Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 39th Regiment of Foot (Dorsetshire)              

By Ray Foster

Facings: Pea Green                                                          
Lace: Gold


Mid July 1809 (landed at Lisbon)   
No figures available

This is one of those 2nd battalions hurriedly assembled to make up numbers and just perhaps not prepared for regular field duty, certainly far too late to get into the Talavera campaign. They are marched up to Zarza Mayor under Colonel James Catlin Craufurd with 2/28th and 2/34th during August only remaining with Marshal William Carr Beresford's Corps briefly then a month later this Brigade still with C Craufurd are gazetted as being a part of Major General Rowland Hill's 2nd Division. It is likely then that 2/39th have to endure some time down in the Guadiana basin before the army is released from its obligations to remain close to Spanish forces and retires back into Portugal, going off around Christmas time. The Brigade in February of 1810 is seen to have a coy' of 5/60th attached and, like the rest of the army has little to do excepting to keep out of trouble. It will only be when Hill has taken his men up to the hill position near Busaco that first figures will be revealed so:

27th September 1810 (at the ridge of Busaco) 
PUA 421

With such small numbers at the outset of their Peninsular experiences this unit is always going to struggle. Lieutenant Colonel Wilson of 2/39th has the Brigade in hand Catlin Craufurd having just recently died; the brigade is not engaged in the battle of this day so, all will retire off down to the lines at Torres Vedras but not until Major General William Lumley has taken the Brigade from Wilson. In settling down here the battalion will lose some forty plus men, not an unusual thing, it seems, the quarters would be severely competed for in this tight piece of terrain, so:

1st November (at the lines at Torres Vedras)    
PUA 375

Most creditably the battalion is able to more than recover these losses by the time that they are once more on the march, Hill has gone down with malaria and Beresford has the Corps, they are aiming at Badajoz which is now in the hands of the enemy. This place is put under a faint siege that has to be broken up when Marshal Nicholas Soult starts to approach from the south with a relief force. They will meet at Albuera and it is the middle of May so:

16th May 1811 (at Albuera)                                                                                                                                         
PUA 482

To set the scene Lumley has transferred to take up the cavalry command just two days earlier so that Colonel Alexander Abercromby of 2/28th takes up the Brigade and there they all are when Soult makes his rapid manœuvre around Beresford's right flank coming up and into the Spanish Corps at a dangerous flanking angle. By the time that Abercromby has been able to get his Brigade up to the serious part of the battle there is already much confusion so that he must come through the line of Captain General Francisco Ballasteros' men on the far left of the endangered fighting ground. For 2/39th this is not too bad a thing, whilst death and destruction is being dealt out to their right front they are able to form up and deliver telling volleys on the flanks of the French who themselves are having no picnic. Swinging around this flank in slow but steady advance these volleys become too much for anyone to endure and all before them melt away. This not too gentle introduction to war in the Peninsula has reduced the Dorset's numbers by 20%, Lieutenant George Beard and just 14 men have been killed but, Captain James Brine, Lieutenants Francis Hart, John Pollard, Ensign Charles Cox and 77 men are wounded with a further two men unaccounted for.

16th May 1811 (after the battle of Albuera)                                                                                                             
PAB 384

With a mere 98 casualties 2/39th have come out of this clash of the titans much better than most but the sad work of picking up the wounded and burying the dead would maybe be too much for these lads. Abercromby's Brigade is merged with most of the rest of 2nd Division’s survivors Lumley returns to take charge of this eight battalion fragment until there is some sign as to which ones will most likely be able to return to full operational strength.  By mid-August the original Brigade of Abercromby’s will look very similar to its former composition, Lumley has gone home (shell-shocked/battle fatigued no doubt) and 1/28th has joined leaving its 2nd battalion to go home also. Wilson gets the Brigade back by 9th October and fortuitously 1/39th joins from Sicily eleven days later, the writing is on the wall for 2/39th and so it is that on 25th December down they go to Lisbon and home to recruit, a handful of its officers remaining to take up promotion to 1st Battalion.


20th October 1811 (joined from, C T Atkinson says Sicily and Wellington’s Dispatches says Gibraltar)                                       
No figures available

All is not well with this battalion however, we discover that this unit is much inflicted with ophthalmia an inflammation of the eyes which today we might call conjunctivitis not a good thing for a corps which is in the Estremaduran theatre where searing heat and dust with bright sunlight is all that one gets during daylight in summer, luckily then it is still cold and wet here. By some means 1/39th are said to be found in the march after General Jean Baptiste Girard's Brigade which terminated at Arroya dos Molinos, [according to C T Atkinson] they have only joined a few days before that expedition gets under way so that it may have been men of 2/39th who were at the head, no matter their Light coy' led by Captain Hardress Saunderson will be the only ones that get up to the action in this running battle, all in pouring rain up in the hills, perhaps losing ten of this article plus the Captain himself severely wounded, so, using a possible combined 1/2/39th total:

28th October 1811 (at Arroya dos Molinos)                                                                                                              
PAB 715

Wilson's men are not involved in any actions against an enemy for many a long day spending most of their time marching about the Estremaduran area as a foil for General Drouet D'Erlons Corps which is doing the same, each eyeing the other cautiously until, when news arrives that Marshal Auguste Marmont has been destroyed at the Arapiles the whole balance of power is overturned. Reluctantly Soult gives up his "Vice-Royalty" in Andalusia, D'Erlon is withdrawn and this leaves Hill able to give up his long time bases in the Estremadura and march on Madrid. Still no action for 1/39th so, we get no news of their numerical strength either. The whole army is back behind the Agueda in the late autumn-winter of 1812 before we are given a clue as to numbers, and this rather indiscriminately at that.

