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.ch heavy cavalry.
The first battles in the new war did not go well for France. On June 27th 1743, the Pragmatic Army of British, Austrian, and Hanoverian troops under King George II of Britain fought their way out of a potential French trap at Dettingen, defeating the French blocking force under the Duc de Gramont. The Brigade des Irlandois, serving with the main French body under Maréchal Noailles, was not engaged. In 1744, French attention shifted to Flanders, where Louis XV intended to command in person. In deference to the King’s lack of military experience, Comte Maurice de Saxe was appointed as Maréchal and placed in command, under Louis’ direction. Throughout 1744, Saxe fought a campaign of manoeuvre against the Pragmatic Army, now under Field Marshal Wade, whilst keeping a strong corps in hand around Dunkirk with a view to a descent on England in support of a Jacobite rising. Saxe got the better of Wade and drove the allies back through the Low Countries, but storms in the Channel prevented the invasion plans being put into practice. For the next year’s campaigning, Saxe therefore concentrated all his troops into his field army, which, accompanied by Louis XV and the Dauphin, was to march into the Austrian Netherlands and force a decisive battle.
To provoke the allies into attacking him, Saxe laid siege to the fortress of Tournai. The Pragmatic Army, now under George II’s second son the Duke of Cumberland, and incorporating a substantial Dutch contingent under the Prince of Waldeck, marched to relieve the fortress. Saxe met them on May 11th 1745 in a prepared position centred on the village of Fontenoy. In the epic and hard-fought battle that ensued, the Brigade des Irlandois, under the command of Viscount Clare, was instrumental in securing the French victory, first helping shore up the French left-centre after the Gardes Francaises broke and ran, and then playing a key role in the counterattack that smashed Cumberland’s massed column of British infantry. The Régiment de Dillon lost five officers and fifty-one men killed in the battle or who died as a result of the wounds they sustained, and nine officers and seventy men wounded: a testimony to the fierce fighting in which it had been involved. Amongst the dead was the regiment’s Colonel, the Chevalier Jacques de Dillon, along with Lieutenant-Colonel Mannery and Capitaines Kearney, Manning, and Nihill. Command of the regiment was now awarded, on the field of battle, to Edouard, the fourth son of Comte Arthur de Dillon. Under its new commander, the bulk of the regiment continued to serve in the Low Countries as Saxe captured a succession of enemy fortresses and pushed towards the Netherlands. After the capture of Ghent, where a large magazine established by the British Army had been situated, the captured red cloth was issued to the regiments of the Brigade des Irlandois to make new uniforms, as a reward for their services.
That Saxe was able to make such a devastating inroad into the Austrian Netherlands was due in no small part to the outbreak of the great Jacobite uprising of 1745. After the Jacobite victory at Prestonpans, much of the British Army was withdrawn from the continent in order to put down the rebellion and thus Saxe enjoyed a considerable advantage until the troops began to return in late 1746 after the rebellion had been crushed. After the failure of the invasion plans of 1744, it seems reasonably clear that the French saw Charles Edward Stuart’s venture as a means of distracting the British and diverting troops from the Flanders front, rather than a potential means of invading Britain. Nevertheless, French troops were sent to aid the Jacobites, and the bulk of these were drawn from the Irish and Scottish regiments in the pay of Louis XV. At first, expert officers were sent as advisors, but later plans called for larger numbers of troops from the Brigade des Irlandois to be shipped over. The initial contribution came in the form of a provisional Battalion of Irish Picquets, formed by drawing off four officers and forty-eight men from each of the six regiments. In the event, only the Picquets from Dillon’s, Roth’s and Lally’s made it to Scotland, along with the Régiment Royal Ecossois. Under the command of Brigadier Walter Stapleton, these troops served with distinction at Falkirk on January 17th 1746 and then at Culloden, where they were joined by a fourth picquet from the Régiment de Berwick and a squadron of the Régiment de Fitzjames. After taking heavy losses serving as a rearguard in order to allow the defeated Jacobites to escape, the surviving French troops surrendered and were eventually repatriated to France.
