The Caithness soldier who went to war in Spain
John Harper was recruited at Thurso by Lt Gunn of the 2nd 42nd Highlanders on the 11th June 1807, also recruited with this recruiting party was John ? Mackenzie, Sinclair Sutherland, George Cunningham, Donald Peacock & Angus Gordon. All of the above were attested at Wick on the 7th July 1807, and if deemed fit was moved to Fort George by Sept 1807, then posted to Ireland and the rest of the 2/42nd. The 2nd Battalion, 42nd Highlanders were sent to Ireland in Oct 1805. The chances are that Pte Harper was recruited by Ballot, as at that time the Counties in Scotland had to produce a set amount of men for service during the Napoleonic War 1803-14. The Army sent recruiting parties out to the counties, the Navy adopted the "Press Gang". The Army recruits received a bounty for enlisting in 1803 ,7 12s 6d in 1803 and rising to ,23 17s 6d in 1812. At the time Pte Harper and the others enlisted they received ,11 11s. This was a tempting offer and it not was deemed proper of the Highland Rgts to cheat the recruits out of their money, as other regiments did, the Highlanders still believed that their word was their bond. If a Highland Regiments recruiting Sgt was caught defrauding the recruits, he could be demoted, flogged or hanged and worse his name and act recorded at his parish church.
The 2nd Battalion was raised in Perth 9th July 1803, from men of Perth, Elgin, Nairn, Cromarty, Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Argyll & Bute.
John Harper would have enlisted for life aged 18 yrs (though he might have lied about his age and could have been 22 yrs) when he joined the 2/42nd in Aug 1807. He was involved in six major battles during the Peninsular war and was with the "Storming Party" at Burgos.
The 2/42nd remained in Ireland (1805 - 09) until being sent to Portugal, they boarded at Cork on June 20th 1809 and landed at Lisbon on July 4th.
This is where the main story of Pte John Harper begins.
Peninsular War 1810 - 14.
27th Sept 1810 Busaco
Oct 1810 - Mar 1811 Torres Vadras Line
3-5 May 1811 Fuentes d'Onor
8-19 Jan 1812 Ciudad Rodrigo
The 2/42nd were absorbed into the 1st battalion 19th May 1812.
27 Jun - 22 Jul 1812 Salamanca
19 Sept - 21 Oct 1812 Burgos
21 Jun 1813 Vittoria
25 Jul - 2 Aug 1813 Pyrenees
25-27 Jul 1813 Roncesvalles
26 Jul 1813 Pamplona
28-30 Jul 1813 Sorauren
10 Nov 1813 Nivelle
9 Dec 1813 Villafranca
13 Dec 1813 Nive
Dec 1813 - Feb 1814 Bayonne
25 Feb 1814 Orthes
10 Apr 1814 Toulouse
The Peninsular Campaign
The 2/42nd were positioned on the Guadiana River throughout the summer and lost many men to fever.
Busaco 27th Sept 1810.
Fought by Wellington against Marshal Andre Massena. To secure his retreat to Torres Vedras, Wellington occupied the far side of a ridge on the heights of Busaco with about 25,000 British and 25,000 Portuguese troops, he was attacked by the French five times by 65,000 French troops. The 2/42nd were positioned along the ridge at Busaco when the French attacked on Sept 27th 1810, in which they repulsed the French. The actual assaults were delivered by Marshal Ney and General Reynier, after fierce fighting the French failed to dislodge the Allies and were driven off with a loss of 4,500 casualties, of which the 2/42nd suffered only 6 casualties. Wellington then withdrew into his previously fortified lines at Torres Vedras by the 10th Oct 1810. The 2/42nd were used as a reserve and did not see fighting in this battle. The 2/42nd received the Battle Honour and clasp "Busaco" for their part in the battle, though this to have been granted at a much later date (after 1880 ?).
Torres Vedras Lines 10th Oct 1810 - 5th Mar 1811
Massena found the lines to strong to attack and withdrew into winter quarters and decided to wait for spring and reinforcements. The French being deprived of food and clothing were attacked by the Allies in hit and run tactics, in which the 2/42nd took part during the winter of 1810-11. After sustaining a loss of about 20,000 men to starvation, sickness, killed or captured, Massena decided to withdraw into Spain on Mar 5th 1811. Portugal was free from the French who now only occupied Almeida near the border.
