Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


 


1796-1798 : Trois tentatives d’invasion françaises en Irlande

Three Attempts at Landing on Irish Coasts during the Revolution Period (1796-1798)

Introduction

By Dr. Gabriel Vital-Durand


“They come, they come
See myriads come -
Of Frenchmen to relieve us;

Seize, seize the pike
Beat, beat the drum
They come, my friends
To save us.“

“Ils arrivent, ils arrivent.
Regarde les myriades de Français
Qui viennent nous libérer;

Prends, prends ton épieu
Bats, rebats du tambour
Ils sont ici, mes amis,
Pour nous sauver.“

 
Irish marching song / Chant de marche d’époque

 

Landing Attempt in Bantry Bay

Tentative de débarquement dans la baie de Bantry (décembre 1796)

Landing attempt in Bantry Bay (December 1796)

In the aftermath of the disastrous Seven Years War (1756-63), the Treaty of Paris had endorsed the loss of Canada and India for France, thereby opening the seas for the unchallenged dominance of the British Royal Navy. However the American War of Independence soon provided the opportunity for revenge. The Marquis of Lafayette took the initial lead, followed by a full expeditionary force under General-Count Rochambeau. General-Marquis Cornwallis who had led the British during much of the campaign against the rebels, was surrounded in Yorktown in 1781 and forced to capitulate. The French navy had actually played an eminent role in the circumstances, thereby opening new avenues for maritime enterprise.

These overseas ventures, through costly in terms of national revenue, eventually paved the way for the French Revolution. This resulted in major disorganisation of the navy, whose commanders were suspected of favouring a restoration. Many of them abandoned their posts and by 1796, the condition of the ships was appalling. Nevertheless, since war with England had been re-enacted and a direct crossing of the Channel looked unrealistic, the French Directory mounted an impressive expedition towards the end of 1796. The whole enterprise was lobbied for by Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Irish lawyer closely associated with the United Irish Society, and masterminded by General Carnot, one of the French Directors. A total of 43 ships carrying some 15,000 marine infantry corps were assembled in Brest (Brittany) and sailed on 16th December 1796, heading toIreland. They managed to escape the scrutiny of the British Royal Navy and reached Bantry Bay on 21 December. Strong winds were blowing from the east, and intensive tacking prevented much progress over the course of several days. Both General Hoche and Admiral Morad de Galles had been lost on the way on the Fraternité. On 26th December, the French fleet was ordered to retreat, much to the dismay of Wolfe Tone. A rare chance of getting through the formidable Channel Fleet had been lost, some 200 years after the Great Armada of Spain (1588).

Two years later, Tone undertook to mastermind a new attempt (August and September), in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. In the words of O’Huiginn :

"In these operations described by Cornwallis to the Duke of Portland as a short but very fatiguing campaign, a raiding party of 1,000 French landed in Ireland without opposition, after sixteen days of navigation, unobserved by the British Navy; defeated and drove back the British troops opposing them on four separate occasions; routed a force of second line troops of at least double its strength; captured eleven British guns; held the field for seventeen days; entirely occupied the attention of all the available troops of a garrison of Ireland 100,000 strong; penetrated almost to the centre of the island, and compelled the Lord Lietunant to send an urgent requisition to London for 'as great a reinforcement as possible."

This was a fine tribute to General Humbert and his veteran troops who proved more than a match for the British army. No mention was made, however, of the substantial numbers of Irish insurgents who rallied to his flag and acquitted themselves well on the field of battle, particularly at Ballinamuck. They were mercilessly slaughtered, even after surrender, including Matthew Tone and Bartolomew, who held commissions in the French army. As to Wolfe Tone, he landed near Lough Swilly (Donegal), had to surrender and committed suicide before he could be hanged. As to Tandy, he escaped capture until reaching Hamburg where the authorities handed him over to the British Government. However, due to the vested interest of Prime Consul Bonaparte, he was finally released to France.

During the whole Revolution and Napoleonic period, a number of Irish patriots served under the French flag, some of which names are still to be seen on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2004

 

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