The Life and Times of Marie Edme Patrice Maurice De McMahon, Duc De Magenta (1808-93), President of France
Marie Edme Patrice Maurice de McMahon, Duc de Magenta, was President of France from 1873 to 1879. He was the only one of the Irish in Europe to become a head of state, and as President of France held one of the most prestigious posts in the world. His great-grandfather was from the area of Limerick now known as Dooradoyle.
Originally the McMahon family were from Co. Clare, but they lost their ancestral lands there during the turbulent sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the time of the Treaty of Limerick (1691) they were living in Toorodile, Co. Limerick (now Dooradoyle, site of the Crescent Shopping Centre).
Moriart McMahon of Toorodile had two sons, Maurice and Patrick. The latter had three sons all of whom emigrated to France as the Penal Laws severely curtailed their chances of making successful careers at home.
One of the sons, John Baptist, trained as a medical doctor and practiced in the town of Autun, near Dijon, capital of Burgundy. There he met and married Charlotte D’Eguilly, a noblewoman and one of the richest heiresses in Burgundy. Jean Baptiste (as he was known in France) was a commoner married into the nobility, and in accordance with the strict regulations of the ancien regime he had to prove his aristocratic ancestry when applying to be accepted into the ranks of the French Noblesse.
Having furnished the authorities with the necessary proofs, Jean Baptiste was registered as an Aristocrat, and King Louis XV created him Marquis D’Equilly, Marquis Vianges, and other titles.
The new marquis had two sons, the second of whom was Maurice Francoise, Count of Charnay and Lord of Eguilly and Sully. He served in the French army but as a life-long royalist was obliged to live in exile from 1792 to 1803. He was married and had a family of seventeen children, the sixteenth of whom was named Marie Edme Patrice Maurice. This boy, commonly known as Maurice, was to become Marshal McMahon, President of France.
It is ironic that the future President of the Republic should have been born into a staunchly royalist and aristocratic family.
He was born at Chateau De Sully, near Autun on 13 July, 1808. At the time of his birth France and most of Europe was ruled by the great Napoleon 1, Emperor of the French. McMahon’s long life, which spanned most of the nineteenth century saw a bewildering succession of regimes come and go in France.
Like his father he chose a military career and following a period at the College of St. Louis Le Grand in Paris he spent two years at the French military Academy of Saint Cyr (the French equivalent of West Point or Sandhurst). He graduated in 1827, and, entering the army, began a very long and distinguished military career.
He served almost continuously in Algeria from 1830 until 1854. The French had invaded Algeria in 1830 and spent the next twenty years gradually conquering and settling it. In 1832 he saw service with the French against the Dutch, during the campaign which helped establish Belgium as an independent kingdom. Thereafter he fought in the endless Algerian wars of the 1830s and 1840s.
He was a dashing and gallant officer, distinguishing himself at the siege of Constantine in 1837. In 1843 he became commander of the famed Foreign Legion, and by 1852 had risen to the rank of Division-General.
In 1852 Louis Napoleon declared himself Emperor of the French. A nephew of the great Napoleon he ruled France until 1870, his regime becoming known as the Second Empire. Determined to restore France’s greatness he involved her in a series of wars throughout his reign. Under the third Napoleon France regained her old position as the greatest power in Europe, but the Franco-Prussian War brought his career to a disastrous and inglorious end.
The first major war of the reign was the Crimean War (1854-56) when France and Britain, aided by Turkey and Sardinia, fought against the Russian Empire. The whole Crimean campaign was conducted with extraordinary incompetence by the British forces, and only the even greater ineptitude of the Russians and the relative efficiency of the French war effort brought eventual victory to the allies.
In September 1855 McMahon conducted the assault upon the Malakoff fortress, which was the key to Sebastopol, Russia’s great naval base in the Crimea. The fortress was captured, but McMahon was warned by his commander-in-chief that the Russians had mined it. According to legend McMahon refused to withdraw, proudly stating, ‘Here I am, and here I stay’. Following the end of the war he declined the highest command in France and volunteered to return to Algeria. Following a distinguished campaign there he returned to France and became a member of the Senate.