Fuentes d'Onor 3rd - 5th May 1811.
Wellington decided to attack the French on two fronts, the first under Gen Sir Carr advanced towards Badajoz and the other under himself towards Almeida. His force consisted 32,000 British and Portuguese plus 2,000 German cavalry. Wellington finding the French still occupied the town of Almeida still occupied, decided to lay siege to it. Marshal Massena decided to relive Almeida. Wellington marched his force to meet the French at Fuentes donor, just inside Spain. The first attack on the 3rd was repulsed by the British with five battalions. The French assaulted again in far greater strength on the 5th with about 30,000 troops and 36 guns. The battle was long, confusing and hard fought, at one stage the Allied cavalry had to withdraw behind the infantry lines. The French then attacked some artillery were surrounded. The infantry had to withdraw in squares, while being attacked by French cavalry. As the infantry battalions were retreating towards a hill, the French cavalry continued there charge, but suddenly found themselves facing the 2/42nd who had been held in reserve, the French charged but the Highlanders held firm and repulsed and broke the attacks. The 71st & 79th Highlanders did not fare so well and had many casualties and men taken prisoner. The fighting continued until evening, both sides claiming a victory. Throughout the battles the 2/42nd had suffered 9 casualties no the 3rd, and 25 casualties on the 5th, the casualties were low on the 5th due to the steadfastness of the men when being attacked by the cavalry. The casualties were 2,250 for the French and the allies lost 1,400. Wellington is reported to have stated "If Boney had been there we would have been damnably licked". The 2/42nd received the Battle Honour and Clasp "Fuentes d'Onor" for this action.
Ciudad Rodrigo 9th -19th Jan 1812
Wellington decided to lay siege to Ciudad Rodrigo which was held by 2,000 French with 153 guns
On the 14th the 38 siege guns opened fire (by the 18th 9,515 rounds had been fired), while the 2/42nd attacked and took the Convent of San Francisco with several casualties, two breaches were made and by the night of the 18/19th with 35,000 men the 3rd and Light Divisions attacked and carried the breaches. After only 10 day the fortress was taken. The French suffered 300 casualties and 1,500 prisoners, while the British suffered 1,100 casualties. What part the 2/42nd took part in the later battle is not certain, but they sustained some casualties and as they never received the Ciudad Rodrigo Battle Honour it must be assumed that they played very little in the major attack, one possibility is that they took part in one of the diversionary attacks on the 18th/19th. The 2/42nd did not receive the Battle Honour or clasp "Ciudad Rodrigo" for their part in the battle.
Badajoz 17th Mar - 6th Apr 1812
This fortress was held by 4,900 French, Germans and Spanish. With the 3rd, 4th, 5th & Light Divisions about 15,500 men and 5,000 Portuguese Wellington decided to lay siege on the 17th Mar 1812. With 500 volunteers from the 3rd & Light Divisions he attacked and captured Fort Picurina on Mar 25th, which was outside the main fortress. With this his 48 siege guns could fire and make a breach in the walls. By Apr 6th (35,346 round had been fired) three breaches were mad in the walls, and a assault was made by the Light Div, after a third had fallen Wellington called of the attack. While this was going on the 3rd Div was attempting what seemed an impossible task of storming 100 ft wall of the Castle on the other side, with ladders and ropes. The 3rd Div succeeded and the 5th Div then succeeded to storm some other ramparts. The fortress now taken in the rear was in British hands and the French surrendered. The casualties for the Allies were about 5,000. What part the 2/42nd played in this siege is unknown as with the Ciudad Rodrigo siege. In revenge for their losses the soldiers went on a three day orgy of looting, drunkardness, rape and murder. Whether the 2/42nd took part in this orgy I am not sure, but they did not receive a Badajoz Battle Honour for their part.
The 1/42nd who was stationed in Britain and had taken part in the ill-fated Walcheren expedition (Aug-Sept 1809) and suffered 148 casualties, mostly due to fever, now set sail from Portsmouth and landed at Lisbon on Apr 20th 1812. The 1/42nd received soldiers from the 2/42nd when they were ordered to take a cadre back to Britain to recruit. Pte John Harper was on of the men who were transferred to the 1/42nd. The 1/42nd now stood at 1,160 rank and file, now a strong battalion they set of for Salamanca.
