Henri Clarke of Lisdowney extraction – Marshal of France

Eamonn Kiely

Marshal is a military distinction conferred on certain generals by monarchs or emperor of France. Napoleon created for example twenty six such. The two closest to being Irish were MacMahon, after whom an avenue off the Arc De Triomphe is named and Henri Clarke who lived from 1765 -1818-He was marie a Marshal of France In 1816. A marshal carries on each shoulder strap, seven stars and is given a baton – a sort of blue cylinder, again with stars and a Latin inscription Terror Belli, Decus Pads. It means Terror in War, Ornament in Peace.

Clarke’s parents were from Lisdowney. The father having served in Dillon’s Regiment of the French Army, his mother a Shee of one of the ten Kilkenny merchant families.

Henri Clarke was one of the most influential and charismatic Franco – Irish generals of the Napoleonic era. He had close links to the Irish Brigade of France as his uncles and Shee grandfather had served in Clare’s Regiment He served in the early French Revolutionary Wars in the Army of the Rhine and by 1793 he had been promoted General of Brigade. In 1795 he was briefly arrested – we are not sure what for. On his release he lived in Alsace until sent by Lazare Carnot to Italy to serve as Napoleon Bonaparte’s chief topographical officer. After 18 Brumaire, Napoleon’s coup to make himself Consul, Clarke served as Chief of the Topographical Bureau, State Councillor, and state secretary for the Army and Navy. During the war against Austria in 1805 he was made governor of Vienna and during the war against Prussia in 1806 he served as governor of Erfurt and of Berlin.

In 1807, Napoleon relocated the Ministry of War to Paris, naming Clarke to head it. He established his authority promptly, sometimes encroaching on other Ministries’ administrative areas. His role in thwarting the British invasion of the Netherlands, the Walcheren Campaign in 1809, led to the emperor creating him Duke of Feltre. Napoleon came to depend on his authority and he was instrumental in organizing the administration and building the Grande Armee in 1811/1812. As chief military organizer, he claimed authority over conscription, the production of all military items, funding, and even health services. This led both to conflict with other Ministers and to an expansion of his own authority. Imagine the logistics of launching 450,000 men from France to Moscow in 1812!

That same year Clarke had to put down a coup by Claude Francoise Malet. The latter had Savary, Minister of Police arrested and Clarke also took over that ministry. Savary had been one of Clarke’s great rivals. On Napoleon’s return he was alarmed at die power being wielded by Clarke and put the released Savary back as Minister of Police.

As the Allies approached Paris, Clarke found himself with responsibility to defend the capital. He was charged with producing manpower for Napoleon and responsible for the population and civil defense. He found himself organizing hospitals and mobilizing the population. In the end his efforts at defense were ineffectual and he was one of the generals pressing for Napoleon’s abdication. After the abdication Clarke was replaced as Minister of War by Dupont de l’Etang but Louis xviii of France made him a Peer of France. When Napoleon landed in Southern France in March 1815 to reclaim the throne (the Hundred Days), Clarke was again made Minister for War and served until the Bourbon government fled. When the king fled to Ghent, Clarke followed him. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo June 1815 and his second abdication, Clarke was made Minister of War once more and served in that capacity until 1817 when Gouvion Saint – Cyr took over. He was then given command of the 15th Military Division. The year before he was made Marshal of France. So the Lisdowney man was honoured by both Napoleon and Louis xviii at the very highest level.

I am not aware of any memorial, or plaque even, to him in the Ballyragget/ Lisdowney area. Perhaps the time is ripe for some such to remind us of his singular achievements.


  • Henri Clarke, Minister of War, and the Malet Conspiracy, The International Napoleonic Society – The Journal, Vol 1, No. 2, December 1998.