After The Wild Geese left Ireland in 1691 they fought gallantly for their adopted communities. With ferocity and courage hey stood their ground on the battlefield, fighting for every cause but their own.
Patrick Sarsfield’s famous last words were ‘Oh, that this were for Ireland’. Sarsfield and many of the original Wild Geese did not see Ireland again after their departure, but in the early 1800s their descendants were given the chance to return home.
In his battle against the British Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte turned to Irish soldiers serving in Europe. He created the Legion Irlandaise to help lead an invasion of Ireland, recognising their skill on the battlefield, defiant hearts and abundant courage. They were at the core of his plans, at the head of an invasion force of 20,000 soldiers. The French and Irish cause was aligned. It was time for The Wild Geese to return home.
Unfortunately the invasion did not go according to plan. Napoleon’s forces could not break through the British blockade and fierce weather sent the ships back to the shores of France. Once again, The Wild Geese had to wait.
But ever the survivors the Irish Legion marched on. It received it’s own flag in 1804 and in 1805 it expanded into a full regiment, receiving troops from Ireland, Germany and Poland. It was the only foreign legion in the French army.
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 his drum during the invading charge, even though he was critically wounded. For this, he was given the Legion of Honour.
The regiment was also awarded the French Imperial Eagle – a symbol of military importance.
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.