Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 1st Provisional Battalion (2/31st & 2/66th Battalions)

By Ray Foster                                                                                                                                      

Facings and lace as before.

1st Provisional Battalion

The circumstances that brought together companies of infantrymen to form this battalion are sufficiently unique as to allow of an introduction somewhat differing from the norm. The rest of the battalions later given the title "Provisional" have their own collective origin which will be addressed in its turn, 1st/ however needs particular attention, so, let us begin.

It is 17th May 1811 the battle at Albuera has been fought to a standstill on the previous day requiring that some sort of order should be made of the virtual destruction of Marshal William Carr Beresford's 2nd Division of British infantry. The misadventures of Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne's Brigade have been dealt with as a part of the histories of 1/3rd, 2/31st, 2/48th and 2/66th related earlier in this compendium as also the battalion histories of those other brigade components of Major General Daniel Hoghton's and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Abercromby's now to be lumped together as a very loose "Brigade" having just enough cohesion to be able to cope with the day by day needs surrounded as they were by thousands of wounded men both friend and enemy and a mass of mutilated dead bodies.

Major General William Lumley although holding these men in command very soon went off doing daring deeds with his cavalrymen at Usagre leaving a collection of senior Captains to carry on with the actual work of transporting the wounded off to Elvas and the dead to the flames. There is no less than the remnants of ten ex-battalions in this group but perhaps it is best to concentrate on those four of Colborne's, they are 653 PUA of all arms so, already somewhere about ordinary battalion strength.

We have already made reference to Colborne in less than praiseworthy fashion, but the fact remains that as Brigadier and in this rare instance one still standing one would ordinarily expect that rank to maintain overall responsibility for the men of that brigade whether dead on the field, wounded and needing care or still fit and well but requiring at the least some logistical support. Sorry, not available, John has gone, a true story awaits research!

Wellington the ultimate pragmatist arrives however and begins to issue a string of orders that will rapidly see changes for the better. Three weeks later things start to rationalise, 2/48th is drafted into its 1st battalion going elsewhere then, after another fortnight 1/3rd has received sufficient returned convalescent wounded and escaped prisoners to stand alone in its own cognisance. A whole month passes by when one of Hoghton's battalions 1/57th has also collected from its casualties and maybe a good draft of new men sufficient numbers to become independent, this battalion will join 1/3rd and the companies of 2/31st and 2/66th to form a brigade seemingly under none other than the famous "Die-hard" Colonel William Inglis of 57th.

Note: This must be one tough customer, he has had canister shot driven through his body to lodge in his back and just 3 months to get over it.

At this time we find that 2/31st and 2/66th are combined with 29th from Hoghton's old brigade and at this point will become a Provisional Battalion [not 1st just a Provisional Battalion]. The precedent however has been established, for some long time Wellington has had protracted correspondence with his masters back in England as to the desirability of returning 2nd battalions to their depots at home as their numbers fall so that they can build up strength and regularity before returning.

Wellington almost without exception states the case that while many of these 2nds are composed of what were young untried lads they have by their experiences become very tough survivors and are far and away better than most of the men of 1st battalions now entering the Peninsula for the first time.

We shall visit this argument later, in the meantime progress must be made.

Remembering that 29th are still a part of this composite battalion the brigade has moved about the Alemtejo region still in 2nd Division but thankfully under Major General Rowland Hill and kept well out of harm’s way. They must however suffer with the rest of the army the attacks of the Caya river valley mosquito but seemingly not to any worse effect than others, all in late June and early July of 1811. Early in August Inglis Brigade will be sent up to Castello Branco ostensibly to create with others a link between the northern part of the army with that southern part under Hill, whatever the real reason it will afford these Provisionals a very welcome rest. With no action coming their way they will settle into a steady recovery, by 21st September Colonel John Byng will pick up the brigade [this officer although junior to Inglis has the advantage of that Guardsman step while Inglis merely reverts back to the command of his 57th battalion], then on 3rd October, 29th who have had no success with restoration are sent off down to Lisbon and home thus it will be from this date that 1st Provisional comes into being.

