1st Battalion, 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers
A Summary of their service during the Napoleonic Wars
1793 – 1815
Battalion Infantry. 6th Warwickshire Regiment and 23rd & Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 1812
Most of the information in this summary is to be found in Dragon Rampant by Donald A Graves. It is an excellent book and recommended to those who would like to know more about the glorious history of this Regiment.
1793 – 1799 West Indies, Britain and Europe
February – Republican France deciding to lend a hand to all the oppressed people of the world ends up making enemies out of most of the countries of Europe. In 1793 she went to war with Britain. Initial thoughts by the British government were to strangle Frances’ foreign trade by attacking her overseas possessions. At the same time this would provide an opportunity for the British to expand their own Empire. However, the proposed large numbers of troops were not sent to the West Indies but were used closer to home in Holland
November – The flank companies [A British battalion consisted of eight ‘centre’ companies and two flank companies, Grenadier and Light, making a total of ten companies] of the battalion were sent to the West Indies as part of a small force. At home a new commanding officer Lt. Colonel J J Ellis busied himself with recruiting for the battalion..
March – The rest of the RWF joined their flank companies in an attack on Santa Domingo [modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic]. Although British forces had captured a number of French possessions such as Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Lucia, an earlier attack on Santa Domingo had failed due to sickness.
This second British campaign was again unsuccessful Yellow fever struck the British Forces and within three months 319 were dead out of the 655 members of the battalion who had landed on the island.
The tattered remnants of the battalion arrive back in Britain and were stationed at Kidderminster, later moving to Chatham. A new commanding officer Lt. Colonel Thomas Peter was understandably very keen to recruit!
The battalion moved to barracks in Chelmsford and then on to the Nore at the mouth of the Thames where it helped surpress a series of mutinies by sailors of the Royal Navy.
Yet another new Commanding Officer arrived, Lt., Colonel Richard Talbot.
May – The battalion made an amphibious attack on Ostend where it blew up a variety of locks to flood the area. Although successful, bad weather prevented the troops from re embarking on the Royal Navy ships. The battalion suffered 4 dead, 11 wounded and 183 captured including Lt., Colonel Talbot. The battalion moved to barracks in Guernsey
February – Moved to Southampton
March – Moved to Canterbury in readiness for a new expedition to Holland. The campaign intended to take the Dutch fleet into safe keeping [better our hands than the French!] and to liberate Holland from French control with the support of a Russian army that had been promised.
August – Sail from Ramsgate and land in Holland with some success. The Dutch fleet is acquired but the troops are withdrawn as Russian support is not forthcoming.
October – Disaster strikes! Some of the battalion are on board the Dutch frigate Valk when it goes aground on sands of Yarmouth and breaks apart. Of the 416 on board only 25 survive. 265 officers and men of the battalion are lost. Over the winter of 1799-1800 the battalion is based at Battle barracks in Hastings. During this time 1 officer and 36 men are sent to Horesham to be trained in use of the Baker rifle. For the rest of the decade the battalion has a small contingent of riflemen.
1800 – 1803 Egypt and Gibraltar
June – The battalion moves to Plymouth and a new commanding Officer Lt., Colonel John Hall took over
July – The period where the battalion amongst others referred to themselves as the floating army. Transports took the troops to Ferrol in Northern Spain, then Cadiz, then to Gibralter which consisted of two weeks spent in the Atlantic waiting for the right winds.
November – Land in Malta
December – Once again on ship, landing at Marmouris bay turkey for supplies
In 1798 Napoleon led a French army to Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The intention was to disrupt Britains’ communications with India and even to provide a staging post for French involvement in the sub continent. Although Napoleon managed to slip past the Royal Navy soon after his troops had disembarked Nelson destroyed most of the supporting ships at the Battle of the Nile. Although the French were at first militarily successful against the Ottoman forces the Royal Navy had seriously affected the ability of the French to resupply their troops. Cut off Napoleon eventually slipped back to France leaving his army to face the Ottomans who were soon to be joined by the British.
September – Transports move the army to Egypt where amongst others the battalion stormed ashore at Aboukir bay. The defending French were routed and the British forces after the battle of Alexandria finally entered Cairo. The battalion then moved on to Malta where they were instrumental in putting down mutiny’s by the 1st and 25th Regiments. These were caused by the sadistic treatment meted out by the islands commander the Duke of Kent. His authority was upheld but he was never again given high commanded. On the 27th of March 1802 with a change in administration in Britain and the temporary exhaustion of France the Peace of Amiens was signed.
1803 – 1807 Britain, Germany and Denmark
After a short time of peace France and Britain were once again at each others throats. The battalion returned to Britain and was stationed on the Isle of Wight and then Eastbourne awaiting a French invasion.
November – Another new commanding officer. Lt., Colonel James Losack
While the battalion is stationed in Ramsgate, Nelsons’ victory at Trafalgar removes any immediate threat of invasion by the French. As Britain was now in alliance with Austria the battalion went to Germany in an attempt to open up a new front in the war and to link up with Austrian forces. Unfortunately the Austrians were forced to sue for peace and the British troops in Germany spent a rather chilly winter doing little before returning to Britain.
