Le Régiment de Dillon (Dillon’s Regiment) was first raised in Ireland in 1688 by Theobald, 7th Viscount Dillon, for the Jacobite side in the Williamite War. He was then killed at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.
During the Jacobite War, the regiment went to France in April 1690 as part of Lord Mountcashel’s brigade, in exchange for some French regiments amounting to 6,000 troops.
After the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, the regiment remained in the service of the kings of France under its present name. It was next commanded in France by Theobald’s younger son, Colonel Arthur Dillon, until 1733.
Colonel James Dillon was killed in action leading his regiment at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, while his brother, Colonel Edward Dillon was killed at the Battle of Lauffelt two years later.
The formation continued to recruit from the Wild Geese Irish exile community.
By 1757, its uniform was still the Irish Brigade’s red coats, showing its loyalty to James III, the Old Pretender, with the black facings indicating each regiment. A member of the Dillon family remained hereditary colonel-proprietor of the regiment up to 1747.
Three caretaker commanders led the regiment until the last Dillon commander was old enough to take over in August 1767. Louis XV wanted to maintain the link with the family which had given so much service.
Fontenoy and Grenada
As a part of the Irish Brigade, the regiment covered itself in glory at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, but suffered heavy losses. It was reinforced by a merger with the Régiment de Lally in 1762, and with the Régiment de Bulkeley in 1775.
From 1777 to 1782, the Dillon Regiment fought as part of the French expeditionary force in the American Revolutionary War.
The regiment participated in the capture Grenada in 1779. The regiment also participated in the failed French and American siege of British-held Savannah in 1779.
The Irish Brigade remained loyal to the King at the beginning of the French Revolution, and this led to its dissolution in 1791. The constituent regiments lost their traditional titles and uniforms at this time.
Along with other non-Swiss foreign units, the Dillon Regiment was renamed as a line infantry regiment. Although always known as an Irish regiment, it was designated the 87e Regiment d’Infanterie de Ligne, 87th Line Infantry Regiment, before being dissolved in 1793.
The second battalion had been destroyed in Saint-Domingue in 1792, and its survivors were absorbed into the British-sponsored Catholic Irish Brigade operating in the Caribbean. Its first battalion then became the 157th Line Infantry Regiment, and the reconstituted second battalion the 158th Line Infantry Regiment. Arthur Dillon, the last colonel of the French regiment was guillotined in 1794 during the Reign of Terror.
(Henry) Dillon’s Regiment : Émigré elements of the French regiment passed into William Pitt’s British Catholic Irish Brigade in 1794. These consisted of the greater part of the officers who had emigrated from France, and a new raising on the Dillon lands in Ireland. Henry Dillon, a brother of Arthur Dillon was given command of the regiment.
However, on campaign in Jamaica and Haiti, the regiment suffered such losses, mainly due to the unhealthy climate, that it was disbanded in 1798. The flags and ensigns were returned to Charles, Lord Dillon, head of the Dillon family in Ireland.
The family raised a new formation in 1805 known as the 101st Regiment of Foot (Duke of York’s Irish). This was the last British formation raised in a contract with an individual through a letter of service. It consisted of a thousand men recruited from the inhabitants in and around Loughglynn, County Roscommon, Ireland. The unit was disbanded in 1817.
(Edward) Dillon’s Regiment : (Edward) Dillon’s Regiment of Foot was raised in northern Italy in 1795, by Col. Edward Dillon, formerly of the Irish Brigade in France, to fight for the English in the Mediterranean.
It consisted of various foreign troops, and French émigré officers. The regiment was at Minorca (1799–1801), fought with distinction in Egypt (1801), and was then stationed on Malta (1805–1808). At that stage the regiment consisted mainly of 450 Spaniards and Sicilians.
Later, serving in the Peninsular War, it was part of a provisionally named Roll-Dillon battalion (a battalion of detachments with men from Roll’s Regiment). It consisted predominantly of Swiss troops who refused to serve the French Republic. They served in the Anglo-Italian Division, under General William Clinton at the Battle of Castalla in 1813. This regiment was disbanded in 1814.
