In 1759, the latest in a series of wars between France and Britain was raging on. The Seven Years War would come to a conclusion by 1763, with the Irish Brigade heavily engaged in various theatres around the globe, but most of its central focus remained on that cross-channel rivalry, that so defined much of the 1700’s in terms of Europe’s military history.
The great dream of France was always to launch a successful invasion of Britain. The possibility was tantalising: Britain was never really renowned for its ground forces, much of which would have been engaged in Europe, as it was for its navy, so if a sizable enough French army could be landed there, it is easy to imagine a French military victory. But that navy was the problem, Britain’s ships provising a near ceaseless guard on its coasts, and on any possible landing sites. In conjunction with the weather, which throughout history was never very favourable when it came to launching invasions from one direction or the other, it gave Britain the kind of defence that frequently made France beg off from its planned invasions. As we have seen, the French preferred to let someone else do the fighting for them, and were perfectly willing to finance and outfit other expeditions, with promises of future support if things worked out. But they never did work out, and the last successful French military landing on English soil had been way back in 1216.
In 1759, the new foreign minister of France, Etienne Francois, the Duc de Choiseul, began to formulate the latest French design on the British Isles. He envisioned a swift powerful blow to Britain that would knock her out of the war, end British subsidies to French enemies’ on the continent, like Prussia, and avenge French reversals at British hands throughout the world. Unlike others, who felt that the only way that such an invasion could succeed would be if the British Navy was dealt with first, Choiseul instead envisioned a rapid crossing of the channel in a larger fleet of flat-bottomed transport boats, which would proceed from the coast of France to southern England whenever the conditions were optimal, unload their troops – the plans were initially for over 100’000 – and be finished before the Royal Navy could intervene in force. There was significant opposition to the plan from elements within the French government, but enough support that its planned execution became a major part of French military efforts in 1759. Further landings were planned to take place in Ireland and Scotland, with the Irish Brigade and Royal Scots to be heavily involved.
Naturally, Choiseul wanted to involve the Jacobite movement. As in the Fifteen and the ’45, the belief was held that an invasion headed, at least nominally, by the likes of Charles Edward Stuart would have a good chance of getting the local population onside and expediting the entire campaign, with France left with a favourable royal administration to deal with in the aftermath. But this was not to be, not in any firm capacity. A meeting between Choiseul and Charles was a disaster, the Jacobite pretender allegedly turning up late and drunk, already in the throes of the alcoholism that would define much of his final years. Charles was surly and uncooperative in the face of the French plans, insisting that any role he played had to be of an invasion of England, rejecting the suggestion that he instead lead a force in Ireland, demanding reparations from the French government and complaining bitterly of his treatment during the ’45. Charles was cast off as a liability by the French afterwards, the Jacobite star falling rapidly, though Choiseul and the French military were still happy to recruit Jacobites into their ranks. When the Dutch Republic, neutral at the time, inquired as to French aims in their planned invasion, they were told they had no intention of restoring Charles Stuart to the British throne.
In the end, it mattered very little. The French Brest Fleet, designated as a potential cover for the overall invasion plan, was badly mauled at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in November of 1759, and many transport ships were destroyed in British raids, London well aware of French plans. With French government and military heads uneasy about attempting a crossing without any support, despite Choiseul’s insistence on the contrary, the invasion was cancelled. Initially just postponed, the stretching of French military resources, especially in terms of ships, essentially meant that it would never taker place.
However, the French would be able to get to the British Isles, just in a much smaller fashion than expected. Francois Thurot, a famous French privateer who had preyed on over 60 British ships in 1659, was able to break out of a British blockade of Dunkirk late that year, with a small fleet of six ships, two of which had to turn back relatively quickly due to damage sustained. They carried some of the planned invasion force in their holds. Thurot, with some Irish among his crew, was determined to savage something of French naval honour, and determined on a coastal raid of Ulster, initially aiming for Lough Foyle and Londonderry. When bad weather, lack of provisions and a suppressed mutiny afflicted his small fleet, Thurot instead looked further east. He discounted Belfast as a target after some thought, but there were nearby places of interest.
On the 21st of February 1760, Thurot was able to land 600 troops near Carrickfergus, roughly 10 kilometres north-east of Belfast. The town and its fortifications, including an old castle, was defended by only a small force of 200 or so men under a Colonel Jennings. The subsequent clash, aggrandisingly named the “Battle of Carrickfergus”, essentially consisted of the French pushing the local forces out of the village of Kilroot and blockading them in the castle, which was surrendered after a threat to fire Carrickfergus. 19 French were killed in the attack, another 30 wounded. British casualties are unknown.
Thurot and his men would only stay a few days, stripping the castle of anything valuable they could carry and demanding additional supplies be sent from Belfast, a place Thurot still had vague ambitions of attacking and capturing, hoping to get a sizable ransom in exchange for not destroying it. The response of local authorities was swift: the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin sent a force of dragoons northward, fearing that the raid was a feint meant to aid a landing further south, while a sizable force of local militia were raised and armed. With Royal Navy ships closing in, Thurot was obliged to abandon Carrickfergus just a few days after landing.
One week after his initial landing, Thurot’s luck ran out. At the Battle of Bishop’s Court, off the coast of County Down, his fleet was attacked by a superior British force, with every ship sunk or captured, Thurot himself killed by a gunshot to the chest. He died a national hero in France, his deeds, daring and escapades seen in stark contrast to the general military incompetence and defeats that were occurring everywhere else during the war. That aside, Thurot’s raid had little practical effect on the war or on Ireland, his time in Antrim not leaving much of a measurable footprint.
In the end, the much vaunted and highly sought after French plans to invade Britain came to nothing. When the war did end, it was to France’s disadvantage, and to the disadvantage of the Irish serviceman in her ranks, whose dream of overthrowing the ruling British monarchy and attaining a measure of freedom for their homeland being further away than ever.
They were not the only Irish in arms of course. Next time, with Irish involvement in the American Revolution soon to be discussed, it would be apropos to take a look at those Irish regiments in British service during the 18th century.
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