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Wild Irish Geese

By Dennis Showalter
10/31/2017 • Military History Magazine

Driven from their homeland by centuries of English domination, Irish soldiers went to war under may flags.

Ireland has been called the land of happy wars and sad love songs—the land whose sons have shed blood around the world for every cause but their own. A mythology has grown up around these exiles of Erin, the story of the Wild Geese. Today the name is applied to just about every Irishman who has soldiered anywhere for any reason. There is a Wild Geese Heritage Museum and Library in Galway. Irish pubs in Brussels and Braunschweig bear the name. An online shop even sells Wild Geese memorabilia, from men’s sweatshirts to women’s underwear. But three centuries ago “Wild Geese” had a particular meaning—and a particular story.

On Dec. 22, 1691, Patrick Sarsfield and the first of some 14,000 men boarded ships in Limerick, Ireland, bound for France. They were the survivors of a defeated army. For more than a year James Stuart—James II of England and Ireland, as well as James VII of Scotland—deposed by Dutch son-in-law William III of Orange and daughter Mary II, had sought with French support to regain his throne. His appeal to the loyalty of Catholics and Protestants alike had not gone unheeded, but his levies had proved a poor match for William’s forces, which had defeated his army at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and at Aughrim in July 1691. Under Sarsfield the town of Limerick had withstood a siege through that September. Then, with the Jacobite cause plainly lost, Sarsfield had negotiated terms. William and Mary allowed civilians to keep their land and property and granted Catholics restricted religious freedom. They also allowed defeated Irish soldiers and their families to immigrate to France. By January 1692 more than 20,000 men, women and children had sailed for Brest from Irish ports.

They were not the first Irish soldiers on the Continent. Resistance and rebellion had been endemic in Ireland since the 12th century Norman invasion of that country, the losers entering service with England’s enemies. The first Irish regiment in Spanish service formed in the 1580s during the Eighty Years’ War and boasted of suffering 12,000 casualties by war’s end in 1648. Spain continued to enlist Irish mercenaries throughout the Napoleonic Wars, sending them everywhere in a far-flung empire, from Italy to Brazil. While Irish soldiers were less common in the Habsburg Empire, more than 100 Irishmen became generals or admirals under the double eagle. Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus considered Irishmen too untrustworthy to enlist in numbers, but individuals rose to high rank in his service. Russia too had its share of Irish officers, initially recruited by Peter the Great to train and discipline his new-model army.

Less familiar is England’s recruitment of Irish Catholics for duty overseas. Catholics under arms generated enough fear and hostility when employed in England that in 1644, during the English Civil War, Parliament passed an ordinance of “no quarter to the Irish.” An Irish-Catholic regiment served in the Anglo-Dutch Brigade from 1674 to 1688. Another, raised during the Anglo-French alliance that accompanied the 1660 Stuart Restoration, provided many senior Irish officers, including Sarsfield himself, with their initial military experience.

Between insurrections Irish officers regularly returned home to replenish their ranks. Hunger, ambition, local loyalties and religious persecution were ever-reliable recruiting tools. Such efforts met with support from local Irish authorities and the English crown, as every Irishman in a foreign uniform was one less potential insurgent. The English particularly considered this an effective tactic: As one of Queen Elizabeth’s captains observed, more than three-quarters of the Irish so dispatched never returned. Not until 1722 did the Irish Parliament forbid unlicensed recruitment and later prohibit anyone in French or Spanish service from holding property in Ireland. Clandestine recruiting then continued with a wink and a nudge, usually accompanied by the exchange of hard coin, though it was liable to lead to the end of a rope if anything went wrong.

It was during this period the military exiles received their distinctive name. Most recruits shipped out aboard French merchant ships conducting a quasilegal commerce in various luxury goods. Some unknown Gallic wit listed the Irishmen on his cargo manifest as “wild geese.” The name stuck and survives.

Until 1692 Irish soldiers abroad were fundamentally mercenaries, seeking to make their fortunes or leave their bones in fresh climes. Their regiments were short-lived, their numbers difficult to maintain. The Jacobites under Sarsfield were exiles, retaining their identity as a 14,000-strong Irish army. They were distinct from their French allies, distinctively uniformed in scarlet—a color not yet negatively identified with England.

