Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 87th Regiment of Foot (Prince of Wales Own Irish)
By Ray Foster
Note: It will be of some interest to follow the movements of this battalion during February and early March of 1809 just shortly before its arrival in the Peninsular theatre, along with 1/88th, both raised of course in Ireland, it is shipped down to the great Spanish fortress and maritime centre of Cadiz, from England it seems and in the charge of Brigadier Major General Christopher Tilson. Upon arrival there, and one must remember travel through the Bay of Biscay in late February is no picnic in itself, these battalions along with a brigade of Guards are refused permission to land. A game of politics in that Spanish naval stronghold is in high season, no matter, without setting foot ashore the transports turn about and go north to seek landfall at a port much more likely to accept them, it is Lisbon and there they land very handily during March, so:
March 1809 landed at Lisbon
Lieutenant General John Cradock would still be in charge of the army here although he would be aware that big changes were in the wind, 1/88th is still deemed as being brigaded and still under Tilson so that when the new CIC Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley comes ashore here on 22nd April this little brigade is well set for action in the field. By the first week of May Tilson's Brigade is put in motion as a part of the new Portuguese Corps under its leader and new Portuguese Marshal William Carr Beresford to take a right flank position marching north to isolate the French occupiers of Oporto and to help steer them ever northwards out of Portugal.
6th May 1809 (leaving Lisbon with Beresford's Corps)
For 2/87th this comes down to a number of tiring marches with rather poor commissary service and up north some un-seasonal inclement weather to deal with they are, naturally enough, in company with a large contingent of Portuguese Regiments those being even poorer served in every way. Contacts with the enemy are only brief and dealt with by others so we can expect, when the CIC decides that he has done enough to rid Portugal of Marshal Nicholas Soult's Corps all will retire back down country to concentrate about Abrantes. By now Wellesley will know a little more about his army and will go about forming regular Divisions to which end 2/87th and 1/88th become a part of 3rd Division under Major General John Mackenzie and receive a new brigadier, Colonel Rufane Donkin, and a company of 5/60th riflemen to bolster their Light companies, the summer is now well advanced and the army is to go on a deep thrust into central Spain the objective to meet a larger force of regular Spanish troops under Captain General Gregorio Cuesta and seek a general action with the common enemy, a testing time looms ahead.
On 28th June the army moves to make for the Tagus valley, 2/87th by now will have shed most of its weaker members but the marches ever eastward are attended by an ever dwindling logistical support. A month later we have good figures available, the army is up to Talavera de la Reina on the right [northern] banks of the Tagus still with figures showing its losses of sickly men and its status as a 2nd battalion, so:
25th July 1809 (at Talavera on the Tagus)
The content of the brigade has been swollen by the inclusion of another four companies of 5/60th and perhaps its HQ and the real war is about to begin. Cuesta and his Spaniards are intent on following up Marshal Claud Victor's Corps across the Alberche stream in the direction of Madrid and do so until this enemy, still under Victor having been massively reinforced comes back to threaten them, Wellesley has held his army back but, while Cuesta's men are streaming back across this watercourse Mackenzie's 3rd Division as rearguard have to stand, somewhat to the left to allow them to come into more safe ground.
All of this is painstakingly slow and the enemy movements beyond this, not very well understood, the ground on either side of the Alberche has much cover with woods, olive groves and scrub before coming out into the open behind the stream some way. On 27th July then Mackenzie has to get his men back across this terrain using fords to cross this watercourse with little idea of where his enemy is making for, a fire lit by his own men to destroy a few shacks that had earlier belonged to Victor made matters worse as the wind carried the smoke across the area where General Pierre Lapisse, his immediate enemy, a wily old veteran conveniently brought his own men. Thus it was that in the early afternoon that day 3rd Division, the last members of Wellesley's army to clear the area, with that General in attendance were caught totally unawares when Lapisse's men, coming through this cover burst out amongst them. The CIC having been stood on top of a ruined pile nearby, the remnants of the Casa de Salinas was quick to see the trap sprung and made his way to the action, 2/87th, 1/88th and 2/31st, a battalion of Mackenzie's other brigade were all broken up and sweeping back in disorder, the five companies of 5/60th, men of long hard experience of battle against Frenchmen stood their ground in order whilst Wellesley was able to bring across 1/45th who by chance had missed most of the first rush.
