John Browness of Ampney Crucis (1784-1824)
Drummer, 36th Herefordshire Regiment of Foot during the Napoleonic Wars
Part 3 – John’s Career in the 36th Herefordshire Regiment of Foot
This section charts all the locations and actions of his service from enlistment to discharge. To keep it relevant to John himself, as far as the military actions are concerned, the focus will be on that part of them which featured his regiment rather than a detailed description of the whole of the campaign. This section is also interspersed with his major family life events – his marriage and the births of his children.
The aforementioned ‘King’s Shilling’ was an apparently munificent bounty of £23 17s 6d for lifetime service, which was more than enough to draw a young man away from his uncertain and poorly paid future of a life in the fields. With regards to the bounty, the recruit would immediately discover that his new-found comrades would help him squander a sizeable proportion of it in the nearest inns and taverns. Much of what remained was required by the army to be spent on ‘necessaries’ i.e. the new soldier’s uniform and equipment including his knapsack, all of which left him a mere 10 shillings.
His initial training took place at Winchester where Drill took place two or three times a day. Normally this intense drilling, which included training in the use of the musket or ‘firelock’, went on for six or seven months. This had to be cut short, however, as Ireland was still seething with rebellion following the unsuccessful French invasion of 1798 in support of the Wolfe Tone uprising. The Battalion marched out of Winchester in January 1800 and embarked for Ireland at Portsmouth, John being transported on board ‘The Diadem’.
The battalion disembarked at Tarbert and Cork before proceeding to Fermoy, Clonmel and back to Cork. After this short posting, the 36th had a brief foray in France, the aim of which was to capture the small island of L’Isle de Houat. On 4th June 1800 the light company landed at Quiberon and destroyed a number of batteries and then re-embarked in order to sail to Minorca which had been captured from Spain the year before. Its strategic importance was clear as, from this island, an attack could be launched on the south of France. Although no such sea-borne invasion of France was ever undertaken, it was considered important to prevent the island from being taken by the French. The island was duly fortified and reinforced by several thousand British soldiers and the 36th were stationed there from August 1800 to June 1802 when, under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens, it was returned to Spanish rule.
The 36th sailed back to Ireland, where they occupied the barracks at Galway. In July 1803, the 36th was suddenly required to make a forced march to Dublin in response to a serious riot which resulted in the deaths of Lord Chief Justice Kilwarden and his nephew. It was in March 1803 that the Muster Rolls for the 36th indicate that John had become a Drummer, a rank which he would keep throughout the rest of his service. This meant an increase in pay from his daily rate of 1s as a private to 1s 1¾d.
A drummer’s life in the British Army during the Napoleonic era was nothing if not varied. A drummer did not simply beat a drum as a means of signalling. In fact, the communication of officers’ orders could be undertaken not only by the drum but also by bugle and this was increasingly the case during the Napoleonic era given the likelihood of drumbeats being confused with the sounds made by muskets and canon fire. ‘Drummer’ was the military title of all players of musical instruments, including fifes. In addition, the role encompassed assisting with the training of new enlistees, tending to the wounded on the battlefield including acting as stretcher bearers, taking part in actual armed combat, administering the lash to errant comrades and assisting with the recruitment of new soldiers to the regiment by attracting attention with their various instruments. They also wore very distinctive uniforms. Whereas all other ranks wore scarlet coats with the colour of the facings (the collars and cuffs) representing their individual regiment, drummers wore ‘reverse facings’ – i.e. scarlet collars and cuffs with – in the case of the 36th – gosling green coats, as shown in the illustration.
It is worth going a little deeper into regimental discipline and the role of the drummers and their drum major, who was also in reverse facings – only much more magnificently decorated. The reason this highly unpleasant duty fell to them is that, after the ‘colours’ (the regimental flag adorned with all the regiment’s battle honours), the drummers with their distinctive uniforms were emblematic of regimental pride and honour. Thus misdemeanours were considered to be offences against the honour of the regiment itself.
