Incidents of War - The Earl of Granard Does His Bit
In 1780 George Forbes (1760-1837) inherited his father’s title, becoming the Sixth Earl of Granard, in what is now Northern Ireland. Already married, well educated, and, of course, rich, the young man made the “Grand Tour”, visiting Italy, France, Austria, and even Prussia, where King Frederick the Great invited him to observe the royal maneuvers in the summer of 1785.
Back in Ireland, the Earl adhered to the “liberal” faction in politics, and was a noted opponent of proposals to merge Ireland into the United Kingdom, while managing his estates and living the life of a proper aristocrat.
Then, in 1793, Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. Granard, who had done a tour as a junior officer, secured a lieutenant-colonelcy in May of 1794 by the simple expedient of buying it and promising to raise a new regiment for the British Army. Commission in hand, the Earl apparently immediately began lobbying for a promotion to general and command in Ireland, prompting Banastare Tarleton (an able soldier, albeit a thug) to say in Parliament that Granard “jumped into the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and in seventeen days experience found himself qualified for the command of the army.”
Rebuffed in his pursuit of higher command, the Earl applied himself to raising his regiment, which was completed in November of 1794. Designated the 108th Foot and recruited primarily from Irish volunteers and drafted militiamen, the regiment was sent abroad to serve as part of the garrison of Gibraltar, but was disbanded in 1796. Meanwhile the Earl helped raise the Royal Longford Militia to deter unrest and a possible French invasion. Alas, “deterrence” didn’t work. In May of 1798 the United Irishmen Rebellion erupted all across the Emerald Isle, and then the French arrived.
On August 22, 1798, a small French squadron sailed into Killala Bay, in County Mayo, and landed General de division Jean Humbert with some 1,100 troops, the first “wave” of what was to be a series of French expeditions intended to support the United Irishmen. Proclaiming the imminent liberation of Ireland from the hated English, Humbert attracted many volunteers, and began marching inland. Very early on the 27th, the column, with about 2000 Irish volunteers encountered the British at Castlebar, about 25 miles inland.
Maj. Gen. Gerard Lake, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution and the 1794-1795 campaign in the Netherlands, had some 6,000 men. These he deployed in three lines. Four pieces of regular artillery were in the first line, with a regiment of Irish militia. The second line consisted of battalions of Scottish militiamen and Irish Yeomanry, plus two cannon, while the third comprised the Earl of Granard with four companies of his Longford militia., Behind these stood some regular cavalrymen and yeomanry in reserve.
The battle opened when the French approached at about 6:00 a.m. The British artillery quickly opened fire, and began inflicting heavy losses on the French and Irish. Thinking quickly, Humbert took advantage of a defile that offered some cover to get his French regulars close enough to the British first line to undertake a bayonet charge. The fierce onset of the French shook the militiamen supporting the British cannon, and they quickly decamped for the rear, taking with them the second line, and then the third, not to mention General Lake and his staff, who raced away with the best of them. Some of the Irish militiamen actually joined the French, while others spread through the country looting as they went. Men from the Longford Militia were singled out as particularly rapacious.
To his credit, the Earl attempted to make a stand, commandeering a cannon and rallying a few men who briefly held a bridge across a small stream in the center of the town. They soon pulled out, covered by some cavalrymen. The Earl later was present at the final battle of the campaign, the Battle of Ballinamuck on September 8, 1798. There some 5,000 British regulars destroyed Humbert’s little army, by then numbering about 2,500. British losses were fewer than 30 men killed or wounded, while the French and Irish lost about over 500 killed. Although the French surrendered with the honors of war, in a ceremony at which the Earl was present, over 200 of their Irish volunteers who were unable to flee were eventually executed.
After the suppression of the United Irishmen, the Earl remained active in the militia for a time, while staunchly opposing union with Great Britain. When that came to pass in 1800, he devoted himself to managing his estates while supporting reform and Catholic Emancipation. Remaining active in the militia, Granard was promoted steadily, to colonel in the regular army in 1801, major-general in 1808, lieutenant-general in 1813, and full general in 1830, an extraordinary achievement for a man who had only been under fire once. It probably didn’t hurt that Lord Cornwallis (the same who had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781), who had commanded the British forces during the suppression of the United Irishmen, effusively praised the Earl of Granard for his services at Castlebar and during the campaign.