Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 66th Regiment of Foot (The Berkshires)
By Ray Foster
Facings: Gosling Green
5th April 1809 (landed at Lisbon)
As one of those 'made-up' 2nd battalions of young recruits this is one at least very strong for numbers and will be put into regular service for the field in time to join the new CIC Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley for his campaign against Marshal Nicholas Soult, at that time sitting at Oporto to the north. Setting up a base at Lisbon off goes the battalion as a part of a Brigade under Brigadier Major General Rowland Hill along with 1/3rd, 2/48th and acompany of 5/60th, they have shed forty-eight men in this first month so:
3rd May 1809 (on the march north to Oporto)
Nine days later they are to be found, under the direct command of their Major, James Murray being ferried across the Douro in wine barges to support 1/3rd who are already taking up positions in the Seminary on the northern banks so, here are these untried lads, only a little over a month in the country heaving themselves up alongside one of the oldest regiments in the army taking pot-shots at the French below the walls. Major Murray is shot through the arm and Captain Conway Benning slightly wounded whilst a mere 8 men are brought down, wounded, obviously firing from safe walls. There are no more figures available until the army has broken off its pursuit of the beaten enemy, returned down country to Abrantes, had a short rest and re-organisation and then set off once more on a long march, this time deep into Spain to challenge the central French armies under King Joseph Bonaparte, Marshal Claud Victor and General Horace Sebastiani in front of Madrid. It is not until the army has joined up with a large Spanish force under Captain General Gregorio Cuesta and concentrated at and about Talavera that we see 2/66th have lost by various means a further 165 men and are now led by Brevet Lieutenant Colonel George Adams, Major General Christopher Tilson has the brigade:
25th July 1809 (at and about Talavera)
Two nights later there is much fighting close at hand on the prominent hilltop, the Medellin, where Hill has the 2nd Division 1/3rd and 2/66th are not brought into action as the enemy attempts a night attack and 2/48th are only lightly engaged. The next day there is serious work coming. After an annoying artillery barrage up come the enemy onto the Medellin again with aggressive intent, there is a close musketry duel always at the greater loss for the French who have had to struggle forward uphill, finally being put to flight with the bayonet but not without causing suffering amongst the Berkshire's. Lieutenant Colonel Adams has been mortally wounded as have Lieutenants Philip Humbly and Denton Steele, Senior Captain Henry Stephens acting this day as Staff officer to Hill is left wounded in a counter-attack and taken prisoner, whilst Captains W H Stephens, Stuart and Richard Kelly with Lieutenants Peter Dudgeon, Hamilton Edmonds, Apollos Morris, and Lewis Shewbridge along with Ensigns William Coulter and Charles McCarthy are all wounded. Of the men 16 are killed, 88 wounded and 11 taken prisoner when overtaken in retirement, all of this brings 2/66th down to a fragile:
28th July 1809 (after the battle at Talavera)
The long retreat back to safety as a trio of French Marshals of the Empire, Soult, Ney and Mortier came down from the north in an attempt to trap Wellington on the right banks of the Tagus, was to be attended by as much suffering as any battle, the Spanish failing to honour their promises of logistical support, the wounded having to be abandoned as they fell behind while the days remained hot and dry throughout. Leaving the first sanctuary at Truxillo behind those fit enough struggled on to the Guadiana basin about Merida/Montijo and Badajoz where the well known summer fevers of that watershed served to lower numbers ever more until the end of the year when the army retired off into Portugal and a surer level of sustenance. During September Tilson's Brigade received 2/31st, that battalion being transferred from 3rd Division whilst 2nd Division Hill was in January of 1810 given an enlarged command and sent down to Portalegre with the task of protecting the right, or southern flank of the army. Lieutenant Colonel George Duckworth of 2/48th was given Tilson's command when that officer left during December, meanwhile the whole army set about the re-organisation sadly needed after their sojourn in Spain.
It would be many months before figures were available but, during this time men would recover from sickness and injury while, in the case of 2nd battalions only a few drafts of new men would appear from the home depots. With the enemy facing the Portuguese frontier now led by Marshal Andre Massena we go into the full summer of 1810, Hill's men are called up from Estremadura/Alemtejo as the enemy threaten Cuidad Rodrigo, then as that place falls 2nd Division come across the Tagus marching north into the valley of the Mondego and up onto the southern end of the ridge of Busaco where on:
27th September 1810 (on the Busaco ridge)
The predictably explosive Major General William Stewart has the brigade so it is lucky that there is no fighting for 2nd Division that day and when the battle there is over and the CIC calls for retirement off they go down towards Lisbon to the safety of the lines of Torres Vedras. By a count of brigade strengths we can expect 2/66th to stand at:
1st November 1810 (about the defensive lines behind
The winter passes quietly enough although the Division with all kinds of arms of the service in support spends much time on the left bank of the Tagus watching the enemy to prevent him from crossing into the Alemtejo regions. There has been however a significant change in the chain of command, Hill has gone off ill with malaria and by the end of 1810 has been replaced by Marshal William Carr Beresford, the Division has gone to Stewart and for the first time we shall see John Colborne, Lieutenant Colonel of 2/66th in command of the brigade [Moore-Smith's compilation shows this officer as brigadier by 16th November 1810]. All is well enough until Beresford has had Badajoz under a mild siege for a short while then, with Soult bringing up from Seville a strong force to relieve that place the siege is broken off and Beresford's men march down to a good defensive position at Albuera in company with a late arriving Spanish force under Captain General Joachim Blake, to challenge that incursion, it is May already and 2/66th will stand at:
16th May 1811 (on the field at Albuera)
When the three brigades of 2nd Division are moved from their first supporting positions on the low dips and rising mounds behind a line held by the Spanish infantry Stewart sees an advantage that might be gained if only he can get his men up at top speed and across the left flank of the French infantry who are engaged in an almighty shooting match with a heavily out-numbered line of Spain's best musketeers. Brigadier Colborne has 1/3rd ahead of 2/48th, 2/66th next and 2/31st bringing up the rear each battalion in columns of companies but hurriedly extending its front out to its right to come on as though to form an echelon. It is not possible to fathom just where Colborne was riding when this very tenuous right flank was assaulted by several hundred Polish Lancers and French Light cavalry coming in at an angle half way behind this serried succession of lines. The first two battalions, taken completely unprepared, were cut down within minutes, it would appear [from W Napier, who wasn't there] that Colborne moved back and to his left, swept that way by the charge, briefly to be mixed with enemy lancers and their horses [so Moore-Smith, another absentee] but able to avoid any recorded injury or capture by this fierce enemy, to join 2/31st that had been rapidly brought into square whilst his own battalion and 2/48th would be hacked, slashed, pierced, stabbed and ridden down from a right flank all of which would have soon lost cohesion both for attacker and attacked.
