By Michael Kirkby
Home to the Sherwood Foresters Regiment, Nottinghamshire is one of the few counties in England that can boast of such a proud and varied military heritage.
Prior to the formation of The Sherwood Foresters Regiment the main infantry regiment to hail from the area was the 45th (1st Nottinghamshire) Foot. Awarded the county name in 1782 following the War of Independence the 45th was to become one of the major players in the next major war to engulf Europe, the war against Napoleonic France. The 45th was one of the first regiments to land with British forces in Portugal in 1807 and was to pretty much stay with the army there and see the rise and success of Sir Arthur Wellesley, later to become The Duke of Wellington as he took a small and ill equipped army and repeatedly defeated the superior French forces in Portugal, Spain and right into the heart of France itself seven years later.
However, very little is known about the counties other regiment, the 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire). Already an existing regiment from 1755, like the rest of the British army the 59th was issued with a county in 1782. The regiment consisted of 2 battalions during the war with Napoleonic France. The 1st battalion spent much of this time overseas on garrison duty in Java, Mauritius and India but the 2nd battalion, raised in Derbyshire in 1804, was to also play a hand in bringing down the French war machine that was threatening to sweep through Europe.
When war was once again declared in 1808 the 2nd battalion of the 59th Foot (2bn/59th) were on route back to England from Brazil. Needing all troops at hand to combat the French they were re-directed to bolster a force of 12,000 men under Sir David Baird to begin pushing back the French occupying Spain. The first few engagements were a success but the tide soon began to turn against the small British force and eventually they were forced to retreat to Corruna, from where they had first disembarked, under the command of Sir John Moore in late 1808. The retreat was an arduous affair, with scores falling by the roadside in the freezing temperatures, men succumbed to the cold, hunger and disease which cleaved holes through the British ranks. With barely a foothold on the continent, the British had nowhere to run once they reached Corruna and so were forced to turn and hold back the French army massing in front of them.
On 15th January 1809 the British fleet appeared to take the survivors home. With only 300 men to bring to arms, the 2bn/59th were to hold the extreme left of Moore’s line and prevent the French from sweeping around the flank. As the horses, artillery, sick and wounded were boarding the transports the infantry began to come under heavy fire from French artillery. The 81st regiment took such a battering they were pulled from the line and the 2bn/59th brought forward to plug the gap. As the French infantry tried to probe the line for weaknesses the 2bn/59th advanced to stop them. Lieutenant Colonel Fane, the 59ths commander was hit in the head by a musket shot and command fell to Captain Fairfield. The men of the Grenadier and No. 1 Company rushed and scaled a fence causing the French to withdraw form the position. Both these companies had been the furthest point forward of the entire British army covering the retreat from Corruna and the 59th was the last regiment to disengage the enemy as night fell. Their actions in holding the French back allowed the rest of the army to embark onto the transport ships at the cost of 60 killed and wounded. The 59th embarked onto their transport shortly after midnight on the 16th but were not safe from enemy action quite yet. A French shore battery holed the ship carrying the 59th’s Staff and began to sink, almost taking with it the regimental flags had it not been for the quick thinking of Sergeant Major Perkin who rescued them!
The 2bn/59th reached England a day later and spent the next four months rebuilding their numbers by recruiting from local militias. During the British force’s retreat from Corruna, a new strategy had been proposed to open up a new front in Europe in the East. Britain’s European allies, the Prussians and Austrians, had been massing troops which caused Napoleon to take troops from Spain to deal with this threat. The Prussians and Austrians requested that Britain send 40,000 troops to Holland and open up another front to take up more French troops and lessen the pressure in the East. Their request was accepted and in July 1809, 40,000 British troops under the overall command of Lord Chatham sailed into the Scheldt to capture Antwerp.