1st Provisional Battalion [2/31st & 2/66th]

3rd October 1811 (at Castello Branco)
PUA 727

These figures are drawn from a very collective Divisional total but cannot be very far from correct. Numbers are to be of very little consequence as this battalion has nothing of a violent nature to endure for some considerable time, marching about the Alemtejo/Estremadura regions will only call upon them to act as support and reserve as the northern army goes about knocking Marshal Auguste Marmont's Army of Portugal to pieces in 1812. The culmination of this string of successes brings on the ill-fated Burgos campaign but only more marching for Hill's men from the south. Byng's Brigade along with the rest will leave Estremadura making its way up the valley of the Tagus toward Madrid which has fallen earlier to Wellington's men.  Having arrived at the Madrid theatre there will be only occasional shifting of ground and some settling down to take their attention, it will be quite late in 1812 that things start to heat up. Marshal Nicholas Soult and King Joseph Bonaparte have put aside their mutual distrusts and dislikes and are marching out of Valencia to re-take Madrid it is mid October already and for a while the defensive moves by Hill will be all cavalry affairs as his outlying units are drawn back onto their solid lines.

By 24th October we see this Divisional infantry begin a retreat which will eventually end back in Portugal, meanwhile we maybe should follow the path taken, Byng's men are not referred to specifically at any stage during the great winter retreat but with the rest leave the Tagus close by Aranjuez always tending north by west until, having passed by Madrid will climb the road over the Sierra de Guadaramma as November begins. When Wellington decides for a concentration about the Tormes they will veer left going due west for Villacastin where we see them on 4th November and Peñaranda their next stop.

Hill has by now successfully evaded Soult's advances which, it must be said have been somewhat careful if not downright slow so that a full concentration with the old northern army is achieved close to the Arapiles position where Marmont had been dashed to pieces during the summer. It is full-on winter now and quite a bit different, although we are expected to take on the idea that a set-piece battle is desired by the British CIC the weather has turned foul, his commissariat is already struggling to keep up and at the same time supply the logistic support so necessary when contemplating a major engagement.

It has to be remembered that the opposing forces now in play are the largest seen in the Peninsula at any time, no, it is the writer's firm conviction that Wellington was once again gambling on a bluff with King Joseph and his attendant Generals.

They, after a short pause, in pouring rain, were for merely standing their ground to see what might happen next. All that happened was that the bluff was called and Wellington had to carry on his retirement, the result being as good for the French as any of their previous warlike encounters, in fact signally better. With no sighting of Byng's Brigade of 2nd Division in the debilitating winter march back onto the line of the Agueda and only Divisional figures to draw upon we are left only to conjecture as to how 1st Provisionals Battalion would come out of this ordeal. These for the most part are still the veterans of Albuera and before that, Talavera so will be inured to suffering however, by the time that we discover Hill's 2nd Division safely cantoned in the valley of the Alagon, a contributary part of the Tagus watershed there is much to take our interest in the saga of the 'Provisional Battalions'.

The Chief Commander at Horse Guards the Duke of York is heavily engaged with his man in the Peninsula, Lord Wellington over that very question, the advisability or not of employing troops in that theatre whose battalion or cavalry squadron strength has fallen below an acceptable level.

We can return to the battle of wits which was taking place at this time when we move on to the 2nd 3rd and 4th Provisionals suffice it to say that here we have 2/31st & 2/66th who have operated in total cohesion ever since 17th May 1811 and now quite suddenly are thrown into the spotlight as two of those units at risk of being sent home as though they were acting as independent battalions. The point at issue here comes down to number-crunching, Oman in exploring the whole topic leads us to understand that amongst all of this argument it is fairly obvious that our two halves of 1st Provisionals can show figures which must be less than the 300 deadline. So, at best we must expect that the combined total has to be less than 600PUA when all of this comes up for discussion. We know also that a high number of the army’s fighting men are sick or injured in hospitals during this same time, if we take the view that 1st Provisionals are similarly afflicted then we can rationalise that even after a period of rest and recovery this amalgamated unit would find it very difficult if not impossible to rise above 900 PUA. We know for instance that 1/66th are currently in the field in another part of the world and will provide no home support leaving any increase to the 31st Regimental home depot.

