A comparison of British and French Military Identity and Organization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Timothy Paul Candlish Phd university of York History March 2012

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Symbolism and Identification

Irish soldiers never quite achieved the same iconic status as the Highland regiments, even though they served in comparable if not greater numbers. One obvious answer is that they were simply not as noticeable as the Highlanders, lacking as they did the distinct uniform and symbolism by which the Highlanders could be easily identified. Irish regiments in British and French service were uniformed in much the same manner as other regiments on the same side. To a casual observer, an Irish regiment in British service could be identified only by the golden harp on a shako badge or regimental banner. The Irish Brigade, in contrast, wore red coats rather than the usual French white.0 The Irish Legion in turn wore green versions of the standard French uniform of the time. It is telling that the French would make greater effort to distinguish the Irish troops in their service, though they did so for different reasons. The red coats of the Irish Brigade almost certainly referred to their origins as Jacobite British soldiers, as did the crosses of Saint George upon their banners. That the Irish Brigade wore the same colour as British troops led to an unfortunate incident at the battle of Fontenoy, when the Brigade was mistakenly charged by French carabiniers.0

The choice of the colour green for the Irish Legion can be explained by the unit’s intended role as a cadre to organize Irish volunteers, the colour green being associated with Irish nationalism. Miles Byrne describes a distinct preference for the colour green, even during the 1798 rebellion itself:

But instead of those necessary regulations, every one wore what he fancied made him look to advantage and appear “warlike,” green of course was the favourite colour, and wherever it could be had, put on in profusion. As it could not be got in sufficient quantities to furnish all, it would have been adviseable (SIC) to have adopted the simple green cockade and to require all to put it in their hats and nothing else.0

Aside from the colour, the Irish legion and later Irish regiment’s was essentially the same as that of regular French light infantry. Eugène Fieffé describes it as follows;
Uniforme : Habit-veste of green cloth; waistcoat, pants, of white cloth; red lining for the coat, white for the waistcoat; collars, lapels, cuffs, edgings, yellow; green facings on the legs; yellow buttons; legend: Régiment étranger, n° 3; shako.0

The one thing that truly set the Irish Legion apart from Napoleon’s various other legions was its flag, presented on May 18th 1804, the day of Napoleon’s investiture as Emperor by the Sénat conservateur.0 J R Elting describes the flag as being of the standard size and shape, but coloured green and decorated with golden harps. The central oval was on one side coloured red, with the words ‘Liberty of Conscience’ and ‘Independence of Ireland’ in gold, while the other side bore a tricoleur with the words ‘First Consul to a United Ireland’ in French.0 While the Irish were the only non-French unit to receive a flag in 1804, Elting insists that this flag was not topped by an eagle, the regiment only receiving theirs in 1812. This stands at odds with the notes in Miles Byrne’s memoirs, which claim that the Irish Legion was granted an eagle much sooner. 0 Byrne describes the eagle and flag himself, in an entry dated 1806;

…the ensign bearer with the green colours, on which was “The Independence

of Ireland” inscribed in gold letters. And on the other side of the green colours was the “Harp without the crown.” With our eagle uncovered and colours flying, we marched in perfect military order through every town and excited great interest among the inhabitants, who used to exclaim: “The Irish and the Poles were their faithful allies.

For the Irish regiment to have had two flags can be explained by the Eagle replacing the earlier, more Republican flag. But when was this great honour bestowed? Byrne offers a possible solution when he observes that the eagle bearer held officer rank.0 The stipulation that an eagle must be carried by an officer, specifically a lieutenant or sub-lieutenant, was made in a decree dated 18th February 1808.0 Meanwhile, various sources refer to the eagle being granted in December of 1805, along with the newer flag. A direct reference to the presentation of an eagle can be found in Edward Fraser’s The War Drama of the Eagles, which refers to both an eagle and the later flag, both being presented on 5th December 1804.0 A preponderance of available evidence suggests that the Irish regiment was indeed presented with an eagle in 1804.

