“A Very Pretty Little Battalion”: The 3/14th Regiment of Foot in the Waterloo Campaign
By Steve Brown
The third battalion of the 14th (or Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot was the second-to-last British regular battalion to be formed prior to the peace of April 1814 (only the second battalion of the 22nd Foot came later) and the only British third battalion to participate in the Waterloo campaign. Yet it was not composed entirely of raw recruits; the vast majority of men were militiamen, partially-trained in the basic evolutions and firelock-drill, men who had tasted army life and decided it was a long-term career option for them.
The creation of the 3/14th really started in earnest in early December 1813. The following militia regiments offered up volunteers towards the formation of the battalion;
* These ‘veterans’ were actually boys between 10 and 17 years of age.
So much for them being a Buckinghamshire regiment!
The battalion was placed on the establishment on Christmas Day 1813 (when it must have numbered just over 300 men) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable James Stewart. This officer was the younger brother of The Honourable Sir William Stewart, founder of the 95th Rifles; James had started his career with the 95th Rifles in 1803, become captain in 1805, served ay Salamanca and Vittoria, then exchanged to a majority in the 90th Foot in January 1813, thence to the 14th Foot. In July 1814 he exchanged to Captain & Lieutenant-Colonel in the 3rd Foot Guards, and retired at the end of 1814.
Enter ‘Colonel Frank’; Francis Skelly Tidy, the commander of the battalion at Waterloo, born in Northumberland in 1775 to the Reverend Thomas Holmes Tidy, Chaplain to the 26th Foot. Frank was a grandson of the Duke of Gordon and the nephew of Major Frank Skelly of the 71st Highlanders, who had gained great renown at Seringapatam. He had joined the 43rd Foot at the age of 16 and somehow survived the terrible campaigns in the West Indies - the siege of Fort Bourbon, the campaign on Martinique and the capture of Guadeloupe - only to be imprisoned aboard a French hulk for 15 months before being sent to France. After being released on parole he returned to England and ended back in the West Indies as ADC to Sir George Beckwith. In 1802 he joined the 1st Royals as captain at Gibraltar and in 1803 embarked for the West Indies for the third time. He served at the attack on St. Lucia, was appointed Brigade-Major on Dominica, and later ADC to Sir William Myers and subsequently to Sir Charles Beckwith. In September 1807 he became Major of the 14th Foot, serving as Assistant Adjutant-general in the expedition to Spain, under Sir David Baird in late 1808. He served on the staff for the whole of the northern campaign against Marshal Soult, at Grijo in May 1809, and at the passage of the Douro. Later that year he served in the Walcheren expedition.
By the time received the brevet of Lieutenant-Colonel in June 1813, and joined the 2nd battalion of the 14th Foot at Malta, he was about an experienced an officer as any man in the army. In 1814 he served at Genoa, and though technically on the strength of the 1st Battalion (as senior Major) was recalled to take the command of the 3rd Battalion about to embark for North America. These orders, however, never came; that war ended and he stayed in England with his young battalion. George Keppell later described him thus:
On Christmas Day 1814, the establishment of the battalion stood as follows;
However it appeared that this activity had all come to nought, for in early 1815 the War Office ordered that the battalion be disbanded, with all fit men to go into the first or second battalions. The disbandment date was set for 25 March 1815.
Not for the last time in its short history, the battalion was reprieved; on 21 March orders were received to hold themselves in readiness for embarkation to the Continent. Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was once again a menace, and the 3/14th were one of the few battalions near to south coast able to embark at short notice.
Ensign George Keppell was gazetted into the 14th on 4 April 1815 at the age of just 16, was less than impressed with his new colleagues and subordinates:
The battalion landed at Ostend at the start of April. Monthly returns show the 3/14th on the strength of the field army in Flanders for the first time on 25 April 1815, with a total strength of 585 other ranks (corporals and privates), of whom 22 were sick and 9 on command. Four men died in the battalion’s first month on campaign, one death being explained in a letter from Wellington to former British Ambassador to France Sir Charles Stuart on 11 May:
At this stage of the campaign, the camp-followers were more lethal than the French!
The battalion was inspected by the aged Major-General Kenneth Mackenzie in Brussels in early May 1815, who took one look at them and cried out, "well, I never saw such a set of boys, both officers and men." Lieutenant-Colonel Tidy remonstrated, and Mackenzie softened his tone, saying "I called you boys, and so you are; but I should have added, I never saw so fine a set of boys, both officers and men."
