Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 20th Regiment of Foot (East Devon)
Facings: Pale yellow
20th [Single Battalion Regiment]
20th August 1808 (landed at Maceira River from Harwich)
This was an incomplete landing, the other 2 companies only landed and got up to the rest after the battle at Vimiero in company with their commander Colonel Ross, there were some 135 men then to add and seemingly a few stragglers later on. At the battle of Vimiero, the 20th were brigaded under Acland with 2nd Queens Own and 2 companies of 2/95th, it was with these riflemen and a light company of 2nd that Lieutenants Brooke and Hogg took the East Devon's Light Company into action. Very late in the day they are called upon to bring down some harassing fire on the enemy who are well engaged with 2/43rd, this attracting to them enough reaction for both Lieutenants to be wounded, Brooke mortally, we are not informed as to other injuries to their light infantrymen but this will be the end of fighting here for this day. The battalion goes to Elvas as a part of a corps sent there to take the surrender of that place when General Junot’s army made ready to leave Portugal. Staying for only a short while 20th are called out to join Moore's army as it stutters its way into Spain. By the time that all of the separate pieces are brought together and joined it will be late December 1808 so that:
19th December (at Sahagun)
The Regiment has done well so far only to lose 37 men both at Vimeiro and on the march, they are brigaded under Anstruther in E Paget's Reserve Division whose job it is, once the retreat is under way, to be the rearguard acting with the cavalry. They are in good company alongside 1/52nd and 1/95th; this brigade is kept busy for most of the retreat finally reaching Corunna only to have more of the same as Reserve. Any of their seriously wounded would be left to the mercy of the French when they embarked for England on the 17th January 1809 but all who could stagger aboard and survive the sea trip would be counted amongst those landed back in safety:
22nd January (at ports in England)
This unit went to Walcheren in the summer of 1809 there are no figures for its strength at that time but we can be sure that its survivors would carry the malarial fevers and weaknesses picked up by everyone who visited that place. East Devons returned to the Peninsula during December of 1812, the army had already returned behind the Portuguese border after its debilitating retreats from Burgos and Madrid.
Wellington had begun to re-cast his Divisions calling for drafts and returnees so that he could better return to the offensive when the winter was over. The 20th are brigaded into 4th Division, being a part of their 2nd Brigade which for a while is led by Skerrett, this is the "fusiliers brigade" so it must be the case that the CIC has high hopes of them. Such figures as we are able to extract [S/D] show that in the spring of that year 20th Regiment would count of all ranks;
26th April 1813 (in cantonment in Portugal)
There are no figures at the time that the army finally goes on the offensive however it is a fair estimate that on:
25th May 1813 (on the march out of Portugal)
When the army is positioned for the assault of the bridges across the Zadorra at Vittoria in late June Skerrett's Brigade is well to the rear on the main road south of the city, as the action comes up to its climax the other two brigades of 4th Division can only file out into line gradually and it is the Portuguese section which catch the cannonade that is awaiting them. The 20th have only three men killed and one wounded, very much like the sort of effect caused by a single cannonball, no matter, we need not make a PAB score we can carry on.
Skerrett only stays for another week or so leaving to command a brigade in Light Division early in July. This leaves Colonel Ross of 20th to take over the Brigade and it will remain in his hands until the end.
Our next contact with Ross's men sees them up in the Pyrenees in late July, it is not likely that their numbers will have changed significantly being a single Battalion Regiment so there they are climbing up through rough paths and fallen trees in the Roncesvalles Pass, Cole, the Division Commander has sent them up to the Linduz to bar the way of a large French column which is known to be advancing towards them laboriously along a narrow ridge path in that area. Ross has been ordered to get started in the middle of the night so that we see 20th in the lead with 1/7th and 1/23rd in that order behind.
By dawn of 25th July the Light company of Brunswick Oels (attached) has reached its ground and been deployed across this path, a mere 30yds of clear space with the ridge edges falling away into wooded slopes on either side.
We are treated to a very full description of the action this day supplied by the 20th's journalist/historian Lieutenant Bainbrigge it is worthy of following to grasp the way in which events developed.
The Brunswick Oels company, some 60 or so men spread out and settle down, some on the alert but others for a well earned rest having spent most of the night finding their way to this crest, the Light Company of 20th come up in their rear and settle down too, followed up seemingly by the Light Company of 1/7th, who must have been some time later. 1/23rd is so far behind that they may miss the first of the action. The enemy being so long in appearing Ross sends forward the B'O's to explore the ground before them, it is quite a long time before the two protagonists will come into contact but, when they do this single light company sees before them a huge column of enemy troops winding away into the distance. They fall back to report this and once more it is a waiting game. The first serious contact then will be some five or more hours after first arriving at the fighting position. It is well chosen and the four (1/23rd may have brought up their light company by this time) light companies engage at advantage from good cover. The enemy rather than take the bull by the horns chose to fall into a skirmish fight, much to the chagrin of the French Division Commander in the rear who are thus held up and fall into some disorder. When the light company defence is at last forced off its ground Ross orders up a single centre coy' from the 20th to stand across the enemy path.
This company it transpires is No 8 led by Captain Tovey, as they are making ground to their front up a slight slope the French columns, now in reasonable order are doing the same in the opposite direction, both unseen. What follows is a bayonet fight, as rare in the Peninsula as to be especially noted.
Tovey's men some 75 or so, are of course massively outnumbered but because of the peculiarity of the ground are only directly opposed by an equal number. There is a short clash of steel on steel with neither side making any penetration but, after this has gone on for a few minutes Tovey, seeing so many other formed enemy coming up with aggressive intent gives the order to "right about" and the company, or what is left of it runs back to safety behind a line which has had time to get in place, composed of several more companies of 20th. When the enemy come within short range they receive a series of company volleys, which stops them in their tracks. From here the combat becomes a steady fire fight with Ross feeding in more men only as the front lines run out of cartridges, this goes on so long that not only 1/7th have to be brought up but also 1/23rd. By now the day is well spent, a mountain mist has come down in other places and is to be expected here also, the enemy gives back a little and it is time to count the cost.
Because we have been given so much detail it is possible to break down 20th losses with some accuracy.
Of the battalion loss then there are 15 killed, of these Tovey lost 11, clearly bayonet work can be lethal, there are 113 men wounded, yet again we have Tovey's total, it is 14, however we are told that there were 11 men made prisoner, to be taken thus could only have occurred whilst this coy' was "running back" and would include men already injured so, the bayonet contact may well have cost this company a loss of 35 men from its 75 beginners!
Lieutenant/Adjutant Buist is amongst those killed, Lieutenant Colonel Wallace and Lieutenant Walker have mortal wounds, while Captain Bent, Lieutenants Champagne, Crokat, and Smith with Ensigns Oakley and Tompson count amongst the wounded. Clearly this has been a full-on-fire-fight, incredibly Tovey has escaped all harm [and Bainbrigge has been far too busy taking notes of his observations!]
25th July 1813 (after the fight on the Linduz)
Cole decides on a full retirement from the high Passes taking the Division back by marches both day and night until there is a beginning of a concentration in the last good hill position before falling into the immediate area about Pamplona. All of these backward moves are much against Wellington's wishes and, indeed, his orders so that when he arrives at the scene in the early evening of 27th July they are to be found at the hillside to the right of Sorauren known as the Hill of Oricain. Wellington, not having much choice decides that this will be as far as they go and will be their battle position when Soult’s army finally attacks after midday on the 28th July. Ross will have the Brigade set along the high part of his hill with his left in 1/23rd hands, his right with 1/7th and 20th at the centre, his Lieutenant companies (including Brunswick Oels Jägers Company) are out ahead a little down the hill. Up come the enemy in their usual columns excepting that they have in the lead a mass of light infantry in a heavy screen, amongst which are men in Guards helmets (It is the writer’s suspicion that these are le carabinier de 31ème Légere).
The British skirmishers are driven in but, when the two opponents come to a closer range it is Ross's men who are ordered to charge straight in and in doing so bowl the opposition down, back from whence they came. Having repulsed this first threat the brigade is ordered back to its place in line taking its time of course to do so, their immediate enemy is doing the same but, will be out of things for some time yet.
In the narrative we move next to the doings of others and specifically the fortunes of 1/7th on the right.
Its adventures have been described elsewhere but it is as well to see that being closest on the right of 20th those events are not entirely disconnected. When 1/7th have been forced back by others 20th must also incline to the rear somewhat by their right. It is from this point that the narrative becomes confused as the CIC throws in Anson's Brigade of the same 4th Division to mount another bayonet charge, there is a great deal of disorder always less advantageous to the enemy who are forever having to re-climb this steep terrain so that in the end a succession of charges by a succession of British battalions wins the day in this area. That all has not been a bed of roses can be gathered by the fact that Ross himself has had two horses shot under him as he struggles to maintain command and 20th lose 24 men killed and a further 84 wounded. Of these Captain Mackenzie is dead, Captains Jackson and Murray, Lieutenants Lewis, Connor and Bainbrigge the scribe, wounded so:
28th July 1813 (after the first battle at Sorauren)
The battle that takes place two days later on the same ground sees the Brit's on the offensive with a spectacular win resulting in the enemy going back broadcast over the country.
Ross's Brigade is not engaged.
It is not until 1st-2nd August that the French will make some sort of a stand having left masses of discarded material and injured in the narrow roads and paths by which the pursuers have to follow them up.
Ross's Brigade only have a brief time to engage these very reluctant soldiers who stand against them, when pressed they give back everywhere running off once more but not before inflicting 31 casualties to the E Devon's, the CIC calls a halt for a while and Ross is able to count heads Lieutenant Fitzgerald has been wounded on 1st August, the next day Ensign Wrixen is killed, Lieutenant Colonel Wauchope receives a mortal wound and Lieutenants Lutyens and Rotton with 26 of their men are wounded, so:
2nd August 1813 (after the combat at Echalar)
From this time we can go ahead beyond those fights at the Bidassoa pausing only to record that a small unit of volunteers would go to the last storm of San Sebastian at the end of August, there is reason to believe that of this band of cut-throats maybe 7 men failed to return, certainly Major Rose is killed there and Captain Murray wounded. It is of little consequence (excepting to those concerned) since there is a period during which convalescents are able to return to the ranks, these will be few and, as already observed very few drafts ever came up for single Battalion Regiments. It will not be until the Brigade is assembled at its position in those combats to force the line of the Nivelle that we shall see them in action.
The figures presented on this day however are straight battalion numbers from the Morning States.
10th November (at the Nivelle)
The Brigade is so little involved this day that we can only estimate casualties at 8 killed and wounded and through the various accidents of geography Ross's men will find no employment in the field for the rest of the year. The office of the DAG show confirmed strengths during January at;
16th January 1814 (in quarters about the Nive valley)
A month later 4th Division is on the move again on the hard frosty paths trending eastward, Soult’s army is retiring away from the Bayonne area and is under orders from his Imperial master to be a little more aggressive. At some point then as he leaves behind several “river lines” he must make a stand. This will however only come at the end of February 1814 at Orthez. Ross Brigade will feature prominently in the opening moves on this battlefield. The actions of 20th Regiment on 27th of that month are very much combined with those of 1/7th at that open stretch of terrain beyond the church at St Boes going in at the start, they take the church with little difficulty and are able to make progress along the straggling village dwellings but, having reached open ground swept by shot and shell with musketry at closer quarters the 20th sustain almost 30% casualties and go to ground Ross is wounded and the initiative lost. Captain Bent, just made up to Major is killed, with 16 of his men, Lieutenant Murray mortally injured, Brevet Major Murray, Captains Russell, Smith and Telford, Lieutenants Connor and Godfrey with Ensign Oakley and 97 men all wounded whilst one man is lost without trace. Others are brought on when a full re-arrangement takes place throughout the fighting line and the battle won, this is just about the end for 20th, they will be down to very weak figures at:
27th February 1814 (after Orthez)
Matters are not improved when Wellington just over a week later tells off Beresford to take Cole's Division and others up to Bordeaux to secure that city for the Allied cause, they will march off in foul winter weather from St Sever going as far as Langon and then on 15th March are turned about to return to the army which in the meantime has got well along the road south east in pursuit of Soult’s depleted army. As if all of this marching were not sufficient 4th Division are set off again further east to Toulouse where on the big day of the battle they are to accompany Beresford's flank march around that city and to climb the slopes of Mont Rave in company with 6th Division. Ross must have recovered from his wound at Orthez because he is there to protect his men from further damage, they are fragile enough already, so, on the day 20th will escape all of that blood and toil up on this fateful hill incurring but 12 casualties. It is unlikely in all of the rapid marching and counter-marching in the filthy weather that any men would have swelled the ranks over these final six weeks far more likely then that numbers would shrink down so that the Regiment would end its war sadly enough at:
10th April 1814 (after Toulouse)
PS: This is a battalion that because of its “single” composition at no time looked able to furnish large numbers of men to fill the ranks, also it had the bad luck to do-time in the Low Country swamps.
Taking three years to return to the Peninsula it carried on where it had left off did its duty in fine style holding on to a kind of regularity even as its numbers inevitably drifted down. They sat comfortably in the “Fusiliers” brigade.
They are not to be found at Waterloo.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2010
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