The era of the French Revolution saw the beginning of self-conscious class struggle and the sharpening of a new form of international conflict. To the traditional Anglo-French rivalry and the worldwide economic struggle between the nations was added a fresh ideological dimension. Now it was equality and the rights of man against privilege and the rights of property, the levee en masse against the aristocratic tradition. France, which had seemed exhausted by the long-running financial crisis of the 1780s and then by the Revolution itself, experienced a sudden resurgence of self-confidence. Even before the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte the British Isles faced their greatest moment of actual peril since the Armada.

By 1792 feelings against England, in Revolutionary eyes the protector and fomentor of reaction and counter-revolution, were running high. Once again the drafting of invasion schemes became a popular French pastime. In their new assertive mood the French were inclined to stress the favourable factors that previous generations of absolutist defeatism had ignored: the greater resources of manpower France enjoyed (with a population of some 25 million against England’s 7 million); the universal hatred for England in Europe – for by now the British were experiencing a definite backlash against their great successes during the century: the threat to England in India from Tippoo Tib. Last and not least, there was a new feeling of nationalism in Ireland. The revolutionary seedcorn had found fertile soil in John Bull’s other island. By 1793 France once more seemed to have both the motive and the clear opportunity to attempt the invasion of Britain.

In 1793 it was Normandy, Cherbourg especially, that attracted the attentions of French military planners. France’s greatest Revolutionary general, Lazare Hoche, was among the most eager advocates of invasion. ‘Ever since the beginning of the war,' he wrote, ‘I have never ceased to believe that it is in their own country that we must attack the English. ’ Hoche was an early believer in revolutionary voluntarism. To the objection that England could learn from the French example and put a nation in arms that would swallow up the invading army, Hoche replied that a coup de main by 1,000 men could secure all the desirable objectives of a formal invasion. A massive raid across the Channel could paralyse London as a political and financial centre. Dockyards could be destroyed and panic spread. By the time the English had organised their own levee en masse, the French raiders would have withdrawn.

But how to beard the lion, asked Hoche’s critics, English naval power was supreme and the Brest fleet was in no position to challenge it. To Hoche this sort of talk was defeatism. The Royal Navy could not be everywhere, and it was fallible. Reverting to Choiseul’s 1759 ideas, when it had been pointed out that the Arabs had crossed from Africa into Europe during the Islamic conquests in small boats, Hoche argued that France should take advantage of its sheer weight in numbers and blast a passage across the Channel. Even if secrecy could not be maintained, simultaneous embarkations in merchant vessels would paralyse the English defenders. Suppose the entire French merchant fleet were armed to the teeth. Suppose further 30,000 troops embarked in barges at Calais, 36,000 in flatbottoms at Cherbourg, another 24,000 at Granville and St Malo, 10,000 at Brest and smaller detachments at Le Havre and Dieppe. Provided the embarkations were simultaneous, the most powerful navy in the world could not deal with such an impact. True, severe casualties might be taken, but even so more troops would get ashore than Choiseul had earmarked in 1759 for the invasion of the British Isles. ‘Point de manoeuvres, point d'art, du fer, du feu et du patriotisme’ was Hoche’s watchword. Certainly he could not be faulted for lacking a belief in the efficacy of revolutionary willpower.

Yet before any of these ambitious new invasion projects could be undertaken. Revolutionary France had the revolt of the Vendée on its hands. When this was suppressed, Hoche again raised the invasion question. The reaction of Thermidor and the downfall of Robespierre affected the issue not at all. What did scotch Hoche’s ambitions in 1794 was the British naval victory of the ‘Glorious First of June’ (1 June 1794), which set the invasion timetable back two years.