29th November 1812 (behind the Agueda)                                                                                                               
PUA 604

In January of 1813 Wilson dies so that Lieutenant Colonel  Robert O'Callaghan of 1/39th takes over the Brigade, it is only a short while later that Wellington’s Dispatch’s comments on the poor condition of this battalion who, having been for so long garrison troops in the Mediterranean seem hardly fit for service in the field. That should stir O'Callaghan into action, it does indeed, by late April we have before us firm figures:

26th April 1813 (in cantonments in Portugal)                                                                                                           
PUA 807 

By the time that we are ready to see the army opening the Vittoria campaign there has been another great hike in numbers so:

25th May 1813 (commencing the march on Vittoria)                                                                                             
PUA 922

Not only are the figures healthy but as Hill's Corps is sent up into the Pueblo Heights to begin the battle for Vittoria O'Callaghan will see to it that 1/39th are put to the test, coming out onto the top of these hills they will have before them a number of villages, they will fight their way through Subijana, Zumelza and Gomecha in tough attack and counter-attack for most of the day finishing up with as many as 215 casualties. Twenty-six men are dead, Captain William Hicks and Lieutenant Michael Meade will die of their wounds later and Captains Charles Carthew, Robert Walton, Lieutenants Thomas Baynes, Alexander Speirs and no less than 181 of their men are also wounded.

21st June 1813 (after the combats on the Pueblo Heights)                                                                                    
PAB 707

During the next month the Brigade will have marched up into the Bastan and as far as the Maya Pass in the western Pyrenees, Major General William Pringle formally from 2nd Brigade 5th Division has joined and taken over the Brigade from O'Callaghan as they are quietly sat in their camp below the summit. The Light Company  of 1/39th along with the others of the Brigade are at the top of a hill known as the Gorospil whilst the battalion is almost two miles below with a steep climb between them. When Soult sends up a large corps of men to contest this Pass the first intimation that they are about to be attacked shows as a heavy spread of skirmishers coming straight for the knoll on which Pringle's light infantrymen are deployed. Not only are they outnumbered two to one but, as the enemy voltigeurs fan out on the more open ground before them they see a column of men moving into their rear about to make use of this space to outflank their somewhat isolated position, the battalion has started this day at:

25th July 1813 (on the Gorospil at Maya)                                                                                                                  
PUA 714

We can expect then that the Light coy' would certainly have no more than 70 men present on the hill when the attack comes in, with the others they are forced to close up and put up a fight which was always going to end badly, all are either killed, wounded or captured, injured or not, as the formed enemy troops from the rear work around the hill to surround the ever decreasing numbers of Pringle's skirmishers. Down in the valley the rest of 1/39th having heard the commotion on the hill are brought up by O'Callaghan probably no more than half of the way to the top when they are met by those formed troops who earlier had cut off their comrades. That they put up a strong fight here goes without question, the casualties always get at the truth of the matter but they too being greatly outnumbered and in no solid order, down the hill they go. Not in retreat it seems but retiring somewhat disordered nevertheless. With the rest of Pringle's Brigade survivors they were able to come to rest at Maya itself, losing much of their baggage and equipment as their camps were overrun. Lieutenant Trevor Williams and ten of their men are dead Lieutenant Connell Scanlan will die a prisoner of his mortal wounds while Captain Joseph Jones, Lieutenants Cox, Francis Hart, Ensigns William Courtenay, Purefoy Poe, Robert Rhodes and 111 men have been wounded here, of those light infantrymen who had been left totally unsupported on the Gorospil no less than 54 are recorded as captured and secured as prisoners. Not a good day at all then:

25th July (after the fight in the Maya Pass)                                                                                                               
PAB 528

Five days later at Buenza 1/39th are in line again but as it happens hardly touched losing only three men when once again they are attacked, this continues next day at Donna Maria and this time just four more men to account for so:

31st July (after the combats of Buenza and Donna Maria)                                                                                     
PAB 521

Thankfully Soult's "invasion" has by now run its course the enemy thoroughly defeated elsewhere and on the run back into France, Pringle will be able to have three months in which to restore numbers before the next offensive operations. During this time more than 200 men are either returned to the ranks or come in as drafts from home, it is to be expected that something has also been done to find Lt' infantry officers and men to replace those lost on the Gorospil, these are things about which we are always left to ponder with no help from the historians and chroniclers of the day. It will be on the Nivelle River that next we see 1/39th, it is November and Wellington is ready to force this military obstacle so:

10th November 1813 (on the Nivelle)                                                                                                                        
PUA 723

Hill's Corps are well to the right flank when the attacks go in, Pringle is still in charge of the Brigade and all have an easy day, 1/39th losing five men it seems, no more then than might be made up from returnees over the month which follows as they come to the River Nive in December. Pringle on 9th December will bring his Brigade across this river in two stages, first it's a half passage during the night to an island in the centre of the river then, next morning the pontoons are swung across the other half and the venture is completed, no real fighting to be done either. Going north up the right bank of the Nive they come to Villefranque a village for which there is some fighting before passing on, it is here perhaps where the battalion will collect most of its 22 casualties this day and, since house to house work is the province of the Light companies this is where we can expect most of the damage to be done.