Conclusion to Chapters Five and Six

The theme of the final chapters, covering the Scottish Highlanders and the Irish, has been one of shared origins and circumstance leading to differing outcomes. The comparison between these two groups derives from their shared reputation for military service, for which they may be thought of as ‘martial races.’ The Highlanders derived their ‘martial race’ status from a history of warfare, both at home and abroad. An extended period of internecine warfare between the Highland clans almost certainly served to encourage martial tendencies and preferences within their culture. This, along with their relative poverty, helps to explain why so many Highlanders chose to fight abroad as mercenaries. This tendency had become so entrenched in the wider image of the Highlanders that by the eighteenth century they were thought of almost entirely in those terms. There was also an Irish presence in the European mercenary community, but this did not reach anything like the Scottish presence until the seventeenth century, at a time when the Scottish presence in Europe markedly declined. The Highlanders would go on to establish a strong presence in the British army, and in the nineteenth century would end up as one of the defining symbols of Scottish culture. Whereas the Highlanders were the original ‘martial race’ as the British conceived of them, the Irish never seemed to acquire this label to the same extent in Britain, though they developed a distinctly military reputation in Europe. The most likely explanation would be that whereas the loyalty of the Irish to Britain was questionable, European employers could generally expect loyalty from their Irish soldiers.

In terms of formal recruitment, the Highlanders and the Irish began their respective service in somewhat different ways. The first formal recruitment of Highlanders by the British state was the Black Watch, the intention being for the Highlands to be policed by Highlanders. The Black Watch was eventually restructured as a regular unit, and it saw its first combat deployment in 1743. By contrast, the Irish soldiers that made up the Irish Brigade entered French service as the result of a personnel exchange, and were only ever used as regular troops for conventional combat deployments. The ideas and ethos behind their recruitment show both similarities and differences. Highland recruiting at first drew on the traditional methods of levying, in which clansmen joined units through obedience to their chiefs, this being gradually replaced with more conventional methods and concerns. Though regiments might acquire a clan ethos, mostly because those in authority regarded it as important, recruiters tended to be more interested in making up the numbers while inconveniencing their landlord benefactors as little as possible. As a result, recruiters tended to avoid the most economically productive and necessary individuals while focussing their efforts on the surplus, usually the same agricultural labourers that provided so many recruits further south. If these proved insufficient, Highland colonels were not above filling up vacancies with lowland Scots, Irish, or even English recruits.

The Irish brigade in turn began with several thousand Irish soldiers travelling to France in obedience to the man they apparently regarded as their rightful King, the numbers being made up over time with a gradual flow of Irish emigrants and mass transfers of laid-off soldiers from other Irish Jacobite units. The flow of Irishmen was gradually reduced over the eighteenth century, to the point where the Irish brigade was made up almost entirely of French officers and men, whose ‘Irishness’ lay at most in a blood tie to emigrants of previous generations. This form of recruitment was nevertheless quite common, with the King’s German Legion being recruited in much the same fashion. The creation of the Irish Legion in 1798 marked a major break with this model, the legion initially consisting of a cadre of ideologically committed officers drawn primarily from the United Irishmen movement, though the former Irish brigade also had a small presence. The single biggest influx of enlisted men came in 1806, with the addition of over a thousand Poles and Irish recruited in Prussia. Further reinforcement would have to come from the Prisoner of War camps, a source that proved less than satisfactory.

In contrast to the Irish Brigade, the Irish Legion did not contain an Irish majority at any point in its active service history. In this respect the Legion does not compare well to the King’s German Legion, which was able to recruit many thousands of German soldiers throughout its history despite the fact that Hanover was under French occupation for much of that period. Recent scholarship, notably that of Marianne Elliott, points to a breakdown in communication and trust between the leadership of the United Irishmen in France and their potential followers in Ireland. This suggests that, even if they had not been holding out for an invasion of Ireland, the United Irishmen would have found it very difficult to persuade useful numbers of Irishmen to go abroad as the famed Wild Geese had done. On the whole, the Irish Legion is a good example of the difficulties faced in trying to create a distinctive unit without direct access to, or effective connections with, the primary source of recruits.

