General Humbert's invasion

On the bright morning of Wednesday 22 August 1798 three ships, flying British colours, sailed into Kilcummin Bay and anchored a pistol-shot from the Irish shore. A local amateur scientist, James Little, hearing news of strange ships, scrambled up Lackan Hill, overlooking the bay, and gazed at the nearest of the vessels through his telescope: ‘I could perceive the English flag flying and I counted about twenty port holes on that side and that she was so deeply laden that they were scarcely above water, though the sea was very calm.’ (1)

The arrival of the unexpected armada also caused a sensation in the nearby town of Killala and James Routledge, accompanied by Arthur and Edwin Stock – sons of the local Anglican bishop – rowed out to greet the men-of-war. Approaching the ships the young men called out, inviting the officers to come ashore for refreshment. To their consternation a French officer, speaking perfect English and aiming a carbine at Edwin Stock, forced their surrender and the men were carried aboard the largest of the three ships.

Soon the ships lowered British colours and ran up the French flag. French naval officers, wary of being caught in the bay by British warships, urged soldiers into ships’ boats and within an hour 200 French infantrymen had set foot on the sandy strand. More followed. The French invasion of Ireland had begun.

The invasion was set to a backdrop of violence and disorder spawned from France’s divisive revolution and Europe’s reaction to it. The continent had been wracked by war for almost a decade and, in 1798, no end to the plague seemed in sight. In February the French had deposed the Pope; in April Switzerland had been overrun; in May the French, under General Bonaparte, had sailed for Egypt to carry war to Africa and, perhaps, Asia too. Every corner of Europe was rife with unrest, violence or the threat of violence. Unhappy Ireland was no exception. Republicanism and British repression had fostered a desire for independence which, in the temperate month of May, flared up into open revolt. The rebels enjoyed a month of success before British forces asserted themselves, smashing a rebel army at Vinegar Hill on 21 June and then embarking on a prolonged punitive campaign to batter the Irish into submission.
The French Republic, keen to harass its English enemy and export revolution, was prodded into helping the rebels by a group of desperate Irish émigrés. General Kilmaine, commander of the newly created Army of England, was ordered to prepare an expedition to sail in support of the rebels.  The French had tried to get troops ashore at Bantry Bay in 1796 but had been frustrated by poor weather and French naval timidity. Kilmaine’s progress was tardy. Administrative bungling was compounded by an almost complete lack of the money so essential to the success of such an enterprise. Even as the Irish rebels were defeated the French government was still procrastinating. France, indeed, demanded much from her armed forces that year – the bulk of the troops gathered at Brest, for example, were ordered eastwards towards the Rhine in July. Plans for Ireland were hastily revised. Two expeditions, on a much reduced scale, were prepared for immediate despatch. One, under General Hardy, consisted of the troops remaining at Brest. The other, much smaller force, commanded by General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, concentrated at Rochefort. On 19 July Humbert received his orders from the government which wished ‘to assist the United Irishmen who had taken up arms to throw off the yoke of English domination’ and was therefore despatching his small division as a preparatory force to be followed, when circumstances allowed, by Hardy’s much larger force.

Captain Savary was given the task of organising the ships necessary for Humbert’s transport and, on 12 July, took command of three frigates – the Concorde, Medée and Surveillante. Stores and munitions were loaded aboard – 3,000 muskets, three cannon and their limbers, 400 swords, 200,000 cartridges and 1,000 French uniforms – and at 07.00 on 5 August Humbert’s troops began to embark.(2) The bulk of the force was composed of thirty-eight officers and 794 men of the 70th Line. These were supported by fifty-three grenadiers from the 108th and 109th Line, forty-six chasseurs from the 3rd Chasseurs à cheval, eleven Hussars from the 12th Hussars, forty-two artillerymen, commanded by Captain Bourrousse, and thirty-five officers. Most of the men were veterans – some had been through Napoleon’s first Italian campaign whilst others had spent a hard winter besieging Metz – but the expedition was so small that a trouble-free embarkation was completed in just five hours. By noon the ships were ready to sail but a delay was caused by the Directory’s failure to get the pay chest, so essential for the expedition’s success, to the harbour in time. To Humbert’s great relief it came on the 6th and France’s strangest armada set sail at 09.00 that same day. Its destination was the sleepy north-west of Ireland, territories spared the full agonies of rebellion – its purpose revolution.

As the French struggled through the surf and set foot on Irish soil, Irish officers amongst the French were euphoric. The French, glad that their landing was unopposed, didn’t know quite what to expect. Nor, in truth, did their general. Humbert had began his professional career as a goat-skin merchant in Alsace but, upon the outbreak of revolution, had excelled in France’s violent quest for liberty. He was a young man of much experience, having served under Hoche, and knew how to wage war with limited means. Which was essential for here, in Ireland, his means were so limited. His expedition was dependent on prompt support – either from United Irishmen or from General Hardy – otherwise his men would be overwhelmed by British forces so recently augmented.  Safe ashore, he made his first move and  resolved on making Killala his headquarters.

News of the French landing was greeted with curiosity rather than elation. Killala, on the whole, seemed sympathetic to the French but it was garrisoned by a small force of loyalist militia – volunteers of good standing in the community or men raised from the tenants of local landowners – and these nervously prepared to meet the invaders. Humbert sent his most trustworthy troops ahead to ensure victory and the three companies of grenadiers (the 70th had been divided into two battalions during the voyage over), commanded by Sarrazin, set off to cover the five miles between Kilcummin and Killala. James Little caught sight of this vanguard:

‘We could see from my house a column of soldiers which the telescope showed to be armed with muskets, and dressed in blue and green uniforms, marching down from the headland of Kilcummin to the strand of Lackan, from whence the road proceeds to Killala.’ (3)

The French pushed into the latter town scattering fifty militia under Captain Kirkwood and Lieutenant Sills. Two of the militia, Henry Rogers and Henry Smith, were killed, the rest promptly scattering into sidestreets although Sills managed to rally a small number at the town’s castle. These soon surrendered and, the following day, two officers and thirteen soldiers were placed aboard the ships and sailed as prisoners for France.

The little scuffle had cost Humbert three wounded, one of whom was an officer, but it enabled him to establish a secure base. Over the next few days munitions were hauled up from the beach and placed in the castle whilst the French soldiers handed out proclamations bearing the memorable inscription: ‘Behold at last Frenchmen arrived amongst you. Union, Liberty, the Irish Republic!’. Irish volunteers soon stepped forwards and the initial recruits were armed and provisioned in the castle yard, under the disapproving gaze of Bishop Stock.

There was precious little time to drill the recruits. British forces were gathering at Castlebar and Humbert resolved upon a bold move to defeat this menace. Sarrazin had already reconnoitred as far as Ballina on the 23rd, skirmishing with some of Thomas Chapman’s yeomen and taking two prisoners. The next day the French pushed into the town, brushing aside feeble resistance but coming across a grim reminder of secterian feud – the body of Patrick Walsh, a United Irishman, hanging in the marketplace. Humbert joined Sarrazin that Sunday, leaving Chef de Brigade Charost in charge at Killala with 200 men and those Irish levies it had been impossible to equip, and marshalled his forces for the attack on Castlebar. He had at his disposal some 100 French cavalrymen – formed from the chasseurs and from having three volunteers from each infantry company mounted in support – and 700 infantrymen. In addition he could call upon the services of 500 insurgents, uniformed and equipped in the French fashion, and led by Irish officers in the French service such as Matthew Tone and Henry O’Kane. Finally nearly 1,000 other volunteers formed Humbert’s rearguard. These men, new recruits to a man, were officered by such characters as Antony O’Daly; Austin O’Malley; Captain James O’Dowd, born and raised in Austria; and, captain of them all, ‘General’ George Blake.

At 16.00 the French and their allies marched out heading for Castlebar.(4) As the light began to fade Humbert swung his troops westwards and marched them hard over a rough mountain track. At midnight the French paused at Lahardane but, guided by William Mangan, a local sympathiser, they were soon on the move again sweeping down towards Castlebar.

General George Lake, the British commander at Castlebar, had just arrived in the town with reinforcements. His deputy, General Hutchinson, a man of considerable experience, had been actively pulling in troops and the British could boast some 2,500 infantry, 1,500 cavalry and twelve guns. Although Hutchinson had been keen to advance and drive the French back into Killala he had been disuaded by the cautious viceroy, Lord Cornwallis. Instead, he deployed his men to bar French movement southwards and Hutchinson selected Sion Hill, just to the north of the town, as being the key physical feature for any possible encounter. Sunday night was spent resting the troops and in calming nerves. At 05.00 news arrived that the French were pushing through the mountains and Lake sent General Trench and 200 cavalrymen to reconnoitre. When he returned Lake quickly deployed his men to meet the advancing threat. He placed his men in three lines extending between Tucker’s Lake and Lake Rathbawn. To the fore he placed a company of the 6th Foot, the Earl of Ormond’s Killkenny Militia and the Prince of Wales Fencibles. He deployed most of his artillery along this line but concentrated a battery of three guns, manned by men of the Royal Irish Artillery and commanded by Captain Shortall, to the right of it. In support Lake placed some Fraser Fencibles and Galway yeomen. A third line consisted of four companies of the Longford Militia, commanded by Lord Granard, supported by cavalry – Lord Roden’s Foxhunters, the 6th Carabineers and some mounted yeomanry. A small artillery reserve was placed just before the town, with one gun taking up position in the town’s main square.(5) Humbert recognised his desperate situation – he had depended upon surprise but now, seeing the red ranks deployed, he now knew he would have to rely on elan. Failure would doom his enterprise.

For Captain Jobit, commanding a company of grenadiers  under Major Azémar and General Sarrazin, the fighting had begun at 06.00 as he saw General Trench’s cavalry repulsed by fifty tirailleurs. Shortly afterwards Sarrazin led 159 grenadiers forwards towards the enemy. They advanced down the main road towards Castlebar and came under fire from Shortall’s artillery which, when it switched to firing canister, caused some casualties. Guignon, chief of Humbert’s staff, was one of the first to fall, killed by a discharge of grape, which also wounded grenadier Lemarchand. (6) The grenadiers formed up behind a ditch, supported by the fire from one French gun, whilst the rest of Humbert’s force deployed. The French line companies under Ardouin took up the right of the French line whilst the Irish levies, commanded by Dufour – ‘wearing a helmet with a plume of very long horsehair which hung behind’ – and Blake, were placed in the centre. The Irish were prompted to advance, moving forwards in a ragged wave, clutching pikes or muskets, but they suffered heavily and many, including James McDonnell, were wounded. The levies, although encouraged by their officers, wavered and then fled, tearing back down the road and leaving Humbert in an unenviable position. Ardouin’s men also attempted to advance but were driven back, finally sheltering behind a stone wall and attempting to annoy the British units with sporadic musketry. At this critical juncture Humbert brought his reserve of 300 men forward and urged his troops to attack all along the front. Sarrazin was the first to respond, exhorting his men to one final effort:

‘My friends, it’s down to us. Shall we retreat? We can’t or else we’ll have water up to our ears. Shall we surrender only to die of starvation and be prey to vermin; no, we can’t consider that. So there’s only one thing to do – we have to win or die on the field of honour. Let’s attack with the bayonet shouting Vive la République!’ (7)

Captain Jobit recorded the grenadiers’ reaction to this rousing incitement:

‘The cry was taken up by the grenadiers and then by the rest of our soldiers. Our men jumped the ditch and advanced towards the enemy who were drawn up in three ranks on the heights. Our brave soldiers received a well-directed volley but did not reply. The enemy’s fire and a keen desire for victory made them almost livid with rage. Led on by their general and by their officers they charged into the enemy ranks, killing all those who resisted.’ (8)

The French overran Shortall’s guns and stormed on towards the enemy’s infantry but something remarkable then happened. The Kilkenny Militia, despite Ormond’s pleas, broke and fled, quickly followed by Lake’s second and third lines. Humbert, profiting from his unexpected fortune launched his cavalry, commanded by Lemoine, into quick pursuit, and the British army dissolved.

Most of Lake’s cavalry, which hadn’t served any useful purpose during the battle, made off towards Tuam, some thirty-eight miles away. Meanwhile the infantry, the artillery and the baggage, all intermingled, tried to struggle through Castlebar’s narrow streets.

Confusion reigned as the French, once again supported by the Irish, fought their way into the town. An eyewitness recalled that ‘a mixture of soldiers of all kinds rushed in at every avenue’. Fighting was fiercest around the bridge in the centre of Castlebar and Sarrazin was almost killed by a blow from one of Lord Roden’s Foxhunters. A handful of British officers managed to rally some of the fleeing infantry and set up one of Lake’s guns in an attempt to halt the French pursuit. James Fullam, of the Longford Militia, remembers the scene:

‘Lord Granard issued orders on the bridge that we should maintain it as long as a man of ours existed. We maintained the bridge for some time but at last being overpowered (the main body being at this time nearly two miles out of the town) we judged it expedient to retreat; but unfortunately we fell into the hands of the enemy.’ (9)

French infantry had advanced and, firing down onto the bridge from neighbouring houses, driven the loyalists back. Humbert’s cavalry then came up in support and, led by General Fontaine, the 3rd Chasseurs scattered the British infantry, sabred the gunners and swept over the bridge. Humbert’s infantry, ‘overcome with fatigue’, could not continue the pursuit for long, but the French cavalry hounded the fugitives southwards. By noon, when Humbert rode into the town, the victory was complete.
The British had suffered 450 casualties and the French had taken 574 prisoners, including 131 officers. Humbert’s men had suffered 186 killed and wounded, of which seventy were grenadiers, and an unknown number of Irish casualties. They captured nine guns, a vast quantity of muskets and munitions, and several days’ supplies of food. Most of all, however, their signal victory sent shockwaves throughout Ireland. The former goat-skin merchant had won a remarkable victory. (10)

The French rested in Castlebar a week. A hospital was improvised where Humbert’s surgeon, Baudry, supported by a Dr Prendergast, tended to the 120 wounded. A tree of liberty went up in the town’s square, prisoners, sympathetic to the French cause, were released from jail and an administration was established. John Moore was declared President of the Republic of Connacht and a local committee, working in concert with the French commandant Ruthié, sought to impose order; indeed two looters were shot following the battle. The victory also led to a spate of promotions for Humbert’s miniature army. Sarrazin and Fontaine became generals of division, Ardouin, a mulatto, was nominated chef du bataillon, and Azémar and Dufour became chefs de brigade.

There was an adequate supply of food, although, as one French officer wrote ‘we lacked bread and were only issued potatoes, beef and mutton’. Recruits continued to flood in and some of the men captured during the French pursuit ‘turned coat’ and joined the French. Among them were fifty-three of the Longford militia and eighty from the Kilkenny militia. An English informer observed some ‘five or six thousand country people’ join the French. He reported to Dublin that:

‘The mode in which they joined was this: a captain marched into the town with about fifty men, a fife playing and with green cockades or branches. Two lieutenants were then appointed, recommended by the captains, and also a sergeant and two corporals. They were then ordered to Killala where they got clothes and arms. All the clothes given to the country people were blue faced with white, and not green as has been said. Some of the French soldiers wore green. Caps or helmets were given to the people. Themselves [the French] wore mostly hats and some bonnets and leather caps. The firearms were remarkably good with brass pans. But no care was taken of them by the French, and they were rusty.’ (11)

Humbert outlined his success to the Directory, sending a despatch to France three days after the battle. His ADC, Banou, disguised as a sailor, sailed out of Newport and brought news of victory to Paris. Humbert informed his political superiors that the French were in control of Killala, Ballina, Foxford, Castlebar, Newport, Ballinarobe and Westport. The general, balancing the need to remain at Castlebar and train his rebel allies with the need to keep moving and avoid encirclement, now aimed to link up with rebels in the midlands, elude the British forces and even march on Dublin. He asked for nothing more than 2,000 additional French infantry but probably knew that Hardy’s expedition would not arrive in time.

For Humbert’s men the week spent in Castlebar was a week wasted and one of the leading criticisms used against the general by those who found it hard to respect their blunt commander. Jobit summed up the mood of the expeditionary force in a snatched conversation with Azémar:

‘We’re in a bad way. The help we were expecting from Brest hasn’t arrived; we’re pursued by a sizeable army; the Irish rebels we were supposed to find here don’t exist; those who have allied themselves with us do nothing but pillage and flee, we can’t count on them; we’ve marched for thirty hours without rest or food. It’s hardly very consoling.’ (12)

Despite the spread of insurrection the military situation was indeed becoming more and more critical. Cornwallis, who had had mixed experience of dealing with rebellion, was advancing cautiously westwards from Athlone. On the 2nd he linked up with General Lake’s crestfallen force at Tuam and on the 4th began pushing his 15,000 men northwards towards Castlebar. Smaller forces were concentrating at Sligo and Boyle to prevent a French move eastwards.