The small inland island of Walcheren was to make a good launch pad for the British troops to assault Antwerp and disembark their artillery to take up positions. The first task was to capture Flushing, the main town on Walcheren. The capture of the town was not easy and the defenders had managed to bring up more reinforcements than expected but to add to the British frustrations, flooded the fields and surrounding areas of the town turning the ground into a large swamp. The siege of Flushing lasted 2 weeks and eventually only surrendered after two days of heavy British artillery bombardment. However, Flushing was to be the only action of the campaign. The flooding of the fields and the humid air had caused a deadly strain of dysentery to swarm through the British ranks. This ‘Walchern Fever’ had crippling effects on the British army and caused men by the scores to fall prey to it. Totals estimate that the fever claimed 4,000 lives and incapacitated a further 11,500. To make matters worse, Lord Chatham was slow to press home the success of the siege and French Marshall Bernadotte was able to filter in 26,000 troops to hold off a further advance. With so many troops affected by the fever and the French numbers growing Lord Chatham ordered the expedition to be lifted in February 1810. The 2bn/59th, being one of the Walcheren regiments saw no action and suffered 66 losses to the fever.
By the time they had returned home to England, Sir Arthur Wellesley, now Lord Wellington, was commanding a second, more successful campaign in Spain and Portugal and troops were being redirected back to the Iberian Peninsula. Wellington however, requested that no regiments that fought at Walcheren be sent to Spain for fear they may bring the fever with them and infect his army.
The 2bn/59th would spend the next few years on duty in England, Ireland and Jersey but their luck changed in August 1812 when they were called up to join the army in Spain besieging Cadiz. Though the 2bn/59th arrived as the siege was lifted they spent the next six months on garrison duty in the town.
Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia in 1812 had cost him his best troops and the French were now retreating across Eastern Europe in disarray, this gave Wellington and the Spanish the confidence to launch a new offensive and in spring 1813 the 2bn/59th along with other units sailed to Lisbon to bolster the forces massing there for the big offensive. Reaching Lisbon the 59th commenced upon a 21 day march along the banks of the River Duoro and then fast marched across Northern Spain. Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor’s brother and usurper of the Spanish throne, moved in to confront Wellington with 60,000 men. On the morning on June 21st 1813 70,000 British and Spanish troops met Joseph Bonaparte’s 58,000 at a place called Vittoria. Between both forces ran the River Zadorra which Wellington intended to cross where a bridge lay at a village called Gamarra Mayor which was held by the French. He first needed to secure the village and bridge, and sent in Robinson’s brigade consisting of the 59th, 4th and 47th regiments to take the village and secure a crossing point for the main army.
The brigade advanced in 3 columns, but the French artillery and musket fire forced the steady advance into a run. As the columns hastily pressed on to the village they halted, formed line and fired a devastating volley into the French ranks, then with a cheer they broke rank and charged headlong into the French troops holding the village. Swarming into the village, the French were unable to hold them back and inevitably broke rank and scattered. As the brigade chased down the fleeing French and pressed on to take the bridge a dozen cannons opened fire on them from the French side of the river. This checked the brigades advance and forced them to retreat allowing the French to come back across and re-occupy the bridge. The British and French found themselves at a stalemate with the British occupying the village but the French occupying the bridge.
The fight for the bridge had cost the entire brigade 500 men of which 160 were from the 2bn/59th, including in that number Lieutenant Colonel Fane, who surviving the bullet to the head at Corruna was hit in the thigh by a cannon ball and died a few days later. Elsewhere on the field, Wellington managed to force an opening in the French lines and split the French position in two. This meant that the French units near the bridge were sent into panic and tried to cross back onto the British side to escape but found their way barred by Robinson’s brigade still holding the village. The result was complete carnage with a massive crush on the bridge forcing men and horses into the water to be swept away to their fates.
Vittoria was the victory Wellington needed to gain a foothold in Spain and secure his position there. Following the battle the 59th’s division was sent south to pursue the French who fell back onto the medieval fortress of San Sebastian.
With a small French army holed up in the fortress Wellington decided to lay siege to the fortress in a manner similar to Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo in early 1812. Fearing the repercussions of these sieges, when the British troops, eventually breaking through after months of entrenchment, went on a rampage of loot, murder and drunkenness; Wellington wanted a quick siege to prevent any frustrations from boiling over.