Salamanca 22nd July 1812.
The forts at Salamanca had fallen to Wellington easily in mid June. Wellington with 50,000 troops, 14,000 Portuguese, 3,000 Spanish and 54 Guns met Marshal Auguste Marmont's 49,000 troops with 78 Guns. Since the 15th Marmont had manoeuvred to cut Wellington of from his base at Salamanca. Wellington gave ground and move to about 6 miles south of the city. On the 22nd the French saw the baggage train heading south, Marmont believing that Wellington was retreating decided to send his leading division (4,500 men) on the left, forward to cut the British off. When the division was a mile ahead of Wellington's army, Wellington ordered the 3rd Division to attack the French Div. The 3rd Div won and caused the French 2,500 casualties and drove them back. Wellington about faced his centre the 4th & 5th Divisions with cavalry and breasted a ridge to assault the French centre, first with a deadly volley, then a bayonet charge. After about 45 minutes a third of the French were casualties. The Portuguese on the left attacked a hill and were repulsed and thrown back. The left flank of the 4th Div was exposed and was assaulted by two French divisions, the fighting was bitter and confused, just in time three British reserve divisions arrived and defeated the French divisions and the French retreated with casualties. The French losses were 15,000 killed or wounded, 7,000 prisoners and 25 guns lost. The Allies had about 5,000 casualties. On Aug 12th Wellington entered Madrid and two days later the fortress of Buen Retiro which held 2,000 French surrendered. The 1/42nd sustained only a few casualties in this battle. The 1/42nd received the Battle Honour "Salamanca" for their part in the battle, though this to have been granted at a much later date (after 1880?).
Burgos 18th Sept - 21st Oct 1812
The siege was started after the siege of Badajoz. Wellington determined to capture Burgos, was ill equipped for the task, his siege-train comprising three guns only, still short of sappers and with a tired army and unwilling to risk another assault as costly as Badajoz. The 1/42nd took part in the siege on 18th/19th Sept they attempted to scale the fortifications of Mont Saint Michael during the night. With ladders spliced together the 1/42nd scaled the walls, but anyone who made it to the top was bayoneted. The 1/42nd descended to the trenches and tried to entice the Portuguese to assist them, but the would not as it was suicide, and had no inclination the meat their maker. All looked lost when the 79th Highlanders came to their assistance, a fresh attack commenced and the 1/42nd & 79th after fierce fighting they captured the fort and forced the "gorge", 7 guns were captured but 500 French escaped. The assault on the Castle Burgos failed after five attacks over five weeks. While the Burgos was still on going, the French marched on Madrid and threatened the Army of Portugal. With the approach of the French to Wellington's rear, the siege had to be cancelled and Wellington retreated back to Ciudad Rodrigo and meet the French at Salamanca. The retreat was hard and long, it did not help matters knowing that about your fellow men had died in vain, also food was scarce and the weather terrible. In this Pte John Harper took part in the "Storming Party" and was one of the few lucky ones that survived the assault. The casualties sustained, in the capture of Mont Saint Michael was 32 killed and 150 wounded, over the next five weeks they lost 17 killed and 147 wounded, the Army sustained 2,184 casualties, for which their was no battle honour ever granted for Burgos, as at that time there was on Honours for battles lost.
Pyrenees 25th July - 2nd Aug 1813.
After being brought back to strength over the winter the 1/24 with 70,000 other troops took to the field again in May 1813. The 9th, 1/42nd, 79th (Cameron Highlanders), 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) formed a brigade under "Brigadier-General. Denis Pack as part of the 6th Div under Major-General. Sir Henry Clinton. A point of note, in the 9th (East Norfolk) Rgt, was a young Lieutenant Colin Campbell who lead the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders to fame at the "Thin red line" at Balaclava in 1854. The rout taken was to the region of Tras-os-Montes, to Vittoria. The 1/42nd & 79th did not take part in the fighting at Vittoria on 21st June 1813, as they were detached to bring up stores and ammunition, but the 9th & 91st saw action. The 6th Div fought a battle at Sorauren on 28th - 30th July in with they helped defeat 25,000 French with only 12,000 men. The French attacked on the 28th & 30th and were driven of with 5,000 casualties and 3,000 prisoners. The 6th Div then attacked and annihilated the French rearguard. For this action they received the Battle Honour "Pyrenees".
