General Humbert’s account of his expedition to Ireland

Humbert in Ireland

This is from the Eyre Coote Papers, Rapport de l’expedition d’Irlande aux ordres de Général Humbert. Archived as the Private report of General Humbert. 17 pp.  6912/14/90. The original is in the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. My thanks to them for supplying me with the original text in French. This translation is my own.

Upon my arrival at Rochefort where I was to take charge of this expedition I had expected to find that good troops had been assigned to me. My surprise was great when I found a battalion that had never seen battle and a body of officers about whom I felt entitled to be dissatisfied. I sent my observations to the Ministry of the Navy before my departure from La Rochelle. This battalion, a company of artillery and 45 chasseurs from the 3rd Regiment, consisted of some 800 effectives, officers included. This, then, was the force that I was to take and engineer a revolution in Ireland. Nevertheless, devoted as I was to my country, I embarked with these troops on 5 August 1798 onto the Concorde, Medee and Franchise frigates and set sail on the 6th.

After a crossing of 17 days the three frigates anchored in the bay of Killala at three o’clock on the afternoon of 22 August. The grenadiers were immediately disembarked close by the village of Kilcumming. Adjutant-General Sarrazin position himself on some heights to protect the landing which was carried out without mishap. At five o’clock Adjutant-General Sarrazin set off for Killala and stormed it with the bayonet. Of the 200 men defending Killala some 20 were able to escape through a bog while the rest were seized or killed.

On 23 August I sent General Sarrazin to reconnoitre before Balleyna and he pushed the enemy back to the gates of this town. On 24 August I marched on Balleyna and General Sarrazin advanced against the town down the Killala road whilst Adjutant-General Fontaine turned the enemy left. These two attacks were most successful. The enemy retreated in disorder. They had many killed and wounded and we took many prisoners including  five officers. I withdrew from Balleyna three hours later in order to drive the enemy from a camp close to Killala. On 25 August I advanced in the direction of Castlebar but, on the way, I learned that a large enemy force was marching on Killala in order to seize our stores. I advanced on Balleyna and arrived there on the 26th at four in the morning. That same day, at three in the afternoon, I set off  for Castlebar where General Laike [sic] was positioned with 5,000 men.

On 27 August, at six o’clock in the morning, General Sarrazin drove the enemy’s vanguard back in disorder and, at seven,  I ordered General Sarrazin to begin the attack on Castlebar itself. This officer sent 300 men under Chef de bataillon Hardouin to attack the enemy left but placed himself at the head of the grenadiers and, after a bloody battle, managed to drive back the enemy’s right. This first success decided the victory and is due to the bravery of our grenadiers and the brilliance with which General Sarrazin directed them.

The enemy fell back into Castlebar and kept up an intense fire of artillery and musketry. They managed to rally in the main street and they were advancing against our infantry when I ordered General Sarrazin to charge them at once with the chasseurs of the 3rd Regiment who inflicted considerable slaughter and forced the enemy to retreat in the greatest disorder, abandoning his entire artillery. General Sarrazin took one of the enemy cavalry’s  standards from a body of 600 horsemen. General Fontaine, placed in the rear at the head of the reserves, covered General Sarrazin’s advance and made a great contribution to the defeat of the enemy. 150 dead, lots wounded, a large number of prisoners, 10 pieces of artillery, four flags, 1,200 muskets, caissons, baggage wagons and a considerable quantity of supplies, this was the fruit of the battle of Castlebar. Many of the Irish prisoners, particularly from the Longford and Kilkenny regiments, asked permission to serve with us against the English.

I spent the 28, 29, 30, 31 August, and 1, 2 and 3 September, in Castlebar for I had determined to remain in this town for the following reasons:

1) To draw all of the English forces in the counties of Leinster and Munster over to the right bank of the Shannon in order to encourage the inhabitants of those provinces to rebel whilst the enemy troops were absent and also so that I would encounter no significant obstacles as I carried out the plan I wished to adopt. This was rather successful even if not to the extent I would have wished on account of the reasons I will detail forthwith.

2) It was essential to gather and protect at Castlebar all the arms and munitions that I had left at Killala as this had only partially been done on account of the dearth of vehicles and other means of transport as this was a savage land and almost without resources.

3) I expect that reinforcements from France would arrive at any moment and Castlebar would serve as the ideal point at which to concentrate. I was master of the county of Mayo and quite a considerable stretch of coastline.

4) I counted on being joined by a considerable number of the United Irish; however the enthusiasm of these men did not correspond to my expectations. Instead of having leaders in charge of their organisation who were enlightened patriots aspiring towards political liberty and independence, I only found men in Mayo who were fanatics motivated by the most pronounced hatred of Protestants and hoping to profit from our coming through pillaging and excess in the pursuit of personal vendettas. In addition, those that joined us during the day would often desert during the night, taking their weapons with them, so that with the 4,000 muskets we brought with us  we were only able to equip 200 men with that weapon of the 600 we had formed by the time we left Castlebar. The inhabitants of the other parts of Ireland were, compared to these men of Mayo, infinitely superior in terms of energy and courage but the enemy had vastly superior forces, especially in terms of cavalry, which occupied all the key points and had cut communications between us and them.