In the sphere of experiences, the Highlanders and Irish once again displayed similarities and differences. There is little evidence that the experience of Highland soldiers was much different than that of their English or lowland Scottish counterparts. Thomas Pococke describes a training process little different to that practised elsewhere in the British army, and by the end of the eighteenth century there is little or no evidence of a distinctive fighting style such as that which might have existed in earlier years. Highland regiments included both light and line formations, but these appear to have been little different than their non-Highland equivalents elsewhere in the army. The distinctive broadsword had long since been abandoned, a move denounced by David Stewart of Garth on the grounds that the weapon was useful in uneven terrain, where hand-to-hand combat was somewhat more likely. The Irish by contrast can be said to have had a very unusual experience, both before and during the period in question. The Irish had a reputation as mercenaries, but did not display any particular way of fighting by the seventeenth century. The only point of interest was Miles Byrne’s advocacy of pikes, which he argued gave his fellow United Irishmen an advantage in terrain where they could close with their enemies quickly, an interesting claim in light of David Stewart’s argument regarding broadswords.
This lack of a distinctive fighting style is something the Irish shared with the Highlanders. The experience that makes the Irish distinctive was the fact that they were fighting in exile, whereas the Highlanders were fighting for the polity of which their homeland was part. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Irish soldiers were able to square hailing from a country that was part of Britain while fighting for France or other European states. Such was quite normal in a period where it was not considered innately treasonous to serve in a foreign army, even if said army was fighting against one’s own homeland. This apparent disparity can be explained by a reference to contemporary ideals of loyalty, which focussed entirely on the personal oath or contract with a sovereign. So long as an officer did not currently hold a commission, which symbolized this arrangement, then he was essentially free to seek service wherever he could find it. Many thousands of Irishmen sought military careers in Europe on this principle, in most cases because the Penal Laws made it impossible for Catholics to serve in the British army in any capacity. It should be pointed out that Protestants did not suffer from this problem, and these laws were increasingly flouted in the eighteenth century.

This, and the gradual increase in legal toleration of Catholics throughout the British Isles, caused a marked reduction in Irish service overseas, which strongly suggests that a military career was the primary motivation for many of these men. It is in the 1790s, with the rise of a separatist vision of Irish nationalism, that this paradigm can be seen to shift. By 1798 the United Irishmen, and a considerable number of Irish, sought outright independence from Britain. This rendered the question of treason moot, as these individuals regarded the British state as having no legitimate claim on their loyalty. It is worth noting that the Irish Legion had more luck recruiting Irish sailors than soldiers, as the former had been subject to press-ganging and as such could make the same argument. The experiences of the former United Irishmen who made up the Legion’s officer corps were defined by the 1798 rebellion, in which many of them took an active part. The sentiments expressed by Miles Byrne imply that the United Irishmen were radicalized by the rebellion, that their experience of combat, of atrocities, and of defeat made them all the more ideologically committed. For some, Miles Byrne included, the experience of combat itself was the beginning of long careers.

The sphere of identities once again displayed similarities and differences, with both the Highlanders and the Irish having ideals imposed upon them while developing identities of their own. The Highlanders were collectively regarded as being well-behaved by contemporary standards, the relevant accounts referring to their lack of heavy drinking and bad language. This can be tied into the social and military ideals mentioned in earlier chapters of the army being a pure male sphere, separated from the corrupting vices of civilian life. There is a double-vision inherent in this general vision of the Highlander as a good, obedient, clean-living soldier, coming as he did from a culture popularly associated with banditry and violence. The most apparent cause of this re-evaluation is the wider cultural shift that took place in the latter half of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, which idealized the Highlanders as examples of pure, uncomplicated humanity untainted by the flaws of civilized society. The more pertinent question is why the Highlanders were willing to accept having this vision imposed on them from above; a vision which may have had little or no relevance to their actual self-image or everyday reality. The Highlanders do not fall easily into clear delineations such as that between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures.
