For the Glory of the Regiment

by J.R. Turland

In all wars soldiers have displayed acts of courage and heroism, but the British Army in the Peninsular War of 1807-1814 seems to have had more than its fair share of brave souls. Certainly the accounts of the war written by members of the two Gloucestershire Regiments involved in the Peninsula are full of instances of individual daring, self-sacrifice and bravery. In truth, merely to live a soldier's life was a brave undertaking. Danger lay everywhere; the rigours of the march; the all too common extreme hunger, epidemic disease or the local bandits could all kill as easily as the enemy.

On one occasion, the weather became the 28th North Gloucestershire's deadly foe. As the battalion approached Pamplona on 24 June 1813, through a heavy thunderstorm, lightning struck with disastrous results. Lieutenant Cadell of the Regiment witnessed the lightning strike a Lieutenant of the 34th Regiment "Poor Mastfxman's body instantly turned as black as if it had been burnt." [1] Four men of No 4 Company (28th Regiment) were also struck down and rendered unfit for service, and three officers, riding nearby, lost the power of speech. However, it is the action of the individual, taken at great personal risk, that attracts the greatest attention.

An example of how one man's bravery and quick thinking could save a potentially ruinous situation is described by Chariton after the Battle of Talavera on 28 July 1809.[2] During the battle the 61st Regiment had bayonet charged the French centre, supporting the British Guards Regiments. The headlong charge had taken them dangerously out of position, however, and before they had fully reformed the 61st were contacted by a fresh enemy body.[3] The officers of the company next to the grenadiers, which Charlton led, had become separated from it in the melee, and now the confused men threatened to let the French into the midst of the 61st Regiment. Charlton called on the leaderless men of the company to rally and form on him. For a while the incident hung in the balance, until Corporal Rose of the company heard Chariton and ran to stand by him, shouting, "I will stand by you to the last, sir!" [4] When they saw this, the others rallied on the pair and the enemy were repulsed. The British centre held and the battle was won. Colonel Saunders, commanding the regiment, recognised how close the situation had been to disaster, and thanked both Charlton and Rose afterwards.[5]

At Barossa on 5 March 1811 the 'Slashers', the 28th Regiment, won great honour, and the actions of several individuals were noteworthy. The French, commanded by Victor, had surprised the British from the flank and rear, and in order to buy his main force time to form up, General Graham directed a Flank Battalion to attack the overwhelming odds on the Barossa heights.[6] This amalgamated battalion, which included the light and grenadier companies of the 28th, was commanded by Colonel Browne of that regiment. He rode before his men and announced, "Gentlemen, I am happy to be the bearer of good news: General Graham has done you the honour of being the first to attack those fellows. Now follow me, you rascals!".[7] Thus 468 and 21 officers moved to attack the hill, defended by 2,500 French infantry, eight artillery pieces, some cavalry and two reserve grenadier battalions behind. Lieutenant Robert Blakeney of the 'Slashers' was present, and he recalls that "the orders given by Colonel Browne were that not a shot should be fired, but to proceed to work as soon as possible with the bayonet." [8] The French allowed the small force to come close before letting forth a "most tremendous roar of cannon and musketry." [9] Over 200 men and nearly half the officers fell in this initial volley, and 50 fell in the second.[10] Halted but not routed, the battalion took cover on the hillside. Only two officers, Colonel Browne, who rode on his charger in the face of the French the whole time, and Blakeney were left unscathed. Soon afterwards the Guards Regiment came up to join the attack, and fire was directed away from the crippled Flank Battalion. Blakeney was not satisfied, however "I now contrived to get eight or ten of the men together, principally 9th Grenadiers and 28th Light Infantry; to this little force, I proposed charging a howitzer, which was pouring forth destruction immediately in our front":[11] The men agreed and Blakeney grabbed a spare firelock to charge with. The drummer boy, Adams, expressed a desire to go with them, but feared for his drum. Blakeney told the 13-year-old that he would pay for any damage to the instrument, and so the youngster picked up a musket and joined the group. Blakeney charged the gun and luckily took it while it was being reloaded. "Two artillery men were bayonetted; the others rode off on their mules. This was not a gun fallen into our hands - it was taken at the point of a bayonet; and however I may be criticised for saying it, I was the first person who placed a hand on the howitser; and afterwards, with some chalky earth, I marked it '28th Regiment'." [12] Cadell, who was also present with the main body of the 28th, mentions that Blakeney was wounded in the thigh at the time he took the enemy gun.[13]

Blakeney again showed extreme bravery at Arroyo dos Molinos on the north bank of the River Tagus in 1811.[14] General Sir Rowland Hill had led a surprise attack on a smaller French force and Blakeney had a chance to lead a Flank Battalion for a short time. He rode at the head of his 200 men and led a charge, using bayonets only, at over 1,500 milling Frenchmen. As he neared the French column he was forced to jump a high wall to get at the enemy. "The wall being crossed, absurd as it may appear, alone I then met the head of the enemy's column. A scuffle ensued; I lost my horse and cap but not my sword."[15] Cadell writes that Blakeney captured the Prince d'Aremburg at this point, but this seems unlikely, as Blakeney himself does not mention it.[16] Confusion could have arisen from the fact that Blakeney did escort the Prince, as a prisoner, back to British lines. Cadell also makes his first mention of a very interesting character, Lieutenant Irwin, who was present at Arroyo dos Molinos. In the pursuit that followed the battle, Irwin was seen to take up, "what they call in Ireland a couple of 'two year-old stones' which he aimed so well with his left hand, that he brought down two of the Frenchmen, one after another; the others seeing their comrades so roughly handled, quietly surrendered and he brought them all in prisoners." [17]

Cadell also records the bravery of Sergeant Ball. The 28th Regiment were resting in Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees when Colonel Belson sent Sergeant Ball and six grenadiers to buy the officers some luxuries, such as tea, tobacco and sugar. They were to take 2000 dollars and go to Pasages, near the besieged San Sebastian, to buy the goods. The men arrived on 30 August, and when he heard that the storming of the fortress of San Sebastian was to take place on the following day, Sergeant Ball proposed to his men that they should all volunteer for the storming party. This they would do for the glory of the regiment since there was "hardly an action in the Peninsula in which the 28th had not had a share." [18] The men agreed and, leaving their money with the Commissary, they joined the 9th Grenadiers in the attack. Fortunately they all survived the bloody battle and returned to their regiment, not only with the groceries but also with the testimonial of the Commanding Officer of the Brigade, and much glory.[19]

The 28th Regiment's biggest battle in the Pyrenees was at the Maya Pass, where they also spent the winter of 1813. On 20 July 1813 the French attacked with two divisions against the two defending British brigades. Eventually the British had to retire, but only after a hard-fought battle.[20] Ensign Dalmar of the 28th Regiment was shot through the heart by a French sharpshooter while he was carrying the Regimental Colours. Ensign Hill, seeing the colours fall, instantly ran forward and took them up, exclaiming, "The Colours of the Slashers should never want a person to display them to the enemy". [21] Scarcely had he spoken than the sharpshooter shot him in the same place. Fortunately for Hill he had a handkerchief in his breast pocket which saved him. "The ball passed through his coat, waistcoat, 13 fold of handkerchief and his shirt, giving him a severe contusion in the breast he suffered from spitting blood for a long time afterwards." [22] The sharpshooter was despatched immediately afterwards. In the same action Cadell praised the Regimental Chaplain, the Reverend Charles Firth, who behaved in a most honourable fashion. "Being a strong man, he carried down on his back, one after the other, three or four of the officers of our brigade who had been severely wounded, from the heights where the action was fought, to the village of Maya, a distance of a mile and a half." [23] It was not only the soldiers who acted courageously; chaplains, surgeons and women looking for the dead or wounded also braved the battlefield.

