Ireland’s Wars: Napoleon’s Irish Legion

Napoleon Bonaparte was a singular individual, every inch the “great man” who did more than anyone else to inspire that particular approach to history. Having won a serious reputation during many martial exploits, Napoleon seized power in Paris in 1799, eventually declaring himself Emperor, and proceeded to wage war against a huge chunk of his European neighbours: The Dutch, numerous German states, Prussia, Russia, Austria, Spain, Portugal. And, of course, perhaps his most implacable opponent, the one that would dog him and his efforts at European supremacy the most, through its command of the seas and its infantry operations in the Iberian Peninsula: Great Britain.

It would not be all that wrong to say that, for a period between 1803 and 1805, Bonaparte was obsessed with the idea of bringing Britain to heel, by sending his gigantic armed forces across the channel and bringing the fight to British soil. It was the old dream, which had so haunted and dominated the strategic thinking of so many French martial figures throughout the 18th century. If only the channel could be crossed. If only the weather could be guaranteed. If only the Royal Navy was not as powerful as it was. Like so many others, Napoleon was seduced by the idea of getting an army across the water, where he was sure his own genius and fighting spirit of his men would be more than enough to take care of a Britain with such a substandard army – as so many viewed it at that time – unused to fighting on their own turf.

And part of that was the potential of utilising the “back door” of Ireland. The 1798 violence, which will be at the centre of the next segment of this series so I will refrain from too much comment, indicated that much support for a French landing might be found in Ireland, provided the landing was done in force, with enough troops to actually take care of the British on the island. Having such a foothold in the then British Isles would be a godsend, and would make any further decisive thrust in the direction of England easier. Like many before him who has entertained the idea, Napoleon realised that such a task would be made easier if the invasion was spearheaded by Irish troops, the Emperor the kind of man who had no problem incorporating non-French elements into his armed forces, provided he was sure that they would be loyal to him. If Irish troops took the lead, the natives might view the invasion as a liberation instead of a conquering, and every Irishman in service meant a French soldier did not have to be used.

The net did not have to be cast too wide to find volunteers for such a force: it has not really been all that long since the Irish Brigade had been disbanded, and what Napoleon was trying to build was essentially the same thing, just with a bit more of an Imperial flavour. Initially just of battalion size, but then expanded to a regiment, what became known as the “Irish Legion” or the  “3e Regiment Etranger (Irlandais)” would be around 2’000 men in size, made of a mixture of former soldiers of the Irish Brigade, French descendants of Irish emigrants, refugees and political exiles from the 1798 rebellion, Irish prisoners of war or press-ganged sailors, British deserters, and a host of other nationalities, especially Poles (indeed, Poles were probably a majority in the Legion eventually, but were officered by Irish). With green uniforms and a regimental motto of “Irish Independence”, it could never be mistaken what the unit was supposed to represent, even if its language for day to day operations was French. Napoleon seemingly thought so much of the idea that he presented the Legion with an Imperial Eagle, the equivalent of a colour in other armies, the only foreign regiment of his army to be given such an honour. The unit was initially commanded by General Bernard MacSheedy, a Dubliner and veteran of the French Revolutionary Army, though his overall expertise was seriously questioned by others. Later, following MacSheedy’s death in battle, an Italian born commander, Antoine Petrezzoli became the Legion’s leader, and there followed a succession of Irish figures: Daniel O’Meara, William Lawless, John F. Mahoney and Hugh Ware.

When it came to the Legion’s primary reason for being, as with so many previous French plans for such an invasion, it all come to nought. Napoleon’s overall scheme called for a rather unlikely dash from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and back again, by French naval forces to draw their British opponents away from the channel, and the whole thing went awry almost as soon as it had started. A series of British naval victories – ay Cape Finesterre and, actually after Napoleon had given up on the invasion, Trafalgar – left the French Navy wrecked and in need of serious rebuilding before it would ever be in a position to credibly challenge their most deadly opponents, let alone safeguard a massive invasion force all the way to Ireland. Dissapointed, Napoleon was obligated to abandon his pretensions of invading Britain – for the time being anyway – and instead focus on conquests elsewhere, in the Iberian peninsula, and in the east, in the hodgepodges of principalities and city-states that made up modern day Germany in the early 1800’s. The Legion spent most of its existence up to that point on the French coast, waiting for an invasion that would never come, with associated discipline and morale problems due to the inherent boredom, and some of the more disreputable elements that were part of the Legion. But, in 1807, it was sent east.

The First Battalion was the first element of the unit to see action, serving in the 1809 “Walcheren Campaign”, a little remembered British expedition to try and help their continental allies fighting much more pivotal battles in other areas. The Irish had spent nearly two years as part of the many garrisoning Walcheren Island, an element of the system of fortifications defending the vital port of Antwerp. The British who had landed on Walcheren drove the French forces back inside the town of Flushing, where a French fleet was moored, and besieged it for just over two weeks, an active operation involving an intense bombardment. The Irish acquitted themselves well in facing several British assaults, but could do nothing to stop the inevitability of the French surrender. The majority of the 1st Battalion, what was left after the casualties from battle and disease (malaria was a potent killer in that campaign), went into captivity in Britain. Most of what Irish had existed in the Legion were casualties in that campaign, and it was only with some difficulty that the Eagle was saved from capture also. It did the British little good: with Allied defeats elsewhere in Europe, and the debilitating effects of the same maladies that had so badly damaged the French, the garrison was forced to withdraw before the end of the year. Part of the expeditionary force had been none other than the 88th Foot, the Connacht Rangers.