Nivelle 10th Nov 1813
Across the river Nivelle stood French fortifications which the British attacked, The Army with the 1/42nd climbed down from the mountains at night and forded the river at daybreak, then attacked the French fortifications which they took with minimum trouble. The French suffered 4,265 casualties and about 1,200 taken prisoner with 51 guns, at a loss of 2,694 British casualties. The 1/42nd suffered 28 casualties. The 1/42nd received the Battle Honour and clasp "Nivelle" for their part in this battle.
Nive 9th - 13th Dec 1813.
The Nive was another river with 35,000 French defending it. Wellington had 14,000 British and Portuguese to attack their fortifications. The river had been crossed on the 9th and took up a strong position on the heights near St Pierre. The 1/42nd were at Bayonne and were attacked on the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th, in what was some of the most sever fighting of the war, but every attack was repulsed, the 2nd Div on the 13th were given the order "Dead or alive, my lads, we must hold our ground". The roads were said to have be literary running with blood. Over the five days the 2/42nd suffered only 28 casualties. With all the French attacked repulsed, the Allies advanced to occupy the position near Adour. The French lost about 10,000 men and the British casualties were 5,019 men, a sign of the fighting power of the soldiers when faced with over 2 to 1. The 1/42nd received the Battle Honour and clasp "Nive" for their part in this battle.
Bayonne Dec 1813 - Feb 1814.
The French were now cooped up in Bayonne and had little command beyond their lines and with their communications and supplies under threat, the winter was a long, cold and hungry prospect. The proof of this came when two German battalion on the French side defected to the British on Feb 10th 1814. Their reason was that they had just heard that Germany had thrown the towel in with the Allies, or was it the prospect of starving or freezing to death that made up their minds ?. This also weakened the French for those Germans that were left were disarmed, of these soldier they were some of his best. With the French forces so weekend they withdrew to Orthes.
Orthes 25th -27th Feb 1814.
At Orthes the Allies had 37,000 men against 40,000 French, of which 7,000 were conscripts, so the sides were nearly equal. The French were driven out of Orthes and across the Luy de Bearn with a loss of 4,000 casualties and six guns. The 1/42nd was initially used as a diversionary attack, but it attacked an enemy held ridge where it was attacked by cavalry. The 1/42nd turned and face the cavalry in a line and fired a volley, which broke the attack. They then continued to clear the french from there positions, though they were outnumbered. The 1/42nd suffered 158 casualties in this battle. The 1/42nd received the Battle Honour and clasp "Orthes" for their part in this battle.
Note; very little was written about this battle from the 42nd view.
Toulouse 10th April 1814.
Wellington decided to attack this almost impregnable fortress from three sides the first two from the west and north failed, the Spanish who were tasked with the north were utterly routed, in which Wellington exclaimed "Well b----r me, if ever I saw 10,000 men run a race before". To be fair the British were also routed, but retired under better condition. The main thrust was from the south east.