The supposition that this was a battalion of callow youths is not entirely correct. The fifty militia volunteers from the Westminster Militia, for example, had a median age of 24 and an average age of 23.6, fairly typical for an enlisted man of the time. Only six out of these 50 volunteers were under 18 years of age, and only 30% under the age of 20. The average age of 3/14th field officers present at Waterloo was 38, of company commanders 27.0, of captains 26.7, of lieutenants 24.7, and of ensigns 18.8. True, there were eleven ensigns under the age of 18 at the great battle, but these age ranges are not uncommon for the British army of the era. Wellington was a battalion commander at a lesser age. The oldest other rank in the battalion was probably Private Thomas William of No. 9 Company, aged 38 (who was killed in action); the youngest was 13 year-old Private George Campbell of No. 2 Company, at barely five foot tall expected to carry a full kit the same as the other men.
Despite Tidy’s earnest wishes, Mackenzie ordered the Colonel to march them off the square, and to join a brigade about to proceed to Antwerp as the garrison. Lord Hill happened to be passing by, and Tidy called out: "My lord, were you satisfied with the behaviour of the Fourteenth at Corunna?" The bemused Hill answered, "Of course I was; but why ask the question?"
"Because I am sure your lordship will save this fine regiment from the disgrace of garrison duty," Tidy replied.
Lord Hill went to the Duke of Wellington, who had just arrived in Brussels from Vienna, and brought him to the window, whilst the two watched the battalion drill in the square. “They are a very pretty little battalion,” Wellington said. “Tell them they may join the grand division as they wish."
Tidy was elated when he heard the news. When a somewhat priggish staff officer said in mincing tones, "Sir, your brigade is waiting for you. Be pleased to march off your men" – meaning, to go the rear, to join the garrison troops – Tidy called back, "Aye, aye, sir. Fourteenth, TO THE FRONT! Quick march!"
With their field service now assured, the battalion performed regimental drill four days in a week, from daylight (about four a.m.) until nine in the morning; the other two days were devoted to exercise in brigade movements with their new colleagues in the 4th Brigade of the 4th Division, the 23rd Fusiliers and 51st Light Infantry, as well as the 52nd Light Infantry billeted nearby. The ‘Peasants’ spent the hazy spring days of late May and early June 1815 in and around the village of Deux-Acren, making friends with the local ‘Boers and Boerrinden’, putting their agrarian skills to use by weeding flax and corn, and planting that year’s potato crop. On days-off the men swam in the River Dender, and the officers dined with other brigade staff in nearby Grammont. A large race meet in Grammont on 13 June was well-attended by all the nearby forces; the winner of the sweepstakes was Ensign Lord Hay of the 1st Guards, who was to die three days later at Quatre Bras. It was the calm before the storm.
News of Napoleon’s crossing the frontier was transmitted to the officers of the 14th by a Belgian peasant late on 15 June, and early the next morning the battalion formed up in heavy marching order, bound for Enghien, about fourteen kilometres to the south-east. The ‘peasants’ marched out of Deux-Acren with the regimental band playing ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’;
All the dames of France are fond and free
After a short stop in Enghien, the battalion marched another twelve kilometres in a more southerly direction to Braine-le-Comte, all the while hearing and feeling the rumble of distant cannon-fire from Quatre Bras. They arrived at Braine-le-Comte after dark, exhausted, and sprawled out on the fields as officers searched for billets in the village. It had been an overbearingly hot day, and was still a warm evening.
Morning brought fresh orders; to continue eastwards, fourteen kilometres to Nivelle. A convoy of spring carriages belonging to the Royal Waggon Train passed them as they approached the town, full of men wounded at Quatre Bras. The men of the battalion now knew this was for real, no longer militia soldiering, but a deadly game against a vastly experienced foe. Lieutenant-colonel Tidy stopped the men for two hours in Nivelle to allow a brigade of Netherlands cavalry to pass through, a well-deserved and grateful rest. It was still warm, but completely overcast and torridly humid. The march resumed at three o’clock, and this time in a northerly direction: the army was retreating. Before they had gone three miles the heavens opened and a torrential downpour drenched the weary battalion all the muddy miles to a ridge behind a chateau known locally as Goumont. At about eight o’clock the rain slackened, and sunlight slanted through the storm-clouds revealed the distant sight of a church with a globe-shaped belfry. "That is the village of Waterloo," Lieutenant-colonel Tidy pointed out, much to hilarity of the assembled officers; pointing to his drenched clothes, Ensign Keppell replied, "we have had plenty of water today, we shall have something in loo (lieu) of water tomorrow." The battalion took up position to the north-west of the Chateau de Goumont, and in accordance with army practice, every officer and man was made to file past a tub of gin and receive a tin-pot full. As soon as each man was served, the tub was tilted over and the remaining liquor poured onto the ground.
