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Findmypast have just added thousands of records to its Prisoners of War 1715-1945 collection. The newest records are from the Napoleonic Wars and the records stretch from 1794 until 1818. In the records, you will find lists of those captured by the British during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and War of 1812 in America. There are American, French and even some Irish prisoners. The prisoners were not only military, but most were captured from merchant ships too.
The Napoleonic wars lasted from 1792 until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The wars were a series of conflicts between various European coalitions and the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I. Napoleon was a dynamic and ambitious military leader who wanted to create a French empire across Europe. The war was not limited to Europe, it extended to St Lucia, the Cape of Good Hope, Argentina and West Indian territories. Throughout the years of conflict, Britain was a continuous adversary to the French. They constantly feared a French invasion of the British Isles. Napoleon had his sights on using Ireland to invade England.
To assist with his invasion plan, Napoleon recruited Irish soldiers to form his Irish Legion (or Legion Irlandaise in French) in 1803. They were originally a light infantry unit, but as the years went on the legion grew into a regiment of four battalions. At the start, many of the recruits were veterans of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 who left Ireland after they were defeated. Miles Byrne of Wexford was one of the veterans. Byrne went on to be awarded the French Legion of Honour in 1813. He recorded his memories of fighting for Napoleon in his memoirs, which were published in 1863.
The Irish had sought French assistance during the Rebellion of 1798. Wolfe Tone arrived in France in 1796 to gain military aid for a rebellion. Two expeditions were attempted to invade Ireland and ignite an uprising. In 1796, 44 ships carrying 14,000 men set off for Ireland, but were halted by gale winds at Bantry Bay. After a period of ten days at sea the effort was aborted. The second attempt to raise a revolt in Ireland through French military support occurred in 1798. French soldiers landed at Killala Bay, but ultimately surrendered to Generals Lake and Cornwallis at Ballinamuck, County Longford. A French fleet landed in Donegal, but was captured by the British forces. Colonel James Blackwell, born in Ennis, County Clare, took part in both expeditions. When he was captured by the British after the failure of the second expedition he was sent to Kilmainham Gaol. In 1802, he was released and returned to France to join the Legion. He became their commander and was later awarded the Legion of Honour and the Order of Saint Louis.
Many United Irishmen left Ireland to support Napoleon’s fight against the British in hopes that an invasion into Ireland would lead to an Ireland free of British rule. The newly formed Irish Legion were dressed in an emerald green uniform decorated with an Irish harp. Between 1803 and 1805, they participated in planning the invasion which would help Napoleon to defeat the English. Special vessels were built but were found inadequate. Napoleon even considered using troop-carrying balloons for an aerial invasion, but decided against it because of the winds. Most of the preparations for the invasion was funded by the American Louisiana Purchase of 1803. France ceded the large territory to the United States for 60 million francs, which doubled the size of America.
Plans for an invasion dissipated after the defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. With the invasion on hold, the Irish Legion continued to support the French in other theatres. In July 1809, the 1st battalion Irish Legion was stationed in the port city of Flushing (Vlissingen in Dutch) on Walcheren Island. An English fleet descended on the port and for two full days and nights ferociously bombarded the city and destroyed the French fleet. The Governor was forced surrender and the 1st battalion was taken prisoner. A number of Irishmen escaped, bringing with them the Imperial Eagle, the symbol of the regiment, which if captured would have been a dishonour to the regiment.
In the new Findmypast records, we can find the names of one captain and two soldiers who had been captured at Flushing and later died while detained as a prisoner of war on a prison hulk (a ship used to house prisoners) at Chatham. Captain Francis Eagar, Edward Gibbons and Michael Kelly were all detained and died on the prison hulk. You can see in their records below, Kelly and Gibbons were from Dublin and Francis Eagar was born in Killarney.
Conditions in the prisons and the hulks were gruelling. Prisoners lived for years in overcrowded areas with little food and poor sanitation. The records also include the names of over one thousand American prisoners who were interned on the prison hulk at Chatham during this period. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war on the British, resulting in the War of 1812 (or the Anglo American War). The new Prisoners of War 1715-1945 records contain the names of thousands of American prisoners captured by the British.
The Irish Legion fought for French Emperor at the Peninsular War and the Siege of Antwerp. In April 1809, Bonaparte order to increase the regiment to four battalions. At this time the regiment was not exclusively Irish, it contained German, Polish and Italian soldiers. The Siege of Antwerp was the last major action of the Irish Legion. They were stationed at Antwerp for three months against the siege of the British army. In 1813, the French were defeated at the Battle of Leipzig by Prussian, Russian, Swedish and Austrian forces. This defeat led to the Treaty of Chaumont which ordered Napoleon to be expelled to Elba. The Irish Legion did not take part in Napoleon’s final battle at Waterloo, but many Irishmen were involved in the battle with other regiments on all sides of the fight. The regiment was officially disbanded in September 1815 and their bronze-cast eagle and flags were destroyed.
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