Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 2nd Provisional Battalion [2nd & 2/53rd]
By Ray Foster
Facings and Lace as previously
2nd Provisionals [2nd, Queen's Royal & 2/53rd Shropshire's]
At the same time that Wellington was arguing his case for retaining companies of "good men" against the orders of the Duke of York back in England he gave his own orders to eight battalions of good men to come together in pairs to form Battalions which might be able to maintain 'regularity' and thus continue to provide a small share of that solid reliability so desired by commanders at all levels. We know, or maybe, have cause to hope that these men now under examination fell into the line of the Agueda after the debilitating retreat from Burgos with a combined total ready to re-organise themselves at:
6th December 1812 (on the line of the Agueda)
They have had in common the misfortune to have been a part of Major General Henry Clinton's 6th Division at the Forts of Salamanca and the big fight on the Arapiles between mid-June and late July that year as a direct result of which their combined losses had been 300 K&W of all ranks. With very little time to recover they had been marched off north to take part in the abortive siege of Burgos and then as winter started to show its hand off they trudged again all the way back to the Portuguese frontier in the great retreat. Having survived all of that it is little wonder that their CIC was reluctant to see them be sent off to England with small chance of ever returning.
Let us see how well they earn his confidence, The army generally finds that it is given a full five months to call upon its drafts from home depots, welcome in the tardy stragglers from the great retreat, pick up its regular tiny contributions of recovered convalescents, then make ready to take the field once more. We see that by late April of the new-year they would stand at:
26th April 1813 (cantoned behind the Portuguese
It will be almost the end of May when we see them for the first time in the field as 2nd Provisionals, they are with 3/27th, 1/40th, 1/48th & a company of 5/60th in Major General William Anson's 1st Brigade of Major General Galbraith Lowry Cole's 4th Division and will start their march northward in that large column dubbed Graham's Corps. We can expect to see them at:
25th May 1813 (on the march north out of Portugal)
Author's note: Unlike the regular 1st battalions of the army it is noticeable that this combined unit has only been partially successful in drawing to it those extra numbers, so important for internal maintenance, during this long period of preparation.
Using hindsight we shall see that a pattern will emerge whereby such officers as are recorded as being injured from now until the end of hostilities will come almost exclusively from the 2/53rd part of this composite battalion, this can only suggest that it was this Regiment that supplied the greater number of drafts and returnees throughout their combined currency.
It will be sufficient to say that 2nd Provisionals in company with their comrades would complete the long flanking march ever northward to converge into the Grande Chaussee a little to the south of Vittoria dutifully taking their place in a long column by Nanclares along the banks of the Zadorra River. On 21st June the French are standing to arms in a great plain just to the north with the river to their front when the fighting begins. Cole's whole 4th Division are to stand in waiting as others become heavily involved only debouching from the confines of the Chaussee when the enemy have committed almost all of their available resources to a general action. Cole will feed his brigades forward against what has come down to a huge but long range artillery fire from massed batteries directly ahead. The result of all of the efforts on both sides of this particular contest is, for Anson's men to suffer casualties in direct proportion to their order as they are brought forward, for 2nd Provisionals, being absolutely at the rear of the Brigade column this then is minimal. Four men are killed and six wounded this high proportion of killed to wounded being a sure indication that this unit would have only been subject to penetrating cannon fire.
