Research Subjects: Biographies

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

By Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan

 

Also spelled Munroe.

Little is known of Thomas Munro’s life outside of the military.  This might be because he had the same name as Sir Thomas Munro, who was a contemporary.  Sir Thomas was a general and eventually became the governor of Madras, India.

Thomas Munro was commissioned as an ensign without purchase in the 42nd Foot on 26 July 1804.[1]  He was initially stationed in Weely Barracks, Kent.  On 8 August 1805, he was promoted to lieutenant without purchase.[2] In October 1805, the 1st Battalion 42nd Foot was transferred to the garrison at Gibraltar.[3]  It is unclear whether Lieutenant Munro was in the 1st Battalion at that time, however he would eventually serve there with them within a few years.[4]  The 42nd Foot arrived in Portugal in September 1808, too late to participate in the battles of Roliça and Vimeiro.[5]

Lieutenant Munro did not march into Spain with his regiment in November 1808.  He would stay behind in Portugal and be attached to the 1st Battalion of Detachments.  By April he would command the 1st Rifle Company, which consisted of “. . . seven Sergeants, three Corporals, and forty-two Riflemen.”[6]  He would lead them during the Douro Campaign.  At Grijo, the 1st Rifle Company was part of the advanced guard of the army.  There they would fight along side companies from the 43rd and 52nd Foot who were also in the 1st Battalion of Detachments, and the Light Company of the 29th Foot, all under the command of Major Way of the 29th Foot.  After a hard fight, they succeeded in throwing the 21eme Légere off the ridge and forcing the French to retreat across the Douro.  Two days later, the 1st Battalion of Detachments would be part of the daring attack that involved crossing the Douro on four large barges and kicking the French out of Oporto.[7]  The performance of Lieutenant Munro’s company was recognized in the General Orders of 12 May 1809:

“In the course of this short expedition the Commander of the Forces has had repeated opportunities of witnessing and applauding the gallantry of the officers and the troops, the activity and conduct of the 95th, and of the Light Infantry of the 29th the 43rd and 52nd.”[8]

At Talavera, Lieutenant Munro and his riflemen would be in the thick of things.  They would be with the 1st Battalion of Detachments when it led the attack on the Medellin de Cerro on 27 July.  The next morning, his company would be part of the light infantry force that would screen the army.  The screen was pushed back when Victor made his main attack against the British center.[9]  The 1st Battalion of Detachments came under heavy cannon fire and the battalion would take over 200 casualties.  Lieutenant Munro would be slightly wounded on 29 July, the second day of the battle.[10]

In 1814, Benjamin Haydon, the noted painter, shared the top of a coach with a 95th Rifleman, who was also wounded at Talavera under the command of Lieutenant Munro.  His portrait of the tough old veteran is quite colorful:

“While I was at Hastings, a Martello Tower at Bopeep was full of wounded soldiers from Spain.  Returning to town outside the coach, I had one of the 95th, a desperate rifleman, by my side.  He had yards of flannel wrapped round him.  He was spare, pale, haggard, keen, and talked all the way.  He had been wounded at Talavera when Cuesta ran away, and the Duke was obliged to cross the Tagus, and the French entered.  This fellow, and a corporal of the guards, hobbled out of the town, both wounded, bloody, and lame.  A man and two mules passed; they begged for help, but he disregarded them. ‘I say, rifleman, is your rifle loaded?’ said the guardsman. ‘I have never looked since the battle.’  ‘Touch up that fellow, if it will go off.’ ‘Good God.’ Said a horror-stricken Cockney on the other side, ‘what did you do?’ ‘Do! Why, clapped up my rifle, to be sure; she never missed; down came my gentleman!  We were too lame to mount, so led the mules till we came back to a ditch, and then slipped off the dike on their backs, and, what’s more, found three hundred dollars in the saddle-bags!’  ‘My God,’ said the Cockney, ‘you wretch!’ ‘That may be,’ said the 95th man, ‘but why did not he help us, the rascal, wounded for his d—d country? We got gloriously safe to Elvas, and many good drinks we had of the three hundred dollars.”

