If a single factor can be identified as distinguishing the experience of Irish soldiers in French service, it must be the manner in which they were recruited. As has been shown, the Irish were by no means unique in terms of being foreigners in French service. Scots, too, could be found in the French army, in the Royal Ecossais Regiment, but they were few in number compared to the Irish and existed as a distinct formation for less than twenty years. The Irish Brigade, in sharp contrast, formally existed for a hundred years and began with a combat strength of three regiments, or between five and six thousand men, a strength it would maintain for much of its life. Irish recruitment for French service began to drop off over the latter half of the eighteenth century, mostly because the main impetus for emigration, that of religious intolerance, was being gradually undermined over that period. This change took place both in a social and a military context, though the military context is the more directly relevant.
The accession of George III in 1760 led to a series of initiatives intended to improve the conditions of the Irish and of Catholics in general, and at the same time tap the manpower resource that was Ireland’s Catholic population. One of these was a proposal in 1762 to raise six regiments of Catholic troops, with Catholic officers, for service in Portugal. This was in many respects an eminently sensible suggestion, not only for the stated intent of providing suitable employment for the younger sons of Catholic nobles, but also because Catholic troops would be generally more acceptable in a Catholic country. The Irish parliament, in a manner that will become familiar in any study of Irish politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shot down the proposal citing security concerns.0
Maintaining order was a constant issue for the Protestant ‘ascendancy’, as the Irish ruling elite were sometimes known. So much so that the Irish Parliament was singularly unwilling to contribute troops from its own largely protestant establishment and could not be induced to recruit Catholics. Despite this, the British army began to recruit Irish Catholics on its own initiative, the first levy taking place in Limerick in 1757 in defiance of anti-Catholic laws. In 1774 the oath of allegiance was modified to remove references to religion, a change that essentially formalized an existing state of affairs.0 There would remain a substantial Irish presence in the British army until the Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852, the death toll and resulting mass emigration substantially reducing the available manpower pool. As for the French army, the Irish presence was gradually reduced over this period, from six regiments of infantry and one of cavalry in 1744 to three regiments of infantry in 1775, showing a clear decline in the number of available Irishmen. By 1785, while many officers were Irish exiles or their close descendants, the enlisted men were mostly French.0 The Brigade was formally dissolved as part of a decree of the National Assembly dated July 21 1791, in which all regiments designated as ‘foreign’ in terms of name, uniform, and pay were to be re-designated as French.0
The Revolution marked the end of the Irish Brigade as a distinct unit, but it did not mark the end of Irish service to France. Much like the Swiss mercenaries sent home by the National Assembly, the Irish were destined to make a swift comeback, though for different reasons. Just as the former Irish Brigade represented the military priorities and issues of its day, so the Irish Legion would be created to serve a particular military role. Whereas the Irish Brigade was simply a combat unit like any other, the Irish Legion was designed from the bottom up as a cadre in the original French meaning of the term. Made up of a small number of well-trained and ideologically committed officers, the Legion’s task would be to organize and train Irish volunteers in the event of a French landing, operating on the old saying that there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers. This was no doubt intended as a remedy to the weaknesses of the United Irishmen movement, which, although capable of bringing out Irishmen in considerable numbers, had proven itself incapable of organizing, training, or equipping them well enough to fight British troops.0
Napoleon was evidently determined that if there was to be a second attempt to land troops in Ireland, things were going to be done properly and efficiently. But the invasion never materialized, which must have begged the question of what was to be done with the Legion, being as it was a unit made up almost entirely of officers. If the Legion was to function as a combat unit while maintaining its Irish character, then Irish exiles would have to be found in sufficient numbers. If sufficient numbers could not be found, then the Legion would have to be either disbanded or made up of non-Irish troops. This would be the Irish Legion’s fate, Napoleon having no desire to disband it after having spent time and resources supporting and training it. The Irish Legion can be regarded as a case study in the difficulties and contradictions inherent in creating a ‘political’ unit, with a recruitment base upon which its parent institution cannot freely draw, and serving a specific political purpose which might or might not remain consistently politically relevant.
