Monday, July 26, 2010
La Légion Irlandaise
Established on the 31st August 1803, the Legion Irlandaise was originally created in anticipation of an invasion of Ireland. General Augereau was in the process of assmbling a force when Napoleon's Adjutant General Bernard MacSheehy, a man of Irish birth, suggested the forming of a battalion of Irishmen to spearhead the invasion. He reasoned there would be no shortage of Irish ready and willing to fight in a war of liberation against the English rulers in Ireland. The French Minister of War, Henri Clarke, himself of Irish descent, agreed wholeheartedly and thus the "Légion Irlandaise" came into being.
Initially one light battalion of five companies of 139 officers and men each was raised in Brest, but in time this increased to nine companies, organised on the along the lines of a typical legere battalion. This gave it eight chasseur companies and a single carabinier company. Later, in common with other legere units, one company of chasseurs was changed to a company of voltigeur. Troops were raised from Irish emigres, mainly upper class catholics that the English had persecuted, though a large proportion were men who had only recently fled to France after the collapse of the 1798 Rebellion or the 1803 uprising. They were on the whole well educated, with 55% in their thirties.
By the decree of 10th March 1804, a second battalion was authorized, and the title "Regiment" was given to the legion. The officers were to be Irish as far as possible, and although the official language of the unit was French, the officers and men spoke English among themselves as only 45% were fluent in French. MacSheedy lost command of the Legion following an inquiry into a duel between two of the legions officers, in these early years internal rivalry and conflict was all too common.
With the defeat of the French navy at Trafalgar in September 1805, the invasion plans fell by the wayside and after the French victories over the Prussians in 1806 Napoleon ordered the regiment to Berlin, however they only reached Mainz before they were ordered back, though not before recruiting 1800 Polish prisoners from a passing column, a large number of which were Irish. It appears that the British had sold a number of Irishmen who were involved in the insurrections of 1798 to the King of Prussia as miners. Many were recruited into the Prussian army and after the destruction of that army many would pass into French service.
In February 1807, by which time the 1st Battalion had a strength of 900 men, the regiment received both a standard and an eagle. The flag had the distinction to be of a special pattern. At the end of 1808 the battalions were reoganised into six companies, like other legere units, being one carabinier, one voltigeur and four chasseur companies.
The First Battalion in Holland
In the fall of 1807, the First Battalion of the Irish Regiment was sent to Walcheren Island, in the mouth of the Scheldt River, to bolster the forces defending the naval base at Antwerp. Just as the British troops that came after them, the soldiers stationed at Walcheren suffered the drastic effects of "Walcheren fever," a form of malaria.
Two years later in the spring of 1809, the Irish Regiment had a new official name -- the 3e Regiment Etranger (Irlandaise). However, most official correspondence continued to refer to them as the Regiment Irlandaise. On July 30th of that year, the first Battalion received its baptism of fire in battle when English forces landed on Walcheren Island. After a spirited defense, the vastly outnumbered French forces, including the Regiment Irlandaise, retreated into Flushing. On August 1st, The English attacked all along the perimeter outside Flushing. The Irish suffered heavy casualties, but performed well and held their assigned position. The Irish regiment remained in an advanced position from the 3rd to the 13th of August, and was engaged in almost daily skirmishes.
The English were preparing positions and bringing up siege guns. The expected bombardment began at noon on 13th August. At 5 pm the enemy infantry attacked all of the advanced posts. Although elements of the other regiments sought to retreat into the city, the Irish held firm and occupied their original position at the end of the day. In the fighting, the acting Commander of the 1st Battalion, Captain William Lawless, was struck below the right eye by a musket ball that lodged below his ear. This serious wound forced him to seek medical attention, and he was carried into the town.
By the evening of the 14th of August, after a terrible bombardment which dismounted many of the town's guns and nearly exploded the powder magazine, it was apparent that further resistance was futile. A truce was called to discuss terms for surrender. On the 15th, the French General surrendered, and the entire garrison of Flushing were taken prisoner and transported to England where the men remained until the end of the war.
