On this date in 1766, a refugee noble with more honor than sense lost his head in Paris.
Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally, baron de Tollendal — more efficiently known as Lally, or as Lally-Tollendal, though he’s not to be confused in this with his son, a French Revolution bit player — entered this world in County Galway, the child of a minor lord.
Since said lord hewed to the Jacobite party favoring restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne, the family found itself relocated with the exiled Pretender to a continental power whose spiritual and temporal interests were similarly inimical to the Hanoverian king.
Our man landed himself, like a proper retainer of his adoptive liege, a gig in the French army in which capacity he actually served at the Jacobites’ last doomed British hurrah, the 1746 Battle of Falkirk.
But his problems came from his Bourbon service much further afield — in India.
There, his expeditionary force suffered reversal after reversal at the hands of the hated Brits, even then in the process of appending India to their dominions.
Our general’s military misadventures were compounded by impolitic high-handedness towards his officers and men, and to the locals whose alliances he needed. He was, in the main, a man ill-suited to the job entrusted to him. As the Memoirs of Sanson remark, “his temper, his obstinacy, and especially his contempt for all means of action except brutal strength, were destined to lead him into mistakes in a position demanding more knowledge of politics than science of war. Sixteen years before Lally-Tollendal’s appointment, Dupleix, with scanty forces, at enmity with the Company, receiving neither help nor subsidies from the mother country, had held in check English power in the Indian peninsula by mere diplomatic proficiency. Lally knew how to conquer; but he was incapable of studying and detecting the secrets of Dupleix’s policy.”
By the time the bad news that established all this hit France, the subcontinent was pretty much Britain’s to command — just another piece of the imperial butt-kicking France suffered in the Seven Years’ War.
And Lally’s enemies were holding him personally responsible as a potential traitor. After all, he was conveniently now in English custody.
Incensed at having his honor impugned, Lally unwisely obtained English parole to return to repel these charges. He proved no more diplomatic with the barristers than he had been with the Hindus:
he was so convinced of his own innocence that he was imprudent enough to impeach the officers who had served under his orders, together with the administrators of the colony. He charged them with such violence that his death and condemnation became indispensable for their justification … When the accused appeared before his judges, he was no more able to control his temper than when he was in India … answering, fuming, retorting, stigmatising the cowardice of some, the cupidity of others, and hinting that the only guilty party was the powerless Government.
Just the sort of vindication liable to appeal more to posterity than to said government. Louis XV, another man unequal to his position, was by this autumn of his reign plumbing the nadir of his unpopularity; for the officer who had risked his life in battle under French colors throughout adulthood, Louis calculated more profit in severity (or expedience) than in clemency. Hey, it had worked for the English.
And really, for a Stuart adherent, sacrificial execution was kind of an apt fate.
We guess it worked.
“The people were pleased with all that made his punishment ignominious: the cart, the handcuffs, and the gag,” recorded aristocrat-of-letters Madame du Deffand (Source) “He was a great rascal, and besides he was very disagreeable.”
Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution, spared in Lally’s defense a few sentences of delicious invective for the rotting regime that did him in.
The Parlement of Paris may count itself an unloved body; mean, not magnanimous, on the political side. Were the King weak, always (as now) has his Parlement barked, cur-like at his heels; with what popular cry there might be. Were he strong, it barked before his face; hunting for him as his alert beagle. An unjust Body; where foul influences have more than once worked shameful perversion of judgment. Does not, in these very days, the blood of murdered Lally cry aloud for vengeance? Baited, circumvented, driven mad like the snared lion, Valour had to sink extinguished under vindictive Chicane. Behold him, that hapless Lally, his wild dark soul looking through his wild dark face; trailed on the ignominious death-hurdle; the voice of his despair choked by a wooden gag! The wild fire-soul that has known only peril and toil; and, for threescore years, has buffeted against Fate’s obstruction and men’s perfidy, like genius and courage amid poltroonery, dishonesty and commonplace; faithfully enduring and endeavouring,–O Parlement of Paris, dost thou reward it with a gibbet and a gag?