Only in 1796 were conditions propitious for the Hoche scheme. By now he had refined his invasion ideas, adding to them the conception of military nuclei or cells that could be energised by relatively small bodies of troops. Impressed by Charles Edward Stuart’s achievements in 1745 when supported by a mere handful of French troops, Hoche advocated the simultaneous irruption of a number of foci of guerrilla warfare. In this, as in his revolutionary voluntarism, he partially anticipated Che Guevara. Small bodies of French troops would be introduced to form a core or nucleus around which the disaffected could gather. Guerrilla warfare would then be waged, bridges, roads and other installations destroyed. A chouannerie could be created by releasing criminals from prison. The idea would be particularly attractive in an Irish context, where the mass of the people were known for certain to be disaffected.

The Directory took up the idea with interest, oblivious to the fact that, as the events of 1745-46 had shown, it was as difficult to land small bodies of troops in the British Isles as a major army. However, Hoche’s plan was modified in one important respect. Sustained guerrilla warfare was abandoned in favour of plundering forays, tip-and-run raids, and other diversions. In effect the Directory plumped for the less sophisticated option of nuisance raids, calculated to demoralise the civilian population, rather than a longer-term guerrilla effort.

The West Country was selected as the first target. The raiding party was to consist of 1,500 regular troops and some 600 convicts – for the Directory liked Hoche’s chouannerie notion. Ten thousand muskets were to be taken along for distribution to the potential revolutionaries.

But now that persistent bugbear of all eighteenth-century armies – desertion – reared its head. The French had built light galleys, similar to Peter the Great’s Baltic raiders, at ports in the Pas de Calais. These were designed to take 5,000 men northwards into Dutch waters and then on to landfall in the Tyne. This was to be a pilot project whose success would be the signal for the start of the West Country venture. It was 1745 in reverse. The galleys were to be assembled in Calais, Boulogne and Cherbourg and then switched to Dunkirk at the last moment for troop embarkation. But an experimental sortie in the galleys led to serious loss of life. At once 1,500 men deserted, claiming they would rather face the guillotine than put into the Channel in such craft. The mutiny, combined with the attentions of the Royal Navy, led to the abandonment of the scheme in November.

So far the strategy of the Directory had been far from sure. The West Country raiding expedition had been all ready to sail in July 1796 when the Directory started dithering and then changed its mind on the target for the first strike. Now, five months later, the new project itself had foundered. Lesser men might have given up but Hoche simply turned the attention of his political masters to Ireland.

Under the influence of Wolfe Tone, the Irish revolutionary leader who was in France after successive expulsions from Ireland and the USA, Hoche began to believe in the possibility of an invasion of Ireland that would wrest the island from the British grasp. For Ireland in 1796 was in rebellious turmoil. It was the era of the United Irishmen and the new nationalism in Dublin, and of the Whiteboys in the countryside. It seemed the most favourable moment in the century for the establishment of an independent Irish republic. ‘England's difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity' was never more graphically illustrated. Yet, incredibly, the Directory did not concentrate all its resources on this single objective. While great things were expected of the Irish operation and 50,000 men were earmarked for it, two other projects were set in train simultaneously. A large army was to be sent to India to assist Tippoo Tib. Ambitions for a strike against England were kept alive by the assembly of a third force, 60,000 strong, to be held in readiness for a Channel crossing.

Hoche protested at this dispersal of effort. His strenuous pleas partly won the day. The Indian expedition was dropped. A complex fourfold scheme for invading Ireland was substituted. In the first wave, 6,000 regular troops would land in Galway. The second and third waves would also land in Galway, composed of convicts and regulars respectively. The final wave, strong and destined for Connacht, would leave Brest escorted by the French fleet. Once it had landed the army, the Brest fleet was to put about and return to port with all speed.

This plan was predicated on a threefold assumption: that the English fleet could be evaded: that the British army in Ireland was weak: and that the rebels in Ireland were strong. All these propositions were valid. Incredibly, the French still botched the operation.

Of all the opportunities for invading the British Isles thrown away by French incompetence, that of December 1796 must rank among the highest. On 16 December 1796 the last great invasion force ever to set sail for the British Isles got under way. Altogether there were some 14,750 men in forty-five ships – including seventeen ships of the line. This was a smaller force than originally intended but was a formidable body none the less. Five days later the invasion fleet arrived at Bantry Bay unopposed, having evaded Royal Navy surveillance by swinging southwards before coming about for a northerly bearing. The fleet had been battered by bad weather and it came to anchor in discrete portions, but it arrived intact, with one exception that was to prove crucial: the frigate carrying Hoche himself.