It seems that as a result of the Duke of York's intervention in the composition of forces in the Peninsula his CIC after allowing 1st Provisionals to act in the field for more that 7 months must now do something officially to firm up his own judgment on the issue. On 20th December 1812 he writes to "The Duke" a quite short letter seeking confirmation that 1st Provisionals might remain a part of his army and, if not, then what? The outcome we all know was a bit of a classical stand-off, each contender shadow-boxing the other while the war just went on doing what wars do!! So let us say then that 1st Provisionals will stand on:

1st December 1812 (in the valley of the Alagon River)                                                                                            
PUA 585

They are still brigaded with 1/3rd, 1/57th and a coy' of 5/60th all under Byng as 2nd Brigade 2nd Division as we begin 1813.

Of some significance that swashbuckling bloodthirsty wrecker of 2nd Division at Albuera, Major General William Stewart has returned from England [with not a blemish on his record] and has become 'attached' to Hill's HQ staff, Byng's men will watch him closely.

The winter of 1812-13 passes by with little to disturb 1st Provisionals, their senior officers will have done everything in their power to bring up numbers, and their continued service in the Peninsula depends on it. Figures that come to us as the spring of 1813 begins will show:

26th April 1813 (cantoned behind the Portuguese frontier)                                                                                   
PUA 766

It will come as no surprise then that when the army comes out of its cantonments to begin the campaign of the summer of 1813 we see encouraging signs of regularity:

25th May 1813 (on the march to the Tormes)                                                                                                          
PUA 787

Hill has been given the right flank in the great march to evict the French from Spanish soil, they are to proceed ever northward easily taking up ground as the western/left flank continually dislodges Joseph/Marshal Jean Jordan’s men towards the northern frontier. It will be well into June when the advance has compressed the enemy force into the plain before Vittoria where it stands at bay compelled to fight or give up its huge train of booty; which has become jammed in the streets of that large provincial capital on its journey up the Grande Chaussee.  For the first time since Albuera the men of 2/31st-2/66th will be called upon to involve themselves in some serious fighting, Hill on the morning of the 21st June has the task of taking his men off on a steep climb to the far right of the battlefield to surmount the Pueblo Heights. This manœuvre was designed as a diversion to see how many troops of Joseph's would be used from his main central defence area, as it turned out it was quite a lot. The 2nd Division having established itself in strength for all to see attracted some violent attention, fortunately for 1st Provisionals Byng's share would be largely directed at 1/3rd, they come up to the scattered villages on the Heights alternatively attacking and defending from the buildings and walls which offered any sort of cover. As events elsewhere slowly developed into an enforced retirement everywhere the enemy simply melted away leaving 1st Provisionals and their comrades to count the cost then, advance down into the flats by the meandering Zadorra River where the abandoned loot of 6 years of French occupation lay.

Only 3 men had been killed, Captain George Nicholls [2/66th] and Lieutenant James Girdlestone [2/31] with 35 of the men had been wounded leaving the lucky survivors to join the merry throng rifling through the vast spoils of war.

21st June 1813 (after the fighting on the Pueblo Heights)                                                                                     
PAB 747

Author's Note:  It is perhaps more proper that this note should be attached to the history of the 71st Regiment, however, having noticed herein that Sir William Stewart is back on the strength it must be observed that during the tussle on the Pueblo Heights some undisclosed officer took 1/71st forward in an uncalled for and unformed counterattack which directly resulted in the total disruption of those Highland Light infantrymen, this action by this "unknown" officer was all of a piece with the well known characteristics of  the gallant Sir William.

The combined armies of the soon to be disposed King Joseph having retreated in some haste for their own country leave Wellington the time and space to send his most forward Divisions on a wild-goose chase after General Bertrand Clausel's men who were known to be 'somewhere' in the area. This hunt having come to naught the next venture is that of putting Pamplona under blockade. Byng's Brigade will be seen hereabouts towards the end of June and on 1st July will receive orders to leave this citadel to the attention of others and proceed into the Bastan region ostensibly to eject the remaining enemy units to be found there. Whilst the rest of Hill's brigades do discover French units willing to put up some token resistance in the Pyrenean Passes more to the west, Byng's men in conjunction with Morillo's Spaniards are directed to take the hill roads leading up to the Pass of Roncesvalles well to the far right of what will be the active theatre of operations on this western Pyrenean front. It may be as well to note that in correspondence with his home masters Wellington has been lamenting the reduction of his army's strength through what he describes as plundering. He uses figures which suggest that the army generally, over and above losses due to combat, has been diminished by an overall 7%, it must be conceded that our worthy infantrymen of 1st Provisionals would be no less guilty of this 'terrible crime' than any other of their comrades. I shall thus mark them down until some evidence shows itself that these men either were not guilty or had returned to the ranks at least in part, so:

1st July 1813 (about to march on the Pass of Roncesvalles)                                                                                  
PUA 695

There is nothing much for Byng's Brigade to do up in the more easterly high country excepting to acquaint themselves with the surrounding terrain features while looking down into the lower country to the north where the French are to come under Marshal Nicholas Soult after ex-King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan have been summarily dismissed by Napoleon. This abrupt change in command will see the enemy rapidly turn from abject defeat to a rather circumspect optimism; this may be more in the minds of the officers than the men! No matter, Soult puts his whole combined ex-Army of Spain onto the offensive which is first noticed by Byng's Brigade when activity down the northern hill turns into a threatening looking mass of men coming gradually toward them, it is 25th July.

Byng has all of the Light Company of 1st Provisionals well forward in a strong defensive position where the narrow hillside path wends its way ever upward, coming to a steep pitch named the Leiçar Atheca, it is very likely that the diarist Lieutenant George L'Estrange of 2/31st is in command here. There is no space available for the oncoming enemy to use his massive numbers strung out behind him, the duel falling into an unequal contest, 1st Provisionals having all of the cover and the attackers none at all. When an attempt is mounted to scramble around this rugged obstacle the defenders see that it is only a matter of time before they must be flanked and dislodged so, Byng has them withdraw onto an even better position where not only the rest of their companies are set down but 1/3rd also. This is another prominent hill the Altobiscar where yet again the enemy is brought to a standstill to fight out another unequal sharpshooting contest.

These two attempts by the French to force the Pass hereabouts have taken so long and been so frustrating that we are told that they give up the effort as an early mist begins to fall making offensive movement more difficult. When the firing is broken off and a real fog descends Byng begins to worry that he may be in danger of being silently flanked via another rough pathway to his far right, this in fact does not transpire but works on his fears to the point of he ordering his brigade back to give up possession of the Pass, 1/57th having to be drawn out of a very forward isolated position on the left before the retirement can begin.

Lieutenant General Galbraith Lowry Cole the leader of 4th Division,[since Byng's Brigade is totally disconnected from Hill's 2nd Division] agrees that they must all give ground so that a general movement is begun, fog or not, which, after moving for a whole day's march will bring them onto another fighting ground. Casualties on 25th July in 1st Provisionals have been very slight, with little to work with we can say that the 18 year old Ensign   William Dunn of 2/66th and 15 of the Light Companyof 1/Provisionals have been wounded and if we take several hints from Oman's text must admit that numbers, rather than increasing with returnees from Vittoria have gone down somewhat, so:

25th July 1813 (after the skirmish on the Leiçar Atheca)                                                                                        
PAB 645

While Cole and Picton are settling their men on a defensive hillside based on the Hill of Oricain who should appear but 'Nosey' himself to take charge of proceedings, the battle which is brought on two days later will take its name from a small village below and to the left of Oricain hill, Sorauren and, since it is to be followed by another battle two days afterwards it will become the 1st Battle of Sorauren. Byng's Brigade is still well separated from Hill's command so will remain attached to 4th Division under Cole who has them safely tucked away in the lee of the hill at its highest point, numbers cannot be much changed since the retreat from Leiçar Altheca. Even though there is a noisy battle going on to their northern front beyond their hillside cover they will remain hidden for most of the day only being brought forward near the end to reinforce Major General Robert Ross' men of 4th Division who have been having a very hot time of it. With both sides being pretty well fought out the appearance of these new units decides the contest on the slopes of the Oricain.

The traditional volley and charge of bayonets takes 1/57th and 1st Provisionals down the enemy side of the hill carrying all before them, the former battalion doing the real work, not it seems, with much opposition for the latter. They lose but one un-named officer [probably Lieutenant William Raymond of 2/31st] and four men wounded thus ending a very quiet day, the next is even more quiet both sides warily sizing each other up before the British CIC goes into violent attack. Soult has made the unpardonable error of attempting to manœuvre his force across his enemy's front whilst still in close contact, and roughly in a westerly direction, he is still fully committed to this task as dawn breaks.

On 30th July 1813 at the village of Sorauren General Conroux's much used Division is extricating itself from that place as General Maucune's men are filtering in; all are saluted with a combined battery [12 gun] cannonade and this at close quarters.

The village becomes a murderous trap for these men and to increase their agony the attacking infantry close in on three sides; this is where 1st Provisionals begin their day. They have been well rested for a whole day then, having worked their way during the pre-dawn off the hill of Oricain, come down to the east side of Sorauren with both of their senior battalions to await the attack on the village itself. While the steady assault by way of cannon and howitzer is destroying both the village itself and those defenceless victims inside Byng's men must wait and watch. This slaughter seems to go on for a couple of hours before the infantry are called in to clear away the remnants, mainly Maucune's men who had been sacrificed so that Conroux's could at least try to escape.

There must have been a fight of some significant proportions on this eastern side, Byng's Brigade recording 131 casualties all day. Of this we see that 1st Provisionals got the major share, Major Daniel Dodgin, Captain George Goldie,[one of the heroes of Albuera] Lieutenants Robert Dobbin, Thomas Hickin,[another Albuera man], all of 2/66th, Lieutenant Girdlestone and Ensign William Smith of 2/31st, are amongst the 58 men wounded whilst an un-named officer and 5 men are killed.

They have as the day wore on taken up the pursuit of an enemy totally set upon getting off the scene of battle as fast as he can, there are a great number of surrounded prisoners to be picked up and herded back to the rear as the fighting men of the brigade gradually begin to lose touch with their routing prey. Discarded equipment of all kinds along with the badly wounded and dying litter the narrow road westward to make for a sad enough scene to end the 2nd Battle of Sorauren, so:

30th July 1813 (after the combat at the village of Sorauren)                                                                                 
PAB 575

This last figure is perhaps a little optimistic; hindsight would suggest that attrition may have taken these numbers down further yet. We shall see.

It is the task of Byng's men to return up into the northern hills retracing their route all the way back up to the lonely Pass of Roncesvalles there to watch the road falling into the French side of the Pyrenees. Morillo's Spanish Division is with them again all as though nothing had happened during that last week of July they will remain hereabouts peacefully to see the first flakes of snow fall at the approach of an early winter. It is while the Brigade is at rest up in the hills that numbers of returnees will swell the ranks ever so gently for these next three months, there will perhaps be several small drafts of new men come up also. November sees them all to leave this elevated position as their CIC begins his campaign to push the French beyond the Spanish frontier and steadily towards Bayonne. Re-uniting with their parent 2nd Division they discover that the infamous [now Lieutenant General] William Stewart has the command but, at last we are able to see solid figures for their fighting strengths. They have reached the right flank of what may be called the Nivelle line, so:

10th November 1813 (on the line of the Nivelle River)                                                                                           
PUA 700

Author's note: These figures coming to us as a part of Oman's Appendix there is still a presumption that this composite unit has but 8 coy's, this the writer finds hard to equate with the information through Oman's text, that George L'Estrange regularly led a combined Light Company.     We know that each centre coy' rated its outer edge ranks as 'flankers' and traditionally used these men to replace losses in Light coy's from the left and Grenadier coy's from the right. With a combined strength of 700 of all ranks then it must surely be the case that 1st Provisionals by ordinary custom-and-practice would present in its line sufficient of its flankers to perform the duties of Light and Grenadier companies.

Stewart has Byng's Brigade at the head of an advance against a high flying redoubt the Finodetta which is garrisoned by troops of General Abbe's Division [these are the men of the old Army of the South previously nurtured by General Villate and very long time veterans], 1st Provisionals have the lead with their Light Company already well to the fore but soon to be halted.  There is no alternative than that the battalion, led up no doubt by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Leith of 2/31st, storm this strongpoint full-on, this they do, the garrison eventually, seeing their task beyond any hope of success, [attackers are flowing around the place on all sides] retire out before being locked in but, not before inflicting casualties on their main tormentors. Captain Robert Pyne and Lieutenant Robert Dobbin have been mortally wounded dying later as would one other un-named officer and 6 of the men, a further 45 had been injured all it seems at the Finodetta redoubt leaving them to stand down at:

10th November 1813 (after the storming of the Finodetta redoubt)                                                                   
PAB 647

