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Napoleon's Irish Legion

Posted June 14th, 2012 at 07:50 AM by irishcrusader95

Napoleon’s Irish Legion

“The Irish Legion was formed from the almost endless stream of
enthusiastic Irishmen that appeared whenever there was an Englishman to be shot”

Many foreign troops served in Napoleons army’s through the years of the first French empire and the Irish were no exception. Raised mostly from English prisoners of war the "Legion Irlandaise" (Irish Legion) was established on the 31st of August 1803. Originally formed so as to provide a core of trained officers for an invasion of Ireland who would help raise the country in rebellion against the English rulers, Napoleon hoped to achieve three goals from it, (1) the invasion force would be viewed as an army of liberation by the native population rather than a foreign invader, (2) a minimum number of French troops would be required for the effort and (3) such an invasion, if carried out successfully, would tie up the maximum number of British troops for years to come and might make Britain sue for peace. The chances however for such an invasion diminished as British superiority on the seas remained. The dream of an Irish invasion died with the British victory over the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. With Austria and Russia now preparing for war Napoleons interests turned east and with the need for manpower the decision was made to expand the Irish legion from a single battalion to a regiment.

Recruits were gained from the families of Irish and Scottish Jacobin expatriates whose families had been forced to flee following failed revolts. Many more volunteers came from British prisoners of war, the recruiters found that Irish sailors who had been taken by press gangs and forced into the royal navy before their capture had no loyalty to king George. Once thought basic soldier skills they became good soldiers and hard fighters. Other men for the legion came from German and polish recruits forming a truly European force. While commands were given in French the men talked in English or their own native tongues. The legion carried a regimental Eagle and its own special flag with "Liberty of Conscience/Independence of Ireland" on one side and "The First Consul to United Ireland" on the other.

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The uniform was a standard light infantry uniform. The tunics were a distinctive green with a light yellow collar, lapels, turnbacks, cuffs and piping and were worn with white pantaloons and waistcoats. Carbineers had red shako cords and plume red emulates and red grenade on turnbacks. Voltigures had green shako cords, green tipped yellow plumes, yellow emulates with yellow crescent and green horn on turnbacks. Chasseurs had white shako cords, green plume, green piped yellow shoulder straps and green horn on turn backs. Buttons were gold for officers and brass for common rankers. The remaining items of clothing and equipment were standard infantry issue.
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By 1809 the Irish Legion had 5 battalions:
- I Battalion: composed of Irishmen
- II Battalion: composed of Irishmen
- III Battalion: formed principally of deserters of every nationality
- IV Battalion: formed principally of deserters of every nationality
- V Battalion: formed principally of deserters of every nationality

According to the Decree of 28 June 1810:
- I and IV Battalion became the new I Battalion
- II and III Battalion became the new II Battalion

In the fall of 1807 the Irish were ordered out for duty. The first battalion of the regiment was sent to Walcheren Island in the mouth of the river Scheldt to bolster the forces there defending Antwerp. In the spring of 1809 the regiment received a new official name- the third regiment Estranger (Irlandaise) however most correspondence continued to refer to them as the regiment Irlandaise. On the 30th of July of that year the 1st battalion received its baptism of fire when British troops landed on the island. After a spirited defence the vastly outnumbered French forces retreated into the town of Flushing on august 1st, the British attacked all along the perimeter outside Flushing. The Irish suffered heavy casualties but did well and held there assigned positions. The regiment remained in an advanced position from the 3rd to the 13th of august and were engaged in almost daily skirmishes all the while the British were preparing positions and bringing up siege guns. The expected bombardment began at noon on the 13th. By 17:00 the British attacked along all the advanced posts, although elements of other regiments began to retreat the Irish held firm and reoccupied there position the next day. During the fight, the acting commander of the 1st battalion, Captain William Lawless, was struck below the eye by a musket ball which lodged by his ear, this serious wound forced him to be evacuated from the battlefield and he was carried into the town.

