seamus dubhghaill

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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Five Irish Regiments Set Sail for France

irish-brigade-of-franceFive Jacobite regiments of Irishmen set sail from Ireland for France on April 18, 1690. These soldiers, about 5,400 in all, will form the nucleus of France’s famed Irish Brigade.

The Irish Brigade is a brigade in the French Royal Army composed of Irish exiles, led by Lord Mountcashel. It is formed in May 1690 when the five regiments sent from Ireland arrive in France in exchange for a larger force of King Louis XIV‘s well-trained French infantry who are sent to fight in the Williamite War in Ireland. The regiments comprising the Irish Brigade retain their special status as foreign units in the French Army until nationalised in 1791.

King Louis XIV wants to support James II in his quest to regain the British crown from William of Orange, but he can ill-afford the loss of 6,000 soldiers during his own struggle with William on the continent. Louis demands Irish replacements, ill-trained though they might be, in exchange. The Irish regiments sail out on the same ships that landed the French troops under Count de Lauzun.

Soon after arriving in France, the five regiments are reorganized into three, commanded by Lord Mountcashel, Daniel O’Brien, and Theobald Dillon, whose family continues in command of this regiment for a one hundred years. Mountcashel commands this first Irish Brigade which is known as Lord Mountcashel’s Irish Brigade. He has grown up in France, and become fluent in the French tongue after his father had lost everything due to his participation in the fight against Oliver Cromwell and subsequent exile to France. Mountcashel’s brigade is joined by Patrick Sarsfield‘s men in late 1691. The Irish Brigade carries on in French service for 100 years and amass a record equaled by few military organizations in history.

Like Sarsfield, Mountcashel does not survive for very long in French service. Very shortly after his arrival in France, on September 11, 1690, he is seriously wounded in the chest fighting in Savoy near Mountiers de Tarentaise. Although he recovers from this wound and continues to command the brigade, the wound continues to hamper him. In 1694, he leaves the brigade and seeks relief from his wounds in the baths at Baréges in the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, Justin McCarthy, Lord Mountcashel, dies there on July 1, just short of a year after Patrick Sarsfield is killed at the Battle of Landen.

The Brigade ceases to exist as a separate and distinct entity on July 21, 1791. Along with the other non-Swiss foreign units, the Irish regiments undergo “nationalization” at the orders of the National Assembly. This involves their being assimilated into the regular French Army as line infantry, losing their traditional titles, practices, regulations and uniforms.