The instrument used in flogging was known as the cat o’ nine tails. John Shipp of the 87th Regiment of Foot describes it as follows: ‘Those which I have seen, and used, were made of a thick some kind of whip-cord, and on each lash, nine in number, and generally about two feet long, were tied three large knots, so that a poor wretch, who was doomed to receive 1000 lashes, had 27,000 knots cutting into his back, and men have declared to me, that the sensation experienced at each lash, was as though the talons of a hawk were tearing the flesh of their bones.’1 1000 lashes, it should be said, is somewhat excessive and one questions whether such a punishment could be survivable. Philip J Haythornthwaite helps to put these figures into the following context: ‘Although there were restrictions upon the number of lashes [that] could be ordered, up to 1,200, the average punishment was still appalling, 5-600 lashes being in no way uncommon.’2
The offender was stripped of his tunic so that his back was bare and tied to a triangle of sergeants’ halberds. There was no set number of lashes to be administered for any given misdemeanour and this was determined at the discretion of the officer in charge. Under the supervision of the drum major, sentences would be carried out by a succession of drummers, each administering 25 lashes, as it was important not to be seen to be in any way lenient to the offender – to be so judged could mean being thrown to the ground and kicked by the drum major or, worse, being subjected to a flogging which could amount to up to 300 lashes.
As a salutary warning to the men, floggings were conducted in front of a parade of the whole regiment formed into a square. Amongst these would be a medical officer who would deem at what point it would be life-threatening to proceed further and the unfortunate man would be cut down, hospitalised and allowed to recover – only to face the balance of the sentence once his shredded back had sufficiently healed. The aforementioned John Shipp asserted that it was his ‘unfortunate duty’ to flog men at least three times a week.
It appears from the 1804 Muster Rolls that John was either seriously wounded or sick as he spent June to September in the Regimental Hospital. He was also hospitalised in April 1805.
The regiment was to remain in Dublin throughout 1804 and much of 1805. On 20th September 1805 they marched from their camp at the Curragh of Kildare to Bandon Barracks where they remained until 29th October 1805 when they sailed from Cork to Germany. This expedition took the regiment to Branstead and Bokell but they were only in this area for two months and no engagements with the enemy took place. In February 1806 they sailed for England, landing at Ramsgate early in March. In Autumn 1806, the 36th marched to Portsmouth in order to join a major ‘secret service’ expedition under Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd. They embarked on 22nd September for what would become one of the most humiliating campaigns ever undertaken by a British army.
On 23rd August 1806 Margaret McGuire (5 years later to be John’s wife) gave birth to a daughter, Maria, in a (currently) unknown location in Ireland. This child was baptised in Fermoy on 9th September 1808 when she was 2 years old. What is significant is that this baptism was recorded in the Army Births and Baptism records of the 36th Regiment of Foot and John is given as the father with Maria and Margaret taking his surname. However, as John had left Ireland on 29th October 1805, (see previous paragraph), Margaret would have needed to have carried Maria through a 10 month pregnancy for John to be her true father. Not only this, but on 5th July 1808, John had marched from Fermoy to Cork to embark on 9th July for Portugal and he was not to return to England until January 1809 following the Battle of Coruña. This means that all of the information on Maria’s Baptism certificate (see below) was provided by Margaret. However, there does not appear to be an earlier baptism record for her from anywhere else in Ireland.
It should be noted that we know nothing further of Maria. There are no records of her in Ampney Crucis to which we will see that John and his family returned following his army discharge.
The ‘secret service’ expedition mentioned above was to be the first of only three major campaigns in which John Browness served, even though his army career would last until 1817, nearly two years after the Battle of Waterloo. Each of these three campaigns was, in differing ways, catastrophic.
The First Catastrophe – South America, 1806-07
This was the expedition to the Viceroyalty of The River Plate or La Plata (present-day Argentina and Uruguay) then ruled by Spain which was allied to France.