See also Arthur Dillon (1750-1794) and Flight of the Wild Geese.
The Flight of the Wild Geese was the departure of an Irish Jacobite army under the command of Patrick Sarsfield from Ireland to France, as agreed in the Treaty of Limerick on October 3, 1691, following the end of the Williamite War in Ireland. More broadly, the term Wild Geese is used in Irish history to refer to Irish soldiers who left to serve in continental European armies in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Main article: Irish regiments in French service
Flags of the Irish regiments in French service
From the mid-17th century, France was the primary destination for Catholic Irishmen seeking a military career. This was because of similar French and Irish interests, and the ease of migration from Ireland to France and Flanders.
France recruited many foreign soldiers, including Germans, Italians, Walloons, and Swiss. André Corvisier, an authority on French military archives, estimates that foreigners accounted for around 12% of all French troops in peacetime and 20% of troops during warfare.
In common with other foreign troops, the Irish regiments were paid more than their French counterparts. Both Irish and Swiss regiments in French service wore red uniforms. This had no connection with the redcoats of the British army.
During the Williamite War in Ireland (1688–91), Louis XIV gave military and financial aid to the Irish Jacobites.
Louis XIV sent 6,000 French troops to Ireland in 1690. In return, Louis XIV demanded 6,000 Irish recruits for use in the Nine Years’ War against the Dutch.
Five regiments, led by Justin McCarthy, Viscount Mountcashel, formed the nucleus of Mountcashel’s French Irish Brigade in 1690. A year later, Irish Jacobites under Patrick Sarsfield agreed to favorable peace terms and capitulated at the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. The fully armed and equipped Irish Army then withdrew to France.
Patrick Sarsfield sailed to France on December 22, 1691, leading 19,000 of his countrymen and countrywomen to enter the French service. Sarsfield’s exodus included 14,000 soldiers and around 6,000 women and children. This event began what is remembered in Ireland as the Flight of the Wild Geese. In a poem two centuries later, W. B. Yeats would mourn :
“Was it for this, the Wild Geese spread,
A grey wing on every tide . . .”
Patrick Sarsfield’s Irish army was regrouped and equipped in their red coats, symbolizing their allegiance to the Stuart king.
In 1692, a large French and Irish army had assembled on the French coast for an invasion of England. The proposed invasion was called off due to the French naval defeat at Battles of Barfleur and La Hogue. Patrick Sarsfield’s Wild Geese were then regrouped on the same footing as Mountcashel’s Irish Brigade.
Until 1745, the Catholic Irish gentry were allowed to discreetly recruit soldiers for French service. Authorities in Ireland saw this as preferable to having large numbers of unemployed young men of military age in Ireland.
A composite Irish detachment of the French Army was used to support the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland. These men were drawn from each of the regiments of the Irish Brigade, and were known as “Irish Picquets”. The British realized the dangers of this policy, and banned recruitment for foreign armies in Ireland.
After this, the rank and file of Irish units in French service became increasingly non-Irish. The officers continued to be recruited from Ireland.
During the Seven Years’ War, France looked for recruits from among Irish prisoners of war and deserters from the British Army. Otherwise, recruitment was limited to a trickle of Irish volunteers who made their own way to France. Recruits also came from the sons of former members of the Irish Brigade who had remained in France.
During the Seven Years’ War, the Irish regiments in French service were the Berwick, Bulkeley, Clare, Dillon, Lally, and Rooth regiments. There was also the Fitzjames cavalry regiment.
By the end of the 18th century, even the officers of the Irish regiments were drawn from French-Irish families who had settled in France for several generations. While truly French, such families did respect their Irish heritage.
Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, the Irish Brigade ceased to exist as a separate entity on July 21, 1791.