These two units were sufficient to provide a rallying line onto which the remnants of Donkin's Brigade could reform and execute a slow withdrawal, all was stabilised when friendly light cavalry returned from their previous retirement to discourage the enemy infantry from following up their little success. The damage to 2/87th was to instantly reduce numbers by 30% as they scrambled back to their appointed place beyond the Portina stream and up onto the Cerro de Medellin as night drew on.
Captains Anthony Somersall and Rawdon McCrea had been wounded, the latter, mortally and captured, Lieutenants Robert Bagenal, Morgan Carroll, W G Cavanagh, Richard Hingston, Ralph Johnson, Ensigns Theobald Butler, Wright Knox and 127 of their men all wounded, Ensign Nicholas La Serre and 26 of the men killed, while as many as 34 others were made prisoner, Ens' Butler was to die in captivity almost two years later, so:
27th July 1809 (after the surprise at the Casa de Salinas)
For the other brigades of the army the next day was to be just as traumatic when the enemy attacked in superior strength across the whole front of the British part of the line, leaving the Spanish to be merely 'observed' by a large cavalry presence.
Donkin's Brigade had been given a place in almost third line well back at the forward summit of the Cerro' looking into the enemy side of the Portina stream on a similar hill the Cerro de Cascajal so well covered by others as to have missed all the action during the previous night when Victor had sent his men to assault this lofty position. As soon as the rising sun picked out the targets for the enemy gunners their artillery got into the business of softening-up the lines within easy range while Victor assembled his infantry to have another try for the hilltop across the stream. Nothing of consequence comes the way of Donkin's Brigade for many hours while the parts of the army in the most forward positions are certainly put to the test, Major Hugh Gough in charge of 2/87th would have a grand view of the proceedings although the smoke and dust clouds would swirl and hang in the valley below. During the afternoon he very likely was expected to send down closer to the action the remnants of his Light company, its leader Captain Rawdon McCrea unfortunately already captured, seriously, to become mortally wounded the day before, we know that this day five men more were to be captured so perhaps these would come from this company in the forward skirmish line. For the main body of 2/87th there is now a trial by cannon-fire and occasional shells landing amongst them, Major Gough is hit and so too are Lieutenant Adam Rogers, Ensign Theobald Pepper and 43 of the men with another nine killed, it is not possible to separate the Light company casualties from those on the hill who were compelled to suffer this treatment and fire not one shot in return all day so, when this fight came to an end 2/87th would be reduced to a slender;
28th July 1809 (after the battle at Talavera)
There is much to be done before this campaign comes to a close, with more enemy troops concentrating to threaten their lines of communication the whole army, British and Spanish is forced onto the south side of the Tagus and to make its way westward as best it can through rugged high country, devoid of any commissary services other than the occasional ration almost fought for between themselves and their Spanish allies. It is full summer and the way back into the valley of the Guadiana is by hill tracks and almost barren rocky meseta, inevitably numbers would fall away even more before gentle paths led them down to Truxillo where hospitals were set up to leave behind the men least able to make the rest of the journey down to the final resting places about Badajoz. We are given no figures for this sad period but, when the remains of the Talavera army go back into Portugal at the end of December 2/87th is sent down to Lisbon to rebuild, by now one must expect that it would be under 300 bayonets. Several other 2nd battalions would have disappeared at this point, not so 2/87th. Major Gough, recovered it seems [and made up to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel] takes his men aboard transports once more down to Cadiz where the political/military climate has changed significantly since their first aborted visit, landing between 10-15th February 1810 where there will be a full year of recovery of numbers until we see them in action again. Lieutenant General Thomas Graham naively has agreed to go along with a Spanish led scheme to upset their old adversary Marshal Victor who is thereabouts blockading the inland perimeter of the Cadiz defences with the very same survivors of the Talavera fighting of 1year, 7months ago.
