1500-1799 | Backing terror operations | Burning villages | Ireland

British general – ‘my wish was to excite terror’

Portrait of Sir John Moore (National Portrait Gallery – via Wikimedia) and statue commemorating him in Glasgow (Xabier Cid via Wikimedia)
Portrait of Sir John Moore (National Portrait Gallery – via Wikimedia) and statue commemorating him in Glasgow (Xabier Cid via Wikimedia)

27 May 1798

Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore is much praised as a heroic, but relatively humane, figure of the Napoleonic wars. His death in 1809 during the defence of Corruna against the French earned him the status of a national martyr and a memorial by Sir Christopher Wren commemorating his martyrdom still stands in the south transept of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Eleven years earlier, and having just been elevated to the rank of Major General, Moore had been dispatched to Ireland to help put down an uprising. The National Army Museum remarks on a page devoted to the general’s career that ‘although the rebellion was put down with great brutality, Moore stood out from most other commanders in his refusal to commit atrocities.’1 Possibly the phrase ‘hesitancy in committing atrocities’ might be more appropriate.

On 27 May 1798, Moore reflected in his diary on his frustration over the reluctance of the locals in County Cork to collaborate.  He described how he had ‘marched five companies of light Infantry and a detachment of Dragoons throughout the country to Skull to be ready to act. I expected that upon appearance of the troops the people would have given in their arms, but it had no effect.’2 Moore claimed that he was reluctant to descend to the level of atrocities committed routinely by other British officers, but ultimately the temptation to resort to terror tactics had proved too great. He recalled how he ‘spoke to the priests and took every pains to represent the folly of holding out and of forcing me to resort to violent measures,’ but this having little effect he had given orders ‘to treat the people with as much harshness as possible,’ adding that ‘my wish was to excite terror, and by that means obtain our end speedily.’3

He noted that by the second day, as a consequence of his decision, some people began to surrender arms, but there was still some discernible unwillingness, and that ‘Major Nugent ( under his command ) in Coharagh was obliged to burn some houses before he could get a single arm.’  However, the destruction at Coharagh was no isolated incident. It merely marked the beginning of a three week terror campaign across the entire countryside to the west of Cork. Moore, however, insisted that he had no alternative to the use of such indiscriminate violence, explaining how he was ‘always entreating that the arms might be delivered without forcing me to ruin them,’ but that ‘few parishes had the good sense to do so.’  He concluded with the chilling admission that ‘the terror was great. The moment a red coat appeared everybody fled.’4


  1. ‘Great Commanders: John Moore: Alone with his Glory,’ The National Army Museum website accessed online on 8 May 2020 at url https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/john-moore
  2. Sir John Moore, Diary 27 May 1798, in Major-General Sir. J.F. Maurice (Editor), The Diary of Sir John Moore, Edward Arnold, London, p. 289.
  3. Ibid., p. 289.
  4. Ibid;, pp. 289-90.

Please feel welcome to post comments below.  If you have any questions please email alisdare@gmail.com

© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *