Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

 

Formation and Service

Composition of the Battalion

Concluding Thoughts

Notes

The Corps of Embodied Detachments, 1809

By Andrew Bamford

Formation and Service

The need to find sufficient manpower for the Walcheren Expedition of 1809, representing as it did the largest single deployment of British troops during the Napoleonic Wars, necessitated a number of measures not normally countenanced by the rigid application of the regimental system. In this way, for example, battalions such as the 2/8th and 2/23rd embarked with Chatham ’s expeditionary force with only a two or four companies rather than the usual ten. Yet more extreme, however, was the creation in Britain of a detachment battalion, officially entitled the Corps of Embodied Detachments, in an expedient more commonly associated with the early months of the Peninsular War. With Commander in Chief Sir David Dundas combing Britain for men fit for active service, it was noted that in excess of 3,000 men remained at the Army Depot, and these were accordingly drawn upon to create a provisional battalion for service with Chatham . This would appear to have been a fairly last-minute measure, as the unit is not included in the original proposal for the organisation of Chatham ’s army sent by Dundas to Castlereagh on June 22nd.[1]

The first recorded mention of the battalion comes in a message from Horse Guards to Castlereagh’s office (the exact recipient’s name is illegible) dated July 3rd 1809 and marked “Immediate”. The relevant passage reads:

I am writing to acquaint you, for the information of Lord Castlereagh, that a Corps of Eight Hundred Rank and File with a proper proportion of officers and non commissioned officers, having been embodied from the Detachments at the Army Depot, for the purpose of embarking with the troops under order for service, it became necessary to apply to the Secretary at War with respect for accoutrements being furnished for this corps at the public expense.[2]

The officer appointed to command the battalion was Lt. Colonel Cochrane of the 36th Foot, and a full complement of company and battalion staff officers were assigned. All officers were drawn from regiments either serving with Chatham ’s forces, or which had supplied drafts to the battalion, with the exception of the Paymaster, William Armstrong, who seems to have been appointed directly to the battalion. The men were organised into ten companies on the standard model, but these do not seem to have included flank companies.

By July 7th the Corps of Embodied Detachments had been assigned to Major General Thomas Picton’s Brigade of Lt. General Alexander Mackenzie Fraser’s Third Division, with which it served for the duration of the campaign, as part of the forces landed on Walcheren Island itself under Lt. General Sir Eyre Coote.[3] On August 25th, according to the army return for that date, the battalion had a rank and file strength of exactly 800 men, of whom 711 were fit for service, five present but sick, and eighty-four sick in hospital: this equates to a sickness rate of 11%, as compared with 7% for the army as a whole on the same date.[4] Both this higher level of sickness, and its status as a provisional formation, would seem to be collectively responsible for the fact that the Corps of Embodied Detachments was not selected to remain with the smaller force retained on Walcheren after the departure of the main body,[5] and the battalion accordingly returned to England.

October 25th found the battalion at Porchester Barracks where, out of 712 rank and file only 267 were fit for service; of the remainder 153 were sick in quarters, and 291 sick in hospital. Rank and file strength had dropped by eighty-eight men since August, of whom thirty had died in the previous month; the remaining discrepancy is presumably represented by casualties between August 25th and September 25th, but there is no September return extant for the battalion to give a breakdown of these losses. The last return for the unit, that of October 25th, catches it in the process of disbandment, back at the Army Depot on the Isle of Wight. 510 men were in the process of being given over to the Army Depot, state of health not specified, 163 were “on the march to join”, presumably from Porchester although an Ensign Buck is noted as being in charge of Convalescents at Deal, and one man was on furlough. Thirty-nine men had died over the previous month, and one had deserted. This ends the short recorded career of the Corps of Embodied Detachments.[6]

Composition of the Battalion

No records have been found detailing the composition of the Corps of Embodied Detachments prior to its embarkation for Walcheren, but filed with the returns cited above for October and November 1809 are breakdowns by parent-unit of the officers and men present after the battalion’s return to England, and these are reproduced here. Obviously they cannot tell us the origin of those men who had already become casualties, but they allow a reasonable idea of the proportional composition of the battalion.

“Return showing the different Regiments which the officers, non-commissioned officers and rank and file belong who are serving with the Corps of Embodied Detachments” 24th October 1809.