In 1859 Napoleon declared war on Austria and invaded Italy where Lombardy and Venetia were ruled by Austria and the other Italian states were under Austrian sway. A movement (later called the Risorgimento) had developed to unite all of Italy. Napoleon 111 was a supporter of this idea and invaded Italy in support of his ally, the King of Sardinia, who wanted to overthrow Austrian dominion and establish himself as ruler of a united country.
The war was a triumph for the French. McMahon accompanied the Emperor and was given command of the Second corps or the ‘Army of Italy’.
At Magenta he met the Austrian army and inflicted a crushing defeat on them. This great victory was the high point of his career. Milan, the centre of Austrian power in Italy, fell soon after, and following another French victory at Solferino the war was brought to a victorious conclusion.
Napoleon 111 conferred high honours on McMahon following the Battle of Magenta. Firstly he was created marshal of France, the highest rank in the French army. Soon after he raised him to the peerage with the title Duc de Magenta. He was now one of the most prominent men in France.
In 1860 a deputation from Ireland, which was joined in Paris by John Mitchel (a leader of Young Ireland and author of the ‘Jail’ Journal) presented him with a ceremonial sword of honour. The following year he represented Napoleon 111 at the coronation of William1 as King of Prussia (ironically this monarch’s armies had inflicted crushing defeats on McMahon’s a few years earlier).
In 1864 he was sent to Algeria as governor-general. There he attempted to enforce the Emperor’s reforming plans for the colony. He did much to curb the excesses of the French colonists and made some attempt to protect the native population. However, he also contemplated establishing an Irish colony there. His rule in Algeria was not a success and a rebellion broke out shortly after his recall.
His rule in Algeria was brought to an end by the greatest crisis that France was to face in the nineteenth century. This was the Franco-Prussian war and the civil war that followed immediately afterwards. When the war began in 1870 virtually everyone believed that France would be victorious. In fact the war was to be a massive disaster and one of the greatest defeats in French history.
Instead of the easy victories which they had expected the French themselves were facing invasion by three immense German armies. The French war machine was led very inefficiently, first by Napoleon himself, who was a poor soldier, and later by Marshal Bazaine, whose inactivity bordered on the criminally irresponsible and later led to his being accused of treason.
At the battle of Gravelotte, Bazaine, at the head of the flower of the French army including the Imperial Guard was heavily defeated. Following this he led his great army into Metz and the Germans then proceeded to lay siege to this city. Meanwhile McMahon, at the head of the Alsace army detachment, was defeated at the battle of Wurth.
After these disasters a new army was hastily gathered. It consisted of the remains of McMahon’s ‘Army of Alsace’ and a host of new recruits. The prime minister, the Count of Palikao, urged on by the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon, ordered McMahon to lead this motley force to the relief of Metz. McMahon knew that it was a hopeless enterprise, as his army of 120,000 men was disorganised and demoralised.
Accompanied by the Emperor he marched on Metz, but at Sedan the army was surrounded and suffered a catastrophic defeat. He himself was severely wounded in the thigh. The Emperor, accompanied by 39 generals, 2,700 officers and 83, 000 men, surrendered and were all taken as prisoners to Germany. McMahon, among them, was interned at Wiesbaden.
Soon after the battle of Sedan Metz was captured. The Germans then advanced on Paris and captured the city after a bitterly fought siege. The Empire was overthrown and a republic (the Third Republic) was proclaimed.
At the end of the war France was in a state of collapse and humiliation. The German states were formed into a united German Empire which was proclaimed at Versailles, and France was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty which handed Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. To the woes of defeat in war were now added those of violent domestic revolution and civil conflict.
The revolution was led by a commune, or city council, which governed Paris from 26 March to 28 May, 1871. It consisted of extreme republicans, socialists and a few Marxists. The right wing government, led by Adolphe Thiers, feared that communism and anarchy would spread throughout France, to defeat which they gathered an army consisting of prisoners of war released by the Germans, plus some new recruits.
McMahon, who had been released from internment in Germany, and who had recovered from his wound suffered at Sedan, was made commander-in-chief. There followed a savage battle during which his troops besieged and finally captured Paris after very heavy fighting.