The 12 non-Swiss foreign regiments then in existence were integrated into the line infantry of the French Army.
The remaining Irish regiments, Berwick, Dillon, and Walsh, lost their distinctive red uniforms, but were still known informally by their traditional Irish titles.
Many individual French-Irish officers left the service in 1792 when Louis XVI was deposed. Their oath of loyalty was to the king, and not to the French nation.
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte raised an Irish light infantry unit composed mainly of veterans of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Napoleon’s Irish Legion originally It consisted of four battalions, and a regimental depot, or headquarters.
From its establishment, the Legion was designated as a distinctly Irish unit. The Irish Legion was intended to be the spearhead of an invasion of Ireland, supported by French troops.
The unit was dressed in emerald-green uniforms, faced with gold. The regimental flag was a gold harp in each corner on a green background. The inscription “Le Premier Consul aux Irlandos Uni” (“The First Consul to United Ireland”) appeared on one side of the flag. On the other side of the flag was the inscription “Liberte des Conscience/Independence d’Irlande” (“Freedom of Conscience/Independence to Ireland”).
In December 1804, the Legion received a new flag, and Napoleon’s cherished bronze-cast Imperial Eagle. Many officers from the ancien régime Irish Brigade also joined the unit. The Legion gained distinction in the Walcheren Expedition in the Low Countries, and in the Peninsular War.
During the Siege of Astorga in 1812, an Irish detachment of elite voltiguers formed the “forelorn hope”, and led the assault battalion. This was the 47th Regiment of the Line. They stormed through a breach in the city’s walls, and remained under cover all night under heavy fire. By morning, the Spanish were out of ammunition, and surrendered.
The last Irish heroics occurred during the Siege of Antwerp in 1814. The Irish regiment defended Antwerp for three months against a British force that had landed in the Low Countries to defeat Napoleon. After Napoleon’s abdication, the siege was lifted. The Irish regiment was then disbanded, ending 125 years of Irish military tradition in France.
Picture displaying the uniform of the Regimiento de Infantería Irlanda
The first Irish troops to serve as a unit for a continental power formed an Irish regiment in the Spanish Army of Flanders in the Eighty Years’ War in the 1590s.
The regiment had been raised by an English Catholic, William Stanley, in Ireland from native Irish soldiers and mercenaries, whom the English authorities wanted out of the country.
(See also Tudor conquest of Ireland).
Stanley was given a commission by Queen Elizabeth I. It was expected the he would lead his regiment on the English side, in support of the Dutch United Provinces. However, in 1585, motivated by religious factors and, perhaps, bribes offered by the Spaniards, Stanley defected to the Spanish side with the regiment. In 1598 Diego Brochero de Anaya wrote to the Spanish King Philip III:
“that every year Your Highness should order to recruit in Ireland some Irish soldiers, who are people tough and strong, and nor the cold weather or bad food could kill them easily as they would with the Spanish, as in their island, which is much colder than this one, they are almost naked, they sleep on the floor and eat oats bread, meat and water, without drinking any wine.
The unit fought in the Netherlands until 1600, when it was disbanded due to heavy losses due to combat and sickness.
Following the defeat of the Gaelic armies of the Nine Years’ War, the “Flight of the Earls” took place in 1607. The Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrconnell, Rory O’Donnell, and the Lord of Beare and Bantry, Donal O’Sullivan, along with many chiefs, Gallowglass, and their followers from Ulster, fled Ireland.
They hoped to get Spanish help to restart their rebellion in Ireland, but King Philip III of Spain did not want a resumption of war with England, and refused their request.
Nevertheless, their arrival led to the formation of a new Irish regiment in Flanders. The officers of the unit were Gaelic Irish nobles who recruited from their followers and dependents in Ireland.
This regiment was more overtly political than its predecessor in Spanish service, and was militantly hostile to English Protestant rule of Ireland. The regiment was led by Hugh O’Neill’s son, John. Prominent officers included Owen Roe O’Neill and Hugh Dubh O’Neill.
