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French Expedition in Ireland - Victory at Castlebar

French Expedition in Ireland - Victory at Castlebar Tragedies and Triumphs World History Visual Arts Nineteenth Century Life

A 31-year-old French General - Jean-Joseph-Amable Humbert - arrived in County Mayo, Ireland on the 22nd of August, 1798. 

A brilliant strategist, Humbert thought he and his 1,070 French troops could help the Irish rebels in their efforts to throw-off British rule.

Three French frigates - Concorde, Franchise and Médée - had ferried Humbert and his men to Ireland.  They landed on the west shore of Killala Bay (at Kilcummin Headon). 

On board the ships were weapons of war, including 3 light field cannon and 3,000 muskets. 

Audacious in his sense of purpose, Humbert issued this Proclamation on the day he arrived in Ireland:

After several unsuccessful attempts, behold at last Frenchmen arrived amongst you ... Brave Irishmen, our cause is common. Like you we hold as indefeasible the right of all nations to liberty.  Like you we are persuaded that the peace of the world shall ever be troubled as long as the British ministry is suffered to make with impunity a traffic of the industry and blood of the people ...

Union, Liberty, the Irish Republic!  Such is our shout.  Let us march.  Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.

Although they did not constitute a formidable force, this group of dedicated Frenchmen and their Irish allies - motivated by such stirring words and the desire to be free of British rule - conducted a very effective campaign against the British. 

In the end, to stop them, Lord Cornwallis (who had already “lost America”) had to assemble an army of thousands.

This image depicts one of the high points of Humbert’s campaign.  After marching all night, and covering about 25 miles (40 km), Humbert’s forces (about 800 French and 1,500 Irish) reached the town of Castlebar. 

It was around 8 AM in the morning, local time, on the 27th of August, 1798. 

Humbert’s plan was to rout the British garrison at Castlebar by a surprise attack.  However ... about an hour before the combined forces reached Castlebar, a local farmer warned the British about an advancing army. 

Northeast of Castlebar there is a hill called Sion.  British soldiers formed three lines on that hill, then waited for Humbert and his men to arrive.

As the combined rebel force moved forward, toward the lined-up Redcoats on Sion Hill, they had to fall back.  British artillery fire was just too effective against them.

Regrouping, the undaunted French-and-Irish forces tried another approach.  As they approached the British lines, in a general advance, they had help from a very unexpected place:  British morale began to waver, then crack.

By the time the French and Irish reached the first-line of British soldiers, the attackers were able to overrun the defenders.  Not only that ... they were also able to turn British guns against British soldiers.   

Further weakening the Redcoats’ resolve, Humbert and his men continued the attack. 

As the British lines broke, some stalwarts remained in the fight.  Fraser’s Fencibles (a group of Scots) and Lord Roden’s Fencible Dragoons took the battle to the town of Castlebar.  Most of the disheartened soldiers, however, abandoned their guns, their flag standards, their ammo and everything else - including the field of battle.

Then ... they turned round ... and ran away. 

Leaving Castlebar behind them, the British soldiers ran down the road to Tuam. 

That town - about 34 miles (54 km) from the field of battle - was not far-enough for some of the fleeing troops.  Those still-running soldiers continued their flight to Athlone, an additional 42 miles (54 km) away.

Worse than a mere defeat, such conduct by British soldiers was an embarrassment to the British Army.  Soon after, and to this day, the Irish people refer to this historic episode as “The Castlebar Races.”

In this image, we see Fraser’s Fencibles fighting in the town of Castlebar.  Despite their efforts, the battle at Castlebar was a victory for the French-and-Irish forces.

Humbert hoped to continue such triumphs as he made his way across Ireland.  He wanted to hearten the Irish people so more and more Irishmen would join with the French to free Ireland from British rule.

If he’d had more men ... and more guns ... and more ammo ... and more time ... perhaps Humbert, the young French General, could have actualized the potential of ultimate victory. 

Without them, however, he could not achieve ongoing success.

Before the end of September, 1798, Humbert and his combined forces could no longer fight.  Vastly outnumbered, he was forced to surrender.  He sent this message to his superiors at the French Directory:

After having obtained the greatest successes and made the arms of the French Republic triumph during my stay in Ireland, I have at length been obliged to submit to a superior force of 30,000 troops.

How the British dealt with those who surrendered depended on one’s nationality:

  • Frenchmen were soon sent back to France. 
  • Humbert later moved to America (in 1812) and died, in New Orleans, in 1823 (at the age of 55). 
  • Many of the Irish rebels, who survived the brief campaign of 1798, were killed.

Historians view this episode differently, also depending on one’s nationality. 

A military correspondent, for the London Times, tried to look at Humbert’s campaign objectively.  His summary includes these words:

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 Lieutenant to send an urgent requisition to London for “as great a reinforcement as possible.”

France would make one more effort to help Ireland before her military turned their full attention to the Napoleonic Wars.  That effort ended badly, particularly for the Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone.

Click on the image for a better view.


Media Credits

Image of a Fraser Fencible fighting against the French in the Irish town of Castlebar - on August 27, 1798 - by George Cruikshank (1792-1878).  The engraving is included in William Maxwell’s History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798

 

This picture - entitled "Heroic Conduct of the Highland Sentinel" - illustrates the following passage from Maxwell's text:

 

The French approached the new gaol [jail] to break it open.  It was guarded by a highland Fraser sentinel, whom his friends had desired to retreat with them; but he heroically refused to quit his post, which was elevated, with some steps leading to it.  He charged and fired five times successively, and killed a Frenchman at every shot, but before he could charge the sixth time, they rushed on him, beat out his brains, and threw him down the steps, with the sentry-box on his body.  (See Maxwell at page 236.)

The drawing appears next to page 236 in the fourth edition (published in 1854).

PD

 

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