Because the bulk of the Brigade des Irlandois was either in Scotland or awaiting shipment there, the Irish regiments spent the campaigning season of 1746 on second line duties and thus missed the second of Saxe’s three great victories, at Rocoux on October 11th. Some accounts do suggest that elements of the Brigade, including the Régiment de Dillon and the Régiment de Bulkeley, did arrive in time to take part in the fighting. This is not born out by the official records, but is by no means impossible since neither regiment had sent as many men to Scotland as had the others in the Brigade. During the winter of 1746-1747, all six Irish infantry regiments were sent to Normandy, where it was feared that the British might mount a coastal raid. This fear proved groundless, and they were back with Saxe’s army in time for the campaign of 1747, which culminated in the Battle of Lauffeld on July 2nd. Here the Brigade des Irlandois again distinguished itself under the command of Lord Dunkeld, being responsible, along with the French troops of the Régiment des Royal Vaisseux, for the capture of Lauffeld village. Again, casualties in the Régiment de Dillon were heavy: eight officers being returned as dead and five wounded, which would imply, all things being equal, rank and file casualties at least proportionate to those at Fontenoy. Amongst the dead was the Colonel, Edouard de Dillon, who fell into enemy hands already mortally wounded, and died shortly thereafter.
Lauffeld was the last action of the War of the Austrian Succession in which the Brigade des Irlandois participated, peace being concluded the following year. In an attempt to secure a balance of power in Europe, Louis XV gave up much of the territory that Saxe’s exertions had won him, but it was a doomed attempt and Europe would soon be back at war. The eclipse of Jacobitism after the crushing of the ‘Forty-Five also led to a further decrease in the number of Irishmen willing to make a career in a foreign army, leading to a steady dilution of the Irish blood in the rank and file of the regiments of the Brigade des Irlandois. For the Régiment de Dillon, a more serious shortfall existed after Lauffeld in that there were no more scions of the house of Dillon free to assume the colonelcy made vacant by the death of Edouard. The youngest of Comte Arthur de Dillon’s five sons, also named Arthur, still lived, but he had entered the Church, eventually becoming Archbishop of Narbonne, and thus was unable to take over the family regiment. Louis XV was asked to give the command to some other officer of Irish descent, but the King showed a marked gratitude for the services of the Dillon family, and decreed instead that the command be held in trust until a son of the house was of an age where he could take it up. Nominally, the colonelcy reverted to Henry, Viscount Dillon, who continued to take an interest in the regiment that he had once commanded, but the military duties of the post were exercised from 1747 by the Comte de Sheldon as Colonel-Commandant. In 1765, Henry’s second son Comte Arthur de Dillon joined the regiment as a fifteen-year-old cadet, and two years later, on coming of age, he succeeded to the colonelcy. Due to his youth, however, he did not in practice exercise command of the regiment until 1772.
During Sheldon’s tenure in command, France was engaged in the disastrous Seven Years War, during which she lost Canada and most of her Indian possessions. Although the Comte de Lally took his regiment to India with him, the remainder of the Brigade des Irlandois fought in Europe. Initially they were engaged on coastal defence duties, but with a view to being used in the invasion of Britain planned for 1759. In 1757 the Régiment de Dillon was in garrison at Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, in Picardy. After the defeat of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, the invasion plans had to be cancelled, and in 1760 the Brigade des Irlandois was posted to join the French armies in Germany. Here they were distinguished in the defence of Marburg the following year, and again at the Battle of Vellinghausen where they were one of the few formations on the French left wing to make any appreciable gains. Thereafter they were encamped at Dunkirk as part of a renewed attempt to threaten an invasion of England. With the French navy in such dire straits, this was never a serious possibility, and they were still there when the war came to an end in 1763. During this time, the Régiment de Lally, which had been taken prisoner in India, was disbanded and those men who returned from captivity were incorporated into the Régiment de Dillon. When the French infantry was numbered during this period, the Régiment de Dillon was ranked as the 94th: these numbers were never used as titles, but were simply intended to clarify the relative seniority of different units.
After the Seven Years War, it proved increasingly difficult to maintain the five remaining Irish regiments at full strength, although some manpower was obtained when the last two Jacobite Scots regiments in French pay were disbanded in 1762. Eventually it proved necessary to amalgamate some of the Irish, and in April 1775 the regiments of Dillon and Bulkeley were combined into a single unit. Because the Régiment de Bulkeley was the senior unit, having started life as the original Régiment de Mountcashel in 1690, what officially happened was that the original Régiment de Dillon was absorbed into the Régiment de Bulkeley. However, since the Colonel of the new combined regiment remained Comte Arthur de Dillon, it was the name and identity of the Régiment de Dillon that were perpetuated. With fewer regiments in the French army, the Régiment de Dillon was now the 87th Regiment. On March 1st 1780, Comte Arthur de Dillon was promoted to the rank of Brigadier, and although this did not prevent his retaining the titular colonelcy in the way that his grandfather and namesake had done, he elected to resign it in favour of a distant relative, the Chevalier Theobald de Dillon. This Theobald was not, as some accounts imply, Arthur’s younger brother, also of that name, who had in fact died in infancy. Indeed, the new Colonel was actually some five years older than the man he replaced, having been born in Dublin in 1745. He was the son of Thomas Dillon, a distant cousin of the main Dillon line, who had moved his family to France the year after Theobald’s birth. The young man had grown up in Orléans, and had entered the Régiment de Dillon as a cadet towards the close of the Seven Years War, rising through the ranks thereafter.