That same day the French marched out of Castlebar in the pouring rain leaving the  wounded, two officers and five chasseurs, and some Irish volunteers, and pushed down the Sligo road. Humbert hoped to slip through the British forces, cross over the Shannon and join up with the rebels at Longford and Westmeath. Although troubled by skirmishes with enemy cavalry the French were heartened by the arrival of 800 rebels from Ballina under Captain O’Dowd on the 5th. That afternoon, however, the Franco-Irish troops received news that a force was pushing out from Sligo to challenge their further progress. Colonel Verecker  with 600 militiamen and two guns was hoping to delay Humbert’s men long enough for General Lake to come up, and had ‘taken up a singularly bad position’ half a mile from the village of Collooney.
In response Humbert formed two columns. The first was directed to march round the enemy’s line and take him in the rear whilst the second advanced slowly and absorbed much of the enemy’s attention. The battle was soon decided by the progress of the first column and Verecker,  seeing that his retreat was about to be cut off, ordered his troops back to Sligo. Seeing hundreds of ‘croppies’ charging down towards them, however, was too much for the inexperienced militia and they broke and ran.
The French pursued but reined in before reaching Sligo. Humbert’s men took 100 prisoners, including seven officers, and some of these were roughly handled by an infuriated band of Irish pikemen. Jobit was involved in one incident:

‘During the pursuit I captured a captain from the Limerick City Militia, he presented his sword to me but as we were making our way to headquarters some rebels insulted him and threatened to kill him. I dispersed them with blows from my sabre and we continued on our way.’ (13)

The prisoners were, however, released the next day as their captors had no means to guard or feed their charges. The French also captured the two guns but, as the ammunition did not fall into their hands, and the guns were therefore useless, the cannon were soon abandonned along with all those taken at Castlebar. Humbert, despite his easy victory, was convinced that Verecker’s troops were the vanguard of a much more imposing force and, after a rest of three hours, swung northwards and, like a true partisan leader, aimed to go to ground in the mountains of Mayo.
On the 6th he reached Manor Hamilton and then shifted the direction of his march towards the south east. Far from going to ground, Humbert, having heard that the midland rebels had taken to the field and were marching on Granard, was evidently hoping to effect a junction with these United Irishmen and, perhaps, even attempt a swift strike at Dublin. Later that day Humbert’s troops, now dogged by an advance party of light cavalry commanded by Colonel Craufurd, marched into Drumkeern. Craufurd sent an emissary into the French camp to suggest capitulation; Humbert rejected the offer outright and, on the 7th, his men poured over the bridge at Ballintra. An attempt to blow the bridge and delay Craufurd’s troops,  consisting of a party of Hompesch’s Chasseurs – Swiss mercenaries in British pay – and Lord Roden’s light cavalry, failed and Humbert, hardly pausing for breath, pushed on towards Granard where, he had heard, the rebels had won a signal success.
The rebels had, in fact, been beaten back from Granard and been scattered by a determined force of militia. Many had gone home, whilst others had hurried to link up with the approaching French. Humbert himself began to receive reports that the midlands rising had gone awry when he entered  Cloone at 18.00 on the 7th.(14) The situation was decidely bleak. Humbert’s rearguard was being harrassed by Craufurd’s cavalry who, constantly skirmishing with the French, forced them to deploy and so delayed their march. The British troops, ably marshalled by Cornwallis, were closing in from all sides: Verecker, reinforced by some Scottish fencibles, was pushing down from Sligo; Lake was in Collooney whilst his vanguard, under Craufurd, trailed the French; Cornwallis reached Carrick on the 7th. But it would be down to Lake, so humbled at Castlebar, to deliver the final coup de grace and put an end to rebellion and insurrection.

Humbert marched out of Cloone at 05.00 on the 8th, his men forming a straggling, weary column, and General Lake marched in two hours later. The first action of note occurred when Craufurd, getting ahead of the rest of the vanguard with twenty-four Chasseurs and twelve of Roden’s men, was able to separate 200 French infantry belonging to the 2nd battalion from the main body of Humbert’s force. These had been sent back to  prevent an ammunition wagon from falling into British hands but when Craufurd’s cavalry plunged into the first French rank, the French promptly surrendered – to the dismay of their comrades further up the road. Jobit’s grenadiers were openly complaining that ‘The 2nd battalion has surrendered. We should too’. It was not an auspicious opening to an engagement. (15)

As the French infantry were marched off to captivity, a party of the British cavalry galloped over to the French main body, urging them to follow the example of their comrades and lay down their arms. Captain Jobit recalled the scene:

‘We marched onto the plain, expecting to be followed by these troops, but were astonished to see only a group of English cavalrymen approaching (General Craddock and Lord Roden). They spoke excellent French and called out “Don’t fire, friends, all has been settled!” We didn’t know what had happened but at first thought that the cavalrymen wanted to desert and join us. Just then, however, our commander in chief arrived and turning to us cried out “Grenadiers! Charge with the bayonet!” we took the cavalrymen prisoner and then our grenadiers and soldiers formed up in column and, flanked by skirmishers, advanced towards the enemy.’ (16)

Humbert quickly positioned the bulk of his French infantry – some 500 men – on the Shanmullagh hill overlooking Ballinamuck village, along with a detachment of Irish pikemen under  McDonnell. A small detachment of French infantry under Ardouin and a body of Irish rebels under Blake straddled the main road. These were supported by two guns. Lake sent some light infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Innis, the Armagh militia and some horsemen against these troops and battle was quickly joined. Jobit was with the French detachment by the road:

‘Our guns, placed in battery, opened up on a body of enemy horsemen whilst our column had to move away from the main road to avoid our artillery fire and that of our skirmishers. We moved to the right and sought to turn the enemy’s flank. Not knowing the terrain, we found ourselves in a bog, up to our waists, and had to feel our way back to the main road. We managed to do this and finally found ourselves confronted by the enemy. We shot at each other from behind some stone walls but the British were steadily bringing up more and more men. Soon they had two or three regiments deployed. They attacked us from all sides, we could no longer resist and had to lay down our arms.’ (17)

Blake’s men and the two guns fell back, taking up a new position near Gaig. Attention now switched to events on the hill, where Humbert’s main body found itself assailed from all sides. An initial assault by cavalry was repelled, the Irish volunteers showing uncommon bravery in their defence of the hill. General Fontaine noted that:

‘Colonel McDonnell gave us proof in this engagement of the most intrepid valour and showed himself a superb tactician. At the head of a band of United Irishmen they, with their pikes, repulsed the English cavalry who three times charged and three times retired with loss.’ (18)

Soon, however, Fontaine himself, on the left of the French infantry, was overwhelmed by British cavalry and carried off, prisoner. The French were quickly surrounded, Humbert was disarmed, and, after a brief flurry of hand-to-hand fighting, the French capitulated, surrendering themselves to an honourable captivity. For the Irish rebels there would be no such thing. A gun, manned by turncoat gunners who had gone over to the rebels’ cause, continued to fire whilst McDonnell’s pikemen, according to Fontaine, made ‘a stubborn and desperate resistance’. The British brought guns up in support and a couple of discharges of grape caused sufficient openings in the Irish ranks for the cavalry to swarm in and put a bloody end to the gallant stand. Nearly 500 of the rebels fell in the one-sided contest, their bodies, many of them in French uniform, littered the slopes of the hill as the noise of battle receded. (19)

That afternoon English officers moved among the French, taking careful note of the officers’ names and ranks. Humbert’s commanders were allowed to keep their horses, and personal weapons, and their Irish servants were set free as being ‘compelled to follow the French’. In all ninety-six officers and 748 men surrendered although, subsequently, another ten officers and fifty-four men were captured at Castlebar, Ballina and Killala. (20) The prisoners were marched  to Tullamore then embarked  on barges and sent on to Dublin. The senior officers were briefly lodged at the Mail-Coach Hotel on Dawson Street before being sent, with their men, across the Irish Sea  to Liverpool. Here the men remained in a prison camp whilst the officers were placed on parole at Lichfield on a shilling four pence a day. The officers were soon returned to France, the men were only released after the signing of the Peace of Amiens.

For the French at least, it had been a brief but glorious episode. For the Irish rebels, and, inevitably the Irish population caught up in the foment of war, it had been a disaster. Many of the rebels were killed that day, on the slopes of the Shanamullagh, but some of the Irish took to flight. Pursued and harried for mile after mile, few escaped. Matthew Tone was one who attempted to flee but he was caught and dragged back to the battlefield. He was later tried in Dublin and, along with Bartholomew Teeling, was publicly executed on Arbour Hill. General Blake was another, attempting to take refuge in a bog he was discovered, hauled before a court-martial and hanged close by Ballinamuck. Others surrendered on the field of honour, hoping, perhaps for mercy. James O’Dowd, Joseph O’Malley, other officers of the rebels and nine turncoats from the Longford militia found themselves dragged before drumhead court-martials and quickly despatched. Their men were carted off to Longford where ‘they are hanging the rebels by twenties’. For days after the battle the persecution continued. Shots rang out for miles around ‘croppies’ were hunted down and shot by a now exultant yeomanry whilst trees bore grim testament to the fact that retribution follows swiftly on the heels of failed rebellion. The rebellion, indeed, was over.