French aims were the expulsion of the British and the establishment of an independent republic. With Ireland as a springboard the French would invade Great Britain, and the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity would be exported to what would soon become a new revolutionary republic of England. On board the eighty-gun flagship Indomitable was the thirty-three-year-old Wolfe Tone. Tone was a founder-member of the United Irishmen, a political movement inspired by the French Revolution and dedicated to the violent overthrow of English ascendancy in Ireland. It was Tone who had lent his barrister's eloquence to Hoche's pleas, so as to persuade the Directory to undertake the great Irish enterprise.

By the evening of 21 December 1796 total success was a hair's breadth away. The landing beaches were perfect. Wind and sea were slight. There was no British army within reach and the Royal Navy was far away. Ninety miles away the great military and naval base of Cork lay at the mercy of the French. Within days all of Connacht could be in French hands. Hoche’s advice to the Directory to send their last wave first would have been triumphantly vindicated. Yet the French did nothing.

Even by the most conservative estimates the invaders could have got all their men and materiel ashore before the British or the weather disturbed them. But the fatal decision was taken to wait for Hoche, the commander-in-chief, before disembarking. The villain of the piece here was the army commander General Grouchy, whose fecklessness and incompetence were as marked on this occasion as they were to be nineteen years later on an even more momentous date – 18 June 1815, the Battle of Waterloo.

By 24 December there was still no sign of Hoche. And now at last the ‘Protestant wind’ took a hand. For five weeks the traditional British luck with the weather seemed to have deserted them. Hanging in the east, the wind had both frustrated the Royal Navy’s blockade of Brest and then wafted the invasion fleet to Ireland. On the 24th the light gale that was blowing turned into a full-scale storm. At 6 p.m. the French admiral signalled to Indomitable to cut her cables and run. One by one the remaining ships followed suit and cleared for France. On the 27th the winds reached Force Twelve. Indomitable was caught on the quarter by a huge sea. Wolfe Tone gave himself up for lost. The flagship survived, but the winds and seas had completed the work begun by Hoche’s ill-fortune and the timidity of his subordinates. Once again the British Isles were safe from invaders.

The 1796 invasion attempt repays close attention, for it exposes some of the more facile myths about the perennial superiority and infallible direction of the Royal Navy. It was the weather that destroyed the invaders, not British sea power. The defending fleet had been stationed at Spithead, much too far away from the west coast of Ireland to provide adequate protection. The outer arc of the interior lines on which the defence of the islands was supposed to be conducted was to have been swept by a squadron of cruisers, with whom the frigates watching over Brest would rendezvous. But the cruising squadron was fifty miles off station and could not be found for five days. Moreover, the news from Bantry Bay was slow to come in. The Spithead commander-in-chief did not stand away for the west until 6 January 1797, by which time the French fleet had long since departed. By the time the Royal Navy defenders reached Bantry, the invaders (minus two ships of the line, two frigates and some transports-the victims of the storm) were back in port in France. The invasion attempt of 1796 was something British sea power could not prevent. It was left to the French themselves to throw away their greatest chance.

1797 seemed to increase the dangers to England. Pitt received word that a secret Jacobin-style army was being prepared by Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen. In Ireland the French revolutionary cause was becoming daily more attractive, for the war with France that began in 1793 had produced a disastrous slump in the Irish economy. At this very moment the Spithead and Nore mutinies came close to bringing England to her knees by removing the fleet that barred the French passage across the Channel. For three weeks the entire Spithead fleet was ravaged by mutiny. The whole financial system in England seemed on the verge of collapse.

Then an even more serious mutiny broke out at the Nore among Admiral Duncan’s sailors. The mutineers who were supposed to be blockading the Dutch fleet at the Texel (for the Dutch too were preparing an invasion fleet against their old ally). hauled down the Union Jack and joined the enemy. Under the red flag of liberty, the Nore fleet – the ‘floating republic’ – prepared to blockade London until its demands on pay, conditions and officers were met.

