Research Subjects: Biographies

Not One in Ten Thousand Know Your Name: the Officers of the British 1st Battalion of Detachments in 1809

By Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan

“What might not that corps have done? It could boast of a company or detachments from ten of the best regiments in the service – the 20th, 28th, 38th, 42d, 43d, 52d, 79th, 91st, 92d, and 95th.”[1]

According to Lionel S. Challis’s Peninsula Roll Call, there were over 9600 officers who served with the British Army in the Peninsula.  Although the Index includes 657 officers who were part of the King’s German Legion and another 107 Brunswick officers in the list, that leaves almost 9000 officers serving with British units.  While a noted scholar of the Peninsular War might be able to name several hundred of the officers, most others would be hard pressed to name a hundred.  This study is an attempt to rescue a handful of these unknown officers from obscurity -- for many of them have amazing stories.

Why did we choose the 1st Battalion of Detachments for our research, a unit that was in existence for less than a year, when there were far more notable units, such as the 95th Rifles and the 1st Foot Guards who saw more action and accomplished much more?  Our choice grew initially from an effort to discover the names of those officers who served in the 1st Battalion of Detachments.  As the list grew, so did our curiosity about who these officers were.  Was there anything special about these men that make them worth remembering? 

In many ways the officers in this paper were the embodiment of the British officer corps.  Several were from the landed gentry and one was commissioned from the ranks.  One would be killed leading his troops at Talavera – the last battle where the 1st Battalion of Detachments fought.  Three others would die in combat over the next five years and three would die of sickness or exhaustion brought on by the rigors of campaigning.  Almost all would be wounded at least once and one would lose a leg at Salamanca.  Three of them landed in Portugal in August 1808 and stayed in the Peninsula until the end of the war in April 1814 -- an incredible sixty-nine months of unbroken service! (Few, if any other officers, can claim this distinction.)

The best known would go on to become a general and lead the Light Division in the Crimean War.  Yet many of these officers were famous among their peers.  Their names and deeds were brought up wherever officers met to tell war stories.  One was known as the strongest man in his regiment, while another was called on publicly twenty-five years after the battle, to tell how he led his single company in a bayonet charge and engaged in hand-to-hand combat against a French infantry regiment!  Several had memorials left to them by their regiment and their families.  While two would disappear in disgrace – one being cashiered and the other being forced to resign his commission in lieu of being court-martialled.

When the war ended most went on half pay (one for 41 years!)  At least three immigrated to Canada or Australia . Several became successful businessmen.  Others would be magistrates or manage the family estates. One started a bank and is considered one of those responsible for helping to found a major university. All in all, they were a very accomplished group of individuals.  Perhaps their lives are best summed up by Stan Rogers in his song Macdonnell On The Heights”:

So you know what it is to scale the Heights and fall just short of fame
And have not one in ten thousand know your name.”

The following officers served in the 1st Battalion of Detachments. Click on their names for more information about them.

3rd Foot

Lieutenant Colonel William Bunbury

20th Foot

Lieutenant George Tovey

28th Foot

Captain Joseph Bradbey
Lieutenant John Falconer Briggs
Lieutenant Robert Prescott Eason
Lieutenant Roger P. Gilbert
Lieutenant Charles A. Huddlestone
Lieutenant Lawson Huddlestone
Lieutenant William Irwin

35th Foot

Captain Phineas M’Pherson

38th Foot

Major David Ross
Captain Alexander Chancellor
Captain Chichester William Crookshanks
Captain Edward Ovens
Lieutenant Archibald Fullerton
Lieutenant George Waddington

42nd Highlanders

Lieutenant William McBeath
Lieutenant Thomas Munro

2/43rd Light Inf.

Lieutenant Henry Lynch Drake Brockman
Lieutenant George Brown
Assistant Surgeon Richard O'Connell

52nd Light Inf.

Captain Clement Poole
Lieutenant William Royds
Lieutenant John Woodgate
Lieutenant Charles Ward
Surgeon George Peach
Assistant Surgeon John Williams
Assistant Surgeon Edmund O’Leary

79th Highlanders

Captain James Campbell
Lieutenant John Cameron
Lieutenant John Campbell Cameron
Lieutenant William Leaper
Lieutenant Alexander McLean

91st Highlanders

Captain James Walsh
Lieutenant William Garland
Lieutenant Robert Gresley Lavers
Lieutenant Colin McDougal

92nd Highlanders

Captain William Logie
Lieutenant John Cattanach
Lieutenant John A. Durie
Assistant Surgeon George Beattie

For further information on the 1st Battalion of Detachments see: The British Battalions of Detachment in 1809

We used many different sources for this study, most from the internet. To see them click on: Bibliography

Notes:

[1] Cadell, page 74


Placed on the Napoleon Series: January - September 2009; last updated September 2016.

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