Back in Colchester recruiting.
April – A new commanding officer Lt., Colonel Evan Jones
July – The battalion embarked once again, this time from Harwich their destination Denmark. The British government had become aware of a secret treaty between the French and the Russians. Among the clauses in this treaty the French were allowed possession of the Danish, Swedish and Portuguese fleets. This Britain could not allow as these combined with the ships of France and her ally Spain could cause problems for the Royal Navy. On this basis it was decided that the Danish fleet would be taken into ‘protective custody’! The battle of Copenhagen ensued! The battalion was part of the land based assault on Copenhagen, but after two days of Copenhagen being bombarded the Dutch surrendered their fleet.
November – By the 28th the battalion was back in barracks at Colchester and with yet another new commanding officer. Lt., Colonel Henry Ellis
1808 – 1809 North America and the West Indies
May – On the 13th the battalion boarded ships at Portsmouth and set sail for Canada. Then followed a year of outpost duty in Halifax and along the Canada – United States boarder. Tension between the United States and Britain gave cause for concern and a need to reinforce the number of regular troops in the colony. Any potential altercation between Britain and her old colony came to nothing.
2nd BATTALION : Retreat from Corunna, 1808
The Keys of the postern gate of Corunna, Spain, 1808. Now held at the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum in Caernarfon Castle © People’s Collection Wales
January – With all seeming peaceful in North America the battalion was part of an attack on the island of Martinique. This successful campaign ended up with the French surrendering and the Eagles of the 28th and 82nd coming into British possession. There was much excitement as these were the first to be captured. The battalion returned to Halifax but rumour had it that they would soon go to the Iberian Peninsula
The Peninsula campaign was to be the main overseas area of operations for the British during the Napoleonic wars. It is not in the remit of this article to cover in detail what was an extremely complicated series of campaigns but the following link will take you to a site that covers the conflict well.
November – The battalion disembarks at Lisbon When the battalion arrived in the Peninsular it was a period of stalemate for the antagonists. The French commander Massena had moved his troops into Portugal, with the British commander Arthur Wellesley [later the Duke of Wellington] gradually retreating before him. However, Massena was unaware of a huge system of fortifications around Lisbon called the lines of the Torres Vedras. These defended Lisbon and Massena unable to assault such structures but at the same time unwilling to retreat waited. Slowly his army began to starve and in March 1811 he eventually began to retreat.
The battalion did not spend much time in Lisbon and before the month was out marched to Azambuja where it joined the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers to form the Fusilier Brigade [a Brigade being more than one regiment].
The British troops with their Portuguese allies followed the retreating French with many a skirmish occurring every time they caught up with the French rearguard. It was also a time when the officers and men of the battalion first came across the atrocities committed by the French against the Spanish population, made all the more poignant by a series of paintings and sketches by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. It was this unorthodox ‘little war’ or Guerillero of the Spanish and Portuguese peoples against the French that aided Wellington in his orthodox victories.
March – The battalion as part of the 4th Division now left Wellington and joined the command of William Beresford who led an Anglo-Portuguese army to besiege Badajoz. This fortified city controlled the southern access route into Spain. The French had taken it from its Spanish garrison and Beresford had orders to take it back. The 4th division marched 110 miles in 6 days to reach Beresford. The siege of Badajoz was soon lifted as Beresford had heard that the French Marshall Soult was marching from Seville.
May – Beresford intercepted Soults’ march at a place called Albuerra. This would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war and be one of the battalions greatest moments. The battle hung in the balance, the 4th division advanced and saved the day with an attack on French positions. William Napier in his later work on the peninsular war described the attack made by the Fusilier Brigade on the heights held by the French.
“The fusilier battalions, struck by the iron tempest, reeled and staggered like sinking ships; but suddenly and sternly recovering they closed on their terrible enemies, and then was seen with what a strength and majesty the British soldier fights”
Despite, or perhaps because of their heroism the Fusilier Brigade suffered tremendous casualties. Of the 2015 officers and men involved in the attack, 1045 were killed or wounded.
The next three months were relatively quiet and the battalion was given the chance to lick its wounds. After rejoining Wellington they once again found themselves besieging Badajoz, but Wellington had no better success than Beresford. Like Beresford he found that he had to abandon the siege as a strong French army approached. Now was a time of stalemate. The French could not advance into Portugal as Wellington held the fortress town of Elvas guarding the southern route and Almeida guarding the North. Wellington could not advance into Spain as the French held the opposing fortress towns of Ciudad Rodrigo in the North and Badajoz in the South.
1811 had been a bloody introduction to the war in Spain for the battalion. After a relatively peaceful winter, Wellington now reorganised the army and marched North to try his hand at Ciudad Rodrigo.