By this time, the Regiment was again in action, having formed part of the expeditionary force under the Comte d’Estaing sent to aid the rebels in Britain’s North American colonies. This force captured the islands of Grenada, St Eustacia, Tobago, and St. Christopher, and also served in the 1779 operations against Savannah, Georgia. Comte Arthur de Dillon served as Governor of St Christopher, and after the island was returned to Britain as part of the peace settlement he was complemented by the British government for the skill with which he had administered the colony during the French occupation. Arthur’s skill was also recognised by the French court, and he was promoted to Maréchal de Camp and appointed Governor of the island of Tobago. He was still in this post when King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General in 1789 in a bid to resolve France’s disastrous economy, and was elected as a Deputy in order to represent the colonial interests. He was accordingly in Paris when the French Revolution broke out, and when this led to renewed war in Europe he went to the front to serve under Dumouriez in the latter’s campaigns in Champagne, culminating in the recapture of Verdun. Dillon was an advocate of Constitutional Monarchy, and spoke out in favour of its implementation in France. As the Revolution became increasingly extreme in its tone this brought him under suspicion, and in early 1793 he was arrested on the orders of the Committee of Public Safety. With the Great Terror at its height, he stood little chance of escaping death, and was guillotined on April 14th the same year. The story is related, possibly apocryphally, that when the lady due to be guillotined before him expressed fear of her impending death and asked him to go first, he promptly stepped up to the scaffold replying, “Anything to oblige a lady”. He then gave a last shout of “Vive le Roi!”, apparently delivered in his best parade-ground voice, and laid his head down beneath the blade.
By the time that Comte Arthur de Dillon went to the guillotine, the last three regiments of the Brigade des Irlandois had, like the rest of the French Army, been stripped of their names and designated only by their numbers. What was more, all foreign regiments were decreed as of July 21st 1791 to be French, and filled up with recruits irrespective of nationality. Although the 87eme Regiment d’Infanterie continued in existence until 1803, lately as the 87eme Demi-Brigade de Ligne, the reorganisations and amalgamations of the Revolutionary era meant that the character of the Régiment de Dillon soon disappeared. However, the regiment’s second battalion was serving in the West Indies, and in September 1793 its last remnant – 180 men – was taken prisoner when Santo Domingo fell to the British. In a strange twist, the 2/87eme Demi-Brigade reconstituted itself as the Régiment de Dillon once again, and fought alongside the British against the remaining Revolutionary French forces in the Caribbean. Not until November 1796 was this remnant disbanded, and, even then, many of the surviving men continued to serve in a new Irish Brigade being raised for British Service. This formation lasted only until 1798, but some of the remaining officers and men went on to form part of a new regiment, raised out of a rag-tag mixture drawn from half the nations of Europe but with a core of émigré officers from the old Brigade des Irlandois. Lasting until 1814 and serving in the Mediterranean throughout its existence, this regiment perpetuated the name of Dillon’s Regiment on into the Napoleonic era, although its linear descent from the original Jacobite regiment was tenuous at best.
Moving back to the 1790s, the fate of the last of the Irish who remained in French service –including the men of 1/87eme Demi-Brigade, formerly the Régiment de Dillon – was varied. Some chose to stay in French service under the Revolution, including the Chevalier Theobald de Dillon, who in 1791 was appointed to the rank of Général de Division. He served in Flanders against the Austrians during the opening campaigns against the Austrians, but on April 29th 1792 he was murdered by his own troops who, in their panic after encountering what they believed to be a large Austrian force, accused him of treachery. Another former officer who chose to remain was Jacques-Etienne-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald, a Capitaine at the time of the Revolution, who would obtain a marshal’s baton under Napoleon. Other officers from the Brigade des Irlandois left France and joined the Royalist émigrés in Germany. There, in 1792, the Comte de Provence, the future King Louis XVIII, formally disbanded the Brigade des Irlandois and presented its last officers with a farewell banner inscribed with the Latin motto Semper et Ubique Fidelis – Always and Everywhere Faithful.