General William Lawless, surgeon, revolutionary, and officer in Napoleon‘s Irish Legion, is born in Dublin on April 20, 1772. He is also an important member of the Society of the United Irishmen, a revolutionary republican organisation in late 18th century Ireland.
Lawless, a Catholic, is the confidant of Lord Edward FitzGerald, and Professor of Anatomy and Physiology in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin. Closely connected with John Sheares in the direction of affairs in the spring of 1798, a warrant for his arrest is issued on May 20 with a reward of £300. Timely notice is, however, given him of the fact by Mr. Stewart, the Surgeon-General, and he escapes to France, where his abilities and spirit recommend him to the special favour of Napoleon. While in Paris, he spends time with other United Irishmen in exile, including Myles Byrne and William James MacNeven.
Lawless is placed on half-pay in 1800, but in 1803 is appointed captain of the Irish Legion, and in July 1806 is ordered to Vlissingen, then besieged by the English, to command the Irish battalion. To reach his post he has to pass in a small open boat through the English fleet. He is dangerously wounded in a sortie, and when General Monet capitulates without stipulating for the treatment of the Irish as prisoners of war, Lawless escapes from the town with the eagle of his regiment, conceals himself for two months in a doctor’s house, and at length finds an opportunity of getting to Antwerp by night in a fishing boat. Marshall Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte welcomes him, extols him in general orders, and reports his exploits to Napoleon, who summons him to Paris, decorates him with the Legion of Honour, and promotes him to be lieutenant-colonel. In 1812 he gains a colonelcy, and on August 21, 1813 he loses a leg at the Battle of Dresden. He retires to his country house in Tours.
After the restoration of the Bourbons, Lawless is returned, in October 1814, to half-pay with the rank of brigadier-general. He dies in Paris at the age of 52 on December 25, 1824. His remains are buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He is one of the best officers of the last large French unit of The Wild Geese. Thomas Moore describes him as “a person of that mild and quiet exterior which is usually found to accompany the most determined spirit.”
(Pictured: Gravesite of General William Lawless in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France)