The attack with which the 42nd was part of, was in the hills to the north of Toulouse which had to be cleared before the assault on Toulouse. With the Spanish reorganising the 1/42nd had to toil along a two mile stretch of road, which was little better than a strip of marsh, though the road gave some protection in places but most of the way was under cannon fire, and the Allied guns could not make the journey. Once they had cleared the marsh they left the road which was covered by a small hill. The 42nd lined up to attack a strong position called Mont Raveon on a 600 ft hill. On the hill was two redoubts they had to capture the "La Colombette and Le Tour des Augustins". The French noticing the British were forming for an attack, brought up two divisions and if that was not enough the hill was bristled with guns. The French decided to attack first. They advanced in their famous columns will the 42nd and 79th (Camerons) formed into a line, with the 79th in front of the 42nd each four deep, the first line fire then the second, third and fourth, they then about faced and moved behind the 42nd who fired into the French in the same fashion, this was continued until the columns were smashed with sever losses to the French. Once this was done the Highlanders attacked the hill, with the 42nd in front and the 79th giving support. The 42nd advanced into shot after shot from the French gun sustaining sever losses, climbed the obstacles and took the French forward positions with bayonets and muskets being used as clubs. This was most viscous fighting the 1/42nd have ever seen, in which everything was used and no quarter was given . After only a short period the French reformed and attacked, the 1/42nd were so weakened from their losses and still disorganised, that after trying to withstand the attack gave up and decided to withdraw. The 79th were about 100 yards behind and with themselves in the middle, they literary run for their live, as much to prevent the French killing them, as to get behind the 79th before they opened fire on the French. Will the 1/42nd reformed the 79th again layed down devastating volleys into the French columns, which broke the attack, but the French now re-held the redoubt. The Portuguese were now ordered to attack the redoubts and the French thinking that this was a trap evacuated the redoubts. Once the Redoubts had been cleared of the enemy the 1/42nd and 79th continued to charge along the heights and only halted when realising they were to far ahead of the British main body. With the redoubt taken the French flak gave way and so did the rest of the summit, by nightfall Toulouse was taken. The 1/42nd sustained 457 casualties out the (roughly) 600 men who started up Mont Rave that morning. Even a year late at Waterloo, in which the 1/42nd was heavily involved on sustained 338 casualties.
This was to be Pte John Harpers last battle and he was unluckily severely wounded in the leg. What caused the wound is unknown, but it must have been bad as he was still in France three month after the 1/42nd returned to Ireland and he was also missing a the battle of Waterloo a year later, and we must assume that he was still recovering from his wound. It can only be imagined what pain he went through as the surgeon probed for a bullet with his fingers - as a sharp instrument could cause a fatal haemorrhaging - then came either cauterising or stitching the wound up. Also it is possible that he might have lay on the battle field overnight before receiving held to the first-aid station, once there he would have to wait in line or pecking order before being treated, as Officers were first then NCO's and so on. After being treated and the blood stopped he would have been put in a room with no hygiene and left to recover or if gangrene set in have his leg amputated or died of fever. If this was not enough on to find out on the 12th that the war with France was over, Napoleon had abdicated on the 6th, four days before the battle.
The 1/42nd received the Battle Honour and clasp "Toulouse" for their part in this battle.
Other Caithness men who possibly served with the 42nd (Royal Highland) Rgt of Foot during the Peninsular War (1808-14) & Waterloo (1815).
Name Parish Known Battles
Henry Bruce Bower Peninsula War. Waterloo.
William Campbell Sgt Reay Peninsula War
Alex Cormack Latheron Peninsula War. Corunna. Waterloo.
Donald Georgeson Watten Peninsula War.
William Georgeson Watten Peninsula War.
Alex Gunn Halkirk Peninsula War.
James Gunn Watten Peninsula War
Robert Gunn Watten Peninsula War
Donald MacKay Latheron Peninsula War. Corunna. (27 battles).
R F MacKay Reay Peninsula War. Waterloo.
William MacKay Reay Peninsula War
Donald R MacRob Reay Peninsula War.
John Munro Watten Peninsula War.
David Nicol. Halkirk. Peninsula War. Fuentes d'Onor. Salamanca. Pyrenees. Orthes.
William Sinclair Wick Peninsula War. Waterloo.
George Sutherland Dunnet Peninsula War Waterloo.
The Battalion were sent back to Ireland in July 1814. After recovering from his wounds, sufficient enough to travel Pte Harper arrived and joined the 1/42nd in Ireland about Aug 1814. The 42nd (the 2/42nd were disbanded in Oct 1814) remained in Ireland until being sent to Ostend, landing on the 14th May 1815, and took part in the final Napoleonic battle at Waterloo, but Pte Harper remained in Ireland throughout. The 42nd fought at Quatre Bras on the 16th June and at Waterloo on the 18th June 1815. They suffered 288 casualties at Quatre Bras and 50 casualties at Waterloo. The 42nd remained in France until landing at Ramsgate on 19th Dec 1815., they then travelled to Edinburgh in Feb, in which time Pte Harper would have joined up with the Battalion. In April 1817 the 42nd returned to Ireland and were stationed there until June 1825. The battalion was sent to Gibraltar and landed there in Sept 1825. In Feb 1829 the battalion lost 60 men to fever. It is probable that this fever led to Pte Harper getting discharged from the Army in 1830.
