Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments:1st Battalion of Detachments (Mixed Companies)

By Ray Foster

Facings and lace mixed according to the original regimental styles

Mid December 1808
No figures available

At the end of 1808 Lieutenant General John Moore has gone completely from Portugal taking with him the greater proportion of "regular battalions" of the Peninsula army. Lieutenant General John Cradock who originally had been intended to lead what much later became Colonel James Kemmis Brigade of 4th Division had arrived in Lisbon to take up the command of all of those troops left behind for whatever reason. We are only concerned here as to the bringing together and doings of a battalion of line infantry which history records as 1st Battalion Detachments so, off we go.

There has been sufficient military action in Portugal, certainly from the British stand point to see men from a large number of regiments become scattered broadcast from Oporto to Lisbon and as far out over the border as Salamanca even. Some we can say have been left behind by Moore as small garrisons at points on the route of march others at logistic bases, many more however simply sick, injured or mildly convalescent. There will also be a class known as stragglers composed of everything from genuine lost souls to out-and-out malingerers. The first figures we can safely accept are shown as 3000 [coming down from an original 5000 quoted earlier] slowly coming down to the Lisbon area and mostly having been drawn together by a Brigadier General A Cameron on his way from Oporto. Cradock, once apprised of his new task and those men available to him begins to receive several conflicting orders as to how he should distribute his new charges; Oman and Fortescue differ as to this unfortunate officer's capabilities whilst Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin D' Urban Portuguese AQMG sees him as a timid commander. [D' Urban who always has a fine opinion of himself is usually quite critical of everyone but he], no matter. 1st/ Detachments breathe life as an established part of the "regular" army with 900 PUA certainly by January 1809.

26th January 1809 (about Lisbon)
PUA 900

It will be as well to see that the composition of this unit comes in the main from men of 1/28th, 1/38th, 2/43rd, 2/52nd 1/92nd & fragments of 95th [probably 1/95th] a multi-coloured band. They are brigaded with 29th under Major General Richard Stewart the figures shown perhaps just a little arbitrary but not too far out. This then is a unit of some consequence for numbers and from basically sound fighting regiments, its officer structure, because of its make-up cannot be other than fragile as to esprit de corps.

They will appear before us as May opens ready to do battle, Wellesley has the whole command with Cradock just gone to briefly become Governor at Gibraltar, sure figures are presented at:

6th May 1809 [at Coimbra]
PUA 830

The campaign to force Marshal Nicholas Soult's army from Oporto and Portugal involves 1st/Detachments as a part of the leading infantry brigade as the CIC begins to meet opposition. At Grijon where a rearguard of all arms had stood at bay the light infantrymen of this battalion are thrown out to skirmish ahead entering woods where their opposite numbers give fire for fire bringing them to a halt. It is only when flanking moves by others endanger these enemy skirmishers that the fight moves back leaving the light infantrymen to count the cost of the day's work. From a general set of figures for all troops engaged at Grijon it is not possible to pick out 1st/Detachments alone, we do know however that Captain Edward Ovens of 1/38th and Lieutenants John Woodgate of 2/52nd and Roger Gilbert of 1/28th are amongst the casualties recorded and belonging in this composite unit. Seemingly then the whole officer component of its light company has put itself in the way of danger, of the rest it can only be guessed that the rank and file would lose no more than a dozen men killed and wounded.

The next day Stewart's Brigade finds itself standing at the south banks of the Douro looking across at the township of Oporto, an attack has gone in some way to their right upstream the result of which liberates the movements of the local population, so much so that adventurous ones start to ferry boats across for the use of the "liberators". All goes extremely well, the enemy absconding as fast as they can to leave the victorious infantrymen in possession of the town. No doubt there would be some celebrating to get out of the way before continuing the pursuit of the fleeing Frenchmen.

12th May 1809 (after the combats of Grijon and Oporto)
PAB 815

With no real mention of 1st/Detachments as a part of these adventures we can return to their next serious task. Two months have passed by and meanwhile we see that their numbers have dropped significantly, 1/48th will have just joined the brigade that is still under Stewart and they are very close to Talavera de la Reina on the Tagus River.

25th July 1809 (at and about Talavera)
PUA 609

The enemy is close at hand on 27th July, much too close as it turns out. The brigade has been given a position to take up on the top of the highest hill on Wellesley's proposed fighting line. As darkness approaches Major General Rowland Hill is engaged in sorting out his brigades well behind this high ground in what can only be described as a relaxed manner when the ominous sound of discharging muskets disturbs the not unpleasant confusion. Unpleasant however is what it rapidly becomes, as Hill goes towards the crest infantry of a decidedly belligerent nature appear out of the gloom, he is called upon to surrender by Frenchmen who have come so far into their appointed ground as to stand on the crest itself, a serious business indeed! Already the forward pickets of 1st/Detachments have been overrun with some of their number captured and/or wounded, there is a little confusion here between Oman and JA Hall, the first says that Captain Clement Poole of 2/52nd and Captain James Walsh of 1/91st are taken with one other un-named and in his notations suggests that one of these three was not even present but was to be found the next day in pitiful circumstances back in a rear hospital, Hall simply takes the official record that the first two only are indeed made prisoner.

Of those 1st/Detachments skirmishing rank & file so far ahead on the east side of the Cerro de Medellin we see 13 men captured too. The fight however is just beginning, Hill evades capture makes haste back to friendly troops who just happen to be 1st/Detachments formed as it happens but perhaps quite confused as to what they must do next. Their 2nd Division Commander hurries them forward into the loose mass of 9eme Legere who are pulling themselves into order after climbing the hill and putting paid to that light opposition. Managing to recognise just who and where their enemy lies 1st/Detachments get off a reasonable volley but, instead of going forward stand ready to deliver another. This is not enough for their Division Commander who understands that merely standing to contest this crucial hilltop position in a night time fire fight will not do the trick, who knows how many men are following up this surprise attack? By now 29th have made an appearance and, being much more cohesively led burst through the firing line of 1st/Detachments, deliver their own short range blast of fire and put 9th Light to the point of the bayonet. This indeed does change things for the better, all are propelled downhill towards the dank and dark Portina stream, the danger is over, others will complete the destruction of this daring attempt to turn the British line so that 1st/Detachments can count the cost. Oman shows one officer killed but he is nowhere to be found in JA Hall's excellent compilation, perhaps it is Captain Daniel Gardiner of 2/43rd who was the Brigade Major at the time, he is recorded as being killed the next day whilst Captain Thomas Blair of 1/91st is certainly wounded on the night of 27th July and will also get a mention again next day. All very confusing! Of the rest 14 men have been killed and 40 wounded so quite a serious affair while it lasted.

27th July 1809 (after the fight on the Cerro de Medellin)
PAB 539

As the first light of day shows the enemy this commanding hilltop position their artillery is brought into play at a range entirely suitable for delivering shell. We are told that upon this being somewhat effective Wellesley commanded Richard Stewart's men to fall back and lie down to minimise the execution. Marshal Claud Victor's Corps is again on the move, coming up in the grey mist of gunpowder smoke which preceded them, the first notice being the slow retirement of the light infantrymen who had been out on the eastern hillside slopes, two of whom of 1st/Detachments Light would be left behind captured. In this attack 1st/Detachments found themselves in the centre of their brigade, 29th on their left and 48th to their right, the Frenchmen in tight formation of column. Brown Bess would have no better target so that as the range became lethal full battalion volleys directed into the mass brought them to a bloody halt, the resulting standing fire fight no fair match as the bodies piled up between them. As the punishment mounted the much reduced attackers turned about and, with the full strength of Hill's Division coming on at the charge the contest became a rout, down the hill and over the Portina itself until checked by the enemy reserves on the opposite slopes.

Whilst all of this may sound like a one-sided affair the casualty list will be the final arbiter, this action had been played out almost before the sun had risen to any great height, 1st/Detachments would, for the rest of the day only come under some irritatingly persistent gunfire from the enemy batteries on the opposite hillside the Cerro de Cascajal. When the battle had ceased and 1st/Detachments were able to count the cost it was seen that 26 men had been killed, Captain Gardiner of 2/43rd seen acting as Brigade Major to Stewart was dead, 166 men had been wounded along with Major David Ross of 1/38th, Captains Blair of 1/91st and Joseph Bradbey of 1/28th, Lieutenants George Brown of 2/43rd, William McBeath and Thomas Munroe of 1/42nd, Archibald Fullerton of 1/38th, Gilbert of 1/28th and Ensign William Irwin of 2/28th. The unfortunate Captain Blair who had already picked up a wound the previous day was so injured as to be left behind at Talavera when the army retired and was captured by the French, so:

28th July 1809 (after the Battle at Talavera)
PAB 335

With a loss over the two days of 45% it was clear that 1st/Detachments would be in need of careful nurturing if it was to survive the long retreat back down the lonely roads into the valley of the Guadiana and the safety of the Badajoz precincts.

We lose sight of its movements during this toilsome march so that our next notice will be the last for this battalion, the survivors are re-united as far as is possible with their parent units when the army gets back into Portugal at the commencement of 1810.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2011

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