However, a small number of men managed to escape. Among them were Captain Lawless and Lt. Terrence O'Reilly, both officers of the Irish Regiment. Following the surrender, Lawless made his way to the home of Dr. Mokey. The doctor, who was a friend of Lawless, cared for his wound and hid him when the English occupied the city. Despite the seriousness of Lawless's wound, he and O'Reilly, who joined him after the surrender, decided to attempt an escape from Flushing by boat. Lawless carried with him the eagle of the Regiment Irlandaise, which he had guarded dearly since the surrender of Flushing, determined that it would not fall into the hands of the English. Their plan was to cross the West Scheldt to French held territory. However, the vigilance of the English blockade forced them to turn back before they were halfway across, and they again went into hiding. First at Dr. Mokey's, then in a farmhouse outside Flushing, and finally back in the city, the two Irish Officers evaded the enemy for more than 6 weeks. Finally, they were able to hire an open boat that was used for transporting vegetables and other foodstuffs and make good their escape.
After a hearty welcome from Marshall Bessieres at Antwerp, Lawless was sent on to Paris where he was received by the Emperor himself. Not only was he the highest ranking officer to escape from Flushing, but he had saved the Regiment's Eagle, an act which greatly pleased Napoleon. For this feat, Lawless was given the Legion of Honor, promoted to Chef de Battalion and given command of the First Battalion of the Irish Regiment which was being reformed at Landau. Lieutenant O'Reilly, likewise, received the Legion of Honor and was promoted to Captain.
The Second Battalion in Spain
The second battalion proved no less valiant than the first. The first 800 men of the second battalion joined Marshall Murat's Army in Spain in the fall of 1807. In the Spring of 1808, Murat marched into Madrid, starting a war which was to last until 1813. The Irish Regiment was camped outside of Madrid on May 2, 1808 when the inhabitants of that city rose up against the French. The Irish were among the French troops used to suppress the revolt, though there was understandable unease because of the clear parallels between the Catholic Spanish fighting for liberation against a foreign occupier and themselves. Subsequently, the Irish Regiment garrisoned Burgos, and was engaged in constructing a fort for the protection of the town, performing escort duties, patrols, and skirmishing with Spanish Guerrillas. A third battalion was raised in 1809 from Austrian prisoners and Irish in the English pow depots, this was sent to Spain to join the 2nd Battalion, it was understandably constantly racked by desertion and finally absorbed into the 2nd Battalion in 1811.
In March of 1810, the Second Battalion was assigned to Junot's 8th Corps of the Army of Portugal. The Second Battalion's first action was the siege of Astorga, a base for supplies and operations of the Spanish forces in the Northwest. The capture of Astorga would secure the right flank and rear of the Army of Portugal. Captain John Allen's company of voltigeurs formed a part of the assault battalion. At 5 pm, on April 21st, Captain Allen led the Irish over the tops of the trenches, across open ground under heavy fire, and into the breach. The Irish voltigeurs occupied a house just behind the rampart, and held their position throughout the night. The remaining Irish troops were also heavily engaged. In the morning, the Spanish surrendered. The Irish brought great honor upon themselves, but also suffered heavy casualties.
The battalion's adjutant major and surgeon were wounded. Every company had lost men killed and wounded while carrying ladders to the breach. Captain Allen's drummer lost both of his legs but continued to beat the charge. For this, he received the Legion of Honor. Captain Allen, who led the troops into the breach, and Lieutenant Perry, who was wounded while carrying a ladder to the breach, were both rewarded with the Legion of Honor. Elements of the Irish Regiment were ordered to escort the Spanish prisoners to Valladolid. The Irish Regiment also served with honor in the seige of Almeida, the invasion of Portugal, including the Battle of Bussaco (September 27, 1810), and Fuentes de Onoro (1811). Ordered back to France, on December 25, 1811, the 120 officers and sergeants, corporals and drummers stood inspection for the last time in Spain, bidding a farewell to the privates, who were incorporated into another regiment.