From Pte Harpers enlistment in 1807, he had served in Scotland and Ireland: 13 years 1 month, Peninsula: 5 years, 2 months and Gibraltar 4 years, 3 months and 15 days. In 1829 the Army introduced by Royal Warrant the Long-service, Disability & Wounded in action Pensions and he was discharged the following year, probably one of, if not the first Caithness war pensioner. His discharge papers indicate, like most soldiers that Pte Harper was illiterate, by his mark an X.
He served officially 22 years 10 months, received a pension for disability in the Chelsea Pension Registers for Disability 9th June 1830 to 42nd John Harper. Pte, served 22 years 10 months, aged 41(45 years). Pension one shilling and a half pence per day. The cause of discharge: Chronic affection of Lungs and impaired general health (probably due to the outbreak of fever in Feb 1829). Unfit for service and likely to be permanently disqualified for military duty. 5ft 5in, Brown hair, eyes hazel, complexion fresh. "Good efficient trustworthy sober". He took part in the following battles during the Peninsular War, Burgos, Fuentes d'onor, Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthes, Toulouse and was one of the storming parties at Burgos and wounded in the leg at Toulouse. A soldier in McLean's Company with the Military General Service Medal with six clasps (probably the Fuentes d'Onor; Pyrenees; Nivelle; Nive; Orthes and Toulouse clasps, with the Busaco and Salamanca clasps being granted at a later date and with him illiterate, it would be unlikely that he would have enquired after them). At his discharge hearing 15th Feb 1830 he had served 22 years 195 days and was released from the Army on 8th June 1830. 8th June 1830 is likely to be the date he arrived back in Britain.
The 42nd also won the following battle honours during Pte Harpers enlistment. Busaco; Fuentes d'Onor; Salamanca; Pyrenees; Nivelle; Nive; Orthes; Toulouse; Peninsula.
His Military General Service Medal with clasps "Fuentes d'Onor; Pyrenees; Nivelle; Nive; Orthes and Toulouse".
He returned to Caithness and started "Farming", but this was probably a croft and settled down with his wife and daughter. It seems that he had no other family, so John Harpers heritage ends there and the Cormack side carries it on.
John Harper Farmer and Army pensioner. He was born 1884 - 89 in Wick. Died ? Married...
Elizabeth (Nee MacKenzie). They had a daughter....
Isabella (nee Harper) Born 1801 at Wick. Died at Boat haven (Broadhaven), Wick on 5th Dec 1886. Married...
James Cormack Born 1767-71 at Slickly. They had a son
David Cormack Mason to trade. Born 1837. Married 16th Feb 1860 at Hastegrow, Bower to...
Married Janet (nee Waters) daughter of John Waters. Farmer, & Janet (nee Ryrie) they had a son...
Donald Gordon Cormack Born 10th Oct 1868 at Slickly. Died at 5 Landsdowne Crescent, Haymarket, Edinburgh on 15th May 1948. He was married to...
1st wife Annie (nee Reid)
2nd wife Catherine (nee Seaton)
Donald Gordon Cormack's grandson's are Gordon and Ronald Thomson. Gordon lives in Edinburgh. He sent me the information after reading about Balaclava in the Courier, which Ronald sent him a cutting of.
Uniforms during this period had two purposes apart from clothing the men. They enabled troops to distinguish friend from foe and deceive the enemy into thinking that the troops were bigger, and therefore stronger, than they actually were. All shakos and bearskins were tall, giving the impression of greater height, and epaulettes gave greater breadth to the shoulders. During the Peninsular War the uniforms were by the end rags on the veterans, and some had to make their kilts into trousers. The shoes were the hardest to replace and with all the marching they soon wore out, some having to march in bare foot over flint roads, during the battle the soldiers had to revert to robbing the dead of their clothes and especially their shoes of both sides. Wellington cared not how his men were dressed providing they had 60 rounds of ball-cartridge and adequate rations to last three days, though this was not always possible.
