Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 53rd Regiment of Foot  (The Shropshire’s)

By Ray Foster
  

Facings: Red                                                                     
Lace: Gold

2/53rd

5th April 1809 (landed at Lisbon) unbrigaded
Numbers not available

This 2nd battalion was yet again one of many that were sent to the theatre to continue the British "presence" in the Peninsula after Lieutenant General John Moore's army had been ejected from the country at the beginning of the year.

They consisted in the main as always of young recruits and untried officers but, at least were in good number as we shall see. By the time that Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley had returned to pick up the role of CIC and organised his rather "novice" army 2/53rd had become a part of a Brigade under Lieutenant General Alexander Campbell along with 2/7th, a single coy' of 5/60th and a native battalion 1/10th Portuguese Line and first figures reveal them at:

3rd May 1809 (ready to march on Oporto)                                                                                                                  
PUA 822

Their role in the short campaign to send Marshal Nicholas Soult's army packing out of Portugal by its northern boundary seems to have been negligible excepting perhaps to observe that this unit may not have been quite "regular" so soon in its active service. However, with little time to worry about these problems of internal logistics off they go on that rather risky campaign deep into Spain to fight alongside Cuesta's Spaniards. By the time that they have arrived at the Alberche stream ahead of Talavera these young lads will have shed no less than 285 men and officers and will stand at:

25th July 1809 (at Talavera de la Reina)                                                                                                     
PUA 537

Although still under Brigadier Campbell they have left behind in Portugal 1/10th PL and now are shown as a part of 1st Brigade 4th Division, they will stand three days later behind the Portina stream with the Spanish army to their right and the British to their left.  Compared to the heavy involvement of almost every other British battalion 2/53rd played a small part in the fighting this day, while desperate close quarter’s combats were the general order of the day this unit, probably by accident of its place on the field got off lightly, Major Nigel Kingscote and Lieutenant James Stawell received only slight wounds whilst 6 men were killed, 30 more wounded and one other simply went missing, so:

28th July 1809 (after the battle at Talavera)                                                                                                                
PAB 498

Brigadier Campbell had been slightly wounded by canister fire in the leg so the work of brigadier fell to Lieutenant Colonel William Myers of 2/7th, it would be he who had the dismal task of shepherding his tiny Brigade all the way back to Truxillo and eventually Badajoz after the pyrrhic victory over King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean Baptiste Jourdan.

It speaks well of 2/53rd that they would hold together through the blazing hot semi-desert paths they were forced to follow on the south side of the Tagus and then to sit in the pestilent valley of the Guadiana until Wellington was able to divest himself and his army of all things Spanish. During the early part of their time spent in the Guadiana valley the brigade is reinforced by a strong 1st battalion of 11th Regiment which had come to the country via Lisbon and the Portuguese border with Major General Stafford Lightburne having sailed in from Madiera during July. This brigade then like the rest of Wellington's army of that time was to retire out of Spain by the end of the year sitting at quarters in the Portuguese hill country until the enemy had built up a strong force under Marshal Andre Massena whose orders were to push the British all the way to the sea and off the Peninsula altogether. We see nothing of 2/53rd until Wellington has his army well on the move away from the Coa river valley and retiring down the Mondego to stand on a long high hill known as the ridge of Busaco. It is over a year since we had last figures for the men of Myers Brigade, they are still in 4th Division but now under Major General Galbraith Lowry Cole, once more their position on the field will see them having a quiet day when Marshal Michel Ney and General Jean Louis Reynier send their infantry of 6th & 2nd Corps up the steep slopes at Busaco.