After four years in Spain and Portugal, the Second Battalion of the Irish Regiment arrived at the new Regimental Depot at Bois-le-Duc in southern Holland on April 11, 1812. The First Battalion garrisoned the islands of Goeree and Oveflanque. As part of the reorganization of the foreign regiments, a third Battalion was raised and stationed in Willemstadt. By this time the makeup of the Irish Regiment had changed markedly from the early days, whilst 50% of officers were still Irish (32% French, 18% German) less than 10% of the soldiers were Irish, the majority being German (Saxons, Poles), the dream of an independent Ireland had long since faded. Because of their refitting, the Irish Legion did not participate in the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812
The Campaigns of 1813-14
The Irish Regiment remained in southern Holland until February of 1813. As a battle-ready Regiment, the Irish were ordered east to fight the Russians. They were assigned to General Lauriston's V Corps and on arrival, the Irish were immediately posted north to Stendal to guard against a crossing of the Elbe by the Russians. On March 20th, now-Colonel William Lawless, commanding the Irish Regiment, drove an enemy raiding party back across the Elbe at Werben. On the 24th, the Regiment played an important role in capturing Seehausen. The Regiment was on detached duty, and did not participate in the Battle of Lutzen, but received orders and rejoined on the morning of 21st May at the Battle of Bautzen. At dawn on the 26th, the Irish Regiment was led by Napoleon against the enemy at Lignitz, whom they drove several miles to the east.
Marshal Ney watched the Irish in action and reprimanded Sergeant Costello for not falling back to the rallying point immediately the trumpet sounded. The sergeant explained that a Cossack had fired twice at him and he had waited to kill the man before withdrawing. “Did you ?” asked the Marshal. “I hope so, “ said Costello, “for I saw him fall from his horse.” “A la bonne heure,” replied the Prince of the Moscow.
This was the first and only time the Irish had been directly under the orders, and the eyes, of Napoleon. As a reward, the Irish Regiment was given the honor of posting guard in the town of Lignitz for Napoleon until the Imperial Guard arrived and relieved them. Shortly thereafter, a temporary armistice was agreed to.
Hostilities resumed in August. The first serious fighting took place in Silesia. The Irish Regiment formed a part of General Vachereau's Brigade, which had neither artillery nor cavalry support, in Marshal MacDonald's V Corps.
At Lowenberg on 19th August they gave a magnificent display of steadiness. At daylight, as thousands of Prussian horsemen appeared before them, the Irish formed square, front ranks kneeling down with musket butts on the ground, rear ranks standing behind them. They felt greatly honoured when the Brigade Commander, General Vachereau, and his staff choose to come within their square rather than those formed by the other regiments of the Brigade, the 134th and 143rd Line. Mass charges by cavalry in great force failed to break the squares and the enemy then brought up batteries of artillery which fired point blank into the Irish ranks causing enormous casualties. Colonel Lawless had his horse shot from under him.
The Regiment held firm and as openings occurred men filled them, thus presenting an unbroken front to the horsemen. General Lauriston, seeing the dangerous position the Irish were in, ordered them to fall back to a nearby wood. They executed this command with great skill, the square retreating in a body, halting and firing every two minutes until the wood was reached.
During this withdrawal, Lieutenant August St. Leger saved the life of General Vachereau. The General's Horse had been killed under him while he was giving orders from the center of the Irish Square, and he had to fall back on foot. Enemy cavalry attacked just as they reached a farmyard that was surrounded by a stone wall. St. Leger threw Vachereau over the wall into the farmyard, and quickly followed. As a result, both escaped injury. However, another officer was wounded by a sabre stroke before he could reach the safety of the farmyard. There, a roll call disclosed they had suffered 300 casualties with Commandant Tennant, Captain Evans, Lieutenants Osmond and McAuley dead. The wounded included Sergeant Costello who had an arm blown off.
Napoleon now appeared at Lowenberg and ordered a counterattack against the enemy who were bombarding the town. On horseback at the river crossing, he watched the Irish moving over to attack. Here is how Miles Byrne describes the incident.
