Notes on Wellington’s Peninsular Regiments: 83rd Regiment of Foot
By Ray Foster
5th April 1809 Landed at Lisbon
This battalion is one of those 2nds that was rapidly scrambled together to make a show of force after Lieutenant General John Moore's army had evacuated from Corunna in January of that year, it will show an ability to survive well in excess of many other more favoured units. Very shortly Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley would come ashore returning to the Portuguese Capital and things would start to take shape. Going into May this battalion would find itself in a 'seventh brigade' under Major General Alan Cameron along with 2/9th, a company of 5/60th and the 2/10th Portuguese Line, in reality this was a third brigade of Major General Rowland Hill's Division, not yet so designated but acting that way in the field. The short campaign mounted to eject Marshal Nicholas Soult's Corp from Oporto and out by northern Portugal did not involve Cameron's men in any action other than to struggle along attempting to get accustomed to the way that their new CIC waged war. They are soon on their way back towards the Tagus valley and a concentration on Abrantes as the enemy up north departs only to find themselves re-organised and placed, still with Cameron, in 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, they have been joined by 1/61st but have lost 2/9th and 2/10th Portuguese Line. It is the end of June and they are about to enter Spain, in fact marching deep into that country to join with a large Spanish force under Captain General Gregorio Cuesta that is bent on contesting the occupation of Madrid. That very healthy figure of men present under arms is going down rapidly as this rather green battalion comes to terms with 'regularity', by the time that Cameron gets his men up to the large provincial town of Talavera, still on the Tagus they will have shed in excess of 300 men so that we see them before the Alberche stream standing at:
25th July 1809 (on the Alberche in front of Talavera)
Whilst it may be said that this number would represent the best and hardiest of them it is still not a great way to enter your first big general action and when in close contact with Wellesley's 'cream-of-the-crop' 1st Division. It is three days later, as the army has retired onto a position behind and to the north of Talavera to accept battle with King Joseph Bonaparte’s army, there has already been some skittish action with the enemy which will have done nothing to improve their relationship with things Spanish and when it comes to the showdown on 28th July there stands 1st Division out on bare ground, almost flat and the only protection a turbid stream, the Portina separating them from an enemy which has largely ignored their Spanish allies so that it can concentrate its efforts on the British contingent. Being the height of the summer and no shade the day very quickly becomes unpleasant, Cameron's men will be visited early on by the usual cannonballs but the main actions seem to avoid them at least until the sun has risen beyond its zenith now beating down mercilessly, there is a long period of inactivity albeit standing to arms before a huge column of the enemy infantry is seen to be assembling full ahead. It is almost 3.00pm but, this looks serious, 1st Division hold their fire as the columns come through the smoky haze, then as the range becomes sure give them an almighty volley, continue with more of the same and see the survivors stagger, turn and run off. This is all too much for the discipline of the much vaunted Guards Brigade and their comrades of KGL who follow them up crossing the stream and dashing on and admittedly doing the enemy much damage, Cameron however has already steadied his brigade and brought them to rest in ordinary military style ready to reform a firing line when out of the gloom of musket smoke back they come pursued by a new enemy fresh and thirsting for revenge. Cameron and his tiny brigade are swept away in the rush of friend and foe all mixed up and without cohesion, it being left to Major General John Mackenzie Brigade of 3rd Division to plug the huge hole in the firing line thus caused. Many good men died needlessly here, the situation was expensively stabilised, the violently contested ground held and the enemy driven off but the survivors of 2/83rd would surely be wondering, is a battle always like this?
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gordon was dead as were Lieutenants William Dahman, Francis Flood, and John Montgomery along with 38 of their men, Captains George Noleken, James Reynolds and Thomas Summerfield, Lieutenants Connell Baldwin, Henry Braham, John Nicholson, Robert Payne, Henry Richardson, Ensigns Francis Abell, Thomas Boggie, Michael Carey, Francis Johnston, Henry Letoller and 202 of the men all wounded, 28 more to be taken prisoner here too, 53% of the battalion brought down and this a battle won! When time and energy was found to count the cost 2/83rd would stand down at:
29th July 1809 (after the battle at Talavera)
For these survivors there is to be no rest for the next seven weeks, the summer heat prevails everywhere, bodies must be buried if possible or piled up to be burned where there are just too many, scavenging for any sort of food is paramount this necessity to become almost an art form if any are to survive at all. The French have two Corps under Marshals Nicholas Soult and Michel Ney making progress down country to threaten Wellington's [new title just granted for this 'victory'] line of communication which forces the army to leave the scene of their so-called triumph in some haste dropping their many seriously wounded comrades both at the makeshift hospitals in Talavera and, as the retreat develops, all along the roads and hill paths to the south of the Tagus River. The way is through rocky barren country, only the occasional eaten-out village and isolated farm to show that this route ever could have sustained life, certainly not since these thousands of weary warriors spread out like a swarm of locusts making their way towards the safety of the Guadiana valley. At Truxillo they can stop for a short while just enough to allow some of the stragglers to come up and for more hospitals to be established for those unable to go further. They are still up in the high country close to the Sierras but can at least look forward to a steady trek downhill into the Guadiana watershed.
Unfortunately once down by that river the battalions, like those that were spending the same time at the Walcheren campaign that same year would soon pick up the fevers of this area and spread it amongst their comrades. It was only when the summer heat subsided and commissaries could obtain food supplies from the Portuguese magazines that the numbers would begin to hold steady, 2/83rd of course might just have a large convalescent corps waiting to fill their ranks from those 300 men left behind before this ill-fated campaign had started but, this would not show until the whole army had retired back into that country at the end of the year. We see that during this new year 2/83rd will be one of those 2/nds which regularly were sent out of the field going down to Lisbon for a period of restoration, no doubt the sergeants would winkle out men lingering about the Belem camps to swell their ranks, there is plenty of time for this as the enemy now being led by another Marshal, Andre Massena is slowly assembling a large force to begin a long campaign whose outcome will decide who occupies Portugal. By the end of July 1810 things are looking ominous with both sides starting to build their Divisions into armies of some consequence and facing off across the frontier hill countryside and already with the enemy vanguard through the Coa valley, for 2/83rd this meant a long wait until a battalion came up from Cadiz to take their place at Lisbon, then, on 12th September, none too soon, they get on their way marching directly up to the chosen battle-site on a long ridge near the convent of Busaco. The battalion has managed to bring to the line just enough men to look respectable and find themselves under the hand of no less a warrior than Major General Thomas Picton, they will be brigaded with 2/5th and 3 companies of 5/60th along with the HQ of that battalion of rifle/sharpshooters all commanded by Major General Stafford Lightburne. When the two opposing armies clash on 27th September 1810 2/83rd will show:
27th September (on the ridge at Busaco)
This little corps will have a much more gentle reintroduction to combat than their first experience, not being used to any great degree only Lieutenant Nicholas Colthurst and 4 of his men being wounded this day and these, in all likelihood all part of its Light company out skirmishing. So, when the army retires from this salutary victory down to the environs of Lisbon we shall see that they hold their numbers as well as any of their more senior battalions going into November and safety in the lines of Torres Vedras at:
1st November 1810 (in the Torres Vedras Lines)
