We’ve rapidly run out of expressly Irish topics to talk about when it comes to the 19th century, and the next time we turn back to the island of Ireland, we will be on the approach to the twin conflicts of the revolutionary period and the First World War. But in terms of the last two dozen or so entries, one thing we haven’t really touched on is the Irish experience within the British military. As noted here, I’m fairly selective when it comes to the study of the “named” regiments and divisions, because it’s all too easy to get lost in the confusing morass of defunct units, merged units, split battalions, name changes, government reforms and a truly epic succession of colonial wars of different sizes. Before we take a look at the way things stood with the named regiments post 1881, I thought it instructive to take a look at a few examples of what Irish regiments were up in British service, from before and after the end of the Crimean War to the last decades of the 19th century, an approach that will take a great deal less time than if we were going war by war.
Service in the British military still had all of the attractions it previously had, and for a country that suffered so terribly during the famine, the choice to “take the shilling” could be as much a matter of survival as actually engaging in combat on the battlefield. Aside from that, military service offered (somewhat) steady pay, the lure of adventure and, in the case of some, the possibility of social advancement denied in other areas of life. Irish would have joined up to get experience in warfare so they could fight the British for Irish freedom in the future, as much as they would have joined up to expand and solidify the great Empire of Queen Victoria, that took in Canada, large sections of southern Africa, Egypt, India, Australia and New Zealand.
When we last mentioned the Royal Irish Regiment (better known at the time as the 18th Regiment of Foot) they had taken part in the defence of Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, though they failed to gain the same renown or merit as entities like the Connacht Rangers. Service in Canada meant they had missed the opportunity to be at Waterloo, and they would have to wait nearly 30 years for the chance to march into battle again, in very different circumstances. That conflict provides a decent example of the kind of conflicts the British military found itself fighting throughout the 19th century.
What we call the “First Opium War” today is a classic instance of British imperial reach and “gunboat diplomacy”: namely how having a strong, modern navy could allow a European power the chance to throw its weight to great effect halfway round the world, in conflicts based around trade and commerce. As the name suggest, the Opium Wars between Britain and China were primarily about the drug trade in and out of China and the Qing Dynasty’s efforts to dispel it by clamping down on commercial trade routes, something the British government decided to overturn by force. In a larger sense, the war was about showing the Chinese who was boss, and inflicting the kind of decisive military defeat that would lead to preferential trade agreements in the future.
The war was mostly fought at the mouths of several of China’s great rivers, most notably the Pearl – the area of Hong Kong and Canton (today Guangzhou) -, the Qiantang and the Yangtze. British fleets roamed the Chinese coasts, attacking enemy ships, bombarding enemy ports and landing troops sailed from British India: among them was the 18th Foot.
The ground combat of the Opium War was what you would mostly expect if you had any passing knowledge of the colonial wars of the 19th century. The British were organised, relatively well-led and armed with the most up-to-date guns, namely rifles, while the Chinese forces they faced were the opposite in most respects, if not lacking in courage, lacking in everything else.
The British regulars, including the Royal Irish Regiment, were engaged in multiple confrontations and assaults. At the Battle of Canton in May 1841 the 18th was placed on the right flank of the force that took the city, pushing through limited resistance from the Qing forces and greater tenacity from armed locals. Three months later they were part of the successful effort to storm the city of Amoy, from which a famous painting of the regiment was made, a standard seaborne assault carried off with few casualties sustained.
From there, the 18th worked its way up the coast with the fleet, helping to take Chauzun and Tzeki, and winning battles at Ningpo, Woosung and, in the last act of the war, Chinkiang. Everywhere they went, the poor-quality defenders were overwhelmed. Of the 19’000 or so British military personnel committed, only 69 would die in combat, while the Chinese were dying in their thousands. The Treaty Of Nanking, that ceded Hong Kong to the British, was the first in a series of diplomatic agreements that radically re-altered the Chinese strategic position after the First Opium War was concluded.
From there the 18th was briefly engaged during the Crimean War, assisting during the brutal Siege of Sevastopol, before its 2nd Battalion was sent back into the service of British colonial pursuits, this time even further afield than China: in the British efforts to grab more and more of New Zealand from the native Maori tribes. In the 1860’s the local colonial government, backed by newly arrived British regulars, was pushing out from the Auckland. The campaign had its difficulties – operating on the forefront of the British Empire, in the rugged terrain of New Zealand’s North Island, meant that supply problems and the slim chances of reinforcement were issues – but eventually the 18th, in line with other regiments, was able to force Maori opposition back, grabbing 12’000 square kilometres of extra land for the British colonial government in New Zealand.
Brief service in the Second Anglo-Afghan War and the Anglo-Egyptian War brought the 18th up to the latter part of the 19th century, and its official name change to that of the Royal Irish Regiment. It’s experience of the 19th century is fairly typical – small campaigns against mostly under-developed opponents, where British technology, leadership and experience all proved key. At no point, save maybe in the Crimea, did the RIR come up against an opponent that truly threatened its existence. There would come a time soon enough though, when British regiments, the Riyal Irish included, would face the maelstrom.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.