The Battle of Roliça, 17 August 1808

On 23rd July 1808, General Arthur Wellesley received a dispatch from Viscount Castlereagh, the Secretary of War, informing him that the French General Junot’s forces in Portugal now numbered more than 25,000. Castlereagh explained his plans to re-inforce the British army in Portugal with 15,000 men. General Sir John Moore was to proceed with an army from Sweden, and another force would be dispatched from Gibraltar. The command of this larger force would pass to Sir Hew Dalrymple (the Governor of Gibraltar).  He was to seconded by Sir Harry Burrard and attended by five other generals, all senior to Wellesley.

On 30 July 1808, General Wellesley started to disembark his troops at Mondego bay.  The landing took a number of days and it was not until the 10th of August, the army marched to Leiria. Wellesley arrived on the 11th.   The army then began its march toward Lisbon shadowing a detachment of the French army under the command of General Henri Delaborde. These troops had been sent by Junot to hold the British while he brought his larger army into position to oppose the Anglo-Portuguese forces.

By 14 August the British reached Óbidos. Here the British vanguard, consisting elements of the 5th/60th and 95th Rifles, clashed with the rear-guard of the French. The 4,000 French retired to the wooded hills around Óbidos and Roliça.  The French position to the north of Roliça, on the higher ground, allowed them to block the roads south towards Lisbon and the approaches to the village which are via four gullies which led up the hill.  Debris and the steep sides to these gullies made attack in formation impossible.  

Wellesley arrived at Óbidos on 16 August and advanced on Roliça on the next day.  With his army of 16,000 men, he attempted to a double envelopment manoeuvre, moving against both flanks of the French position, whilst distracting the French with a show of force in the centre. The French moved forward to the south and east of the village at the top of a steep hill to block its approaches.

The Battle of Rolica an aquatint by William Heath, 1795-1840. Copy in the museum collection

Colonel Lake of the 29th Regiment of Foot in the centre then advanced up a gully toward the French position. He arrived behind Delaborde, which cost Lake his life and most of the men in the 29th. This prompted a general attack in relief of the outnumbered British. The fight was rough and uphill.  Delaborde repulsed three assaults by the British until nearly 16:00 hours. By which time Wellesley reached positions at the top of the hill and Ferguson arrived over the hills to the east.  Delaborde began to withdraw in good order with effective aid from his cavalry. Without British cavalry to press the pursuit, they successfully withdrew to Montachique near Torres Vedras.

The Anglo-Portuguese lost 487 casualties, over half that number from the 29th. The French lost 700 men and three of their five guns. The following day Wellesley found that the 4,000 additional British troops had arrived from England and were off the coast. He marched away to cover their disembarkation rather than follow up his victory.

Killed, wounded and missing of the 29th Foot in the Battle of Rolica , 17th August 1808

Killed: 1 Lieut.-Colonel, 2 Serjeants, 31 Rank and File.

Wounded: 1 Major, 3 Captains, 4 Lieutenants, 6 Serjeants, 105 Rank and File.

Missing: 1 Major, 2 Captains, 5 Lieutenants, 1 Serjeant, 1 Drummer, 32 Rank and File.

The Siege of Badajoz 1812

On March 16th 1812 a British Force some 15,000 strong with a battering train of 52 guns reached Badajoz, a strongly fortified Spanish town near the frontier with Portugal.

General of Brigade Philippon commanded in Badajoz with a force of 4,742 men and although short of powder and shell, still presented a formidable task to a besieging army. He had taken every means possible to strengthen his post: mines were laid, the arch of a bridge built up to form a dam, ditches cut and filled with water, fortifications constructed, ramparts repaired and that he should have no useless mouths to feed, the inhabitants were ordered to lay up 3 months’ provisions or leave the town. Badajoz was also protected on one side by a river, 500 yards wide in places and having several outworks, notably one called the Picurina on a hill to the South East.

Such was Badajoz when Picton’s 3rd Division (which included the 45th of Foot (1st Nottinghamshire Regiment)), Lowry Cole’s 4th Division and the Light Division invested it. The rest of the army covered the siege and the 5th Division was on its way from Beira

On the night of 17th March; 2,000 men moved silently forward to guard the working parties who began to break ground 160 yards from the Picurina. The sentinels on the ramparts heard nothing in the howling wind and at daylight, so well had the volunteers from the 3rd Division laboured, 3,000 yards of communication and a parallel 600 yards long were revealed.