By the evening of the 14th, after a terrible bombardment it was clear that further resistance was futile. A ceasefire was agreed and on the 15th the French general surrendered. The entire garrison when into captivity and were transported to England were they spent the rest of the war. However a small number of men managed to escape, among them was Captain Lawless and Lt. Terrence O’Reilly, both officers of the Irish regiment. Following the surrender, Lawless had made his way to the home of Dr. Mokey who was a close friend of Lawless and had helped treat his earlier wound. Later met by O’Reilly they both hid in the house while the town was occupied by the British. Despite the seriousness of Lawless’s he and O’Reilly were determined to escape Flushing by boat, Lawless carried with him the regimental eagle which he had guarded dearly since the surrender and was determined that it would not fall into the hands of the English. The plan was to make their way across the West Scheldt but the vigilance of the English blockade forced them to turn back before they were even half way across. They then went into hiding, first at Dr. Mokey’s, then at a farmhouse. Finally after 6 weeks of evading the enemy they were able to hire a boat that was transporting fresh foodstuffs and make good their escape.

After a hearty welcome by Marshal Bessieres at Antwerp Lawless were sent to Paris and there he met 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 and brought him the Legion of Honour and promotion to Chef de Battalion. He was now given command of the first battalion of the Irish regiment which was currently being reformed at Landau. Lt. O’Reilly likewise received the Legion of Honour and promotion to Captain.

For the men of the second battalion of the regiment it was Spain that awaited them, its 800 men being placed under Marshal Murat’s army in the autumn of 1807. In the spring of 1808 they with the rest of the army marched into Madrid starting what would later be known as the Peninsula war. The Irish regiment was caped outside the city on the 2nd of May when the inhabitants rose up against the French. The Irish were among the French troops used to supress the revolt. Later the regiment was garrisoned at Burgos were it spent its time constructing a fort for the defence of the time, performing escort duties, patrols and skirmishing with Spanish guerrillas. In March of 1810 the second battalion was assigned to Junot’s 8th corps of the army of Portugal.
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Their first objective was the fort of Astorga, an important base for supplies and operations by Spanish forces the capture of it would secure the right flank of the army of Portugal. After several weeks of heavy pounding by the French guns a practical breach was made in the northern corner of the walls, refusing a request by Junot for the Spanish to surrender the Irish battalion moved in for the assault. With the battalion leading the assault they would be spearheaded by its unit of Voltiguers lead by Captain John Allen. On the evening of the 21st of April at 5pm Captain Allen led his men out of their trenches and over the open ground towards the breach. Heavy losses were taken during this phase with men carrying ladders to the reach, the regimental drummer had his legs blown off yet continued to beat the charge. The Voltiguers occupied a house just behind the ramparts and unable to advance any further due to heavy resistance they held there position through the night, in the morning the Spanish surrendered. The battalion had brought great honour on itself for the successful assault yet losses were high with 160 dead and 400 wounded (these also include losses by the 47th of the line which also took part in the assault). 2500 Spanish prisoners were taken with the Irish battalion being given the task of escorting them to Valladolid. The battalion fought through the rest of the campaign serving at the siege of Almeida, the battle of Bussaco (September 1810) and Fuentes de Onoro (May 1811). Ordered back to France, on December 25th 1811, the 120 officers, sergeants, corporals and drummers stood for inspection for the last time in Spain, bidding farewell to the privates who were being incorporated into another regiment. On April 11th the second battalion arrived at the new regimental deport at Bois-le-Duc in southern Holland.

The regiment remained in southern Holland until February 1813, fortunately missing the disastrous Russian campaign. Being battle ready they were ordered east immediately to face the Russians. They joined Prince Eugene De Beauharnais forces on the west bank of the Elbe-Saale line, on arrival they were sent north to Stendal to guard against a crossing of the Elbe there. On March 20th the now-Colonel Lawless, commanding the Irish regiment, drove an enemy raiding party across the Elbe at Werben and on the 24th the regiment played an important part in the capture of Seehousen. Placed now on detachment duty they missed out on the battle of Lutzen but then received orders to re-join the army which they did on the 21st of May in time for the battle of Bautzen. At dawn on the 26th the regiment went into action for the battle and successfully drove the enemy back several miles, this being the first time they were under Napoleon personal command. Pleased with these results Napoleon allowed them the honour of posting guard in the town of Lignitz for him until his imperial guard arrived and relived them. Shortly afterwards an armistices was agreed between both sides.
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With the return of hostilities in august the Irish regiment found itself in Silesia were serious fighting was taking place. They were formed under General Vachereau’s brigade which had neither artillery or cavalry support. Forming squares against an enemy cavalry attack they held their ground against determined attacks. When enemy artillery opened up on them with grapeshot and cannon ball the Irish closed ranks so the cavalry were never able to exploit the effect of their casualties. Finally with casualties mounting the regiment was allowed to fall back to a wooded area. They moved back in good order, stopping every few minutes to fire a volley into the enemy cavalry. During the withdrawal General Vachereau lost his horse when it was shot from under him while he was giving orders, Lieutenant St. Leger of the Irish regiment saved his life as he helped him out when the cavalry attacked. Reaching a farmyard that was surrounded by a high wall; St. Leger pushed him over the wall and then followed over himself so they both escaped injury. This was the bloodiest day suffered by the Irish regiment with over 300 of its men killed and wounded.