It was Thomas Addis Emmett, legal advisor to the United Irishmen, who suggested the creation of an Irish Legion, in the summer of 1803, as a means of gainfully employing Irish exiles in France. The actual decree for the founding of the Legion was dated August 31st, though the news was kept secret while the particulars were hammered out. It was decided that there should be a single battalion, consisting of Irishmen or the sons of Irishmen, and that the officers were to be drawn primarily from the exiled United Irishmen.0 Emmet was of the opinion that Arthur O’Connor, his rival, was involved in this process and manipulating it for his own benefit.0 This was the first clash between Emmet and O’Connor with regard to the Irish Legion, but it would not be the last.
The enmity between those two men, and their followers, would trouble the Legion for much of its life, effectively defining the development process. Their inability to cooperate would prove most frustrating for the War Ministry and the French government as a whole, who found they had no one they could reliably deal with. The appointment of O’Connor as a General of Division on 24 February 1804 may have been an attempt to force an end to the dispute. Emmet’s emigration to the United States in October of that year deprived his faction of leadership, but did not bring about its acquiescence. On the contrary, it would culminate in the death of one of the Legion’s officers in a duel. That the Legion was able to develop in spite of this problem indicates that, up to a point, the project was taken seriously by the War Ministry.
A useful account of the Legion’s life can be found in the memoirs of Miles Byrne, a leader in the Irish rebellion who joined the Legion after escaping to France. An Irish Catholic who married a Scottish Presbyterian, a devoted patriot who spent much of his life in the French army, Byrne was a complex character in a complex age. Thomas Bartlett regards Byrne’s memoirs as particularly valuable in understanding the 1798 Irish rebellion, since unlike others who wrote on the subject he had taken an active part in it.0 They also provide useful insights into the life and experiences of the Irish Legion. Byrne describes his motivations early on, including a particularly sad affair in which he joined the yeomanry in order to assist his mother in renewing the lease to the family home:
Seeing several of my best friends and school-fellows…all sending their names to captain Knox Grogan, I readily consented to leave mine, but added, my mother would not consent until she got the lease of the land called the Fox cover renewed. She could never forget what she suffered, a few years previous, when leaving Ballylusk, the townland and place where I was born, and which had been in the family for centuries: she could not get the lease of that place renewed, as the landlord J. Doyle wished to come and live on it himself. Catholics could only get then leases of 31 years. M. Grogan at once complied with my mother's wishes… After M. Grogan had signed the leases in the presence of my uncle Morning, and his land agent Jackson, he requested these gentlemen to accompany my mother to Monaseed, a distance of six miles from Castletown, in order for my father to sign them in their presence. My mother was quite happy at having this business settled, and expected it would cheer my poor father's spirits. She was cruelly disappointed. For, when she told him I was enrolled in the corps of yeomanry with all my friends and comrades, he declared, he would rather see the leases burned and me dead, than ever see me put on a red coat. I was then very young, and the pang I felt left me motionless for some time.0
Byrne’s apparent willingness to join the yeomanry is not so strange in light of Marianne Elliott’s conclusions. In Partners in Revolution she shows how the Irish volunteer movement was being particularly significant in the spread of reformist ideology.0 Though the movement declined in importance after the American War of Independence, and was effectively killed off by the Gunpowder and Convention acts of 1793, it would cast a long shadow.
When the Legion’s existence was revealed on December 7th, Adjutant Commander Bernard Macsheehy was named as its commander by Napoleon, then First Consul. He was only 29 years old when he received the appointment, but was a veteran of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. His second-in-command was Chef de bataillon James Bartholomew Blackwell, who had taken part in the French expeditions to Ireland in 1796 and 1798. These choices are indicative of the thinking behind the creation of the legion. Both men were students of the Irish College in Paris, joining the Revolutionary army early on. That they achieved officer rank in such an environment would imply a degree of competence, and their suitably Irish backgrounds made them eligible for a specifically ‘Irish’ unit. 0 The men whom they would command were to say the least a mixed bag, in terms of their backgrounds, their situations, and their motivations. Those of them who were United Irishmen or who were affiliated to them, were almost invariably living in poverty, having been forced to leave land and property behind in their escape.
In a letter to the Minister of War, General Berthier, dated July 24th, Macsheehy divided his recruits into four categories. The first, and most valued, were those of obvious ability, or else of wealth or influence, who had taken part in the Irish risings. Macsheehy considered them valuable for their ability to attract support in Ireland, and they would also be politically reliable. Second were Irishmen born in France, especially former members of the Irish Brigade, whose military experience would prove useful for training and organization. Third were those who had come to France out of curiosity, or who had been arrested after the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens. Fourth, and least valued, were those who had left the British Isles following some misdemeanour.0 It was the fourth category that would give the Legion the most trouble throughout its life, even though they were not recruited as officers for obvious reasons.