Campbell has returned to command the brigade but the whole of 4th Division merely stand out on the far left of the high ground and hardly even in sight of the action on the day. With no casualties to report 2/53rd will leave its ground the following day at:

28th September 1810 (after the battle at Busaco ridge)                                                                              
PAB 473

The journey down to the lines about Torres Vedras and the subsequent settling in period which followed saw 2/53rd reduce its numbers of men fit for service so that by the beginning of November they would only show:

1st November 1810 (in the Lines of Torres Vedras)                                                                                                 
PUA 437

In the early winter of 1810-11 there was to be much shifting of battalions to accommodate the steady dribble of new infantry units arriving at Lisbon, so much so that the CIC was able to create a new, 6th Division, this to be built around that brigade formally in 4th Division. Campbell was to lead this Division taking 1/11th, 2/53rd & 1 coy'5/60th also exchanging 2/7th for 1/61st from 1st Division but, this one British Brigade to stand alongside a four battalion Portuguese Brigade under Baron Eben. The British brigade received its new commander Major General Richard Hulse in mid November to complete the re-organisation. It is not until the army has followed up the French departure from Portugal and marched to the border country of Portugal/Spain that Hulse' Brigade is seen again, the army has gone from the offensive clearing Massena's men out beyond the Agueda to the defensive as the French, having paused to re-fit reinforce with new drafts now come on again over the river and show an intention to relieve the Almeida garrison [under General Antoine Brennier].

Wellington has drawn his men up at and about Fuentes d Onoro so we have figures to use for the beginning of May at:

1st May 1811 (at Fuentes d Onoro)                                                                                                                
PUA 459

As will be seen 2/53rd has only been able to hold its numbers, very much the sign of a 2nd battalion, rather devoid of those vital drafts from home and only able to balance its sick with a handful of returnees. Once more the CIC has so positioned his men as to keep 6th Division out of the game, they are to occupy high ground on the road from Almeda to San Pedro between the Dos Casas and the Turon streams, their purpose to block the advance of Reynier's Corps which is in and about Almeda, all of this on 3rd May when the main event was taking place at Fuentes' village some three or four miles away to the right.

Two days later the aspect changed significantly as Massena, who had drawn his left flank far round to threaten Wellington's right attacked again, first on his far left and once more a direct assault on Fuentes village, yet again 6th Division was to sit out the day without employment although, interestingly 2/53rd were detached and brought closer to the village facing the Dos Casas to keep a watch on skirmishers on the enemy's side of the stream. At this stage then the CIC had confidence in 2/53rd's abilities such as to allow this small measure of independent action.

No casualties are recorded here so another bloodless day for the Shropshire's.

Matters military now turn to the still blockaded garrison at Almeida, this enemy is there for the taking but, Wellington leaves the job to Campbell a close friend and confidant who, as it turns out is a poor choice. Taking 6th Division out of the line to man the picket lines and forward posts Campbell makes the fundamental error of positioning his solid supports several miles back from the fortress walls and thereby brings upon himself the responsibility for a succession of mistakes by others which could not have occurred had he been more astute. When Brennier sees that Massena's initiative has come to nought he is faced with the two options, to hold his strongpoint and delay eventual capture or attempt a breakout to re-join his friends before they are thrust too far away.  Messages sent in by Massena encourage the garrison leader to try for a full-on sortie and a breakout through the blockading lines, all made the easier by his enemy's flimsy dispositions. This he does during the night of 10th May approaching midnight, Hulse's Brigade have been placed as far south as Naves, Brennier's men bursting through a Portuguese picket line on the northern perimeter head north-east at pace so, not a hope of any action this night for 2/53rd and in fact the Almeida garrison run and fight their way to safety via the bridge at Barba del Puerco with all sorts of recriminations following Campbell's career for many a long day, even to cutting short his stay in the Peninsula to only another six months after which he leaves for India.  Things are changing rapidly in the enemy camp however, Massena is dispossessed as CIC of his Army of Portugal by Napoleon who hands the reins to Marshal Auguste Marmont, and there is a pause in proceedings while this worthy fellow goes about the work of re-organising his new army.