As February 1811 ends we shall see that 2/87th has done a remarkable job to replenish its ranks, when this short campaign sets out by sea to land down the coast and marches back almost the whole way towards Cadiz they will have returned to their original strength when first entering the Peninsula two years ago:
5th March 1811 (at the battle at Barrosa)
Captain General La Pena has charge of this assault originally designed to get into Victor's rear and force him to do battle well inland, the expedition is so poorly handled that when the clash occurs it will be just a mile or so from the Isla de Leon where only the outlet to the Almanza Creek separates them from the tip of the long sand-spit which is an integral part of the Cadiz outworks. On 5th March then Victor will have set a trap of his own for this most incompetent commander who obliges to the extent of drawing Graham's units along in his rear strung out on the seacoast track between La Barrosa and La Bermeja, passing by a hill topped off with a watch-tower the Cerro de Puerco. Sending a small unit up this hill to keep watch Graham has just started to pass a dense stand of pine trees when enemy columns are reported to be encircling the whole position advancing on the rear of the Cerro and putting his force in danger of annihilation. Coming to an instant decision Graham halts his men and turning them about sets off through the fringes of the wood with the Cerro now to his right rear, a pathway at the edge of a clearing allows him to bring on a large artillery battery and to arrange a brigade of infantry, under Major General William Wheatley to get into line as it comes through the thinning timber. It lies to Lieutenant Colonel Gough and 2/87th to form the solid centre of this line being the largest single battalion to hand here, companies of 95th Rifles and elements of 20th Portuguese Line' are busy absorbing punishment up ahead as a roughly thrown together skirmisher attack on the enemy columns now bearing down on this front.
These are men of Lapisse's Division who had met the British lines at Talavera, Lapisse himself gone to Valhalla having paid the full price for that experience, on this occasion they will be led by General Leval who has them still in closed up column of divisions and surprised by this sudden appearance of formed troops fully in their path.
There is little else to be done but tough it out, at short range each side delivered its 'best shot' still coming forward, the 8eme Ligne with its front rank now down on the ground flinched and made to defend itself while Gough put his men to the charge of bayonets which decided the enemy for the retreat.
Countering too late it seems, the clash of arms was bitter for a short space but back went the survivors through their own support formations giving 2/87th a huge struggling mass of helpless victims to chose from.
It was here that Sergeant Masterson achieved regimental fame in securing their Eagle after his young Ensign Edward Keogh [shown as Kough in JA Hall] had first laid hands on it but was 'run-through' by its defenders and killed on the spot.
It is perhaps a sign of the utter defeat of the enemy hereabouts that this junior officer was the only one killed that day from 2/87th; however the rank and file were less lucky 44 of them losing their lives and amongst the 128 wounded just four officers, Major Archibald Maclaine, Captain Anthony Somersall and Lieutenants James Barton and James Fennell.
As a sequel to the capture of the Eagle of 8eme Ligne it was presented subsequently to the British Regent/Monarch as the first trophy of its kind from the Peninsula and as a result the 87th was given the title, 'Prince of Wales Own Irish'’.
Prior to this being gazetted we should really only refer to this unit as 87th Regiment' of Foot!
5th March 1811 (after the battle at Barrosa)
Graham, as soon as he had his casualties collected from the field marched all back across the bridge of boats onto the Isla de Leon and into the Cadiz defences, no more would he risk his men in the company of a Spanish army led by such irresolute commanders, as for 2/87th they would stay at Cadiz until the beginning of the winter when Gough takes them off to Tarifa to bolster its garrison there.
We can expect that at this time and in the run-up to hostilities there 2/87th would stand at:
Late December 1811 (at the siege of Tarifa)
Victor's besiegers are having an extremely poor time down here, it is raining almost constantly with bitterly cold driving winds, the trenches turn to liquid mud and, had it not been for the resolution of such of the British officers as Gough, Major Henry King of 2/47th and, at a distance General Campbell, Governor at Gibraltar, the local garrison commander Colonel John Skerrett was all for giving up the game such was the desponding atmosphere surrounding his handling of the whole affair.
On the last day of the year the enemy, in order to justify its later actions put in a despairing assault, there is a breach of sorts but so mired is the lead up to it that the best of those present could only make a valiant gesture being severely shot up for their gallantry so that the siege is abandoned and all go off towards the Cadiz Lines.
