William Lawless

         Banner of the Irish Legion
William Lawless (Shankill, Co. Dublin, 1772? - Paris, 1824), like Bernard MacSheehy, was a product and protagonist of the revolutionary upheaval of the late 18th century. Of good family, he studied at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and was named to the chair of anatomy and physiology there in 1794. However, Lawless became a member of the United Irishmen and was seriously involved in the preparations for the 1798 uprising. Warned that he was about to be arrested, he escaped to Paris in spring of that year. Lawless seems to have had some money when he first arrived in the French capital and was generous enough in lending some of it to many of his more impecunious compatriots. Lawless briefly served as a chef de battalion in the French army in the Dutch campaign of 1799 but was then discharged. For the next three years, he spent his days, like many other expats such as Miles Byrne, reading the English-language newspaper, the Argus, in the London Coffee House in rue Jacob (6th arrondissement, no longer extant). 

The Irish Regiment on the march
Lawless then spent more relatively idle years with the Irish Legion in Brittany from his appointment as a captain in the Irish Legion at the end of 1803 to his promotion to the rank of battalion commander in 1809. France's botched plans for an invasion of Ireland explains part of Lawless's prolonged stay in Brittany. But his years of Breton indolence were made longer by his poor relationship with the Legion commander, the Italian-born Edouard-Antoine Petrezzoli, who confined Lawless to Brest while the rest of the Legion marched off to war in northern Europe and Spain. Finally, in 1809, Lawless was appointed chef de battalion of the First Battalion of the 3rd Foreign Regiment (Irish), as the Legion was subsequently renamed. The battalion was wiped out in 1809 in an unsuccessful attempt to defend the town of Flushing against the British. In his subsequent report to the French minister of war, Lawless writes that during the fighting he was “struck by a ball which entered below the right eye and lodged below the ear on the same side”.  Despite his wounds, Lawless managed to escape with the help of a local doctor and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for saving the regimental eagle from capture.
Later in 1809, he was appointed major in the Irish regiment. But in 1811, the word ‘Irish’ was dropped from the regiment’s official name whose lower ranks, in any case, were overwhelming composed of Germans and Poles by this stage. In February 1812, Lawless was promoted to colonel and became the fourth commander of the regiment, succeeding Daniel O’Meara (“prone to the glass”, according to Miles Byrne), Edouard Antoine Petrezzoli and Bernard MacSheehy.

      The Lawless grave in Père Lachaise

Byrne - commemoration 
1798 Commemoration at Lawless' grave
Lawless fought at the battle of Bautzen in May 1813 and then at the Battle of Lowenberg in Silesia in August of the same year, during which he lost a leg. Here is how Miles Byrne describes the incident.
“Napoleon…ordered a general attack. The Irish regiment was to pass through a mill, which stood in the centre of the river, the bridge having been destroyed the day before; the town was bombarded by the enemy’s batteries. Under this tremendous fire, Colonel Lawless passed at the head of his regiment, and saluted the emperor, who was on horseback in the street leading to the river where the regiment had to pass. The emperor was surrounded by his staff officers, the King of Naples (Murat) etc…Colonel Lawless, seeing the grenadiers and the most part of his regiment had got through the mill, immediately rode through the river and placed himself at the head of his regiment to attack the enemy; he had hardly advanced a few steps when his leg was carried off by a cannon ball from the enemy’s battery, which was placed on an eminence to defend the passage of the river. Colonel Lawless was brought into town upon a door by six grenadiers of his regiment. Napoleon saw him again as he returned wounded, and sent his chief surgeon, Baron Larrey, to perform the amputation.”

Despite his amputation and despite the French defeat in the battle, Lawless avoided capture and made it back to Paris. However, the Irish regiment was decimated during the fighting of August 1813. After the fall of Napoleon, Lawless initially settled in Moulins in central France, but he moved back to Paris and died 22, rue du Colombier (6th arrondissement, street no longer exists) on Christmas Day, 1824. His wife, also Irish, died at rue de la Ferme des Mathurins in Paris (street no longer exists) in August 1854.


Select Bibliography
Archives nationales
File on Lawless’s retirement and pension BB/11/99/1 3245 B2. Further Lawless file under 23Yc206

Service historique de la Défense
Files Xh14, Xh15, as well as Xh16b, c and d for the Irish Legion
William Lawless file, 8Yd1840 

Memoirs of Miles Byrne, Chef de Bataillon in the Service of France edited by his widow (1907)
Miles Byrne

Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949)
Richard Hayes
Appendix to "Huge Ware, A Kildare 1798 Rebel in the Service of France", Nicholas Dunne-Lynch, Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, vol. XX, part 11, 2010-2011
“Irish Patriot and Napoleonic Soldier: William Lawless” John G. Gallagher, The Irish Sword, vol. XVIII, no. 73, Summer 1992

“Napoleon’s Irish Legion: La legion irlandaise”, www.napoleonichistoricalsociety.com