Meanwhile 13,500 Dutch troops embarked in July off the Texel, Wolfe Tone among them. By this time Tone and Hoche had a new ally in the Directory in the shape of Lazare Carnot, who was convinced that the ferment in Ireland provided France’s best opportunity of humbling England. But for six weeks the winds hung hostilely in the west. In despair Tone went to join Hoche in Belgium in mid-August.

Just when it seemed certain that England was to be swallowed up by civil war or foreign invasion or a combination of both, the ruling elite met the mutineers’ demands in full. The Dutch fleet ventured into the North Sea in total confidence. Its destination was Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh especially. While the British were busy in Scotland, it was intended that the French would open a second front in Ireland. But the conciliated mutineers in Admiral Duncan’s fleet caught the overconfident Dutch and crushingly defeated them off Camperdown (2 October). So the year 1797, which had seen a threat to all three kingdoms, came to a close with no invasion having been attempted, save in Wales.

For while all these dramatic events were taking place, February 1797 had witnessed a genuine opera bouffe which yet contrived to be the last occasion on which invaders set foot on the soil of Great Britain (as opposed to Ireland). Entering Fishguard Bay – which had been raided by John Paul Jones during the American War of Independence – two French warships landed a force of some twelve hundred men on the Rocky Cliffs. This motley tatterdemalion force, much of it the flotsam and jetsam of French jails, was under the command of an Irish-American, Colonel Tate, whose original orders were to land at Bristol and spread a reign of terror all the way up the west coast to Liverpool. This was to be Hoche’s chouannerie in action at last, largely intended as a diversion from the more serious business in Ireland.

Finding British warships in the Bristol Channel, the French naval commander had simply put Tate and his desperadoes ashore at the nearest convenient point. Tate’s far from crack troops were soon looting and carousing on Portuguese wine, salvaged by the farmers of Strumble from a recent wreck. After some skirmishes with the locals, including the ‘Pembrokeshire heroine’ Jemima Nicholas (said to have compelled the surrender of thirteen Frenchmen with a pitchfork) Tate’s ‘army’ faced the prospect of a real fight with the Pembrokeshire militia under Lord Cawdor. Having no stomach for this, the invaders surrendered on Goodwick Sands, lamely laying down their arms and being led away to prison.

The last invasion of Great Britain was over and with it went a lot of Hoche’s credibility in France. The three-days invasion (22-24 February 1797) of the 'Black Legion’ under Tate, designed by Hoche as the harbinger of an army of liberation, was the greatest fiasco in the entire history of projected invasions against the British Isles. Never was the theory that criminals and jailbirds are revolutionary material exposed so harshly.

The Fishguard farce was soon forgotten in the more sombre events in England later that year. By the end of 1797 England had made a spectacular recovery. Moreover, dramatic events in France seemed also to be moving decisively in England’s favour. Following the coup d’état of the 18th Fructidor (4 September 1797), Carnot, the United Irishmen’s chief ally in the Directory, fled to Switzerland. Then Tone’s friend and patron, the dauntless General Hoche, died suddenly of consumption. Seldom had such a dramatic change of fortunes been seen in a single year. Yet England’s seeming good fortune soon proved illusory. 1797 closed with Bonaparte, flushed with his Italian triumphs, as the greatest power in France. Bonaparte had already given Tone and his associates an emphatic promise that 1798 would see the renewal of attempts to invade Ireland.

1798 is one of those dates in British history, like 1759, when dramatic incidents followed each other with breathtaking rapidity. The year of Napoleon’s rout of the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids, and of Nelson’s crushing defeat of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile was also the year of the great Irish rebellion. In more ways than one, as we shall see, the ‘98 was to Ireland what the ‘45 had been to Scotland.

