The old dream of invading the British Isles was very much alive in French hearts when Wolfe Tone arrived in Paris.
The Revolutionary Armies had gained some success, beating back numerous assaults and winning peace with many enemies by 1795. Britain remained a foe, and numerous naval defeats at the hands of the Royal Navy had severely affected French seaborne efforts to bring the British to heel. It was in this environment that Tone began to make his case to the Directory, then France’s ruling body. He was supported and encouraged by two key individuals who had already approached leading members of France’s military looking for an intervention in Ireland. One was Arthur O’Connor, a former MP, who had been inspired into the United Irishmen’s arms by the success of the American Revolution. The other was a member of the Irish nobility: Lord Edward FitzGerald.
FitzGerald, younger brother of the Duke of Leinster, had already enjoyed a career of note before becoming involved with the United Irishmen. In 1779, at the age of just 16, he has joined the British Army, serving in the southern campaigns of the American Revolutionary War. It was there that he saw armed citizen soldiers defeating regular troops through guerrilla tactics and what we would today call asymmetric warfare: such things convinced FitzGerald, already more of a republican than he might have appeared, that such a thing could also come to pass in Ireland.
A term as an MP went by without much event, before he re-enlisted in the military, serving in and exploring large parts of Canada and the future centre of the United States, before coming back to Parliamentary duties. FitzGerald explicitly turned down military commands to maintain independence as a politician, and was a well-known figure in Dublin society, not least because of things like his beautiful French wife Pamela, who may have been an illegitimate daughter of French royalty.
It was in France that FitzGerald’s revolutionary sentiment came to the fore. He lodged with Thomas Paine and took in Convention debates in the early 1790’s, eventually repudiating his own aristocratic titles. Back at home his parliamentary speeches became more radical, criticising the authorities and springing to the defence of groups like the United Irishmen, which he finally joined himself in 1796. FitzGerald soon assumed a high position in the Dublin-based Leinster branch, as one of the key militants arguing for a rising to take place in the immediate future.
It was in the hope of making this come to pass that FitzGerald travelled again to the continent, to Hamburg, to take part in secret negotiations with the French government through intermediaries. At the same time, Tone was approaching the Directory. The suggestion was simple: if a French army could be landed in Ireland, the United Irishmen could insure that a huge amount of Irish would rise up and join them, overthrowing the British authorities in Ireland and declaring a republic on French lines. For the French, the positives were as obvious as they had ever been: a major defeat to be inflicted in Britain, and a key base for a future assault on Britain itself to be captured. Tone was one of many who felt a rebellion had no chance without outside assistance, and his arguments were seemingly persuasive.
The Directory turned to General Lazare Hoche, one of the key military figures in the early Revolution, who had risen from the rank of Private to commanding armies, and had won notable success in ending the brutal civil war in the Vendee region, where royalist and revolutionary French had been fighting for several years. The Directory proposed that he lead around 15’000 men to Ireland, using what was left of the French Atlantic Fleet to get them there, before the end of 1796.
Hoche had reservations about the task, and these only grew as successive things went wrong in the planning of what became known as “Expedition d’Irlande”. They included shortages of supply and wage disputes at Brest which slowed ship-building. Troops set aside for the invasion deserted in large numbers. Practice sailing of small craft meant to carry troops went badly and poor weather prevented the entirety of the fleet promised for the expedition to assemble. Hoche got on badly with some of his subordinates, and with the navy officers, who themselves were worried about the experience levels of their men and the safety of the troops they were meant to transport. Over 40 ships of various size were tasked to transport the troops or escort them, but the Royal Navy remained a dangerous threat.
Despite Hoche’s fears, and his insistence that he would rather lead the men to any other campaign, the fleet sailed in mid-December, not long before the Directory decided that it should be called off. The messages recalling the fleet arrived too late. At first, things seemed to be going to French advantage: blockading British ships had mostly retired to their own ports to avoid winter storms in the channel, and the fleet was able to move off from France without harassment.
But after that, things began to turn catastrophic quickly. Passing through the dicey Raz de Sein channel in darkness, elements of the fleet got separated from each other and lost, a state of affairs compounded by confusing attempts at light and rocket signalling. By the time dawn arrived, the fleet was scattered and one ship, the Seduisant, lost with 680 men.
