Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


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The Forgotten Army: Fencible Regiments of Great Britain 1793 - 1816

By Ron McGuigan                                                  

On 1 February, 1793 Great Britain was once again at war. The declaration of war by the French Republic caught Great Britain at a disadvantage as it had both disbanded most of the newly raised regular regiments of 1776-1783 after that conflict had ended and reduced its own peacetime establishment to practically nil.[1] While it immediately took steps to recruit its regular regiments for general service, it also established a regular force of Fencible Regiments, for home service only, to augment the Embodied  militia of the Kingdom. This force was especially necessary in Scotland, which had no large militia force of its own until 1798.

The term 'fencible' may come from 'defencible' and means a defence force. There had been fencible regiments raised for home defence both for the Seven Years War and the American Revolution.[2] The number of regiments raised, however, was nowhere near the number raised for this conflict. Fortescue described them as, "regular troops originally enlisted for service at home, and for the duration of the war only, and were designed to liberate the regular army from the United Kingdom for service abroad."[3] Many of these regiments did sterling service in the garrisoning of Ireland and others volunteered for general service, one saw action in Egypt; as well as, providing garrisons in England and overseas to free regular line regiments.

As early as 20 February 1793 the first commanding officer of a Fencible Corps was gazetted [Duke of Atholl of the Royal Manx Corps] and on 1 March 1793, the first seven Colonels of Fencible Regiments in Scotland were gazetted.  The precedence of the seven regiments was determined  by having the seven Colonels simply draw numbers.  These early Scottish Regiments were formed by the leading Clan Chiefs and landowners in the areas where they were recruited. So you see them raising units from the tenants of their lands, almost like the Clan Regiments of old,  such as the  Sinclair's and Mackay's in Caithness, the Campbell's in Argyll and Breadalbane, the Cameron's in Lochaber, the Sutherland's in Sutherland, the Gordon's in the North, the Montgomerie's in the Western Lowlands, the MacDonell's in Glengarry  and the Grant's in Strathspey, etc. Even in the  Fencible Cavalry you see similar examples, the Linlithgow Troop raised by a Livingstone, the Ayr Corps by a Dunlop, Lothian units by a Kerr or Hamilton, Roxburgh Corps by  a Scott and the Dumfries Regiment by a Maxwell. The first Scottish Fencible Regiments, originally, consisted of one Colonel, one Lieutenant Colonel, one Major and five Captains. Per company they had one Lieutenant, one Ensign, three sergeants, four corporals, two drummers and 71 privates. They were to be completed within three months and the bounty granted for enlistment was three guineas. Their headquarters were Grant's at Forres, Wemyss's at Inverness, Montgomerie's at Glasgow, Breadalbane's at Perth, Lorne's at Stirling, Gordon's at Abeerdeen and Hopetoun's at Linlithgow.

The majority of Fencible Regiments only existed from 1793 until disbanded at the peace of Amiens in 1802.[4] New regiments were raised starting in 1803, but almost all were for colonial service in British North America. Here too, they gave excellent service during the War of 1812.  All of these Fencible Regiments are mainly forgotten today as the events of the Peninsular War and Waterloo largely overshadow everything.

Below is an example of a Royal Warrant to raise a Fencible Regiment:

Warrant for the Raising of a Regiment of Fencible Men under the Command of Col. M. H. Baillie, [signed George R]

Whereas we have thought fit to order a Regiment of Fencible men, to be forthwith raised under your command, which is to consist of ten companies, of 4 sergeants, 5 corporals, 2 drummers, and 95 men in each, with 2 fifers to the Grenadier Company, besides a sergeant-major and quartermaster-sergeant, together  with the usual commissioned officers; which men are to serve in Great Britain and Ireland only.

Given at our Court  at St. James, the 24th day of October 1794, in the 34th year of our reign.

By His Majesty's Command (signed) W. Windham

To our trusty and well-beloved M. H. Baillie, Esq., Colonel of a Regiment of Fencible men to be forthwith raised or to the officer appointed by him to raise men for  our said regiment.[5]

Officers of the fencibles were listed in the army lists of the period, but they ranked under regular army officers when they served together. "Officers of the Fencible Regiments in 1795 were given precedence of the Militia, ranking with the army, according to their commissions except for Embodied  militia where they rank according to dates of commission. On the 25 July 1795, 'officers of fencibles, militia, yeoman cavalry and volunteer corps shall rank together according to date of their respective commission; the officer of regular corps to take precedence of and command the officer of equal degree of all others.  However, fencible officers commissioned on or before 25 July 1798 would continue to rank with officers of the regular army of equal degree according to the dates of their commissions except when acting together."[6]

In early 1793, it was noted by the Master of Rolls, that the difference, for officers, between the fencibles and a line regiment was that commissions in the fencibles were temporary and not permanent rank in the army and did not entitle the holder to half-pay should the fencible regiment be disbanded.  He stated that the fencibles were in the nature of a militia. This was later changed and some officers did receive half-pay upon their unit being reduced.  