The Legion shifted rapidly away from its original role after the Battle of Trafalgar. In December of 1806 the Legion was sent to Mainz in Germany to receive what amounted to its rank-and-file, namely over thousand Polish and Irish volunteers. Miles Byrne relates the news as being a cause of some excitement, that the Legionnaires were ‘enchanted at the prospect of seeing real military service.’0 He goes on to describe the new recruits at Mainz:
On arriving at Mayence, the legion received orders to halt there, where 1500 Poles who had been in the prussian (SIC) service volunteered to inter (SIC) the french (SIC) service after the battle of Iena. They were incorporated into The irish legion at Mayence, as were a great number of irish. These irish had been engaged in the rebellion, and whilst imprisoned in Ireland were sold by the English government in 1798 and 1799 to the king of Prussia, to work in his mines; his agent going through the prisons in Ireland and choosing the best and ablest young men. Previous to the hostilities with France, the king of Prussia obliged these brave and unfortunate men to enter his army. – It may easily be imaged they rejoiced to join the irish soldiery in the service of France; holding out their hope, as it then did, that they would one day see their country liberated.0
The figure given by Byrne stands at odds with that given in a report to the Minister of War, which put the Legion’s strength at one thousand two hundred.0 A later report of December 1807 put the Legion’s strength at one thousand five hundred and fifty one officers and men, which matches Byrne’s figure if he meant it to mean both the Poles and the Irish.0 If the figure given in the 1806 report meant the Poles only, then this made for around two hundred additional Irish.
As with the Irish brigade before it, the question arises as to whether or not the Legion can be said to have been ‘Irish’. The War Office gave its own answer in a decree of April 13th 1809, in which the Legion was renamed the 3rd Foreign Regiment. The new Regiment retained the name ‘Irish’, being able to call itself the ‘Irish Regiment’, only by the intervention of Minister of War Henri-Jacques Clark, a second-generation Irish immigrant. This matter was not helped by the Regiment’s reliance on prisoners of war for additional manpower, of whom the Irish were primarily sailors. As such they had no knowledge or understanding of infantry drill and, to make matters worse, no experience of marching.0 Needless to say, desertion rates grew higher as more and more prisoners were recruited, such men being motivated by self-interest rather than any higher ideal or sense of comradeship. Prisoner-of-war camps have never been pleasant places in any period in history, but in the Napoleonic wars it was still comparatively unusual for prisoners to enter the service of their captors and actually be of use. In Mercenaries of the Napoleonic Wars, Robert Gould finds that ‘mercenary’ units in general showed a marked tendency towards desertion, with POW or deserter-derived units being the worst offenders. The Chasseurs Britanniques held the record for courts martial for desertion, reaching a high of two hundred and twenty four in 1813, of which one hundred and fifty took place in August alone. Its membership by that point included Poles, Germans, Swiss, Austrians, Italians, and Dutch.0 By way of comparison, by November of 1812, 50% of the Irish regiment’s officers were Irish while 32% were French and the remainder mostly German. Of the NCOs and soldiers, only eighty-six out of one thousand seven hundred and eighteen were Irish, while just over half spoke German.0
On the basis of the origins of its members, the Irish Legion cannot meaningfully be called ‘Irish’. And yet as this chapter will show, the application and acceptance of group identities are not such clear-cut processes as this would imply. A useful comparison may be drawn with formations in a similar situation on the British side, most notably the King’s German Legion. This formation came into existence at around the same time as the Irish Legion, with the disbandment of the Hanoverian army under the terms of the Convention of Lauenberg. At first, the units raised by Johann Freidrich von der Decken and Colin Halkett turned out much like the Irish Legion, with many Hanoverian officers turning up but few if any enlisted men. Robert Gould puts the KGL’s subsequent success in recruiting down to a Royal Proclamation of 10th August 1803, which gave assurances regarding pay and pensions. That so many thousands subsequently turned up suggests that interested Hanoverian soldiers had been kept away primarily by concerns for their financial wellbeing. Their personal safety cannot have been that much of an issue considering the risks involved, with the French threatening summary execution to anyone caught recruiting. Gould provides the example of Sergeant Ahrens, who was sentenced to fifteen years’ service as a galley slave, with the added clause of being permanently chained to the oars, after being caught recruiting for the KGL.0 Despite this, the KGL reached a strength of around eight thousand by April of 1806, a success facilitated by the British presence in Hanover from January to February. The Prussians, who occupied Hanover from February onwards, also attempted to stop the recruitment, but do not appear to have had much more success.0