Shortly after the action at Maya, during the retreat to the main body of the army, Sir Rowland Hill's Division, of which the 28th was part, had to hold the French at Lizaso.[24] Hill formed his troops on a steep slope, with a wood to their backs, and used the 28th as a reserve, sending companies to wherever they were needed along the line. Captain Hartman was sent with two companies of the 28th to rally a Portuguese battalion, and managed to repel the French down the hill.[25] Lieutenant Anderson of the Grenadier Company collected several small parties of the regiment who had become separated from the main battalion for a similar purpose. He saw that the village of a Ariba, approximately halfway up the slope, was held strongly by French troops, and that a Portuguese battalion could not take it from them. Anderson led his party of 18 'Slashers' to their assistance. When he arrived at El Ariba he found great numbers of the enemy in the streets, but he succeeded in rallying the Portuguese and in driving the French from the village. Lance Corporal Tank of No 2 Company was conspicuous on this occasion, as Cadell writes: "On charging the enemy down the hill towards the village, they came to a precipice, where Tank's muscular arms rendered good service; we could plainly see him from our position, at work with his musket and bayonet, forking the Frenchmen over it like sheaves of corn tossed from a cart." [28] At the battle to cross the Nivelle, Cadell saw Blakeney, now a Captain with the 36th Regiment due to his heroism at Arroy des Molinos, receive an injury from grapeshot in his leg. Despite this he would not retire from the frontline, but stayed near his men, propped against a tree to cheer and wave them on.[29] Lieutenant Irwin of the 28th was guarding the baggage train on this occasion, but still became involved in the action. A French flank attack had penetrated behind the British lines, and only by rounding up the few servants, batmen and auxiliaries he could find and leading them against the foe could Irwin prevent the baggage being ransacked. He managed to drive the French back across the ridge.[30]

Irwin, an Irishman and a very big fellow, was a great asset to the regiment he was humorous, good-natured and brave, and a fine soldier. While he was on piquet duty near Toulouse, he saw a fire in a cottage that had been used as a billet by the French. There were groans coining from inside, so Irwin decided to investigate. As they had no rope, the piquet linked hands, with the lieutenant in front. They brought out an old Frenchman, close to suffocation, who was astonished to find that he had been saved by British troops.[31] Another incident in which Irwin was involved occurred on the march from Alba in 1812, which allowed him "a singular opportunity of displaying his personal strength and intrepidity". [32] An overdriven and maddened bullock smashed into the ranks of the regiment and unceremoniously began knocking men down. "Lieutenant Irwin rushed forward and boldly seizing the animal by the horns, actually threw him over his back into a deep cut in the road." [33] There the bullock was killed and cut up by the hungry soldiers who used the hide to make sandals for those whose shoes had worn out.[34]

In 1814, near Bayonne, Chariton of the 61st Regiment was in danger not from the French, but from his own men. He went to a French house to obtain some warm water to bathe a wounded eye. Inside, he found three British soldiers from the Light Company of the 32nd Regiment, their bayonets drawn. An old man was on the floor and an old woman in the bed, while a young girl sobbed on her knees before the three men. Charlton was furious and shouted, "Begone you cowards, a disgrace to your country and the name of soldier or I will order the Provost Marshal to hang you on the next tree!". [35] Two of the men made to leave, but the third began to dispute Chariton's authority, saying he was not of the same regiment. Chariton drew his sword and told him he was his direct commanding officer, being then in charge of the Light Brigade, and aimed a blow at the man's head. Realising the man was drunk and would not move or parry, Charlton moved the blade aside at the last minute and the fellow staggered humbly away. The three men were tried by Court Martial, and Charlton was congratulated by the Brigade Commander. He became very friendly with the French family, and enjoyed their hospitality on several occasions.[36]

