Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 97th Regiment of Foot (Queens Own)
By Ray Foster
97th [single battalion regiment]
19th August 1808 (Landed at the mouth of the Maceira
This unit, having sailed from Ramsgate, came ashore in rolling surf with others to become part of Major General Robert Anstruther's Brigade, their comrades were at this time 2/9th, 2/43rd and 2/52nd, they were to march immediately although only a short distance, up to the army already setting itself ready for a battle at Vimiero.
On 21st August we see them facing south towards the on-coming enemy; Anstruther's men took up a position on high ground to the right and some little way in front of the town of Vimiero the Maceira protecting their right and Major General Henry Fane's Brigade in line to their left. When eventually the enemy began to appear it seemed that they would miss this far right flank moving as they were more to the centre and left, however, they were not to be ignored after all. From within the cover of a small depression aided to some extent by scrub and occasional vines Anstruther's Brigade watched as a mass of skirmishers came up for treatment, their supports of columns easily seen following up.
At a signal from the Brigadier the defensive line moved up from concealment its battery delivering a short range full six gun barrage of fire then a charge of bayonets to turn the advance into a frantic retreat. A counter-attack mounted some time later found this part of the line once more well prepared to defend itself. Led by a reserve of grenadiers on came the French to receive an even more devastating response, used for the very first time in this war the British 'secret weapon" shrapnel came down upon them as also, upon closing, full volleys of musketry from the line. Although this second attack resulted in another retreat fighting of a most serious nature was going on elsewhere but, all of this having resolved itself into defeats of one sort or another the commander General Androche Junot was forced to admit of the facts presented and withdraw his battered remnants from the field. Figures of casualties for this fight [Steve Brown] will show that within 97th there would be no more than 22 of all ranks killed or wounded, of these their Major John Wilson and Lieutenant Evans Kettlewell were recorded as wounded so:
21st August 1808 (after the battle at Vimiero)
Following the rapid changes of overall command of the British force in this theatre and as a result the Convention of Cintra it will devolve on Lieutenant General John Moore to pick up the reins and proceed inland in an attempt to assist the Spanish cause. We shall find 97th with 1/45th marching off to join Moore's men but, all too late, they fail to catch up and return to the frontier area about Almeida at least until the beginning of the next year 1809. By this time Lieutenant General John Cradock has a regional command of those regiments scattered both out on frontier guard and at Lisbon itself. However, it is not long before this Beau receives from different sources several conflicting suggestions as to his supposed course of action. Predictably he takes council of his fears to pull every available unit left in his charge back toward the environs of the Capital. There they are, somewhat weaker for numbers, when Arthur Wellesley returns to Portugal in April, they are almost immediately brigaded under Colonel John Sontag with 2/Battalion of Detachments, a single company of 5/60th and the 2/16th Portuguese Line.
