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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Dragon Rampant: The Royal Welch Fusiliers at War, 1793-1815

Graves, Donald E. Dragon Rampant: The Royal Welch Fusiliers at War, 1793-1815. London: Frontline Books, 2010. 288 pages. ISBN 9781848325517. Hardcover. $49.95

Dragoon Rampant

This study of the 23rd Foot arose from Donald E. Graves’ biography of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Pearson entitled Fix Bayonets! Being the Life and Times of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Pearson, 1781-1847 that was published in 2006 and after reading this I will certainly search this out. The book is based on a rich regimental archive of correspondence, memoirs and other documentation which have been used by a writer with an expert eye and the ability to tell a coherent story within the larger political and social background of the period. This is often missing in other regimental accounts.

This book stands out from most books published over the last 20 years or so. It is well researched and has a light conversational tone without the clutter of endless footnotes where interesting facts are hidden by less able writers. It does not glorify war but informs the reader of the actions of the 23rd Foot but the context to which they fought and died during the Napoleonic Wars. The whole life is explored and not just the battles. Being a soldier was more about being transported by ship, in garrison and the unimaginable hardship of campaign.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers, the 23rd Foot had a long and splendid history dating back to 1689 when it was raised as Lord Herbert’s Regiment. In 1702, when it was re-titled the “Welch Regiment of Fusiliers,” this was the earliest regional affiliations in the British Army. The 23rd Foot was one of the most travelled of regiments. It fought with distinction during the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War before its unstinting service during the American War of Independence from the hint of troubles in 1773 until the bitter end in 1783. These are covered by Mark Urban (2007) Fusiliers. Eight Years with the Redcoats in America that was recently published by Faber and Faber.

Each chapter is prefaced by the lyrics of contemporary soldier songs which is a lovely addition with the statue of the 23rd Foot as a watermark. Below is a summary of the chapters that shows the breadth of the book and the story of this fine old regiment.

Chapter 1 “The long Years of a Short Peace, 1784-1794”

The author vividly shows the depravations that periodically afflict the British Army when it is at peace. The toll on this proud regiment is clearly shown by only 15 officers and 86 men being present on parade at Doncaster on 19 May 1784. [p10] This was about a tenth of a full strength battalion. The strength of the regiment in this period was only 385 men at most when it was transferred to Ireland. [p20]

Chapter 2 “The army was suffering in a most shameful manner, 1793-1799”

The grenadiers and light companies were dispatched to the West Indies in November 1793. [p23] In March 1794, the regiment had almost doubled its peacetime numbers when it joined their flank companies in the West Indies. [p24] After 22 months in Santo Domingo [now Haiti and the Dominican Republic], the regiment was reduced to only 131 men mainly due to Yellow Fever when they returned to Britain in 1797. [p26] The human toll is vividly told. In May 1798, they were part of the unsuccessful raid on Ostend and were again in the Netherlands in August 1799. [pp30-35]

Chapter 3 “Our men attacked like wolves, July 1800-June 1803”

It is interesting to note that an officer and 36 men were trained as riflemen. For a decade there were riflemen in the light company of the 23rd Foot. [p37] In July 1800 the regiment departed from England to spend half of the next 5 months cooped up on transports with short spells ashore at Isle d’Houat in Quiberon Bay (4 weeks), Gibraltar (two weeks), Malta (6 weeks) and finally Rhodes. [pp37-40] Here Lt-Gen Abercromby trained the army upon a simplified version Dundas 1792 Regulations and light infantry tactics. [pp38-9] On 8 March 1801, the 23rd Foot landed at Aboukir Bay and this was followed by the battle of Alexandria. [pp 41-45] In November, the 23rd Foot garrisoned Malta for 2 months and then Gibraltar where it was reduced to only 290 all ranks. [pp47-9]

Chapter 4 “Where are the men to come from, 1804-1808”

In August 1803, the 23rd Foot arrived back in England amongst the invasion scares and the 2nd battalion was formed during 1804-07 in Wrexham, north Wales with many recruits from Welsh militia regiments formed in 1807. [pp51-61] In winter 1806, 1/23rd Foot spent a miserable 3 months in northern Germany before returning to Harwich then Colchester [p62]. In August-October 1807, the 1/23rd Foot participated in the Copenhagen campaign [pp65-67]

Chapter 5 “The excellence of the Fusilier Brigade, 1808-1809”

In January 1808, the 1/7th, 1/ 8th, 13th and 1/23rd Foot was sent to Canada after HMS Leopard had fired upon the USS Chesapeake who had refused to be boarded for inspection. [pp74-80] In January 1809, it participated in the invasion of Martinique. [pp80-83]

Chapter 6 “At every league dropped hundreds of our comrades, 1808-1809”