Regiment

Officers

NCOs

Musicians

Rank and File

Total

6th

3

4

2

0

9

8th

1

0

0

0

1

12th

0

0

0

42

42

15th

1

0

0

0

1

19th

2

0

0

61

63

22nd

2

0

0

55

57

29th

0

3

0

34

37

33rd

4

3

0

150

157

36th

3

1

2

0

6

41st

0

1

0

37

38

48th

0

1

0

13

14

50th

3

12

2

0

17

53rd

0

0

1

9

10

64th

1

0

0

0

1

78th

9

1

0

298

308

79th

3

13

3

0

19

88th

0

0

0

13

13

Total

32

39

10

712

793

The officers comprised; Lt. Colonel Cochrane commanding, two Majors, eight Captains, eight Lieutenants, nine Ensigns, Paymaster, Adjutant, Quartermaster, Surgeon and Assistant Surgeon, the additional man not represented in the table being the Paymaster, Armstrong. The rank and file from the 78th Highlanders are, in the original, divided such that one man is from the second battalion and the remainder from the first; since the officers are not distinguished by battalion the rank and file figures are also combined here.

“Return showing the different Regiments which the officers, non-commissioned officers and rank and file belong who are serving with the Corps of Embodied Detachments” 25th November 1809.

Regiment

Officers

NCOs

Musicians

Rank and File

Total

6th

4

3

1

1

9

12th

0

0

0

42

42

15th

1

0

0

0

1

19th

2

0

0

55

57

22nd

2

0

0

52

54

29th

0

3

0

31

34

33rd

4

3

0

135

142

36th

3

1

2

0

6

41st

0

1

0

37

38

48th

0

1

0

12

13

50th

3

12

1

0

16

53rd

0

0

1

8

9

64th

1

0

0

0

1

78th

9

0

0

289

298

79th

3

13

3

0

19

88th

0

0

0

12

12

Total

32

37

8

674

751

Officers are as before, but that there are now nine Lieutenants and no Surgeon.

Concluding Thoughts

The creation of the Corps of Embodied Detachments represented the first and only formation of such a unit from men at home and, whilst not unsuccessful as such, it flew directly in the face of all the strictures of the regimental system. All those regiments contributing rank and file to the battalion had at least one of their own battalions on active service abroad, and the redirection of men who would have formed drafts for these units could only have had a detrimental effect upon their effectiveness. To consider the most extreme example, the 78th Highlanders had at this time its first battalion in India and its second in the process of returning from service in the Mediterranean. The 1/78th was therefore reliant on the depot at home for its drafts, but these were diverted in their entirety to the Corps of Embodied Detachments, and so whereas in 1808 400 men had gone out to India, in 1809 the 320 available were diverted to Walcheren and no draft sailed east at all. The result was that, in 1810, the 2/78th had to be stripped of every fit man remaining in its ranks in order to keep the senior battalion up to strength, and was accordingly unfit for service for the next four years.[7] Inasmuch as that the 78th supplied something like two fifths of the total men sent to form the Corps of Embodied Detachments it cannot be assumed that all contributing regiments would have suffered to the same degree – although the effect on the 33rd, with only one battalion and that in India, must also have been marked – but it does suggest that this robbing Peter to pay Paul could ultimately have only a deleterious effect on the army as a whole, far outweighing the initial gain to be had from a single 800-man battalion as reinforcement for an army of over 30,000. It may be suggested, as a final remark, that its is significant that this all took place during the “interregnum” between the Duke of York’s two tenures as Commander in Chief, and that that officer, with his eye always on the long term so far as manpower requirements were concerned, would never have permitted the sort of measures sanctioned by Dundas.

Notes:

[1] “State of Force to Proceed on Foreign Service”, dated Horse Guards, June 22nd 1809, in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers of 1810, Vol. X, pp.160-161.

[2] Dispatch bound with correspondence (“Secretary -at-War, Secretary of State for War, and Commander-in-Chief, In-letters and Miscellaneous Papers”) in National Archives, WO1/641, pp.221-224.

[3] “List of the several corps, General and Staff Officers, comprising a large Division of His Majesty’s Army, to be employed upon a Particular service”, dated Horse Guards 7th July 1809, in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers of 1810, Vol. X, pp.165-168. See also Gordon C. Bond, The Grand Expedition. The British Invasion of Holland in 1809 ( Athens , 1979), p.168; Robert Burnham, “The British Expeditionary Force to Walcheren: 1809” at http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/battles/c_walcheren.html.

[4] Data from Return for Walcheren Expedition, August 25th 1809, in National Archives, WO17/2479

[5]See “Return of the several Corps to remain in the Island of Walcheren”, dated Middlebourg [sic.], 7th September 1809, and reproduced in HMSO, British Minor Expeditions 1746-1814, Compiled in the Intelligence Branch of the Quartermaster General’s Department (London, 1884), p.78.

[6] Returns of the Corps of Embodied Detachments, October and November 1809, filed with monthly returns in National Archives, WO17/234.

[7] See James MacVeigh, The Historical Records of the 78th Highlanders or Ross-shire Buffs ( Dumfries, 1887), pp.127.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2007

 

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