The British first attacked the island of Santa Clara and took the monastery of San Bartolomeo to establish batteries from which they could bombard the fortress walls and bring them crumbling down, forming a breach to which Wellington could pour his infantry through. Learning from his lessons during Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo, Wellington ordered up a proper siege train to be brought up by boat with proper siege guns instead or regular artillery pieces and outdated Spanish cannons. This was also to be the first siege conducted with the newly established Corps of Sappers and Miners whom were created following the previous sieges where infantry had to dig all entrenchment systems.
As San Sebastian was on the coast, Wellington planned to attack on the morning of August 31st as he could guarantee the tide would be out and the men could assault a third wall. At 11am he sent in the Forlorn Hope, a group of volunteers who would be the first to attack the fortress. The survival rate of the Forlorn Hope was minimal as these were the men to take the brunt of any traps, such as mines exploding and also test the fire power of the defenders. Robinson’s brigade consisting on the 2bn/59th, the 1bn/4th and 2bn/47th, was chosen to attack the main breach and attacked in two columns. The Forlorn Hope had already attacked the main breach and had been slaughtered to the last man by the mines hidden within the rubble. This meant however that Robinson’s brigade only had to deal with defenders on the wall sand escalated the breach. Reaching the top of the breach however the brigade realised there was an inner wall behind from which the defenders were pouring heavy fire into the breach in which the British troops were bottle necked. To make matters worse between the breach in the main wall and the wall behind it was a 30 foot drop lined with chevaux de frise, blocks of wood with sharpened logs, and sword blades hammered in to snag, cut and maim troops.
Robinson’s brigade was left with very little option but to navigate their way either side of the breach across a narrow wall faced with heavy fire opposite them and buttresses that cut across their path. It was a risky and murderous manoeuvre. To alleviate the pressure on the British troops on the walls and building up in the breaches the British siege guns opened up and began to fire into the fortress sand onto the walls harbouring French soldiers. This helped to alleviate the fire being directed towards the British attackers as the French ran for cover. More and more British troops cleared the walls and began to pour into the fortress to tackle the defenders inside. With the town now in British hands the castle towards the rear fell a week later to the 2bn/59th with Captain Francis Fuller being awarded the Peninsula Gold Medal.
It had been a costly affair but San Sebastian had fallen to the British, but at a cost of 1,300 casualties. Robinson’s brigade, having led the attack, suffered 57% casualties of which 350 belonged to the 2bn/59th who’s Light Company was obliterated in the attack. General Robinson gave special mention to the 59th in his report to General Ross, the 59th’s Colonel, following the battle claiming that:
“Nothing could exceed the intrepidity of the Regiment; it rushed forward cheering and gained the top of the breach under a fire that threatened the destruction of the whole party.”
In the months following San Sebastian the British army began to push onto the Spanish – French border, with the 2bn/59th being sent to occupy St Jean de Luz on the River Nive.
The next main objective was the extremely loyal Bonapartist town in the south, Bayonne. Bayonne was of strategic and moral importance for the army as the roads from the town kept the rest of the army supplied in France, if Bayonne was cut, then so was the army’s stomach and Paris lost its main coastal supply.
On 10th December 1813, the Comte D’Erlon’s force moved in to stop Wellington’s 63,000 strong army from marching on Bayonne. The 1st and 5th Divisions (where the 2bn/59th was) were stationed towards the town of Anglet. D’Erlon sent forward 50,000 men to pin them down so he could attack Wellington’s centre. D’Erlon and Wellington faced each other for three days attacking and counter attacking until the 13th December when General Hill and Marshall Soult’s forces became separated from their armies and battled it out alone with Hill forcing Soult to retreat on Bayonne. With Soult gone D’ Erlon’s force weakened and he was forced to retreat.
The Battle of the Nive had cost the 2bn/59th 159 dead and wounded sustained when being pressed by Soult’s forces to find a way through. The Battle of the Nive was to be the 2bn/59ths final encounter of the Peninsular War. Following the battle they were stationed on the French border and in April 1814 Toulouse fell to the British forcing the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. Following his abdication the 2bn/59th were sent to Ireland for garrison duty.
