Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

Battalions of Detachments in 1814 – the Duke of York Responds to Britain’s Manpower Shortfall

By Andrew Bamford

The Background

In the final months of the Napoleonic Wars, prior to the Emperor’s first abdication in April 1814, the British Army found itself growing increasingly short of military manpower. Not only was Wellington’s army in the south of France being maintained at a strength in excess of 60,000 men, but forces in British North America had also grown to over 17,000 as the war with the United States showed no signs of abating.[1] As if this were not bad enough, further pressure was imposed by the need to find troops to send to the Low Countries where, by March 1814, nearly 12,000 men were serving under the command of Sir Thomas Graham.[2]

Insofar as had been possible, the Duke of York as Commander in Chief had attempted to solve the problems posed by the increasing demand for troops by working within the structure of the established regimental system. Thus, the winter of 1813-14 saw the raising of several additional battalions of infantry as second and third battalions of exiting regiments.  However, it would take time for these new units to become fit for overseas service, and the Duke’s options were further limited by Wellington’s refusal, after the recall of the 2/30th and 2/44th in May 1813, to send home any more worn-down units from the Peninsular army that might, in time, be brought back up to strength for service elsewhere.[3]

In the absence of sufficient regular battalions fit to be sent overseas, Britain’s military and political leadership sought alternative solutions. Considerable political confidence was placed in schemes to supplement the Army by calling for volunteers from the Militia prepared to serve overseas, but the response to this initiative was far lower than had been anticipated. Delayed by internal politics and indecision as to where the three battalions that were eventually formed might best be deployed, this initiative failed to see any troops reach the field before the end of hostilities.

York’s Plan

This, then, was roughly how matters stood in mid-March 1814, when the news of Graham’s defeat at Bergen-op-Zoom reached London. Not only was this action an embarrassing setback to British hopes in the region, but it also resulted in 2,058 British troops being taken prisoner, over and above 923 killed and wounded.[4] This disaster necessitated the prompt dispatch of additional forces, and York was pressed by the Earl of Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to provide them. Due to the manpower difficulties outlined above, the Commander in Chief was obliged – very much against his inclination, as he did not hesitate to make clear – to finally abandon the concepts enshrined in the regimental system and authorise the formation of provisional units drawing on manpower from a variety of regiments serving on the home station. York detailed his response in a letter of 14 March:

In reference to the conversation I have had with your Lordship respecting the necessity of sending a reinforcement to Holland, I have to acquaint you, that, exclusive of the Brigade of Provisional Militia, now embarked at Portsmouth, there is no alternative but to make up weak Battalions of the Line by Detachments from other Corps which, although injurious to the service generally, I cannot hesitate to recommend to the Prince Regent under the present emergency.

The following is the force proposed to proceed on this service

Unit

Strength

3 Provisional Battalions

2,400

Foot Guards - 3 Companies

300

5th Foot – 4 Companies

400

63rd Foot – 3 Companies

300

39th Foot – 1 Company

100

14th Foot – 5 Companies

500

86th Foot – 2 Companies

200

4th Foot – 1 Company

100

22nd Foot – 5 Companies

500

9th Foot – 1 Company

100 

19th Foot – 2 Companies

200

Total

5,100[5]

In the original document, the initial draft has the 22nd providing four companies only, giving only 700 men for the last unit detailed, but this has subsequently been scored out and the figures above substituted. The three companies of Foot Guards refers to drafts being prepared to join the battalions already in the Netherlands, whilst the ‘Provisional Battalions’ were those that had been formed out of Militia volunteers and which had previously been earmarked to join Wellington. Subsequently, the Militia battalions would be redirected again and re-assigned to Wellington’s command.[6] Subsequent correspondence would confirm that, with the exception of the single-battalion 19th and the three-battalion 14th, troops were to come from the second battalions of the regiments concerned: the 19th was to furnish its quota from the regimental depot, and the 14th from its newly-raised third battalion.[7] All of the units concerned were stationed in the British Isles.