The dawning of the year showed that the French remained undaunted by the reverses of the previous year. A new French army, 'the army of England’, was earmarked to make an invasion attempt in small boats. Sixty specially constructed gunboats, with capacity to carry 10,000 men, were ordered. Another 14,750 troops were to be carried in 250 fishing boats. The gunboats and fishing vessels were spread over a remarkably wide range: Honfleur. Dieppe, Caen, Fécamp, St Valéry, Rouen, Le Havre, Calais, Boulogne, Ambleteuse, Etaples and Dunkirk were all to be embarkation points. And because the French now had the Dutch as allies, Antwerp and Ostend were to be used as well. The Swedish gunboats could each carry one hundred men and were armed with a 24-pounder in the bows and a field-piece on the poop. In January 1798 the Minister of Marine wrote: ‘I remark with pleasure that by means of large and small gunboats, Muskeyn’s craft, the new constructions, and the fishing boats of the district, the Havre flotilla can carry 25,880 troops for landing.' By the end of March there was shipping available in the above ports for 70,000 men and 6,000 horses in more than 1,300 boats – everything from frigates to fishing smacks.

But the new power in France was Napoleon Bonaparte. He had no confidence in the ability of this unwieldy fleet to run the gauntlet of the British flotilla. His thinking was governed by the earlier (1779) French conviction that an invasion of England was possible only after a major French victory at sea. Even if it were possible, he argued, for small vessels to cross the Channel under cover of darkness, this could only be done in the winter when the nights were long since the estimated time for a crossing was eight hours minimum. After April such an operation was no longer feasible, and by April 1798 Bonaparte did not consider that preparations were sufficiently advanced for the attempt to be made.

As if all this was not enough, the British staged a daring pre-emptive strike. It was known early in 1798 that French gunboats were being fitted out at Flushing, whence they would be taken to Ostend and Dunkirk by canal to avoid the risk of British attack on the open sea. Once British intelligence had winkled out this secret, a commando raid of 1,200 men was sent to destroy the sluices of the Bruges canal, and as many as possible of the gunboats at Flushing. Despite some opposition the landings were made, several vessels destroyed and one great sluice blown up. Although an on-shore breeze sprang up, preventing reembarkation, so that the commandos were forced to surrender to superior forces, the audacity of the attack shook the French.

For these reasons Napoleon's thoughts turned to Egypt. Ambitions of emulating Julius Caesar by crossing to Britain gave way to the idea of walking in the footsteps of Alexander the Great as an eastern conqueror. The story of how his eastern plans were shattered by Nelson’s victory at the Nile is too well known to require repetition. But even as these stirring events were unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean, Ireland once again occupied centre stage.

In May 1798 the great Irish uprising, long threatened and expected every year since 1794, finally broke out in full ferocity. Initial success by the rebels in Wexford encouraged the Directory to revive their 1796 plans. In July General Chérin was appointed French commander-in-chief of the Irish expeditionary force. His main army was to assemble in Brest. Two advance divisions would proceed to Ireland immediately in advance of the main army, one under General Hardy starting from Brest, the other under General Humbert, based at Rochefort. Hardy and Humbert were to effect a junction off the Irish coast.

Political rivalries between Chérin and Scherer, the French Minister of War, prevented the sailing of the main expedition. Chérin was ordered to Egypt. Meanwhile Humbert, an energetic and forceful commander, got his small force of just over 1,000 troops to sea at the beginning of August. He left behind him a tangled political and military situation. The senior command had now devolved on Hardy, who was to follow Humbert over with the 3,000 battle-ready troops at Brest, accompanied by Wolfe Tone. Four thousand further soldiers were originally destined to follow them over later, but on Chérin’s resignation from the ‘Army of Ireland’, these 4,000 were deducted from Hardy's strength.

The expectation was that the rebellion in Ireland would still be in full spate. But when Humbert and his 1,099 officers and men anchored in Killala Bay in the third week of August 1798, they discovered that the Wexford rising had already been brutally crushed. At Kildare, New Ross and Vinegar Hill the ill-armed peasants had been routed by the superior discipline and weapons of regular troops.

For all significant purposes Humbert’s army was on its own. If, as we have said, the ‘98 was to Ireland what the ‘45 was to Scotland, the comparisons are illuminating. In 1745 the French abandoned their invasion plans while the rising was in full vigour. In 1798 they pressed on, only to arrive when the indigenous rebellion was over. On both occasions France had failed to open a second front. But not the least interesting point of comparison between the two years is the military success gained by small armies on both occasions against British troops.

Faced with the disappointing news that he had come too late to affect the outcome of the rebellion, many a French general would have reembarked his troops. Not Jean-Joseph Humbert. After beginning his career as a dealer in goat and rabbit skins for the Lyons glove industry, Humbert had risen rapidly in the new army after the Revolution. A protégé of Hoche, with whom he had served in the Vendée, Humbert had been among the disappointed participants in the abortive expedition to Bantry Bay in 1796. Now, almost two years later, at the age of thirty-one, he had an opportunity to put Hoche’s theories to the test once more.

After landing at Killala and consolidating his position there, Humbert struck inland. His orders were to attempt no precipitate action until Hardy caught up with him. He therefore advanced to Ballina to secure a bridgehead. Yet Humbert was not a disciple of Hoche for nothing. Standing passively on the defensive was not his style. Figuring that the best way to foment a general insurrection in the ‘Republic of Connacht’ which he had declared at Killala was to advertise his presence, he planned a daring stroke against the regular troops gathering to attack him. He would march to Castlebar, the county town of Mayo, and take the British by surprise.

With seven hundred French troops and about the same number of raw Irish levies he struck off the Foxford road into the mountains. A night march took him to the walls of Castlebar. His approach had been noted. Seventeen hundred British army regulars under General Lake, the brutal victor of Vinegar Hill, commanded a strong defensive position. Victory for the French seemed impossible, now that the element of surprise had gone. But a do-or-die charge of Humbert’s grenadiers panicked the Lovalist Irish militia. Their sudden desertion tore a hole in Lake’s defensive position. Within minutes the defenders were a fleeing, routed rabble. Against all the odds Humbert had a great victory to his credit.

This was the time for the French to press home their advantage and consolidate their grip on Connacht. They prepared at Killala to receive the expected reinforcements. But the day before Humbert’s victory at Castlebar, the Directory had effectively ruined his enterprise. The decision not to send Hardy’s second wave of 4,000 men was made final. Hardy himself, who had been held up by bureaucracy, a British blockade and un-favourable winds at Brest, now (26 August) received orders to abandon the enterprise until such time as the equinoctial gales broke the blockade. Without knowing it, Humbert was now high and dry, on his own in Mayo.

Carefully Lord Cornwallis, the British commander-in-chief (who had no great opinion of General Lake and had half expected his defeat), laid his plans for counterattack. At Tuam he built up an army of 7,800 men by cutting the garrisons in Ireland to the bone. There were risks in this strategy, of course, for Humbert’s presence might encourage the Irish rebellion to break out again. The longer the French remained the greater that danger was.

Humbert meanwhile was beginning to realise how precarious his position was. Although a Catholic gentleman, John Moore, was proclaimed 'president of Connacht’, Humbert was unable to raise a war-chest in Mayo: the economic crisis had produced a severe shortage of cash. And the Irish were proving disappointing at two levels. The recruits were a militarily useless and ignorant rabble, while their officers were not men of the Revolution or friends of liberty but self-serving opportunists. Most ominously of all, despite Humbert’s victory at Castlebar, there was no sign of the general rising in Ireland that the French had expected their presence to trigger. Gradually Humbert realised that whatever was to be achieved would be achieved by the French alone.

Aware that the formidable force Cornwallis was assembling would soon be upon him, Humbert broke out from the Irish midlands and struck north towards Sligo, throwing off his pursuers in an inspired twenty-four-hour forced march covering fifty-eight miles. At Collooney he collided with the militia under Colonel Vereker. Although Humbert won an easy victory, this time, ominously, the militia did not break and run at the first shot.