Napoleon…ordered a general attack. The Irish regiment was to pass through a mill, which stood in the centre of the river, the bridge having been destroyed the day before; the town was bombarded by the enemy’s batteries. Under this tremendous fire, Colonel Lawless passed at the head of his regiment, and saluted the emperor, who was on horseback in the street leading to the river where the regiment had to pass. The emperor was surrounded by his staff officers, the King of Naples (Murat) etc…Colonel Lawless, seeing the grenadiers and the most part of his regiment had got through the mill, immediately rode through the river and placed himself at the head of his regiment to attack the enemy; he had hardly advanced a few steps when his leg was carried off by a cannon ball from the enemy’s battery, which was placed on an eminence to defend the passage of the river. Colonel Lawless was brought into town upon a door by six grenadiers of his regiment. Napoleon saw him again as he returned wounded, and sent his chief surgeon, Baron Larrey.
In the end, it was necessary to amputate the limb, and Colonel Lawless’ career came to an end, costing the Legion not only their most effective officer but their spiritual leader as well. Lawless returned to France to recuperate. On the 24th of August, General Puthod was so pleased with the performance of the Officers and Men of the Irish Regiment, that he recommended eleven of its members for the Legion of Honor, and other Officers for promotion. All of these recommendations were supported by General Lauriston.
At Goldberg on 23rd August the Irish saw stiff fighting, capturing an important hill and during the battle General Vachereau was killed. As a result of reverses suffered by MacDonald further to the east, the 2nd Division was ordered back to Lowenberg on the 27th. But torrential rain now fell, turning the tracks into quagmires, and when the 6,000-strong division reached the Bober (Bobr) River they found all the bridges had been swept away. On the west bank Westphalian engineers were waiting for the flood to subside before building new ones.
By the afternoon of August 29th, the Division was surrounded by 40,000 Russians, with the Bober River at its back. For eight hours the battle raged, the Irish holding a village on the left
flank, in savage fighting and in what would prove to be the Legion’s finest hour, the unit withstood successive attacks by Russian General Emanuel's cavalry of the Russian advanced guard and a detachment of the Prussian Leib Hussars of Major von Schenk and later infantry assaults, including a bayonet charge by five Russian Jaeger battalions. They fought with the ferocity and doggedness, for which the Irish were famous, but at 16:30, with their ammunition exhausted, the first and second Battalions were overrun and the order came to breakout; 20 officers were killed, 3 captured along with almost all the enlisted men, 37 swam across the Bober to the opposite shore including Colonel Ware, the acting commander, who saved the Regimental Eagle as well as Lieut.-Colonel Myles Byrne, Captain St. Leger and Lieutenant Lynch. Of Puthod’s entire Division, only 254 men escaped of the nearly 6,000 he led. The Irish Regiment no longer existed as a fighting unit. Out of the 2,000 men who had joined the Grande Armee eight months earlier, only 117 were left. The survivors were ordered back to their depot at Bois-Le-Duc.
The scant remnants of the Legion were reorganized with other foreign troops and slowly brought back up to regimental strength. In the fall the unit was sent to Antwerp where it again displayed admirable courage and élan in the gallant defense of that port. Upon Napoleon’s abdication, Louis XVIII ordered a restructuring of the French Army that included disbanding the foreign units, including the Irish Legion, but also called for the reorganization of the Irish Legion as the Royal Irish Regiment, the regiment hid it's eagle and standard instead of burning them as ordered, in anticipation of Napoleons return. As a part of the reorganization, the Regiment lost its distinctive green uniform, which was replaced with an unpopular sky blue uniform. When Napoleon returned from exile, the unit again swore allegiance to him, but there wasn't been sufficient time for the officers of the new Irish regiment to raise and refit the battalions, and the Irish saw no action during the Hundred Days leading up to the Battle of Waterloo. After Napoleon’s defeat, the regiment swore allegiance to the French King, but to no avail. Louis XVIII ordered the unit disbanded on September 28, 1815. The officers were dismissed, and the enlisted men were incorporated into a Royal Foreign Regiment that was being organized. The flags and the Eagle of the Irish Legion were ordered burned. The days of the Irish fighting as a separate unit in French service were done.
