Illuminations: Napoleon’s Irish Legion
By: J. Michael Finn
The Flight of the Wild Geese was the exile from Ireland of the Irish Jacobite army under the command of Patrick Sarsfield to military service in France, as agreed in the Treaty of Limerick on October 3, 1691. Since that early time, the term Wild Geese is used in Irish history to refer to Irish soldiers who left Ireland, either voluntarily or due to exile, to serve in continental European armies.
The original French Irish Brigade, joined by Sarsfield, was founded in 1690 and was disbanded in 1792, after serving France for 102 years. It was not long after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte that a new Irish regiment was formed.
In 1803, following lobbying by Irish generals in the French army for the creation of a new Irish military unit, Napoleon approved the formation of a light infantry battalion, La Légion Irlandaise (The Irish Legion), to participate in a planned invasion of Ireland. The French had launched two unsuccessful invasions of Ireland, in 1796 and 1798. They planned the third invasion with the belief that Britain’s naval superiority would be reduced by the loss of Ireland.
This new unit was comprised of many former United Irishmen who were exiled in Paris following the 1798 Rebellion and former officers from the disbanded French Irish Brigade. The Legion began with few rank-and-file soldiers. The strategy was to recruit new soldiers in Ireland after the planned landing. The Irish Legion was commanded by Adjutant General Bernard MacSheehy (1774-1807).
Bernard MacSheehy was born in Dublin in 1774. He became a supporter of the French Revolution while studying at the Irish College in Paris. He was briefly jailed in France as a British subject in 1793 and scheduled for deportation.
However, he was released when he requested French citizenship and offered to join the revolutionary army. He joined the army and was made an officer. For a short time, he served as an aide to Wolfe Tone, who often referred to MacSheehy as “a blockhead.”
In 1798, MacSheehy accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition, before becoming adjutant-commandant and operational head of the Irish Legion. As a result of his role in a fatal duel between two officers, MacSheehy lost command of the Legion. He remained in French service and was later killed by a cannon ball at the battle of Eylau in February 1807.
The Irish Legion’s uniform was emerald green in color with parchment yellow facings. They carried a green flag with four gold harps in the corners and inscribed in French with “Liberté des Consciences – Indépendance d’Irlande (Freedom of Conscience – Independence of Ireland).” On the reverse side of the flag was written, “Napoleon I, Empereur des Français, a La Légion Irlandaise (Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, to the Irish Legion).”
The Legion was also awarded one of Napoleon’s cast-bronze eagles. It was the only group of foreign soldiers in the French military to be awarded an eagle by Napoleon.
The Imperial Eagle symbolized the very soul of the regiment and they were pledged to defend it to the death. The eagle was displayed at the top of the staff of the Legion flag that was carried into battle, its loss would bring dishonor and so it became a prized enemy trophy on the battlefield.
When the French navy was defeated by the British at the Battle of Trafalgar in September 1805, the French promptly abandoned the plan to invade Ireland. Emperor Napoleon ordered the Legion east to join the German campaign in Mainz, Germany, where France was at war with Austria and Russia. There they recruited 1,800 Polish prisoners, a large number of which were Irish.
The British had sold a number of Irishmen involved in the 1798 Rebellion to the King of Prussia as indentured mine laborers. With so many foreigners joining its ranks, the Irish Legion became a truly European unit, comprising many different nationalities, officered by Irishmen.
In 1808, the Irish Legion fought in Spain during the Peninsular War, helping to capture Madrid and winning distinction at the Siege of Astorga. The Irish unit led the charge that took the city. During the battle, Captain John Allen’s drummer boy continued to beat the charge after having lost both legs, for which he received the French Legion of Honor.
In 1811 in Spain, Colonel Edmond Finn, of the Irish Legion, was killed while defending a bridge over the Azava River. So gallant was his defense that he was mentioned favorably in the Duke of Wellington’s dispatches. His body was buried by Colonel O’Donovan of the British army, who had been his friend as a boy in Ireland.
The Legion also saw action at the Battle of Flushing in the Walcheren Campaign of 1809, suffering many casualties due to malaria. The campaign was an unsuccessful British expedition to the Netherlands intended to open another front in the Austrian Empire’s struggle with France during the War of the Fifth Coalition
The Irish regiment took part in the German Campaign of 1813. At Goldberg, the regiment lost 400 men to cannon fire after forming squares to repel a cavalry attack. In a skirmish during the second Battle of Bober, the Legion was caught by the Imperial Russian Army with their backs to the river, but held their position until the ammunition ran out. They were forced to swim to safety. The regiment suffered heavy casualties from a Russian bayonet assault, from drowning and from pursuit by roaming Cossack patrols, losing about 1,500 men.
In 1814 the British sent a large army into the French-occupied Low Countries (Netherlands) to defeat Napoleon by besieging Antwerp, then a leading French shipbuilding port. Antwerp was defended by the Irish Legion, who stood firm during the three-month siege until they were forced to give up the city.
Following Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1814, the Irish Legion no longer existed as a fighting unit due to sustaining heavy causalities. Only twenty-three officers out of 47 remained. Out of approximately 2,000 men who had marched to join the Grand Army, only 117 were left. The survivors of the Legion had managed to save their banner and eagle from capture.
The Irish Regiment was eventually disbanded on September 28, 1815 by King Louis XVIII following Napoleon’s exile after the Battle of Waterloo. This ended a 125-year-old tradition of French Irish service. All regimental property of the Irish Legion, including their flags and battalion eagles, were destroyed. The remaining rank-and-file soldiers were sent to the 4th Royal Foreign Regiment (the forerunner of the famous French Foreign Legion).
Those members of the Irish Legion, as they died for Napoleon and France, no doubt recalled the words of Patrick Sarsfield as he lay mortally wounded at the Battle of Landen in 1693. As he was dying he drew his hand from his chest that was covered with his own blood and reportedly said, “Oh that this had been shed for Ireland!”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.