At about ten o’clock the rain came again, with increased violence. The officers and men slept in the mud as best as they could; but the exhaustion helped. At about two in the morning, Ensign Keppell and his servant, Private Bill Moles, went down the hill into the village of Merbe-Braine, and found a hut within which were three officers burning chairs and tables in a fire-place, their coats hanging on chair-backs to dry. Keppell and Moles stole in and grabbed whatever sleep they could. At dawn, Keppell realised that one of the officers was Colonel Sir John Colborne, the vastly experienced and soldier-like six-foot-three tall commander of the 52nd Light Infantry, who offered to share his breakfast with the sixteen year-old Ensign. Keppell politely declined and squelched back to the ridge with Moles, looking for the rest of his muddy battalion.
On the morning of 18 June, the battalion stood at about two-thirds of authorised strength, short of captains and lieutenants but over-burdened with teenaged ensigns;
Drummers beat the Reveille at half-past four on the morning of Sunday 18 June. It had only just stopped raining. The men climbed to their feet, covered from head to toe in mud, six hundred slick brown sleepyheads emerging from the ground. Sunrise was at half-past five, and the men spent the first hour after sunrise cleaning and drying their arms. Then Lieutenant-colonel Tidy ordered a thorough inspection of every musket and ammunition-pouch; they then piled arms and fell out for breakfast.
The 4th Brigade was effectively the right front of the Anglo-Allied army. Captain Wynne’s Light Company of the 23rd Fusilers manned a portion of the Hougoumont avenue closest to the Nivelles road; on its right was an abattis had been thrown across the road, and close to the right of this obstacle a company of the 51st Light Infantry was posted. Captain William Ross’ Light Company of the 14th and four companies of the 51st were extended along a hollow way stretching across the ridge on the extreme right of the allied position. The remainder of the 51st (five companies) stood in column about two hundred metres to the rear of the hollow way. The 23rd Fusiliers were stationed on a reverse slope on the left of the Nivelles road and immediately under the crest of the main ridge, to the rear of the 2nd Brigade of Guards. The remaining nine companies of the 3/14th Regiment were posted in column of companies in a slight ravine on the southern descent of the plateau, somewhat to the rear of the other two battalions.
The morning thereafter became dull. The battalion could see little of the French opposite. A colour-serjeant who had served in the Peninsula (shown in Keppell’s memoirs as ‘Moore’, but probably John Scott) amused himself by scaring the bejesus out of Ensigns Newenham and Fraser carrying the colours. "Now you see," he said, "the enemy always makes a point of aiming at the colours! If anything should happen to either of you young gentlemen, I ups with your colour and defends it with my life." Colour-serjeant Scott was one of the first casualties of the day. As he was carried off the field, Lieutenant-colonel Tidy said, "Serves him right for talking such nonsense to the boys."
Other officers amused themselves by gathering around Serjeant-major William Graham, a 32 year-old Scotsman who had fought in the Peninsula with the 95th Rifles. He regaled them with tales of his ‘Peninsula battles o'er again.’ Suddenly a chance musket-ball struck him on the neck. It was after eleven, and the battle had begun. Although in great pain, nothing would induce him to leave the battlefield.
Quartermaster Alex Ross, another Peninsula veteran from the 95th Rifles, had a wife who remained with the regiment after the firing started. She had received a severe wound in the disastrous affair at Buenos Ayres in 1807, and was no stranger to a battlefield. "Accidents might arise," she said when asked to retire to the rear, "that would render my services useful." At last it was pointed out to her that she was no longer a serjeant's wife (as she had been in 1807), but rather, an officer's lady (and implied she should act as such). She spent the rest of the day in the belfry of a neighbouring church (probably Braine l’Alleud) where she had probably the best view of the battle of any person present.
Thus the battalion spent the first four hours of the battle in relative peace and safety. At about three in the afternoon, Captain Orlando Bridgeman, and aide-de-camp to Lord Hill, brought the order to advance. The battalion marched in columns of companies, out of the ravine and into an open valley, with the hill opposite fringed by French cannon. Thus they advanced to their new position amid a shower of shot and shell. Two pieces in particular were brought to bear upon the battalion. They halted and formed square in the middle of the plain, and as they were doing so, a bugler of the 51st, mistaking the square for his own, exclaimed, "Here I am again, safe enough!" The words were barely out of his mouth, when a round-shot took off his head and spattered the whole battalion with his brains, ‘the colours and the ensigns in charge of them coming in for an extra share.’ Ensign Charles Henry Fraser, 17 years old and the refined son of a diplomat, cried out "how extremely disgusting!" which brought nervous laughter from the men. A second shot carried off six of the men's bayonets, a third broke the breastbone of Lance-serjeant James Robinson, ‘whose piteous cries were anything but encouraging to his youthful comrades.’ Another shot struck Ensign Alfred Cooper, the shortest man in the regiment, standing at the centre of the square. Lieutenant-colonel Tidy ordered the battalion to lie down. The men ‘lay packed together like herrings in a barrel.’ Ensign Keppell seated himself on a drum. Probably to calm his nerves, he patted the cheek of Lieutenant-colonel Tidy’s horse, which was close behind him and muzzling his epaulette. But then:
The battalion could not carry on in this exposed position. They soon received an order to shelter behind a neighbouring hill. A bullet struck Private John Dorman, who fell backwards onto Ensign Keppell with the whole weight of knapsack and accoutrements, knocking the teenaged officer down; with some difficulty he extricated himself from under the dead private. In his efforts to rejoin his company he trod upon the body;
The new position was further in advance, about a hundred metres from the Nivelles chaussee, near to the abattis. In their front was the Brunswick Gerlente Jaeger, lining the road, engaged with French skirmishers in the cornfields on the opposite side. The part of the field they had left was occupied by a battery of artillery, who found themselves as exposed as the 14th had been; a French howitzer shell penetrated an ammunition wagon which exploded massively. Few men were hurt, but the horses were horribly mutilated and galloped madly about the field.