Bernard Mac-Sheehy December 1803 to September 1804
Antoine Pettrezoli September 1804 to 1 August 1809
Daniel O'Meara August 1809 to May 1810
William Lawless 8 February 1812 to 21 August 1813
John F. Mahony 21 August 1813 to April 1815
Hugh Ware April 1815 to 28 September 1815
During the period 1803 to 1814, the Irish Legion wore a standard pattern light infantry uniform in a striking light green color with yellow facings (see plate below for details).
French cut long tail coatee in a distinctive green with yellow collar, lapels, cuffs (pointed) and tunbacks (with green horn). Epaulettes green fringed yellow.
White waistcoat and breeches, knee-length black gaiters, black shoes.
Black Shako with white cords, green plume or pompon.
All shakos had the Imperial Eagle plate, from 1811 this included the number 3.
From 1811 green lapels, cuffs and turnbacks all piped yellow. Turnbacks with yellow horn.
Green breeches (sources differ as to whether in fact they remained white). White metal chinscales.
From 1813 new pattern habit, epaulettes green cloth piped yellow. Short gaiters.
Pompons of the company colors: yellow, green, violet and light blue.
From 1810 the sabre was dropped for the Chasseurs.
Buttons were gold for officers and brass for other ranks.
The remaining items of uniform and equipment were standard light infantry issue.
As Chasseurs except:
Pre-1811 Bearskin bonnet with red cords, patches and plumes
Epaulattes red fringed red. Red grenade on turnbacks
1811 Shako cords red, red plume over red pompon.
Epaulattes red fringed red. Red grenade on turnbacks
1813 Shako top, bottom and side V bands in red, red plume over red pompon.
Epaulettes red fringed red. Red grenade on turnbacks
As Chasseurs except:
1811 Shako cords green, green plume tipped yellow over green pompon.
Epaulattes green fringed yellow.
1813 Shako top, bottom and side V bands in green, green plume tipped yellow over green pompon.
Epaulettes green fringed green.
The regimental sappers wore the same uniform as the carabiniers, but their bearskin had a primrose patch with a red grenade, plume and cords.
The first standard carried by the unit is described as green with an oval red tablet in the center enclosed by a yellow border embellished by two green branches. On the red oval the inscription in yellow "LIBERTE/DES CONSCIENCES/INDEPENDENCES/DE L’IRLANDE" and in each corner a large gold Irish harp with silver strings. On the reverse side the standard had the same four harps but in the centre a circular wreath of golden oak leaves tied at the bottom with green ribbons and in the center of the wreath a tablet divided in tricolour horizontally from the top blue/white/red. It was lettered across each panel "LE PREMIER/CONSUL/AUX IRLANDAISES/UNIS". The colour was carried on a simple staff with a gilded pike-head; it probably had a tricolour scarf.
In December 1805 the Irish Legion received its first eagle but, nevertheless, maintained its tradition and retained the green standard. The pattern was, however, altered; the flag bore on one side a large gold harp, with the motto: "L'INDEPENDENCE D'IRLANDE". On the other side was the inscription: "NAPOLEON EMPEREUR DES FRANCAIS A LA LEGION IRLANDAISE". The flags carried by the other battalions, as expected, did not have an eagle, they were also green with a large golden harp in the center of each side, on one side lettered "INDEPENDENCE AU L’IRLANDE" and on the other "NAPOLEON AU 2e BATAILLON IRLANDAIS".
In 1812 upon reorganization the regiment received a new model eagle and the wording on the standard was likely to have been changed to "L’EMPEREUR NAPOLÉON AU 3ME RÉGIMENT ÉTRANGER".
Memoirs of Miles Byrne, Miles Byrne (Irish University Press 1972).
Napoleon's Irish Legion, John G. Gallaher (Southern Illinois University Press, 1993).
The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain, Mark G. McLaughlin (Osprey 1980).
Histoire des Troupes Etrangeres au service de la France, Eugene Fieffe (Dumaine, 1854).
The Campaigns of Napoleon, |David Chandler (MacMillan Co. 1966).
Napoleon's Irish Legion: La Legion Irlandaise 1803 - 1815 by Virginia Medlen
Régiment Irlandais - Histofig
Napoleon's Irish Legion Review by Joseph Sramek
Napoleon's Irish Legion Review by Nicholas Dunne-Lynch