We know that over 100 men of 2/66th threw down their arms and surrendered to this overwhelming threat whilst of those that resisted 171 of all ranks were killed or wounded, of the officers we know that Captains Benning and Lieutenant Shewbridge were killed and two Ensigns, Coulter and George Walker died of wounds a day or so later, Ensign James Hay, twice run through, survived but never quite recovered, the lance wounds eventually seeing him off some years later. Stewart reported the loss of the 2/66th colours that would of course account for these more junior officer deaths. Captain William Ferns, Lieutenants James Chambers, John Codd, George Crompton, Francis Hand, Thomas Harvey, Thomas Hickin, John L'Estrange and John Clarke all wounded, the last one reported being ridden over, captured, then escaped admitting to being very sore and so much battered and bruised that he couldn’t walk for a fortnight! Of the men, 52 had been killed and 104 wounded, not much quarter there! It fell to Captain George Goldie [an officer under Colborne when both were earlier serving in 5th Garrison Battalion] to rally the remnants and make a stand, some quite likely sheltered to a degree by the square of 2/31st and others even perhaps joining Major General Daniel Hoghton's firing line as that brigade came up. When both sides were utterly fought out and the thing subsided the Berkshires would stand down at:
16th May 1811 (after the slaughter at Albuera)
Colborne's Brigade had now ceased to exist it stood with the figures of a single battalion but would be, both for officers and their men a spent force. The Brigadier, on the surface seems to vanish from sight altogether however, all is not lost, Lumley, the General who had done so well at the head of Beresford's cavalry on 16th May returned to his normal infantry role [at least on paper] taking up the wrecks of 2nd Division into a composite 'brigade' of which 2/66th made up three companies.
Wellington hurried down to the battle site took stock of the situation, sent Lumley off with the whole of 2nd Division Cavalry and by late August had sealed the fate of 2/66th they were to amalgamate their numbers with 2/31st and 29th to form a Provisional Battalion. This was the first serious attempt by the CIC to keep in the field those troops which he saw as being far too valuable to be lost by sending them off home to recruit. So it is that we shall next see them standing as a three part provisional Battalion and will meet them briefly as a part of Colonel William Inglis' Brigade, they have already been ordered to march northwest up to Castello Branco where 29th stand only long enough to be sent home in October, this leaves 2/31st and 2/66th to now become 1st Provisional's and as such shall see them again under that head much later.
Author’s note: It appears[Moore Smith’s biography] that the canny and thoroughly professional Colborne, far from disappearing went back with the main army into the valley of the Caya during June, totally unattached from his brigade and battalion but then, as soon as that army came forward again towards the end of July there he was only a little over two months later a Lieutenant Colonel of the elite 52nd Light Regiment, there had been some suppression of information as to his less than heroic deeds and, by way of counterbalance some high powered paper-shuffling at Horse Guards! It seems that in those official places [Colborne had close attachments to the Duke of York’s office] no blame could have been apportioned to himself for the massacre of his brigade and he was far too much of a soldier to be put to one side, however, it was to be many a long day before he ironically returned to the rank of Brigadier, replacing a thoroughly disgraced officer [Skerrett] and that but briefly. It has to be noted that at Waterloo John Colborne, by now so much of a consummate battle tried veteran remained only a Regimental Colonel, [operating under Brigadier Major General Frederick Adam] his individually inspired swing out of line at the destruction of the French Imperial Guard was a hazardous tactic very close in style to that disastrous Albuera manœuvre and on this latter occasion saw the destruction of 200 of his own light infantrymen. However, it must be observed that in the first years of the 19th Century where bodies of infantry came under overwhelming attack it was considered admirable military form for the immediate battalion commander to stay close to his men in much the same hopelessly honourable fashion as those poor young Ensigns who sacrificed their lives to the defence of the Regimental and King’s Colour. A life lost thus, but contributing toward the regiment’s long-term military glory and so gallantly attained must be forever treasured! Wellington of course being the ultimate pragmatist suffered Colborne’s survival and subsequent promotion [even though he had earlier promised Arbuthnot that 52nd Reg’t commission] in the full knowledge that he was after all a very competent professional soldier. It must be conceded that over-arching all of this there hovered that sabre-rattling Major General William blood&guts Stewart who, as a very senior officer vanished also from the scene to re-appear much later having escaped responsibility scot free!
This battalion was not present at Waterloo.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2010
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