As soon at the victorious army can be separated from its loot gathering exploits the rather peeved CIC has several of his Divisions marching fast and furiously about the country searching for General Bertrand Clausel's Corps which had previously failed to turn up at Vittoria in time for the battle of 21st June. Cole's men are to join in this chase, all unsuccessfully and then to pull up at the blockading of Pamplona, a short rest here is allowed and then off again this time up into the Pyrenean foothills to establish themselves at the crests of the Passes. Anson's Brigade will find itself posted close by the hill village of Linzoain, a full month has passed since their grand night of plundering down at Vittoria so we can expect that most have returned to ordinary sober soldiering and maybe attended to maintaining their numbers. On 26th July Anson has the task of holding the Pass here as rearguard to the Division which has already met and been dislodged by attacking French units. When the enemy reach their positions the action will devolve on the combined Light company s of the brigade, whilst the two sides do eventually cause each other some harm the day is well spent as a mist comes down and Cole decides for a night retirement back down the valley. There is only mention of casualties by brigade but we know that 21yr old Lieutenant John Fraser [2/53rd] picks up a serious wound which implies their share of the total, perhaps another 20 of his men so;
26th July 1813 (after the combat on the Linzoain)
Retiring back almost to the environs of Pamplona Cole and Picton [both of these Divisional Commanders now Lieutenant Generals] get their charges to hold a line on the last high ground of any promise that of the Hill of Oricain with the small village of Sorauren down below at its left. Wellington, previously absent away towards the Biscay front has turned up at last and arranges the lines of defence, his opposite captain Marshal Nicholas Soult having given him the time to do so. It is now 28th July and the battle which takes place here becomes known as 1st Sorauren. Anson's Brigade have a position of reserve to the rear of Major General Robert Ross' Brigade all well to the summit of this steep hill up which the enemy columns must come to the attack, 2nd Provisionals very much to the rear of the rear! The action when it is brought on is fierce and closely contested with attack and repeated counter-attack until both Ross' and Anson' Brigades have had their fill of fighting as have the frustrated enemy who see new opponents appear each time that they re-climb this hill. It will be the task of 2nd Provisionals to simply hold the original line in security after all of this mayhem has subsided. Lieutenant William Hutton [2nd] and Lieutenant Thomas Dowker and Ensign Michael Nagle [both of 2/53rd] have been wounded, one man killed and another 20 wounded, mild indeed when others in the brigade are examined, so:
28th July 1813 (after the 1st battle at Sorauren)
The second battle at Sorauren hardly involves Anson's men beyond coming off the hill as the enemy begins to retreat so that they follow up others in a continual chase to try to maintain contact, this they must be only able to do briefly as their casualties for the day amount to just six men wounded. The whole brigade have lost but 13 men in total but it seems that on 30th July 2nd Provisionals may well have had the head of their brigade column:
30th July 1813 (after the 2nd battle at Sorauren)
The 4th Division after all of this excitement comes to rest at Echalar then as the need arises will ease its way more to the west to settle down overlooking the Bidassoa which, in their area marks the Spanish/French border, they are close to Vera and a small hill village Santa Antonio on the heights of Salain at the Peña de la Aya a prominent peak behind the Spanish/British line. When the French come forward to cross the Bidassoa on 31st August in an attack designed to relieve the garrison of San Sebastian Anson's Brigade high on the hill slope will have a "grandstand" view of the proceedings. We can expect that our men of 2nd Provisionals having had a month out of action will have brought up their numbers if only ever so slightly, so:
31st August (at the battle of San Marcial)
Before them in first line of defence are units of Longa's Spanish Division, a fine sounding title, he had only about 2400 men, these, the same ones that had cut the Grande Chaussee to the north of Vittoria. They are down close to the river where as it transpires, there is to be no action. The morning mist upon lifting shows attacks mainly to the far left to begin with, these are dealt with by other Spanish troops well placed to receive them, a slowly developing movement to the right of Anson's position sees eventually a series of attacks and defensive counter-attacks principally upon and by Major General William Inglis's Brigade of 7th Division and Colonel James Miller’s Portuguese Brigade of 4th Division. It has taken more than half the day for the enemy troops so engaged to bring them anywhere close to 2nd Provisionals but with the CIC ordering these previously casual observers to extend towards this threat they are to come into action after all. As it turns out this is quite gentle stuff, the Light company will fan out to face its opposite numbers in General Taupin's Division obviously neither side showing any great intention to close. Elsewhere the battle has been going so badly for Marshal Soult that cautionary orders start to come up, first to Clausel in charge of this thrust and then to Taupin, who is encouraged to allow his men to simply contain and then to break off this faint enterprise. All kinds of supplementary actions from one end of the front to the other are brought to an end when a persistent shower of rain becomes an absolute deluge gradually transforming the normally gentle river Bidassoa into a raging torrent. A bit of an anti-climax perhaps but still 2nd Provisionals have done their work and will stand down counting three men killed and 32 wounded, unaccountably Oman's Appendix makes this add to 36, we must make it 35, so:
31st August 1813 (after the battle of San Marcial)