Well, not quite. The faint pulse of resistance still sounded in Killala which,  since the first week of the invasion, had witnessed the gathering and arming of Irish volunteers, overseen by a handful of French officers – Charost, Ponson and Boudet. By the time of Ballinamuck some 1,500 rebels had been organised into a local defence force, their ranks soon swelled by fugitives, and these prepared themselves for a struggle which was truly for liberty or death. (21)

His Majesty’s troops were slow in coming. Their march was methodical and punctuated by rigorous attempts to eliminate resistance. But the approach of superior enemy forces did not lessen the resolve of the rebels in Killala; indeed, their actions were to be characterised by an excess of bravery. When news of Ballinamuck was first received in the town, Patrick Barratt and Henry O’Kane mobilised 600 pikemen and, on the cold, damp night of 11 September, marched on Castlebar to attack ‘English’ forces there under Captain Urquhart. As had been the case at Granard, the Irish, brave in the field, were unsuccessful in their attempts to storm a garrisoned town. Some of the rebels fled but the rest, disheartened, fell back to Killala.

The loyalist militias, commanded by General Trench, were concentrating at Castlebar and, overcoming slight rebel resistance, burst into Ballina on the 23rd. Then, dividing into two, they struck out towards Killala. From the church tower, rebel officers – including Bellew, Burke, O’Dowd and O’Donnell – could see the advance of Trench’s soldiers, their progress marked by smoke from torched farmsteads and cottages.
Trench had 3,000 men and five guns. On Sunday 23 September, a month after the French landing, he sent the Kerry Militia under Crosbie to attack the town from Crosmalina, and cut off any rebel retreat, whilst with the Fraser Fencibles, the Queen’s County Militia, the Downshire Regiment and the Roxborough horse, he struck at a body of rebel pikemen formed up on slight hill on the Ballina road. The rebels were scattered and fell back, taking up a fresh position behind some stone walls. After ‘twenty minutes resistance’ the rebels retreated into the town itself and Trench launched his cavalry in pursuit through the narrow streets. The infantry – both the Kerry Militia and those under Trench – followed, and the massacre began. The rebels scattered but were hunted down. Ferdinand O’Donnell attempted to flee across the fields but, encumbered by a long French greatcoat, became an easy target for a Fraser Fencible. Of all the officers only Patrick Barrett got away, the rest fell in the fighting or were captured in a town which ‘exhibited almost all the traces of a place taken by storm’. That night the firing continued and ‘nor was it until the close of the next day that our ears were relieved from the horrid sound of muskets discharged every minute at flying and powerless rebels’.

Charost, himself almost shot by a Fraser Fencible, surrendered at the castle and the French officers, like their comrades before them, were marched into captivity. For the rebels, again, it was a different story. Whilst Bishop Stock entertained General Trench to dinner the trial of the rebels began at Mr Morrison’s house. Bellew and Richard Bourke were the first to be sentenced and were hanged on a bright Tuesday morning in a park by the castle. Of the 500 volunteers captured some 100 were executed and the rest either banished or forcibly enlisted into the British Army. Some, indeed, were sold to the king of Prussia for use in his armed forces or for work in the mines of Silesia.

Across north-west Ireland the aftermath of rebellion was characterised by subjugation. In Castlebar, Claremorris and Ballina trials and consequent executions continued into November. Such ‘notorious rebels’ as Francis French, Dr Thomas O’Brien, Father James Conroy, Captain Richard Jordan, Manus Sweeney and James O’Malley kept the hangman busy that autumn. Some of the rebels went into hiding, becoming outlaws amongst the bogs and hills of remote Ireland. Others slipped away into exile. James McDonnell, commander of the Irish pikes at Ballinamuck, made it to America; some, such as John Gibbons, Austin O’Malley and Patrick Powell, made it to France and enlisted in the French Army’s Irish Legion – hoping, perhaps, one day to strike another blow for the liberty of Ireland. (22)