This time will be well spent becoming accustomed to life with 3rd Division Lightburne however has decided to depart early being replaced by Major General Charles Colville as Brigadier who will have them in hand when Massena finally gives up his ambitions in Portugal. During the late autumn while ensconced in the 'Lines' this brigade became significantly enlarged by the introduction of 94th Regiment from Cadiz then again in early March is swelled further when 2/88th are released from ignominious garrison duty in Lisbon to become a part of this brigade, 5/60th though have moved their HQ and those 3 companies of riflemen into 3rd Division’s 1st Brigade. The advance in the wake of the enemy evacuation of the country involves 2/83rd in brief contacts with the rearguard as they pass through the several defendable villages and river crossings, these encounters only occasionally coming to serious blows however. Throughout the whole retirement back to the Agueda and the Spanish/Portuguese border these little combats would cost 2/83rd only four men wounded and one gone missing, a few would fall by the wayside as a part of normal attrition and when the army stands to arms on the battle site at Fuentes d Onoro at the beginning of May we see them assembled with:
1st May 1811 (on the field at Fuente d Onoro)
The first day of battle here commences on 3rd May and as 3rd Division is positioned behind the village itself where the serious work is to be done it is no surprise that we find 2/83rd 'in at the sharp end' what does surprise however are the inconsistencies between the text and the appendices in Oman's 4th Volume where this action is recorded, the mystery is not cleared when we use JA Hall to get at the casualty details either. We are told that on this first day all of the Light companies of several brigades are inserted into Fuentes village, one of these brigades is Colville's so, we should expect 2/83rd to have a part in this, but, shortly after this revelation we see that 2/83rd with 460 men stands close up in the rear as first reserve. On the second day of fighting we hear absolutely nothing of the exploits of 2/83rd, weird! In the whole of this two day engagement Oman shows a marked lack of knowledge when it comes down to Light infantry and who does what and where, certainly he gives us on more than one occasion the clue that his appendices compiler is the final arbiter of fact whilst text content comes second so, where does this leave 2/83rd? Having closely studied the street-fights at Fuentes d Onoro of 3rd-5th May as it affected every fragment of men showing casualties therein for the two days I expect the events, so far as 2/83rd are concerned to unfold as follows. Wellington’s Dispatches mentions Major Henry Carr as leading the battalion on the first day when I deduce that its Light company is down there in the village fighting the good fight, this part of the whole two day general action cannot have been such a desperately fought engagement as individual participants imagined, especially where 2/83rd are concerned. The whole battalion is there ready for use but, by the end of the day just nine men are wounded and three more missing, most likely left behind badly wounded in some captured building. It cannot be otherwise supposed than that all of these men came from its Light company and that the rest of the battalion standing in reserve was never called upon for that purpose. No officer is recorded as hit on this first day. The mystery comes rolling in on 5th May when we expect that the village street fight is taken up with great intensity by both sides battling furiously for this, by now, pile of ruins.
Having no textual information whatever we must fall back on the casualty lists, Lieutenant Jones Ferris is killed here and Lieutenant Henry Vereker wounded [JA Hall] while 5 men are killed and 28 wounded [Oman] so, all the signs here of the support role which we are told happened two days earlier! Obviously where street fighting is a major part of a particular combat facts are hard to come by so having digressed inexcusably we must move on, this battalion will stand down at:
5th May 1811 (after the street-fight at Fuentes d Onoro)
Even before this battle had begun the fate of the French commander had been sealed, Marshal Auguste Marmont who had been an observer of this attempt by the so called Army of Portugal to return to its 'own ground' had in his pocket Napoleon's order for that General to take over from the old victor of so many battles in the European theatres. Retiring back on Cuidad Rodrigo Marmont spent some time re-shaping his new army ready for yet another attack on the enemy now sat about the hinterland to the west of the Agueda, to give himself better odds he was able to call up assistance from other parts of the French occupying forces and, by September began to feel out the opposition. Colville's Brigade has shed 2/88th that having been drafted into its 1st battalion in 3rd Division, 1st Brigade, as some compensation for this loss he will have received 77th Regiment, a unit as weak for numbers as most single battalion and 2/nds were at that time. We pick them up in front of Fuente Guinaldo in extended bivouac camps centred on El Bodon, their strength at the time:
15th September 1811 (at and about El Bodon)