The 2bn/59th were not to rest long in Ireland however, as in March 1815 Napoleon skipped exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and returned to Paris to once again plunge Europe into warfare. Wellington, now title The Duke of Wellington, was stationed in Brussels with the main bulk of his veteran regiments scattered over the globe. Wellington, together with the Dutch and Prussians pieced together an army ready to face Napoleon. Any British regiments still on home service were called up and hastily made their way to the Low Countries. The 2bn/59th sailed from Ireland to Kent and from there made their way to Ostend in Holland where they came ashore on May 3rd 1815 and quartered at Oudenarde.
On July 17th the French troops first engaged the British and their Dutch allies at Quatre Bras which though was an allied victory, Wellington retreated his force to the ridge of Mont St Jean close to the tiny Belgian hamlet of Waterloo, there to engage the main French force. The French drew up to do battle with the British and allied force on 18th June and in a battle that was 10 hours long the fate of Europe hung in the balance. Throughout the day the French attacked various positions in the allied line focussing heavily on taking the fortified chateau of Hougomont, they launched mass cavalry charges hoping to break the British line but still could not force an entrance. At about 3:30pm the Prussian army arrived at the field to support the British and Dutch and Napoleon launched one final gamble to break through. This was repulsed by Wellington who launched a surprise counter defence that was the final straw to break the French morale. Napoleon’s army turned and fled.
The 2bn/59th were not directly engaged at Waterloo but were stationed at the village of Hal to block the main Paris to Brussels road. This road was extremely important to prevent reinforcements form coming through but the 2bn/59th did succeed in holding off French cavalry who were scouting the area to find a route around the flank of the British army. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo the 2bn/59th was placed at the head of the British army as it marched into France on 22nd June 1815 owing to the fact that they were at full strength.
The French army, though defeated, made several attempts to stand and fight during their retreat. At Cambrai the French tried to make a stand and killed 5 soldiers of the 59th, they were easily overwhelmed and surrendered. On July 5th the British army neared Paris and set up camp on the outskirts. The 59th encamped on the north side of the city separated from the French capital by a canal. With Paris still in French hands whilst the government deliberated a surrender, French and British sentries in both camps would frequently engage in taking pot shots at each other and during the peace negotiations a sentry of the 59th was killed in a skirmish with French soldiers.
Eventually, peace was negotiated, the British marched into Paris and Napoleon Bonaparte was once again exiled to the tiny island of St Helena in the Atlantic where he could be of no trouble to anyone. The 59th billeted in France for the winter and in December 1815 marched to Calais where they boarded a ship back to Dover and then to Ireland.
With the war with France over, Europe was still a very unstable place and war with any country was imminent. The 2bn/59th would have been guaranteed many more adventures soldiering.
Unfortunately, with a large army no longer needed, the 2bn/59th was disbanded in 1816. The 2nd Battalion of the 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire) Regiment were only in operation for twelve years but during that time they had taken part in the largest evacuation of troops from the continent prior to Dunkirk at Corruna, holding off the French whilst the rest of the British army escaped, had taken part in the disastrous Walcheren Campaign and had been amongst the first troops into San Sebastian, the last major siege of the Napoleonic War. Furthermore, in sweeping up the last pockets of resistance following Waterloo they were possibly the last troops to become casualties of war with Napoleonic France that had been waged on and off since 1793.
The 1st Battalion of the 59th would continue to serve and have a long and distinguished career during the Victorian age of Empire building until 1881 when the army reforms merged them with the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Foot to become the East Lancashire Regiment and the colours of the 59th regiment were put up for good.
Further information on the 2/59th regiment can be found in:
A.S. Lewis, The Lilywhite 59th (Blackburn Recreation Services Dept; 1985)
- F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (London: Guild Publishing, 1987)
- I. Fletcher, Wellington’s Regiments (Spellmount:, 1984)