Looting the dead
Looting the dead and wounded was, from time immemorial, the spoils of the victor. After the battles there was much to be had, especially from the officers: purses, watches, pistols and swords. False-teeth, usually ivory, were also taken for and sold later to dentists. In fact some soldier and followers traded in ordinary teeth obtained from the dead, which was used to make cheaper false-teeth and after Waterloo false-teeth were known as Waterloo teeth. Many of the wounded who resisted were killed, will other gave all they had for a drink of water. Also after the battles the peasants and camp followers moved in to rob the wounded and the dead. Some so laden with their plunder they could only stagger of the battle field.
The greatest danger to the Infantry came from cavalry, who could attack quickly before it was possible to reload. Partly because of this threat, the combined length of the musket and bayonet was kept as long as possible to reach a mounted opponent. In defence, against infantry, the common tactic was to form two ranks , one kneeling and one standing behind, so confronting the enemy with a hedge of bayonets, the front rank defending the second will reloading and vice-versa. In attack the bayonet could be used to defeat the enemies defences, though actual clashes of bayonet to bayonet was rare, as one side or other lost their nerve and fled. The side that had better discipline and higher moral, was usually the victor during these clashes. The problem was when used against the enemy the bayonet was prone to becoming stuck in the enemy, by wedging between ribs or other bones, or the suction preventing the bayonet being remove without a struggle. Most veterans realising the problems of the bayonet preferred to use it as a slashing weapon and the musket as a club during close-quarter fighting.
The musket was a smooth-bore long-arm and muzzle-loaded. The most common musket used during the Napoleonic war was the "Brown Bess" (1720 - 1840), which fired a .75 inch ball. The other was the "Baker Rifle" (1800 - 40)used by "Rifle men" which had greater accuracy. There was usually six movements to the loading drill of the musket/rifle,
1/ biting the cartridge,
2/ priming the pan,
3/ pouring the powder and ball into the muzzle,
4/ ramming down the charge,
5/ setting the lock to "full cock",
6/ aiming and firing.
The reloading depended on the training of the soldiers, the British Army were one of the few that trained their soldiers with live firing. A trained soldier could fire a shot about every 20 seconds, but could not expect to hit an individual over 80 yards. To over come this defect, the ranks were trained in disciplined volley fire, one firing while the other reloaded so a continuous fire could be layed down. Alternatively, a mass volley could be fired at the enemy, this usually only done in very desperate situations, mainly against cavalry attacks.
The Cannon, Mortar and Howitzer.
The cannons were mainly cast in bronze or iron. The cannon was fixed to a field carriage and gave the best cross-country and road mobility. This used large wheels and was hooked behind an ammunition limber and drawn by a team of four to six oxen, mules or horses.
Mortars and Howitzers were static and inflexible. These took time to put into place and once fixed were unable to move at short notice. These were mainly used in sieges of forts and town. The transportation of both were with wagons.
The ammunition used was Solid shot, made out of cast iron, ideal for battering walls. In the field it smashed through the ranks, remaining lethal to great distances as it skimmed the ground. Canister or case shot, was the same as a shotgun cartridge, full of lead or iron balls sealed in a tin container. The container shattered when fired and the balls spread out to cover a wide area. Explosive shot was mainly used by the Mortars and Howitzers, this shell was hollow and filled with gunpowder, with a fuse fitted to set it off. These were fired at buildings and men at longer ranges. A variety fire at the soldiers were sometimes filled with smaller shot and when exploded above the infantry it proved very deadly. The range of these depended on the charge and calibre of the weapons, but it was usually between 500 to 1,500 yards.
