Irish Brigade at Fontenoy

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER LXXV. (continued)

Far more memorable, however, far more important, was the ever-glorious day of Fontenoy—a name which to this day thrills the Irish heart with pride. Of this great battle—fought May 11, 1745—in which the Irish Brigade turned the fortunes of the day, and saved the honor of France, I take the subjoined account, prefixed to Davis' well-known poem, which I also quote:

“A French army of seventy-nine thousand men, commanded by Marshal Saxe, and encouraged by the presence of both the King and the Dauphin, laid siege to Tournay, early in May, 1745.

The Duke of Cumberland advanced at the head of fifty-five thousand men, chiefly English and Dutch to relieve the town.

At the duke's approach, Saxe and the king advanced a few miles from Tournay with forty-five thousand men, leaving eighteen thousand to continue the siege, and six thousand to guard the Scheldt.

Saxe posted his army along a range of slopes thus: his center was on the village of Fontenoy, his left stretched off through the wood of Barri, his right reached to the town of St. Antoine, close to the Scheldt.

He fortified his right and center by the villages of Fontenoy and St. Antoine, and redoubts near them.

His extreme left was also strengthened by a redoubt in the wood of Barri; but his left center, between that wood and the village of Fontenoy, was not guarded by anything save slight lines.

Cumberland had the Dutch, under Waldeck, on his left, and twice they attempted to carry St. Antoine, but were repelled with heavy loss.

The same fate attended the English in the center, who thrice forced their way to Fontenoy, but returned fewer and sadder men.

Ingoldsby was then ordered to attack the wood of Barri with Cumberland's right. He did so, and broke into the wood, when the artillery of the redoubt suddenly opened on him, which, assisted by a constant fire from the French tirailleurs (light infantry), drove him back.

“The duke now resolved to make one great and final effort. He selected his best regiments, veteran English corps, and formed them into a single column of six thousand men.

At its head were six cannon, and as many more on the flanks, which did good service. Lord John Hay commanded this great mass.

Everything being now ready, the column advanced slowly and evenly as if on the parade ground.

It mounted the slope of Saxe's position, and pressed on between the wood of Barri and the village of Fontenoy.

In doing so, it was exposed to a cruel fire of artillery and sharpshooters, but it stood the storm, and got behind Fontenoy.

“The moment the object of the column was seen, the French troops were hurried in upon them.

The cavalry charged; but the English hardly paused to offer the raised bayonet, and then poured in a fatal fire.

On they went, till within a short distance, and then threw in their balls with great precision, the officers actually laying their canes along the muskets to make the men fire low.

Mass after mass of infantry was broken, and on went the column, reduced but still apparently invincible!

Duc Richelieu had four cannon hurried to the front, and he literally battered the head of the column, while the household cavalry surrounded them, and in repeated charges, wore down their strength.

But these French were fearful sufferers.

The day seemed virtually lost, and King Louis was about to leave the field.

In this juncture, Saxe ordered up his last reserve—the Irish Brigade. It consisted that day of the regiments of Clare, Lally, Dillon, Berwick, Roth, and Buckley, with Fitzjames' horse.

O'Brien, Lord Clare, was in command.

Aided by the French regiments of Normandy and Vaisseany, they were ordered to charge upon the flank of the English with fixed bayonets without firing.

Upon the approach of this splendid body of men, the English were halted on the slope of a hill, and up that slope the brigade rushed rapidly and in fine order; the stimulating cry of ‘Cuimhnigidh ar Liumneac, agus ar fheile na Sacsanach,’ ‘Remember Limerick and British faith,’ being re-echoed from man to man.

The fortune of the field was no longer doubtful.

The English were weary with a long day's fighting, cut up by cannon, charge, and musketry, and dispirited by the appearance of the Brigade.

Still they gave their fire well and fatally; but they were literally stunned by the shout, and shattered by the Irish charge.

They broke before the Irish bayonets, and tumbled down the far side of the hill disorganized, hopeless, and falling by hundreds.