Clearly there are no drafts or returning convalescents coming up at this time but, very shortly, there is an enemy coming up, principally in the shape of cavalry troopers but with artillery attached and some infantry to the rear for support. On 25th September at El Bodon Colville's Brigade is attacked by waves of enemy cavalry although the units are so split up that only 2/5th and 77th are directly in their path, while they are being threatened the other half of the brigade 2/83rd and 94th are forewarned sufficiently to be able to strike camp and head towards a confluence while all the time retreating. With the friendly light cavalry taking most of the attention the two parts are able to come together travelling in close column but being regularly plied with horse-artillery-fire each time the enemy was given the opportunity to get close. It appears that all of the casualties in 2/83rd would be inflicted in this way, 5 men falling back injured and made prisoner, 5 more killed and 14 wounded but able to continue the march off to the safety of units of heavy cavalry which, once alerted came up from the rear. No officers fell in all of this so:
25th September (after the combat of El Bodon)
This little 2nd battalion is displaying all of the attributes well documented when referring to those corps, which whilst containing hardened infantrymen found it very difficult to hold up numbers against steady attrition and only occasional contacts with an enemy. When the army goes into winter quarters after this minor brush it will come out into the field at the beginning of 1812 with slightly better figures, perhaps picking up as many as 50 men from returned convalescents during this welcome three month rest. As a regular part now of the 'Fighting 3rd' the brigade, no longer under Colville who has transferred elsewhere, will get up to and over the Agueda in company with large numbers of men set to put Cuidad Rodrigo under siege, it is New Year's day, freezing cold, Colonel James Campbell of 94th has the brigade and Major Carr will very likely lead 2/83rd. They are to be used in shifts to dig trenches and build gun-batteries and occasionally to stand guard against sorties. This work is always fraught with danger, the defenders ever alert and willing to snipe off individuals while the trench diggers will also have their own sharpshooters whose job it is to take on this enemy almost on a one-to-one basis. On 12th January Lieutenant Joseph Mathews is shot down in one of these duels and no doubt there will be that small but steady night-by-night reduction of numbers as before mentioned. The storm is set for 19th January when 2/83rd will have the task of remaining in the forward trenches to lay down as much protective musketry as they can while others assault the breaches, however it seems that the Light company will go with Lieutenant Colonel Bryan O Toole's Portuguese to escalade the bridge outwork and force an entry via the gates there. It will be in this enterprise that the only recorded casualties for this unit are to be found, one man killed and four injured. To these must be added those who are always put out of action during siege work so:
19th January 1812 (after the taking of Cuidad Rodrigo)
Two months later the 'fighting Divisions' are re-assembled away down south in the Guadiana basin all set to take on the same exercise before Badajoz, this turns out to be a much more serious affair! Once the regular siege work is under way there is an understanding that the outwork of Fort Picurina must be subdued, it is the night of 24th-25th March, so, volunteers are called upon and Captain Henry Powys of 2/83rd will lead a number of his men, maybe as many as 65, along with others to take this strongpoint. The volunteers of 2/83rd although held briefly as reserve are quickly called upon by Major General James Kempt to launch an attack at part of a salient where the defences are damaged, in they go against stiff opposition gaining their objective but only when 63% of all the attackers have been brought down themselves. In order then to rationalise casualties it is a simple matter to allow 41 men hit here, we know that about this time both Captain Powys and Ensign Isaac Hackett received mortal wounds, which saw them die 9 and 6 days respectively afterwards, so:
25th March 1812 (after the storming of Fort Picurina)
The Governor and garrison at Badajoz are to put up a desperate defence once the breaches are declared manageable by the siege engineers, it is the night of the 6th April and as a result of some daring reconnaissance [by men of 45th Regiment] it is hoped that a secondary assault can be mounted successfully to escalade the castle walls while others are doing the work in the breaches and elsewhere. Picton generously volunteers his 3rd Division for this venture and so it is that when the call comes 2/83rd will find employment once the assault has fully committed its defenders. As a part of a 'third wave' 2/83rd will be led again by Major Carr and cross the Rivillas river by a narrow ford coming on to the castle walls where scaling ladders had been raised and fought over by their 1st Brigade, both Picton and Kempt had been injured, Champlemonde's Portuguese Brigade was being driven off but, once there were three brigades to feed the ladders this it seems was just too much for the defenders, Picton came back and more ladders were found to give his men the numbers to command the ramparts then, once steadied, into it again. The story of those other efforts to capture this fortress would be of little regard to the men of 2/83rd by this time, they had been sufficiently exposed to the enemy fire to have Captain George Fry, Ensign Edward Evans and 22 of the men killed, amongst the 46 wounded were Lieutenants Francis Barry, Charles Bowles, Charles Broomfield, Charles O'Neill, John Vavasour, Ensign Ambrose Lane and Volunteer William Illins, the survivors no doubt would join in the free-for-all sacking of this place once down in the town, an event of some ferocity by all accounts, so:
7th April 1812 (after the storm and sack of Badajoz)
This is to be a very busy year, already two actions fought, Picton out of action with his wounds and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Wallace of 88th temporary Division Commander, 77th Regiment is sent down to Lisbon for the usual reason of that fragility which prevents 'regularity', and, to retain numbers 1/5th joins and shortly, once decided on the offensive, the CIC has them on the march into the plains beyond the Agueda and up to the Tormes river where, having subdued the small but tenacious garrisons of the bridge forts at Salamanca on they go again. Marmont and his Army of Portugal manœuvre against them in long parallel sweeps each trying for the advantage of ground until late in July, in full summer the die is cast, Major General Edward Packenham has picked up the Division which is very much out on the right flank of the army after a long curving march around its rear. We have good figures in the lead up to the battle on the Arapiles that showed 2/83rd to register a lowly;
15th July 1812 (prior to the battle on the Arapiles)
On 22nd July then we have both Marmont and Wellington watching each other in hopes of divining their separate intentions, there has already been a swift tactical move on the French side to take up an advantage offered as they close on the long gentle hills which rise out of an otherwise generally flat plain to the south of Salamanca, the Great and Lesser Arapiles. Packenham's men are nowhere near this movement being rather busy themselves in that flank march well to the rear, it is already after 3.00pm and the Division is at rest by now but still in its columns out of sight of all but their own Light cavalry screen which on this day is a Portuguese Brigade led by Major General Benjamin D'Urban. Within half an hour a lone horseman is seen rapidly approaching from where the main force should be, it is Wellington himself and at such a pace all who saw him knew that big things were about to take place. Campbell still has the brigade and will soon come to its head as the whole column is put in motion, not towards the rest of the army but full ahead and reforming on the march across a broad open expanse towards the enemy whose dust cloud eventually is to be seen away at the back of a long flat-topped hill. It seems as though this is going to turn out to be an isolated, straight fight, one Division against another, almost but not quite! As it turns out 2/83rd are to the left of a fourth column of lines of advance and as the distance to travel is at least two miles of rough terrain they will only see others to each flank converging on this hill to their front. D' Urban's cavalry out to the right upon approaching the enemy became screened by clumps of trees through which only the swirling dust could be seen. General Thomieres' French Division had begun by now to come across the end of Packenham's fast approaching lines so that when discovered by the flanking cavalry of the Portuguese it was only a matter of driving them back onto 3rd Division who had opened their columns into full lines and all crashed into each other at once on the hill slopes. Thrown into disorder by the cavalry troopers the enemy infantry were just able to organise their rear battalions and actually push out a host of skirmishers to combat the up-coming lines. Campbell's Brigade once D' Urban had loosed his sabres were now in third line so very little action came their way. For 2/83rd it would be a matter of getting to the top of this rise, perhaps receiving some musketry from the voltigeurs and a few cannon balls, which always are able to penetrate through foe and friend alike but then to follow up a routing rabble of men all along the crest. Thomieres was mortally wounded, his artillery overrun and captured, and his Division melted away to nothing more than scattering fugitives.
It is doubtful whether Campbell's men got into any more action for a very long time, there would be bodies to strip and search for valuables, prisoners to collect together and some way, maybe a mile, to the left another great clash of arms to observe, even more violent than that with Thomieres and his men. Only Lieutenant Thomas Gascoyne of the two officers wounded is named while two men are killed and 30 more injured so:
22nd July 1812 (after the battle on the Arapiles)
With such fragile figures as those above it speaks well of 2/83rd and their comrades of Campbell's Brigade that this battalion of 2nds is spared the disruption of being held back to go with Major General Henry Clinton's charges northward, certainly 2/5th is drafted into its 1st battalion a move which perhaps would have occurred as a matter of course with or without battle losses.
