“The Brigade at Fontenoy”


"The green flag is unfolded" before the battle. "There are stains to wash away." "Thrice blest the hour that witnesses The Briton turned to flee" from the French and Irish. God "grant us One day upon our own dear land Like that at Fontenoy!"


The first Irish Brigade, sent to France in 1688, became an integral part of the French army after the Jacobite defeat in Ireland. The Irish Brigade served the French army -- and did fight at Fontenoy -- until it was dissolved in 1791 as a result of the French Revolution. (source: _The Irish Brigade, A Brief History_ by David Kincaid at the Haunted Field Music site) - BS

Of course, by the time of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), it was a completely new set of Irish exiles from those who departed Ireland c. 1690.

The War of the Austrian Succession came about for complex reasons: When the Habsburg Emperor Joseph I died in 1711, just six years after his father, the Empire passed to his brother Charles VI even though Joseph had sons; the boys were too young to rule.

But Charles VI wasn't willing to pass the crown back when he died; instead, as early as 1713, he devised the "Pragmatic Sanction" to pass the succession to his descendents. Which, since he had no sons, meant his daughter Maria Theresa.

There was no particular reason for other countries to interfere, but the Habsburg Empire was a big place even prior to the reign of Charles VI, and Charles had gone so far as to try to reclaim Spain. So, at one time or another, Spain, France, Bavaria, Saxony, and Prussia went after Habsburg lands. (And, in Prussia's case, picked up a lot of them.)

The Fontenoy campaign began in April 1745, with Maurice of Saxony (Hermann Maurice , comte de Saxe, 1696-1750) leading a mostly French army against an alliance of Austrian, Dutch, Hannoverian, and British forces under the Duke of Cumberland (yes, the future "Butcher" Cumberland of Culloden) in the low countries. Cumberland's goal was to stop Saxe from taking Tournai.

Saxe, however, was much the better general; Cumberland, a typical Hannoverian, was brave and aggressive -- and stupid. Saxe picked the ground, and even though the English infantry proved better than the French, he used his artillery with enough effect to win the day.

The histories of the battle that I've read make little or no mention of Irish contributions; they were there, but they don't seem to have done anything decisive.

Tactically, Fontenoy was close to a draw: Both sides had about 50,000 troops in action, and both suffered about 15% casualties. But Saxe had won the campaign, relieving pressure on France; he had also lowered the reputation of British infantry. Maybe *that* is why the Irish celebrated it.

It's just possible that the Irish would have been better off had they done worse at Fontenoy. Susan Maclean Kybett, in _Bonnie Prince Charlie_, Dodd Mead, 1988, p. 111, implies that the result of the battle put great pressure on Bonnie Prince Charlie and his colleagues in Paris at the time. They of course wanted to invade Britain, but the French were not being helpful. Had the French felt more pressure, they might have given Charlie enough support to do some good -- which might have led to a Stuart restoration, which would certainly have helped the Irish. As it was, the French gave Charlie just enough support to get in trouble: They sailed off to start the Forty-Five, but with no money, no French soldiers, no French generals to argue around the inept clan chiefs, and no equipment. The surprise is not that the Forty-Five failed; it's that such a hurried, under-funded botch came so close to success.

Fontenoy resulted in a famous incident which says much about the fighting methods of the time, in which British and French soldiers invited the other to fire first (see Geoffrey Wawro, _The Austro-Prussian War: Austria's War with Prussia and Italy in 1866_, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 7). This wasn't politeness; in an era when muskets were extremely inaccurate, the side that fired first generally wasted its first volley, and it took a long time to relaod.

O'Conor apparently lists the author as B. "Bowling" rather than "Dowling"; given that Bartholomew Dowling is a recognized if relatively minor poet (_Granger's Index to Poetry_ has citations to his works "Our Last Toast," "The Revel," "Revelry for the Dying," and "Stand to your Glasses), I'm assuming "Dowling" is correct.

There is another Irish nationalist piece on Fontenoy; Thomas Davis wrote a poem "Fontenoy," published e.g. in Kathleen Hoagland, editor, _One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry_ (New York, 1947), pp. 476-478. I've seen no evidence that it is traditional. - RBW

Historical references

  • May 11, 1745: the French defeat the British and their allies at Fontenoy in South West Belgium (War of the Austrian Succession or King George's War) (source: _The Battle of Fontenoy 1745_ at BritishBattles.com site; "Irish" does not appear in the article)


  1. O'Conor, p. 129, "The Brigade at Fontenoy" (1 text)
  2. OLochlainn-More 13, "The Brigade at Fontenoy" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. ADDITIONAL: Charles Gavan Duffy, editor, The Ballad Poetry of Ireland (1845), pp. 215-218, "'The Brigade' at Fontenoy"
  4. Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859), Vol I, pp. 229-231, "The Brigade at Fontenoy"
  5. Roud #9758
  6. BI, OLcM013


Author: Bartholomew Dowling (1823-1863) (source: OLochlainn-More)
Earliest date: 1845 (Duffy; also Duffy's magazine _The Nation,_ according to OLochlainn-More)
Found in: Ireland