Pushing on to Dromahair, Humbert considered an attack on Sligo. News that rebellion had at last broken out in the midlands determined him to strike south again, hoping to make contact with these new allies at Longford. Humbert raced for Granard, his proposed rendezvous with the rebels. If he met them there, he intended to push on directly for Dublin. But by now Cornwallis was once more close on his heels. He had divided his army, sending half under General Lake to dog Humbert’s footsteps while he, Cornwallis, stood astride the road to Dublin with the other half.

In a disastrous error of judgment the midlands rebels jumped the gun. Instead of waiting for Humbert, they attacked Granard on their own and were beaten off with heavy losses (about a thousand casualties). On the evening of the 7th the stragglers from the ‘United Army of Longford’ staggered into Humbert’s camp at Cloone.

Next day Humbert’s brilliant whirlwind campaign came to the only end now possible for it. At the village of Ballinamuck, just outside Granard, Humbert’s 850 veterans of the Italian campaign faced the pincers of the Lake/Cornwallis army, about strong. There could be no doubt of the outcome. Humbert fought only as long as French honour demanded – no more than half an hour before surrendering. The French were led away to jail while a sanguinary pursuit of the Irish rebels was set on foot by the murderous Lake.

When the Directory in France received news of Humbert’s victoiy at Castlebar, they at last bestirred themselves, too late. On 16 September Hardy finally got away from Brest, accompanied by Wolfe Tone, with a force of 2,800 men. A smaller contingent of 270 French troops under James Napper Tandy, Wolfe Tone’s rival in the United Irishmen, had cleared from Dunkirk two weeks earlier in a single corvette. Tandy landed at Rutland, in the extreme north-west of Ireland, only to learn that Humbert had already surrendered. The tiny invading force put back to sea: this was the very last time French interlopers were to tread Irish soil.

Hardy fared no better. A week after the celebrations for Nelson’s victory at the Nile, Admiral Sir John Warren intercepted the Brest fleet in the western approaches. After ten hours’ fighting he captured all but two of the French ships, complete with 2,500 troops and Wolfe Tone himself. Tone was sent for trial before a military court in Dublin. Condemned to death by court-martial in November, Tone cheated the hangman by committing suicide.

Humbert’s 1798 campaign was a great military exploit. When it is considered what he achieved with 1,000 veterans, it can readily be imagined what his mentor Hoche might have accomplished two years before with the 14,000 men at Bantry Bay, if his frigate had not been delayed. On such things do the destiny of nations hinge.

After token imprisonment in Dublin Humbert and his men were released on easy terms. On his return to France Humbert, flushed by his success, elaborated fresh schemes for the invasion of Britain. In October 1800 he wrote a memoir, proposing to seize Ireland with three strong divisions, to be assembled at Rochefort, Ferrol and L'Orient. Six thousand men would meanwhile proceed to Scotland, while the spectre of the chouannerie would be resurrected in England. Undaunted by the 1797 Fishguard fiasco, Humbert advocated releasing a fresh wave of criminals from French jails, 3,000 in all, to be thrown across the Channel in fishing boats for sabotage operations and the liberation of their criminal counterparts in English prisons. If the chouanerie made progress, the international criminal proletariat could be turned loose on dockyards and building installations, especially at Woolwich, Sheerness and Deptford. Humbert dismissed the problems posed by the defending English flotilla. Evasion of the Royal Navy presented no great problem, he claimed. Had he not himself fetched the Irish coast twice without incident? Moreover, his experiences in Ireland had given him no great opinion of English military commanders. At anything like equal numbers the English stood no chance against French infantry, once safely landed.

With Humbert’s lucubrations the Revolutionary and Directory invasion eras close and the Napoleonic phase proper begins. The French military historian Desbrieres estimated that there were seven main invasion attempts under the Directory. Two were abandoned and five were tried, of which two proved useless and were aborted and two were ended by British naval action. Only Humbert's exploits gave the French any grounds for optimism. It remained to be seen whether their fortunes could be reversed with the ascendancy to supreme power of the greatest military genius of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte.


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