A new source of recruits came in the early 17th century, when Roman Catholics were banned from military and political office in Ireland. As a result, the Irish units in the Spanish service began attracting Catholic Old English officers such as Thomas Preston and Garret Barry. These men had more pro-English views than their Gaelic counterparts, and animosity was created over plans to use the Irish regiment to invade Ireland in 1627.
The regiment was garrisoned in Brussels during the truce in the Eighty Years’ War from 1609 to 1621. The regiment developed links with Irish Catholic clergy, based in the seminary there, who created Irish Colleges, including Florence Conroy.
Many of the Irish troops in Spanish service returned to Ireland after the Irish Rebellion of 1641. They fought in the armies of Confederate Ireland, a movement of Irish Catholics. When the Confederates were defeated, Ireland was occupied after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. About 34,000 Irish Confederate troops fled the country to seek service in Spain.
Some of them later deserted or defected to French service, where the conditions were deemed better.
During the 18th century, Spain’s Irish regiments saw service not only in Europe but also in the Americas. The Irlanda Regiment (raised 1698) was stationed in Havana from 1770 to 1771. The Ultonia Regiment (raised 1709) served in Mexico from 1768 to 1771. The Hibernia Regiment (raised 1709) served in Honduras from 1782 to 1783.
At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, all three of these Irish infantry regiments still formed part of the Spanish army. Heavy losses and recruiting difficulties diluted the Irish element in these units, although the officers remained of Irish ancestry.
The Hibernia Regiment had to be reconstituted with Galician recruits in 1811, and ended the war as an entirely Spanish corps. All three regiments were finally disbanded in 1818 on the grounds that insufficient recruits, whether Irish or other foreigners, were forthcoming.
An earlier exodus in 1690, during the same war, had formed the French Irish Brigade, who are sometimes described inaccurately as Wild Geese.
The ancient and traditional “mestiere delle armi” in Italy was also a well-known profession by the Irish. The “tercio” of Lucas Taf (around 500 men) served in Milan towards 1655. The Army of Savoy included also Irishmen, but in Italy the Irish were organized basically by the Spanish administration.
In 1694, another regiment in Milan was exclusively composed of Irishmen. Around the 3–4% of a total of 20,000 men were Irish in the Spanish Army of Milan. It is not a high figure, but it was important in terms of quality.
In this context, James Francis Fitz-James Stuart (1696–1739), Duke of Berwick and of Liria is just one example of this success. He began to serve the monarchy in 1711 and succeeded in becoming General Lieutenant (1732), ambassador in Russia, in Austria and in Naples, where he died.
In 1702, an Irish grenadier company led by Francis Terry entered Venetian service. This company of Jacobite exiles served at Zara until 1706.
Colonel Terry became the Colonel of a Venetian Dragoon Regiment, which the Terry family mostly commanded until 1797. Colonel Terry’s Dragoons uniforms were red faced blue in the Irish tradition.
The Limerick Regiment, of Irish Jacobites, transferred from Spanish service to that of the Bourbon king of Sicily in 1718.
There were substantial numbers of Irish officers and men in the armies or service of European powers, including the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
It was not uncommon for Irish commanders of the Habsburg Empire to encounter enemy armies led by other Irishmen. These were Irish soldiers who had fought alongside them in rebellions against British rule in Ireland.
An example is Peter Lacy, a field marshal in the Imperial Russian Army, whose son, Franz Moritz Graf von Lacy, served in the Austrian Army. General Maximilian Ulysses Graf von Browne, the Austrian commanding officer in the Battle of Lobositz, was also of Irish descent.
Irish recruitment for Austrian service included areas of the midlands of Ireland. Members of the Taaffe, O’Neill, and Wallis families served with Austria. In 1634, during the Thirty Years’ War, Irish officers led by Walter Deveraux assassinated general Albrecht von Wallenstein on the orders of the Austrian Emperor. Count Alexander O’Nelly (O’Neill), from Ulster, commanded the 42nd Bohemian Infantry Regiment from 1734 to 1743.