So, off they go down to Madrid where the Capital city is just waiting to be occupied by the victors, no doubt with some light celebrations to follow. The CIC soon loses interest in all of this adulation and takes a part of the army up north to amalgamate with Clinton then proceed to Burgos and a tussle which concerns 3rd Division not at all, they are left to form part of a defensive ring about Madrid, Packenham giving way to Colville as late as the end of October. Major General Charles von Alten has the Corps for a while only to nominally hand over to Hill as he comes up from the long march via the Tagus valley, even when this branch of the army moves completely away from Madrid in response to the threat from King Joseph and Marshal Soult 3rd Division find only regular soldierly duties to perform. The story of the retirement to the old Arapiles battleground all performed in foul late autumn weather followed by a miserable retreat onto the line of the Agueda reduces numbers in all battalions, some far worse than others but, having extremely poor records to deal with on this we can only estimate that 2/83rd would fare in an 'average' manner going down from what was small to minute:
29th November 1812 (behind the Agueda about Cuidad Rodrigo)
For some time Wellington had been under pressure from his masters at Horse Guards to send home his depleted 2nds and even those singles and 1sts that looked weak in number, he countered this by joining several of these units by pairs into Provisionals, a fate that those in 2/83rd would by now be expecting or hoping for to save them being taken off to England altogether to recruit.
Nothing of the sort, they are allowed to go into winter quarters up in the Portuguese frontier hill country and go about the business of drawing in their convalescents, sufficiently to bring numbers up in late April to;
26th April 1813 (cantoned in Portugal)
Encouraging transfers and, rather successfully it seems, somehow procuring a large draft of men from their home depots, they continue to prosper even receiving praise from a CIC who was ever sparing of that commodity. So it is that when the green pasture of late spring had allowed the army to go on the offensive with the largest numbers ever under his command Wellington set them off north to sweep King Joseph and all his men out of Spain for good. With only brigade figures to work with it is still possible to see that 2/83rd must have come up to no less than:
25th May 1813 (on the march out of Portugal)
During the winter a battalion which had come up from Cadiz with Skerrett, 2/87th, had joined and by the time that the great northward march begins Picton returns so that Colville will pick up 2nd Brigade which is how they will look when the French decide to turn about and stand a battle on the banks of the Zadorra before Vittoria. There will be virtually no change to numbers as this general action gets under way but, with 3rd Division nominally subservient to Lieutenant General George Ramsey Earl Dalhousie's 7th Division there is to be an annoying delay waiting for the latter corps to appear at their appointed position in the tactics of the day. Picton, never a one to suffer an indignity lightly sets his 'fighting villains' loose across the river to crash into the enemy at a crucial time and place, Colville's Brigade having crossed at a ford well upstream could see that with speed they might get into the rear of the enemy fighting line. General Darmagnac on the French side was best able to contest this area by also getting along at speed into the village of Margarita where a defence would hold up this dangerous advance. The French got there first to put up a staunch resistance until more men could fill in the gaps, Colville's men fighting hard and particularly their 'new' battalion 2/87th, are forced to take to the ground suffering as all must who mount the attack in street fighting. It will be hereabouts then that 2/83rd will do their bit for the day, Major George Widdrington leading and suffering a mortal wound for his courage, Captain Joseph Venables also falling severely wounded will not recover, dying a full 9 months later, Lieutenants Robert Bloxham and Thomas Lindsay with another 18 of the men being killed and Lieutenant Connell Baldwin, William Smith and 50 of their men wounded before the enemy depart going off later at full rout pace and leaving a vast treasure train at the mercy of the victors, so:
22nd June 1813 (after the battle at Vittoria)
The march into the Bastan hills in search of General Bertrand Clausel will cause 3rd Division to come to a halt close to the blockaded fortress city of Pamplona where for some time they will rest and, when others are involved in desperate actions in the Pyrenean Passes Picton's men will be strangely inactive for the whole time. Colville's Brigade even missing any real fighting in either of the general actions fought around Sorauren village at the end of July. This state of rest continued giving the battalion sufficient opportunity to lift numbers, by September there has been another change at the top, Picton stepping down, unwell, Colville being gazetted to take the Division in October passing on 2nd Brigade to Colonel John Keane who held on to it to the end of the war. By the time that 3rd Division does get some fighting to do again it will be at the Nivelle crossings in mid-November and this with sure figures available although inflated by the insertion of all of their supernumeries, in this case for 2/83rd perhaps as many as 30 of these non-combatants on the paymaster's lists,
10th November 1813 (at the crossings of the Nivelle)
Keane's Brigade then are in a central position for the attack which has to confront several earthworks, redoubts, positional batteries and even a great abatis thrown across their path before the Bridge of Amotz which is their final objective, 2/38th have a supporting role as it turns out, the other three battalions catching most of the casualties in their struggle to master a stern defence by General Conroux's Division, that General being killed in the event. A comparatively easy day for 2/83rd with Lieutenants Francis Barry, Charles Watson and Herbert Wyatt, Ensign Burgess and 36 men wounded and seven killed before the river crossing was won at Amotz, the official history will show great deeds trumpeted by Light Division infantry scribes at this battle but any careful study will reveal that it was Keane's Brigade that broke the back of French resistance on the Nivelle but, as is so often the case, those that sing their own praises the loudest are so often the ones most heard!