On 4 September, knowing that Lord Cornwallis was on the march with his corps of 30,000 men, I left Castlebar accompanied by 800 Frenchmen and 600 Irishmen. I drove the enemy from Swinford, Ballalry [Ballahadreen], Tobercury, etc. On 5 September at Coloony, where I had halted the men between noon and four that afternoon, my vanguard was attacked by an enemy body of 1,600 men from the garrison at Sligo. Our main body stopped the enemy attack and, for two hours, there was the most intense musketry and artillery fire from both sides. I ordered General Sarrazin to seize the English position on some commanding heights, charging the with the bayonet. They were driven back and we were able to open fire on their rear, causing them to flee and make for Sligo.

The enemy himself admitted to 130 dead and we took 200 prisoners, including nine officers, two pieces of artillery, and some 400 or 500 muskets. No sooner had those troops sent off in pursuit of the fugitives returned I ordered that we march for Dublin knowing that that city had been stripped of troops and that General Cornwallis was too far from it to be able to interfere with my plans.

On 6 September I took up positions at Drumkern [Drumkeeran] by Lake Allen. On the 7 September I quit Drumkern and at three that morning I successfully crossed the Shannon via the bridge at Ballintra which I then destroyed in order to stop the enemy. That same day I reached Cloone where I was forced to halt as the troops were exhausted. On 8 September I quit Cloone hoping to reach Athboy that same day and, after that, Dublin. I was prevented from doing so by the ill-will shown by some officers and many of the soldiers who, for he last three days, had been demanding that we undertake to capitulate. The delay caused by this gave the enemy vanguard sufficient time to catch up with us a league from Granard. At the approach of some 100 cavalry our rearguard, 300 strong, threw down their weapons without having fired a shot. Seeing that this act of cowardice had deprived me of most of my troops I made what dispositions I could to resist the enemy who were advancing against us from all sides. Their attack was begun by 2,000 or 3,000 of their cavalry each carrying a light infantry man mounted behind. The firing was fierce and kept up for three hours. Our artillery beat the enemy cavalry back three times but our soldiers were disconcerted by the sight of massed columns which began to deploy close to our position. It was on 8 September that I was taken prisoner along with what remained of our men. Of the 900 Irish present during the battle some 300 were killed whilst the rest escaped into the country whilst we were fighting.

This is the exact truth and anything which contradicts this report in the English newspapers for example, is wrong as can be proved by reliable eyewitnesses. I marched against Dublin because had I remained in Castlebar just 12 hours longer than the enemy, formed into three columns totalling 30,000 men, would have captured me and, knowing that he had no troops whatsoever at Dublin, and that the city was only defended by some yeomanry (civic militia) which would have been unable to offer us much resistance. I also knew that, on the way, as well as in Dublin itself, I would find many supporters and would be able to free all those Irish leaders who had been imprisoned in the castle. It was not the tactics of General Cornwallis, nor was it his vast army, that prevented the success of the expedition to Ireland for this can be attributed to the lack of organisation amongst the United Irish, to insubordination among some of the French troops. I must also observe that I have good reason to believe that this ill-will on the part of our soldiers is due, in large part, to the clandestine intrigues of our enemies.

In addition, of the 3,000 muskets distributed since our landing, I had fewer than 200 present at the battle on 8 September for the peasants we had armed did not remain with us. After holding out for 21 days in Ireland, after having won four complete victories over the English troops, after having marched 60 French leagues through counties that we had been told were ripe for insurrection, I would have expected that between 15,000 and 20,000 Irishmen would have joined us. When the numbers expected did not materialise,  they explained this apathy away by telling us that they were obliged to remain at home in order to defend their wives and children from the Orangemen. These are fanatic Protestants who are incited and even armed by the government so that they can persecute Catholics. Of those Irishmen who did join me, the majority only did so until they found an opportunity to pillage and subsequently to desert to carry off their booty.

Despite the unhappy outcome of this expedition, the reputation of the troops of the republic was augmented by it and the opportunity used to inflict serious losses on the enemy. Given the impossibility of hiding our numbers in this bare and barren land, Europe will have seen how few we were and where we went; just a battalion of our worst troops were able to maintain themselves for 21 days in Ireland and enjoyed four signal successes over vastly superior forces, taking 800 prisoners, 46 officers and 13 pieces of artillery; throwing three kingdoms into panic and forcing the government to send reinforcements to Ireland numbering 16,000 men, and of these 3,000 had already embarked and were waiting to be sent to India; the Lord Lieutenant was obliged to take to the field in person having gathered all the troops in the kingdom to act against us; and all this cost the British government vast sums of money.

I cannot sufficiently praise General Sarrazin and he was of great use to me. General Fontaine is a really good officer and he served efficiently throughout my operations. The brigade commanders (chefs de brigade) Hardouin and Azemard distinguished themselves by their zeal and their soldierly qualities. All my staff officers served me perfectly, and so did those in command of the troops. I increased the number of officers and made a number of promotions in order to stimulate zeal; however, some of these men proved unworthy of the rank I had given them. I have drawn up a list of those that discouraged the soldiers. I trust that the Executive Directory will not permit these false republicans to sully the French uniform and that a severe example will be made of them to ensure such infamous behaviour will not be repeated.

I am sorry to have to announce the death of chef de bataillon Guignon, my chief of staff, who was killed leading the grenadiers into battle at Castlebar. In him, the republic has been deprived of a fervent friend of liberty and the army has lost an officer of considerable merit. I have rewarded many of my most worthy comrades, and although I myself merely carried out the instructions given to me by the Ministry of the Navy, I would be more than happy should the Directory approve the nominations I have made an act which will only serve to augment the number of fine officers available.

Private report of General Humbert