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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. 281 pages. ISBN# 0809318253. Hardcover. Out of Print.

The Irish Legion of Napoleon came into being, on paper at least, on 31 August 1803.[1] Making it a reality took much longer. At the end of that year, the first officers, mostly Irish exiles, former rebels or United Irishmen, began to assemble at Morlaix in Finisterre, Brittany. It was to be over two years before the unit had a significant number of troops, and four years before the unit saw any action, and the unit whiled away the interim on tedious coastal or garrison duty. Dr Gallaher is at his best when describing these frustrating and traumatic formative years, when internal rivalry and political conflict was a major preoccupation, resulting in the death of one officer as the result of a duel, the transfer of the two most senior officers and the resignation of others. These years, as Dr Gallaher concedes, seriously damaged both the morale and reputation of the Legion.

The unit's initial purpose, to take part in the invasion of Ireland or anywhere in the British Isles, died as plans for that operation where shelved in the wake of Trafalgar. In 1807, a provisional battalion went into Spain. A further contingent followed in 1808, and the 3rd battalion in 1809, creating the basis of the Legion's two-battalion presence in the Peninsula which ended in 1811. In 1809, the first battalion, about 450 officers and men,[2] was taken prisoner at the fall of Flushing, and a replacement battalion began assembling at Landau.

In 1813, two battalions took part in the Saxon campaign, but were lost in the disastrous attempt to cross the flooded Bober river in Silesia, when pressed by the Prussians, with as many as 1800 men dying or becoming prisoners. Upon the first Restoration, the unit concealed the regimental eagle, ready for Bonaparte's return, while declaring loyalty to the King. After further vicissitudes, the regiment was dissolved in September 1815. The number of Irishmen in the ranks was under 10% by 1813, and the final proportion of officers demonstrates the declining number of Irish so that they were only 8% among the junior officers.

Having been called officially over the years la Lgion irlandaise, le Rgiment irlandais, le 3e Rgiment tranger (irlandais), le 7e Rgiment tranger, the unit ended up Irish in name only, headed by a diminishing core of patriotic Irishmen, some of whom were deported for their alleged Bonapartist opinions. So few Irish soldiers passed into the new Foreign Legion just forming that they are hardly worth mentioning. It is the sad story of rebel exiles, a few of whom continued in the French army while the rest were dispersed around the world and they and their descendant have been lost to Ireland. Irish recruitment into the French army thus came to sad end and from then on the British Army, which had been recruiting the Irish in earnest since 1793, was now attracting them in hordes, so that on the eve of the Famine in 1845 more then 40% of the British Army was Irish while the population of Ireland had become less than 15% of the total population of the United Kingdom.

'In war,' wrote William Napier, the great historian of the Peninsular War of 1807 to 1814, in which the Irish Legion served, 'error is the rule and not the exception.' However, reading John Gallaher's Napoleon's Irish Legion demonstrates that Napier's dictum might also be easily applied to historical writing. While the paucity of published sources forced him to rely a little too much on Miles Byrne, the archival research that Dr Gallaher has carried out is thorough, including examination the Xh series of cartons, on which he also relies heavily, dealing with the formation and running of the Legion,[3] and the various series covering the campaigns in which the Legion served.[4] These cartons contain a mountain of information, which must be sifted painstakingly, and each document studied carefully, and then translated fully if necessary, during which the fading handwriting is often impossible to decipher.

It is tedious and exhausting work as this reviewer knows only to well from experience. However, Doctor Gallaher does not mention some critical documents in his Archival Sources,[5] nor are these referenced in the endnotes. The first group is the Registere des Monsieurs les Officiers.[6] If, as it appears, Dr Gallaher failed to consult these documents, he put himself at a great disadvantage. Had he consulted them, he would have concluded that it was necessary to create a definitive list of officers, and to reconcile the variations in the spelling of names, and in dates and places of birth, and so on. Also conspicuously absent from the list of Archival Sources, and without any reference to them in the endnotes, are Dossiers des Officiers suprieurs et subalterns,[7] Dossiers des Officiers gnraux,[8] Dossiers des Pension militaires.[9] These files give indispensable information on individual officers. Also missing and without any reference are the registers Contrles des Troupes without which any discussion on recruitment, desertion and the careers of individual soldiers is very difficult.[10]

Though there are many cases, one example of the problems caused by the absence of a definitive list of officers is the variations in the names in Dr Gallaher's book. Such variations are very confusing and irritating for the reader, since it is often unclear whether the same person is being referred to. One example is the case of William Austin O'Moran, born at Chambery in Haute Savoie in 1783, and probably the son of General James O'Moran.[11] The younger O'Moran is referred to mostly as William Auguste O'Morand,[12] though he is also referred to in the archives as de Morand.[13] On page 35, Gallaher tells us, 'the youngest officer A. O'Maraud, was only nineteen.' This individual, however, is indexed as O'Morand. On page 66, describing the same officer in the same year, 1804, we are told about an 'eighteen-year-old O'Morand,' joining.[14]