The Irish who had chosen European exile had expected a quick and victorious return home. In May 1692 they assembled on the Cherbourg peninsula, ready to embark, when English and Dutch ships off La Hogue decisively defeated the French fleet that was to have screened James II’s invasion of England. The Irish were left high and dry in every sense, as James had nothing like the resources to continue supporting them. The French government offered to assume that responsibility— in return for Irish service under French colors. But the army would retain its identity, and James would remain commander in chief, with the right to appoint officers. If they held together, the exiles just might become a critical mass. Their numbers were large enough, the percentage of families high enough, to suggest the possibility, in Sarsfield’s words, of making another Ireland in the armies of France.

But that hope, too, was denied— this time by the changing nature of war.

In the late 17th century firepower was coming to dominate the battle- field, as the historic combination of pike and matchlock gave way to the flintlock musket and its socket bayonet. Tactical movements were growing more complex. Discipline—the ability to remain steady in ranks under fire— was becoming the major criterion for combat effectiveness.

But James II’s Irish soldiers lacked the formal training and experienced noncommissioned officers their European counterparts enjoyed. What they did have was a military culture—rooted partly in historic Irish society and partly in the bitter fruit of two centuries’ experience against better-armed enemies—that emphasized closing quickly with the enemy in order to negate his firepower with brute force and edged weapons. Moreover, Irish officers led from the front, no matter their rank. After the storming of the fortress of Barcelona in 1697, French Marshal Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, called the Irish regiments that led the assault “those butchers of the army.”

The first defining battle for the Wild Geese, however, had occurred four years earlier at Neerwinden in Flanders. The Irish regiments formed the core of desperate attacks against that fortified town, paving the way to a French victory for François-Henri de Montmorency, Duke of Luxembourg, over an allied English, Scottish and Dutch army under William of Orange. The French paid a high price for glory—including Sarsfield himself, shot in the chest while leading the charge that carried the day. Legend records his last words as, “Oh, that this were for Ireland.”

A more appropriate aphorism might have been, “Put no trust in princes.” The Nine Years’ War dragged on until the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick formally recognized William as king of England, Scotland and Ireland. By this time anywhere from a third to half of the exiled Irish army had died or deserted. With a Stuart restoration no longer a possibility, a French government concerned with reducing expenses disbanded James II’s regiments. Some of the survivors blended into local communities—as casual laborers when times were good and as beggars when the winds blew cold. Others became highwaymen, and some drifted into Spain and Austria as swords for hire. Still others transferred the legacy of the exiled Wild Geese to a formation of the French army known as the Irish Brigade.

France organized its first organic Irish regiments in 1635. During the 1688–91 Williamite War, James II provided 6,000 of his countrymen for the service of Louis XIV in return for a French contingent sent to Ireland. They were peasant levies— untrained, unarmed, shoeless, shirtless and louse-ridden. But the Irish fought well enough that the French were anxious to acquire more of them. When France disbanded the Jacobite army after Ryswick, it added five of that force’s regiments to the Irish Brigade’s existing three.

The reconfigured brigade became the defining institution of Ireland in exile, symbolizing and sustaining the Stuart cause back home and on the continent. The names of the regiments changed with their proprietors, thus tracing their lineages is a labor of antiquarian enthusiasm. Some were disbanded; one was transferred to Spanish service; another, raised in 1744, spent most of its time in India. But no matter the details of its organization, the brigade asserted its Irishness at every turn. Its uniform coats remained distinctively red. As they had in Ireland, brigade flags bore St. George’s cross and the motto IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“In this sign you will conquer”).

The brigade’s paymaster may have been France, but the unit’s ultimate allegiance was to the Stuarts. Its institutional ethos, its songs and toasts, were Jacobite. The brigade required its officers to be Irish, or the sons of Irishmen living in France, from exile families or their sympathizers. The first post-Limerick rank and file came from all quarters of Ireland. In later years the brigade drew most of its recruits from the south, the southwest and the midlands—regions where English rule was most oppressive and rural poverty the most pervasive. Until the mid– 18th century the supply of volunteers from the home island sufficed to maintain the brigade’s Irish character.

