In 1688, the Catholic James II was deposed as ruler of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William, Prince of Orange, who thereafter ruled jointly as William III and Mary II. However, James was not prepared to accept the loss of his kingdoms, and sought to regain his throne: this decision marked the beginning of nearly eighty years of Jacobite attempts to put the male Stuart line, represented by James and his heirs, back in power.
James’ bid to regain his kingdoms began in Ireland, where much of the largely Catholic population rallied to his cause. But the British Army had gone over to the new regime, and enthusiastic Jacobite volunteers required supplementing by veteran regular troop. In 1690 James accordingly struck a deal with Louis XIV of France: James would send Louis a brigade of Irish troops to join the French army, which was fighting the English, Austrians, and Dutch in Europe, in return for which Louis would – eventually – send French regulars to help James in Ireland. The brigade sent to France was commanded by Viscount Mountcashel, and was organised for the French service into three regiments, whose colonels were Mountcashel himself, the Hon. Daniel O’Brien, and the Hon. Arthur Dillon. Two further regiments sent by James – Butler’s and Feilding’s – were broken up and their men drafted into the other three. In the French manner, these regiments were then known by the names of their successive colonels. However, the title of the third of these never changed, each successive commander over the next century being a member of the house of Dillon.
The first record of the Dillon family in Irish history comes from 1185, when the Chevalier Henri Delion of Aquitaine was granted estates there by King Henry II. The family grew and prospered, and developed a strong military tradition. In 1622, Sir Theobald Dillon was raised to the Irish Peerage as Viscount Dillon of Costello-Gallen, in the County of Mayo, and it was his descendant who commanded the regiment that entered the French service in 1690. The Hon. Arthur Dillon was the second son of the 7th Viscount Dillon, another Theobald, and whilst Arthur went to France his father and his elder brother, the Hon. Henry Dillon, remained in Ireland to support the Jacobite cause. Henry also commanded a regiment, and thus there were at this point two Dillon’s Regiments: Henry’s in the service of King James and Arthur’s, properly the Régiment de Dillon, in that of King Louis.
Despite French support, the Jacobite cause in Ireland ultimately failed. James fled to France after the defeat at the Boyne on July 12th 1690, and the last real hope of a comeback was extinguished after the defeat at Aughrim a year later. Amongst those who fell at Aughrim was Theobald, 7th Viscount Dillon. On October 3rd 1691, the Treaty of Limerick was concluded, by which the French troops in Ireland, and such of the Irish Jacobites as wished to accompany them, were permitted to embark for France. Henry Dillon, who had succeeded his father to become the 8th Viscount, chose to stay in Ireland and was eventually able to overturn the Royal decree that had outlawed his father. This enabled him to retain the family estates, which passed in turn, on Henry’s death in 1713, to his son Richard who became the 9th Viscount.
From those Irish who did go to France, the original Wild Geese, James formed an army-in-exile, largely paid for by the French but retaining at least a nominal independence. Because, to Stuart eyes, this was the real British Army, they were uniformed in red : this would distinguish the Irish regiments in the French service throughout their history, also being adopted by the original three regiments of Mountcashel’s Brigade. Whereas the second wave of Irish fought alongside the French in Flanders, seeing action at Steenkerque and Neerwinden, Mountcashel’s Brigade was sent to the Mediterranean, fighting first in Italy and then in Spain. When the French took Barcelona, in what was to prove one of the last actions of the war, it was the Irish regiments of Dillon and Clancarty that broke into the fortress, receiving the praise of Maréchal Vendôme for their gallantry. When the Treaty of Ryswick ended the War of the League of Augsburg in 1697, one of its stipulations was that James’ troops be disbanded. Only the three original Irish regiments of Mountcashel’s Brigade were exempted, being part of the French Army proper, and thus the Régiment de Dillon survived.
After four years of peace, the European struggle for power broke out into war yet again, with the ageing Louis XIV seeking to place his grandson on the vacant Spanish throne. With much of Europe up in arms against France, Louis needed all the troops he could get, and sought the aid of the Stuart pretender “James III”, thirteen year-old son of the late King James II, to raise more Irish regiments. The result was the creation of five more Irish infantry regiments in French service, for a total of eight, and one regiment of cavalry. In practice, the bulk of these “new” regiments came from the reassembled remnants of the late King’s army-in-exile, but were now an integral part of the French Army. The bulk of the Irish regiments, including the Régiment de Dillon were initially posted to Italy, as part of Maréchal Villeroi’s army opposing the Austrians under Prince Eugene of Savoy. There they distinguished themselves in a number of actions, most notably the defence of Cremona in 1702.