“This fellow was a complete rascal.  He told stories that made one’s flesh creep, and boasted of villainies as evidence of talent in a way that was dreadful.  He had brought off, he said, fifty-six men, prisoners, safe to Lisbon, and then by the Duke’s order, got a dollar a man.  They had under-mined a wall, and the exploit, I remembered, was in the papers at the time.  He was a keen dog, who evidently advised his officer if he knew better, but shrunk from command.  He gave us a description of the adventures of the advance – most entertaining.  He said one Irish regiment took off all their buttons, and passed them for shillings.  They had changed clothes so often with the dead, enemies and English, that, on meeting the Duke once, he did not know what regiment they were.”[11]

After the battle, the 1st Battalion of Detachments began to be disbanded with the arrival of the Light Brigade.  The men of Lieutenant Munro’s company joined the 1st Battalion 95th Foot.[12]  Lieutenant Munro would return to England in late 1809.  The 42nd Foot had taken heavy losses during the Walcheren Campaign and Lieutenant Munro would be on recruiting duty during 1810.[13]  He and the other recruiters were not too successful in finding enough Highland volunteers to fill the ranks.  The regiment had to accept 150 men from the Irish militia.[14] In 1811, Lieutenant Munro was back with the 1st Battalion and was stationed at Musselburgh, Scotland.  In August 1811, the 1st Battalion moved to Lewes Barracks in Sussex.[15]

In the Spring of 1812, the 1st Battalion 42nd Foot was ordered to the Peninsula, to replaced the 2nd Battalion 42nd Foot, which had become so reduced in strength, that it was ineffective.[16]  Lieutenant Munro would fight with the 1st Battalion during 1812 and 1814, including Salamanca, the Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthes, and Toulouse.

The 42nd Foot was heavily engaged at Toulouse on 10 April 1814 and it would be Lieutenant Munro’s last battle. Ensign John Malcolm wrote a particularly vivid sketch of the 42nd Highlanders in the battle:

". .. our division (the 6th) approached the foot of the ridge of heights, on the enemy's right, and moved in a direction parallel to them, until we reached the point of attack. We advanced advanced along the foot of the ridge, under a heavy cannonade, from some redoubts on the heights.  At one part of the ground over which we passed, many of the shot took affect, and a soldier, immediately before me, was struck by a cannon-ball, about the middle of the body, and fell a frightful and shapeless mass, scarcely retaining a trace of humanity.  We arrived, at last, immediately in front of a redoubt which protected the right of the enemy's position, where we were formed in two lines—the first consisting of some Portuguese regiments, and the reserve, at this point, of  the Highland Brigade.  Darkening the whole hill, flanked by clouds of cavalry, and covered by the fire of their redoubt, the enemy came down on us like a torrent; their generals and field-officers riding in front and waving their hats amidst the shouts of the multitude, resembling the roar of an ocean. Our Highlanders, as if actuated with one instinctive impulse, took off their bonnets, and waving them in the air returned the greeting with three cheers.  A death-like silence ensued for some moments, and we could perceive a visible pause in the advance of the enemy. At that moment the light company of the 42nd Regiment, by a well-directed fire brought down some of the French officers of distinction as they rode in front of their respective corps. The enemy immediately fired a volley into our lines, and advanced upon us amidst a deafening roar of musketry and artillery. Our troops only answered their fire only once, and unappalled by their furious onset, advanced up the hill and met them at the charge. Our bayonets, however, pierced nothing but wreaths of smoke; for, our foes having suddenly changed their minds, were charging in the opposite direction: and just such a glimpse did we obtain them, vanishing over the ridge of the hill, as did Geoffrey Crayon of the ‘stout gentleman.’  Upon reaching the summit of the ridge of heights, the redoubt which had covered their advance fell into our possession; but they still retained four others with their connecting lines of entrenchments upon the level of the same heights on which we were now established, and into which they had retired.”

“Here our brigade remained a considerable time, until Marshal  Beresford’s artillery, which, in consequence of the badness of the roads, had been left in the village of Mont Blanc, could be brought up, and until the Spaniards under Don Manuel Freyre could be re-formed, and brought back to the attack.”