Leaving Falmouth on 12th November 1806, the army was being transported via Santiago (Cape Verde) where they remained from 14th December 1806 to 11th January 1807, the Cape of Good Hope 22nd March 1807 to 6th April, St Helena 21st to 26th April, finally arriving at Montevideo on 14th June – a voyage totalling 7 months. Montevideo had been under British occupation since the May 1807 invasion under Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke who now took command of the whole British force, including those recently arrived under Craufurd. This army’s purpose was to re-take Buenos Aires which, though captured in June 1806, had been recovered by the Spaniards in August and the British troops and their General (Beresford) taken prisoner. This was largely due to the leadership of Santiago de Liniers who was a French officer in the Spanish military service. Following the British surrender, he was appointed Viceroy.
On 28th June the British troops landed at Ensenada de Barragán and then proceeded to march the 32 miles to Buenos Aires during which no shots were fired. The 36th and 88th regiments were brigaded under the command of Brigadier-General William Lumley. The light brigade led the advance supported by Lumley’s brigade with all the other corps behind. When Buenos Aires was reached, the light brigade led the assault and destroyed the enemy’s advance field-work on 2nd July. On the 5th, the right wing of the 36th, under Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Burne, and the left wing under Captain William Cross, stormed into the city under heavy fire in which three captains, one lieutenant, two sergeants, one drummer and 41 rank and file were killed. Six officers, including John Browness’s captain, Henry Vernon, and 43 men were wounded.
Much of the fighting took place in the streets of the city and destructive fire rained down on the British troops from the tops of houses and other concealed positions. Such was the hopelessness of their position that, when Liniers sent a letter to Whitelock offering to return all prisoners taken both from this action and that under Beresford, on the condition that the whole of the British army should withdraw from South America, Whitelock accepted the terms. Consequently, on 9th September the army embarked from Montevideo and arrived at Cork on 17th December.
Unsurprisingly, the abject failure of the campaign was viewed with utter outrage in London and a Court Martial enquiry was held in which the fiery Brigadier-General Robert ‘Black Bob’ Craufurd argued for Whitelock to face the same penalty as that meted out in 1757 to the disgraced Admiral John Byng – that of execution. Instead, Whitelock was cashiered.
The regiment marched to Fermoy where John would have seen Maria, now nearly two years old, for the first time. His time with his family, however, was short-lived for on 5th July 1808 the 36th embarked at Cork to sail to the Iberian Peninsula with an army commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.
The Arguable Catastrophe – The Peninsula War, 1808-09
On 1 August 1808 the 36th, together with many other British Regiments, landed at Figuiera in Portugal and from there marched on to Lisbon. The regiment was brigaded along with the 40th and 71st under the command of Major-General Ronald Craufurd Ferguson. On 17th August a major victory was won against the French at Rolica where the enemy was forced to retreat to Torres Vedras. On 21st August the British advanced to Vimiera where they were attacked by the French under General Junot. Again the British were victorious and, as a result, the French evacuated Portugal. In this battle the 36th gained particular distinction to the extent that Wellesley wrote: “I cannot avoid to add that the regular and orderly conduct of this corps throughout this service and their gallantry and discipline in action have been conspicuous. The 36th Regiment is an example to the army”. Wellesley was soon to be replaced as Commander in Chief of the British Peninsular army by Sir John Moore.
Moore decided to advance on Madrid. A division consisting of the 36th, 71st and 92nd under Lt. Gen. John Hope set off on 27th October 1808. Via Badajoz and Talavera-de-la-Reyna they reached the Escurial (7 leagues north-west of Madrid) on 22nd November 1808. They halted here as it was learned that a huge army under Napoleon himself was approaching Madrid. The Division moved across the Guadarama mountains on 27th November towards Villa Castin. They then undertook a night march by Avila and Peneranda to Alba-de-Tormes. At this point they joined up with Sir John Moore’s army and advanced on Valladolid. The British army was now 29,000 strong.