The KGL was accompanied in British service by a plethora of French émigré units, most of which did not last more than one or two years before disbandment or amalgamation. The Regiment d’Infanterie Loyal-Emigrant is a rare example, existing from 1793 to 1802, while the Chasseurs Britanniques lasted from 1801 to 1814 despite its desertion problems. The Loyal-Emigrants are a useful example of the various means by which these units tried to maintain their strength. Robert Grouvel relates that recruiting was at first complicated by the unwillingness of French emigrants to come forward. Some had issues with fighting as part of the British army, but the greatest fear of emigrant troops was that they would not be treated as Prisoners of War if captured. Despite these fears the regiment reached a height of over one thousand two hundred officers and men in two battalions by March 1794, having effectively doubled from a strength of around six hundred since the previous June. Of this number, around seven hundred were lost at the defence of Nijmegen in November, followed by further losses before their evacuation in Britain in May of 1795. After this, Grouvel concludes that it spent some time as part of the garrison on the Isle of Wight, receiving two hundred more recruits while there.
During the Quiberon campaign of 1795, Breton chouan recruits brought the strength up to just under three hundred, though around two thirds would be lost by the end of the campaign in July. By November the numbers had risen to just over three hundred once again, the single largest influx coming from the leftovers of five other émigré regiments in October. According to Grouvel’s figures, the largest contingent was eighty-three men from the Régiment de Rohan, while the smallest was ten men from the Régiment du Périgord. The Loyal-Emigrants received a major boost in 1798, rising to four hundred and fifty with an influx of French prisoners after the failed Fishguard expedition, along with yet more Chouans. The regiment’s numbers actually continued to rise over the next two years, reaching just under seven hundred in 1800.0 Despite this apparent success, and service both in Spain and Portugal, the regiment was disbanded in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens. This event saw the end of many other regiments, including the York Hussars, the Mortemart regiment, and the Chasseurs à Cheval de Hompesch, the latter one of a plethora of Hompesch units and the only one to last for any significant period. The Chasseurs Britanniques were unusual in that they were created in the year before Amiens and remained in existence long after it.
The success of the KGL in recruiting and maintaining a substantial force from a specific nationality over an extended period stands in sharp contrast to the tribulations of the Irish Legion. The most obvious explanation is British naval dominance, which would complicate any attempt to remove large numbers of Irishmen. But even then the example of the Irish brigade, and the near-constant smuggling going on in the British Isles at that time, suggests that it should have been possible for a few hundred, or a few thousand, interested Irishmen to make their way covertly to France. It is particularly ironic, both from a French and a British perspective, that the French émigré movement had more luck with the Irish than the republic or the empire. Despite resistance from the Irish government, a proposal to expand the émigré Irish Brigade by recruiting in Ireland was passed by Pitt in 1794, with six colonels being sent to Ireland in January of 1796. The results were less than impressive, with only around one thousand being recruited in total, but this was still more than the Irish Legion ever possessed. Adding to the irony, elements of the brigade based in Ireland actually helped put down the 1797 uprising.0
It may be argued that the Irish population was too cowed or disillusioned after two unsuccessful rebellions, or else the proportion of the population likely to be interested was already either dead or in exile. Thomas Bartlett puts contemporary estimates of the death toll of the 1798 rebellion at between twenty and twenty-five thousand, but regards ten thousand as being a more likely figure. Even this reduced estimate can imply a substantial denuding of interested manpower, but not enough to explain the disparity.0 Marianne Elliott puts the problem down to disconnection between the United Irishmen leadership and ordinary Irish. This was motivated to a great extent by mutual distrust, with the urban Protestant ‘middling sorts’ of the leadership being suspicious of the Catholic peasantry and artisans they had led into battle, and the latter regarding the former as unreliable and untrustworthy. In the eyes of many Irish, propertied urban Protestants had either sided with the authorities or fled abroad when things looked bad, leaving less fortunate Catholics to suffer the consequences.0 In the face of such distrust, it would have been difficult for the exiled leadership to persuade ordinary Irishmen to join them in France, even if they had wanted to.