The second siege of Paris was marked by appalling atrocities on both sides but the government forces were guilty of the worst excesses. Despite his orders McMahon’s army went on an orgy of killing and revenge, and over 20,000 were massacred by them before the commune rebellion was finally crushed.
Now that order had been restored the royalists set about restoring the monarchy, attempting to do so through their large parliamentary majority. They were hampered by the stubborn and reactionary pretender to the throne, the Comte de Chambord, who made very little attempt to compromise with the political realities of the time. Thiers was president until 1873 when the royalist majority deposed him.
McMahon, of noble birth and royalist sympathies, and a staunch conservative, was an obvious choice for the post from their point of view. Accordingly, he was elected President of France on 14 May, 1873 by an almost unanimous vote of the senate and chamber of deputies.
He took up residence in the Elysee Palace in Paris, which was the only palace available to the French head of state in the city centre since the Tuileries Palace was burnt by the communards in 1871. The new government was led by the Duc de Broglie as prime minister (who was a close friend of Lord Emly, Tervoe House, Clarina, Co. Limerick).
In autumn 1873 an attempt was made to restore the king. It failed because the Comte de Chambord refused to accept the tricolour as the French flag, and insisted on restoring the old royal flag. This wrecked his chances as the French were attached to their flag and regarded it as a symbol of their freedom. The attempted restoration fizzled out and McMahon was then appointed president for seven years, the royalists hoping to gain a breathing space to realise their ambition.
In 1874 the Comte de Chambord came to France and stayed at the palace of Versailles. He expected McMahon to come to see him but the President refused to do so and the Pretender left the country. McMahon had come to see that the Comte would be a disastrous king and that the republicans were gaining in support. The President resolved to abide by ‘existing institutions’.
In 1875 a number of laws were passed which defined the constitution of the Third Republic. The president was to have wide-ranging powers, the chief of which was the power to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and call a general election.
In the same year occurred the high point of McMahon’s presidency: the formal opening of the huge Opera House in Paris. McMahon presided over this pageant in a manner worthy of an emperor. In 1876 a general election returned a large republican majority in the chamber of deputies. This dismayed McMahon who believed that the president should have the power to appoint ministers and who also wanted them to be answerable to himself. Also, he was anxious to keep the republic as conservative as possible. The royalists now persuaded him to use his new powers. He dismissed the prime minister, Jules Simon, and appointed the Duc de Broglie to that office again. When the chamber of deputies refused to yield McMahon dissolved it on 16 May, 1877 and called another general election. This act, although strictly legal, was called the Coup d’Etat of 16 May. To help win the election the administration, at national and local level, was purged of republican officials, and pressure was brought to bear on other government officials and the republican opposition harassed. McMahon himself went about the country making speeches and campaigning for a conservative victory. The Church and the gentry backed the government. Despite this the election was a major defeat for the conservatives. They won 207 seats against the 326 for the republicans. In desperation McMahon appointed General Rochebouet as prime minister, but the Chamber of Deputies refused to vote supplies and after a brief interval McMahon had to back down and accept a republican in the post. The crisis marked the real foundation of the Third Republic. McMahon had been manipulated by the far right and emerged from the crisis in a very compromised position. The presidency was gravely weakened and did not recover until De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. McMahon lingered on as president until 1879. In that year the republicans also gained control of the Senate. They now called for the removal of anti-republican generals in the army, and rather than consent to this McMahon resigned on 30 January 1879.It was claimed by Clemenceau (prime minister during World War 1) that by so doing the Marshal had saved his country from a new civil war, but it is doubtful if McMahon had enough influence left to cause any real trouble. Following his resignation he took no further part in politics. He lived in complete retirement for the next fourteen years and saw the republic take root and flourish in the 1880s and early 1890s. He died in Paris on 16 October, 1893 aged 85.
Marshal Mcmahon was married to Elizabeth de la Croix de Castries, whose grandmother had been Irish. He was succeeded by his son Patrice (1855-1927) who became the second Duc de Magenta. Patrice married into the French royal house. His wife Marguerite was daughter of the Duc de Chartres and was great-granddaughter of Louis Philippe, King of the French (1830-48) and of Pedro 11, Emperor of Brazil (1831-89). The fourth Duc de Magenta, grandson of the second Duc, is alive and lives in the family chateau in France.