Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 51st Regiment of Foot  (2nd Yorkshire West Riding Light Infantry)

By Ray Foster

Facings: Grass Green                                                      

27th Oct-1st November 1808 (landed at Corunna)                                                                                                   
PUA 613

This single battalion regiment coming ashore under Lieutenant General David Baird is brigaded with 2/59th and 76th another single battalion unit all under Major General James Leith, they are slow to get themselves ready to take the field and only march after Baird has gone off with the main contingent to meet Moore on his way from the south. There are a few changes of orders from up ahead which have them going back and forward and by mid December we see them at:

19th December 1808 (on the road to Astorga)                                                                                                          
PUA 516

Having already lost 97 men by the wayside they finally meet up with the army at Lugo, here they stand to arms and next day face the enemy even to mounting a bayonet charge at General Merle's men, it is here that Brigade Major David Roberts loses a hand and perhaps a few of his men are also injured, freezing rain is falling as two days later the retreat to Corunna is continued. By the time that Marshal Nicholas Soult has his Corps in line for a battle 51st have secured a position which brings them no casualties on 16th January so that they are able afterwards to load their walking wounded and sick onto naval Transports and leave Corunna for England at:

22nd January 1809 (at ports in England)                                                                                                     
Disembarked 506    

During the following summer 51st Light are sent to the swamps of Walcheren, it is recorded that 560 men of all ranks landed there on 29th July 1809 but of course all of the survivors would be affected by the malarial fevers for years to come.

22nd February 1811 (landed at Lisbon)                                                                                                                       
PUA 150

This is only an advanced party there followed two more companies towards the end of February and then by some time in April the rest landed to make up the numbers. Lieutenant Colonel John Mainwaring has the battalion which comes into the field as a part of a new 7th Division under Major General William Houston their brigade is taken by Major General John Sontag and composed of a "motley band", 85th Light, Chasseurs Britanniques [Light] and 8 companies of Brunswick Oels Jaegers, so on paper this is a Light Brigade, it will bear watching!

As Marshal Andre Massena leaves Portugal 7th Division march with the main force up the valley of the Mondego and out into the high country about Sabugal coming down to the frontier plain at Fuentes d Onoro where they are first counted as a full unit;

1st May 1811 (at Fuentes d Onoro)                                                                                                                              
PUA 590

Although Wellington has placed 7th Division far out on his right flank almost in an isolated position at the village of Poço Velho Houston gives his men the best defensive places available, Sontag has men both in the village and behind convenient low walls nearby, 51st would be best protected standing on high ground behind the village.

It is only on the second day of fighting that Houston gets any work but, when it comes his way there is plenty for everyone, everyone that is excepting 51st who become a rallying point as the rest of Sontag's men are thrown back, this by a mixed infantry/cavalry array. The casualty count tells the story 51st lose just 5 men wounded and another taken prisoner, none of whom are officers others in the brigade have a different story to tell all in their own place and time, so:

5th May 1811 (after the battles at Fuentes d Onoro)                                                                                                
PAB 584

A little over a week later 7th Division are sent down to the Guadiana valley intending to assist Beresford in putting Badajoz under siege however, while on the march south crossing the Douro that General was being brought to battle at Albuera a conflict which would reduce 2nd Division to a mere wreck. Wellington by introducing a "spare" brigade from 1st Division and juggling many of his battalions cobbled together over the next month a rather disparate corps to put Badajoz under siege an enterprise doomed to failure from the start. During the formal work of setting up batteries and digging trenches Lieutenant Colonel Mainwaring receives a wound which gives Wellington the chance to rid himself of the commander of 51st who had displeased him at Fuentes d Onoro by ordering the burning of the "colour" when standing on defence behind Poço Velho, [this to prevent the expected falling into enemy hands it was said]. Once the engineers had declared the breached walls at San Cristobal, a bastion on the northern banks of the Guadiana, practicable it was up to Houston to organise the assault, this to be on 6th June, already 51st would be down in number as a result of the usual trench duty losses so, perhaps at:

6th June 1811 (at the storm of San Cristobal, Badajoz)                                                                                            
PUA 562

Lieutenant Dyas of 51st leads up the forlorn hope that is closely followed by the combined elite, right flank companies of Sontag's Brigade and 17th PL [a Portuguese garrison regiment borrowed from Elvas] it turns out to be a total forlorn hope with 42 men of 51st brought down. Three nights later the task is tried again, no better results and a further 57 killed and wounded, amongst this total [99] for the two attempts, Lieutenant Ralph Westropp has been killed, Captain Peter Smellie, Lieutenant Samuel Beardsley and Lieutenant Richard Hicks all wounded and the following day Wellington calls the whole thing off, so:

10th June (after the assaults at San Cristobal, Badajoz)                                                                                            
PAB 463

The CIC is compelled to retire into the pestilent valley of the Caya when Marshals Auguste Marmont and Soult come together to the relief of the besieged fortress Badajoz; this has a very poor effect on everyone as the mosquitos do their work and especially for anyone who has been at Walcheren in the recent past. Numbers in 51st Light plunge dramatically during the stay hereabouts and, even when the army is able to move away into the hills towards Cuidad Rodrigo their strength is dangerously low this is an occasion where Oman's Appendix is over-ruled by his explicit references in his text, so:

15th September (about Fuente Guinaldo)                                                                                                                  
PUA 251

 It is only a short time later that their comrades of 85th are sent home in disgrace for "irregularities" replaced already by 68th Light and, the whole brigade pushed down one in the division to 2nd. Brunswick Oels remained in 1st Brig and had been joined by two KGL Light battalions so, this Division still has all the appearances of being a Light Division to now be led by Major General Charles von Alten and the 2nd Brigade by Major General J H von Bernewitz of Brunswick Oels. As 1812 begins 7th Division will once more go south into Estremadura this time with Lieutenant General Thomas Graham's Corps as a foil for those enemy troops under General Drouet D'Erlon, this is a tale of many marches going deep into the Sierras and back, a three month stint but, not injurious as to numbers.

The cold weather actually helps fever sufferers and by the opening of the Salamanca campaign the battalion will have crept up to an estimated:

21st June 1812 (above Morisco outside Salamanca)                                                                                                 
PUA 335

There is a brief brush with the enemy here as each CIC is committed to swift marching manœuvres about the rolling country, 51st will lose 24 men here amongst them Captain Smellie who had recovered it seems from his wounds at Badajoz, there is still more to be done before the great battle at the Arapiles decides Marmont's fate but for 51st these are only small contacts at company level which will see them down to;

22nd July 1812 (after the battle at the Arapiles)                                                                                                        
PAB 305

About four weeks later Bernewitz Brigade is to be seen before the Retiro in Madrid attacking the French garrison left by King Joseph Bonaparte when he went off to Valencia, the resistance is weak as are the defensive works and the place surrenders at discretion with minimum casualties on both sides.

By the beginning of September when Wellington choses to split his forces and take a part north numbers in 51st have slid down marginally below 300 PUA not serious yet for a light battalion but going all the way as far as Burgos they will need every man they can get. Duties for Bernewitz Brigade predictably comes down to perimeter patrols screening the blockade of the castle; a firm refusal to even consider surrender by its Governor compels Wellington to make a serious try at a formal siege, he has none of the materials needed and of the men themselves none who had experience in these specialist matters. When this Corps is forced to break up the siege on 22nd October Bernewitz Brigade have occasional rearguard duties, passing through Torquemada they took advantage of undivided access to the local vintage each and every man, so we are told, leaving that place rather groggily after a drinking orgy. Six days into the retreat they are in contact with the enemy pursuers at Valladolid where the enemy guns are brought up to ply them with a cannonade across the Pisuerga River, 51st have been losing men now for some time and it is here that Lieutenant Bartholomew Hickie has an arm shot away, no doubt several of his men would receive similar treatment however there will be minimal figures during this whole retreat, we are thus left only to conjecture. The miserable retreat is halted for a while at the fighting position at the Arapiles but, as the winter rains have begun in earnest back they all must go to the more friendly cantonments behind the Agueda.

On 17th November there is to be one last episode before the enemy give up the pursuit, it occurs on the same day that Lieutenant General Henry Paget is captured, Bernewitz Brigade is partially cut off by an incursion by enemy cavalry coming in on an interval in the Divisional lines of march, the officers baggage is caught and plundered all by the Huebra river near San Muñoz, once again artillery fire is brought to bear across this river, Captain John McCabe is killed and eight of 51st wounded but, this is to be the final touch from the enemy. Wellington's more northerly contingent suffer badly from the breakdown of all commissary supply of food and the rain sodden road conditions so, it not surprising to find that 51st having crossed into Portugal will stand at an estimated;

29th November 1812 (behind the Agueda about Cuidad Rodrigo)                                                                        
PUA 229

There now follows almost six months of rest and recuperation during which the army, and 51st no less is heavily reinforced in readiness for an all-out campaign in 1813 having full knowledge that Napoleon's star is on the wane.

