How a French officer escaped capture

Bantry Bay was more than once the scene of a visit from a French fleet on anti-English purposes intent. Everyone knows of the expedition under General Hoche and Wolfe Tone in December 1796: but more than a hundred years before that time, in April, 1689, a sharp engagement between French and English navy vessels took place in these waters.

This was reported as a French victory, but English writers do not like to call it by that name. The fleet dispatched by the French Directory in December 1796, with Wolfe Tone on board the “Indomptable,” and a military force designed to aid a projected Irish rising against English rule, met no enemy on the way, but were dispersed and wrecked by stormy weather.

Soon after the arrival of the fleet, news was carried to Capt. Dan O’Sullivan, who unlike many other O’Sullivans was a royalist and he in turn sent the news to the Whites in Bantry. On Christmas Eve a longboat from the “La Resolu” went on the rocks at the east end of Bere Island and the French officer in charge was arrested by Capt. Dan O’Sullivan and his men and later taken to Bantry to be questioned. We have never heard of any other French officer making his escape on the Island or the mainland.

Looking through old papers recently we found a very interesting story of one such officer, apparently told by him. We do not know if the story is true or fiction, but here it is the personal narrative (abridged) of this French officer who saw service in the National Guard, Paris, 1791, and afterwards in the Artillery, 1793. He took part in several engagements during this thrilling period up to 1796. He died in 1870, aged ninety-two.

On the 21st December ’96, we arrived in Bantry Bay, after six days out from Brest, so lost no time in seeing the insurgents. Twelve men and an officer went ashore in a launch and got signals from some Irish peasants, which we failed to understand. In the next minute, a body of cavalry dashed on top of us and took all prisoners except myself, who took to the hills pursued by a trooper who fired twice at me without effect, I fired once and must have wounded his horse as he did not follow. I saw from a hill the prisoners marched off to Dublin as a glorious trophy of the French Republic.

No doubt it was a poor lookout from me being in a strange land without food on an icy day. The insurgents endured this so I could do the same. I began to search about as night was coming on, and walking many hours I came across a hamlet of about 30 houses. I knocked but all was still, not even a dog barked or a cock crowed. I fell asleep in a hay loft but on awakening I saw a girl feeding a famished cat. She was about 15 years of age, tall, with blue eyes and black hair. I was afraid to frighten her so began imitating the cat.

She raised her eyes and showed surprise at seeing a soldier, but on pointing to the cockade in my hat she smiled and pointed to the French boats in the bay. I eat ravenously the hot potatoes she brought me but could not understand her dialect. I wondered how she was alone, but discovered her only brother was shot for rescuing a French sailor from drowning. The village after this was empty as the men joined the insurgents and the women fled to Cork. Mary remained to nurse a paralysed grandmother. I felt sure she could direct me to the camp of the United Irishmen, but on my asking pretended not to know and advised me I was courting death to cross the country by day. She took me to the cottage and made me understand she would be back at night with some news for me. I saw an old women in bed and Mary knelt down to pray beside her. I believe they prayed for me and the delivery of Ireland.

The old woman showed me the riddled waistcoat of the boy which the yeomen had sold to the unhappy woman. My military instinct made me look around during the girl’s absence and saw only 20 soldiers moving past. A plank led from the back to the rocks over a trench 10 ft. deep by way of retreat. When Mary returned she told me she was authorised to lead me to the camp. I asked her if she could replenish my pistols, as in the hurry I brought no ammunition, so she took me over the plank to a ruined chapel behind and we both got in by a window when she fell on her knees and prayed fervently.

She then opened the door of a vault behind the alter where was hidden munitions of war landed by our army and not yet all taken away by the insurgents. After a frugal meal, I went back to my straw bed hopeful of the morrow. Before dawn my young guide called me and I started as if I had bivouacked. We went by the plank, which we pulled away to hide, and crossed a path through a bog and by a ford over a river, which reminded me of Brittany. It opened into a natural fortification, so felt sure I was in camp. Mary made a signal when two young men ran forward fully armed and heartily welcomed us. They led me to their commander, who was about 25, tall and handsome. He and his officers spoke French fluently. After lunch I was present at their council of war when it was decided to take advantage of the consternation caused the enemy by the French Ships in the Bay. The commander handed me a fine gun, and remarked I would make good use of it in a glorious cause.

We had horses a short way off and went in two detachments putting scouts a distance forward, and the insurgents seemed to be in complete possession of the country. Our object was to attack Cork, but our number being small, we were to make two false attempts to keep them there so that the French would have a clear road. The English had a fortified barrack and were accused of murdering all their prisoners there. A daring young man named Shell led us up to point-blank range putting us in between two of the enemy sentries. From this we could see the lights in the barracks, and I proposed should attack the gates, but our spies informed us they were too solid and well defended. Our orderlies went quickly along the line and informed the chief that all was ready for the attack, volunteers being chosen with axes, when the main gate opened to allow an officer and guard out preceded by a drummer carrying a torch who were marching straight into us. – “At them, gentlemen!” cried the commander – when a furious “Hurrah!” went up like from wild animals.

The guard turned and fled to the gate, but we went in over their bodies without replying to the garrison fire and in a few minutes every man inside was slain. We then set the building aflame. I returned to camp and at nights had some tearful dreams of the fight. They had a prisoner sentenced to death whom the commander informed me had caused more ills to his country than 1,000 lives. They had him tied to a stake and were to set fire to him. I was disgusted, and told him not to copy the tyrants in their sacred cause of liberty. I bid adieu, and handing him my gun, he refused to take it. He offered me an escort to the coast, which I refused, but several officers walked with me to their advanced sentries trying to persuade me to stay.

I crossed the river, my gun at the ready, to get as near as possible to our anchorage, and wished to see Mary before departing. After walking for some hours in the dark I thought I heard noises, so listened. I was beside Mary’s cottage which was lighted and hearing oaths and cries I immediately jumped through the loft window and flung myself into the room below. Two mercenaries of the Foreign Legion had broken in for loot. They threatened to kill them and used some filthy language demanding money and whiskey.

One of them tore the rosary from the old woman for the sake of the silver cross attached and demanded the hidden treasure or he would kill her. The other looter flung himself on Mary, who used her nails and teeth wildly that the other fellow came to his assistance. The old woman jumped from the bed in a frenzy and with extraordinary strength clutched one of them by the throat and rolled to the ground. Finding he could not release her withered hand from his neck, he plunged his bayonet into her body, and the poor creature expired. It was just now I jumped in, and the murderer covered with blood made for me, but a shot laid him low. Next I was attacked by the other, who using his sword with dexterity, and as the hammer from my gun had fallen I had to parry him round to get the light in his face.

He saw this and tried to get behind. I had a pistol in my belt, but dare not take my eyes off him, but Mary with a scythe cut his upward arm off. Before I saw this my pistol ended his days. Mary and I must now get away, as the shots would draw more of the brigands, but before doing so she laid the old woman out on the bed. We had to fling the two bodies into a bog, and barring the door, we departed. We fell asleep in a cave, and when I awoke Mary insisted on going back to the cottage. I tried to persuade her of the danger, but she went.

I was uneasy she did not return next day, so set out at dusk for the cottage, but on creeping up I beheld the cottage on fire and gazing at the tree opposite saw Mary’s dead body swinging. With tears and rage I ran to the old chapel and carried a barrel of powder up the cliff. About 50 ft, underneath were 20 Hanoverians drunk and yelling round a fire. I threw down the keg and the explosion hurdled me into a bog, but on recovering all was still. I went to the coast and luckily met a tender from the fleet who had to sail for Brest that night.”

Courtesy of the Southern Star