Two French Revolutionary Soldiers in Rebel Ireland 1798


(General Humbert Summer School, Ballina, Co. Mayo)

In this paper, I want to look at the two most prominent French soldiers in Rebel Mayo in 1798, General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert and General Jean Sarrazin, the second in command. I wish to argue that of the two the more proficient of them was Sarrazin rather than Humbert. But who was Humbert anyway ? One of the best descriptions of him is by Bishop Stock :

Of good height and shape, in the full vigour of life, prompt to decide, quick in execution, apparently master of his art, you could not refuse him the praise of a good officer, while his physiognomy forbade you to like him as a man. His eye, which was small and sleepy — the effect, probably, of much watching — cast a side-long glance of insidiousness, and even of cruelty : it was the eye of a cat, preparing to spring on her prey. His education and manners were indicative of a person sprung from the lowest orders of society, though he knew how — as most of his countrymen can do — to assume, when it was convenient, the deportment of a gentleman.

For learning, he scarcely had enough to enable him to write his name. His passions were furious, and all his behaviour seemed marked with the characters of roughness and violence. A narrower observation of him, however, served to discover that much of this roughness was the result of art, being assumed with the view of extorting by terror a ready compliance with his commands. (1)

This description of General Humbert comes from the pen of Bishop Joseph Stock, who found himself host to the French on their sudden arrival in Killala on August 22nd, 1798. A less favourable picture of General Humbert, however, has been left by a member of the expedition, Captain Jean Louis Jobit, a Breton (2).

Jobit contended that Humbert did not deserve his reputation for bravery, that his conduct always brought discredit to the human race, that Humbert abused the confidence of his government and showed himself to be an unworthy General. Humbert, Jobit wrote, was « usually haughty, rude and extremely coarse, but if any man had the character to stand up to him he immediately fell to pieces and backed down ». According to Jobit, Humbert was always drunk.

« A gallant soldier of fortune, but whose heart was better than his head », was the harsh but not unfair verdict on Humbert of William Tone, son of Wolfe Tone. In his own day, Humbert was the butt of several jokes about his lack of intelligence. (One such story was that when Carnot, a member of the French Government, the Directory, had explained the difficulty of transporting ships to the British Isles, Humbert replied, « well, why don’t we march there ? »).

Humbert was a French Michael Collins but without the brains to match the good looks and the outstanding courage.

What is not in doubt was his instinctive belief that he had a mission to free Ireland. In 1796 he had accompanied General Lazare Hoche to Bantry Bay. His instructions from Carnot had been to land with a small force of advance troops, engage in commando-style raids at night, destroying bridges, burning down houses, terrorising the pro-English citizenry. These were the kind of tactics that Humbert had used in the Vendée, in the South-West of France, with his notorious Black Legion, which Jobit so detested. Had the French succeeded in landing in 1796, he would have played the role of a terrorist. Humbert was one of the first guerrilla fighters of modern times.

We can, therefore, imagine the high spirits of Humbert on landing in Mayo in 1798. Not only had he achieved his cherished ambition of setting foot in Ireland, he had done so on his 31st birthday. Excitedly, he told the Bishop that he was the forerunner for a far larger expedition and that, within a month, Ireland would be a free and happy nation under France’s protection. Eagerly, he invited the Bishop to join him.

The Bishop’s polite but firm refusal to abandon King George III for the Directory dampened Humbert’s spirits but he believed that the prelate’s response would be untypical. He had been assured by the United Irishmen that Catholics and Protestants were discontent with English rule. Humbert was to discover that Protestants would not join him and that their opposition would constitute a major obstacle to his success in Ireland.

A second major difficulty, which confronted Humbert even before leaving France, was the lack of money. It was only by forcing the merchants and magistrates of La Rochelle to lend him money that he had been able to set sail, though during the voyage he also faced a near mutiny by the troops who wanted their wages in advance. To overcome the problem of an empty treasure chest in Ireland, Humbert issued his own currency notes — assignats — whose value was to be guaranteed by the new Government — the Directory of Connaught. When confidence in both the new government and its finances could not be obtained, Humbert resorted to forced loans, but raised very little. Mayo, indeed, was the poorest part of Ireland.

