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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Napoleon's Irish Legion

Gallaher, John G. Napoleon's Irish Legion. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1993. 222 pages. ISBN# 0809318253. $41.95. Hardcover.

Napoleon's Irish Legion cover

If anything ever proved that there are an infinite number books to write, topics to cover and angles to approach when it comes to Napoleonic history it has to be John Gallaher's, Napoleon's Irish Legion. For surely there can hardly be a more obscure or incidental theme than the fate of a few dozen Irish patriots in the service of Napoleonic France. For that is all the 'Irishness' the so-called Irish Legion amounted to, an officer cadre of refugees from British justice eventually becoming a foreign line regiment through the recruitment of rank and file from mostly German internees of French prisoner of war camps.

As such it is a sad tale about often-embittered men. Some brought recriminations for the failures of the past with them into the Irish Legion while others sought to forget the past and make a new life as professional soldiers. The legacy of the first was a string of duels and bitter factional controversies within the Legion, not to mention the damning of the career prospects of the second group. Thus this is not a glorious tale any more than it is a happy tale. Some of the Irish of the Irish Legion saw service but in obscure theatres and without fortune or victory. Most of the time they were destined to be passed over for promotion by Frenchmen in order to quell the internal wrangling of the Irish.

The genesis of the Legion was in France's hopes for an invasion of Great Britain and Ireland coupled with an Irish uprising. Thus the need for an Irish unit to galvanise nationalist sentiment and to be a rallying point for all those who would fight as France's allies in Ireland. Therefore once all prospects of any such expedition had expired the political expediency of the legion went with it. However the influence of Clarke, the French minister of War, who was of Irish descent, and the tradition of Irish troops serving France, helped keep the Legion alive for whatever purpose.

As tragic and pointless as all this sounds it is still an intriguing tale. But is this because it belongs to Napoleonic or to Irish history? Truly it is only a postscript to Irish history as the part of these men in Irish nationalism was ended. It is certainly an obscure part of Napoleonic history. But this is an illustration of the cosmopolitan nature of Napoleonic history and this I think is what make this an interesting read, even for someone who has no Irish axe to grind of their own. In truth this tale is as much a precursor to the French Foreign legion as any thing else - sign up anyone and their past is a clean slate!

John Gallaher is professor of history at Southern Illinois University and is best known as the author of The Iron Marshal, the biography of Davout. I haven't had the pleasure of reading that book, but I dare say the topic, as much as the writing has helped make Gallaher's name. The Iron Marshal was a long time ago and Gallaher hasn't published many other books, least of all Napoleonic ones, in the interim. Therefore there must have been high expectations for Napoleon's Irish Legion.

Being a book by an academic Napoleon's Irish Legion is a suitably scholarly work with excellent footnotes and solid research. However the chapters do not always hang together so well, there being a lack of cross-referencing of events, persons, timelines and such. It is as if the book is the distillation of the research of a number of students pulled together and published by their professor. I don't know whether this is the case or not, but the book certainly seemed to read that way to me. This is a real shame because we have a very interesting book here that that could have been a great piece of scholarship had it been more of story told than a collection of research articles.

Nevertheless I have to recommend this to anyone interested in the period at all. It gives a unique perspective on the lives and minds of ordinary men who are victims of history and who are bobbing along in the flood of time. Their story is quite compelling and their perspective on well-known events is well worth the visit.

Reviewed by Robert Markley.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2000