A two month period of comparative calm descends over 4th Division, they are not called upon to face the enemy at the forcing of the Bidassoa in early October but will come forward as far as the Nivelle River to watch the French on the other side going to great exertions to build up earthworks, abatis and redoubts linking the more prominent terrain features many to be furnished with artillery pieces, very reassuring for those contemplating the inevitable attacks. These will be mounted on 10th November but first we must take note that 2nd Provisionals have had quite a success in bringing into the ranks enough convalescents or maybe a part company draft of 2/53rd recruits, to return their figures to those of July. Certainly we shall see no more officers of 2nd Regiment mentioned in JA Hall's excellent compendium from now until the end, so:
10th November 1813 (at the battle on the Nivelle)
Cole has been given a central place in the line of attack facing the St' Barbe Redoubt, in his wisdom he puts Anson's Brigade, his strongest for numbers in the lead here and off we go! There is movement all along the much extended front, so much so that the lightly manned garrison within the redoubt, watching enemy units slipping past on either flank decide for a rapid departure, first objective secured. Next ahead is the Bridge at Sare where several other battalions from the 'softer' parts of the line have got in front. Reforming beyond that narrow passage up they go towards the Louis XIV Redoubt attracting some fairly close range enemy canister fire from an exposed flank, each of the four battalions of Anson's Brigade are keeping together and thus receiving similar attention. Most of the ground covered has been humps and hollows of rough scrub interspersed with boulders large and small so that when the enemy finally tires of retiring from one unsafe works to another and abandons the struggle altogether the victors will have a difficult time discovering the whereabouts of all their more seriously injured comrades. Anson's men will settle down at Serres and look to their numbers. Only one officer of 2nd Provisionals is recorded as wounded, Captain James Mackay [2/53rd] but five men are dead and 47 wounded to leave them at,
10th November 1813 (after the battle on the Nivelle)
Once more 4th Division will have a long period out of the line of fire, when most of the rest of the army are engaged in bitter struggles with Soult's men on both sides of the river Nive in early December. Cole's Division will be marching from one side of the rear area to the other and back on roads and paths made into seas of mud by the cold miserable rains which always manage to return as soon as any pathway shows signs of drying out. In mid-January, still at rest in the Nive valley we have an all-ranks head count:
16th January 1814 (cantoned about the Nive)
It will be half way through February before a series of frosts hardens the ground enough to allow Wellington to begin his long planned move to push Soult's men away from Bayonne eastward. Renowned for their marching prowess Cole's Division is soon on its way scrunching along on the ridges of frozen mud aiming for Peyrehorade on their last adventure toward Toulouse.
They left Vieux Mouguerre on 12th February 1814 and have perhaps only done a couple of days of solid tramping before 2nd Provisionals are left behind, they have reached the River Bidouze at the Bridge of Bidache which is ostensibly an important communications centre between Wellington's two principle Corps, those of Beresford and Hill. This break turns out to be for about a month, they remain here throughout the Orthez manœuvres and battle, still remain again when 4th Division is sent part way to Bordeaux in support of that city's insurrection, then as Cole brings them back from Langon we are given to understand that 2nd Provisionals is called out to re-join its brigade. This would require a long march entirely isolated from Cole's Division who we know is travelling as fast and far as that corps is well known to be capable of, we are not informed as to the rate of movement of this little fragment of Wellington's army. Certainly they were present at the Toulouse battle so we should try to estimate their strength having put behind them probably their hardest march in the worst conditions that they have ever experienced.
10th April 1814 (at the battle for Toulouse)
With such figures it becomes obvious that the long rests prior to that final forced march has brought up numbers remarkably well [a fine tribute to the trust put in them by their CIC when fighting off the Duke of York's orders on their behalf] that these 'raw young chaps' of 1809 had learned their trade. When Beresford brings his Divisions around the northern end of the Mont Rave heights to lead them in that great flank manœuvre that will win the day 2nd Provisionals have a marching position as last in line in Anson's Brigade column of battalions. However, because Anson has been put not only first up but also on the right of a three brigade array 2nd Provisionals will receive steady attention from the enemy batteries placed high on the eastern flank of the hill in full enfilade. Their more senior battalions, it can be seen are catching the cannonade and suffering their casualties in proportion to their seniority. First-in-most-damaged is the formula, however, when Beresford brings his massed array up on its right 4th Division is drawn out to take the left side of the hill climb. The happy result of this most forward move is to shield virtually all of Cole's brigades from the long and hard fought contests, which will go on until day's end on the hilltops.
Coming to a halt looking over the valley and city of Toulouse Anson's Brigade only engage in mild skirmishing to prevent Soult from reinforcing his beleaguered troops in the hilltop redoubts, we only need to examine the casualty list then to finish their fighting in the War in the Peninsula.
Two men are dead; Captains Mackay and Robert Mansel, Lieutenants James Hamilton and Thomas Impett with 27 of their men are wounded, [all in 2/53rd] so:
10th April 1814 (after the battle for Toulouse)
Having come through a year as a combined battalion the two parts will revert back to their former status, we must observe that not a single officer of 2nd Queens Royal’s had been hit since the combat on the Linzoain away back in July 1813, so perhaps it is to 53rd Reg't that the plaudits are directed for maintaining such fine regularity.
Neither Regiment is to be found at Waterloo.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2011
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