Since The Wild Geese left Ireland in 1691, they had fought gallantly for every cause but their own. Patrick Sarsfield’s famous last word were ‘Oh, that this were for Ireland’.
Napoleon Bonaparte planned to invade Ireland in order to destabilise Britain, and in preparation he created The Irish Legion. He appealed to the descendants of The Wild Geese. It was time for The Wild Geese to fight for their own cause and go home.
The Irish Legion was part of a larger war effort from Napoleon. Troops were trained in camps at Boulogne, Bruges and Montreuil, and a large ‘National Flotilla’ was built for an invasion. In 1804, the Legion received a new flag which could be raised when their dream finally became a reality.
But Napoleon’s invasion did go according to plan. Favouring quick, surprise attacks, Napoleon’s forces could not break the British blockade. Once again, The Wild Geese had to wait.
But The Irish Legion remained in service. The Legion received an influx of exiled soldiers from Germany and Poland, and in 1805 it was restructured into a regiment – the only foreign regiment in the French army. It was also awarded the French Imperial Eagle – a symbol of military importance.
The regiment fought in many battles, and were a particularly prominent force at the Siege of Astorga (21 March – 22 April 1810) when they lead the charge that captured the Spanish city. Undeterred from the failed attempt to return home, the soldiers in the regiment maintained a high level of commitment. The regiment’s drummer boy continued to beat the invading charge, even though he was critically wounded. For this, he was given the Legion of Honour.
In his memoirs, Napoleon wondered: ‘Had I gone on an Irish expedition rather than on the Egyptian one (1798 – 1801) … what would England be today? What would the continent and the political world be like?’
The tales of Irish soldiers have never been forgotten.