Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 85th Regiment of Foot (Buck’s Volunteers Light )
By Ray Foster
Note: Whilst this Regiment is formally recognised as being a single battalion corps we shall see that because of serious internal problems [to be discussed in its proper place] some officers joining after that disturbance are gazetted as belonging to its 2nd battalion this to distinguish them from those earlier miscreants its men of the rank and file of course would merely soldier on.
6th March 1811 Land at Lisbon
Having recovered from its time at the Walcheren campaign of 1809, we are not informed as to how many men disembarked here but, having spent some time preparing for service in the field they join the army as a part of a new Division under Major General William Houston, significantly in a brigade composed of only Light infantry, 51st Light, Chasseurs Britanniques and 8 companies of Brunswick Oels Jägers. This brigade comes together under an ex KGL officer Major General John Sontag and all are seen in action for the first time with a Portuguese Brigade under Doyle [these are 4 battalions of Line and one of Caçadores] to be numbered 7th Division.
1st May 1811 (on the field at Fuentes d Onoro)
Clearly all is not well with 85th coming into its first action in such low numbers, look out, it gets worse!
Not being used on the first day of battle Houston rather inexplicably is ordered off by Wellington the next day out to an extended right flank position much too far away to be easily supported by his other Divisions, there they stand at and about Poço Velho when on the 5th May Marshal Andre Massena having noted a weakness on this flank sends a large force of all arms in the direction of 7th Division’s positions intending to get round the flanks and beyond his enemy's quite fragile line.
When these intentions become clear to Wellington and he puts remedies in motion there will be a significant period while Houston's men will need to pay for his indiscretions. The first intimation that all was not well was when a couple of squadrons of British light cavalry came in from the woods to the right front of the village pursued by large numbers of enemy troopers who only faltered when the outposts of 85th skirmishers in these woods gave them a passing volley, from then on there was serious work to be done. While fragments of friendly light cavalry attempted to get in the way of their natural foes all were soon falling back and closing on Poço Velho itself and, becoming confronted by a whole Division of enemy infantry coming up at pace. These descended on the fleeing skirmishers who had been flushed out of the woods storming on into and through the village itself where 85th and 2nd Caçadores had been stationed sweeping all before them into the flashing sabres of the contesting cavalry beyond. Here it would be that 85th scored its greater numbers of casualties that day, Lieutenant Samuel Holmes is killed as are 12 of his men, Captain Brinsley Nixon, Lieutenants James Brock, George Hogg and 36 more men are wounded and in the confusion no less than 43 men are made prisoner. The rest, to their credit are able to get behind supporting cavalry and move back onto the rest of their brigade who are drawn up in a sufficiently solid formation to dissuade the enemy from continuing this violent assault beyond the annoyance level, 2nd Caçadores and Chasseurs Britanniques had sacrificed a good number of their ranks in all of this but it only then came down to an ordered withdrawal and the appearance of others who had been called up by the CIC to allow Houston to withdraw to a safer position, so:
5th May 1811 (after the fight at Poço Velho)
A little over a week later Houston's men with others are assembled to march south down to the valley of the Guadiana with the intention of putting the great frontier fortress of Badajoz under siege. By the end of May so many as are sent down for this project are hard at it in their task, for Sontag's Brigade it is all difficult stuff attempting to dig trenches on almost bare rock and within range of the defenders guns at all times. The losses due to this arduous job are not to be found but when at least one attempt to take the very imperfect breaches is made we shall get a blow-by-blow description. The Buck's Volunteers are there for the two attacks the first at midnight of 6th-7th June, Major Aeneas Mackintosh of 85th is to lead them in and, strangely we are told that he is in charge of two companies of 'grenadiers' [difficult when our 21st Century understanding of battalion composition does not recognise this title within British Light Infantry battalions, perhaps these are from Doyle’s Portuguese]. No matter, they are stalled in the ditch before the breach never being able to advance further as the enemy has cleared all debris away and, the damned ladders are too short anyway. Mackintosh is wounded as is Lieutenant Harcourt Morton and just six of the men so, not such a big effort by 85th at least for the full hour of this struggle that we are told it took before all retired. In the next attempt on 10th June, which lasts only for ¾hour and is just as unsuccessful for the same reasons Lieutenant George Hogg is killed with 7 of his men Lieutenants William Gammell, James Grant and 10 of the men are wounded and Captain Brinsley Nixon is captured. The following day Wellington decides for a suspension of this abortive siege and all retire behind the frontier, 85th going just in rear of Campo Mayor with Sontag's Brigade and standing no better than;
12th June 1811 (retiring from the siege at Badajoz)
This battalion then with one battle and two foiled escalades fought must endure the rest of the Iberian summer, still harbouring the fevers of Walcheren and, a smouldering discontent amongst its surviving officer content, details of this situation, discreditable to any Regiment are hard to find but apparently when the army goes back into the valley of the Caya and its malarial swamps there are more losses due to sickness to be borne, its Major, Mackintosh has charges levelled at him as do several other un-named officers, the battalion is become so fragile that its next figures shown in September are only enough to bring five tiny companies to the count, so:
15th September 1811 (about Fuente Guinaldo)
Even these five companies can only show 33 officers and men each so, considering all of their internal problems Wellington during October has no alternative but to pack them off to England to sort themselves out! They will not return until the whole of the French forces in Portugal and western Spain have been driven out as far as those frontier posts of San Sebastian and Pamplona, when they do come back it will be to join Major General Matthew Aylmer's less than famous Brigade attached to 1st Division. Major Mackintosh has been cleared of all of the charges against him, has applied for a transfer to 79th Regiment as its Lieutenant Colonel but before this can come about, dammit, has died. Several of the old officers have disappeared while new ones have joined, no doubt the Regiment will be keen to clear its name, we shall see.
