Remember Cremona: France's Irish Brigade Saves the King's Army

National Museum of Ireland
The flag of Dillon's Regiment, Irish Brigade of France.

By Joseph E. Gannon Managing Editor

Homesick, sad, and weary,
Heartsick, hungry, dreary,
(Shout, boys, Erin's the renown!)
O'Brien, Burke, and Tracy,
MacMahon, Dillon, Lacy,
We watch the town.

What mean those distant sounds!"
As the famished panther bounds,
(Shout, boys, Erin's the renown!)
So he bounded through the gate.
"Rouse ye, comrades, ye are late!
Prince Eugene has your town!" *

On November 1, 1700, King Charles II of Spain died without an heir. Charles had designated the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, Philip, Duke of Anjou, to be his successor. As one might expect, Louis approved, but just as surely the other countries of Europe, ever fearful of Louis' domination of the continent, had another candidate for the throne: the Archduke Charles of Austria. France found herself the object of a confederation of allies, as England, Holland, Austria, Prussia, and many of the smaller principalities of Europe joined against her. Louis, who had cast aside many of the men of his Irish regiments following the Treaty of Ryswick in 1698, was in need of his intrepid but nearly forgotten Irish soldiers once again. Given the poor circumstances in which many found themselves at that point, they had little choice -- the Irish would answer the call.

The first major theater of the war was northern Italy. The French forces there included the Irish Brigade infantry battalions of Berwick, Galmoy, Burke, and Dillon, plus the Brigade's two squadrons of Sheldon's Dragoons. The famous Prince Eugene of Austria commanded the allied army. He attacked and beat the French at Chiari on September 1, 1701, and drove them from the field. The scene of the next action would be the town of Cremona, where the French had retreated. In the pantheon of battles of the Irish Brigade, Cremona deserves a place just below Fontenoy.

On the morning of February 1, 1702, Eugene sprung his surprise attack on the town. Using information given by a former inhabitant of the town, Antonio Cossoli, and helped by Cossoli's brother, a priest in Cremona, who hid the Austrians, Eugene had infiltrated 400 soldiers into the town through a large sewer pipe over several days. With the Austrians who infiltrated Cremona was Captain Francis MacDonnell of the Austrian army, descended from an ancient Galloglas clan of Mayo. The armies of France and Spain were not the only ones that included the Wild Geese of Ireland -- many served in the armies of other countries as well, though more often, like MacDonnell, as individuals rather than entire units.

Military History Museum of Vienna
The pall and funeral decorations of Prince Eugene. Note the honors for Cremona on the left.

Before the sun came up on the 1st the Austrians surged out of their hiding place inside the city to attack the slumbering French. The Irish were not involved in this part of the fight -- they were holding a different part of the city, near the Po gate. An Italian historian describing the scene said: "Confusion, terror, violence, rage, flight and slaughter were everywhere!" Simultaneously, two Austrian columns approached the city from outside, one on each side of the Po River. The Austrians inside captured a city gate and allowed one column to enter. The French commander, Marshal Villeroi, rushed from his quarters and bravely tried to rally his troops. He was captured and would probably have been killed, but Captain MacDonnell intervened at the last second and saved his life. As he was being conducted to captivity, Villeroi twice offered MacDonnell handsome rewards, even command of a French regiment, if he would accompany Villeroi back to the French side, but MacDonnell refused.

By sunrise, Prince Eugene was inside the walls with the first column. Thus far Eugene's plan was working better than he could have dreamed. All that was left to do was to clear the Po gate, capture the bridge there, and allow the second column in, and the city was theirs. Only one thing stood in the way of the final victory for the Austrians: the Irish entrenched on the far side of the bridge and around the Po gate. Luckily for the Irish, the second Austrian column, under Prince de Vaudemont, was behind schedule. By the time it arrived, the Irishmen there were in no mood to cooperate with Eugene's brilliant plan. Across the river, Capt. Stuart of Dillon's regiment held off de Vaudemont at a redoubt with 50 of his own men and 100 reinforcements rushed out to him from the French Regiment de Beaujolais. At the gate itself was a force of one captain and 25 men of Dillion's regiment, but they refused to yield as the Austrians assaulted them from inside the walls. Major Daniel O'Mahony, who would later win fame in Spain, commanded the battalion of Dillon's regiment that day in Colonel Lally's absence. Alerted earlier by the firing, he rushed from the nearby barracks, formed some of his men, and drove off a second force of Austrian's approaching the Po gate.

