Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Against Napoleon

The course of the French Revolutionary Wars and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars bears little going into. Between 1792 and 1815, France fought numerous conflicts against a series of opposing coalitions. What began as a conflict of mere survival for the Revolution soon morphed into a more imperialistic venture when France fell under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799: he would eventually lead France to control a huge chunk of Europe, stretching all the way to Moscow in the east and to the Portuguese coastline in the west. But it couldn’t last, with the French state practically dependent on constant expansion to sustain itself, and Napoleon suffered two major falls, the first in 1813 when British, Austrian, Russian and Prussian overran France, and the second in 1815, after the titanic clash at Waterloo. Throughout the entire conflict, Irish troops were heavily involved, in numerous armies, but none more so than the British.

As already stated, Catholic Irish had begun to swell the size of the British military towards the latter part of the 18th century, as the Empire expanded and found itself in desperate need of more manpower. Keeping the Irish Catholics out of the military was no longer a viable option, despite the fears of the Protestant Ascendency, since there were so many able bodied men who could be a potent pool for recruitment. Men would join for the financial opportunities, avoiding poverty and subsistence at home, or for the chance at adventure and a few would even “take the shilling” out of genuine political sentiment. In essence, for the same reasons men have always joined armies.

The necessity for a larger army with the coming of this protracted war with France was the last straw really. With the relaxation and eventual discarding of the Penal Laws, Catholics in Ireland were soon being recruited en masse. At different points, the amount of Irish men in British uniform might have been as much as 20 to 40% of the entire British military. The following are just some of the units that either originated in Ireland, or came to be associated in particular with it.

Perhaps the most famous Irish unit in British service in this period was the 88th Regiment of Foot: the Connacht Rangers, nicknamed “The Devil’s Own”. First raised in 1793 by Henry de Burgh, the Earl of Clarickarde, and finding a particular heartland in the Galway region, the 88th first fought in Egypt and then briefly in an expedition to South America before being part of limited operations in the Neutherlands in 1806. It was only later during the Napoleonic Wars that the regiments fame would grow, as it joined Arthur Wellesley’s –– the future Duke of Wellington, who was born in Ireland himself – army, fighting the French in the “Peninsular War”, the combat that raged over the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal between 1807 and 1814 (this war also saw the last meaningful use of the Spanish Irish regiments, which, like their French counterparts, were barely Irish anymore, and would be gradually phased out of service).

The Rangers fought in nearly major engagement of the war during their time on the peninsula, known as the most Irish of the Irish regiments, at famous battles like Talavera, Bussaco (where their charge saved a deteriorating situation), Fuente de Onoros and Salamanca, and in vicious sieges like those at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, immense fortifications that required a great sacrifice of blood to gain for the British Army. The Rangers, who got their nickname due to their perceived ferocity in battle, to the extent that they became difficult to control, were some of the most effective shock troops of Wellesley’s army, forming a large section of the “forlorn hope” at Ciudad Rodrigo: the losses they sustained in the effort led to widespread looting and mayhem in the town afterwards, but also sealed their reputation. Sent to Canada in the aftermath of Napoleon’s first downfall, they were unable to be returned fast enough to take part in the Battle of Waterloo.

Joining them in the Peninsular Wars was the 87th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, known initially as the “Prince Of Wales’ Irish”, in honour of the future George IV. Sir John Doyle, a Dublin veteran of the American Revolution raised the unit initially, serving as its first Colonel. Between some service in Flanders, the West Indies and in Ireland itself, the regiment sent a battalion to Spain to serve between 1809 and 1814. The unit became famous for its battle cry – “Faugh a Ballagh”, Irish for “Clear the way” – and for its actions at the Battles of Barrosa and Vitoria. At Barrosa, after blunting some of the final failed French attacks, members of the unit became the first in British uniform to capture a French Imperial Eagle, the equivalent of a British colour, during the Peninsular Wars, the honour going to an Ensign Keogh and Sergeant Paddy Masterman. The deed cost Keogh his life, but Masterman, survived, as does his alleged cry upon seizing the ornament: “By Jaysus boys, I’ve got the cuckoo!”. At Vitoria, one of the latter clashes as French commitment to the fight began to wane, it was a marshal’s baton, belonging to the French commander Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, which was taken, by the regiments’ buglers.

The previous two regiments would have been mostly Catholic in terms of their general make-up – many of the officers wold have been English or Irish Protestants of course – but there were Irish Protestant regiments as well. One, the 27th Regiment of Foot, was a descendent entity from one of the Enniskillen militia raised during the War of the Two Kings, which had become an established unit during the many wars of the 18th century. Against France in this round of fighting, the “Inniskilling” regiment fought in Flanders before helping to take islands in the Caribbean, as many Irish regiments did, suffering terribly from the heat and tropical diseases they were soon unsuited to deal with. Later came greater glory, with the regiment taking part in the Battle of Alexandria in 1801 and then the Battle of Maida in Italy, both crucial victories in the respective campaigns. The regiment entered into the Peninsular Wars in dribs and drabs, with its 1st Battalion joining Wellesley nearly everywhere, and the 3rd only arriving in 1813, but the regiment still had the opportunity to inflict heavy casualties on the French enemy at the Battle of Castalla, before suffering the same a few months later at Ordal, one of the last significant French victories of that campaign. In 1815, the unit took its place at Waterloo, a topic for another day.

