Armagh Militia

Militia Officers of the 3rd Battalion

Armagh’s Militia unit was designated the 8th Regiment and recruiting had begun as soon as the regiment was authorised. Lord Gosford was appointed as Colonel (originally lieutenant colonel commandant) and other well-known families in the county, including the Achesons, Copes, Ensors and Magowans, were also represented. Although the Armagh Regiment was ordered to be embodied on 3 May 1793, it was 16 September before embodiment was complete, suggesting that recruiting may have been slower than expected.

Several units included some personnel who had come from England to serve in the Irish Militia while some regular soldiers based in Ireland also transferred. Among the latter Sergeant Major Kay of the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers) Regiment was commissioned as a captain and became adjutant of the Armaghs – and the only trained soldier in the regiment.

In 1796 Ireland was threatened with invasion by the French as a large fleet carrying a French army made for Bantry Bay. The French intention was to support a rebellion by the United Irishmen but the fleet sailed during one of the stormiest winters of the 18th century and the only Frenchmen to land in Ireland did so as prisoners of war. Among the forces arrayed to engage any invading force were many Militia units, including the Armagh Regiment, marching towards this threatened area. This marked the beginning of a period of active service for the Armaghs, which lasted until the suppression of the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798. For most of that time the regiment was deployed in the south or west of Ireland.

The United Irishmen’s rebellion began on 24 May and evolved into a series of skirmishes but rarely into pitched battle. Although some regular units were engaged, as well as fencibles from Britain, the burden of the action fell on the Irish Militia. The Armagh Regiment fought in the first action of the Rebellion, at Naas, and the regiment was also involved at Tubberneering in County Wexford before fighting alongside the Cavans at both Arklow and Vinegar Hill. At Tubberneering the rebels gained a victory over the government troops through the arrogance of Colonel Walpole who decided on a pre-emptive attack on a rebel camp and marched his men through a defile in which they were ambushed and Walpole was among those killed. Walpole had declined to put out troops to the flanks to protect his column and the result was a boost the morale of the rebels. A detachment of the Armagh Regiment, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cope, was instrumental in extricating Walpole’s force and then covering the retreat to Gorey. Cope’s initiative saved the day by reducing the number of casualties.

The first phase of the 1798 Rebellion lasted until 12 July, after which came a six-week period of relative peace. That ended on 22 August when a French force, commanded by General Jean Humbert, landed in Killala Bay. The French quickly captured the towns of Killala and Ballina. Humbert then marched towards Castlebar where he gained surprise by taking a roundabout route and defeated a force of militia, yeomanry and regular troops under General Lake. Although his victory, known as the ‘Castlebar Races’, gained him some 5,000 Irish recruits, there was no widespread renewal of the rebellion across the country. Humbert declared the Republic of Connaught on 31 August, but this was shortlived.

He suffered his first reverse of the campaign at Collooney, some six miles south-east of Sligo, although the defenders were again defeated. However, Lord Cornwallis had mustered a force of some 15,000 men that was marching to meet Humbert. Included in that force was the Armagh Regiment. The French had crossed the Shannon at Ballintra and were marching towards Dublin, Humbert believing that the United Irishmen were fighting in Longford and Westmeath.

However, the rebels in Longford and Westmeath had been defeated and Humbert chose to make a stand at Ballinamuck. This was the last battle of the campaign and after a bitter, but brief, clash of arms the French surrendered. Of the Armaghs, only the light company was engaged but in the short battle Private Toole of the Armaghs had captured the flag of the 2nd Battalion of the 70th Demi-Brigade, a trophy that may still be seen in Armagh. The Armaghs were said to have ‘rushed upon the enemy with fixed bayonets in such a style as to astonish the veterans of the army of Italy’.

The Armagh Regiment remained on service in Ireland until 1816, with a brief break following the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 the Militia remained embodied for a short time but the Irish regiments were stood down in 1816 and remained ‘disembodied’ for 39 years. However, cadres of each were maintained, although permanent staffs were reduced over the years. In 1833 the Armagh Regiment was renumbered as the 75th and in 1855 became the Armagh Light Infantry.

The Militia was embodied again for the Crimean War (1853-56) with the Armaghs being mobilised from 29 August 1855 to 18 August 1856. Once more the regiment recruited new personnel and was sent to Portsmouth. There the Armagh LI provided a draft of over 200 volunteers to join the Durham Light Infantry in the Crimea; the Durhams had been stationed in Armagh before the outbreak of the war. The Armagh LI volunteers saw action at the siege of Sevastopol and returned home with a drum captured from the Russian fortress which is on display in the Royal Irish Fusiliers’ Museum in Armagh.

Once again disembodiment followed the end of the war and the Militia regiments were reduced to cadres until the Childers’ reforms of the Army were implemented in 1881. The Armagh Light Infantry was linked with the Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) as the 3rd Battalion of the Regiment and shared the regimental depot in Armagh.

There was a brief embodiment for the Second South African, or Boer, War which began in 1899 and lasted until 1902. For the 3rd Battalion embodiment began on 14 May 1900 and ended on 4 December 1900. After the war the 1st Battalion was stationed in Holywood, County Down, and in 1904 carried out a recruiting march through counties Armagh and Monaghan where both Militia battalions played hosts to their regular comrades.

The 1908 Haldane reforms introduced the Territorial Force in Great Britain to replace the Militia but this was not extended to Ireland where the Militia was renamed the Special Reserve. Not all battalions were retained and 5th Princess Victoria’s, the former Monaghan Militia, was among those disbanded.

When the First World War broke out the 3rd Reserve Battalion was given the role of recruiting and training drafts, holding men temporarily unfit for active service, providing a ‘home’ for young officers waiting to go to the front and helping defend Ireland against any threatened invasion. The best-known of the 3rd Battalion’s officers was the young Second Lieutenant Gerald Templer who, as Field Marshal Sir Gerald, would eventually become Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Colonel of The Royal Irish Fusiliers. Although their role was not glamorous, the Armaghs performed it with the cheerfulness that characterised the Militia. After the war ended the 3rd Battalion was reduced again to a title in the Army List where it remained until the old Militia battalions were finally removed in 1953.

Richard Doherty