In terms of their relationship with other cultures in Scotland and the British Isles as a whole, Highland culture would appear to occupy the role of a low culture. Yet before the breakdown of the Lordship of the Isles, Gaelic culture was arguably a high culture in itself, serving a widespread Gaelic element. An application of methodological nationalism would require the Highlands to break away and form its own state, with Gaelic culture as the unifying high culture, an outcome which did not happen and which the Highlanders themselves never sought. The only alternative nationalist thought allows is for the Highlanders to have been an irrelevance, a disconnected minority incapable of affecting or influencing developments elsewhere. But this would be to ignore the high profile of the Highlanders, especially in the military sphere, and the amount of attention they attracted in British society. The answers to the question lie in the longstanding commitment by the Highlanders to a larger polity, namely Scotland and later Great Britain, despite the cultural differences involved. That the cultural gap was so great as to cause unmanageable problems is extreme, and is countered by the fact that non-Highland recruits were able to function in Highland regiments without apparent difficulties. These non-Highlanders were also, if Sergeant Donaldson’s account is anything to go by, quite accepting of Highland culture within their new collective.
The identity of Irish soldiers saw a brief change from what had previously been a consistent pattern, which would provide a foretaste of future developments. The motivation of Irish soldiers travelling to Europe for military service was, on the whole, a desire to pursue a military career. A resentment of the political situation surrounding the dethroning of James II and the Treaty of Limerick may be pointed to, but this ignores the growth of an Irish military presence in Europe decades before then. The fact that Irish overseas recruitment dropped off throughout the eighteenth century, as careers in the British army became more accessible, can be taken as further proof that the primary goal of most military emigrants was a military career, regardless of the army. The rebellion of 1798 marks the emergence of a recognizably different kind of exile, one motivated by political ideology and focussed on Ireland rather than on the pan-British dynastic aspirations of the Jacobites. The men who formed the bulk of the Irish Legion’s cadre displayed political and national motives in a recognizably modern sense, and showed every sign of genuine commitment.
This did not, it should be said, prevent them from squabbling and even fighting among themselves, especially over the issue of whether or not Napoleon could be trusted to give them what they sought. This also did not necessarily mean that those who made up the later Irish regiment’s numbers, the bulk of whom were not Irish, had any interest in their cause or even liked being in an ‘Irish’ unit. Marianne Elliott has claimed that the Polish troops were less than happy at being part of the regiment.0 Thomas Bartlett, by the same token, argues that the Polish and Prussian officers were hated by the Irish.0 Miles Byrne puts a brave face on the issue in his account, claiming that the largely Polish influx of 1806 were enthusiastic about their new unit, a shared cause bringing Irish and Poles together. That the regiment was able to function in combat suggests that his claim was broadly true. On the whole this implies that being part of a mixed unit is not necessarily a bar to effective performance in combat, even if it suffers from the desertion problems identified by Robert Gould. It also shows that the identities and motives of the United Irishmen could be somewhat flexible, for although the regiment’s officers held true to the movement’s ideals, this did not prevent them from serving Napoleon as professional soldiers.
When it comes to questions of attitude, there are once again similarities and differences, following lines that are becoming increasingly recognizable. The Highlanders regarded themselves as a distinct group, both in Scotland and in Great Britain as a whole. Their sense of difference may have manifested as a sense of superiority in both contexts. This attitude can be squared with the Highlanders’ membership of the British project by linking it to their long-standing willingness to be part of Scotland. A curious feature of this idea of superiority was that the Highlanders tended to apply it to the British Empire of which they were a part. If they were superior, and a part of this institution, then the institution must itself be superior. This, combined with the growing influence of the Highland social elite in the British economy and society, militates against any sense of the Highlanders being a despised and downtrodden element. The willingness of Highlanders to haggle for higher recruitment bounties hints at a people increasingly aware of what their service was worth, and of the rewards it could bring them.