It is likely that 2/87th through the days and nights on duty and a small involvement on the 31st December would collect all-in-all no more that 25 to 30 sick and casualties the latter of those, Ensign Edward Waller is wounded on the night of the assault, so:
1st January 1812 (after the lifting of the siege at
There is some doubt about the movements of the battalion once it has returned to Cadiz for the rest of the winter and into the spring it may be that a half of them have stayed at Tarifa well into the summer. The first signs we see are that Skerrett about 12th August sails to Huelva taking a wing of 2/87th and a couple of companies of 2/95th to land there and proceed up country as Soult has abandoned his occupation of Andalusia to march on Valencia. Seville is still held by a rearguard that is ousted on 27th August by an amalgam of regular-irregular forces with 2/87th certainly present but, in unknown strength, from here onwards there is no possibility of collating figures for the rest neither of 1812 nor well into 1813 either. The force which Skerrett takes, marching all the way north by east to Madrid is composed of as many ready troops as can be laid hands on down in Andalusia, it is more than likely that 2/87th will come together during the later stages of this march and upon reaching Lieutenant General Rowland Hill's Corps south of the Capital will become 'attached' to 4th Division for logistical purposes.
They are not involved in any of the actions as the 'Corps is withdrawn back, first to Salamanca and then as the weather turns vile to the Portuguese border at Cuidad Rodrigo so, will only suffer from extreme exposure to the weather and from the universal breakdown of the commissary services until safe behind the Agueda at the end of November. There are only Divisional figures to work with and these somewhat questionable at best, it could be that 2/87th have not suffered quite so much as others to finish behind the frontier at:
29th November 1812 (on the Agueda about Cuidad Rodrigo)
The army in general has a long period of rest and receives large drafts of new men and returned convalescents into their ranks, 2/87th are transferred to their old 3rd Division but into Major General Charles Colville's Brigade with 1/5th, 2/83rd and 94th all of this as the year comes to a close and as the CIC plans for the expulsion of all French forces from the western theatre.
Winter turns to spring, for 2/87th it is likely that such of their men as do return to the colours will be recovered convalescents, figures presented in late April show;
26th April 1813 (cantoned in Portugal)
It will be well into May before the great northward movements begin Major General Thomas Picton taking his Division on the left flank of the march which, although over many rough tracks and crossing a few major rivers will bring them up to the battlefield on the Zadorra River at more improved numbers than those above as they first set off;
25th May 1813 (on the march out of Portugal)
It is well known how Picton, arriving at his start point gradually lost such patience as he might have possessed waiting for the arrival of Lieutenant General George Ramsey Earl Dalhousie and 7th Division on the right bank of the Zadorra, the battle had already been well begun out on the right flanks and the Pueblo Heights by Hill's men and was developing ever more to the left of centre right before him where he waited. Parts of Light Division to his right were across the river and if not supported would soon find themselves at risk. So it was that 3rd Division was released and in the case of Colville's Brigade crossing the river at a ford to the left of the Bridge of Mendoza then heading some distance through a 'soft spot' before coming up to the village of Margarita where the enemy had managed to scramble a large force from its reserve to man this pivotal position.
It was actually some way into the enemy rear so, very important that these defenders sell themselves dearly until the retiring lines could re-establish a cohesive front, this they did with a corresponding great execution to Colville's willing infantrymen.
Ensign Walter Grady and 54 men are killed outright, Captains James O'Brien and Frederick Vandeleur are mortally wounded to die 8 and 15 days later respectively, Captain James King, Lieutenants Thomas Dowling, Philip Higginson, William Mountgarrett, Ensigns William Maginnis and John Stafford [this last to die a lingering death 11 months later] all wounded as were another four un-named officers plus 177 of the men to reduce the figures to a fragile:
21st June 1813 (after the battle at Vittoria)
For quite some time we now lose track of 2/87th and indeed the whole brigade, in the first instance we might conjecture the probability of the PoW O Irish being attracted to the huge treasure left in the vale of Vittoria abandoned by the routing enemy and seized upon by those who took over the plunder of six years of French occupation. It is natural enough that this sort of activity would be kept as little reported as those involved could manage it, significantly all references in histories of the time made a point of erasing the names of individuals or their particular Regiments thus dishonoured, there was it seems a code which demanded as much secrecy when questionable practices took place as those other times when modesty and pride overcame any desire to advertise good deeds done!