This battle has left Byng's Brigade holding a position looking down into the Nive watershed to the north and not surprisingly still out on the right flank of Wellington's line. Winter has set in with cold winds and rain for company, there will not be much movement until December has arrived. The army as soon as the occasional dry day allows moves up to the last few hills before the valley of the Ardour and the Bayonne precincts, Hill's men still holding a right flank posture. They have to cross the Nive where they can, the whole valley on both sides thoroughly waterlogged but for Byng's Brigade the action will only come to them after they have taken up positions on a long hill spur which trends down to meet a small stream, the Ibarbide where L'Estrange is placed with a full brigade of Light infantry coy's to contest the crossing of this little watercourse.

The Buffs [1/3rd] are in support in the village of Partouhiria whilst 1/57th with 1st Provisionals is some two miles back on the hill behind Vieux Mouguerre it is:

13th December 1813 (at Vieux Mouguerre Hill)                                                                                                       
PUA 650

The enemy in double numbers pushes L'Estrange's Light infantry men  back onto Partouhiria village and in fact straight through and out at the back in very short order, Colonel Nathaniel Bunbury of 1/3rd has used a discretion tinged with fear to retire his whole battalion away without a serious fight bringing them rapidly up to his Brigadier's position. Having filtered through the village buildings and beyond they come up to the defensive line of 1/57th and 1st Provisionals, these men are drawn up on high ground facing a wet hollow up which the assailants must approach.  Once 1/3rd have passed through the line the rest hold fire until the range is lethal, get off a telling volley or two which completely discourages General Chasse's men and throws them back.This reasonably safe position is unfortunately too far back in terms of Hill's whole right line/flank so that reinforcements behind Chasse can, if well managed work across against Major General Edward Barnes' Brigade which is having a face-to-face battle royal with General Abbe's Division of veterans at St' Pierre d Arrube.

Leaving 1/3rd to redeem itself for its loss of face at Partouhiria, Byng takes 1/57th and 1st Provisionals off to assist Barnes but leaves L'Estrange and his light infantrymen behind with Bunbury. Arriving at this new battleground Byng finds Brigadier General Charles Ashworth's Portuguese and the remnants of Barnes Brigade at the end of their fighting capacities, Abbe's men no less are equally exhausted so that a spirited charge on their flank when least expected has the desired effect.  The Frenchmen fall back to reform their shattered columns and when called upon to come on again advance only a token distance.

Both sides look at each other with defiant respect, make the time honoured signal of a combat of equals concluded and part with Ashworth's and Barne's survivors left to hold their ground.

It is all over at St Pierre but, not for 1st Provisionals, they and 1/57th are recalled to Mouguerre where the enemy Chasse is now being supported by none other than General Maximilien Foy, for once in the right place.   Though Chasse was giving way Foy would not, holding on at a small summit it was given to Byng's two battalions to force the issue, the Brigadier leading a charge whilst flourishing the King's Colour of the 2/31st [much to the dismay of the Colour Ensign James Elwyn who saw it quite rightly as his honour]. When Foy's men finally did give way the combat became a running retreat, Byng having in the end to halt his men and call it a day, it only remained then for 1st Provisionals to count the cost. Lieutenant Colonel Leith [2/31st] and Captain Augustus Bulstrode [2/66th] with Ensign James Hardy [2/31st] have been wounded, the latter to die 3 weeks later having had a leg amputated, Lieutenant Thomas Harvey [2/66th] is missing and 10 of the men are dead and no less than 94 wounded so;

13th December 1813 (after the fights of Mougerre & St Pierre d Arrube)                                                          
PAB 542

The mid-winter weather takes over to dominate all other considerations; both opposing armies go into enforced encampments and whatever weatherproof constructions they can contrive. For many battalions it is a time for receiving drafts, large, medium and small, convalescents will have the chance to find their regiments, some even will pick up new equipment and clothing. It seems that some of these opportunities help 1st Provisionals in a generous way leaving them much better for numbers once more in the field than they finished up in mid-December. A head count from the AGO during January however shows little improvement:

16th January 1814 (in quarters about the Nive valley)                                                                                             
PUA 549