There is evidence that rewards were very much in the minds of the Highland soldiers and those who recruited them. The most common reward was money, though in some cases Highlanders could be rewarded with land overseas, particularly in North America. A point was raised that the Highlanders may have had a taboo against taking money for saving or taking a life, but a distinction can be drawn between killing a specific individual and serving in combat. The Highlanders derived too much pride from their presence in war, especially at major battles, for them to have possessed any widespread moral qualms about the act of killing in itself. By the same token, it is not clear whether they were more likely to tolerate harsh treatment. Mutinies by Highland regiments took place for much the same reasons as with non-Highland regiments, the issues being primarily pay, harsh punishment, and the sense that the terms of their enlistment were being breached. This latter issue is important in understanding the mindset of British soldiers in the period, and perhaps of soldiers in general. Soldiers would endure a great deal if they had signed up to it knowingly and without coercion, and if they were treated in a manner they regarded as fair.

As we have seen, the Irish troops in this period defined themselves primarily as professional soldiers, with the United Irishmen providing a distinctive sub-group. Evidence suggests that they were primarily regarded as such by others too, both on the British and French sides. The British could be forgiven for regarding their Irish soldiers as politically unreliable, considering the events of 1798, but this does not seem to have affected their perceived suitability as military recruits. The fact that the Irish militia and regular soldiers remained loyal, as did much of Irish civil society, bears out this conclusion. There is little in the way of direct evidence regarding French attitudes towards their Irish soldiers. Napoleon does not appear to have expressed any personal opinion of the Irish Legion, or the Irish regiment that it became, which means that his attitudes towards it must be ascertained through his actions. Napoleon raised and maintained the Irish Legion as a distinct unit for a distinct purpose during a period when an invasion of Britain was being planned, suggesting that he regarded them as a potentially useful resource. The renaming of the Legion as the Irish Regiment, and its transfer to regular duties, marks the passing of this period.
From this point on, there is some contradiction in Napoleon’s apparent attitude. On the one hand, the Irish were the only non-French regiment to receive an Eagle in 1804. This implies that he held them in a degree of esteem, though the basis for this esteem is unclear. It is possible that Napoleon respected the physical courage and conviction of the United Irishmen, and he may even have made a connection between their experience and that of his native Corsica. Napoleon’s usual policy with small ‘foreign’ formations was to give them ancillary duties, such as garrison duty, so as to free up French troops. The deployment of the regiment’s first battalion to Flushing is consistent with this, the deployment of the second battalion to Spain less so. The second battalion seems to have acted as an occupying force, patrolling French-held territory and doing their best to keep Spanish guerrillas in check. Despite this implication, the second battalion was posted guard during Napoleon’s visit to Burgos, a showing that Miles Byrne thought went well, and later saw action at the siege of Astorga in March to April of 1810. However, their role here was to take part in what soldiers of the period called the ‘forlorn hope’, that is, to assault and secure a breach in the defences. As their British counterparts would at Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz two years later, the Irish incurred heavy casualties. From a modern perspective it would be very easy to regard the Irish regiment as having been demoted to cannon fodder. But while the dangers inherent in assaulting a breach were acknowledged at the time, the negative connotation does not tell the whole story. It was doubtless a terrifying prospect, but the implication of great courage made it an honour, and the danger they faced meant that survival was richly rewarded.
The fact that both Irish battalions performed honourably in combat may have served to extinguish any lingering doubts over their usefulness, for the regiment marched with the Grande Armée in 1812 and 1813. The relatively small numbers involved meant that sheer desperation on Napoleon’s part cannot have been the sole explanation for their presence. For their own part, the men of the Irish regiment seem to have been torn between reverence and suspicion with regard to Napoleon. Some regarded him as an untrustworthy benefactor, believing that he was only using the Irish for his own purposes, and some even feared he might try to incorporate Ireland into his empire. Wolfe Tone was one of these critics, though his criticism was a more general dissatisfaction with what he saw as the increasingly anti-republican overtones of Napoleonic France. His argument that a successful intervention in Ireland would have strengthened the French Republic, and that Napoleon’s lack of interest was motivated by malicious anti-republicanism, does not stand up to scrutiny. Complaints that he was exploiting the Irish Legion to further his own ambitions are more understandable. These worries must have been particularly acute in Spain, where the Irish found themselves fighting a people in a situation that they knew well and with which they might otherwise have sympathised. Byrne, on the other hand, displays little sympathy for the Spaniards, arguing that the Spanish government had betrayed France. This reminds us that while many of the Irish regiment’s officers were ideologically committed, some were also perfectly willing to regard themselves as professional soldiers doing a job.
The final sphere, that of symbolism and identification, shows that the two peoples had much in common. The Highlanders possessed both distinctive uniforms and distinctive symbols, both serving to raise their profile and make them more noticeable than other regiments. The issue of Highland dress was sometimes controversial, with arguments over the authenticity of Highland dress as it existed in the army, and over the choice between kilts and trews. Despite this, Highland dress represented a recognizable ‘brand’ that was unique to the Highland regiments. The wearing of Highland dress is also a consistent feature of Highland regiments, starting with the Black Watch. The Highland regiments also possessed distinctive heraldic symbols, which were used and displayed in broadly the same fashion as in other British regiments. Overall this displays a certain flexibility in British thinking, which sought to create uniformity while allowing for distinction and the expression of difference. The only organisational distinction between Highland and other regiments was that their bands carried bagpipes. This was a distinctive feature within the British army, though J R Elting raises the interesting possibility that some northern French units may have carried similar instruments during the Revolutionary period, such as the Breton cornemuse.

The Irish, by contrast, had considerably less presence in the British army. They tended to be fed into existing units rather than formed into distinctive ones, and the relatively small number of Irish units did not possess a distinctive uniform, though they did possess distinctive symbols. As such, though regiments such as the Connaught Rangers and the Inniskilling Dragoons served as honourably as many others, they did not attract the same level of attention as the Highlanders. The situation for the Irish Brigade in French service, as well as the Irish Legion and regiment, was quite different. From the time of its founding the Irish Brigade possessed both a distinctive uniform, wearing red rather than the regular army’s white, and distinctive symbols. Similarly the Irish Legion was uniformed in green from its founding and possessed a distinctive flag, the latter changing with the times. It is worth noting that the Legion’s uniform was essentially a green version of the standard uniform, this minimizing any logistical complication. But the mere fact that the Irish were allowed a distinctive uniform, in an army where uniforms and symbols had been standardized as a matter of political principle, is evidence of a wider paradigm shift in the French army’s identity and attitudes. As with British uniforms, French uniforms increasingly allowed distinction within uniformity, a sign of a much wider convergence between the attitudes of the two armies.

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