Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 31st Regiment of Foot (The Huntington’s)
By Ray Foster
November 1808 (landed at Lisbon)
No figures given.
This 2nd battalion is shipped as a part of the Corps under Lieutenant General David Baird which was attempting to come ashore at Corunna in late October however, in company with 3/27th these two battalions are diverted down to Lisbon landing there early in November and, since Lieutenant General John Moore had already left on his Spanish adventure are brought under Major General John Cradock. They remain about Lisbon throughout the winter and it is only when Wellesley returns to Portugal in April of 1809 that they will come into active service. First figures, of some consequence, are shown as they in company with three other British battalions and ten Portuguese line battalions are sent, under Major General John Mackenzie via Abrantes to secure the lower Tagus valley against any potential enemy incursions through the Alemtejo:
1st May 1809 (on the march to the Alemtejo)
When Wellesley returns from his defeat of Marshal Nicholas Soult's army at Oporto Mackenzie is given charge of the new 3rd Division also having the work of leading its 1st Brigade amongst which we find 2/31st along with 2/24th and 1/45th.
In very short order they are put in march for Spain going directly at Madrid up the Tagus valley by its northern banks, 2/31st will get its first taste of action against the enemy at the Alberche stream just a little east of Talavera de la Reina;
27th July (at the Alberche stream)
It is said that due to the raw nature of their war experience the Brigade was caught unprepared for an attack which was sent against them this day, the enemy came in on them as a dense cloud of skirmishers bustling them out of their camp and back onto supports which finally stopped the confusion, not however until some 119 of them had been accounted for, Captain William Lodge was dead as were 23 of his men, Captain George Coleman, Ensigns George Beamish, Andrew Gamble and R Conyngham Soden as well as one un-named officer and 88 men wounded with two taken prisoner so:
27th July (after the combat at the Alberche stream)
Wellesley by the next day has placed his troops in a position of defence ready to take on King Joseph and Marshals Jourdan, and Victor for a pitched battle. Mackenzie and his men have a long wait receiving some attention from artillery-fire during that wait but then, once the serious fighting comes their way have a furious fire-fight, Mackenzie in the thick of things is shot dead as are quite a number of his charges, 21 men of 2/31st. Captain Thomas Nicolls and Lieutenant James Girdlestone and 102 of the men are wounded and five captured. Confusion is everywhere, dust smoke and the noise of battle, certainly by now 2/31st must have come of age!
28th July (after the battle at Talavera de la Reina)
There is much burying and burning of corpses to be done, wounded to be laid out and, a couple of days later a new Brigadier to welcome to the scene. Actually it is a new brigade made up of the original much reduced 1st and 2nd Brigades now to be amalgamated under Colonel Rufane Donkin, the Division picked up by Black Bob Major General Robert Craufurd. This is only a temporary measure coming as a result of the heavy losses on the 28th July, the army is compelled to retire behind the Tagus and then to go back along the hill paths through semi-desert country all the way to Truxillo.
The wounded have to be carried along or dropped by the wayside, very little food is to be found along the way and, Spanish/British military relations are severely disrupted.