6th Division is kept up by Almeida for another month by which time the combined forces of Marmont and Soult are seen to be marching for a concentration onto Badajoz, Wellington in response is compelled to draw his army together down into the Guadiana watershed. So we see Campbell's Division crossing the Tagus at Villa Velha by 16th June then making its way up the valley of the Caya onto Portalegre where it seems they settled down as reserve when the fighting Divisions were drawn in line across this tributary of the Guadiana to face Soult and Marmont on defence. Here they stayed then throughout the July heat with, no doubt, more casualties from the malarial mosquitos of this region than any that the French army might inflict. By the end of July the French have dispersed off east and south so that Campbell is able to march his charges into the more healthy hills of the frontier country west of Cuidad Rodrigo, they will again show figures when standing near Fuente Guinaldo in September.

15th September 1811 (about Fuente Guinaldo)                                                                                                          
PUA 417

There are signs here that 2/53rd is suffering the fate of most of the 2nd battalions, it will do well to keep "regular" having gone down dangerously close to the under 400 mark! Some ten days later the Light Company of 2/53rd and their comrades of Hulse's Brigade are called forward at Carpio to the assistance of their covering cavalry screen which is being swept back by superior numbers of the Lancers of Berg close by a thick wood. Hulse's Light coy's put in a volley of musketry from this sheltered flank which has the desired effect of disordering the enemy squadrons enabling the Light Dragoons to regain their composure and carry on the good work, the infantry here have no recorded casualties.

It appears that 2/53rd are having a great war, they have been in the Peninsula for over 2 years now and only suffered 39 casualties in the face of the enemy! There is to be more of the same in 1812 but, Campbell has already gone off to India and Major General Robert Burne of 1/36th has the Division until Major General Henry Clinton arrives in early February to take over, a month later Lieutenant General Thomas Graham gathers together 1st, 6th & 7th Divisions taking them down into Estremadura to keep the enemy occupied in that area while Wellington has others putting first Cuidad Rodrigo and then Badajoz under siege with a kind of success. So it is that 2/53rd will get in a great deal of marching and countermarching during this first part of the year, it is not until the CIC makes his concentration for the Salamanca campaign that we see anything more of Hulse's Brigade. Back they come into the fold to be used in the prolonged struggle to capture the Forts of Salamanca, it is yet another indication of their fragility for numbers that on commencing this enterprise they would stand about;

23rd June 1812 (at the Forts of Salamanca)                                                                                                              
PUA 360

Over a period of four days 2/53rd are involved in inconclusive attempts to take the St' Vincente and St' Cayetano Convents only being able to bring about their downfall through a steady barrage of red-hot shot which lit and re-lit fires within these strong walls. An escalade attempt on the night of 23rd/24th June, doomed to failure due to the use of green timber for the ladders, reduced numbers in the Light Company by perhaps 12 or so men amongst whom were Lieutenants J A Devonish [who died the next day] and James Hamilton. It was only when fires began to rage out of control that the garrisons surrendered on the 27th June. Just a few weeks later Lieutenant Colonel George Bingham and his men of 2/53rd were to meet much more serious business in the field by the Arapiles hills. Clinton's 6th Division had marched in a great curve in the plains between the Douro and the Tormes along with the rest of the army in response to similar movements by the enemy until on 22nd July they came down south of Salamanca standing in reserve, [yet again] to the rear. By the time that Marmont had allowed General Thomiere's Division to make its fatal flank march along the Monte de Azan 6th Division had been drawn up in left rear of 4th Division on high ground to the right of the Lesser Arapiles with a good view of the battle area soon to be fought over. It is safe to expect that when they stood to arms in the afternoon of this fateful day they would be at:

22nd July 1812 (at the battle at the Arapiles)                                                                                                              
PUA 335

Clearly Bingham would need to nurture his tiny battalion if he was to get through the day in any sort of good order.

Battle was joined far away to their right commencing with a great clash of arms gradually working its way towards 4th Division in their immediate right front.  When this Division was called upon to advance Clinton's men were merely to stand ready whilst all about up ahead was a turmoil of dust, smoke, fire and cannonade. This state of affairs continued with the enemy folding back into confusion where the first crash had occured and even beginning to retreat behind the crests of the long hills into the distance. Full ahead 4th Division had been initially successful but as a wide gap to their left began to expose an open flank the enemy counter-attacked with all arms to get whatever advantage it could from this weakness.

