Charles Edward Jennings

Charles Edward Jennings Soldier. Son of Dr Theobald Jennings and Eleanor Saul, he was born on 19th October, 1751 at his mother’s residence at Saul’s Court, Dublin. His father, a physician, belonging to the old Catholic family of MacJonins of Ironpool, Tuam, County Galway, left Ireland in 1738 and settled in the town of Tonnay-Charente in the south of France with his wife. The latter, finding that she was about to become a mother, left France for Dublin in 1751 in order that her child might be born in his native land. Young Jennings (he was better known in France as Kilmaine from the territory in County Mayo which had been the ancient patrimony of his family) was reared in Dublin with his relatives till 1762 when his father brought him, then in his 11th year, to Tonnay-Charente. In his 23rd year he entered the French army as a cadet, and in 1780 he became a lieutenant in the famous Hussar regiment of Lauzun, the first cavalry regiment in France. This corps formed part of the French expeditionary force sent to assist the Americans in the War of Independence. Returning at its close with the rank of captain, Kilmaine became in France after the outbreak of the Revolution a zealous supporter of the new ideas of liberty. A growing military reputation brought him promotion as "chef d’escadron", a rank which he held when war broke out in 1792 between France and monarchic Europe. His first great conflict was at Valmy in September of that year. A notable part in that brilliant victory for France was played by Kilmaine with some squadrons of the splendid cavalry regiment to which he belonged, and during the day a body of hussars under his command saved a whole French division from annihilation. A few months later at Jemappes, when that battle seemed lost, Kilmaine and the Duke of Chartres (the future king of France as Louis Philippe) turned apparent defeat into victory. On the field he was raised to the rank of colonel, and from that day was ever afterwards known as "le brave Kilmaine". Rapid promotion followed, and in August, 1793, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the North. Immediately afterwards he was entrenched with his troops in a position known as Caesar’s Camp near Valenciennes. The enemy in much superior numbers was threatening it on all sides, and only 40 leagues lay between it and Paris, so that, if any defeat befell Kilmaine, there would be a clear road for the enemy to the capital. The Irish officer accordingly carried out a masterly retreat, which was described as "the most glorious exploit in his career". In Paris, however, there was consternation at the news. As a result he was deprived of his command and dismissed from the army. The extreme Jacobin faction assailed him as Irish and a foreigner. Kilmaine accepted it all with calm dignity. "I am ready," he said, "to serve the cause of the Republic in whatever rank I am placed, and wherever set I shall do my duty." A few months later, however, when the Reign of Terror began, he was imprisoned as a foreigner - an act of injustice which weighed heavily on an officer who had given 30 years of unselfish devotion to France, had gone through nine campaigns and had fought in 46 battles. He was, however, released within a few months on an order signed by Carnot, and was restored to the army. In 1795 he played a leading part in defending the National Convention against the insurgents in the insurrection of Prairial. Early in 1796 he set out with Bonaparte on the Italian campaign, and at Lodi contributed to the great victory by a brilliant cavalry charge. Later in September of the same year (1796) he was appointed to the onerous position of commander of all northern Italy. This campaign increased his high reputation as a brilliant officer, and in 1798, after Bonaparte left France on new conquests, Kilmaine was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armée d’Angleterre destined for the invasion of Britain and Ireland. The Directory, however, abandoned the project, and its decision shattered Kilmaine’s dream of helping to achieve the independence of his native land. An intimate friendship existed between him and Wolfe Tone. On hearing of the latter’s arrest in Ireland, he strongly urged the French government to intervene in his case and to hold for Tone’s safety hostages of equal rank chosen from the British military prisoners then in France. The appeal was strangely ignored.

Kilmaine’s health had been seriously affected by his strenuous labours in the Italian campaign. In addition, domestic troubles helped to weaken a delicate constitution, and in 1799 he was compelled to retire from active service. On 11th December of that year he died at Paris. A superb tactician, a dashing cavalry officer, he was described by Captain Landrieux, his aide-de-camp, as "the only officer in whom Napoleon ever placed complete confidence". There is a portrait of General Kilmaine in the Hotel de Ville at Tonnay-Charente, where his father practised as a physician.
(From A Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France. By Richard Hayes. Published by MH Gill & Sons Ltd. Dublin 1949.)

  Click here to go back to History Page