By Robert Griffith
Like many others, I was introduced to Napoleonic riflemen through Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, and the subsequent TV series. I liked the character of Captain ‘Sweet William’ Frederickson and his bedraggled company of the 5/60th but chose to learn more about the 95th. I started to read memoirs and histories of the time, which in turn inspired me to write my own historical fiction set in the period.
My next encounter with the 5/60th was at a rain-battered castle in Shropshire. I had gone to watch a Napoleonic re-enactment and noticed the scarlet and green clad riflemen beside those depicting the 95th. Having been on the lookout for a new hobby I decided, impetuously, to become a re-enactor myself. I joined the 5/60th group and began to attend events. As I learned the drill, bought the kit, and fired a flintlock for the first time I also made sure that I read what I could about the history of the unit.
The two previous books on the 5/60th were written over a century ago. Like many such histories they have a tendency to gloss over episodes that could lessen the regimental reputation, and also concentrate on the officers, whilst largely ignoring the rank and file. When an editor at Helion approached the group to write a new history of the battalion I volunteered, deciding to try and redress the balance and provide a fuller picture.
The first problem I faced was that none of the riflemen of the 5/60th had written memoirs. However, I did manage to track down a small batch of letters in an archive in New York, and a larger collection in Geneva. I also began to search through the original battalion records at The National Archives, the regimental archive in Hampshire, and also look for mentions of the battalion in memoirs from other regiments. What I discovered was a far richer and more interesting history than I expected.
The 5th Battalion was formed in 1797, when various regiments raised by foreign nobles to fight the army of Revolutionary France were amalgamated into the 60th. The regiment itself had long been somewhat of a foreign legion since its formation in the Seven Years War. The units that formed the 5th Battalion were specialist light infantry, mostly recruited from the German states, and armed with rifles. Rifles were far more accurate than the standard Brown Bess musket, and Germans had a reputation of making ideal light infantrymen. The first British Army manual for light infantry and riflemen was actually written by the battalion’s Lieutenant Colonel Baron Francis de Rottenburg.
The 5/60th saw action during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and then served in the West Indies, South America and Nova Scotia. They then became one of only three battalions to serve in Portugal and Spain from the very start of the Peninsular War to the bitter end.
When Sir Arthur Wellesley’s forces landed in Mondego Bay in August 1808, the 5th Battalion made up the majority of the rifle-armed light infantry with the army. Brigaded with four companies of the 95th, they formed the advance guard as Wellesley advanced inland, took part in the first skirmish at Obidos, and then at the battles of Roliça and Vimeiro, winning much praise from Sir Arthur for their performance. However, when Sir John Moore’s army crossed into Spain he was forced to send the battalion back to Lisbon due to a spate of desertions, and he even recommended that they be disbanded or sent back to the colonies.
From the start, prisoners of war had been recruited into the battalion, first Dutch and then French. By the time they landed in Portugal around half the battalion were former POWs. Some took the opportunity to rejoin the French, but many more served long and loyally. After being sent back to Lisbon, the worst offenders were weeded out, and when Wellesley returned in 1809 he again entrusted some of the most arduous and hazardous duties to the battalion. Three companies formed an advanced picket at Talavera where their steadiness and accurate fire helped to stall a surprise French attack. The battalion was split into companies and distributed throughout the army, serving in five of the eventual eight divisions. They played leading roles in many battles and skirmishes, using their rifles to target the French long before they came into musket range. In 1813 Marshal Soult blamed them for the appalling casualty rate amongst his officers.
However, for me, the most interesting part of writing Riflemen was not the vital role they played in many battles, but piecing together the stories of the individual soldiers: the general’s orderly who helped capture a French gun at Vimeiro, was commissioned into the Portuguese army and rose to be a general; reading a comment from a brigade commander recommending his translator for promotion, and then following him in the pay records as he was promoted to corporal, then sergeant, before being killed in action; or the French officer, a POW, who volunteered to serve the British, who was then captured by the French during the retreat from Burgos, and then subsequently captured again by the British at Vittoria in a French uniform and then executed.
The officers too provided some interesting tales, including a murder, duels, arguments in the mess, and even allegations of cowardice. One crept into Arroyo del Molinos to gather intelligence the night before Hill’s attack. Another, wounded at Albuera, spent time in a mental asylum before returning to duty, being court martialed for striking another officer, transferring to the KGL, and serving at Waterloo.
The battalion was disbanded in 1818, but their traditions lived on in the 60th as it became the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. The 95th may now be much more well-known but the 5/60th deserve to be remembered for their contribution both to the war against Napoleon and to the development of light infantry in the British Army.
Order your copy of ‘Riflemen. The History of the 5th Battalion, 60th (Royal American) Regiment 1797-1818’ here.