Corbet, William (1779–1842), United Irishman and French general, was born 17 August 1779 at Ballythomas, Co. Cork, one of eight children of Frederick Corbet, a protestant farmer and schoolteacher; his mother was a Purcell. Educated by his father, he entered TCD (1792), became a scholar (1796), and graduated BA (1797). He was a sergeant in the college yeomanry corps, secretary of the College Historical Society, and friend of Thomas Moore (qv) and Robert Emmet (qv). A college acquaintance described him as ‘tall and delicate, of a mild disposition and very pleasing manners’ (Walsh, 172–3). He was a strong supporter of catholic emancipation, and joined the United Irishmen. On the occasion when Trinity students were proceeding to Dublin Castle to pay their respects to the viceroy, Corbet led a breakaway group to a Catholic Committee meeting at Francis St. chapel, where John Keogh (qv) singled him out for praise. During the visitation of the college by Lord Clare (qv) in February 1798, he and eighteen others, including his elder brother Thomas Corbet (qv), were expelled because of their political views.
After the outbreak of rebellion on 23 May the two Corbet brothers travelled to France (via Trondheim, Copenhagen and Hamburg), arriving around early August. William was commissioned captain and assigned to the staff of a French expedition sailing from Dunkirk to Ireland. With a group of Irish émigrés led by James Napper Tandy (qv), he landed at Rutland Island off Co. Donegal in September 1798 and attempted unsuccessfully to raise the local people. On hearing of the defeat of Humbert's (qv) expedition they reembarked for France, but their ship was damaged in a fight at sea and they had to sail for repairs to Bergen, Norway. Corbet then travelled overland to the free city of Hamburg, arriving on 3 November. Here he applied to the French minister for a passport to continue his journey to France but was refused. Waiting in Hamburg he met United Irish colleagues James Blackwell (qv) and Hervey Morres (qv), and on 24 November all four were arrested by Sir James Craufurd, the English consul. Craufurd had no prior intention of arresting Corbet but did so because he was in the same house as Tandy. Imprisoned in extremely harsh conditions for several months, Corbet made several escape attempts and deluged the Hamburg senate with letters strongly protesting his treatment; he later wrote a pamphlet on these events, The conduct of the senate at Hamburg revealed (1807). His health suffered badly and in spring 1799 his conditions were improved. In November 1799 Corbet and Blackwell were transferred to Kilmainham prison in Dublin where, despite Bonaparte's protests, their detention without trial continued. Using a rope ladder, Corbet escaped from Kilmainham in February 1801. He injured himself in a fall from the prison wall but recovered and eventually made his way back to Paris; details of his escape were used by Maria Edgeworth (qv) in her novel Ormond (1817).
Corbet taught English at St Cyr, until in autumn 1803 he and Thomas were commissioned as captains in the Irish Legion. In the faction-torn legion the Corbets sided with Arthur O'Connor (qv). Thomas's accusation that Capt. John Swiney (qv) had failed to take an oath of allegiance to the newly proclaimed emperor, Napoleon, provoked a bitter dispute which on 4 June 1804 exploded into a brawl, leading to the arrest of the Corbets and Swiney. Three months later Swiney shot Thomas dead in a duel. An inquiry praised William's character and knowledge of military matters, but found him guilty of exacerbating the dispute, and advised that he should be transferred temporarily out of the legion, although this did not happen. As the two senior captains, Corbet and John Tennent (qv) represented the legion at Napoleon's coronation on 2 December 1804 and were presented with the legion's colours. Some months later Corbet and Tennent engaged in a bitter dispute over seniority, which was resolved by Corbet's transfer to divisional staff. Shattered by his brother's death and frustrated by the legion's factionalism and inaction, Corbet was happy to move.
He quit the army in summer 1806 and returned to his position as a teacher of English at St Cyr. However, when his former comrades marched off to Spain in 1808, he joined the French 70th Regiment (the former Berwick Regiment of the Irish Brigade) as a captain, and served with distinction in the Peninsular war under Masséna and Marmont. With a fluent command of French and good administrative skills, Corbet was an excellent staff officer, serving until June 1812 with Marmont, who valued him highly and had him transferred to his staff in Germany in 1813. Corbet regularly saw action and was present at the great battles of Bautzen, Dresden, and Leipzig (1813). For his distinguished service he was appointed commander of the Légion d'honneur in 1814. After Napoleon's first abdication he was promoted colonel and became chief-of-staff to Gen. d'Aumont, but when the Bourbons were restored he was placed on half-pay because of his Bonapartist links.
In 1828 Marshal Maison chose him as an aide in his expedition to Greece, despite British complaints. He served as governor of Navarino, Messina, and Nauplia, and his victory during the relief of Argos did much to establish the fighting reputation of French troops in the campaign. In Greece he became good friends with another United Irish veteran, Miles Byrne (qv). He was promoted brigadier-general and commander-in-chief of French forces in Greece in 1831. He returned to France in 1832, where he was promoted major-general and held commands at Caen and Tulle. For his service in these years he was made knight of St Louis and commander of the Order of the Saviour in Greece: Miles Byrne reported that Corbet often said how much more he would have valued these awards ‘had they been gained in the cause of my native country’ (Byrne, iii, 47). He died 12 August 1842 at Saint-Denis near Paris, and was buried in Montmartre cemetery, where his brother Frederick (b. 1794?), also a French army officer, erected a monument to him; he never married. Some of his family papers are held at TCD (MSS 5966–7).