Despite his orders not to attempt any large scale military manoeuvres, Humbert did make some moves in-land following his initial success at securing Killala, brushing aside the minuscule amounts of yeomanry standing in his way in the Sligo region. But this minor success did not make up for the overall disappointing situation: there was no sign of an ongoing rebellion elsewhere in the country, the promised reinforcements were nowhere to be found and there didn’t seem to be the expected enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause, notwithstanding the rallying of some amount of Irish peasantry. Efforts to create a revolutionary administration in the area – that some have grandiosely labelled the “Republic of Connacht” – were frustrated by the ill-education of the Irish Humbert had to deal with, and the lack of support from what Protestant gentry also existed in the area. Killala served as a HQ, but Humbert must have been aware that his position would rapidly become untenable without additional support from some avenue.
The Irish soldiers Humbert was arming and equipping were hardly exemplary material. Most had little real inkling of what they were getting into, some believing that the French were a pro-Catholic force (the French had expelled Pope Pius VI from Rome in February of that year). They struggled with the guns they were given, and wasted powder prodigiously. The limited rations Humbert had available were rapidly consumed by Irish recruits who seemed to have no sense of conservation. Humbert himself was nearly killed when a newly armed Irish soldier accidently discharged his gun near the general. Still, Humbert marched east, seeking rebels to join his army and to spread the growing revolution.
Humbert advanced first to the nearby town of Ballina, leaving behind roughly 200 men to garrison Killala, and to secure his retreat in the, extremely likely, scenario that he had to withdraw. The local yeomanry offered what amounted to a token resistance, and after a brief exchange of fire retreated rapidly, leaving the town to the French. It was there that Humbert learned that a government force of 3’000 regular troops was advancing towards him from the south.
Conscious of his limited numbers, and the small area he controlled, Humbert was faced with the option of a rapid retreat, and probably a withdrawal from Ireland entirely, or being bolder and advancing out to meet this force, before they had time to push him back. Humbert choose the former and, using a lesser known road to bypass the more well-travelled routes that were heavily guarded, he continued south, aiming for Castlebar. In a daring operation, Humbert’s army, carrying a singular artillery piece with them, marched nearly twenty-five miles in a night and approached the walls of Castlebar on the morning of the 27th of August.
The garrison there, around 1’700 men, was nominally commanded by General John Hely-Hutchinson, and had focused on the main road for its defence, digging trenches along that path and placing its sizable artillery contingent facing in that direction. General Lake had arrived with additional militia the previous day, and it was he now in command. When the garrison received the news of the unexpected advance from a westerly direction, he was forced to rapidly redeploy his troops to new positions.
The government army was able to do so effectively enough, setting up new lines of regulars and militia with artillery support, facing the oncoming French in a mostly open plain. Lake ordered a cannonade, hoping to break the enemy before they had a chance to make contact, and then to finish the job with his cavalry reserve. The French took heavy fire, but continued their advance, partially with the aid of a ditch they were able to use for cover. Most of the Irish soldiery either did not advance or fled at the first sound of the artillery.
When the French, fighting mostly with the bayonet, reached the most outward government artillery, a remarkable collapse began. It started with the inexperienced and unreliable militia troops, who were completely incapable of standing their ground against French regular infantry. When they ran, they spread panic to other lines of defence and to other units, even the regular infantry and cavalry, and soon the entire government army was rushing backwards, headlong, with their officers unable to stem the tide.
Within just a few minutes, the contagious sense of panic had infected nearly the entire army, who fled back into Castlebar and then beyond, barely putting up even the semblance of a fight. Most would not stop running until they reached the relative safety of Tuam, over 50 km’s away, even though Humbert’s exhausted men did not offer much of a pursuit. Instead, they gloried in both this unexpectedly easy victory and the mountain of supplies – guns, cannon, even Lake’s personal luggage – that their enemy had left behind. It was a victory that could herald many more, and was sure to attract more volunteers to the French army.
The Battle of Castlebar, better known to posterity as the “Races of Castlebar” was a thundering embarrassment for the British in Ireland, an utter humiliation that many feared would reignite the larger rebellion just as it seemed to have been stamped out. The collapse of the army showcased both the strength of the French – battle-hardened and able to advance under fire, unlike the Irish – and the terrible weakness of the militia, who ran for the hills when they suddenly faced a competent adversary. The warnings that the Ascendency had so rejected before the rebellion started, that the majority of the government military would not be capable of standing up to enemy troops, had been proven completely correct.
Over 300 casualties were taken, most of them simply missing after the fighting. Cornwallis had just arrived with his army at Athlone, astride the Shannon, when he received a report of what had happened from a suitably mortified Lake. As a measure of panic began to set in back in Dublin, Cornwallis, who was not so surprised by the news as others – he had a thoroughly low opinion of the Irish in militia uniform, and knew they could not be relied upon – prepared his counter-move with patience, organising his army around Athlone for a couple of days before pressing on. He knew that when he met the French in the field of battle, he would have to win.
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