political wrangling, which eventually saw Lally’s force reduced in size, much to his chagrin. By the time he did reach India, in April of 1758, the British were in a dominant position, having dealt a serious blow to French forces there at the Battle of Plassey. Arriving at the French settlement of Pondicherry, in the south-east of India, Lally found a colony in disarray: hard pressed by the British, suffering from intense corruption within its trading companies, with mutinous soldiers and disease dealing terrible damage. Always better at fighting rather than talking, Lally marched out within six weeks of his arrival, investing and taking British Fort David, Cuddalore and Devicotah, forcing the British military there to retreat to Madras (modern day Chennai).
Lally was a capable man, but he had a tendency to get on the wrong side of others. He alienated many trade officials in the area by trying to expose corruption, and many of his fellow officers came to detest his manner and methods. An attempt to besiege Madras in the winter of 1758 and early months of 1759 came to nothing, when Lally was unable to get the naval support required, a desperate disappointment, as he believed the position was near surrender when Royal Navy reinforcements arrived. Over a thousand of the 8’000 men besieging the place never made it back to Pondicherry, between the intense defensive fire of the British, disease and desertion.
Lally’s command became ever more paralysed, unable to make up for its shortfall in soldiers or supplies, and he and his Irish troops suffered badly at the 1760 Battle of Wandiwash, a position halfway between Madras and Pondicherry. The Franco-Irish garrison there, commanded by a Kennedy of the Irish Brigade, had surrendered amid bad morale over late pay. Lally’s initial attempt to storm the fort – an attack he led personally – failed, and he was forced into another siege. The British responded with a relief, and in the subsequent battle the French were defeated, with a third of the army becoming casualties. The British were commanded by a man named Eyre Coote, son of an Irish clergyman, who had also been present at Falkirk, on the opposite side.
Another retreat to Pondicherry followed, but this was now badly beset, the last French position of importance in India. Cut off by land and bombarded by Royal Navy ships at sea, Lally surrendered after an eight month siege, when he and his garrison were reduced to eating rats to survive. The remnants of his army were, eventually, repatriated back to France, but his own regiment had taken such a hammering that it was forced to permanently disband.
Lally was imprisoned in London, later paroled back to France, where he suffered the indignity of being almost solely blamed for the disaster in India, despite his severe shortages in men and material. Lally became an unfortunate victim of severe public dissatisfaction with the armed forces, which had lost badly in North America and now India. Imprisoned for over four years, he was found guilty of numerous crimes, which resulted in his execution in 1766: he was later cleared of all guilt after a campaign to save his name, which included commentators like Voltaire among its number.
All that time, the Seven Years War was raging in Europe, with the Irish Brigade engaged in several different theatres. in 1757, as part of a joint French/Austrian invasion into Germany, they fought at the momentous Battle of Rossbach, where Frederick the Great’s Prussians inflicted 10’000 casualties for comparatively little loss, in one of the most famous battles that the legendary Frederick ever fought. Some have attributed praise of the Irish resistance there to Frederick. In 1758, the Irish were sent to coastal defences in Brittany, helping to beat off a British raid there, though elements of the Brigade were still in the thick of the fighting in central Europe, with Fitzjames’ horse heavily engaged at times.
By 1761, the French were satisfied that the threat of invasion from Britain was over, enough so that the bulk of the Brigade was redeployed back to busier theatres. For the next few years, numerous battles saw their involvement, at places like Marborg, Villinghausen, Soest and Unna, a mixture of victories and defeats. Fitzjames’ cavalry was essentially destroyed at the Battle of Wilhemstahl in 1752, surrounded and overrun while defending a small village against an Allied advance. 300 horses fell, wiping out much of the lineage of the Jacobite cavalry that had fought in the War of the Two Kings. The regiment was deactivated the same year.
The war came to an end in 1763, with the Irish back on French coastal duty, perhaps in preparation for yet another planned invasion of Britain that would never get the go ahead. The conflict had not given the Irish the same opportunities for glory that the previous one had, and with Thomas Lally’s ignominious end after an impossible task in India, it may well have given the Brigade its most significant black mark. Though the Irish fought well on numerous fronts, they were unable to make the same impact as they had before, and this is indicative of a gradual decline in the Brigade’s quality and usefulness.
There is one other incident within the Seven Years’ War that I will talk about next time. Throughout, the French hoped to put together an invasion of the British Isles, but it was only in 1760 that such plans reached a point where they might becomes more than just fanciful aspirations. In that year, the French were back in Ireland.
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