10th November (after the crossing of the Nivelle)
Yet again there will be no work for 3rd Division when the army comes up to the Nive and has several disjointed combats with Soult's men in front of Bayonne in December, the troops however will do a good deal of tactical manœuvring in the rear in very wet conditions which continue on forcing the whole army to go into whatever quarters they are lucky enough to find. By Christmas Day Picton will have finally returned, all remaining under cover until the frosts harden the ground enough to move on again.
Author’s Note: It is about now that Horse Guards and Wellington are engaged in a tussle regarding those battalions with low numbers, we know from Supplementary Dispatches Vol 8 P’s 496-7-8 that on 10th January 1814 2/83rd is amongst those units having less than 350 men in the ranks. We are also informed just 16 days later [DAG Office] that this battalion can just muster 391 men PUA [with officers included], none of which measures up to the regular expectations when examining Oman’s Appendix figures over extended periods. This problem of numbers continues to be baffling for a large number of battalions during this whole late 1813-end of war 1814 time, for 2/83rd using the lesser figures would see this little corps melt away to nought at Toulouse if that tiny number were indeed the true sum of PUA’s. Here then is a mystery awaiting solution, figures there are a-plenty, facts so very few!
Back to the task in hand.
Soult's ever shrinking army is forced off eastward across the foothills of the French Pyrenees during February, Keane's Brigade Light companies on 24th of that month is sent across the Gave d'Oloron by a difficult ford near Sauveterre to gain a foothold on its right bank. We cannot expect that 2/83rd would muster any more than 610 able men [using brigade numbers] at this time so that the Light company probably managed to count 55 of them, once over the river there was a path leading up to a gap in a stone wall, it has to be the case that the company of 1/5th was in the lead here because when a whole battalion of the enemy emerged at the charge from behind this wall it was they who took the greater share of the casualties. Pressed back down the path and even into the river over 30% of the light infantrymen were either killed wounded, taken prisoner or, for some small number swept away by the freezing waters of the river. No officer casualties are recorded on 24th February for 2/83rd but if the rest of the losses were equally shared would count no less than 10 men killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or drowned. Three days later Soult draws up his army at a strong defensive line of hills to his right of Orthez we can only suppose that in Keanes Brigade of 3rd Division 2/83rd would stand to arms that day at:
27th February 1814 (before the battle at Orthez)
In the column marches up to this battleground 3rd Division having crossed the Gave de Pau between Cauneille and Lahonton by more tricky fords once again being frozen stiff by the icy currents, had arrived to take up positions leading them along high ridges, one for each of the British brigades and Power's Portuguese following up in rear of Keane's. Not only were these ridges separated by a mile of low lying heavy wet ground but upon approaching the enemy firing lines each column head was confronted by an arc of well placed lines. It must be observed that this fight was the exact opposite to all of those early defensive arrays set down by Wellington and eulogised by military historians as the typical line-versus-column confrontation, let us see how it went when the 'boot was on the other foot'! Keane's men were faced by General Darmagnac's Division whose first line of defence contained an artillery battery and the usual swarm of voltigeurs spread out in the lower ground backing onto the Lafaurie Knoll. Picton had sent up every Light company available, perhaps nine of them in front of Keane's Brigade, these were enough to overpower the enemy skirmishers but then when it came down to the serious fighting both sides, using their battalion companies became bogged down in a duel which simply went on-and-on with the attackers either being picked off or going to ground with occasional flurries of activity for no less than two hours. Unlike the early days of line-versus-column the French remained safely ensconced along their lines that followed a road from Dax to Orthez and no doubt was sufficiently sunken to give that feeling of security, which often prevents a side with an advantage from leaving its safe harbour to complete the job.
