Thomas Arthur Lally was not quite as Irish as his name might suggest. He was born in France in 1702, son of Sir Gerald Lally from Tuam in Co.Galway, an Irish exile in France who had fought in the Jacobite wars. The family was said to be able to trace its Irish ancestry back to Conn of the Hundred Battles. Like his father Thomas Lally was destined for a military career. He joined the French Army in 1721 and rose to command his own regiment in the Irish Brigade at the celebrated French victory against the British at Fontenoy in 1745. He was immediately promoted to Brigadier.
That same year he accompanied Prince Charles Edward Stuart, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie but shared in the Young Pretender’s defeat and was forced to escape to France. While in Scotland he was given the titles of Earl of Moenmoyne, Viscount Ballymole and Baron Tollendally by Prince Charles. Not surprisingly, given the Stuart defeat, none of the titles is to be found in Burke’s Peerage.
When France’s umpteenth war with Britain broke out in 1756 Lally was given command of a French expedition to India – at the time France actually had Indian colonies of its own, the object was to get possession of those belonging to Britain – a project that initially met with some success. But things quickly began to go wrong for Lally’s under-resourced force. Lally was beaten in a number of encounters with British forces – among them was a defeat by fellow Irishman Eyre Coote – and retreated to the city of Pondicherry. There he withstood a lengthy siege before conceding defeat in January 1761 and handing the city back to the British. Lally was sent as a prestigious prisoner to Britain. He must have wondered who would be scapegoated in France for the humiliation of this defeat. Would it be members of the French ministry or perhaps even the King himself, Louis XV.
He soon found out that he was to be the scapegoat. While in Britain Lally discovered, to his chagrin, that he was being accused of treason in France based on the surrender of Pondicherry. Instead of biding his time in England he sought permission from his captors to return to France on parole to defend his reputation. He was imprisoned in France for two years before he was tried and found guilty and beheaded in 1766. This was in the days prior to the French revolution and the invention of the guillotine. The execution was carried out in front of a large crowd at the Place de l’Hotel de Ville in Paris. Lally was decapitated by sword. The infamous Marquis de Sade is said to have described the execution as botched, claiming that Lally had survived for more than a minute after the blow fell and had actually attempted to hold his head and neck together before he finally expired.
In his history of the French Revolution Thomas Carlyle describes Lally’s execution as judicial murder. He describes how Lally was transported through the streets of Paris to his place of execution with a gag around his mouth to ensure that he was unable to protest at the injustice of the sentence against him. Two years after Lally’s death he was posthumously pardoned by the new King, Louis XVI.
Thomas Arthur, Comte de Lally, was executed in Paris 248 years ago, on this day