|Wild Geese Heritage Museum and Library
Portumna, Co. Galway
We are aware that after the Treaty of Limerick, all Irish soldiers who wished were free to leave Ireland, and join the French army of Louis XIV. The French king's empire was spreading across the continent, and his main adversary was William of Orange. The war between these two kings continued on the continent after 1691. The War of the League of Augsburg (1686 - 1697) ended with the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), and following this Treaty Louis XIV was compelled to make peace with William of Orange and acknowledge him as the lawful King of England.
The War of the Spanish Succession ( 1701- 1714 ) plunged Europe into another bloody conflict. Charles II of Spain died in 1700. In his will he nominated Philip Duke of Anjou, and grandson of Louis XIV, as his successor. The Emperor of Austria and the Elector of Bavaria were furious, and consequently rejoined with their allies, the Dutch and the English in another alliance against Louis XIV. Prince Eugene of Savoy was appointed to command the allied army, and Marshall Duke de Villeroy was sent to command the French army.The battlefield was northern Italy and the French army included the Irish Brigade under Dillon, Burke, Galmoy and Berwick.
The first major clash between the two armies took place at Chiari, which turned into a massacre, with massive losses sustained by the French and Irish. After this horrific defeat, Marshall Villeroy planned a more careful campaign. He established his headquarters at Cremona . Prince Eugene occupied Mantova, and quartered his troops in Ostiano about fourteen miles away. Since Cremona was well defended by its city walls and castle, it was virtually impregnable,and therefore he had to conceive a daring plan to enter the town. He bribed a priest, Giovanni Cozzoli, Rector of the Parish of Santa Maria Nuova, into opening a secret passage that led into his wine cellar,and through which 100 grenadiers would be able to gain admittance. In addition some soldiers were able to mingle with the peasants and farmers on market day, thus gaining entry, and were able to hide in the presbtery, giving a total of 400 soldiers inside the walls of Cremona , prompt and ready to open the gates, and allow in the full army.
By this time the French were battle weary, and lethargy and inactivity led to debauchery and drunkenness of which Prince Eugene was very much aware. Consequently he decided on a surprise attack on the two French garrisons at the Ognissanti gate (now "Venice") and at the Margherita gate (now "Romana"), which when opened at speed , would allow his army entry into the city. They would then be in a position to seize the guard post of Piccola square (now "Cavour") and the 2 barracks of the Po gate where the Irish soldiers in the service of France were quartered.
On the night of February 1st 1702, the operation began, and by daylight, Prince Eugene was enthroned in the Hotel de Ville. The consternation which prevailed is described by an Italian historian: "Confusion, terror, violence, rage, flight and slaughter were every-where! Dreadful for all was the awakening! Still more dreadful what they saw when awake! The citizens believed their last hour had come! The French, between fury and surprise, arming themselves hastily and irregularly, seized their muskets, sabres, and bayonets, and sallied out from their lodgings or posts, naked and bare-footed, or covered only with a shirt, ignorant of where they were rushing, what enemy they were going to engage, or what had reduced ill-fated Cremona to such extremities, during that horrible night. The Austrians believed that victory was already in their grasp."
Marshall Villeroy was asleep in his lodgings at Offredi Palace (today "Cavalcabo"). He rushed out in his nightshirt and mounted his horse, and went to the scene of the battle. He was wounded and was captured by an Irish soldier in the Austrian army, named Francis McDonnell, who immediately took him to his commanding officer, where he was then taken prisoner.
With the seizure of most of the town, and with Marshall Villeroy taken prisoner, it appeared that Cremona was doomed. But the drama was only just beginning. Two battalions of the Irish Brigade, who could neither afford the debauchery of the French, nor had the opportunity by virtue of their strict discipline, were strongly entrenched near the Po gate. The battalion from the Dillon regiment was commanded by Major Daniel O'Mahoney, who led a fierce assault on the Imperial troops when he learned that they were in the city, and at the last moment he prevented them from opening the gate.
Another battalion was attacked by the Austrian Grenadiers, and the Irish allowed them to draw as close as possible, and then poured volley after volley of hot lead into their ranks, until they were repulsed. The Irish were quickly able to reoccupy the emplacements of Santa Lucia and Santa Salvatore by burning the bridge of boats on the Po and impeding the arrival of other Imperial troops from Castelvetro Piacentino.
At this stage Prince Eugene realised that the Irish were a big threat, and something would have to be done with them if victory was to be secured. He turned to bribery. He chose Francis McDonnell as his messenger, and he approached with a flag of truce. He promised the Irish unprecedented wealth if they would change sides, but he also promised them annihilation if they remained where they were. The Irish replied that they were not interested in any such offers, and took McDonnell prisoner instead.
These negotiations with the Irish gave the French some time to recover from their excesses and frivolities of the night before, and says O'Conor : " Thus ended the surprise of Cremona, one of the most remarkable events in modern warfare. A garrison of 7,000 men, in a town strongly fortified, surprised in their beds, obliged to march in their shirts, in the obscurity of night, through streets filled with cavalry, meeting death at every step; scattered in small bodies, without officers to lead them, fighting for ten hours without food or clothes, in the depth of winter, yet recovering gradually every post, and ultimately forcing the enemy to a precipitate retreat."
Prince Eugene, who was isolated and afraid of being trapped in the city, escaped in the evening through the Margherita gate and returned to Ostiano with 535 prisoners including Villeroy. Prince Eugene lost 300 soldiers in the battle, and the French numbered 1000 dead. The Irish in Dillon's battalions numbered 600, and of these 223 were killed.
Daniel O'Mahoney was the hero of the battle, and he was especially selected to bring the dispatches of the battle to the Most Christian King, Louis XIV in Versailles, Paris. Louis XIV received him warmly in his private chambers, and they spent one hour alone discussing the battle and other military affairs. As a result of this discussion Mahoney was promoted to the rank of Colonel, as were two officers from Burkes Regiment. All the officers and men of the Irish units received increases in pay.
Daniel Mahoney French Website