The victory was bloody and complete.

Louis is said to have ridden down to the Irish bivouac, and personally thanked them; and George the Second, on hearing it, uttered that memorable imprecation on the penal code, ‘Cursed be the laws which deprive me of such subjects.’

The one English volley and the short struggle on the crest of the hill cost the Irish dear. One-fourth of the officers, including Colonel Dillon, were killed, and one-third of the men.

The capture of Ghent, Bruges, Ostend, and Oudenard, followed the victory of Fontenoy.”

“Thrice, at the huts of Fontenoy, the English column failed,

And thrice the lines of St. Antoine the Dutch in vain assailed;

For town and slope were filled with foot and flanking battery,

And well they swept the English ranks and Dutch auxiliary.

As vainly, through De Barri's Wood the British soldiers burst,

The French artillery drove them back, diminished and dispersed.

The bloody Duke of Cumberland beheld with anxious eye,

And ordered up his last reserve, his latest chance to try.

On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, how fast his generals ride!

And mustering come his chosen troops, like clouds at eventide.

“Six thousand English veterans in stately column tread;

Their cannon blaze in front and flank; Lord Hay is at their head;

Steady they step adown the slope—steady they climb the hill,

Steady they load—steady they fire, moving right onward still.

Betwixt the wood and Fontenoy, as through a furnace blast,

Through rampart, trench, and palisade, and bullets showering fast;

And on the open plain above they rose and kept their course,

With ready fire and grim resolve, that mocked at hostile force.

Past Fontenoy, past Fontenoy, while thinner grow their ranks—

They break as broke the Zuyder Zee through Holland's ocean banks.

“More idly than the summer flies, French tirailleurs rush round;

As stubble to the lava tide, French squadrons strew the ground;

Bombshell and grape, and round shot tore, still on they marched and fired—

Fast from each volley grenadier and voltigeur retired.

‘Push on my household cavalry!’ King Louis madly cried.

To death they rush, but rude their shock—not unavenged they died.

On through the camp the column trod—King Louis turns his rein:

‘Not yet, my liege,’ Saxe interposed, ‘the Irish troops remain;’

And Fontenoy, famed Fontenoy, had been a Waterloo,

Were not these exiles ready then, fresh, vehement, and true.

‘Lord Clare,’ he says, ‘you have your wish: there are your Saxon foes!’

The Marshal almost smiles to see, so furiously he goes!

How fierce the smile these exiles wear, who're wont to look so gay;

The treasured wrongs of fifty years are in their hearts to-day.

The treaty broken ere the ink wherewith 'twas writ could dry,

Their plundered homes, their ruined shrines, their women's parting cry,

Their priesthood hunted down like wolves, their country overthrown!

Each looks as if revenge for all were staked on him alone.

On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, nor ever yet elsewhere,

Pushed on to fight a nobler band than those proud exiles were.

“O'Brien's voice is hoarse with joy, as halting he commands,

‘Fix bay'nets—charge!’—Like mountain storm rush on these fiery bands!

Thin is the English column now, and faint their volleys grow,

Yet must'ring all the strength they have, they made a gallant show.

They dress their ranks upon the hill to face that battle wind!

Their bayonets the breakers' foam; like rocks the men behind!

One volley crashes from their line, when through the surging smoke,

With empty guns clutched in their hands, the headlong Irish broke,

On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!

‘Revenge! remember Limerick! dash down the Sassenagh!’

“Like lions leaping at a fold when mad with hunger's pang,

Right up against the English line the Irish exiles sprang.

Bright was their steel, 'tis bloody now, their guns are filled with gore;

Through shattered ranks, and severed piles, and trampled flags they tore;

The English strove with desperate strength, paused, rallied, staggered, fled—

The green hillside is matted close with dying and with dead.

Across the plain and far away passed on that hideous wrack,

While cavalier and fantassin dash in upon their track.

On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, like eagles in the sun,

With bloody plumes the Irish stand—the field is fought and won!”