The third and most severe difficulty stemmed from the failure of the Directory to send the promised reinforcements that would link up with the small pioneering band of 1,100 men. More concerned about Napoleon Bonaparte’s fortunes in Egypt, the Directory under-rated Humbert’s prospects for success in Ireland. France deserted him (3).

A study of Humbert’s performance in Ireland was made at the start of this century by the French military historian, Edouard Desbrière (4). Top marks are given to Humbert and the Army of Ireland for their quick adjustment to land warfare after the long and uncomfortable sea voyage ; the seizure of Killala was « an operation briskly and energetically carried out », and the speedy capture of Ballina contrasts with the disarray of the yeomanry.

In Desbrière’s opinion, Humbert took Castlebar in style :

A rapid and surprise march, which forces the enemy to alter its plans at the very moment of battle, the dispersal of the advance guard, a war of attrition on all fronts of battle despite the sudden changes of fortune : the full flight of the Irish and the enormous losses among the grenadiers who bore the brunt of the fighting ; and, lastly, the break-through achieved by the fielding of the reserve batallion which led the offensive — all this, right up to the chase beyond the town, bears the mark of the most elementary, but at the same time, the most effective and the most enlightened tactics.

With odds put by Desbrière at seven to one against him, the former rabbit-skin salesman and horse-trader from the Vosges, fighting in a foreign land, without a line of retreat, with diminishing hope of reinforcements, confounded everyone with his bravery and his sharp military eye. Connaught became his — temporarily.

The major question, however, arises of whether Humbert might have still overcome the odds against him had he pushed onwards immediately after « The Races of Castlebar » when the English forces were in disarray and when Lord Cornwallis doubted the competence of his own men.

Controversy surrounds Humbert’s eight-day sojourn in Castlebar and his subsequent flight at the approach of the British forces under Cornwallis. Captain Jobit argued that Humbert made one error after another ; « that he should have either set off the day after taking the town to press home his advantage against a demoralised enemy, fearful and disturbed by exaggerated rumours of our strength », or he should have dug in and fortified Castlebar, where he could have held off the English forces for a long time.

Thomas Pakenham in The Year of Liberty (5) says that during the French occupation of Castlebar Humbert showed « his usual dash and determination », a verdict which finds support in the accounts of Generals Sarrazin and Fontaine, while even Jobit concedes that 3,500 Irish recruits were armed at Castlebar.

Furthermore, in an article in the Revue Historique de l’Armée (6), General Gastey argues that even if Humbert had made straight for the Midlands after taking Castlebar, he would have been cramped by the three separate English forces. The most that he would have achieved would have been to scramble North, where he could have operated in guerrilla style for a bit longer. (Interestingly, plans submitted by Humbert after returning to France envisaged guerrilla campaigning as the proper way to topple the English in Ireland).

According to Sergeant Major Thomas, who wrote an account of the expedition, Humbert fought bravely at Ballinamuck, even when defeat was assured. « I saw General Humbert, who stood with five or six grenadiers, fighting like lions, captured by a dozen English grenadiers, who seized them from behind without striking them. They removed General Humbert’s epaulettes from his shoulders », he wrote.

Even in defeat, the French panache for the glorious gesture or vindication of honour manifested itself at Ballinamuck. General Lake, as he accepted Humbert’s unconditional surrender, looked puzzled at the smallness of the French numbers and asked where the rest of the army was. Pointing to the men nearby, Humbert said : « There it is ».

« And where did you intend to go with this handful of men ? », Lake asked.

« To Dublin », Humbert replied. « It takes a Frenchman to conceive such a project », rejoined Lake.

Or, as Humbert’s biographer, Jacques Baeyens, observes : « It takes a Humbert to conceive such a project » (7).

In The Year of the French Tom Flanagan portrays General Humbert’s expedition to Ireland as an ambitious man’s counter-move to Napoleon Bonaparte’s adventurism in Egypt. « The Directory is only interested in General Bonaparte’s Egyptian adventure », says Flanagan’s Humbert. « But they are willing — not eager, mind you, only willing — to venture a few francs on Ireland, like a cautious gambler making a side wager… but if we succeed, they will plunge ».

In response, General Jean Sarrazin remarks to Humbert that fortune and the Directory favour Napoleon ; to which Humbert replies : « It all depends. The man who conquered Ireland could be a match for the man who did not conquer Egypt ».