3rd May 1809 (commencing the Oporto Campaign)
In Lieutenant General John Sherbrooke's Division they will march north in the short campaign which evicted Marshal Nicholas Soult and his men first from Oporto and then rapidly from Portugal altogether. Sontag's Brigade saw no action in this fight so as the victors returned to the Tagus valley there they were again and once more re-organised, this time with a large well found regiment 1/40th, [this unit only joining at Castello Branco], 2/Battalion of Detachments still at hand and swinging off inland intent on a long march to put Madrid itself under threat. The remarkable "collaboration" with Captain General Gregorio Cuesta's Spanish army is well known and told elsewhere, the part to be played by 97th perhaps not quite as obvious. They are now a small part of 4th Division brigaded under Colonel James Kemmis of 1/40th and when the action at Talavera begins, it is the evening of 27th July and they stand at:
27th July 1809 (at the rear of the Portina stream Talavera)
Obviously this single battalion regiment has difficulty holding on to numbers, with only general soldiering activity it is slipping quietly into critical attrition. 4th Division's 1st Brigade under its Divisional Commander Lieutenant General Alexander Campbell is in front line close to a small battery [Captain Robert Lawson RA] of 3lbers well into the plain and nearby the first of the Spanish troops who occupy right field, Kemmis sits behind as first reserve. It is these Spanish troops who let off a massive volley along their own front so impressively that those adjoining Kemmis' right [four battalions as it so happened] fled in panic from the field. Fortunately there were sufficient men in second line to fill the gap and the panic died down. Away to the far left of 97th's position heavy firing was to be heard during this night but nothing more down on this sector of the line. Next day dawns to a barrage of artillery fire yet again well off to the left of Kemmis' Brigade, it will develop as the day wears on with fierce fighting gradually coming closer, all the time from the left. It is 2.30pm when 1/40th are thrown into the fray, a massive melee has developed but, when 2nd Somerset’s bring down bayonets at the charge their immediate front is cleared of all enemy infantry, 97th seemingly are only engaged in a supporting role but, such was the intensity of the fight at Talavera that they still lost 53 men all told, 6 of whom were killed. Of that total no less than 22 had been captured, perhaps as a result of following too closely on the routing enemy near the end of proceedings, one of them an un-named officer.
28th July 1809 (after the battle of Talavera)
In the ensuing retreat from this rather expensively held ground, crossing to the south bank of the Tagus and carrying on ever westward 97th suffered no worse than the rest of its comrades so far as can be discovered. It remained to sit about the valley of the Guadiana near Badajoz until Christmas of that year then off they all go again to settle into cantonments in Portugal not only for the winter but well into the early summer of 1810. When Marshal Andre Massena begins his move against Wellington taking Cuidad Rodrigo, crossing the Agueda and pushing on towards Almeida, 97th, still an integral part of Kemmis' Brigade 4th Div' are to be seen retiring back all the way to the summit of the ridge at Busaco. 2nd Battalion of Detachments is long gone replaced by 3/27th the Enniskillings. There is little to tell of the exploits of the Queen's Own hereabouts on 27th September excepting perhaps to note their numbers. Out on the far left of the hilltop line they get no action on the day of the battle but have increased their numbers enough to say that they are making great efforts to keep "regular".
27th September 1810 (in line at the battle of Busaco)
Our next notice of this unit is to have during November a brigade count which suggests that 97th have yet again slightly lifted their numbers, they are safely accommodated in the "Lines of Torres Vedras" and quite likely stand at:
1st November 1810 (in the" Lines of Torres Vedras")
In the early spring of the New Year Wellington having forced Massena to leave his shaky position of containment at Santarem the army is soon on the move to assist him in his departure Kemmis' men have marched but one day when they are involved in an action with Marshal Michel Ney's rearguard troops at Redinha on 12th March. Having reached a position linking the attacking line together others did the aggressive part while Kemmis' Brigade and some others took fire from the opposing artillery. Their loss here was 1 man killed and 6 wounded, this was to virtually end their work with the pursuing corps, just four days later being withdrawn with the whole of 4th Division to march south under the overall command of Marshal William Carr Beresford into Estremadura.
Badajoz had just fallen to the enemy and some show of force was well overdue in this area, it is as well to see that 4th Division would need to march a good deal in excess of 100mls to come up anywhere near an enemy so that it comes as no surprise that upon arrival at Campo Mayor on 3rd April this very tired corps is forced to take a rest if for nothing more than to await a supply of new footwear theirs having virtually fallen apart on the way. During the night of 6th-7th April the whole of Major General Galbraith Lowry Cole's 4th Division are able to pass across a cask & pontoon bridge over the Guadiana at Juramenha to more closely approach the fortress of Badajoz where at last they see a none too steadfast enemy at Olivenza. This tiny fort and town is put under siege in leisurely fashion as each battalion receives its new shoes finally surrounding the place by 9th April, it will fall with hardly a shot fired on the 16th to allow Cole's men to get on to more serious business.