That liberty, however, would not come soon. Humbert’s adventure had achieved more than should have been possible but the Directory had been unable to get help to Humbert in time. Attempts were made but Hardy’s expedition, Humbert’s main hope, could not pass a strengthened British blockade until a month after the Killala rebels had been put to the sword. Even then the fleet was intercepted and scattered and Wolfe Tone, the darling of Irish revolution, was captured aboard the French flagship. (23)

Ultimately, Humbert’s arrival had done nothing more than revive hopes that could not be fulfilled. The invasion of 1798 sustained the Irish cause with sufficient martyrs for a century to come – thousands of Irishmen paid the ultimate price for those hopes and for France’s failure to support their rebellion in time. For the French it had been a gallant adventure, and one in which they almost bested their British foe, but, for all that it was an opportunity that went unexploited and a victory too long aborted. (24)

(1) Little’s quote can be found in Analecta Hibernia, No. 11, edited by Nuala Costello, pp. 73–74 (Dublin, 1941).

(2) The strength returns come from E. Desbrière’s Projets et tentatives de débarquement aux iles Britanniques, Volume II, p. 83 (Paris, 1901). In addition to the troops there were six servants and two ‘disguised women’.

(3) Analecta Hibernia, p. 74.

(4) From the account of Captain Jobit, commanding a company of the expedition’s grenadiers, also to be found in Analecta Hibernia, p. 19.

(5) The strength and composition of the British forces is mainly based on Desbrière (pp. 97–98) and the Impartial Relation of the Military Operations which Took Place in Ireland (London, 1799). There is, naturally some discrepancy between British sources – playing down the number of British troops actually present – and French sources.

(6) So says Jobit, who escaped injury, Analecta Hibernia, p. 53.

(7) The account of the battle is mainly drawn from Jobit. Sarrazin’s own account can not be trusted. Sarrazin’s speech can be found on p. 21 of Analecta Hibernia.

(8) Ibid, pp. 21–22.

(9) Fullam, who deserted to the French, gave a complete testimony whilst awaiting trial for high treason. His account of his capture and desertion can be found in R. Hayes’s The Last Invasion of Ireland, pp. 279–280.

(10) Casualty figures come from Desbrière, pp. 107–8.

(11) Quoted in Hayes, pp. 63–65. The report was drawn up by a government informer, Michael Burke, who worked as a clerk in the French-run administration. His papers are preserved in the Irish State Paper Office.

(12) Jobit in Analecta Hibernia, p. 43. It is important to note that Jobit detested Humbert almost as much as he admired Sarrazin. Humbert, it seems, saw Ireland as an opportunity whilst his men considered their mission unworthy.

(13) Jobit in Analecta Hibernia, p. 44.

(14) Further details of the fighting around Granard can be found in Hayes pp. 121–122.

(15) Jobit in Analecta Hibernia, p. 46. The morale of the French force was understandably poor and their attitude towards their Irish allies was, on the whole, hostile. Jobit calls them ‘the scum of the land’ and Humbert’s staff joked that socially they were 300 years behind the French.

(16) Ibid, p. 46.

(17) Ibid, p. 47. A French standard fell into British hands at this point, it is now on display in Armagh cathedral.

(18) Fontaine quoted in Hayes, p. 141.

(19) Irish losses are speculative. Controversy still remains, however, as to why Humbert did not insist that his Irish troops were treated as prisoners of war. Even those in French uniform were massacred.

(20) Desbrière. p. 130.

(21) The best account of the final battle of the rebellion can be found in Bishop Stock’s Narrative. Stock was fiercely against rebellion but was taken aback by the force of the Britsh assault and showed empathy to the scattered rebels.

(22) The fate of some of the more prominent rebels is recounted in Hayes, pp.198–215.

(23) There were other plans afoot to get troops to Ireland, besides launching Hardy’s expedition. A Major Miller attempted to despatch 360 Franco-Dutch troops in support and General Muller had been warned to prepare another 1,000 men and have them embark on Savary’s returning ships. Neither expedition put to sea. Desbrière contains details of why Hardy was delayed and the ultimate fate of his armada.

(24) Humbert for one sensed that he had been close to overthrowing English rule. No sooner was he back in France than he was planning a second expedition. He submitted a report on 12 January 1799 which stated that an expedition of 15,000 men, supported by a diversion in Scotland, should meet with success. It is indicative of his problems on the last expedition that he cautioned ‘but only if the troops sent to Ireland were told that they would be shot should any of them return’. Humbert later served in Haiti but shortly afterwards fell out with the French government and emigrated to New Orleans. He later fought the Spanish in Texas.