France in the late 1780’s was a tinderbox just waiting for the right spark. French involvement in the American Revolution and associated conflicts with Britain elsewhere around the globe had left the state near bankruptcy, with the military feeling the pinch as much as anybody. Dissatisfaction was rampant all over, with resentment especially high in the lower classes and middle classes.
When what we know today as the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the Irish Brigade was still in existence. Indeed, one of the prisoners in the Bastille on the 14th July, the day the prison was stormed by a Parisian mob, was James F.X Whyte, a former Captain in Lally’s Regiment, who had been incarcerated following a mental breakdown. Like Captain Whyte, the Brigade had seen better days. By now the vast majority of its rank and file had very little Irish connections, though its leadership still did. The relaxation of the Penal Laws and the opportunities afforded by the now legal recruitment of Catholics into the British Army had reduced and then all but stopped the flow of recruits coming from Ireland.
As the new governmental entities, like the National Assembly, took power and began the painful process of reorganising French politics and society, the foreign military units in French service began to be targeted. The Revolution was often a bloody process, and would engulf most of Europe in a new round of war before too long. The National Assembly’s leaders were preparing for conflict, and saw the foreign regiments, like the Irish Brigade, as too pro-royalist to be entirely trusted: Swiss troops and other foreign units had been some of the only ones that had tried to protect the French royal family from the mob that seized them early in the Revolution, and such things stuck in the mind of those now directing that process.
Mass reforms of the French military were soon being debated, and one of them was the disbandment of the Irish regiments. One of the key reasons that advocates of disbandment presented was that the regiments were not actually Irish anymore. There was pushback from some, not least Arthur Dillon, one of the Brigade’s regimental commanders and an Assembly member, representing the French colony of Martinique. He insisted that, while the rank and file, for various reason, were no longer Irish, the Brigade enjoyed a century long record of Irish born or Irish descended officers. Further, he argued that it should not be classified as a foreign entity, as Louis XIV had conferred French citizenship to the members of the Brigade.
Dillon’s appeals to the Assembly fell on deaf ears, and King Louis XVI, while sympathetic, was no longer in any position to do anything to save the Brigade. Desperate, Dillon attempted to have the regiments of the Irish Brigade transferred to Spanish service, but it was too late. In July 1791, the Assembly abolished nearly all of the foreign regiments in French service, with the Irish Brigade losing its distinctive uniforms and privileges, its soldiery – then numbering around 4’500 men- absorbed into other parts of the army. The regiments of Dillon, Walsh and Berwick became the 87th, 92nd and 88th Regiment d’Infanterie respectively. While these units were still largely considered to be “Irish” by some, retaining some of their previous leadership, the change effectively ended the history of the Irish Brigade in France. In the immediate years following the reorganisation, elements of them would end up having a largely undistinguished service in French Caribbean possessions, combating native revolts and suffering badly from tropical disease.
Many officers, required to make oaths of loyalty to the new government but still holding royalist sympathies, resigned their commissions. Some of these would go on to form a short-lived Irish Brigade in royalist service, which was stood down in 1792 following some ineffective campaigning in the service of Austria and Prussia. Other gravitated into other armies altogether, and 200 Irish officers were serving in the Austrian military in the 1790’s.
By 1793 Britain was back at war with France, with the execution of Louis XVI the last straw: somewhat ironically, the British government now found itself backing and giving support to the Bourbon line of King’s, that they had warred against so often in the previous century. Britain’s war against France, in those early years of this larger conflagration, would be primarily naval, with powers like Austria and others left to do the fighting on land. Still, British leaders, like Prime Minister William Pitt, were conscious of the need to have the army maintained and improved. The former members of the Irish Brigade who no longer wanted to find service with France were suddenly on their radar.
Pitt invited several former officers of the Brigade to London, proposing the creation of an “Irish Catholic Brigade”, a six regiment unit that would recruit in Ireland as a pro-royalist force. There was clearly some enthusiasm for the idea from those canvassed, and plans went ahead to recruit in Dublin. Of course, there were howls of outrage from many in the Protestant Ascendancy, who hated the former Irish Brigade as a pro-Catholic, pro-Jacobite entity, which was now going to be given free rein to recruit new numbers in Ireland.
The opposition was so loud that recruitment became difficult, and the amount of regiments planned had to be reduced. Officers, a large amount of which had spent most of their lives in France, found themselves out of step in Dublin, with some falling into poverty as the enlistment period lengthened, subject to harassment when going out in public in uniform. The Brigade became targets for ridicule from pro-Revolution figures like Wolfe Tone, and one of its commanders, the Duke of FitzJames, felt obliged to engage in several duels to defend the unit’s honour from insults.
Expectations that the Brigade would serve in continental Europe were dashed by the negative reception, and the fear that the soldiers would not be reliable. Instead, it was sent across the Atlantic to Canada and the West Indies, the Brigade suffering terribly from tropical diseases in Jamaica and Haiti, before its eventual disbandment in 1798. A few portions of it would serve in Europe, but the overall Brigade faded into the pages of history without leaving much of an impression.
Many others stayed in France of course, and at least ten generals in the army of Revolutionary France were Irish-born. They included Arthur Dillon whose loyalty to France was greater than his disappointment at the loss of the Irish Brigade as a unit. Those could be difficult times for foreigners in France: the onset of the “Reign Of Terror” had resulted in a situation where the slightest accusation or suspicion could lead to a trip to the guillotine to “kiss the blade”. The large-scale wars France was fighting with nearly all of its neighbours by 1794 exacerbated the situation, with Revolutionary spirit to be found as much in the military as with civilians. Dillon’s cousin, Theobald Dillon, was also a general, but was lynched by his own troops following a minor skirmish near the city of Lille in 1792, the soldiers thinking their commander was part of a conspiracy that had led to their minor defeat at the hands of their Austrian foe.
Such an outcome should, perhaps, have been a warning to Arthur, whose pressing for the retaining of the Irish Brigade and, apparently, pro-royalist tendencies garnered all sorts of attention he did not want. Any kind of military failure was tantamount to treason in such circumstances. After the Battle of Valmy, Dillon found himself as part of the breakaway Army Du Nord, where he was accused of trying to arrange an easy retreat path for Prussian forces, and then of conspiring with England (despite the fact that he continued to agitate for a French invasion of Ireland at the same time). His previous service in the Irish Brigade counted for very little in the face of the Reign of Terror, and after being denounced, and then accused of trying to direct a prison revolt, he was sentenced to death. Dillon went to his end with as much dignity as he could, allegedly shouting “Vive le Roi!” (“Long live the King!”) before his death. He was far from the only Irish born or Irish descended officer to suffer such a fate. The Reign of Terror would come to an end eventually, with even its architects feeling its sting, but not before thousands of lives had been claimed in the name of the Revolution. Dillon’s name is among that list, and it is also, paradoxically, on the Arc de Triumph as well.
Regardless of all that occurred with men like Dillon, the Irish Brigade in French service was finished, as an entity separate from other units within the French military. It had served in five different major European conflicts during its existence, and forged a reputation that would live on down the centuries, all the way to the present day. But with those reforms and reorganisations in 1791, its tale had come to an end.
But the story of Irish soldiers in the service of France does not, and neither does the story of Irish military units in the service of France. As the Revolutionary French Wars swept across Europe and beyond, opportunities abounded for men with the will, intelligence and guile to taken them. One of those men was a Corsican artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. When he came to power in France, he would find use for Irish soldiers.
But so would the people fighting him.
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