No matter, a stalemate was arrived at until Wellington, having noted that others had come to a halt for roughly the same reasons was forced to adopt a second assault, this time with new troops added and, using some of the heavy ground not previously seen as negotiable was able to put in a better co-ordinated, less isolated push. Packenham, in the role of a senior staff officer this day led on Major General Thomas Brisbane's Brigade of 3rd Division on a broad front which broke into the previously solid defensive line, this, about a mile to the right of Keane's men. It was only when this flank threat became obvious to Darmagnac's men that Keane was able to make any headway at all, but, once this flank began to roll back up they went to exact some punishment on their tormentors. Quite rapidly the setback for the enemy evolved into a retreat off the main position and inevitably, when pursued became a rout. It is reasonable then to see that a well placed line will have a great chance of success even against very determined columns of attack so long as its flanks are not threatened, but, what of 2/83rd in all of this? Two Majors of the battalion were present, the more well known Major Carr being seriously wounded and, [perhaps his junior] Major John Blaquiere slightly so, Captain Gilbert Elliot, Lieutenants Connell Baldwin, Arthur Stephenson, Ensigns Pierce Nugent, Joseph Swinburne and 47 of their men were also wounded and just five killed, so:
27th February 1814 (after the battle for Orthez)
When the army took up ground thus forfeited and re-established a new 'line' the CIC decided for a short halt to enable others of his force to journey to Bordeaux a large important city which had just indicated its desire to change sides, for 3rd Division however all that this would mean was that for 12 days they would prepare for the next marching session. By 19th March they had been on the move long enough to have contacted a large rearguard close to Vic-Biggore a few miles short of the Ardour river, we are told that a sharp combat took place there and, when this resistance had been overcome it was only to get as far as the Tarbes road that day. A number of Divisions of both sides had manœuvred against each other all day as either contestant sought to trap/evade the other, it does seem as though 3rd Division troops in being closest suffered as many as 250 casualties in this but, not a word as to who these men might be, it does help in a small way however to see that there would be no chance of numbers being increased and, in fact we do know that the Divisional sum [the only figure given] was well down on the Orthez PAB's when next they stand to arms to do battle. This will be the final one of the war and of course, in front of Toulouse a city with looping water courses both a large river [the Garonne] and a broad canal. With only the vaguest of ways of approaching individual battalion figures it will be best, after some use of % calculations to allow 2/83rd to have on this field:
10th April 1814 (on the Garonne at Toulouse)
When Picton mounts a full scale attack on the French across the Royal Canal it will be Brisbane's Brigade that will be sacrificed there, Keane's men only catching stray shots as they stand in support of an assault which was never going anywhere, 2/83rd lose one man only wounded and will finish their war with just a little over 450 men fit and able, marching off all the way back to the Biscay coast to be embarked for other shores and other adventures.
This regiment was not to be found the following year at the Waterloo campaign.
Here we have a battalion that defied all of those efforts by the ‘Establishment’ at Horse Guards to withdraw units that fell below the standard for numbers, or even to compromise to pair them off with any of the others that showed figures too low to stand alone. Their own divisional commanders may well have put in more than just a word or two on their behalf, certainly Wellington himself expressed his views as to the value of every man who had stood the test of reliability to the point that his regular correspondence on the subject to that ‘Establishment’ contained some well chosen words that placed his own views on a level that almost defied the Duke of York to challenge them. The outcome as history shows, regardless of all the ifs-and-buts left 2/83rd to carry on doing what they did best in that Fighting Third Division.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2010
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