Charlton had another chance to show his bravery in the last battle of the war. During 1814 Soult's French army had been pushed back further and further into the interior of France, and he decided on 24 March to make a stand at his major supply depot in the area, Toulouse, but Wellington did not decide until 10 April on a final attack on the city. The main thrust was to be carried out by General Beresford with the Fourth, Sixth and Spanish Divisions, and several diversionary attacks were to be made to confuse the defenders.[37] This attack was to be led by the 11th, 36th and 61st Regiments who were to advance up a great redoubt, Mont Rave, to take the heavily defended French positions. As the 61st Regiment climbed to the halfway point on the hill, the French opened fire. "At this critical moment the 61st officers commanding Companies, placing themselves in front of their men, gallantly led them forward and although every step was marked with the fall of a comrade, not a trigger was pulled, excepting by the Light Companies, nor a man fell back, the wounded excepted, until the hill was crowned." [38] Charlton claimed that because of his lack of a heavy pack, being a member of the Light Infantry, he was the first to the top. Seeing the French attempting to counterattack, he cried, "No halt! Now that they are on the run we must keep at it." [39] Charlton rushed ahead once again with the other officers. They all leaped into a redoubt, Charlton calling out, "Rendezvous, monsieurs!" until a musket volley dropped every man present. [40] Charlton was struck in the chest, but was remarkably saved in the same manner as Ensign Hill of the 28th Regiment at Maya, by a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. Charlton helped a friend, Lieutenant Harris, back to the surgeon at the rear, but once there, against medical advice, he turned round and went back to his battalion. All the 61st Regiment's officers but four had been killed or wounded, and its commander, Colonel Coghlan, lay dead; Charlton was the senior officer present and therefore took command. The South Gloucestershire Regiment had been reduced to 250 men, yet Charlton took them to support the attack on the French secondary defences. He recalls seeing a sharpshooter of the 61st rush forward from the battalion to within feet of the nearest French column, there to kneel down and shoot dead its commander.[41] Forced by exertion to lie down, Charlton was wounded again, this time by a shell which damaged his ankle, so that he was unable to continue. The 61st Regiment lost 19 officers, eight sergeants and 153 rank and file killed or wounded in the battle, and were officially recognised by Wellington in his despatches.[42] Just before the battle the battalion had received new uniforms, and the bright scarlet jacketed bodies of their dead stood out on the hillside; from then on they were given the nickname the 'Flowers of Toulouse'.[43]


What drove these men to perform these acts of courage? In many cases men acted from a sense of duty to their officers, or, more importantly, to their regiment. A soldier's battalion became his family, for whom he would do anything; to bring glory to the regiment was the ambition of every soldier. Competition for recognition and honour between British regiments was fierce; the Gloucestershire Regiments took part in more actions in the war than almost any other unit. Additionally, heroic acts were an important way to gain promotion. This was especially true for the rank and file who could not afford to purchase a commission, and for whom advancement beyond the rank of sergeant was almost impossible. This sort of meritocracy was rare, however, as it went against the grain of the British military establishment, and so was reserved for the most heroic and successful of acts. In the case of Blakeney at Arroyo dos Molinos, Tank at Lizaso and Ball at San Sebastian, their actions were rewarded, as they were all subsequently promoted.

The effects of these actions were not only felt immediately, in terms of tactical success on the battlefield, but also cumulatively, in months and years to come. By creating or extending a tradition of bravery and self-sacrifice the men of the Gloucestershire Regiments ensured that future generations within the regiments would try to live up to that tradition. Napier was amazed by this aspect of the British soldiers, and he writes about Sergeant Ball's voluntary action at San Sebastian; "and these are the men, these the spirits, who are called too brutish to work except by fear: it is precisely fear to which they are most insensible." [44] The memory of the men of the two Gloucestershire Regiments, the 28th and 61st lives on in the spirit of the amalgamated regiment today. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Gloucestershire Regiment is one of the most decorated and officially honoured in the British Army, or that the members of that regiment hold their Peninsula victories most precious.

This study does not claim to be a definitive history of the Gloucestershire Regiments during the Peninsular Campaign, but I hope it has tackled some unusual topics and has entertained and perhaps surprised the reader. In 1994 the Gloucestershire Regiment celebrates its 300th anniversary. The 'Glosters' are doomed to mark this occasion by amalgamating with the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment, a relatively new unit. The new title of the combined regiment is not yet known, but the 'Duke of Edinburgh's' carries royal weight. Government reductions in military spending have occasioned this re-organisation, but the wisdom of the policy must be questioned in the light of recent events. The fate of the Gloucestershire Regiment, a unit with so much history, should be reconsidered, not solely because of sentiment, but for practical reasons also. The morale and bravery of troops in action, for which the British Army is famed, is based on an almost tribal regimental pride. What will happen to the Gloucestershire Regiment's pride and traditions if they are amalgamated with another regiment is uncertain; it will be a tragedy if they are forgotten. 