In the 19th century, Irish officers served in the Habsburg Empire. Laval Graf Nugent von Westmeath and Maximilian Graf O’Donnell von Tyrconnell saved the life of Emperor Franz Josef I during an assassination attempt.
Gottfried von Banfield became one of the most famous Austro-Hungarian naval air service pilots during the First World War. Gottfried Freiherr von Banfield (1890 – 1986) was known as the ‘Eagle of Trieste’ and was the last person in history to wear the Military Order of Maria Theresa.
He may be the only flying ace who flew a flying boat to five or more victories.
Gottfried von Banfield is credited with nine confirmed and 11 unconfirmed air victories, making him the most successful Austro-Hungarian naval fighter pilot. He is one of the most famous flying aces of Austria-Hungary.
Because he made most of his flights over the northern Adriatic, many of his air-victories could not be confirmed. This accounts for his high number of unconfirmed air victories.
In 1916, Gottfried von Banfield was awarded the Große Militär-Verdienstmedaille mit Schwertern (Grand Military Merit Medal with Swords). The Military Merit Medal is often referred to as the “Signum Laudis” (“Sign of Praise” in Latin) after the inscription on the reverse of the medal. Founded on April 1, 1916, this honor was intended for the “highest especially praiseworthy recognition”. The medal was awarded only 30 times, with 28 of its recipients being general officers. The other two awards were to Gottfried von Banfield in 1916, and cryptologist, Hermann Pokorny in 1918.
On August 17, 1917 Gottfried von Banfield was awarded the Ritterkreuz der Militär-Maria-Theresien-Orden (Knight’s Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa). Recipients of the order, who were not already members of the Austrian nobility, received the hereditary title of ‘Freiherr‘ (‘Baron’) to their family name. At the time of his death in 1986, Freiherr von Banfield was the last living Knight of the Military Order of Maria Theresa.
Swedish and Polish service
In 1609, Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy of Ireland, deported 1,300 former rebel Irish soldiers from Ulster to serve in the Protestant Swedish Army. However, under the influence of Catholic clergy, many of them deserted to Polish service.
The Catholic Irish troops in Protestant Swedish service changed sides during a Battle of Klushino, against largely Catholic Poland. At the time, Poland was the only European country with statutory freedom of religion. The Irish then served in Polish service for several years during the Polish–Muscovite War (1605–1618), until their wages went unpaid.
End of the Wild Geese
Irish recruitment for continental armies declined sharply after it was made illegal in 1745. In practical terms this meant that recruiting within Ireland itself effectively ceased. Irishmen seeking employment in foreign armies had to make their own way to the Continent.
In 1732, Sir Charles Wogan indicated in a letter to Dean Swift that 120,000 Irishmen had been killed and wounded in foreign service “within these forty years”. Swift later replied:
“I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valor and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think, above all other nations.”
During the late 1780s, there were three Irish regiments in France, and by the time of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, a volunteer Irish medical unit, the Franco-Irish Ambulance Brigade, was serving with the French Army.
It was some time before the British armed forces began to tap into Irish Catholic manpower. In the late 18th century, the Penal Laws were gradually relaxed, and in the 1790s the laws prohibiting Catholics bearing arms were abolished.
Thereafter, the British began recruiting Irish regiments for the Crown Force, including for such units as the Connaught Rangers. Several more Irish-labelled units were created in the 19th century.
By 1914, there were nine Irish infantry regiments in the British Army :
Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment
Royal Dublin Fusiliers
Royal Irish Regiment
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
Royal Irish Rifles
Royal Irish Fusiliers
Royal Munster Fusiliers
With the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, five of these regiments were disbanded, with most of the remainder undergoing a series of amalgamations between 1968 and 2006.
The United Kingdom still retains three Irish-named regiments: the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, and the London Irish Rifles.