Although York’s original proposal did not use the term, the three were to acquire the title of Battalions of Detachments, resurrecting a term previously used in the early stages of the Peninsular War. However, whereas the Battalions of Detachments of 1809 were a collection of stragglers and convalescents, those that were ordered to be formed as a result of York’s 1814 initiative were a rather more sophisticated concept. In effect, what York was seeking to do with this proposal was to take three existing weak battalions – the 2/5th, 3/14th, and 2/22nd – and augment them with additional manpower from other units in order to bring them up to something like an acceptable strength for deployment on active service. It is telling that York’s proposal does not suggest a return to the hated eighteenth century practice of permanently drafting men from one regiment to another, although logically one might expect the three units central to the scheme to have absorbed the men provided by the regiments contributing smaller detachments. Instead, these men were to be only temporarily reassigned and would ultimately return to their units, and this is emphasised by the maintenance of distinct, regimentally based, companies within the three proposed provisional battalions. In effect, York was seeking to bring in extra manpower as a way of advancing the readiness of the three core battalions, and it may be inferred that the proposal envisaged the eventual replacement of the additional, extra-regimental,  companies by drafts from the depots of the 5th, 14th, and 22nd.

Putting the Plan into Action

On the day following the presentation of York’s proposal to the Secretary of State, a circular letter was sent out under the signature of Major General Ralph Darling, the Deputy Adjutant General, to the general officers commanding the various districts in which the units involved in the scheme were stationed. In addition to reiterating the planned composition of the three Battalions of Detachments, Darling’s circular also revealed how they were to be commanded. As might be expected, the three core units were each to furnish a lieutenant colonel as commanding officer of the battalion that was to be built around them, and also a major: over and above this, the 2/63rd and 2/86th were also to furnish a major, giving the first two battalions a full complement of three field officers.[8] The three battalions were to be assembled at Colchester, where they were eventually to be formed into a brigade under the command of Major General William Eden.[9] In practice, however, much of the initial work involved in putting the force together fell to Major General Wroth Acland.

On paper, York’s scheme must have seemed perfectly viable, since, with the exception of the 2/22nd, the most recent available returns indicated that the units concerned all had sufficient manpower to meet their assigned quotas. The quality of that manpower, however, was rather more questionable, as is emphasised when the quotas set by York are compared with the numbers respectively returned by the units as effective, and the more so when they are compared with the numbers reported as actually being fit for immediate service.

Figure I: Units involved in York’s Proposal.[10]

Unit

Men Required by York’s Proposal

Total   Strength

Effective Strength

Fit Strength

2/4th

100

363

163

37

2/5th

400

739

543

497

2/9th

100

228

134

88

3/14th & Depot

500

662

521

359

Depot/19th

200

383

262

119

2/22nd

500

419

348

227

2/39th

100

213

134

28

2/63rd

300

312

264

221

2/86th

200

301

178

95

Totals

2,400

3,620

2,547

1,671

Working on absolute totals of manpower, the 2,400 men required were easily available, although the 22nd fell short by eighty-one men of its revised target. Enough men were present to meet the original 400-man quota, however, and York had previously expressed high hopes regarding the progress being made in recruiting men by this regiment, which presumably explains his decision to revise their target.[11] Even working on effective strengths, there was enough manpower available across the nine contributing regiments to provide for three 800-strong battalions, although this would have companies rather less even in size than the hundred-man building-blocks envisaged by York. Certainly, the scheme would have required the assignment of troops who were not considered by their units to be fit to go overseas, but by no means to the same degree as had been the case in some of the battalions that had formed the initial force deployed to the Low Countries in December 1813. It should also be understood that these men were being returned as fit to go overseas in the sense of their fitness to be sent as drafts to their regiment’s first battalion overseas, and therefore men were not included in this total who were perfectly fit but who, under ordinary purposes, would be required for the continued functioning of the unit at home. Some of these could not have gone under any circumstances – the 2/39th’s eight pioneers, for example, listed as ‘Unfit for active service but essential for depot purposes’[12] – but York and his staff clearly expected unit commanders to recognise the urgency of the situation and send every man that they could spare.

