Research Subjects: Biographies

Not One in Ten Thousand Know Your Name: the Officers of the British 1st Battalion of Detachments in 1809 -- Lieutenant William McBeath 42nd Foot

By Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan

 

Name was also spelled as McBeth, MacBeth, MacBeath, M’Beth, M’Beath

William McBeath was one of seven children[1] and from a family that had a strong military tradition.[2]  (One of his brothers, Robert McBeath, would also serve in the Peninsula and would be on half pay for many years, before he became the paymaster of the Edinburgh Military District.)  William was commissioned as an ensign without purchase in the 42nd Foot on 14 November 1804 and would initially serve in the 2nd Battalion.[3]  He would be stationed at Weeley in Essex.[4]  Ensign McBeath was promoted to lieutenant without purchase on 3 July 1806.[5] 

In September 1808, the 1st Battalion 42nd Foot was ordered from Gibraltar to Lisbon in support of the British Army in Portugal.[6]  Lieutenant McBeath was sent out to Portugal with a group of replacements for the 1st Battalion in January 1809.[7]  About the time he arrived in Lisbon, the 1st Battalion was boarding transports in Corunna, heading back to England after the disastrous retreat from central Spain.  Manpower was at a premium in the British army that remained in Portugal, so Lieutenant McBeath and the detachments were kept there instead of returning to England.  They were attached to the 1st Battalion of Detachments in February 1809 and would fight with it throughout the Douro and Talavera Campaigns.

At Talavera, the 1st Battalion of Detachments was in the thick of most of the action.  On the evening of the 27 July, the French had captured the Cerro de Medellin, the hill that anchored the left of the British line of battle.  General Stewart’s Brigade was ordered to re-take the hill and the 1st Battalion of Detachments led the charge.  During the intense fighting on the crest of the hill, darkness created confusion within the battalion and they took heavy casualties.  There were some claims that the battalion broke and that the 29th Foot had to push

“. . . our way through them to rush at the enemy.  The gallant soldiers of the battalion seemed much vexed; they were bravely calling out, ‘there is nobody to command us! Only tell us what to do, and we are ready to dare anything.’”[8]

The brigade did re-take the hill, which was key to the British position.  The next day brought little relief for the 1st Battalion of Detachments. At 5:00 a.m. they were still posted on the Cerro de Medellin, when they came under a heavy artillery bombardment.  Wellington immediately ordered Stewart's Brigade to pull back from their expose position and to lie down behind the ridgeline.  Shortly afterwards, the main French assault began and Stewart’s brigade was sent to meet it. The closing French columns caused the French artillery to shift their fire and the 1st Battalion of Detachments received the brunt of its fire and casualties were very heavy.  The Brigade was able to beat off the attack and things were quiet until around 1:00 p.m. when the French advanced again.  Sergeant Daniel Nicols, 79th Foot, provides an unforgettable picture of the 1st Battalion of Detachments during the fight:

". . . General Stewart's brigade was ordered to advance to the top of the hollow, when all the others were ordered to lie close to the ground, as the French had taken up a position with their heads above the rise, and were doing much mischief. We sustained a heavy fire from the enemy's guns on the other side of the hill; they were making lanes through us, and their musketry attacked us on our flanks. We cleared the enemy from our front and right, but they maintained the heights on the other side; and as were lower than they, they punished us severely. . . Captain MacPherson of the 35th Regiment, who commanded our company this day, was down and my right file was taken off by a cannon-shot. William Bowie and John Shewan were killed on my left, and Adam Much lay in the rear wounded."[9]

The 1st Battalion of Detachments’ role in the battle ended after helping to stop the French attack. During the two days of combat, the battalion had over 270 casualties; 200 of them during the second day. The battalion had 1 officer and 40 men killed; 9 officers and 206 men wounded; 3 officers and 15 men missing. Lieutenant McBeath was among those who were severely wounded on 28 July.[10] He never fully recovered from his wounds and died before 18 November 1809.[11]  According to family legend, he had been captured by the French and died while he was a prisoner of the French.[12]  Although the French did capture a British hospital in Talavera, when the British retreated after the battle, I can find no record to support the family claim that he died in captivity.

Notes:

[1] Parliamentary Papers -- 1819-1820v. 1842. p. 4

[2] MacBeth: p. 7

[3] London Gazette: 17 November 1804

[4] Wauchope: p. 35

[5] Army List: June 1809; London Gazette: 5 July 1806

[6] Wauchope: p. 36

[7] Challis

[8] Leslie: p. 145

[9] Robinson: p.

[10] London Gazette: 15 August 1809

[11] London Gazette: 14 November 1809

[12] MacBeth: p. 7


Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2009

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



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