The 3rd Division did however get a mention or two when the pursuit of General Bertrand Clausel was being worked through, suffice it to say that Picton's men would settle down about Pamplona for a while as a part of a large blockading force, Picton once again being outranked by [the more political and less military] Dalhousie here and feeling the insult. The later battles to take place to the north of this beleaguered fortress city involved 2nd Brigade not in the least, the only activity of note to be that on 8th August while up in the Pyrenean Passes above the Bastan their Brigadier, Colville shifts to 6th Division to its command position leaving a vacancy which is filled by Brigadier Colonel John Keane, a position held by this officer to the end.
Summer passes and as autumn wanes only then shall we see Keane's Brigade in action, Picton has gone off sick, Colville has returned to take the Division, and we are at the crossing of the Nivelle and, conspicuously, given solid figures here, 2/87th will stand at:
10th November 1813 (at the crossing of the Nivelle)
This total of men has been expanded by the DAG office to include all of the supernumeries who came under the paymasters gaze so perhaps there would be a maximum of 480 men actually standing to arms and in line. This increase from those last quoted [about 140 men] having come about during a period exceeding four months when they were out of field action is still a significant effort bearing in mind that this is a 2nd battalion having all of the difficulties of finding good logistical support and new drafts from back in Ireland. We are also made aware that this battalion during the full 1813 year had as many as 120 men died in hospitals so the above effort by these reductions becomes almost heroic! Before this brigade can get up to the Nivelle river it has some way to go fighting through country heavily prepared for defence, contrary to the popular story told [by Light Division journalists] of this general action it will be Keane's Brigade which makes the initial and decisive drive forward and breakthrough which others will support and, because of this will also find success. Working across broken country with scrub covered humps and hollows, coming to sparsely defended earthworks, redoubts and palisades this is the typical individual soldiers battle with little formation manœuvre possible and most of the work done in small groups, the final objective being to take the Nivelle bridge at Amotz, Ensign Morgan Hilliard and 14 of his men are killed, Lieutenants John Kelly, Joseph Leslie, Ensign Henry Bailey Volunteers Robert Bagenall, William Bourne and 83 of the men are wounded so that by the time they come to rest about St Pee on the far side of the Nivelle they will stand down at:
10th November (after the fight for the bridge at Amotz)
Once again, as in those months after Vittoria 3rd Division has a long spell out of the fighting lines. When the army comes up to the Nive and meets Soult's counter-attacks in December they are seen to be somewhat to the rear but, at least on their feet marching hither and thither from one threatened zone to the other, all in wintry conditions through well trodden mud and mire.
The year passes on, Picton has returned to take up the Division and the CIC has been forced to put the army into winter quarters at least until the frosts can harden the roads. The Morning States for mid-January show a reduction hard to reconcile with those heavily subsidised figures for the Nivelle, these later ones sure to be the more accurate;
16th January 1814 (cantoned about the Nive valley)
Battalion numbers will creep up so that, as Keane's Brigade is brought back in the field during February of 1814 they will have returned a fair handful of convalescents before we see them, on 24th of that month being sent across the Gave d'Oloron close by Sauveterre by way of a freezing cold ford. This is a task for the long-suffering Light companies who, upon gaining the opposite side have a steep bank to mount, the pathway winding up to a solid wall and passing through a gap here. The Light company of 1/5th is in the lead with the rest filling the path behind them when they are taken by surprise, a full battalion of the enemy have been waiting behind this wall in ambush to leap out and give them a short range blast of musketry followed by a charge of bayonets which tumbles everyone down to the river edge in confusion. It is natural that 1/5th will have lost the greater proportion of men, killed and wounded, some made prisoner and even others carried away to drown in the icy waters of the Gave. We know that Lieutenant Joseph Barry was severely wounded here with perhaps as many as nine more of his 2/87th Light company comrades to be accounted for, so:
24th February 1814 (after the surprise at the Gave d'Oloron)
Just three days later the army is distributed across the front of a defensive position chosen by Soult some way behind the Gave de Pau and to his right of the large town of Orthez where he still held the bridge crossing itself. The main line of defence travelled along a series of low ridges roughly following a road leading off to Dax although to its front there were several hill spurs which came up towards this line, each one dying down into low ground to leave a convenient shallow trough rising out of which an attacker would need to advance facing a concentrated musketry from the higher ground with artillery crossfire sweeping the ends of the spurs at the longer ranges. Keane's Brigade have one of these narrow approaches to themselves with the Lafaurie Knoll up ahead and the enemy skirmishers already covering the resultant trough between them, a battery of guns is able to ply them with shot and shell early on so it will be up to the long-suffering Light companies yet again to feel this welcome. The voltigeurs being smaller in number are driven off once the range has been closed up but, as the battalion companies follow up with the serious business there is just too much firepower able to converge upon them in this narrow front so that the ever dwindling number of attackers, after a punishing time can only take whatever cover is affordable, going to ground whilst keeping up intermittent bursts of fire. Taking almost half of all the casualties in the brigade this day it can only be that 2/87th would have been the principle sufferer here, by the end of the day when a more co-ordinated assault has been mounted and the enemy put to rout they will count the cost, Major Joseph Desbarres who is promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel three days later, is seriously wounded, Lieutenant James Fitzgerald and 14 of the men are dead, Lieutenants Mountgarrett, James Thompson, Maginnis, Richard Grady and 66 men are wounded and 23 men have been captured, this when the enemy very late in proceedings had put in a counter-charge briefly overrunning their attackers.