Prince Eugene seems to fear us more than he esteems us.
-- Major Daniel O'Mahony

Now more of the men of the regiments of Dillon and Burke began to arrive from their quarters. Try as he might, Eugene could not move them, and French reinforcements were sure to arrive soon if the entire town was not taken. He sent the Prince de Commercy to reconnoiter the Irish position. The Prince reported that the Irish position was now reinforced with more men from the units of Dillon and Burke, many rushing there half dressed. He reported that the position would be extremely costly to take. Eugene decided to try bribery. Thinking a fellow Irishman might convince them, he sent Francis MacDonnell to make the offer. "Countrymen," MacDonnell told them, "Prince Eugene sends me to say to you, that if you will change [sides], you shall have higher pay in the Imperial army than you have had in the French service. . . . If you reject [this offer], I do not see how you can escape certain destruction. We are masters of the city, with the exception of your post. It is on this account, his Highness only awaits my return to attack you with the greatest part of his force, and to cut you to pieces, should you not accept his offers." O'Mahony was greatly insulted that an Irishmen would convey this disparaging offer, and replied that, "Prince Eugene seems to fear us more than he esteems us, since he causes such propositions to be made to us. We wish to gain the esteem of the Prince by doing our duty, not by cowardice or treachery, unworthy of men of honor."

The indignant O'Mahony then made MacDonnell his prisoner. Perhaps he did this to show MacDonnell and Eugene how contemptuous he was of the bribe, but his other purpose was to make Eugene wait the longest possible time before launching "the greatest part of his force" against them. Every moment Eugene delayed gave the French more time to reorganize and bring up reinforcements. MacDonnell would be exchanged soon after the battle. By then the story of his capture of Marshal de Villeroi and his subsequent refusal of Villeroi's enticements had reached Austria. MacDonnell was promoted by the Emperor for this excellent service and was probably destined for very high rank; unfortunately, he was killed on August 15, at the battle of Luzzara, less than eight months after Cremona.

Eventually, Eugene concluded that MacDonnell would not be coming back. He had one more option before launching an attack; he attempted to induce Marshal de Villeroi to issue an order for the Irish to surrender, lest Eugene be forced to, "put them all to the sword," as he explained. De Villeroi recognized that Eugene was much more interested in victory than civility and told him he had "no longer any orders to give in the town." As all this was going on, Count de Revel was rallying French infantry, and Marquis de Praslin the French cavalry, to come to the aid of the beleaguered Irish. With all attempts at subterfuge foiled, Eugene was now determined to crush the outnumbered Irish before the French aid could arrive. The decisive moment of the battle had arrived.

From an engraving by Jean Sorieul
Uniforms of the Irish Brigade of France. These date from a period later than Cremona, but note that red coats were worn throughout the Brigade's history, signifying their support for the Stuart claim to the English crown.

 

"Are ye mad, or in a trance?
Waken, gentlemen of France!"
(Shout, boys, Erin's the renown!)
"See your lilied flags are flapping,
And your Marshal is caught napping
In Cremona town."

Again and yet again,
Though the third of us are slain,
(Shout boys, Erin's the renown!)
Though Sieur Villeroi is taken,
And the lilied flags are shaken,
Till our tardy comrades waken,
We keep the town.*

 

 

Eugene had organized a large force of cavalry and infantry under Baron De Freiberg. Now he sent them charging into the Irish in hopes of overwhelming them by force of numbers. But O'Mahony's men strew the ground in front of their position with Austrian men and horses. Some penetrated the Irish defenses, including the Baron, but all the men who advanced that far were capture or killed, the Baron among the latter. A fierce hand-to-hand fight ensued, but the Austrians were finally driven off with heavy losses on both sides.