9th December 1813 (after crossing the Nive River)                                                                                                  
PAB 705

Only two days later the Brigade has marched further north to the head of a long hill spur where there rests a large Chateau, Larralde, Pringle has them put to work reinforcing its walls, loopholing and making all secure as a defensive fortification, the ground falls away to each flank into wet ground with marshy hollows making approach access only possible from straight ahead. All of this turns out to be very handy during the coming battles as Soult again goes on the attack out of Bayonne and, for Pringle's Brigade this is on 13th December, there has been fighting out some distance away each day since crossing the Nive but, it is only when the enemy have committed themselves to an all out attack at a similar hill spur to their right at St. Pierre d Irrube that Pringle's men are finally molested. When an enemy column comes up to the Chateau late in the proceedings it is no great task to repel each attempt as it is mounted until the enemy see that the project is beyond hope, off they go leaving the Brigade little the worse for the experience, 1/39th taking 18 men casualties for the whole day, Ensign John Burns amongst them, so:

13th December (after the fight at the Chateau Larralde)                                                                                       
PAB 687

The early winter weather has already been none too good but now it settles into just too much rain for any hope of work in the field. There is a pause whilst all attempt to find shelter, but as soon as the frosts harden the ground off they go again, this time heading eastward to push Soult's men away from Bayonne. Two months have passed by, a few men will have returned to the ranks and we now see Pringle's Brigade being leisurely brought into an attacking line preparing to dislodge the enemy from a strong hill position whilst others are moving to its flanks ready to cut in to its rear. Wellington appears on the scene as this short winter's day is rapidly nearing the end of its useful time, he orders Pringle to get forward and get rid of the opposition on this, the Motte de Garris before darkness overcomes them. Being closest up 1/39th are put in stride immediately whilst Pringle mounted of course and up in front is quickly shot down, O'Callaghan brings his battalion on exchanging occasional volleys but, since the enemy are reluctant to give way, has to resort to the bayonet, both sides go at this unusual form of combat and it is only when the position is seen by the enemy commander to be in great danger of being outflanked that he calls a halt to this close quarters engagement. 1/39th have had 43 men brought down by all of this bludgeon work amongst them their Colonel O'Callaghan and their Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bruce, so:

15th February 1814 (after the combat on the Motte de Garris)                                                                            
PAB 650

O'Callaghan, who obviously has taken just a small knock, takes over in the absence of Pringle, who will not return, the Brigade with Hill's Corps carries on taking its usual position to the southern right end of the advance line coming up to Orthez just twelve days later, numbers may have improved very slightly so that when other Divisions attack Soult's defensive line at the end of February 1/39th may well have risen to:

27th February 1814 (at Orthez)                                                                                                                                   
PUA 665

There is little more to say about 1/39th's war from this time excepting perhaps to show that in the final marches across the rain sodden country before arriving at Toulouse this part of Wellington's army left in its wake a considerable number of stragglers and sick men, also the occasional small detachments necessary to maintain communications as the distance from their bases became more and more extended, in the case of 1/39th it was to be as many as 74 men for whatever reason.

Certainly, on 18th March as 2nd Division is thrusting back the enemy rearguard Lieutenant Cox [a veteran of Albuera] is severely wounded with perhaps a few of his men but contact with solid resistance no longer occurs. They would arrive in front of the extended earthworks outside of the St Cyprien gates at Toulouse ready for action at;

10th April 1814 (at Toulouse)                                                                                                                                      
PUA 591

When Hill was ordered to make a demonstration before these gates it was O'Callaghan's task to break the resistance at the outer defences, this was accomplished by 1/39th's comrades of the Brigade whilst they themselves only had a supporting role.

Having secured the use of several buildings close to the St Cyprien walls the rest of the day was to be spent in sporadic skirmisher fire from the safety of these positions whilst the battle was won elsewhere, this did not prevent Captain Samuel Thorpe from collecting a wound however. Total loss for 1/39th then, a mere 5 men wounded, all that remained was to keep a watch on Soult's surviving army which was to evacuate Toulouse and two days later march off down the road to Carcassonne to the south and capitulation.

PS: Here we have another example of a 2nd battalion of young recruits making a reasonable fist of their work only to be taken over by a 1st battalion that perhaps through the slackness of service in garrison duties took a long time to come to that regularity so earnestly required by Wellington. With an internal system that ultimately ensured a steady supply of men coming forward the Dorset’s managed to show themselves moderately capable in the end.

The Dorset's were not to be found at Waterloo.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2010

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