This hard-line stance is emphasised by the fact that unit commanders who reported themselves unable to fully comply with the demands of the scheme received little sympathy from Horse Guards. Thus, on 16 March, the Adjutant General, Lieutenant General Sir Harry Calvert, was obliged to write in the following terms to Lieutenant General Sir Charles Green, commanding the London District:

I have the honor [sic] to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of this day’s date, together with that enclosed from M[ajor] General Disney, representing the inability of the Officer Comm’dg the 2nd Battn. of the 5th Foot to comply entirely with the order of the 15t Inst in selecting 400 Rank & File from that Corps for immediate service; and as it appears that a greater number of men have been demanded than are actually present with the Battn. I am directed by the Comm’r in Chief to desire that all such Recruits as are capable of bearing fatigue may be added to the Numbers proposed to be sent on Service.[13]

Nevertheless, it was clear that not all units would be able to contribute the required numbers of men, leading to a modification of the proposal such that the 2/4th should contribute 200 men rather than 100, and that the depot of the 29th, a regiment not previously involved in the scheme, should furnish a company of 100 men. The correspondence detailing these additions also confirm that the new Battalions of Detachments were to be numbered, first through third, in the order in which their composition was detailed in York’s original proposal of 14 March.[14] Subsequently the quota to be provided by the 29th was increased to 200 men, but at the end of the month these orders were cancelled and the detachments from that regiment were ordered to return to the regimental depot at Chichester.[15] In their place – Horse Guards now casting its net further afield – the 2/15th, in garrison on Jersey was ordered to send 200 men to join the Third Battalion of Detachments at Colchester.[16]

In light of these manpower shortfalls, Acland at Colchester was informed that:

[T]he Comm’r. in Chief is aware of the Detachments about to assemble at Colchester, not being able to bring forward as many Men as were in the first instance intended, and that the Comm’dg Officers of Corps were directed to send all such Recruits as were equal to the fatigues of a Campaign, but any men that appear unfit for Service you will be pleased to report the names of, the cause of their inefficiency, and the Corps to which they belong in order that they may be returned to their respective Depots.

I am likewise to inform you, that 2 Pikes and 140 Stand of arms were ordered to be sent to Colchester for the 86th Foot on the 22nd Inst. and with respect to the accoutrements required, a pressing Order will be sent the Agents to have them forwarded immediately.

For the Pioneers Appointments an application must be made to the War Office, and I am further directed to inform you, that Clothing for the Men that have accompanied the Detachment of the 9th Foot will be sent by Coach in the course of a day or so.[17]

Other elements of the organisation of the three battalions also required the attention of the Adjutant General to sort out organisational matters, with Calvert providing Acland with additional instructions on the intended internal economy of the battalions:

In addition to the information which I had the honor [sic] of communicating on the 26th Inst. in reply to your Letter of the proceeding day, I am to acquaint you, that the Officers in command of the Detachment Battalions of the Line, have been instructed to transmit the names of Officers (Whom they propose to be acting Pay-Masters) to the Secretary at War; and likewise that application has been made to ascertain the mode proposed for the Payment of the several Detachments previous to the nomination of the acting Paymasters, and as soon as this question is decided, the result will be immediately communicated to the Officers Commanding the Detachment Battalions.

With respect to the Adjutant and Quarter Masters it is recommended, that Subaltern Officers should be selected for the purpose of performing those Duties.[18]

Acland’s hard work continued through into April, by which time he was still attempting to secure sufficient arms and accoutrements for the brigade.[19]

By this stage, however, the war in Europe was practically over and it was clear that the troops being assembled at Colchester would never need to be deployed overseas. Accordingly, instructions were given on 14 April for “the several Detachments of Corps comprising the Provisional Battns. of the Line at Colchester to return to their respective Corps or Depots”.[20] Two days earlier, instructions had been sent to Jersey, cancelling the orders for the 2/15th to send any men, and requesting that Lieutenant General Sir George Don, as Governor, “signify to Lt. Col. [Alexander] Milne, and Major [Mark Anthony] Bozon, the Comm’r in Chief’s approbation of the Zeal which they have evinced in offering to proceed on service with the Detachment above mentioned”.[21]

Concluding Thoughts

For a scheme produced at short notice and against the opinions of its author, always a strong champion of the established regimental system, much can be said in favour of York’s scheme, both in conceptual and practical terms. It was nevertheless recognised that the initial hoped-for strength was unlikely to be attained, and when Graham was informed that these units would be joining him their combined strength was set at a more achievable 2,000, a reduction of 400 men from the original target set by York.[22] All in all, the scheme suggests a measured approach to the worsening manpower crisis afflicting the British Army, and a careful weighing of short-term gains against long-term problems. Most probably, York would not have proposed the scheme without pressure from Bathurst and he was fully aware of the long-term negative consequences for those regiments that were being asked to contribute their best men – it is surely for this reason that he deemed it “injurious to the service generally”. Nevertheless, his responding to political demands in this way indicates a flexibility of mind and approach not traditionally associated with the Duke’s management of the Army. Calvert’s and Darling’s staff work at Horse Guards, and Acland’s at Colchester, which together ensured that the scheme was so speedily enacted, also merits praise and, as is emphasised by the swiftness with which the field officers of the 2/15th volunteered themselves for service with the new Battalions, the fighting spirit of the Army remained strong notwithstanding increasing pressure on its organisational systems. It was no doubt a good thing for all concerned that these hastily raised units never saw any active service, but the story of their inception nevertheless offers some fascinating sidelights on the state of the British Army at the close of the great struggle with Napoleonic France.