Bernewitz has gone elsewhere and Lieutenant Colonel William Inglis of 57th Regiment gets the Brigade for a short while. Near the end of April this single battalion regiment shows a steady increase to:

26th April 1813 (cantoned in Portugal)                                                                                                                         
PUA 393

By late May when the campaign gets under way these steady reinforcements for 51st will show an estimated;

25th May 1813 (leaving Portugal for the north)                                                                                                         
PUA 580

Six days later as a part of Graham's "left hook" they cross the Elsa at Almendra Major General George Ramsay Earl Dalhousie has the Division, but there has been a new addition joined Inglis' Brigade during the winter, 1/82nd and the rest still 51st, 68th and Chasseurs Britanniques.  This crossing is not entirely without incident ten men of 51st being carried off by the rushing waters and drowned. Dalhousie on the day of the battle at Vittoria is well recorded for his non-appearance but Brigadier Lieutenant Colonel William Grant of 1/82nd who has succeeded to the leadership of Inglis' Brigade at least manages a late arrival for his men following Picton's celebrated refusal to await 7th Division’s appearance on the field. Once at the Zadorra Grant gets his men involved at La Hermandad village where they meet a barrage of artillery fire, not unusual for 51st one must observe, they go to ground but are saved embarrassment as Light Division close by, swiftly throws back the enemy on their behalf, meanwhile Lieutenant John Percy has been killed, Lieutenant William Jones and Ensign J Campbell wounded and a further 31 men killed and wounded, so:

21st June 1813 (after the battle at Vittoria)                                                                                                                
PAB 536

Some short time after this battle as the army fruitlessly searches about looking for General Bertrand Clausel's Corps Grant steps down and Inglis returns as Brigadier, 7th Division find themselves before the heavily fortified city of Pamplona early in July leaving Dalhousie himself there to organise its blockade they move on into the foothills of the Pyrenees with Major General Edward Barnes leading the Division.

The new terrain they are on is all valleys and ridges going higher as they advance and principally looking north and south, this circumstance makes moving east or west very tiresome as paths have to be found across this corrugated countryside so it comes about that occasionally the parts of the Division will be separated and, when action comes will often act against different enemies. For 51st this all turns out to be confused marching but, having had a short rest about Echalar Dalhousie returns to pick up the Division, Soult has come back to the command of all the French forces on the Biscay end of the Pyrenees managing to restore his troops to the offensive, so much so that he has been able to push through the 'Passes to threaten those men left to hold Pamplona under blockade. 7th Division are put to some unpleasant marching in and out of valleys and over hill top paths some in torrential rain and including two night marches in order to get into a position to be of use as Wellington struggles to stabilise his shaky defensive line. We shall see Inglis' Brigade at the second battle that took place at Sorauren and, since figures are not to be found can only estimate that 51st would come up at:

30th July 1813 (at Sorauren)                                                                                                                                          
PUA 525

Others this day will already have been engaging the enemy at this village pinning a gallant enemy under General Conroux in this place as their comrades pass behind them on a disordered retirement. Inglis and his men come over the shoulder of the hill to the west of this place and are able to put down a damaging enfilade fire as the French attempt to evacuate Sorauren.  This kind of action is easy on 51st so that when the enemy have all run off broadcast into the hills 51st would stand at:

30th July 1813 (after the battle at Sorauren)                                                                                                              
PAB 501

The following day Inglis' Brigade is called upon to fight against a different enemy, still on the offensive, they have shifted west and are at Donna Maria with two brigades of 2nd Division, this is a more serious affair than the brief "turkey shoot" of the previous day, first they have to counter-march back through the same route which had brought them to Sorauren. It is well into the afternoon before they can get close up to the enemy in support of 2nd Division men, but, arriving about 2.30pm soon have the enemy on the run, this more on account of the general retreat of the French than a result of a contest of arms. All is over by 5.00pm as the fog comes down and the pursuit is halted, in this running battle then 51st will have lost 5 men killed 40 wounded and a further 6 taken prisoner, so:

31st July (after the combat at the Donna Maria Passes)                                                                                           
PAB 450

It will be of interest to notice that in these encounters of 30-31st July 1813 where 75 men have been lost by 51st not a single officer casualty was recorded, students of the history would be well advised to take this unusual statistic at its face value only, we have the availability of "blessés" to officers in the French service via Martinien which Oman uses with gay abandon as a tool to get at R&F casualties and of course, now we also have JA Hall's similar compilation to work with however, beware, craftsmen have always understood that any tool is only as good as the hand that uses it!