This persistent Stuart orientation was acceptable to a French government that perceived Britain as its foremost rival for European influence and global power. The brigade was thus a political force, whose senior officers helped plan repeated uprisings in both Ireland and Scotland. The brigade was also a potentially formidable spearhead of any direct French intervention in the British Isles—a spearhead that was conveniently expendable if anything went wrong.

The newly configured Irish Brigade underwent its first test during the War of the Spanish Succession. When James II died in France in September 1701, Louis XIV promptly recognized Stuart’s exiled son as James III, king of England and Ireland. France’s action all but forced British participation in the continental war already prompted by Louis’ determination to put his grandson on the vacant Spanish throne. James III—or the “Old Pretender,” depending on taste and allegiance— called for the Irish to rally to him. Enough responded to bring the Irish Brigade up to strength and form five new regiments.

Some 600 Irishmen were part of a French force wintering in Cremona, Italy, on Feb. 1, 1702, when Austria’s foremost general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, led a strike force in a surprise attack on the city. Though most of Cremona’s 8,000 defenders were feeling the effects of good liquor and bad women when the Austrians found a way into the city, the Irish contingent, either more alert or lacking funds to join the party, fought back. Offered a chance to switch sides for higher pay, they detained the messenger for challenging their honor. Time and again the Wild Geese threw back Eugene’s elite grenadiers and cuirassiers, at bayonet point when ammunition ran low. Then they charged, broke through the Austrians, linked up with the rest of the now-sober garrison and set about recapturing the city a street at a time. As a French relief force approached, Eugene withdrew—suffering one of his few decisive defeats.

More than half the Irish lay dead or wounded, but they had kept the faith and held Cremona. Louis XIV responded by raising the new regiments’ pay to that of the original brigade. His commanders responded by turning to Irish troops for help whenever possible. Improvised Irish regiments, recruited on the ground from deserters and prisoners of war, contributed to the successful defense of Spain by James FitzJames, the Jacobite Duke of Berwick. On Aug. 13, 1704, at Blenheim three Irish regiments helped hold the crucial Bavarian village of Oberglau through what was largely a day of disaster for French arms, then covered the retreat. Two years later at Ramillies, in present-day Belgium, an Irish regiment captured two enemy colors. In 1709 at Malplaquet, France, five Irish regiments captured a vital woods on the French right, held it against three attacks, counterattacked to the cry, “Long live James III and the King of France!” and engaged in an epic musketry duel at point-blank range—ironically, against fellow Irishmen of the British Royal Regiment of Ireland.

The War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714. By that time France’s Irish regiments counted fewer than 3,500 men; 10 times that many had fallen in battle or died of disease. The survivors, reorganized into five regiments of infantry and one of dragoons, enjoyed relative quiet for a quarter-century. Then another general war broke out, again over a disputed throne. This time it was Austria’s, and one of its great battles provided the Irish Brigade’s apotheosis.

During the War of the Austrian Succession, the Irish Brigade served in the army of French Marshal Maurice de Saxe. In May 1745 de Saxe, hoping to draw the Anglo-Dutch-Austrian forces of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, into a decisive battle, took position on high ground around the village of Fontenoy, in present-day Belgium. Cumberland obligingly attacked. But French hopes for an easy victory abruptly faded as the allied army hammered de Saxe’s positions and a column of 15,000 British and Hanoverian infantry broke through the French line, brushing aside counterattacks as a horse switches flies. Then came the time of the Irish.

De Saxe launched the rested and thus far unengaged brigade against the British right flank. Against 4-to-1 odds, 3,800 men swung forward, bayonets fixed. Fifes, drums and bagpipes struck up the Jacobite battle song, “The White Cockade.” Some accounts have officers shouting, in Gaelic, “Bayonets in their bellies!” As they closed to pointblank range, the Irish shouted an ancient war cry: “Faugh a balla!” (“Clear the way!”). A single musketry volley by the Coldstream Guards brought down the entire first rank of two Irish regiments. That kind of shock is usually enough to make the hardiest troops recoil, yet the Irish kept the pace and hit the British with the force of a sledgehammer. They briefly lost momentum during an episode of “friendly fire,” as a regiment of French cavalry, charging from the front, cut down anyone wearing a red coat, including the Irishmen. Shouts of “Vive le Roi!” and “Vive la France!” from the Irish sorted out the matter, and they resumed their killing spree.