27th February 1814 (after the battle at Orthez)
With such small numbers and being part of a Division whose role was to keep as close to the enemy as was possible it is now increasingly difficult to rationalise the fighting strength of 2/87th. Under more ordinary circumstances it could be expected that the CIC would pull this tiny 2nd battalion out of the line and spell them in some garrison or communications duty, this, it is easy to see is not the case, they are quite simply kept as an integral part of their brigade and this, to the end. Having had a very short rest after the Orthez victory to allow 4th & 7th Divisions to make their diversion in favour of Bordeaux off they go again during mid-March, Wellington has mounted a looping manœuvre around Soult's northern flank in an attempt to bail him up against the foothills of the Pyrenees and destroy him in total. The role for 3rd Division and others is to cut off one of his escape routes across the upper Ardour river, this brings them down to the Pau-Rabastens road and, as they come up to Vic-Bigorre they encounter a rearguard force under General Drouet D'Erlon standing on defence. The actions hereabouts are not recorded in detail and, since both Light and 6th Divisions play a small part in them and total casualties amount to no more than 250 men all told we are left with no knowledge of where these numbers fall.
All of this on 19th March and, were it not for the fact that 2/87th lose the services of two of their junior officers, Lieutenants James Moore and William Dunlevie, both wounded we might pass it without comment, not so, Oman in dealing with casualties to French units constantly used the information from Martinien's lists to arrive at an average expectation for numbers of rank & file lost, in this case then we cannot go far wrong by following the lead of the universally acknowledged master of Peninsular history and give a measured 1:18 ratio of O to R&F, thus 36 men to add, leaving 2/78th to continue on ;
19th March 1814 (after the combats at Vic-Bigorre)
Soult having been far too wily to get his army trapped against the Pyrenees uplands has of course escaped. The only mention, from here on and up to Toulouse, of the exploits of 3rd Division are of movement, this across river after river in miserable weather on ruined roads until pulling up outside of the perimeter defences of that great walled city. Picton's men on 14th April will be split into their separate brigades sat before the Royal Canal to the north of the place, Keane's Brigade to the left on a road looking directly into the city by the Minimes bridge over the canal. Between them and the canal lies the Minimes Convent which originally contained a battalion of 31eme Légère but as the battle became serious elsewhere it is suggested that these men were lent to fight over on Mont Rave while the Light companies of Keane's Brigade took possession here and were content to see this as all that was required of them that day. We know that Captain Henry Bright was killed here, and, as he is also mentioned as being a Brevet Major would most likely have been in charge hereabouts, 7 of his men met the same fate and Lieutenant William Lamphier, Ensign Abraham Royse and 17 men were wounded, this concluding the warlike activities of the PoW O Irish in the Peninsula, so:
14th April 1814 (after the battle at Toulouse)
Whilst this final count appears much too slender it does sit reasonably well with the known overall numbers of the two British brigades as recorded, this was after all one of those fragments of fighting units which the CIC had for so long battled to keep in his hands against the carping desires of the Horse Guards and the Duke of York!
2/87th is not to be found at Waterloo.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2011
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