However, things now started to go disastrously wrong. By 21st December they were at Toro and continued their advance. On the 23rd it was learned that Napoleon had entered Madrid on 4th December. The prospect of confronting this army was unthinkable and the decision was made to retreat. The British army’s only hope was to retreat to Corunna where transports would be sent from their base at Vigo to evacuate the army from the Peninsula. The retreat was undertaken in appalling conditions. It was mid-winter, the army had to cross mountainous terrain and they were being pursued by a menacing foe. Many died of exhaustion and exposure. Most had to march in their bare feet as their boots had long since been worn out and there was no time to effect repairs. Added to this the local population, who had earlier greeted the British as liberators, now turned hostile.
Miraculously the bedraggled army reached Corunna on 11th January 1809. However, the French were now within striking distance and on 16th January, as the weary troops were embarking the transports, they attacked. Sir John Moore quickly arranged his army in battle formation and the 36th were posted on the left of the British line. An heroic rear guard action was fought which allowed the majority of the army to escape to safety. In the battle of Corunna, however, Sir John Moore was killed and the French, recognising his heroism, erected a monument in his honour. John and his comrades finally escaped from Corunna on 17th January 1809.
Whilst this campaign did not compare with the South American fiasco or with that which was awaiting the army at Walcheren, it can be argued that certain elements of it were indeed catastrophic. Firstly, the aforementioned French evacuation of Portugal was the result of the Convention of Cintra which was negotiated by Sir Hew Dalrimple who had replaced Wellesley as the commander of the British forces in the Peninsula. The terms of the agreement were ludicrously favourable for the defeated French army: all of the 20,600 troops were evacuated by the British Navy along with all their equipment, arms, ammunition and looted Portuguese property. In the subsequent enquiry, Dalrimple was made to retire.
Secondly, the retreat to Corunna was endured in extreme conditions with severe suffering and loss of life. What is more, there was a major breakdown in army discipline which led to much looting, and excessive alcohol abuse which led to many soldiers being left behind to be captured or butchered by the pursuing French army.
Finally, whilst the Battle of Corunna was seen as a British tactical victory resulting in the successful escape of the army, in France it was regarded as a strategic victory as the Peninsula was now in French hands – and the battle is commemorated as such on the Arc de Triomphe.
Following the Battle of Corunna, in January 1809 the regiment returned to England. Because of the hurried nature of the evacuation, the regiment was transported in a number of different vessels but were assembled at Battle in Sussex in February. Between this time and July, all regiments involved at Corunna needed to rest, regain their strength and repair and re-equip their uniforms, shoes and armaments.
Why did John survive when so many of the army perished or were killed in battle? He had three advantages on his side: firstly, at the time of the campaign he was 23 years old and at 5′ 9″ tall was in the top quartile of the army in terms of height. We can therefore surmise that he was a strong young man. Secondly, he was in the vanguard of the retreat and consequently would be among the first troops to reach supplies. Finally, at the battle of Corunna, he was in a reserve regiment on the field and consequently in a relatively safe position. He would not enjoy the same good fortune at Walcheren.
The Final Catastrophe – Walcheren, 1809
Walcheren was an island in the Scheldt estuary which is now joined to the Dutch mainland. It was then under French control and was strategically important as it protected the sea route to the major port and shipyards at Antwerp, also in French hands.
Conflict with Napoleon remained in mainland Europe in the form of the War of the Fifth Coalition. Britain saw the need to open another front to assist the Austrian Empire. It was also deemed prudent to diminish the French threat of an invasion against Britain by destroying their shipyards at Flushing (modern-day Vlissingen) and at Antwerp. These two major facilities were described as ‘a pistol held at the head of England’. Consequently, Britain assembled its largest ever expeditionary force comprising nearly 40,000 men, 15,000 horses and 39 ships, together with 36 frigates and numerous gunboats.