The ranking of the fencible regiments with the militia regiments was covered by a number of General Orders. "For determining precedency in the line as between regiments of fencibles and militia it was ordered (8 Nov. 1794) that priority of being raised should be the deciding factor...the matter was re-opened and it was decided that during 'the continuation of the present war' the militia should have precedence of the fencibles."[7]  This is from a General Order of 11 June 1795.  In 1798, there was a plan discussed, but never implemented, to convert all of the Irish Militia Regiments to Fencible Regiments.[8] This was to allow their being used outside of Ireland. Volunteer units were being raised at the same time as the fencibles and I have found the term 'fencible' incorporated in the name of some of these volunteer units; but, no evidence that they were converted to actual  fencible regiments.

Those infantry regiments raised in 1793 mostly had eight companies, with those raised 1794 onwards mostly having ten companies. The first eight regiments of fencible infantry raised in Scotland were numbered in the army lists, with the number soon dropped. In 1795, the infantry regiments began to be referred to as X Regiment of Fencible Infantry. Many of the cavalry regiments were known as Light Dragoons. By 1798, three terms were in general use Fencibles, Fencible Infantry and Fencible Cavalry.

The establishment of the regiments changed a number of times during their existence. In Great Britain, the Fencible Cavalry Regiments ranged from 358 men for 1796, to 292 men for 1797 and back to 357 for 1798. The corps had smaller establishments, such as the Dumbarton Troop of 57 men or the Fifeshire Corps with 195 men.  The Provisional Cavalry, converted to Fencibles, had establishments ranging from 265 men to 530 men. The Fencible Infantry ranged from 697 men for the Scottish Fencibles of 1793, to 589 men  in 1797 with strengths of  588 men and 688 men, depending on the regiment, for 1799. Some of the larger regiments had over 1,000 men. Again the smaller corps had establishments ranging from 110 to 340 men. In 1800, there were to be 31 Fencible Regiments of Infantry in Ireland with establishments of four regiments of 1,121 men, eight regiments of 848 men, two regiments of 688 men and seventeen regiments of 588 men.

In 1799, it was decided to disband all of the Fencible Regiments whose service was restricted to Great Britain and Ireland, except for those who had volunteered for General Service in Europe. For those remaining, their pay was raised and disabled pensions were instituted at the same time. Many of the men from the disbanded regiments joined the regular army and numbers of the former noncommissioned officers became officers in the militia. In 1800, volunteers from the Fencibles went into the Experimental Corps of Riflemen [later the famous 95th Regiment of Foot (Riflemen)]

When the remaining fencible regiments were ordered disbanded at the peace in 1802, the following instructions were issued. Although these particular instructions cover the Reay Fencibles they can be taken as being for any of the regiments so ordered disbanded.

George R

Whereas we have thought fit to order our regiment of Fencibles, commanded by our trusty and well-beloved Mackay Hugh Baillie, Esq. Major General of our forces, to be disbanded and discontinued on the establishment of the army, our will and pleasure is, that you do disband our said regiment accordingly, and that in the disbanding thereof, the following rules to be duly observed.

1st, Before such disbanding, you are to cause an exact muster to be taken by the regimental paymaster of the several companies of the said corps.   

2nd, Care to be taken that the arms delivered for the use of our said regiment out of our Stores of Ordnance, and indented for, to be returned thither again, and acquittance taken for the same from such person as shall be appointed to receive them.

3rd, Care to be taken before the disbanding that the quarters of each company be duly satisfied; as also that the accompts of the men be made up, and all their just pretensions completely satisfied to the time of their being dismissed.

4th, Care to betaken that each non-commissioned officer and private man hereby to be disbanded be permitted to carry away with him  his knapsack and his clothing for the present year, consisting of coat, waistcoat, breeches, cap [note: The items "breeches" and "cap" would not apply to Highland corps, the men being permitted instead to take away with them their (belted) plaid,  Kilts, hose and bonnets] and one pair of shoes, due 25th December last, and of the second pair of shoes due at midsummer next. But if the second supply of  shoes be not provided in readiness for immediate delivery, each man is to be paid the sum of five shillings and sixpence, as a compensation in lieu thereof.  