For some time the battered elements of 4th Division held on against fresh troops always fed into this "soft area" until they were pressed back and broken up whereupon Clinton's men albeit somewhat late came on to stop this breakthrough.

Bingham with 2/53rd well in hand seems to have been to the right of the advancing line so that when enemy cavalry was sighted on the French left flank he rapidly pulled his tiny battalion into square beating off a charge by the Dragoons, standing firm until a brigade of Portuguese infantry cut across his front putting the enemy on the defensive after a stiff fire-fight.

By now the Shropshire's knew they were in a fight for their very existence, all was noise and men falling about them, it was to get much worse! Hulse had managed to bring the rest of his brigade up past 2/53rd and to drive back the enemy who by now had lost this part of the fight, the supporting cavalry had also fallen into disorder so all went ahead with 6th Division 2nd Brigade up in support too. Re-forming to come on in line 2/53rd tended to be somewhat late to arrive at the next critical stage of the struggle. The French had been able to form a long defensive line of mainly light infantry on the fringes of a wood whose approaches came across a wide clear space on a steady incline and, with well placed artillery in support, almost a perfect killing ground. Ahead of 2/53rd the rest of the brigade was falling thick and fast but, the remnants ever closing with occasional telling volleys of their own heroically kept up the advance with Bingham's men now entering the line to take their share of the slaughter.

When the enemy finally fell back into the woods and beyond Hulse remained behind with his shattered brigade whilst the Portuguese of 6th Division took up the chase in the growing darkness. Bingham had been severely wounded as had Brevet Lieutenant Colonel John Robertson, Captain Andrew Blackall dying of his wounds a month later, Captains Oliver Fehrzen, John Fernandez, Duncan McDougall and Lieutenant Joseph Nicholson all received serious wounds whilst Captain Thomas Poppleton, Lieutenant John Carss, Ensigns Peter Bunworth and Michael Nagle were slightly wounded.

Of the rank and file 26 men were killed and 105 wounded leaving 2/53rd almost non-existent at:

22nd July 1812 (after the battle at the Arapiles)                                                                                                         
PAB 193

Clinton's 6th Division is now a mere skeleton and must be rested if it is not to be disbanded altogether, they are sent with other fragile battalions on a slow march northwards up to the southern banks of the Douro by Cuellar both to observe the remnants of the Army of Portugal and to attempt to restore their numbers by draft or returning convalescents. For 2/53rd this seems an impossible task, throughout the whole 3years, 5months in the Peninsula they have dwindled down from that original fine total of 822 PUA, we shall see.  Incredibly this tiny scrap of a battalion is taken on up to the Burgos area when Wellington returns from Madrid to put that place under siege, it goes without saying that they will only be used as communications patrols in the perimeter screening operations as the summer turns to autumn however that ever ready Ensign Nagle shows that he was wounded on 4th October in one of the castle assaults.  There follows a miserable retreat to come in the early winter when the CIC has to abandon this northerly fortress and trudge all the way back to Salamanca and on again to the Portuguese border at Cuidad Rodrigo. It can be estimated that when the army comes to rest hereabouts 2/53rd will have no more than:

29th November 1812 (on the Portuguese frontier behind the Agueda)                                                  
PUA 210

Wellington at this time felt so seriously about his "old soldiers" that he resisted all demands for such remains as this battalion represented to be sent back to England and as soon as he had counted heads he immediately ordered this little band of marching men to join with another small fragment from 6th Division, 2nd Regiment the Queens Royals to form the 2nd Provisional Battalion and it is under this title and now to be a part of 4th Division that we shall see them continue to do battle to the bitter end of hostilities.

Note: when these two much reduced battalions come together almost all of the officers of 2nd Queens’ were sent off home to begin a recruiting exercise by which we shall see that as this new Provisional battalion came before the enemy it would be those of 2/53rd that would be seen, still led by Lieutenant Colonel Bingham holding the leading positions.

They will not appear at Waterloo

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2011

 

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