The fleet gradually got back into contact with each and other and headed towards Ireland, miserably delayed by poor weather and chance encounters with what small elements of the Royal Navy were active in the area. By the 21st most of the fleet was off Mizen Head, the designated rendezvous point, but missing was the ship carrying General Hoche. Tose now in command, most notably a young Emmanuel de Grouchy, one day to serve in the Waterloo campaign, ordered the fleet to continue onto the more hospitable Bantry Bay area, where they laid anchor and waited a short time. As noted previously in this series, Bantry Bay is marked by a long and deep inlet, bordered on the north by the Beara Peninsula and by Sheep’s Head Peninsula to the south. In good weather, the Bay can provide decent sanctuary for ships because of the depths there, as well as several natural harbours. There is a danger that ships anchored there might be trapped in a bottleneck, but that was not a concern in this instance.
A council of war determined that a landing should still be attempted, and preparations were made for troops to be sent ashore to preferable spots. Still, the French went unhindered by the British, whose best ships remained shut up in port. There was every chance that a sizable French military force was about to be successfully landed on Irish soil. If that could be accomplished, large swaths of Ireland were either undefended or guarded only by local militia, not least the naval base of Cork less than ninety miles away.
But then nature, or fate depending on your point of view, intervened. The landing was set for the 22nd of December, but the night before the weather, already bad, took a turn for the terrible. Atlantic gales of incredible strength brought blizzards that hid the shoreline and left large parts of Ireland under snow, in some of the coldest temperatures recorded in that century. The French ships were battered by waves that crested the deck, with the sailors barely able to operate in weather they were completely unprepared for. Ships, taken by the waves and the wind, crashed into one another. For four days, the French withstood the elements until it was decided that a landing must be attempted, come hell or high water. This attempt was ordered to go forward at dawn on Christmas Day, but further deterioration in the weather, which was now dragging anchored ships away from the shore, meant no such landing could possibly occur.
Four additional days passed where nothing was possible, any small landing craft liable to be flooded or smashed against the rocks on the coast. With anchor cables snapping and the fleet unable to stay where it was, the naval commanders reluctantly decided that they must head home. By now ships were being destroyed in the maelstrom, and communications were difficult: as most of the fleet sailed for Brest, others, confused, continued on to the back-up rendezvous point, the mouth of the Shannon, where they received a further battering from winter storms before turning back.
On the 30th of December, Hoche’s ship finally arrived in Bantry Bay, to find the fleet gone. He turned back to Brest immediately, the expedition long since given up. What was left of the fleet, which did not succumb to damage sustained on the way, or the predations of Royal Navy ships, arrived back in France in dribs and drabs, the majority in port by the 11th of January. 12 ships had been lost, along with 2’000 soldiers and sailors, with a thousand more taken prisoner: indeed, the only French soldiers of the expedition to actually land in Ireland were those who immediately surrendered after their ships had been lost. What remained of Hoche’s army were sent with the General to Germany, where Hoche would die of natural causes nine months later.
The French reaction was somewhat mixed. The overall expedition had been a total failure, but this was mostly to do with weather that could not possibly have been prepared for, so sudden and vicious that we might dub it a “Protestant Wind”. The French fleet had still managed to both arrive off Ireland and get home without any major entanglement with the Royal Navy, something that encouraged subsequent planning of more naval invasions of Britain. On the British side, the close brush with disaster caused some panic, and a great deal of criticism was levelled at the sluggish and error-strewn reaction of the Admiralty. A slew of command changes and lengthier deployments were ordered, which contributed to the so called “Spithead Mutiny” of 1796, when a large amount of British sailors refused to sail over poor conditions, an opportunity that the French Navy was unable to take advantage of.
The entire affair was to the immense frustration of the United Irishmen, not least Wolfe Tone, who accompanied the expedition personally, sailing in the Indomptable, which sustained heavy damage in a ship collision in Bantry Bay. Tone could only look at the Irish shore he was unable to land on, which he claimed he could almost touch on either side, while holding the skill of French sailors in contempt. Instead, he was obligated to sail back to France in weather so poor he thought for a time that his ship would be flooded and sunk. Any possible uprising in Ireland had to be cancelled, but Tone was not to be deterred, immediately propositioning the French for another attempt, along with other friendly powers. One of these, the Batavian Republic, did agree to provide a fleet, but it was largely destroyed at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, again frustrating Tone’s ambitions. But he was not one to be held back, and again propositioned the French. The culmination of these efforts, with events back in Ireland, would occur in 1798.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.