Napoleon's Irish Legion
Posted June 14th, 2012 at 08:50 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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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