On august 21st the Irish regiment lead Lauristons 5th corps into battle, while they did not take many losses that day, Colonel Lawless was struck in the leg by a cannonball and had to be evacuated to a village which was serving as Napoleons field headquarters. Napoleon ordered his personal surgeon, Baron Dominique-jean Larry to attend to his wound yet the limb was too badly damaged and had to be amputated. Lawless returned to France to recuperate. On the 24th of august General Puthord was so pleased with the officers and performance of the Irish regiment that he recommended eleven of its members for the legion of honour and officers for promotion. All these recommendations were supported by General Lauriston.

On the 27th Puthord’s division lost contact with the rest of the army and by the morning of the 29th found itself surrounded by a force of overwhelming strength. With the Borber river at their back and ammunition almost expanded the enemy attacked and overran Puthord’s position. Three officers of the Irish regiment were captured with the rest fleeing across the Borber to the opposite shore. One of these officers, colonel Ware, the acting commander, saved the regimental eagle when swimming across. After this encounter the regiment bow hardly existed as a fighting unit. Out of the 2000 men who had joined the army eight months earlier, only 117 were left. The survivors were ordered back to their depot at Bois-Le-duc.

Reforming at their deport the regiment again began recruiting among prisoners of war to fill their ranks. In 1814 the under strength regiment garrisoned Antwerp when it was besieged and held it until Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 brought the war to an end. The regiment was now ordered to Lille, their new regimental depot, and then on to Avesnes to take up garrison duties. Under the Bourbon government they were reorganised, they lost their distinctive green uniform which was replaced with an unpopular sky blue uniform. During the Hundred days the officers of the Irish regiment were informed by their Colonel that Louis XVIII was on his way to the Belgium coast and wanted to know what their feelings were, Major Ware answer for the whole regiment when he said: “Colonel, give your orders and they will be executed. If the king wants an escort to the frontiers, he may rely on the regiment doing its duty. But we Irish patriots will never go to the enemy’s camp, to fight against France, our adopted country.”

On the 26th of March the regiment swore allegiance to Napoleon. They were once again allowed to add the name “Irish” to its title buts its request to resume its green uniform was not deemed important enough to act upon at the time. The regiment did not participate in the Waterloo campaign. Upon the return of Louis XVIII the regiment once again swore allegiance to the Bourbons yet the Royalists had returned to Paris in a vengeful mood. On the 28th of September the regiment was disbanded. The officers were discharged yet many desperately wished to remain on active duty. The NCOs and other ranks who did not request a discharge, were sent to Toulon were a royal foreign regiment was being formed. Finally all regimental equipment was ordered destroyed. As a result the flags of the 2nd and 3rd battalions were burned and the regimental eagle destroyed. After 8 years of active service the Irish legion was at an end yet they had played their part in the great events of that time, serving with highly regarded honour and bravery till the very end.