17-18th August 1813 (joins army under Aylmer, at Irun)
This brigade as before mentioned was entirely new at this, its introduction to an army fully expectant of victory at every clash with its enemy very little was expected of this corps, it presently was composed of 76th Regiment an ex-Walcheren battalion which had sailed with 85th from England and 2/84th come up from Gibraltar but had been created by the CIC as a nursery brigade for the introduction of those many young militia-men and recruits who would join as the thoughts of a final grand victory gave them encouragement. By the end of the month they are standing to arms some way to the rear of Irun loosely attached to 1st Division whose brigades are right up behind that town overlooking the Bidassoa river where Soult is mounting an assault from the other side in an attempt to break through to his embattled garrison in San Sebastian just a few miles down the Biscay coastline. In their far rear then on 31st August the storm of that bastioned fortress is taking place in all its fury, up ahead a well placed Spanish army is fighting off the enemy who has come across the river up to the Heights of San Marcial, with no success at all it seems. At the crisis of this encounter the CIC sees fit to bring forward Aylmer's Brigade so that it will be more in touch with proceedings, however, when he observes that the Spanish force here has actually broken the resolve of its attackers and, Aylmer's men typically have only come up very marginally he tells the Spanish Captain General that the day is won for Spanish arms and that he can complete the business himself which is just as well because Aylmer's lads are still coming and coming for some time yet, obviously no casualties to record here this day. From time to time following all of this Aylmer is given the task of putting the French held seacoast port of Santona under a strict blockade with a view to a siege, various orders are given to British sea Captains to co-operate in this venture and as other battalions join [and others leave] the antics of this rather Gilbertian brigade [which Wellington observes cannot march 5 miles without falling into disorder] is perhaps left until they do emerge once more to do battle. By mid-October 2/84th are gazetted to transfer elsewhere 2/62nd join bringing totally 'green' recruits to the field but, not until this brigade has stood to arms at the crossing of the Nivelle river, here we get our first figures for 85th:
10th November 1813 (on the Nivelle)
These are numbers inflated to include all of the supernumeries on the regimental payroll but at least we see that the Regiment has done its best to bring a well found battalion back to the Peninsula after all of those earlier problems. During the fighting on the Nivelle Aylmer is able to extend forward his Light companies [we can expect here that 85th being totally composed of light infantrymen would only put up its left-flank coy' of sharpshooters] and it is from these men that his casualties will come as they operate on the far left of the army close to the marshy estuary and sand hills thereabouts. The whole brigade suffers but 22 men K and W from which we are not given battalion detail, no officers are hit in 85th and we could only judge a loss of 7 men wounded this day. Meanwhile, 2/84th leaves and 2/ 62nd joins with yet another battalion 77th under orders to come up from a long spell as garrison at Lisbon, there is always talk of putting Santona under siege but, when the army goes up to the protracted battles around the river Nive in December there is Aylmer again well to the rear of their parent 1st Division and still hugging the coastline out on the far left. On 10th December in the confused fighting about Barrouillet with his three battalions 2/ 62nd, 76th and 85th he is involved late in the day so late as to convince the enemy that a new division was entering the fray, their sudden arrival allows a brief contact before this dispirited enemy pulls back and the day's fighting draws to a close, 85th have had but one man killed, Lieutenant Henry Belstead and 11 men wounded and may well stand down at;
10th December 1813 (after the combat about the Barrouillet)
During a short stand-down period as 1814 begins we shall see figures presented, probably a little sparse if others so shown are to be considered:
16th January 1814 (in quarters near Santona)
These figures perhaps will be nearer to its true fighting numbers and as it so happens will be the last we are to see for the gallant 85th, 77th have joined and, no doubt still considering the siege of Santona their war will slide to an end, ironically yet another battalion will drift in, from Gibraltar, 1/37th as the final days find the brigade facing Bayonne on the south side of the Ardour as a small part of the perimeter forces blockading that great city to the last. Clearly then the Buckingham Volunteer Light was never really given the opportunity to mend its tarnished reputation and indeed, being placed with the 'nursery' battalions under Lord Aylmer was in fact treated with derision. In the early 1800's honour and glory were hard earned and disgrace was not to be forgiven!
It will be no surprise to hear that this Regiment was not to be found at Waterloo.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2010
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