That Humbert should be cast as a rival to Napoleon is the author’s fancy, not the actual record. Yet, some writers are ready to accept as historical fact this fictional presentation, as for instance, Tony O’Riordan in his Irish Times review of Grattan Freyer’s edition of the Bishop Stock narrative, when he asserts that « Humbert was a rival for the dictatorship of France » (8).

The reality is that Humbert was a minor military figure, with limited experience of warfare, mostly confined to guerrilla fighting under his mentor, General Lazare Hoche, himself a rival to Napoleon but who died in 1797. Humbert was not in the same league as either Hoche or Napoleon. Intriguingly, however, Sarrazin was well connected with the most famous generals of the day, being a close associate of General Bernadotte and a friend of Napoleon. Indeed, in his memoirs, which were published in Brussels in 1839, Sarrazin recalls attending a lunch in the spring of 1798 at Rue de Lactoire, the residence of Napoleon and Josephine.

After the meal Napoleon had a private conversation with General Jean Kléber, whom he was to appoint as his chief assistant for the Egyptian campaign. As Kléber had been out of favour with the Directory, Sarrazin claimed the credit for persuading his old friend Kléber — they had fought together in Coblentz — to join Napoleon’s circle.

While Kléber and Napoleon intrigued, Sarrazin chatted to Josephine. « She was older than Bonaparte and she married him out of ambition, not for love », wrote Sarrazin. « Bonaparte was a Corsican from head to foot, vindictive, opportunist, a liar and an atheist… he had scarcely married when he treated his wife like a regiment cleaning woman ».

Sarrazin’s reminiscence is coloured by his subsequent hatred for Napoleon. But at table that spring day, Sarrazin was on friendly terms with Europe’s most famous general, so much so that Napoleon offered Sarrazin a place on the Egyptian expedition. Out of loyalty to Bernadotte he turned down the opportunity to see Egypt, Syria and perhaps even India. Shortly afterwards Napoleon left Paris for Toulon, and from that port to Egypt, not to Ireland as feared by Lord Castlereagh. While temporarily posted to Saint- Brieux, Sarrazin received the surprise order to go to La Rochelle as a member of an expedition to Ireland :

« I had hoped to pursue my military career with Bernadotte. I had refused to follow three distinguished generals, Bonaparte, Kléber and Desaix, and now found myself under the command of a creature of General Hoche — Humbert — whose military experience was limited to skirmishing in the Vendée, and was in the unenviable position of launching an attack on a kingdom defended by 30,000 Englishmen with only a handful of men. The year before I had been in charge of 40,000 men. The come-down was dispiriting ».

Rather than request another post or resign from the army, Sarrazin decided to obey his orders, comforting himself with the possibility that Humbert’s small force would be supplemented by the troops of General Hardy. Thus, before even setting out for Ireland, Sarrazin had a preconceived and unfavourable opinion of his superior, General Humbert. Certainly his record as a soldier was superior to Humbert’s, and there is much truth in the observations by historians that much of the success of the French in Ireland was due to Sarrazin, rather than Humbert.

« Remarkable for his military talents, his bravery and great sang-froid in most dangerous situations », was the verdict of Sarrazin by the pro- English historian, Musgrave (9). « The valiant Sarrazin » was his description by his junior colleague, Captain Jobit. Within days of the landing in Mayo, the other Adjudant-General, Fontaine, had signed the formal document promoting Sarrazin to the rank of General of the Brigade for his « distinguished services » at the battle of Castlebar, a promotion ordered by General Humbert.

Sarrazin was as skilful with the pen as he was with the sabre. Ireland was to be his literary apprenticeship. For on December 8th, 1798, he published a long account of the Irish expedition in the Jacobin newspaper, Ami des Lois. This publication is an invaluable source document, one whose value has been enhanced by its reappearance in English in the Irish Sword, the journal of the Irish military society (10).

But Sarrazin turned out to be a black sheep general of the Napoleonic era. On his return to France, Sarrazin’s promotion on the field of battle was not recognised by the Directory on account of the final defeat at Ballinamuck. Sarrazin’s subsequent career registers a series of daring exploits coupled with erratic and troublesome behaviour, so much so that he began increasingly to fall foul of Napoleon, whose appointment as emperor Sarrazin had at first applauded.