They return to the field with the rest as the weather, far from relenting, does at least turn cold enough to harden the ground previously so sodden, the army splits its strength in two parts the western part to remain about the Bayonne perimeter while those to the right will manœuvre against Soult's ever decreasing forces pushing them eastward across the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Our earliest sighting of Byng's Brigade in all of this comes on 15th February 1814 at St Palais and this only through JA Hall who records Captain Edward Knox [2/31st] and Lieutenant Stepney St George [2/66th] as being wounded that day, Knox obviously under cannon fire having his arm shot off. These two could only have received their wounds at the bridge crossing the Bidouze that day, if we take the usual formula Oman used to get at total French casualties when having only the lists provided by Martinien we should expect 1st Provisionals to count no less than 30 men also injured in that crossing, taking into account those increases of numbers during the enforced rest at the turn of the year we can comfortably balance these 32 men wounded with a far greater number swelling the ranks earlier,

15th February 1814 (after the crossing of the Bidouze)                                                                                         
PUA 615

Disconcertingly we see that on the next day Lieutenant John Lambrecht [2/66th] is wounded, this has been a rest day at St' Palais so perhaps this officer had been out scouting, no matter, soon enough we shall have a brigade total to work with.

There is to be a short halt now, only so that the left wing of Wellington's line of attack can be brought into the action, then by 24th February off they go again, this time getting as far as the river bridge before Orthez. Soult has decided that he will stand here, the bridge itself providing a very strong anchor for his left flank, the rest of his defensive array being thrown back to his right along an undulating ridge to the west. Byng's Brigade like the rest of 2nd Division is told off to extend beyond the Orthez Bridge upstream and go as far as a mile to several shallows at Souars where they are, when the time is right, to cross the Gave de Pau and yet again compromise Soult's vulnerable left flank.

On the day of the battle we are given brigade figures for the army from which it can be estimated the strength of 1st Provisionals so:

27th February 1814 (at the fords of Souars above Orthez)                                                                                    
PUA 622

While stern and bloody actions are being fought out away to their left Byng's Brigade will merely follow up Barnes' Brigade to the fords at Souars, the Division being led here by Sir William Stewart, not a good sign.With no enemy before them there was only the discomfort of wading through ice-cold water to worry 1st Provisionals and their comrades. Barnes being at the fore such fragments of resistance that were to be met once across the Gave were dealt with before they could arrive on the scene. There was to be at the end a faint touch with Soult's retreating rearguard but only for 1st Provisionals to register two men of 2/31st wounded, a halt was called in open country some miles beyond the forward of the battlefield the enemy now nowhere to be seen.

Just three days later at Aire Stewart, still at the head of 2nd Division, is brought up against a brigade of Villate's men at the edge of a hill overlooking the Adour and a tributary stream the Grave, [this last to be first forded]. Barnes has his brigade ahead and must take the brunt of the resistance offered, by the time that Byng's Brigade had mounted the hill Villate's men were already being driven off it, the defenders swept off this high ground down into the town of Aire while Byng's men were turned to advance along the crest of the hill clearing off the remaining disordered enemy as they went. This as it turns out was to be the last fight for 1st Provisionals in the Peninsula, Major Dodgin had been wounded here with perhaps as many as 20 of his men leaving this composite battalion of hardy veterans to stand down this day at;

2nd March 1814 (after the combat above Aire)                                                                                                       
PAB 600

The march that took them to the gates of Toulouse was conducted in miserable late winter conditions constantly to cross streams and rivers, bitterly cold, all on roads and pathways oozing with mud to come to rest each day in such shelter as their equally unhappy retreating enemy had left them. It is easy to understand that in these last days attrition would take its toll, our only estimate for the final confrontation at Toulouse will suggest that 1st Provisionals might come to arms at:

10th April 1814 (before the walls of Toulouse)                                                                                                        
PUA 480

There is no work for Byng's Brigade at all so that when all is done we shall see them march down the road towards Carcassone to follow Soult's retiring survivors and sit out the time required for that Marshal of the Empire to throw in his hand and so end the War in the Peninsula.

Note: The doings of this composite battalion and its ability to maintain its numbers and regularity entirely vindicated Wellington’s views regarding his veterans, against the constant harping on from Horse Guards.

Neither the 31st nor the 66th were present at Waterloo.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2011

[Organization Index]



© Copyright 1995-2015, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

[Top|Home]