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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Fontenoy

battle-of-fontenoyThe Irish Brigade of France, a brigade in the French Royal Army composed of Irish exiles most commonly identified in Irish history as The Wild Geese, achieve its most glorious victory at the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11, 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

The battle takes place in the Belgian municipality of Antoing, near Tournai. A French army of 50,000 commanded by Marshal Maurice de Saxe defeats a slightly larger Pragmatic Army of 52,000 consisting of the Dutch Republic, Great Britain, Hanover and the Holy Roman Empire, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. The Irish Brigade is led by Justin McCarthy, Viscount Mountcashel and is comprised of six regiments.

Despite setbacks elsewhere, at the end of 1744 the French hold the initiative in the Austrian Netherlands, and their leaders consider this theatre offers the best opportunity for a decisive victory. In late April, they besiege Tournai, which controls access to the upper Scheldt basin, which makes it a vital link in the North European trading network and the Allies march to its relief.

Leaving 22,000 men in front of Tournai, Saxe places his main force five miles away in the villages of St. Antoine, Vezin and Fontenoy, along a naturally strong feature which he strengthens with defensive works. After a series of unsuccessful flank assaults, the Allies attack the French centre with a column of 15,000 men.

Colonel Arthur Dillon‘s regiment, which had already been badly shot up earlier in the fight, along with the brigade’s other five, charge the British as they seem on the verge of breaking the French line. Fifty years of Irish frustration and British betrayal now come back to haunt the British. As the men of the Irish Brigade close through a hail of British bullets, their shouts are heard above the din: “Cuimhnígí ar Luimneach agus ar fheall na Sasanach!” (Remember Limerick and the Saxon Faith).

Nothing can withstand the wave of hatred and revenge that breaks on the hapless British line that day. The victory is won but the cost is high. Colonel Dillon is dead and Lord Clare is wounded twice. The brigade suffers 656 casualties in all, the highest percentage of all the French units.

Although the Allies retreat in good order, Tournai falls shortly afterwards, followed by Ghent, Oudenaarde, Bruges and Dendermonde. The withdrawal of British forces in October to deal with the Jacobite Rising facilitates the capture of Ostend and Nieuwpoort. By the end of 1745, France controls much of the Austrian Netherlands, threatening British links with Europe.

However, by early 1746, France is struggling to finance the war and begins peace talks at the Congress of Breda in May. Despite victories at Rocoux in October 1746 and Lauffeld in July 1747, the war continues until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

It is a day never to be forgotten by the Irish worldwide. At Manassas, Virginia, 116 years later, Thomas Francis Meagher cries out to the 69th New York, another regiment of Irishmen, “Remember Fontenoy!”

(Pictured: The Irish Brigade, presenting a captured British colour to Louis XV and the Dauphin)


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The Battle of Culloden

culloden-moor-memorialThe Battle of Culloden, the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745,  known in Scotland as simply “The ’45,” is fought on April 16, 1746. The Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, is decisively defeated by a British government force under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on Drummossie Moor near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It is the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

Charles is the eldest son of James Francis Edward Stuart, the exiled Stuart claimant to the British throne. Believing there is support for a Stuart restoration in both Scotland and England, he lands in Scotland in July 1745. The Jacobite Army is often assumed to have been largely composed of Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders. In reality nearly a quarter of the rank and file are recruited in Aberdeenshire, Forfarshire and Banffshire, with another 20% from Perthshire. Although the army is predominantly Scots it contains a few English recruits plus significant numbers of Irish, Scottish and French professionals in French service with the Irish Brigade and Garde Écossaise.

After amassing his army of Scots Jacobite supporters, Charles takes Edinburgh by September and defeats a British government force at Prestonpans. The government recalls 12,000 troops from the Continent to deal with the rising. A Jacobite invasion of England reaches as far as Derby before turning back, having attracted relatively few English recruits.

The Jacobites, with limited French military support, attempt to consolidate their control of Scotland, where by early 1746 they are opposed by a substantial government army. A scrambled Jacobite victory at Falkirk fails to change the strategic situation. With supplies and pay running short and with the government troops resupplied and reorganised under the Duke of Cumberland, son of British monarch George II, the Jacobite leadership has few options left other than to stand and fight. The two armies eventually meet at Culloden, on terrain that gives Cumberland’s larger, well-rested force the advantage.

The battle lasts only an hour, with the Jacobites suffering a bloody defeat with between 1,500 and 2,000 killed or wounded. Approximately 300 government soldiers are killed or wounded. While perhaps as many as 6,000 Jacobites remain in arms in Scotland, the leadership takes the decision to disperse, effectively ending the rising. The men of the combined Irish regiments, under the command of Brigadier Walter Stapleton, are the last off the field, covering the retreat of Prince Charles and the remnants of his army. The Irish had given their blood to the cause of a Stuart King for the last time. Most of the surviving Irish surrender at Inverness. The Prince himself eventually manages to make his escape to France.

Culloden and its aftermath continue to arouse strong feelings. The University of Glasgow awards the Duke of Cumberland an honorary doctorate, but many modern commentators allege that the aftermath of the battle and subsequent crackdown on Jacobite sympathisers were brutal, earning Cumberland the sobriquet “Butcher.” Efforts are subsequently made to further integrate the comparatively undeveloped Scottish Highlands into the Kingdom of Great Britain. Civil penalties are introduced to undermine the Scottish clan system, which had provided the Jacobites with the means to rapidly mobilise an army.

Today, a visitor centre is located near the site of the battle. This centre is first opened in December 2007, with the intention of preserving the battlefield in a condition similar to how it was on April 16, 1746. One difference is that it currently is covered in shrubs and heather. During the 18th century, however, the area was used as common grazing ground, mainly for tenants of the Culloden estate. Those visiting can walk the site by way of footpaths on the ground and can also enjoy a view from above on a raised platform. Possibly the most recognisable feature of the battlefield today is the 20-foot tall memorial cairn, erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881. In the same year Forbes also erects headstones to mark the mass graves of the clans.