Bayonets seldom crossed in 18th century battles. But at Fontenoy it was cold steel and no quarter. Within 10 minutes the Anglo-Hanoverians had had enough. They fell back unbroken but left behind some 5,000 casualties, 15 cannon and the two colors of the Coldstreamers. “What finer reserve than six battalions of Wild Geese!“ cried de Saxe as their charge went in. But more than 500 of the Irish were down, nearly a fifth of them officers. That night, when informed of the Irish unit’s battlefield feats, King Louis XV sent his personal congratulations. A brigade colonel replied that the sovereign’s words were like those of the evangelist—they fell on the one-eyed and the lame.

The Wild Geese went into a long, slow decline after the Battle of Fontenoy. Louis XV was initially regarded as the arbiter of Europe, but France’s diplomacy ultimately failed, and its army faltered. Several hundred volunteers known as the Irish Pickets followed Charles Edward Stuart (the “Young Pretender) to Scotland and the ruin of the Jacobite cause in the rebellion of 1745. During the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) the Irish Brigade did most of its fighting in Germany, with little enough success. By that time fewer than half the men in the ranks were Irish.

The failure of the 1745 rebellion, in particular, undermined confidence in the Stuart cause, even among true believers. In Ireland the easing of Britain’s harsh anti-Catholic policies made exile far less attractive to both commoners and gentry. For those interested in emigrating—whether for religious or economic reasons—North America offered increasingly attractive opportunities. For Irishmen still attracted to soldiering, the British army was increasingly welcoming—off the books until the 1770s and then legally. By some estimates more than a third of the “British” soldiers that served in the 1808–14 Peninsular War were Irish-born, and most of them were Roman Catholics.

The Irish Brigade did some of its last, best fighting in America, when France dispatched troops to assist the 13 colonies in their struggle for independence from Britain. Irishmen were in the front line of the 1779 American-French assault on Savannah, and elements of the brigade served in the West Indies through the end of the Revolutionary War. Irish troops participating in the siege of Yorktown had the immense satisfaction of witnessing the British surrender.

The French Revolution marked the end of the Irish Brigade, largely because the unit’s continuing loyalty to the monarchy rendered it suspect in an emerging republic. Most of the regiments were leavened with new volunteer units. Some of the Irish officers sought service in Britain, raising new battalions; most were short-lived, the rest stationed in secondary theaters. In 1792 Louis Stanislas Xavier, Count of Provence and the future French King Louis XVIII, presented the brigade a “farewell banner” inscribed Semper et Ubique Fidelis (“Always and everywhere faithful”).

The legacy and legend of the Wild Geese endured after the French brigade’s dissolution— especially in the Irish Brigade of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Seeing action from the Peninsula Campaign to Appomattox Court House, it carried the flag of Erin beside the Stars and Stripes and earned a reputation for reckless bravery. The Union’s Irish Brigade resembled its predecessor in another way as well. From its best-known commander, Thomas Francis Meagher, down through the ranks, many of its men saw themselves as exiles and hoped the brigade might somehow become the mechanism of Ireland’s liberation. “Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!” Meagher reportedly exhorted at the July 21, 1861, Battle of Bull Run. Once again that dream would be denied.

But another heritage remained. The 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard maintains the traditions of the Union Irish Brigade. Among the most cherished traditions in “The Fighting 69th” is the official regimental cocktail: two parts champagne to one part Irish whiskey. The Wild Geese would have approved.


For further reading Dennis Showalter recommends History of the Irish Brigades in France, by John O’Callaghan; The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain, by Mark McLaughlin; and The Irish Soldier in Europe, 1585– 1815, by George B. Clark.

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