Another example is Austin O'Malley, born at Newport in Co. Mayo in 1775, and referred to as Augustin or Auguste in archived documents, in which his surname is also given as O'Maly or O'Mally, but never as O'Meally, which is Byrne's spelling.[15] While Dr. Gallaher marks other examples of Byrne's incorrect orthography with the conventional "sic," he does not do so with 'O'Meally.' However, O'Malley is the accepted spelling, and Austin is referred to in all Irish historical records under that spelling. His own signature, of which there are extant several dozen examples in the Vincennes archives, is invariably O'Malley. Similarly, O'Malley's antagonist in their duel,[16] Adjutant-Major Couasnon,[17] is referred to by Byrne as 'Cougnan' and this is marked 'sic' by Gallaher; but the officer's given name is not 'Flixis,' as Gallaher maintains, but Alexis.

Dr. Gallaher fails to reconcile the different versions of names, creating confusion for the reader, the above examples are only a very small part of the list. Equally to blame are faulty editing and proofreading, as well as diabolical indexing that, among many other important items, omits such engagements as Flushing and the Walcheren campaign. As to Gallaher's reliance on Byrne, whole passages are simply paraphrases of his memoirs. The information given in these passages is a reflection of Byrne's view, which goes largely unchallenged by Dr. Gallaher. For example, the final two paragraphs of Chapter 5, 'The Peninsular Campaigns,'[18] contain a euphemistic description of the withdrawal from Spain of the Legion's officers, NCOs and drummers, which began in December 1811, leaving the men to be dispersed among other units.[19] Indeed, the cadre was going home, but the dispersal of men is a great dishonour to any unit. Both Byrne and Gallaher have nothing to say about this, and neither give any reasons for the decision, though a strong possibility must be that the battalions had lost too many men through desertion, as they certainly did not lose them in action. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Carles, 'The 3rd battalion, very weakened by desertion, was down to one company and four officers.'[20]

The maps included in the work are often confusing and geographically inaccurate. Though it should be admitted that maps of this type are not intended for pinpoint accuracy, they are essential for establishing approximate location and presenting the overall picture. However, misrepresenting the location of the critical battle of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 by showing Ballinamuck where Ballina should be,[21] in County Mayo, instead of sixty miles to the east in County Longford, makes nonsense of the description within the narrative. The map of Walcheren is a mishmash of English, French and Flemish names, and there is nothing to tell us that Flushing, for example, is the modern town of Vlissingen.[22] On the map of Western Europe,[23] of the names we are given of the towns having an association with the Legion, including Landau, Morlaix, Carhaix, Lesneven, Bois-le-Duc and Mayence, the final two are not the modern names and will not be found on modern maps.[24] The map of the Campaign of 1813 is equally confusing.[25] The Boder (sic) river shown is, in fact, the Bober. Two battalions of the Legion were lost along that river in the disaster of the 26 August, an event covered in the narrative, but the Bober is not mentioned on the map or in the index. The fictitious 'Boder' is also mentioned in the narrative, [26] but is not indexed, and neither is the Oder. The town of Goldberg, where the Legion had a summer cantonment is not mentioned on map or index.[27] In consulting a modern map, since the area is in Poland, readers would find the names in Polish, and they would have no way of deciding which towns are which.[28]

The wider picture shows a political tract masquerading as a regimental history. Gallaher fails to give the reader a balanced account of the context and of the Irish Legion itself. His eclectic approach gives the Irish nationalists in the Legion the moral high ground, while omitting to deal effectively with the Legion's part in the French atrocities in Spain, for example, the repression of the 2nd May revolt, dramatically depicted in Goya's El Tres de Mayo.[29] Nor is a mere seven lines enough discussion on the declaration of 1 January 1815, in which the Legion officers, fearful of losing their jobs, pledged a loyalty to the restored King Louis XVIII that most had little intention of honouring, since they had already hidden the regimental eagle they had been ordered to burn, keeping it ready for Bonaparte's return. Dr Gallaher omits to even to mention Napoleon's order asserting that the Legion was only fit for guard duty, and was to be deployed to endure the rigours of the malaria ridden swamps of littoral Belgium, thus sparing his line troops

While rationalizing the motives of the Irish officers who wished to keep their employment in the French army after their unit had finally lost its raison d'tre, the liberation of Ireland, Dr Gallaher refers to the Irish in the British army, as 'virtual mercenaries fighting for their pay,'[30] though many were consciously anti-Bonaparte. A large proportion may have joined for economic reasons, that hardly makes them 'mercenaries.'[31] Irish regiments, such as the 27th, 87th and 88th, were the shock troops of Wellington's army, which was over 30% Irish. Which side of a conflict a person chooses to take is a matter for the individual conscience, that is, of course, if economic and other circumstances allow that freedom of choice. It is the not the role of the historian to make moral judgments on such matters, nor to impute negative motives without evidence.