January – Here Wellington had more success than at Badajoz. Despite heavy losses the city was stormed and taken. The battalion lost 37% of its number during the siege and it was described as being a mere skeleton of its former self. Now that Wellington had the fortresses controlling the Northern and Southern routes into Spain he could pick his own ground and attack where he chose. He decided to attack from the North and fought the
July – Army of Marmont at the battle of Salamanca. It was here that Wellington showed he was not just a defensive general and the French were heavily defeated. The Battalion lost about a quarter of its strength in dead and wounded.The remnants of Marmonts army retired and Wellington took the opportunity a week later to march into Madrid.
August – Wellington then took part of his army to besiege the fortress town of Burgos, but the 4th division which included the Royal Welch Fusileers had a glorious six week rest camped around the royal palace of Escurial just outside of Madrid.
November – The victory at Salamanca led to the French generals in Spain coming together and soon Wellington was threatened by an army of over 100,000 men. This led to him abandoning the siege of Burghos, leaving Madrid and retreating back towards Portugal. The winter weather and the breakdown of the army’s commissariat system made this retreat extremely arduous with the army losing almost 3000 men
December – After a hard campaign the Battalion finally went into winter quarters at the Portuguese village of Soitella
From the start of the year into the Spring Wellingtons tired and threadbare troops rested, re-equipped and trained. By the end of Spring they were ready to begin marching into Spain once again
May – This time Wellington co-ordinated attacks by the Royal Navy and the Spanish irregular forces to tie up much of the French forces while he led the army into the North of Spain to cut off the supply route from France. In addition Wellington was able to shorten his own supply routes with the Royal Navy supplying him from ports in the North of Spain. Wellingtons plans for the 1813 campaign were based on information that Napoleons greatest army yet assembled had fallen in defeat during an ill advised invasion of Russia.
Wellington believed that as the armies of Austria and Russia would now be attacking from the East. Napoleon would have no choice but to remove at the very least the majority of his troops from Spain. He was rather surprised that this did not happen. The French still numbered some 200,000 soldiers. However, these were split into 5 armies and elements of these had to join together to take on Wellingtons army of 80,000. A series of skirmishes occurred as the French retreated before Wellington in an attempt to stop him outflanking them and cutting their supply lines to France. Finally the French gathered 57,000 men to face Wellington at Vitoria. This was an important town lying at the junction of five major roads.
June – By 5pm that day the battle of Vitoria was decided. The French were totally defeated and in the chaos the baggage and treasure of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon who had been made king of Spain, was left behind and made many a soldier very rich as some regiments stopped to loot it. Wellington later praised the discipline of the 4th Division of which the Royal Welch Fusiliers were part of. They had more chance to loot than many others but they kept to their job of driving the French back. There was of course an opportunity to plunder once the French were gone and the Fusilier brigades camp looked like a market place for the next few days.
Defeat at Vitoria meant the end of the French in Spain and Wellington soon rested his army close to the French border. Wellingtons troops advanced 300 miles in the next forty days constantly skirmishing with French rearguards. Most of the troops expected to be fighting on French soil soon but Wellington stopped at the border.
There were two fortified towns, Pamplona and San Sebastian that were still held by the French and Wellington could not leave them in enemy hands. Wellington proceeded to lay siege to Pamplona and San Sebastian with some of his troops. While the rest were spread out to guard the passes over the Pyrenees.
After the battle of Vitoria The French forces in Spain were in disarray, falling back before the Anglo-Portuguese troops as well as regular and irregular Spanish forces. Marshall Soult was sent to reorganise and re inspire the French forces for the defence of France. This he did and prepared to counter attack. Wellington had some of his troops besieging San Sebastian and Pamplona. This left him about 60,000 men to spread along the Pyrenees watching the passes that could allow a counter attack by Marshall Soult. The attacks came, but not where Wellington had expected it. 21,000 French attacked the pass at Maya and 41,000 at Roncesvalles where the 4th division, still home to the battalion took the brunt of the attack. Heavily outnumbered the division held the first attacks, but divisional commander Lt., General Lowry Cole took the first opportunity to fall back to new defence lines. Battles at Roncesvalles and Sorauren left heavy casualties on both sides. The fighting lasted from the 25th – 30th July leaving the battalion with 24 dead and 99 wounded. It was a bloody business Wellington said it “was fair bludgeon work”.
October – After Soults’ forces had been held and then beaten back Wellington turned his attention to San Sebastian. It finally fell after an attack by the 5th division and volunteers from the 4th which included men from the 23rd . Pamplona fell on the 31st of October
November – Meanwhile Soult had created a defensive line along a waterway called the Nivelle. On the 10th of November Wellington attacked and outflanked the defences and forced the French back to a new line along the river Nive.
December – On the 9th of December Wellington attacked across the Nive. The army eventually halted for the winter as conditions gradually worsened.
February – The war came to life once more. Wellingtons troops now fought their way into Southern France. The 4th division took part in some vicious street fighting in the town of St Boes. By the time the Light Division came up in support the battalion had lost 16 dead and 69 wounded.