On 9 September 1808, the 2/23rd embarked from Cork for Spain and finally after almost two weeks off Corunna was finally permitted to land. [pp85-7] On 15 December, the 2/23rd was part of Baird’s advance-guard that finally joined up with Moore whose army was soon in retreat. This and the battle at Corunna are vividly told through the eyes of the participants. [88-102]. In July 1809, a half battalion of the 2/23rd Foot joined the Walcheren expedition and took many years to recover. [pp103-107]

Chapter 7 “The finest brigade in our army, April 1809-May 1811”

On 11 October 1810, 1/23rd departed Canada for Lisbon to become part of Wellington’s Army. [p114] They were first engaged at the battle of Redinha (Mar 1811) [123-4]. On 15 March 1811, the 1/23rd Foot marched south to join Beresford who had been ordered to take Badajoz. [pp 126-131]. 

Chapter 8 “A glorious day for the fusiliers! May-December 1811”

At the battle of Albuera (May 1811), both battalions in 1/23rd Foot in 4th (Cole) Division were distant spectators to the Polish lancers and two French hussar regiments that caught three British battalions in the flank while in line and only the 2/31st was able to form square. [pp136-7] At 1pm, the 4th (Cole) Division was formed in echelon to attack the French on the hill where the Fusilier brigade suffered 52% losses. [139-142]

Chapter 9 “We kept up a hot fire on the enemy, November 1811-November 1812”

After the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo (Jan 1812), Private Thomas Jones, formerly of the 23rd Foot, was found to be serving in the French garrison and was shot for desertion. [pp155-6] During the third siege of Badajoz (Mar-Apr 1812), the men from the 23rd Foot spend every third day in the trenches and then participated in the successful storm. [pp156-163] The part the regiment in the battle of Salamanca (22 June 1812) is skilfully drawn by the author. [pp164-171]

Chapter 10 “We paid Jack Frenchman in his own coin, November 1812-July 1813”

On 28 May 1813, Wellington invaded Spain and so started the long march into France. The author gives a number of interesting extracts that show the strict march discipline. [pp186-191] After Battle of Vitoria (21 June 1813), Private John McLaughlan plundered the French war chest but was forced to divide his gains amongst the rest of the regiment. [p197]

Chapter 11 “My people only thought of fighting, July 1813-June 1814”

At Roncesvalles, the 1/23rd with two other battalions held off superior numbers defending the Linguiz Ridge (July 1813) [pp202-6]. Again at Sorauren (July 1813), the 4th Division were outnumbered and defeated the French [pp206-11] There followed the battle of San Marcial (Aug 1813), siege of San Sebastian (Aug-Sept 1813), the crossings of the Bidassoa River (Oct 1813), Nivelle (Oct 1813) and Nive River (Dec 1813) [p212-5] In February 1814, the war came alive again with the battles of Orthes and finally Toulouse (Apr 1814) [pp219-222]

Chapter 12 “And gentle peace returning, June 1814-March 1815”

On 25 June 1814, 1/23rd Foot returned to England after 7 years of campaigning and with the 2nd battalion took up garrison duty in Gosport. [p225-6] That summer, new colours were ordered to replace those that had been carried since 1806. [p228]

Chapter 13 “Remember the old times boys, this is their last try, Waterloo 1815”

In March 1815, 1/23rd Foot was once more in the Netherlands and was brigaded with the 51st Light Infantry and the inexperienced 3/14th Foot. [pp237-38] These fought at Waterloo and there are a number of accounts of the aftermath of war. [pp241-59]

Epilogue “The deeds of the good old Fusiliers done due justice, 1815-2010”

On 1 March 2006, the Royal Welch Fusilier were amalgamated with the Royal Regiment of Wales to create The Royal Welsh. So ends one chapter that lasted 317 years to start another. [p272]

There are fine maps show clearly the campaigns and it is good that they are close to where the text discusses them. The diagram map on page 139 could have better distinguished between the 1/23rd Foot in the Fusilier Brigade and the 23rd Portuguese Line Regiments in Harvey’s Brigade. This took me time to realise when I consulted OOB in Oman. The excellent contemporary drawings in with the text are a very pleasing addition to the 16 pages of black and white plates in the centre of the book. Most of the characters that colour the book with the extracts from their diaries and memoirs are shown. The accounts include Drummer Richard Bentinck; Lieutenant George Booker; Major Jack Hill; Private Thomas Jeremiah and Lt-Col. Harvey Ellis who led his Fusiliers in some of the most famous actions of the time only to be killed at Waterloo.

This research is based firmly on diaries and period documents but they improve rather than distract from the strong narrative line. The easy-to-read and entertaining style is hard to put down makes this an accessible introduction to this fine regiment but the Peninsular War for the re-enactor and amateur historian alike.

Reviewed by Dr Stephen Summerfield, Loughborough University.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2010