Each sergeant is also to be settled with for the sum of three shillings due him under the authority of our warrant of the 20th May 1801, as being the difference between the value of the former articles of half-mounting for a sergeant and a private man.

The greatcoats in wear by the regiment are to be disposed of according to such orders as you shall receive from our Secretary at War.

5th, And we being pleased to allow as our royal bounty each sergeant, corporal, drummer and private man, who shall be hereby   disbanded, a certain proportion of pay beyond the day of his discharge, to carry him home according to the distance which he shall have to travel, viz.:--

In Scotland, 14 days
To England, 21 days
To Ireland, 28 days

and at the respective daily rates of,

1s. 6 3/4d. for a sergeant
1s. 2 1/4d. for a corporal
1s. 1 3/4d. for a drummer
1s. for a private

Payment thereof to be made to each of them respectively, and the charge thereof is to be inserted with the pay of the men in the pay-lists, care being taken to distinguish in the columns of remark the day, or days,  on which they were disbanded.

6th, An account is also to be sent to our Secretary at War, attested by you and the Commanding Officer of our said regiment, of the names of such Commissioned Officers as may have been taken from half-pay, and are not, by law disqualified from receiving the same again, on the discontinuance of their services in our said regiment.  7th, And to the end, that the said non-commissioned  officers and private men may be sensible of the care we have taken of them upon their discharge, you are to cause these, our directions, to be read at the head of each company and see that the same  are duly put into execution.

Given, &c., &c., &c., 10th August 1802 in the 42nd year of our reign.

By His Majesty's command (signed) C. Yorke

Lieutenant. General Vyse, Edinburgh[9]

This is a brief overview of these regiments and is by no means comprehensive. The names given to the regiments were both official and unofficial and different sources identify them by different names. I have tried to give both the proper and most commonly used names in each case. Lieutenant Colonel Commandant is given as LCCmdt and Major Commandant as Major Cmdt.

The date is either the date of the warrant to raised the regiment or the date on which officers were gazetted to the regiment. Sources again differ on the dates. In some cases, warrants or letters of service were issued to raise a fencible regiment, but it does not appear that they were ever completed or even raised at all. The name of the commanding officer and his rank are from date of first raising. Many officers received higher rank when their unit was augmented. For those infantry regiments not disbanded in 1799 or 1800, their commanding officers were granted permanent progressive army rank, allowing them to eventually become general officers, on either 1 January 1801 or 29 April 1802, respectively.

Service locations outside of England or Scotland are given where known. Those marked "Ireland" saw service either in garrisons and/or during the Rebellion.  I have not included the 'Sea Fencibles' which were raised, about 1800, to man coastal ships to repel invasion.


 

Notes:

[1] For 1793, it was estimated that there were 15,000 men at home and 30,000 men in overseas garrisons. "A History of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British Army" p. 59. Ireland had another 12,000 men.

[2] For 1759-1763,  Campbell's Argyllshire Fencibles and Earl of Sutherland's Battalion of Highlanders [sometimes later referred to as 1st Sutherland Fencibles]. For 1776-1783,  2nd Sutherland Fencibles, Western Fencibles (Argyll), Duke of Gordon's Fencibles (Northern), Lord North's Fencibles (Cinque Ports), Lord Fauconberg's North Riding of Yorkshire Fencibles, Isle of Manx Fencibles, South Fencibles and Egerton's Fencible Infantry (Royal Lancashire Volunteers)  

[3] Fortescue, John W. History of the British Army volume 4, 2nd Edition London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1915. p. 889

[4] The disbandment of the fencibles in 1802, and the establishment in that year of a permanent militia for Scotland, rendered unnecessary any further organisation on a large scale of this more ancient but Partial system of national defence. Scobie, Captain I. H. Mackay. An Old Highland Fencible Corps Edinburgh: Blackwood & Sons; 1914. p. 364   

[5] Scobie;  pp. 365-366

[6] Scobie;  p. 4

[7] McAnally, Sir Henry. The Irish Militia 1793-1816 A Social and Military Study Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds; 1949.

[8] McAnally; p. 86

[9] Scobie; pp. 380-381

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003; updated September 2009 and January 2011

 



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