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  1. Old Comment
    Mohammed the Persian's Avatar
    Brilliant! Just brilliant!
    Somehow, I should have expected the Irish to be a part of Napoleon's army
    Posted June 14th, 2012 at 09:04 AM by Mohammed the Persian Mohammed the Persian is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Me too! Bravo! An astounding read!
    Posted June 21st, 2012 at 06:47 PM by Delenda est Roma Delenda est Roma is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Nice work Crusader - any idea where that opening quote comes from? Seem to remember reading it someplace else but I can't think where. Also, at the height of their involvement how many numbers of Irish are we talking about here in Napoleon's battalions? Sry for being a pest.
    Posted June 26th, 2012 at 12:19 AM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  4. Old Comment
    irishcrusader95's Avatar
    thanks so much everyone!
    the opening comment i got Gile from the heading in one of my sources for the legion which is the second link. its probably a more contemporary quote then one that was spoken at the time. as for numbers i really don't know. the regiment on paper had a strength of 2000 men yet only the 1st and 2nd battalions were irish with the rest being a mix of other europeans. there was certainly enough anyway to warrant a distinctive uniform and title of irish legion.
    Posted July 2nd, 2012 at 08:14 PM by irishcrusader95 irishcrusader95 is offline
  5. Old Comment
    l'Adjudant's Avatar
    Hi Crusader,
    Comprehensive article, but it needs editing badly. Just on a cursory read, the following jump out.
    1. Irish and Scottish Jacobins. I assume you mean Jacobites. In fact they were very few of any Scottish Jacobite descent, possibly two or three. Many Franco-Irish of Jacobite descent certainly did join, but they were no longer Jacobite in their thinking, but Republican. The native Irish were exclusively Republican, mostly having escaped the the country or having been expelled for republican activity or rebellion.
    In her introduction to her husband's memoirs, Fanny Byrne states that the Legion officers were very different to the Jacobites, in that they were Republican and anti-Royalist, whereas the Jacobites were staunchly Royalist, and many former members of the old Irish Brigade were fighting on the British side, such as Nicholas Trant.
    You will find a list of officers and their nationalities in the appendix to an article by Nicholas Dunne-Lynch, La Legion irlandaise au service de la France ( La légion irlandaise au service de la France - 1803-1815 )
    The English version is available in Franco-Irish Military Connections, Murphy and Rouffiac eds.,(Dublin 2009).
    2. The only significant Irish intake was at Mainz in 1806 when about 1300 pows from the Prussian army were recruited, among which were about 200 Irish, former rebels of 1798, who had joined the Prussian army as as alternative to deportation. Apart from this, the Irish were very hard to recruit from among British POWs. In all, not enough Irish were recruited to form a single battalion, let alone two. Many who did join, deserted to return to their British unit.
    3. Puthod's division in the Saxon Campaign of 1813 was the 17th, not the 27th. The river was the Bober (Bobr) a tributary to the Oder.
    4. William Lawless never commanded the Irish Regiment, since the unit had been renamed le 3eme Regiment Etranger (Irlandais) to which Puthod refers in his report as 3eme Etrangers.
    5. The number of survivors of the Bober disaster is given as 117, which is accurate. The return at Wesel on 1 October names 24 officers and 94 other ranks, = 118, but other survivors are reported but not named. The strength of the 1 and 2 battalions joining the campaign was not 2000, but about 1600, and up to 400 of these were lost in other engagements, which puts the Bober MIAs at about 1100, still very serious.
    6. By the way, though only 85 of the 300 officers that passed through the Irish Legion during its life were native Irish, they maintained the Irish ethos and formed the greater part of the command structure. However, only 3 of the regimental commanders were Irish born, two were Franco-Irish and one Italian.
    As the unit lost officers, Irish NCOs were commissioned. However, the lack of Irish joining the ranks made this more and more difficult. Franco-Irish and French officers supplied a greater number of officers, but most of these chose to transfer to French units when they had the chance.
    There's a great deal more to it, of course. I notice you cite websites as sources. The trouble with that is you end up recycling incomplete and often inaccurate material.
    All the best.
    Posted June 17th, 2014 at 09:28 PM by l'Adjudant l'Adjudant is offline
    Updated June 17th, 2014 at 09:35 PM by l'Adjudant
  6. Old Comment
    l'Adjudant's Avatar
    “The Irish Legion was formed from the almost endless stream of
    enthusiastic Irishmen that appeared whenever there was an Englishman to be shot”

    This is, of course, not accurate. The number of Irishmen joining the Napoleonic armies was a trickle compared with those joining the British army. More Irish were recruited into the British army in six months than into the French army between 1793 and 1815.
    Far from shooting Englishmen, they were serving alongside them in some of Wellington's finest regiments.
    Posted June 17th, 2014 at 09:41 PM by l'Adjudant l'Adjudant is offline

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