Figures for the battalion over the next month are hard to get at but, with hindsight it is easy to see that 51st will not improve its own and indeed may well lose a few to attrition, always present but normally "made up" from returning convalescents and drafts, it will, perhaps be best to hold them at the last count, above. Inglis' Brigade will only be seen in line for a general action as late as the end of August, they will be a part of a defensive array strung out along the Heights of Salain, to their far left there is a strong Spanish presence and the position Inglis' Brigade holds is overlooking the upper Bidassoa. A large enemy force is able to advance against their position showing supports able to get around their flanks, a fight while retiring back involves them in desperate lunges at the enemy who attempt to gather in wounded men as prisoners, fortunately this fight is broken off by the enemy as other parts of the general attack have foundered, on this occasion the "officer to other ranks" ratio is a reverse of the previous statistic above. Of the total of 92 casualties Captain Charles Douglas is killed, Lieutenant Robert Dodd receives a mortal wound, Major Roberts is shot in his handless arm, Captains Edward Kelly, John Keyt, James Ross and John Ross, Lieutenants Henry Bayly, Edward Frederick, Francis Minchin, Thomas Brook and Ensign Charles Thurston are all wounded, 6 of the others are dead and 74 wounded, (a ratio of 1:7) leaving 51st at:

31st August 1813 (after the combat at the Heights of Salain)                                                                                 
PAB 358

A little over a month passes as the army prepares to cross the Bidassoa at its lower end it is not to involve 7th Division other than just to be there in reserve so it will only be when the next river line is to be crossed, the Nivelle that 7th Division will be to the fore. Autumn has gone and winter begun early, 51st have drifted down in numbers but at least we have an accurate count for every battalion this day, so:

10th November 1813 (at the crossing of the Nivelle)                                                                                               
PUA 343

Dalhousie is away sick so that the Portuguese Major General Le Cor has the Division, they have 3rd Division to their right and 4th Division to the left as the day begins all in close company and full ahead is the Grenade Redoubt a strong point certainly but, only thinly manned by a single battalion, this corps is bombarded by three batteries of artillery from the front and, as ground is taken on the enemy left, from the flank too. All of this is too much, when Inglis' Brigade close up to the 'works they flee to the rear but, only as far as other fortifications at Sare, when 7th Division and 3rd Division reform and attack here they meet again, results are predictable, on being pressed off they go again.  As 3rd Division becomes entangled in a furious fight with General Conroux's men Inglis' Brigade meet up with 4th Division before the Louis XIV Redoubt where they are treated to some cannonading mainly at their right flank. By now the fighting has become too confused to distinguish particular units so that we must turn to the casualty lists to see who did the work overall. With three full Divisions sweeping in on small scattered and retiring units the day is won with Inglis' Brigade settling down beyond the bridge at Amotz in a jumble with 3rd Division Keane Brigade, its count for the day, 92 casualties. Lieutenants Maurice Stephens and John Taylor are dead as are 14 of the men, Lieutenants Walter Mahon and Henry Martin with 73 of the men are wounded and a further un-named officer captured or lost in the thick undergrowth mentioned by others (especially those with kilts and thorn torn legs), so:

10th November 1813 (after the crossing of the Nivelle)                                                                                           
PAB 251

It would be easy to say that this completes 51st Regiment service in the Peninsula as we have no more record of actions after this time but, for those there "on the ground" there would be a good deal of army time both in quarters and out in the field. With figures less than 300 PUA it is perhaps this that is the main reason why this battalion lies quiet when others are heavily involved at the Nive battles as 1813 closes and then going on into 1814 and the eastward marches across the French Pyrenean watershed. A return submitted by the office of the DAG in January confirms the strengths as:

16th January 1814 (cantoned in the Nive valley)                                                                                                        
PUA 281

The battalion is taken out of the line at Peyrohade ostensibly to guard that important intersection and river crossing of the Gave de Pau, this in late February before the up-coming battle at Orthez. Dalhousie, back in charge of the 7th Division picks up 51st during March on his way to Bordeaux where the local Governor has decided to declare for the Bourbon's and all march to that place in foul weather but, the city, having taken the great step to break with the Imperial Banner puts on a month long welcome to celebrate an end to all the years of fighting. The march to the Biscay coast at the end of April 1814 begins a new adventure for 51st, 2nd West Yorkshire Light.

They are to be found at the field of Waterloo as the day begins in Colville's Division with Mitchell Brigade down by Hougoumont coming on with 549 PUA and only losing 31 killed and wounded all day.


As we go through the adventures of the other parts of 7th Division there is perhaps a certain comparison to be drawn as to the doings of this and the much more heralded Light Division.

Time and again our attention is drawn to the performance of light infantry in this six year fighting theatre as distinct from that of the regular line battalions that made up the great majority of Wellington’s infantry.

Almost exclusively this attention centres on the exploits of the Light Division with 7th being seen as a ‘very poor relation’.

It is to be suspected that as in the present day perhaps ‘Media attention’ is all important!


Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2010


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