Apart from the Memoirs of Miles Byrne[32], Dr Gallaher's is the only book to cover a history of the Irish Legion in depth. Though useful to students of the period and especially of the Irish Legion, the work should be revised and corrected.


Anyone wishing to discuss these issues in greater depth is welcome to contact Nicholas Dunne-Lynch at

[1] The date of the decree ordering the establishing of La Legion irlandaise.

[2] P.96

[3] SHAT cartons Xh14, 15,16a-d and 17, le 3e Regiment tranger (irlandais).

[4] SHAT Cartons C1, C2, C7, C8

[5] P.225

[6] SHAT 2Yb1118-1120bis.

[7] SHAT Cartons 2 & 3Ye

[8] SHAT Cartons 7 & 8Yd

[9] SHAT Cartons 3Ye-3Yf

[10] SHAT Cartons 21-24Yc

[11] Born at Elphin in Co. Roscommon in 1739. Executed in Paris in 1794.

[12] SHAT Yb1120 p.179 refers to this officer as O'Morand.

[13] Etat Nominatif dated 1/3/1814. SHAT Carton 16d gives de Morand.

[14] O'Morand's birth date given in SHAT 2Yb1120 is 6 Dec 1783, which would put him in his 21st year on joining during the summer of 1804. Though that date might not be correct, it should cast sufficient doubt on the matter to discourage Dr Gallaher making an issue of O'Morand's age.

[15] Gallaher also refers to Austin O'Malley as Auguste O'Maley, (p. 90, not indexed) and otherwise as Austin O'Meally. In archived documents, O'Malley signs as both Austin and Augustin, but always as 'O'Malley.' Among others, in the letters (1) O'Malley to Minister of War, 4 nivoise XII (26 Dec 1803), the signature is clearly 'Augustin O'Malley' and (2) to the same recipient on 27 Oct 1806, 'Austin O'Malley' Both documents are in O'Malley's personal dossier (SHAT 2ye 91/47) Gallaher's adherence to 'O'Meally' is both inaccurate and inexplicable.

[16] The account of the O'Malley-Couasnon duel appears in Gallaher p.54-55, and Byrne, II, p.13.

[17] Alexis Leonard Couasnon, born Laval, Mayenne, 1775. The name derives from the area of the Breton Marches and south-west Normandy, esp. along the river Couesnon (sic), Kouenon in Breton) which traditionally separated the duchies of Brittany and Normandy. Byrne's spelling 'Cougnan' may be nearer the actual pronunciation of the name at the time, assuming an unstressed or silent 'g.'

[18] P. 151

[19] Byrne, ii, pp.142-44.

[20] Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Carles Le corps irlandais au service de la France sous le Consulat et I'Empire, Rvue Historique de l'Arme, Vol 2 (1976) pp25-54. Carles further comments on the low level of desertion among the Irish troops in the British army in the Peninsula, as follows  ' ...desertion among the Irish in the Peninsula was very low. The loyalty of the Irish 'to the flag,' even the British flag, is a fact.' This contrasts with the high rates of desertion among the troops of the Irish Legion. Not one Irish officer deserted or defected from the British army in the Peninsula, while the Irish Legion lost two, and many others during the 100 days. Carles concludes, 'Even if all Irish prisoners and deserters could have been recruited, there would not have been enough between 1805 and 1815 to make a regiment (in the French army.)'

[21] Map of Ireland, p.4.

[22] Map of Walcheren, P.91.

[23] Map of Western Europe, P.24.

[24] The modern names are the Dutch 'S-Hertogen-Bosch (Bois-le-Duc) and the German, Mainz (Mayence).

[25] Map of the Campaigns of 1813, P.192,

[26] P.187

[27] P.184

[28] Modern names of towns and rivers are in Polish: Lwowek Slask (Lowenberg), Zlotoryja, (Goldberg), Kaczawa (Katzbach river), Bbr (Bober river), and Odra (Oder river).

[29] The uprising in Madrid took place on the 2 May 1808 and is known as El Dos de Mayo. The French reprisals, which were witnessed by Goya, began on the following day, known as El Tres de Mayo, an infamous day in the history of Spain.

[30] P.111

[31] The question remains as to who were the mercenaries. A mercenary may be defined as a person who enlists in a foreign army, especially one who does so for pay alone. Since the Irish were British citizens, they do not fall within the foreign-enlistment definition. As to the question of enlisting for pay alone, the vast majority of British soldiers joined for financial reasons. The Irishmen who remained in the French army after the Irish Legion lost its raison d'tre, and especially after it was disbanded, could be said to be enlisting in a foreign army only for pay, since most remained for economic reasons.

[32] Published in 1862.

Reviewed by Nicholas Dunne-Lynch
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2006