The next night, it was prolonged to the right and left and two batteries traced out. Wet and stormy weather harassed the workmen and flooded the trenches, but in spite of this the parallel was extended across the Seville Road, towards the river by the 21st March and three counter-batteries were commenced between Picurina and the river in order to open on San Roque, which covered the bridge and dam across the Rivillas as well as the Castle and the ground on the left of it.

On the 23rd March the floods in the trenches suspended all work, but on the 24th the 5th Division invested the place on the right bank of the river and, the weather having cleared the batteries were armed with ten 24 pounders, eleven 18 pounders and seven 5 and a quarter inch howitzers, all of which opened fire on the following day. They were replied to vigorously, but in spite of this the San Roque was silenced and the Picurina garrison so galled by the fire of the marksmen that no one dared to look over the parapet. The outward appearance of the fort showed no signs of great strength and the order was given to assault.

The ‘Fighting Third’ were, as usual, to the fore and five hundred men of that Division were assembled for the attack on the evening of the 25th. At nine o’clock, the evening being fine, flanking columns, each composed of two hundred men moved out to the right and left, while one hundred men remained in reserve in the trenches. The two flanking columns advanced simultaneously against the palisades but were held in check until the reserves were sent forward, when, in spite of a fearful fire, the stormers scrambled over the palisades and up to the ramparts. Here a desperate hand-to-hand fight raged; nearly all the officers fell and half the garrison were killed or wounded before they surrendered with the remainder. Thus the first phase of the attack was completed and the Picurina won. Three battalions were at once advanced to secure the work and the second parallel was begun.

The breaching batteries opened on the 30th March and by 6th April three breaches had been made, all of which were considered practicable. The main breach was on the right flank of La Trinidad Bastion, another in the curtain of La Trinidad and the third in the left flank of the Santa Maria Bastion. The four divisions were employed in the assault. The Light Division to attack the main breach, the fifth division to make a false attack on Pardaleras and a real attack on San Vincente, the fourth division to attack the two smaller breaches in the bastions of La Trinidad and Santa Maria and the ‘Fighting Third’ was ordered to escalade the castle.

The night of the 6th April was cloudy but fine and the assault was ordered for ten o’clock, but just before the appointed hour, a carcase fired from the town disclosed the position of the third division and drew fire upon it. It was useless to wait – and the ‘Fighting Third’ rushed forward. The troops, headed by their ladder men, crossed the bridge over the Rivillas in single file under a terrible fire and advanced up the rugged and broken ground, which led to the foot of the Castle walls. In the advance, Kempt’s Brigade formed the right and Campbell’s the left, while the 45th led the whole column.

 The light-balls (carcases) of the enemy completely exposed the position of the 3rd Division and the loss as the men swarmed up to the walls was terrible. The ladders, which proved too short, were thrown down as soon as they were raised, while stones, logs of wood and all sort of missiles made terrible havoc among the men. At length, three ladders were fairly well placed and up the first of them climbed Lieutenant James Macpherson of the 45th. He arrived at the top before he discovered that the ladder was too short by some three feet, so pushing the head of it from the wall he called to upon his comrades to hoist him, ladder and all, upwards. Thrown up thus above the rampart he was shot by a French soldier before he had time to collect himself, two of his ribs were broken and he was unable to move either way. The next minute the ladder gave way and Macpherson fell insensible in the ditch.

Lieutenant James Macpherson of the 45th. From a print in the museum collection

Meanwhile, Ridge of the 5th managed to place a ladder where the wall was lower and an embrasure offered a chance of entry and a second ladder being placed by Cranch of the 88th the two swarmed up over the parapet followed by their men. The first man who sprang down from the ramparts into the Castle was Corporal Kelly of the 45th who killed a French Colonel as he did so. The Castle was won and the troops crowding in, in increasing numbers, speedily drove the French in desperate hand-to-hand fighting through the double gates into the town.

Macpherson, recovering and despite being wounded and bleeding, re-climbed one of the ladders into the Castle and made his way to the Keep where the French flag was flying. He seized the sentry and making his way to the flagstaff hauled down the flag and hoisted his own jacket in its place, which, bravely fluttering in the breeze at daylight testified to the gallant part the 45th had taken in the assault.

