Fighters for Freedom: The Irish of Napoleon's Army

Previously, I've mused about the role of the Irish in the British Army (which was over 1/3 Irish at the time). But that brings up another interesting point, what about the Irish on the other side?

In 1803, Napoleon's grand plan for the defeat of the United Kingdom called for an invasion of Ireland. This would serve to tie up British forces and prevent them from being used in the battleground of mainland Europe. Napoleon's utmost hope was that the invasion of Ireland be seen as a liberation, rather than an occupation. He therefore authorized the raising of an Irish regiment to serve in the French Army. Originally, the regiment was recruited from the Irish diaspora in France, who were mostly Jacobites who had fled after the defeat of their revolts in the 1700's. Later, Irishmen were recruited from prisoner of war camps after the French realized that most of them had no love for good old King George. The regiment, though Irish in name, also had large numbers of German and Polish speakers. Battle commands were given in French, while the Regiment operated in English.

Eventually the whole invade Ireland idea sort of fizzled out when the French lost any chance they had of transporting soldiers across the seas due to the Battle of Trafalgar. The Irish regiment lived on though. Eventually they were posted to the Low Countries, participating in the defence of Antwerp from invading British forces in 1807. The Irish Regiment was among the garrison that surrendered at Flushing following bitter fighting, much of which involving the Irish, who maintained positions in the front line until the surrender. The regiment's acting commanding officer, Captain Lawless, and Lieutenant O'Reilly managed to escape with the regiment's eagle after hiding for six weeks in the occupied city, later presenting it to Napoleon himself, much to his pleasure.

The regiment was quickly re-raised, with now Colonel Lawless commanding. They were posted to Spain. Serving in Murat's corps with distinction until 1811, they participated in such battles as Fuentes D' Onoro, Bussaco, the Siege of Alameda (The one where the British/Portuguese accidentally blew up their own magazine), and to much honour, being among the first to scale the breach at Astorga. The Irish, upon entering the breach, occupied a house within the city for several hours without relief, cut off from the rest of the French army. In the morning, the Spanish surrendered. In each of these battles, the Irish served with distinction, gaining many Legion of Honour awards for its members.

The Irish also suffered heavy losses. After the horrific battle of Fuentes D'Onoro, the privates were split off into another of Napoleon's foreign regiments, whilst the remaining NCOs and officers were sent back to France to form the nucleus of a new Irish regiment. This new regiment was battle ready by 1813, just missing Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia. They were later dispatched to cover the retreat, fighting against overwhelming odds on the banks of the Elbe. Led personally by Napoleon, they emerged victorious.

Disaster struck in August 1813. The Regiment became cut off in Silesia, surrounded by thousands of Russian troops. The Irish defended tenaciously until their ammunition ran out. Of 2000 men, 117 escaped across the Bober River by swimming, including the regiment's acting commander with the regiments prized eagle. (Col. Lawless had been injured several days earlier). The regiment ceased to be an effective fighting unit. Efforts at recruitment were made once again through POW camps. The under strength regiment would participate in the defence of Antwerp until Napoleon's abdication in 1814.

During the hundred days, the regiment swore allegiance to Napoleon, but did not participate in the campaign. After Waterloo, the regiment was disbanded, its officers removed from service and it's men transferred to an amalgamated foreign regiment. The eagle was destroyed.

Legion Irlandaise 1803 - 1815
Gallaher, John G. Napoleon's Irish Legion. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1993