[The Gloucestershire Regiment merged with the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment in 1994 to form the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. In 2005 the regiment's name was changed to the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry. In 2007 it merged with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment and the Royal Green Jackets to form a new large regiment to be called The Rifles. (Editor)]


Note: For abbreviations found in these references the Bibliography should be consulted.
RHGR refers to documents which may be found at the Regimental Headquarters, Gloucestershire Regiment, Gloucester.

1 Cadell p 158
2 See Gates pp 178-185 Glover pp 106-112
3 See Gates pp 182-183 Glover p 110
4 Charlton p 83
5 Ibid p 83
6 See Glover p 124
7 Blakeney pp 187-188
8 Ibid p 189
9 Ibid p 189
10 Ibid p 189
11 Ibid p 191
12 Ibid p 192
13 Cadell p 103
14 See Glover p 176
15 Blakeney p 229
16 Cadell p 119
17 Ibid p 118
18 Ibid p 176
19 Ibid pp 176-177; also see typescript copy
   of letter by Ball confirming story; RHGR
20 See Gates pp 411-412 Glover pp 251-253
21 Cadell p 165
22 Ibid p 165
23 Ibid pp 166-167
24 See Gates pp 420-421 Glover p 257
25 Cadell pp 169-170
26 Ibid pp 170-171
27 Ibid p 171
28 See Gates Ch 27 Glover Ch 20
29 Cadell p 187
30 Ibid p 188
31 Ibid p 217
32 Ibid p 140
33 Ibid p 140
34 Ibid p 140
35 Charlton p 146
36 Ibid p 146
37 See Gates pp 459-467 Glover pp 331-333
38 Chariton pp 193-194
39 Ibid p 194
40 Ibid p 194
41 Ibid p 195
42 Ibid p 198
43 TMTV Ch 13
44 Napier V p 285


Primary Sources

  • Anecdotes Cadell C. Anecdotes of Military Service (unpublished; typescript copy at RHGR)
  • Bell Bell G. Rough Notes of an Old Soldier (2 vols, 1867)
  • Blakeney Sturgis I. (ed) A Boy in the Peninsular War: The Services, Adventures and Experiences of Robert Blakeney (1899)
  • Cadell Cadell C. Narrative of the Campaigns of the 28th Regiment (1835)
  • Charlton Charlton E. Journal of Lieutenant Colonel E Charlton, 61st Foot, 1804-1851 (Unpublished. Typescript copy at RHGR)
  • Costello Costello K.S.F. Adventures of a Soldier (1841)
  • Keep Keep W.T. Letters of William Thornton Keep (Unpublished. Typescript copies at RHGR)
  • Lejeune Lejeune L.T. Memoires (2 vols Paris 1895)
  • McClelland McClelland M. Recollections of a Soldier's Widow (1854)
  • Napier Napier Sir W.F.P. History of the War in the Peninsula and the South of France (6 vols 1852)
  • Patten Patten T. Petition of Thomas Patten Late of 28th Regiment (Published about 1850 in a Portsmouth newspaper. Typescript copy at RHGR)
  • Porter Porter Sir R.K.  Letters from Portugal and Spain (1809)
Secondary Sources
  • Forty Forty G. and Forty A. They Also Served (1979)
  • Gates Gates D.E. The Spanish Ulcer (1986)
  • Glover Glover M. The Peninsular War 1807-1814 (1974)
  • Oman Oman Sir C.W.C. History of the Peninsular War (7 vols 1902-1930)
  • Page Page F.C.G. Following the Drum (1986)
  • TMTV Grazebrook T.N. CBE, DSO, DL They Marched to Victory (unpublished typescript at RHGR)
  • William William N. Judy O'Grady and the Colonel's Lady (1988)
Print Version


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