Meanwhile, the attack on the main breaches was going on with desperation, but with little success. For upwards of two hours a fearful fire of musketry and grape, together with hand grenades, bags filled with powder and every conceivable form of destructive missile had been poured over the heads of the attackers. Soon after midnight, when over 2,000 men had fallen Wellington ordered the remainder to retire and re-form for a second assault. To the South and West of the town the 5th division had been more successful having carried San Vincente by escalade and moved across the town towards the great breach.

As soon as he was sure of the Castle, Picton sent his aide-de-camp, Tyler to Wellington to report, who sent him back with orders to hold the Castle at all hazards. Feeling himself secure, Picton then sent parties to the left along the ramparts to fall on the rear of those defending the great breach and to communicate with the right attack on the bastion of La Trinidad. But the French, on retreating from the Castle had closed and strongly barricaded the gates communicating with the ramparts and to force these barriers was a work of considerable time and difficulty.

The capture of the Castle, however, coupled with the advance of the 5th Division through the streets soon convinced the French that it was useless to continue the struggle at the main breach; they gallantly rallied for some time and faced the troops taking them in the rear before breaking and fleeing by the bridge and covered way into Fort San Christoval. When the stormers mounted the great breach for the second time they accordingly found the ramparts abandoned; and the troops pouring into the unfortunate town from the three entries they had gained were quickly masters of the place. “Then followed a scene of riot and debauch unequalled in the annals of the British Army; the chains of discipline were thrown off and the whole force gave themselves up to pillage, intoxication and wanton destruction of life and property”.

Philippon, with the remnants of his brave companies, surrendered Fort San Christoval on the following morning and BADAJOZ was fully won, but at the fearful cost of 5,000 men of whom 3,500 fell in the assault.

Centrepiece of the 36th Regiment.

Regimental Silver “…….. part of the tradition of service and martial pride which is the heritage of those to whom they belong. We are all brought up to regard them as symbols of great achievements of the glorious past…… These silver tokens are a constant reminder of the loyalty and deep sense of duty of our forebearers and an incentive to all of us to try and do better. They are part of the great tradition……..” Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer. All of our former regular, militia and territorial regiments/battalions had wonderful displays of silver. Regimental silver is, family silver and records a part of the history of that particular regiment or battalion. Each piece has a story to tell, whether it be a simple goblet or cigarette box to the wonderful and lovely intricate workmanship of the silver centrepieces. The engraving of the silver also records past events, from a Rifle shooting Championship to the winning of the Army Football Cup, and the engraving of the goblets which were presented by individual officers to their mess, from Halifax Nova Scotia to Tienstin. Silver drums and bugles were presented by battalions, towns and individuals in memory of men who gave their lives serving their Sovereign, Country and Regiment. Many pieces of silver were commemorate an individual act of gallantry or an action in which elements of the regiment took part. The silver also records the uniqueness of individual regiments, which makes the British Army so different and better than other armies. Each regiment has its own traditions, dress variations, customs, cap-badges and Battle Honours, all jealously guarded. Our Regiment has been involved in many changes from its first muster in 1694 to the Cardwell and Haldane Reforms, through two World Wars, the loss of the Second Battalion and Territorial Units after the Second World War – the amalgamation of 1970 to the formation of the Mercian Regiment in 2007. Over the years the regiment has had to dispose of a considerable amount of its treasures but a large amount of our old regimental silver, regular and territorial, is now a part of the Worcestershire Museum’s collections and others form part of The Mercian Regiment holdings collection and many of the traditions handed down over the years are now part of their heritage and in use today. Amongst the largest and most spectacular of the Museum’s pieces is the magnificent Centrepiece of the 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment. The centrepiece is cast in silver and represents a rocky crag with four of the most prized game trophies to be found in the Himalayas. The plinth supporting the centrepiece is of oak with silver snakes coiled around two of the four supports and the inscription around the top rim. This inscription reads: Presented to the Officers Mess by the following officers who were either members of the Regimental Hunt or promoted during The Tour of Service of the Regiment in India November 1863 to November 1875. We know however that the centre piece was not made until the Regiment had returned to England. It was commissioned from Hunt & Roskell, late Storr & Mortimer of London and bears the hallmarks for 1877.
The magnificent solid silver centre piece of the 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment of Foot. Made bt Hunt and Roskell in 1877 it adorned the dining table in the officers’ mess. It is now on display in the Museum.