The Legion next saw combat in Spain. The 2nd Battalion would spend four years there, from 1807 to 1811, fighting in the Peninsular War against Spanish, Portuguese and British enemies. The opening blows they struck in Spain were less than glorious, helping to stamp out the famous “Dos de Mayo” rising in Madrid, where around 1’500 people were killed, many after the fighting had ceased. The following years were often spent on guard or escort duty, helping fight the “little war” against the bands of partisans who terrorized the French occupier during the conflict. There were plenty of Irish on the other side, this Spanish War of Independence being the real last gasp of the Spanish Irish Regiments, many of whom served admirably at crucial moments, though the Irish character of the regiments had long since been eroded: they would be disbanded in 1818 for this reason.

It was not until April of 1810, after a 3rd Battalion had been formed and sent to Spain, that the Irish Legion was engaged in significant combat operations. The Legion besieged the Portuguese town of Astorga, a British supply base, at that time, an operation in which they were joined by the 88th and 92nd French infantry regiments, those successors to the Irish Brigade. Three weeks of entrenchments and bombardment opened up a workable breach, attacked and seized by a company of riflemen – “voltigeurs” in French – led by Captain John Allen, a 1798 veteran. The attack is famous for the reported detail of a Legion drummer boy continuing to beat a charge despite having both legs blown off by cannon fire.

The old enemy of disease inflicted far more casualties on the Legion than Spanish bullets, with the units in Spain reduced to around 350 men by 1811. These were present at the Siege of Almeida, a French victory which forced Arthur Wellesley’s British to retreat back into Portugal. The French pursued, and the Legion was present at the British victory at Bussaco, where they may have come into brief contact with the Connacht Rangers, who distinguished themselves in that clash. The Legion did not so much, and elements of the 88th record finding wounded Legion soldiers, and being surprised at finding that none of them were actually Irish.

The months of campaign, suffering terribly from combat, guerrilla activity and disease, left the 3rd Battalion wrecked, the unit disbanded shortly after, merged into the 2nd Battalion. By the end of 1811, the same fate had befallen the 2nd Battalion, and the Legion itself was withdrawn from Spain. Reorganised and filled with new recruits – most of them German – the Legion then became part of central European campaigns.

The Legion, luckily enough, missed Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, but were part of the French military campaigns that attempted to salvage something from the aftermath. The Legion served against advancing Russian Cossack units in Saxony, were part of the force that captured Wurzen, and then defended the Elbe River crossings. At the Battle of Reichenbach Legion squares drove off Russian cavalry charges, and then at Bautzen were part of a general advance that drove enemy forces back. In 1813, now fighting in Poland, they attacked enemy forces across the Bober River and took Goldberg Hill, before having to withstand brutal assaults in squares again, at the Battles of Lowenburg.

The campaign, despite numerous small victories, was not a winning one for the French. After defeat at the Battle of Katzbach in August of 1813, the Legion was left pinned against the Bober River, facing a massive oncoming Russian/Prussian force. The majority of the Legion was destroyed in the action, firing until they ran out of ammunition, and then attempting to swim the river: 1’400 of them were killed, drowned, or captured. 117 survivors marched west, from the 2’000 or so that joined the “Grande Armee” eight months previously. The Legion was clobbered back into a Battalion level entity by the merging of battalions and soldiers from other, deactivated, regiments.

The Legion’s service wound down with more defensive duties around Antwerp, before Napoleon’s first abdication brought the fighting to an end. Stationed near Boulogne in the interim, the Legion remained in being following the Bourbon Restoration, hiding their Imperial Eagle and begrudgingly dealing with British demands that “Irlandais” be removed from their official title. A natural division grew between those still loyal to the exiled Emperor and those who were happy to pledge their service to the newly emplaced Louis XVIII. The Legion was thus split into pieces during the “Hundred Days”, with some remaining true to Louis, but most declaring for the returned Napoleon. One officer noted that the Legion would be perfectly willing to escort the fleeing King to the frontiers of France, but could not contemplate taking up arms with those it saw as the enemy, to attack France, their “adopted country”. It mattered little: the Legion spent those months as they had begun, on coastal defence duty, missing Waterloo entirely, perhaps because Napoleon had ordered the non-Irish members of the Legion to be sent to other units.

Following Napoleon’s second downfall, the Legion was corned by Allied troops at Montreuil, surrendering without a fight. Louis would not forgive the disloyalty of the existing foreign regiments, and had them all disbanded following his return from the temporary exile force upon him. The Irish Legion ceased to exist in September 1815, its flags and Eagle destroyed, its remaining soldiery incorporated into the “4th Royal Foreign Regiment”, a precursor of the modern French Foreign Legion. The class of Irish or Irish descended officers in French surface would not be entirely eroded, but would now be drastically drawn down or forced out of the French military, possibly under pressure from the British. The 125 year history of Irish units in French service was over.

The Legion was not truly an Irish unit, in the same way that the Irish Brigade had been for much of its existence. But it was largely led by Irish, and served admirably in many tight spots, from Portugal in the west to the borders of Poland in the east. Wracked by discipline problems and recruitment issues, the Legion could never really have been the equal to the Brigade, and its role in the Dos de Mayo rebellion is a nasty black mark from a modern perspective. But when called upon to fight, the Legion was able to fight, even when the enemy it was fighting had overwhelming numbers. Its service in eastern Germany and Poland as the French colossus began to contract is an under noticed aspect of Irish service in French armies, even if it was all for a cause that had already been struck with a mortal blow.

The Legion did not get to take part in Waterloo, that last major explosion of violence in these long French Wars, but plenty of Irishmen did, wearing the uniforms of both Britain and France. Before I draw my coverage of this period to a close, it is worth taking a closer look at that most famous clash of arms, and the role that Irish regiments had to play, fighting for Wellington and Napoleon.

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

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: Napoleon’s Irish Legion

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

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