The siege of Badajoz on its first attempt turns out to be a rather pathetic affair, well described by Major General Thomas Picton as being "in the form of paupers" it also is to have a dramatic effect on the immediate history of 97th in the Peninsula. With doubts as to the viability of the floating bridge at Juramenha 4th Division is marched upstream to Merida beyond Badajoz using its solid stone structure as cross river communication, it was almost three more weeks before regular siege operations could begin. The hard grind of trench work starts for Kemmis' men around the northern face of the San Christobal bastioned fort by 8th May, the ground just inches below the surface is solid rock, hardly the stuff of traditional trench making. It became impossible to make any headway other than to mark out where gabions should be placed once manufactured and brought forward; otherwise the men involved, principally at night were merely there for Phillipon's defending sharpshooters to practice their trade upon. After only two day/nights of this futile effort the garrison commander saw a good opportunity to disrupt this soul-destroying toil, sending out a battalion of his men on a sortie to wreck the whole sorry battery preparations. There was a see-saw struggle in which Kemmis' Brig' plus men of 17th Portuguese Line came in for some very rough handling, as many as 433 of these "trench makers" were killed or wounded, truly a violent clash from which 75 men of 97th were to be a part. Lieutenants Kettlewell, Thomas Coppinger, and George Daunt were wounded as was Ensign John Downing, his comrade Ensign William Dowman receiving a mortal wound to die some 25 days later.
Elsewhere around the siege-works progress was going badly so that when it was found that a strong force under Marshal Soult was marching up from the south to the relief of the place all work ceased, this by 12th May and orders being given to clear off and burn the gabions and fascines, this last task being left to the men of 4th Division.
This is perhaps a good time to assess losses to our hard worked trench diggers of 97th. It is six months since figures have been available there have been long marches with this latest combat at San Christobal to add to their misery to say nothing of the sniping off of individuals during the night work, so:
12th May 1811 (at the break-up of the siege at San Christobal)
By chance the Light company of 97th, perhaps about 40 or so men, were on the south side of the siege-works when word was given to break off and march south, they will join in with Beresford's unlucky corps which meets and destroys not only Soult's attacks but also most of themselves! Just one man of 97th Light company is recorded amongst the huge casualties at Albuera on 16th May while the rest of the battalion, having marched off along the northern banks of the Guadiana to the floating bridge at Juramenha only find that this flimsy structure has been drawn in to prevent a flash flood from taking it down river. They would miss the massacre at Albuera only arriving in time to bury or burn the dead of both sides and listen to the stories told by their Light company comrades. After all of these Estremaduran adventures the whole army is brought together to defend itself from a combined threat from the forces of Soult and Marmont, this requires them to stand and face the enemy in the valley of the Caya River, a sluggish tributary of the Guadiana. Summer is upon them all as are the swamp mosquitos, these visitors distributing malarial fevers throughout the army. It must be that 97th suffer significant losses by sickness here, all have been compelled by events to remain in this pestilent valley until the French have cried off from their tentative offensive, returned eastward and southward, thus leaving Wellington to clear away north-easterly up into cleaner air settling down near the Portuguese border before Cuidad Rodrigo. We shall see last figures for the Queen's Own 97th Regiment up around Fuente Guinaldo in mid- -September, so:
15th September 1811 (at Fuente Guinaldo)
The time has come when this single battalion unit must return to its home base to bring up its numbers, on 3rd October as the 1811 campaign draws to a close 97th are ordered down to Lisbon to embark for England, they will not return to the Peninsula in this war.
Note: It may be of interest to see that Captain Richard Armstrong has remained behind and joined the Portuguese Service and become a Lieutenant Colonel in 10th Caçadores likewise Major John Wilson who joined the Portuguese away back in 1809 will eventually command a Portuguese Brigade and at the approaches to Bayonne in November of 1813 he is the brigadier who in advancing too far in searching out his enemy is shot by French outpost guards.
This battalion does not put in an appearance at Waterloo in 1815.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2011
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