We shall not see any figures for this battalion until more than a year has passed by, Wellington, as he now calls himself has taken his men, such as survived the Spanish adventure back into Portugal by Christmas 1809 and already there has been much re-organisation in his brigades. This battalion has been placed with Major General Rowland Hill's Corps in 2nd Division, 1st Brigade under Major General Christopher Tilson, they have for comrades the old "Buffs" or 1/3rd, 2/48th,2/66th and a coy' of 5/60th Rifles, so, this is a strong brigade in a strong Division. It will be September of 1810 when next we see them, with Hill on a hill, at Busaco, their only job on the day that Marshal Andre Massena's army attacked this formidable position was to extend the defensive line along the southern end of the ridge, no fighting took place on their front so, figures could be said to represent both before and after:
27th September 1810 (on the ridge at Busaco)
It is significant to see that in the year the numbers of this 2nd battalion which had started its Peninsular career with such good figures had gone down considerably but, it is perhaps more significant that the Brigade is now led by Major General William Stewart, a loose cannon if there ever was one! When the brigade has settled in down at the lines about Torres Vedras numbers are still seeping away at:
1st November (at Torres Vedras)
Once battalion numbers creep down to less than 400 a unit tends to draw attention to itself as being potentially "irregular" so, it seems that during the winter stay close to the mouth of the Tagus 2/31st will have swept in as many of its convalescents as it can lay hands on by the time that Marshal William Carr Beresford takes off Hill's Corps to put Badajoz under a very light siege and then quickly has to break this off to meet the threat coming up from Andalusia in the shape of a strong field force under Marshal Nicholas Soult. Meanwhile, in the absence of Hill, ill with malaria, Stewart has been promoted rather rapidly, first to lead the whole 'Corps and then down a bit to take just 2nd Division, Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne of 2/66th gets the Brigade. We are of course at the field of Albuera and, prior to the mayhem 2/31st stand at:
16th May 1811 (at Albuera)
On the fateful day Stewart is ordered to bring his Division up a gentle slope to its brow where a Spanish Corps is being outflanked on its right and is under heavy fire to boot. It is fortunate for 2/31st that they are being brought forward in rear of the rest of the Brigade and slightly to the left. We are told that as Colborne's men come up to the top of the rise a great shower of rain mixed with gun smoke prevents Stewart from seeing something in excess of 600 galloping enemy cavalrymen armed with lance and sabre, at charge speed bearing down upon the right flank and rear of Colborne's unprotected Brigade.
As we say in the South Pacific, Yeah right!
Nevertheless there they were and the first three battalions of this fine brigade of more than two thousand men was annihilated within minutes, 2/31st with commendable speed formed into square before this torrent of horseflesh and steel was able to get at them. It cannot be otherwise than that the square would incorporate fragments of each of the three other battalions survivors in order for it to maintain any sort of defensive frontage and, more importantly sufficient internal space to contain a safe haven for the ever increasing number of wounded men, but, survive it did. The battalion was forced to remain in this dense formation while receiving the attention of those few cavalrymen who chose to die by that means but also from some well directed cannon-fire and the ever present enemy infantry who were ranged in a great mass to their front.
Brigadier Major General Daniel Hoghton's men eventually came up to take on some of the strain by which time the killing all around was so confused and general that each man could only tell of his own personal hell! History insists that this was a glorious victory for Beresford's Corps, 2/31st would count themselves incredibly lucky to only lose 156 men that day, 29 men had died, Captains Edward Fleming and Edward Knox, Lieutenants Samuel Bolton, William Butler, James Cashel, Richard Gethin and Ensigns Ralph Nicholson and John Wilson with 119 men had been wounded so:
16th May (after the battle at Albuera)
When Wellington came down to the field a few days later Colborne's Brigade had just enough men capable of standing to arms to make up one battalion, (653 PUA) not only that but there was hardly a senior officer capable or otherwise to put at the head of these men, Colborne, with not a scratch having excused himself and gone! Major General William Lumley who was in fact a long time cavalry officer and had for some obscure reason been given the command of infantrymen but then had led the whole of Beresford's cavalry on "the day" was called upon [at least on paper] to take in hand the remaining 4 coy's of 2/31st and the remnants of seven other battalions. Hill rapidly returned, recovered or not, and when Marshals Auguste Marmont’s and Nicholas Soult’s combined armies went back from an offensive stance in the Guadiana basin these much tried troops were able to have a moment's respite. A Provisional Brigade made up from the eight fragments of battalions was to be re-arranged, this was the end for 2/31st but as a result a good number of the men were put into a new unit to be called simply a Provisional Battalion and made up of 29th, 2/31st and 2/66th. Their commander would be that tough Lieutenant Colonel William Inglis of 57th, but, not for long.
In early August we see their new Brigade, still with Inglis sent off north to Castello Branco for a bit of a rest, in September a new Brigadier is appointed Major General John Byng and then shortly after this 29th is sent off home leaving 2/31st and 2/66th now as 1st Provisional Battalion.
This it seems is all finalised by early August of 1811 and so this is where we leave them and will see them again elsewhere.
Note; 2/31st Give all the appearances of having had great potential had they been able to call on drafts from their depots, not the case so we have to look to 1st Provisionals to follow their history further.
We shall not see this regiment at Waterloo.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2011
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