The fighting ebbed and flowed around the Po Gate as the day wore on. But now the French, given a respite by the gallant stand of the Irish, began to join the fight in greater and greater numbers; the tide began to turn. About 3 p.m., Capt. Stuart and the remnant of his gallant 150 men, having held off the superior force of Prince de Vaudemont as long as humanly possible, were finally ordered back across the Po. But as they retired Stuart's men destroyed the bridge, stranding the second Austrian column on the wrong side of the river. Prince de Vaudemont's men would be useless to Eugene now, and he was in desperate need of them. As the Franco-Irish began to press the Austrians back, they discovered that another isolated pocket of 35 Irishmen, under Captain Lynch of Dillon's regiment, had been holding two more gates of the city, All Saints and St. Margaret, against the Austrians all day.

"Taken by a miracle, and lost by a greater one"

What had looked to be a dazzling victory for Eugene and his Austrians as the sun came up was turning into a debacle as the sun prepared to go down. Finally, after some 12 hours fighting, Eugene realized that the city was rapidly becoming a possible trap, rather than a prize; reluctantly, Eugene evacuated his army. It has been said that Cremona was "taken by a miracle, and lost by a greater one." Prince Eugene must have cursed the Penal Laws of the English at that moment as much as England's king would 43 years later, after the battle of Fontenoy. None could deny that it was the Irish Brigade that had snatched a near certain victory from the hands of Prince Eugene. But as is often the case in such victories, it came at a heavy cost. There had been approximately 600 men in the two Irish battalions in Cremona -- 350 of them were casualties, close to 60 percent. Two hundred and twenty-three of those were killed, a much higher killed-to-wounded ratio than normally found in battles of those times.

Major O'Mahony was selected to take the news of this great battle to Louis XIV. The King promoted O'Mahony to colonel on the spot, and later promoted several of the other Irish officers who had commanded that day. The pay of all the Irish regiments in French service, even those not at Cremona, was raised to the high level they had enjoyed before the Treaty of Ryswick. King Louis, who had so recently, and callously, cast aside these brave men, had once again been reminded of the fighting ability of the Irish Brigade, who shed their blood so freely so far from their homes. He now called these men "mes braves Irlandais."

(Left: Louis XIV of France, 'The Sun King.' Thousands of Irishmen would die in his service By Riguad)

The English writer Forman later wrote of Cremona, "The Irish performed there the most important piece of service for Louis XIV, than, perhaps, any King of France ever received from so small a body of men since the foundation of that monarchy. This action by the Irish, by any impartial way of reasoning, saved the whole French army in Italy." At the British Parliament, news of the part of the Irish in this battle elicited this comment from a member: "Those two regiments [Dillon and Burke] did more mischief to the High Allies than all the Irish abroad could have done had they been kept at home and left the entire possession of their estates." Indeed, this was probably true. Had the members of that parliament been given the power to see into the future, they would have seen that the British crown could look forward to another 90 years of vexation by the men of the Irish Brigade of France.

Back to back, and face to face,
Wrest from fate this night's disgrace
(Shout, boys, Erin's the renown!)
Ere the sun rose from its bed
Or that livid dawn grew red
Every German spear had fled
From Cremona town.

So failed Eugene's advance,
So failed all foes of France!
(Shout, boys, Erin's the renown!)
Let her praises still resound,
And while the world goes round,
To their praise too redound,
Who stood the victors crowned
In Cremona town.*

 

* 'Cremona' by Emily Lawless

Views: 1500

Tags: France, Irish Brigade

Comment by John J. Gaynard on November 24, 2013 at 6:13am

Great article! I wouldn't have expected anything less from a man named O'Mahony, perhaps the first but certainly not the last of his line to contribute to the glory of France.

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 25, 2013 at 10:57am

Yes, and we recommend anyone looking to gain more insights about the nexus between France and Ireland to check out John Gaynard's fiction series, featuring an Irish detective, perhaps not coincidentally, bearing the name.

To learn more about John's work, at great length, visit http://johnjgaynard.blogspot.com

Comment by John J. Gaynard on November 26, 2013 at 8:21am

Thank you for the kind comment, Gerry.

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