That the battalion was jittery there can be no doubt. At about six o’clock, two brigades of troops appeared on their right, moving eastwards, cheering and singing. Lieutenant Charles ‘Pat’ Brennan, a Peninsula veteran, called out, "och then, them's French safe enough!" Lieutenant-Colonel Tidy was furious. "Hold your tongue, Pat!" he thundered, "What do you mean by frightening my boys?" But the blue-coated brigades kept advancing. “I fear all is over,” said Lieutenant-colonel Charles Gold RA, riding nearby, as an artillery battery swung around to fire upon the intruders, and the 14th formed up to receive the attack. Captain Mercer RA recorded the tension;
The blue-coated, singing and cheering troops were General Chasse’s Netherlands division, who had been posted in the first part of the day at Braine 1'Alleud and were now ordered to the front line.
The immediate alarm over, the 14th was posted as the right-hand infantry regiment of the British line, with instructions were to keep a good look-out upon a strong body of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. They occupied the crest of a gentle eminence, and looked down upon a crop-field that had been ‘been beaten down into the consistency and appearance of an Indian mat’.
Cannon’s history of the 14th describes what happened next;
Being posted well away from the ridge, the 14th missed the attack of the Imperial Guard; and at the end of the day was close to the western side of Hougoumont. They bivouacked that night near the entrance to the Chateau.
The remnants of the British army was ordered southwards to Nivelles on the morning of 19 June, a distance of about fifteen kilometres, the band playing the French air ‘Ca Ira’, which later became the quick march of the regiment. The men of the 14th had decked themselves out in the spoils of the vanquished, wearing cuirassier helmets, hussar pelisses, and grenadier caps. One young private was particularly conspicuous as the wearer of a tambour major’s bearskin. By this act their status as ‘Johnny Raws’ was confirmed within the army; the old Peninsula hands would never have voluntarily imposed such added weight and burden to their kit.
Lieutenant-colonel Tidy’s billet in Nivelles was a charming house with a bay-window looking out on an ornamental garden. Captain Turnor and Ensign Keppell were his guests for a sumptuous breakfast on 20 June, ‘not the less acceptable as being almost the first food we had tasted since we left our cantonment.’ It was to be the battalion’s last decent meal in a while; meals on the march to Paris were few and far between. At Cambrai on 23 June, the 14th were engaged in a feint attack on the Paris gate, which turned into a real attack and led to the capture of the fortress. Six men were wounded – Ensign Arthur Ormsby and five privates – two of whom, Privates John Church and William Sloan, later died of their wounds.
The muster roll on 25 June shows eight men killed, 29 on command and 33 sick. Five men would later die of their Waterloo wounds.
Paris was tumultuous, and the battalion marched in the Allied Parade alongside far more veteran units – but they had earned their place. A pleasant autumn and Christmas were spent as St Denis, and went home via Plymouth in January 1816. Every man present on 18 June later received the silver Waterloo Medal, and the regiment gained another battle honour – WATERLOO.
The third battalion was disbanded at Deal on 17 February 1816. Many of the junior officers were placed on half-pay, whilst the men fit for duty were transferred to the second battalion. It was a sad end to the short life of a battalion that by rights would never have embarked upon campaign, but did, and behaved creditably on the day.
Nominal Roll of the 3/14th Foot at Waterloo
WO 25/340 – Description Book of the 3/14th Foot 1815.
Keppell, George Thomas. Fifty Years of my Life. New York: Henry Holt & Partners, 1877.
Dalton, Charles. Waterloo Roll Call. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1904.
War Office. Army Lists 1791 to 1815. London: various years.
Cannon, Richard. Historical Record of the Fourteenth or Buckinghamshire Regiment of Foot: Containing an Account of the Formation of the Regiment, and of its Subsequent Services to 1845. London: Parker, Furnival and Parker, 1845.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2013
© Copyright 1995-2015, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.