The rift with Napoleon became grave in 1811, when the emperor summoned Sarrazin to Boulogne. It appears that Napoleon had begun to suspect him of selling secrets to the British Government. Afraid that he would end up in a cell at Vincennes, Sarrazin fled to England in a fishing boat, and was given the red-carpet treatment by the English, who were delighted to use him for propaganda purposes against Napoleon. It was like the defection of a Soviet General to Washington !

For several years Sarrazin had been engaged in espionage. Indeed, some of his enemies suspected that his treachery dated back to his service in Ireland. He now demanded payment of £60,000. Ever afterwards he constantly complained of not being paid properly.

But Sarrazin also displayed not inconsiderable literary skills. He wrote frequent diatribes in The Times against Napoleon, published a stream of books on warfare and ingratiated himself with the exiled Bourbons (11). Consequently, when Napoleon fell and Louis XVIII was restored to the French throne, Sarrazin was exonerated by the king. The death sentence against him was waived.

When Napoleon returned from Elba, Sarrazin tried to do a deal with him. After Waterloo, with the second Bourbon restoration. Sarrazin was deprived of his military rank and his war pension. His troubles became worse in 1818 when he was arrested in Paris on the charge of trigamy — that he had three wives. Sentenced to ten years hard labour, he was given a pardon by Louis XVIII in 1822.

Exiled from France, Sarrazin returned to London where the British Government gave him an annual pension of £400. In 1835 he wandered around many countries before arriving in Brussels two years later. Without a passport, France refused to allow him to return home. The rest of his days were spent in Brussels, where in 1839 he published his memoirs, a signed copy of which in his own handwriting is kept in the Bibliothèque Royale there.

Historians suggest that he died about 1840, but he was still alive in 1848, when he issued a second edition of his memoirs in which he added some reminiscences of his Irish expedition. Fifty years after The Year of the French, a 78 year-old, discredited and forgotten French soldier recalled the days of glory in Killala, Ballina and Castlebar. Sarrazin deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

For all their diversity in temperament, aptitudes and their approach to warfare, Humbert and Sarrazin had chequered careers after 1798. They both had women trouble and fell foul of Napoleon. It is poignant that Humbert, a down-and-out in New Orleans, and Sarrazin, a feeble old man in Brussels, both clung to their memoirs of the experience of Ireland 1798. Ireland left more of an imprint on them than until recent times they left on Ireland.


(1) Grattan Freyer (editor), Bishop Stock’s Narrative — 1 798 or the Year of the French, Ballina, Irish Humanities Centre, 1982, p. 24.
(2) Copies of the original are to be found in the Municipal Library in Brest and the Naval Archives in Vincennes. The French version was published in Analecta Hibernica, July 1941.
(3) I would argue that Marianne Elliott puts too much blame on Humbert’s initiative and too little blame on the Directory for their lack of enterprise in her splendid book Partners in Revolution. The United Irishmen and Frans-e, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1982.
(4) E. Desbrière, Projets et tentatives de débarquement aux îles britanniques, 4 vol., Paris, 1900- 1902.
(5) Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty. The Great Irish Rebellion of 1 798, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1969-
(6) Général Gastey, L’étonnante aventure de l’armée d’Irlande, Paris, Ministère de la Guerre, Revue Historique de l’Armée, N° 4, 1952.
(7) Jacques Baeyens, Sabre au Clair, Amable Humbert, Général de la République, Paris, Albatros, 1981. Another useful biography in French is Marie-Louise Jacotey’s, Un Volontaire de 1792, le Général Humbert ou la passion de la Liberté, Mirecourt, 1980.
(8) The Irish Times, 3 1st July 1982.
(9) R. Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, 3rd Edition, 2 vol., Dublin, 1802.
(10) The Irish Sword, Dublin, 1955, pp. 110-118, and pp. 161-171.
(11) See Jean Suliac, « Sarrazin, Général de l’Empire, Bigame et Déserteur », in Aux carrefours de l’Histoire, Paris, N° 8, April 1958.

Source: Cooney John. Two French Revolutionary Soldiers in Rebel Ireland 1798. In: Études irlandaises, n°13-2, 1988. pp. 101-107.

Persée – Two French Revolutionary Soldiers in Rebel Ireland 1798, John Cooney, 1988.

Dantonien Journal