Notes:

[1] See Monthly Returns in The National Archives, WO17/1518 (Canada), /2242 (Newfoundland/Nova Scotia), /2475 (Peninsula).

[2] See Andrew Bamford, “The British Army in the Low Countries”, Napoleon Series, http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/battles/c_lowcountries1814.html.

[3] I have addressed the wider implications and roots of the manpower crisis in Andrew Bamford, "Injurious to the Service Generally": Finding Manpower for Northern Europe, 1813 and 1814, JSAHR, No.361, Spring 2012, pp.25-43.  It should be stressed that this piece contains the incorrect assertion that the project to raise Battalions of Detachments on the home station never progressed beyond the planning stage. Further research enabled me to correct this assertion in my forthcoming book on the regimental system (Andrew Bamford, Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword: The British Regiment at War 1808-1815. University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), but space did not permit a full elaboration of the scheme and this article is intended to fill the gap.

[4] See “Return of Killed Wounded and Missing of the Army under the Command of His Excellency General Sir Thomas Graham KB in the attack upon Bergen op Zoom by storm on the Night of the 8th and Morning of the 9th March 1814”, TNA, WO1/200, p.211; “List of Officers Killed Wounded and Missing”, Ibid., pp.215-217; “State of English Prisoners included in the Capitulation”, ibid., p.223.

[5] York to Bathurst, 14 March 1814, TNA, WO1/657, p.455.

[6] Bathurst to Wellington, 29 March 1814, Supplementary Despatches, Vol.VIII, pp. 702-703.

[7] Darling to General Officers Commanding relevant districts, 15 March 1814, TNA, WO3/60, p.475.

[8] Darling to General Officers Commanding relevant districts, 15 March 1814, TNA, WO3/60, p.475.

[9] The Diary of Colour-Serjeant George Calladine, 19th Foot, 1793-1837, London: Eden Fisher & Co., 1922, p.18. My thanks to Ron McGuigan for alerting me to this source.

[10] Unit strengths from TNA, Battalion Returns for February 1814, WO17/274, /275, /277, /279, /281, these being the most recent predating the submission of the proposal on March 14th. The 2/22nd and 2/86th were in the process of being created out of what had been the depot of their regiments and are so listed in the returns.

[11] See York to Bathurst, 17 January 1814, TNA, WO1/657, pp.89-92.

[12] Battalion Return for March 1814, TNA, WO17/277.

[13] Calvert to Green, 16 March 1814, TNA, WO3/60, p.483.

[14] Calvert to Chatham, 18 March 1814, TNA, WO3/60, p.485; Calvert to Richmond, 18 March 1814, Ibid.

[15] Calvert to Richmond, 23 March 1814, TNA, WO3/60, p.494; Calvert to Chatham, 31 March 1814, TNA, WO3/61, p.18. It is not specified whether this was because the depot of the 29th could not supply the requisite manpower, or because of the fact that the regiment itself – then at Gibraltar – was being prepared for service in North America and would itself be in need of drafts from the depot.

[16] Calvert to Don, 31 March 1814, TNA, WO3/61, p.16.

[17] Darling to Acland, 26 March 1814, TNA, WO3/61, pp.4-5.

[18] Calvert to Acland, 29 March 1814, TNA, WO3/61, pp.4-5.

[19] See, for example, Calvert to Acland, 4 April 1814, TNA, WO3/61, p.29.

[20] Calvert to Chatham, 14 April 1814, TNA, WO3/61, p.57.

[21] Calvert to Don, 12 April 1814, TNA, WO3/61, p.48.

[22] Bathurst to Graham, 17 March 1814, TNA, WO6/16, pp.69-71.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2013

 

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