"During this pause, we were ordered to sit down along the sides of the road, the embankments of which afforded us protection from the point-blank shot of the redoubts and fortified houses into which the enemy had retired, but not from their shells, which they threw among us with great precision, and by which we lost a good many men; and latterly they moved round some guns to a position, from which the line of the road was completely raked by their fire.  During this period, General Pack sat on horseback in the middle of the road, showing an example of the most undaunted bravery to the troops.  I think I see him now, as he then appeared, perfectly calm and unmoved, and with a placid smile upon his face amidst a perfect storm of shot and shells. His aid-de-camp, Le Strange, who was afterwards killed at Waterloo, had his horse shot under him, and both came down together.  A few minutes afterwards, I observed General Pack suddenly turn pale, and seem as if going to faint.  This was occasioned by a ball which had passed through his leg.  He rode slowly to the rear, where he had his wound dressed, and in a few minutes returned again.”

"Marshal Beresford's artillery having at length arrived, and the Spanish troops being once more brought forward, General Pack rode up to the front of our brigade, and made the following announcement: ' I have just now been with General Clinton, and he has been pleased to grant my request, that in the charge we are now about to make upon the enemy's redoubts, the 42nd shall have the honour of leading the attack: -- the 42nd will advance!'  This order was immediately passed along the troops, and I could hear the last words dying away in the distance along our lines.”

"We immediately began to form for the charge upon the redoubts, which were about two or three hundred yards distant, and to which we had to pass over some ploughed fields. The grenadiers of the 42nd, followed by the other companies, led the way, and began to ascend from the road; but no sooner were the feathers of their bonnets seen rising over the embankment, than such a tremendous fire was opened from the redoubts and intrenchments as in a very short time would have annihilated them. The right wing, therefore, hastily formed into line, and without waiting for the left, which was ascending by companies from the road, rushed upon the batteries, which vomited forth a storm of fire, grape-shot, and musketry, the most incessant, furious and terrific, I ever witnessed.”

“Amidst the clouds of smoke in which they were curtained, the whole line of redoubts would every now and then start into view amidst the wild and frightful blaze, and then vanish again into utter darkness. Our men were mown down by sections.  I saw six of the company to which I belonged fall together, as if swept away by the discharge of one gun; and the whole ground over which we rushed was covered with the dead.  The redoubts were erected along the side of a road, and were defended by broad ditches full of water. Just before our troops reached the obstruction, however, the enemy deserted them, and fled in all directions, leaving their last line of strongholds in our possession; but they still possessed two fortified houses close by, from which they kept up a galling and destructive fire.” [17]  

The regimental history states that “four officers, three sergeants, and forty-seven rank and file killed; and twenty-one officers, fourteen sergeants, one drummer, and 231 rank and file wounded.”[18]  Among those severely wounded was Lieutenant Munro.[19]

Thomas Munro was one of the senior lieutenants in the regiment before the battle of Toulouse.[20] The heavy casualties among officers of the regiment at Toulouse – including two captains who were killed or died of wounds[21] – permitted him to be promoted to captain without purchase on 19 May 1814.   He would be assigned to the 2nd Battalion 42nd Foot in Aberdeen.[22]  On 25 October, the 2nd Battalion was disbanded and Captain Munro went on half-pay.  He was allowed to remain in the regiment on full pay until 24 December.[23]

Captain Munro would stay on half-pay until 8 June 1826, when he was brought into the 3rd Foot.[24]  He retired by the sale of his commission 30 December 1826.[25] Thomas Munro never received the Army General Service Medal, which was authorized in 1846.  The most likely reason was that he had died by then.

Notes:

[1] London Gazette: 31 July 1804

[2] Army List: June 1808; London Gazette: 14 August 1805.

[3] Forbes: p. 207

[4] Challis

[5] Forbes:  p. 209

[6] Verner: Part II, p. 52

[7] Ibid: p. 53 - 56

[8] Ibid: p. 56

[9] Ibid: p. 64

[10] London Gazette: 15 August 1809

[11] Haydon; pp. 255 - 256

[12] Verner: p. 52

[13] Army List: July 1810

[14] Forbes: p. 230

[15] Ibid: p. 231

[16] Ibid: p. 231

[17] Malcolm: pp. 293 - 298

[18] Forbes: 254

[19] London Gazette: 26 April 1814

[20] Army List: November 1813

[21] London Gazette: 26 April 1814

[22] London Gazette: 28 May 1814; Forbes: p. 260

[23] Army List: December 1814

[24] London Gazette: 23 June 1826

[25] London Gaxette: 18 January 1827


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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