By Joe Gannon, Managing Editor
(Right: General Thomas Arthur Lally. His heroic image here betokens the restoration of his honor by the "canceling" of his conviction for treason.)
War-battered dogs are we,
Fighters in every clime,
Fillers of trench and of grave,
Mockers, bemocked by time.
War-dogs, hungry and grey,
Gnawing a naked bone,
Fighters in every clime,
Every cause but our own.
— 'Clare Coast' by Emily Lawless
In the last decades of their existence, "The Wild Geese" of the Irish Brigade would sail to the far corners of the world, to India in the East and America in the West. Their excursion to India would be led by a man who was, perhaps, the most tragic figure in the 100-year history of the Irish Brigade — General Thomas Arthur Lally. Lally's life was nearly a metaphor for that of the Irish Brigade of France itself, gaining much glory on the field of battle, but ending tragically, with the country it had served so long and so loyally turning against it.
Lally was born at Romans, in France, on January 13, 1702. His mother was French. He traced his Irish roots through his father, Sir Gerard Lally of Tullynadala, County Galway. The family lands were lost during the Williamite war, and Gerard left Ireland in 1691 as a member of Dillon's regiment. Thomas followed his father into the unit.
His father ensured that Thomas was well educated before beginning his military career in earnest. When Thomas was given his first opportunities to fight, in the War of Polish Succession (1733-1738) and the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), Lally was well prepared. He performed so well, in 1744 he was given the right to raise his own regiment in the Brigade.
His artful command of that regiment at Fontenoy was noted by a French historian: "The battle was hopelessly lost had not the Irishmen Lally, full of hatred against the English, made a proposal to employ four pieces of cannon to break the English line." And two years later he performed so well at the Battle of Lauffelt that the French commander, Marshal Saxe, wrote "We can sleep peacefully, for Lally is with the army."
|The flag and uniform of Lally's regiment. Click on image for a larger view.
In 1756 Lally submitted a report to the government on possible future military operations. One of his ideas was sending a force to India to drive out the British. It impressed many, and so it was that Lally was summoned to Paris later that year and given command of that expedition. While Lally had proven his military acumen, some wondered if he had the political prowess to deal with the civilian authorities of the French East India Company in Pondicherry.
Lally sailed with six battalions — his own regiment and parts of two others. Admiral D'Ache proved to be an indifferent, if not incompetent, admiral, resulting in a voyage lasting more than a year. Lally arrived in Pondicherry on April 28, 1758. Once he got back on dry land, Lally again proved his prowess. Driving his army, and managing to get some help from the reluctant D'Ache, he captured several British outposts.
Lally's next logical target was the British stronghold of Madras. But now things began to unravel. D'Ache announced that he was removing his fleet to Mauritius for repairs, and no amount of pleading or cajoling by Lally could dissuade him. In addition, money was becoming a serious concern, and his contentious relationship with the French civilian authorities in Pondicherry was fueling his financing concerns.
The decisive battle of Wandiwash is set at this fort. Click on image for a larger view.
In spite of the loss of his naval support and his money woes, Lally attempted the capture of Madras. He laid siege to the fortress of St. George, where the garrison had retreated. The seaward side of the fort was partly open, but Lally's lack of naval support negated this weakness and his lack of funds eventually destroyed the morale of much of his army. Still, progress was made in reducing the fort, and it could have been captured but for the arrival of a British fleet with supplies and reinforcements in late January 1759. After 42 days of siege, Lally was forced to retreat.
From this point, Lally faced long odds. Merely keeping his army together in the face of the enemy, with little or no money to pay them, was an accomplishment. Even the men in his own regiment mutinied at one point until some funds were found to pay them. His original goal of driving out the British from India now became a struggle to blunt British efforts at driving out French forces from the subcontinent. It would be another Irish-born commander, on the British side, who would oppose Lally and his men.
Lieutenant Colonel Eyre Coote was born in Limerick in 1726. His defeat of Lally's army at Wandewash in January 1760 set in motion the final defeat of French interests in India, and also the tragic end of Lally himself. On January 16, 1761, Lally surrendered Pondicherry after a siege of several months. Coote said of Lally: "There is certainly not a second man in all of India who could have managed to keep on foot, for so long a period of time, an army without pay, and without any kind of assistance."
|The Vinkhuijzen collection of military uniforms, NYPL
A soldier in the uniform of Lally's regiment.
Lally was taken to England as a prisoner, and while there he learned that in the courts of Louis XV in France he was being made the scapegoat of the loss of India. Lally was sure he could prove that the real villains of the disaster were Admiral D'Ache and the officials of the French East India Company. The British released him on parole to return to France to defend himself.
It was a fatal mistake. On arriving in Paris, Lally was ordered to make no public statements while an investigation proceeded. A year later, he was thrown into the Bastille, and charged with treason and embezzling funds. He would spend four years there before he was beheaded in May 1766, following a trial that few considered fair. Members of the Irish Brigade were said to be near revolt following Lally's execution.
Thus ended Lally, as the country for whom he had sacrificed so much turned its back on him, as it would the entire Irish Brigade less than three decades later. Twelve years after his death, Lally's son, assisted by the philosopher Voltaire, got Louis XVI to declare the verdict canceled, essentially affirming that Lally was the victim of a frame-up.
The days of the Irish Brigade, like the days of the French royal family, were numbered. But before the Brigade faded into the mists of history, they would help a new country do what they had vainly dreamed of accomplishing in their native land: Free itself from the clutches of Great Britain. WGT
This feature was edited by Liam Murphy and Gerry Regan.
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