This army was to be commanded by the Earl of Chatham, who happened to be the brother of the late William Pitt, the former Prime Minister. He had very little else to commend him by way of military qualification or experience. The navy was under the command of Sir Richard Strachan. The campaign would see the two men having great difficulty in co-ordinating their efforts as this contemporary epigram satirises:
The Earl of Chatham, with his sword drawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, longing to be at ’em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham.3
On 28th July 1809, the 36th were transported from Portsmouth to the island of Walcheren, landing at Bree Sand. Together with the 1/71st, 2/63rd, 77th, 2/8th, and a detachment of the 95th Rifle Corps, they formed the left wing of Chatham’s army under Major-General Picton. The total strength of Picton’s division was 197 officers, 275 NCOs and 3595 rank and file. They proceeded south-east to Veere, then south-west to the Walcheren capital, Middelburg, and finally approached Flushing from the north where they were joined by the other brigades to begin the bombardment and siege of Flushing, preparations for which were completed by 13th August. On the evening of the 14th, the position taken up by the 36th, the 71st and the light battalions of the King’ German legion was shelled by one of the enemy’s batteries but this was overcome by a bayonet charge. The ferocious British artillery fire wrought extensive damage to Flushing’s fortifications, houses and property and on the 15th the garrison surrendered.
The first stage of the expedition had been achieved with Flushing no longer being a safe haven or a shipyard for the French Navy. Incidentally, before the siege, the French had removed their warships from Flushing to Antwerp. However, even at this early stage of the campaign, many of the British troops began to suffer from a severe and debilitating fever. This was largely down to the French decision to cut the sea dykes and inundate the whole island, an aim which was only partially successful. Partly as a consequence of this, but mainly through Chatham’s notorious lethargy and indecisiveness, he called off the planned assault on Antwerp, the defences of which the French had been busily strengthening. This left around 12,000 British troops on Walcheren. Now the disease reached epidemic proportions. The following figures4 portray the extent of the debacle:
Casualties caused by disease – Walcheren expedition, 1809
|Total troops on expedition||1,738||37,481||39,219|
|Died of disease on campaign||40||2,041||2,081||5%|
|Died after returning to Great Britain||20||1,859||1,879||5%|
|Troops still on sick list: 1st February 1810||217||11,296||11,513||29%|
|Casualties caused by Walcheran Fever||277||15,196||15,473||39%|
The 36th’s death toll through the fever was three captains, one lieutenant, Assistant-Surgeon James McFarlane, 14 sergeants, two drummers and 200 rank and file. All other British regiments serving on Walcheren had similar death tolls. On 10th December, the 36th’s survivors, many of whom were very sick and would die later, embarked for England and arrived at Woolwich on the 22nd. John was one of those who contracted the fever but who was fortunate enough to survive. Having said that, his health was so ruined that he spent the next nine months in hospital and he was never to see active service again.
What exactly was ‘Walcheren Fever’ and how can its symptoms be described? The following is an extract from The Recollections of Rifleman Harris5 which is an account of an ordinary soldier’s experiences of the Napoleonic Wars. He too, was at Walcheren and must have experienced exactly the same fate as John:
“The first I observed of it [the illness] was one day as I sat in my billet, when I beheld whole parties of our Riflemen in the street shaking with a sort of ague, to such a degree that they could hardly walk; strong and fine young men who had been but a short time in the service seemed suddenly reduced in strength to infants, unable to stand upright – so great a shaking had seized upon their bodies from head to heel.”
Harris goes on to recall his own experience:
“At that moment I felt struck with a deadly faintness, shaking all over like an aspen, and my teeth chattering in my head so that I could hardly hold my rifle.”
Using soldiers’ first- hand accounts such as the above, and also the observations recorded by field surgeons treating the afflicted, modern medical practitioners have concluded that the fever was a lethal combination of malaria, typhus, typhoid and dysentery. It is no wonder that there were so many deaths. One can only imagine the pain and distress that the victims endured, especially given the over-crowded make-shift field hospitals, the limited number of field surgeons and the lack of effective treatments available to them.