The Battle of Gheluvelt October 31st 1914 "The Worcesters save the Empire"

 The first shock of the German invasion came near to defeating the combined French and British Armies.  The British Army stood to fight at Ypres.  After ten days’ hard fighting, the 2nd Battalion, 350 strong, was the only reserve for the Gheluvelt sector.  The Battalion was then resting in Polygon Wood.  The line at Gheluvelt, attacked by overwhelming numbers, gave way, and the enemy took the Chateau and village.  The situation was very serious, and preparations for a general retirement were made; unless the gap was closed, the Army would be lost, so, more or less as a forlorn hope, the Battalion was ordered to counter-attack.

‘A’ Company advanced to a railway embankment overlooking the village, to prevent the enemy advancing up the Menin Road.  Meanwhile, with lightened kit and extra ammunition, the rest of the Battalion made ready for the attack.  The village was hidden by a ridge, and their aiming mark was the Chateau.  As they advanced, signs of retreat were everywhere; they alone went forward.

The crest of the ridge was covered by the enemy guns, and could be crossed only by a quick rush.  Though over a hundred fell to the storm of shelling  which met their advance, the rest dashed down the slope, forced their way through the hedges and fences and into the Chateau grounds, where they closed with the Germans.

Surprised by the impetuous speed of the attack, the enemy, though far superior in numbers, gave way, and the attackers linked up with the remnants of the South Wales Borderers, who were still holding out.

As a result of the capture of Gheluvelt against terrific odds, and the consequent closing of the gap in the British line, Ypres was held and the Channel ports were saved.  In his despatch describing this action of the 31st October, 1914, the Commander in Chief, Sir John French, said:-

“the rally of the 1st Division and the capture of the village of Gheluvelt at such a time was fraught with momentous consequences.  If any one Unit can be singled out for special praise, it is the Worcestershires.”

The casualties of the Worcestershire Regiment in carrying out this counter attack were 3 officers and 189 other ranks, or 50 percent. of their fighting strength on the day!

The Worcestershire Regiment retake Gheluvelt

The Worcestershire Regiment retake Gheluvelt

 

The Black Drummers

1770's Drummer

One of the Black drummers c.1770.

In 1759 ten slaves captured from the French were presented to the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot for use as drummers, and started a tradition which would last nearly a century.
Over the next 84 years nearly 50 black men were actively recruited to serve as drummers in the 29th. Each man was a volunteer, and many served for 20 or more years, receiving equal pay, pensions, medals and status as any other soldier. Some sons followed fathers, and fresh recruits joined from Canada, Ireland, the West Indies and India.
The black drummers remained an important and proud part of the Regiment until the last drummer died in 1843.

The Regimental Badge

badge_web

The badge of the Worcestershire Regiment from 1881

Men of the Worcestershire Regiment in 1897 - note the star on the soldiers 'valise' or leather backpack.

Men of the Worcestershire Regiment in 1897: note the star on the soldier’s ‘valise’ or backpack.

The regimental badge of the 29th Regiment of Foot until 1881

The regimental badge of the 29th Regiment of Foot until 1881

The Star of the regimental badge is that from the Order of the Garter, and was used by Colonel Farrington, founder of the 29th Regiment of Foot. He had been an officer in the Coldstream Guards, and kept the Star for his new Regiment. As a result, the 29th were nicknamed ‘Guards of the Line’.

The number of the regiment in written in the centre of the star in Roman numerals. The lion above it may be copied from the Royal Crest.  It is believed that it was presented to the 29th when they were on duty at Windsor in 1791.

The 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment also used a star in their badge, which bore their motto ‘Firm’. It was worn from the 1770s at least, although the origin is unknown, and became official in 1810.

The Regiment also used to use the Naval pattern of crown on their badges to commemorate their service with the Fleet at the Glorious First of June in 1794. This link to their maritime service is also remembered in two of the regiment’s marching tunes, Hearts of Oak and Rule Britannia, both traditionally associated with the Royal Navy

In both regiments, the Star was worn for many years on the Valise – part of a soldier’s backpack. When the regiments were amalgated to form the Worcestershire Regiment in 1881, the badge incorporated the star, the lion of the 29th and the motto of the 36th.  Thus the regiment continued to remain ‘FIRM’.