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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 12: November 2009


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

De Courten, Antoine. Canada 1812 – 1814: Fighting Under the British Banner. The Swiss Regiments de Watteville and de Meuron on the Fronts of the Niagara and Montreal. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2009. 200 pages. Illustrations, maps, tables, charts, bibliography ISBN 978-1-4269-1001-2 (paper). $59.85 CAD

Reviewed by John Grodzinski

The British Army of the 17th to 19th centuries was a curious organization that was in many ways not an “army” in the modern sense; rather it was a curious mix of regular British soldiers, foreign troops, on “contract,” such as in the American War of Independence, foreign regiments in “British pay,” as in the Napoleonic Wars or locally raised auxiliary or provincial units in the colonies. This book examines two well known foreign regiments, the Swiss De Meuron’s Regiment of Foot and De Watteville’s Regiment.

Both regiments had colourful campaign histories. De Meuron’s Regiment was originally raised for the Dutch East India Company in 1781 and passed into British service in 1795; between then and 1812, it served in the Third Mysore War in India and in the Mediterranean and Peninsular Campaigns before arriving in North American during 1813, where is was based principally in the Montreal area as part of Major General de Rottenburg’s division in the Plattsburgh campaign. De Watteville’s Regiment was formed in 1801 from remnants of four Swiss units and spent much time in the Mediterranean, where it participated in the battle of Maida in 1806, before coming to Canada in May 1813. The principal actions it participated in were Oswego and Fort Erie during 1814. Many veterans from both regiments settled in Canada after the war.

Although often described as “Swiss” regiments, they were that in name only. In 1809, de Watteville’s regiment had a strength of 834 men, of which only 156 or 19% were listed as being Swiss. The remainder of the regiment were Germans, Italians, Dutch, Belgians, Greeks, French, Poles, Hungarians and Russians – with the latter three nationalities comprising 28% of the unit’s total strength (p. 20).

Antoine de Courten is a descendent of Major General de Watteville. He served in the Swiss Army and now acts as an advisor on military matters, while pursuing his interests in ancient history and cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. He lives near Lake Geneva.

The first six chapters of the book provide a general history of both regiments and their service during the War of 1812. As the author notes, this offers “an easy lecture and entertainment to the public visiting the Niagara battlegrounds” (p. xiii). The reminder of the book focuses on the Regiment de Watteville and this is where it’s value rests: the appendices include accounts of the 1814 British raid on Oswego, extracts from Major General Count Louise de Watteville’s diary (that were translated for this book), a facsimile and translation of the unit manual for the Regiment de Watteville and lists of all officers from that regiment, including an 1818 list of soldiers in remained in the Rideau settlement.

The book would have benefitted from editing and contains many difficult or curiously worded passages. For example, a sentence describing the Plattsburg campaign notes “First, the American fleet dominated the lake (Champlain) and the town was a lost British foothold as it could sail down the lake” (p. 35); while another about the number of dependents accompanying each regiment concludes “Btw, the soldier’s wives shared the quarters…” (p. 17). I might expect to see “btw” used in text message from my daughter but not in a book.

The author was wise in annotating the diaries and accounts, but as these notes appear in the main text instead of footnotes, they disrupt the flow of the passage. It is also unfortunate that the Wikipedia served as a source in regard to Lieutenant General Prevost’s dispatch that “belittled” both de Watteville and Charles de Salaberry following the battle of the Châteauguay (p. 58). Surely a better reference could have been consulted. The same passage also states de Watteville was “a member of a court martial” (p. 58) from December 1814 to January 1815, but no further details are given (p. 86). This was no minor trial as the accused was Major General Harry Proctor, former commander of the Right Division of Upper Canada, facing five charges for his conduct during 1813.

There were several problems with the transcription of the diary and Major General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe is shown at twice as Major General Sir Roger Mac Heatte (p. 96 and 97). Sir Sidney Beckwith is also shown in one entry at Sir S. Buckwith (p, 73). Again, this could have been corrected by editing.

The jacket notes claim that de Watteville’s diary does not “not show Lt General Prevost in the usual dulled might many historians used to shed on him,” I not evident. Although Major General de Watteville liked Prevost, the passages where Prevost is mentioned describe meals, the odd meeting and one curiously worded order Prevost apparently gave in December 1813: “He has particularly recommended all measures in order that no ways on the snow are made between the enemy’s position and ours” (p. 72).

By careful navigation through these problems, one can find many gems; Canada 1812 – 1814: Fighting Under the British Banner is important for the appendices, particularly the extracts from de Watteville’s diary, making it a useful addition to the literature on the War of 1812 and a must (but do be careful with it) for anyone interested in this fascinating conflict.