Other Irish regiments saw action at Blenheim, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet, where they fought with distinction despite the French being defeated on each occasion. Meanwhile, the Régiment de Dillon remained in the southern theatre, whilst its Colonel, the Hon. Arthur Dillon, rose to distinction and served extensively in Germany and Spain. In the latter theatre he was one of the key subordinates of the Maréchal Duc de Berwick, illegitimate son of James II, and played a leading role in the capture of Barcelona. His regiment followed him to Spain, and also served with distinction in that siege. By the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, Arthur was a Lieutenant-Général, and widely recognised as a brave and competent commander. In 1711, he was created Comte de Dillon and decorated with the Ordre de Saint-Louis. He was also lucky, never being wounded in all of his forty years of service, from 1690 to 1730. He remained an active Jacobite all his life, and this prevented his further military employment after 1715 when the regency governing France for the young Louis XV sought to reach a reconciliation with Britain’s new Hanoverian kings. Formally retiring from the French Army at the age of sixty, Arthur died three years later, in 1733.
Comte Arthur de Dillon’s successor as Colonel of the regiment was his eldest son, the Comte Charles de Dillon, born in 1701. As was typical of the times, the infant Charles was commissioned into his father’s regiment at the tender age of four in order to advance his promotion by seniority, and was accordingly a Captaine by the time he was seventeen. He commanded the regiment during the War of the Polish Succession, 1733-1735, during which it served on the Rhine front including the sieges of Kehl and Philippsburg. However, Charles seems to have primarily set his sights on Ireland rather than France as the site of his future career. In 1735, he married his second cousin, Lady Frances Dillon, daughter of the 9th Viscount Dillon, and in September 1736, Europe again being at peace, he went over to Ireland to take possession of family property there. Charles did not return to France thereafter, although he did not resign his commission and was in fact promoted to the rank of Brigadier in 1740. It seems likely that his marriage was intended to prevent the title passing out of the family in the event that Frances had married elsewhere. In February 1737, the 9th Viscount Dillon died and Charles inherited the title and estates, the heirs of Henry, the 8th Viscount, now being extinct in the male line.
The new Viscount did not long enjoy his new status, dying in London in November 1741. Frances, his wife, had died in January 1739. Charles was succeeded both in the Irish Peerage and as Colonel of the family regiment by his brother, Arthur’s second son, the Comte Henri de Dillon, who now also became the 11th Viscount. Henri had also entered the regiment at a young age, and had served under his brother’s command in Germany, but, like his brother, he preferred reconciliation with the Anglo-Irish establishment to continued service with France. Whilst Britain and France were at peace, his holding a French commission posed no problems in an age where service with a foreign army was still acceptable, particularly for a Catholic aristocrat unable to serve the British crown. Henri could even square his conscience with fighting at Dettingen against the British under George II in person, as the polite fiction was still at this point being maintained that the British Army was acting as the auxiliary of the Austrians, and that Britain and France were at peace. However, in 1744 Britain entered the War of the Austrian Succession as a full belligerent, presenting Henri with a choice between the two nations. On the advice of Louis XV, he resigned from the French Army and left France for Ireland in order to secure his estates, which would otherwise have been forfeit. Henri’s three remaining brothers all chose to remain in France, where the third brother, the Chevalier Jacques de Dillon, succeeded to the family colonelcy. Henri, now Henry, married Lady Charlotte Lee, daughter of the Earl of Lichfield, and lived until 1787.
The War of the Austrian Succession, which ran from 1740 to 1748, would prove to be the apogee of French military fortunes during the ancien régime, and France’s Irish Regiments would play a leading role in these successes. Due to a shortage of Irish recruits, the number of regiments had been reduced to five of infantry and one of cavalry, but in 1744 a sixth infantry unit, the Régiment de Lally, was created by drawing a cadre from each of the other five. Comte Thomas de Lally, the new regiment’s commander, had previously been Major of the Régiment de Dillon. All regiments began to recruit extensively from British prisoners and deserters, but their officers were drawn exclusively from Irish exiles or their descendents. The six regiments each now had only a single battalion, although some had mustered as many as three back in the 1690s, and all six were brigaded together to form a single command. The norm in the French service was to designate a brigade by the name of its senior regiment, but instead the new formation was titled the Brigade des Irlandois, or Irish Brigade. The only Irish cavalry unit, the Régiment de Fitzjames, was brigaded with units of the French heavy cavalry.
To be continued…