The 18th Royal Hussars was a cavalry unit raised by Charles Moore, the Lord Drogheda, in 1759, where they first became notable as one of the rapidly drawn up military entities that was sent north to combat the French that had taken Carrickfergus. Minor service here and there was their lot for most of the wars, until late in the game, when the “Drogheda Light Horse” were able to take part in the closing moments of the Peninsular War, losing a whose squadron at Vitoria, as well as opportunities for promotion after widescale looting after the battle. In 1815 they took part in the Waterloo campaign, fighting in the preliminary battle at Quatre Blas before being held in reserve for the famous battle a few days later.

The 83rd Regiment of Foot was a Dublin regiment, first formed in 1793. Service in the West Indies was harsh, with over 900 dead from an initial total of around 1’100. Service in the Peninsula followed: a bayonet charge from the regiment scattered a French attack at Talavera at heavy cost, thought it had recovered enough to play a limited role at Bussaco. More bloody engagement at Fuente de Onoros, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo followed, where the regiment took part in key assaults. Later, at Salamanca, they led a counter attack on French troops in marching order, killing or capturing 3’000 of them. Engaged nearly all the way up to the final days of the conflict, the unit also took part at Vitoria, Neville and Toulouse, helping to lead the British advance into France itself, though they spent Waterloo garrisoned back at home.

The 86th Regiment of Foot was a regiment that was initially formed in England, but changed its home base twice in the course of the Napoleonic Wars, first to Dublin, where it became known as the “Leinster Regiment”, and then to County Down. The regiment gained the “Royal” honorific after its successful capture of the French island of Bourbon, off the coast of Madagascar, when serving in the area as a quasi-infantry/marine force.

These are just some examples, of many. Others include the 89th Foot, which was formed by a Monaghan peer named Andrew Blaney, which helped put down the 1798 rebellion before fighting with distinction in Spain. The 6th Dragoons was another Enniskillen descendent, one of three units to be part of the Union Brigade charge at Waterloo. The previously discussed Royal Irish Regiment saw some brief service in the Channel Islands during this time, fighting off raids in one part of the defence of Great Britain, which was again threatened with French invasion during Napoleon’s reign, a possibility that was again guarded successfully against. Meanwhile, in the “War of 1812” against the United States of America, entities like the 100th Foot, a Dublin regiment, fought in the defence of Canada in the same period.

It should also be remembered that I speak just of Irish regiments: it’s probable that every regiment of the British Army at this time had some percentage of Irish in it, in some cases a very high percentage, whether they were nominally English, Welsh or Scottish. The British needed soldiers, and Ireland provided, at huge numbers. And, of course, many officers and commanders would also have been Irish, or at least Irish-born, Wellesley pre-eminent among them, though for this series I tend to prefer looking at units over individuals.

The Irish, often despised by their commanders, but frequently fighting harder than anyone in the struggle against Revolutionary France and then Napoleon, made a gigantic impact in the “French Wars” and all while significant happenings were occurring back home. And, very occasionally, the forces of the coalitions would find themselves fighting Irishmen too, Irish in the service of “L’Empereur”.

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

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Against Napoleon

  1. steoller says:

    Not to mention all the men who joined/were pressed into the Royal Navy at the time

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

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Royal Irish Regiment In The 19th Century | Never Felt Better

  4. Kevin Major says:

    It is worth bearing in mind the relative populations of Ireland and England over this period. In 1800 England had about 10 million and Ireland 5 million so 30% Irish representation in the Army is proportional to population. By 1900 Britain had 30 million while Ireland was down to 4 million, the effects of the 1840’s famine and constant emigration.

    • Jim says:

      Nevertheless the Irish were over-represented in the army in comparison to their population throughout the 19th C as were Scots for much of it, at least. I think it varied at times who were most over-represented Irish or Scots.
      At one point in the late 1830’s or early 1840’s the Irish were at 42% of the British Army (higher than the English) and they were never near that as a percent of the UK population. Considering that number and that Irish soldiers were disproportionately infantry it may have been at that time the British Army infantry were 50% or more Irish.

  5. JimP says:

    A study for a Masters’ Thesis, by Mark Bois, that can be found online about the 27th Regiment at Waterloo estimated that it was likely a little over 30% non Catholic based on the counties where the soldiers were from and the 1860’s breakdown of the populations’ religions in those counties. I’m guessing that during the war (before the famine) some of those areas had higher Catholic populations.

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