Of course there were repercussions back in England. A parliamentary enquiry demanded to know from the army’s senior medical officers why this disaster was not to be expected given that the French had lost 80% of their occupying force to disease a few years earlier. One reason was that they had not been informed by the army of the expedition’s destination before it left. When Chatham faced the enquiry, it was no surprise that he was forced to resign.
When the first battalion returned to England, such was its condition that it spent the whole of 1810 in Battle, Sussex. The regimental Muster Rolls show that John was ‘granted furlough’ from 10th January to 7th March and also spent a number of weeks in the Regimental Hospital. When in January 1811 it became clear that John was not going to make sufficient a recovery to be considered for further active service (the 1st Battalion was being prepared for embarkation to resume the Peninsular War), he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion. The second battalion was moved from Worcester to Kidderminster in the spring, and in the summer to Cirencester, and subsequently to Horsham. And it was in Horsham that on 29th July 1811, Drummer John Browness ‘Bachelor’ married Margaret McGuire ‘Widow’.
From the above, if John met Margaret in Ireland, it must have been between January 1800 and July 1808. The fact that the 2nd Battalion arrived at Horsham via Cirencester could imply that John had brought Margaret over from Ireland to his home in Ampney sometime between those dates.
Cannon focuses his attention on the exploits of the 1st Battalion in the Peninsula and southern France during the period 1811-14 but mentions that the 2nd Battalion ‘had been employed on home duty during the Peninsular War’. It was while John was with the 2nd Battalion in Blatchington (near Brighton, Sussex) that on 25th May 1812 John and Margaret’s daughter, Susan, was born. Two years later, on 15th June 1814, John and Margaret’s son, George, was born in Maidstone, Kent.
The 2nd Battalion was disbanded at Plymouth on 24th October 1814 with those deemed fit for service (of which John was one) being transferred to the 1st Battalion. The reconstituted Battalion embarked for Ireland on 30th October where they remained despite Napoleon’s re-emergence from his exile on the island of Elba and thus took no part in the Battle of Waterloo (18th June 1815). On 3rd July the 36th sailed from Cork, landed at Ostend on the 11th and marched to join the victorious army in the occupation of Paris where they remained until December 1815. They sailed from Calais to Dover and Ramsgate, and proceeded to Portsmouth where they were stationed for the rest of 1816. During this time John was involved with recruiting but in September was once again confined to the regimental hospital.
He was granted a furlough between 25th January and 23rd February 1817. This was in anticipation of his imminent discharge from the army so that he could settle his family into his home parish. It was there that his young son, James, was baptised at The Holy Rood Church. It is interesting that, on James’ Baptismal Record (dated 9th February 1817), his surname has been entered as ‘Bronus’ which is a very similar to that of John’s mother. It is also notable that John’s occupation is described as ‘Laborer’, despite the fact that technically he was still a drummer in the Army.
When John returned to Portsmouth it was only a short time before, on 6th March 1817, he was discharged from the Service. He was just short of 33 years old even though his Discharge Certificate records him as ‘…about Thirty six Years of Age, is five Feet Nine Inches in height, Brown Hair, Grey Eyes, Fresh Complexion; and by Trade or Occupation a Labourer.’ It also remarks ‘That his General Conduct as a Soldier has been Very good.’
1 Quoted in Marshal, Henry, Military Miscellany; comprehending A History of the Recruiting of the Army, Military Punishments, &c. &c. London: John Murray 1846, p. 257
2 Haythornthwaite, Philip J., The Armies of Wellington London: Arms and Armour Press 1994, p. 68
3 Howard, Martin R, Walcheren 1809: the scandalous destruction of a British army (Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley) 2012, p.217
4 Burnham, Robert & McGuigan, Ron, The British Army against Napoleon: Facts, Lists, and Trivia 1805-1815 (Frontline Books, Barnsley) 2010, p.229
5 Harris, John, The Recollections of Rifleman Harris (ed. Christopher Hibbert, Leo Cooper Limited, London) 1970, pp.115-6