A siege was two-barrelled campaign as it tied up many attacking forces and if not done with speed the enemy could bring up reinforcements and attack the rear, thus not only wasting (what could be months of preparation) time, the siege equipment could be captured (cannons, mortars etc). When setting to siege a town, city or fort, a lot of supplies had to be brought forward as it usually took a long time to prepare and break the enemy defences. Trenches would have to be dug, zig zagging towards the enemy, the infantry and engineers would be under fire as this was going on. Once the mortars, howitzers and guns were placed, the assault would start by the destruction of the defences by the artillery. Once there was a breach in the defences or walls the infantry would assault. Between the assault line and the enemy there would be obstacles, "Trous de louops" holes dug in the ground containing sharpened spikes, "Cheval-de-frises" a log set with spikes, "Caltrops" or crows feet these were triangled spikes and could at short notice be placed in front of the advancing troops/cavalry and "Fougasses" which was used as an mine, in the bottom of a sloping trench there would be placed explosives, covered by a board on which was rocks or brick rubble, during the an attack the explosives would be detonated and showering a large area with the rocks of rubble causing a lot of casualties and even break up an attack. Then once overcoming these obstacles there might be a water-filled ditch or moat and the wall or rampart to overcome. The initial advance was the job of the "Forlorn Hope" these were volunteers whose job was to be the first of the "storming-party" into a breach, those volunteers that survive the attack and were successful would be promoted, though few were promoted, just dead or wounded.
The average strength of a British battalion during the Peninsular was about 500 men. The total strength was supposed to be about 1,000 men. which was formed into 10 companies of about 100 men each. The Light Coy would be stationed at the left of the battalion, then and the Grenadier Coy at the right. Thus looking from the rear the battalion would be formed from left to right: Lt coy, No 8 to No 1 coys and Gren coy, with the colour party at the centre.
The French Column
The French preferred their battalion formed into a box of 18 companies of about 45 each, nine on each side. Only the front two companies being on each side being able to fire (180 muskets) at a time in defence while attacking only the front companies being able to fire (90 muskets). Compared to the British line of in defence 1,000 muskets and attacking 500 muskets. The main advantage of the box formation was that it gave maximum speed in the advance, rather than dressing the line every few yard. It was possible to dress into a line before a fire-fight, this was rarely done during the Peninsular war. Another advantage was that this was a pre-formed defence against the cavalry. Also the front ranks took the brunt of the musketry fire and thus protecting the following troops. If the direction of the advance had to be changed this was done by a simple left, right or about face. The problem of the artillery was the worst, as one solid-shot could maim a maximum of 18 men.
The line could be two, three or four deep, but the two deep line was the preferred formation by the British for defence and attack, as this could give the maximum firepower. This could lay down between 3,000 and 5,000 rounds per minute. The problem was the shrinkage and the line had to be filled by closing towards the centre, thus shortening the line, during artillery fire the solid-shot could only maim a maximum of two at a time, rather than three or four. When closing on the French columns the flanks could edge forward so that the line became crescent shaped and musketry could be fired into both sides and front of the enemy, then eventually encircling and defeat them. The major problem of the line was the cavalry could out-flank and encircle them and once the line was broken the battalion was usually defeated (Though the 42nd defeated the French cavalry on a least two occasions, against all odds). The use of the ground was used to hide or protect the line from enemy artillery fire by hiding in a ditch of behind a crest of a ridge, only every rarely did Wellington demand that the Infantry be exposed to such direct fire.
The square could be quickly formed by companies, No 6 to No 4 coys facing the front, No 8 & 7 facing the left, Lt, Gren & No 1 coys facing the rear and No 2 & 3 coys facing the right, with the colour party in the centre. This gave all round protection, mainly from cavalry. The square was usually four deep, though this depended on the numbers of the battalion. Only rarely were the squares broken by cavalry, this only happened when inexperienced soldiers panicked and fled, when the muskets could not fire due to the rain or when the cavalry horses fell into the square causing a hole in the formation. (Note: the 42nd at Quatre Bras almost came to grief when the cavalry entered the square before it was completely closed, the battalion closed the square then set about killing the trapped French cavalry inside). The disadvantage was to the square was the artillery, as solid-shot or canister shot could cut large holes in the defences, thus depleting the strength until the cavalry broke into the centre and set about destroying the battalion.
Military General Service Medal.
Bars: Roleia (Rolica); Vimiera; Corunna; Talavera; Busaco; Barrosa; Fuentes d'Onor; Albuhera; Ciudad Rodrigo; Badajoz; Salamanca; Vittoria; Pyrenees; San Sebastian; Nivelle; Nive; Orthes; Toulouse. These were also battle honours.
To read a shortened version click here
Return to Archives Index
David Bews 1998
Information contained on this page may only be used for personal use,any request for full or part publication must be carried out through the Highland archive.
Send information for these archives to firstname.lastname@example.org