Scottish History

The history of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

The Regimental Museum in Stirling Castle

The 91st and the Peninsular War, 1808 -1814

Retreat to Corunna

The campaign was as disappointing for the 91st as it was for the nation as a whole. The light company of the 91st was engaged at Rolica and had a sergeant severely wounded. But the regiment as a whole was in reserve and was not engaged in either of the major battles. It was again in the reserve division for Sir John Moore's spectacular march to Salamanca which disrupted Napoleon's whole campaign; and it came into its own at last when the reserve division became the rearguard for the epic retreat which culminated in Moore's victory and death at Corunna. The 91st had then more than their fair share of privations and forced marches; and in the rearguard actions in which they were engaged they lost 164 of all ranks killed, wounded or missing. At Corunna itself, though 'in the very centre of the line and next the Guards', they were not heavily engaged and lost only two men wounded. 'Corunna', nevertheless, was a worthily won Battle Honour to be placed on the Colours beside 'Rolica' and 'Vimeira'.

But for the 91st the rest of the year 1809 was disastrous. The first and, from the point of view of regimental morale, the worst blow was the loss of their kilt and of their status as a Highland regiment. It was, of course, from the office of the Adjutant-General, whose clerks have for over 200 years put their own convenience before the interests of the fighting soldier, that the blow fell. Recruiting difficulties and the allegation that their national dress was 'objectionable to the natives of South Britain' were made the excuse for striking six regiments off the Highland establishment, though in fact the 91st enlisted in all, between 1800 and 1818, 970 Scots as against 171 Englishmen, 218 Irishmen and 22 foreigners, mostly Germans. Moreover from 1807 to 1814 their 2nd Battalion recruited 599 Scots, 168 Englishmen, 142 Irishmen and 197 foreigners. Since the tartan had already been issued for new kilts, the 91st found some consolation in having it made up into trews; and they adopted a flat, black bonnet ornamented with a single feather. This was the uniform in which they were despatched on what the history books always call the 'ill-fated' Walcheren expedition.

The devastating low fever peculiar to the island of Walcheren had already destroyed one British army 200 years before. This time, from 3 September to 23 December, an army of 40,000 men lay encamped there because the generals could not agree on what to do with them. During these four months no less than 35,000 of them passed through the military hospitals to a precarious convalescence or the grave. By 25 September, after only three weeks, the 91st had only 246 rank and file fit for duty out of 608. From disease the Regiment lost a total of 218 dead - far more than all their casualties in the Corunna campaign. During the six months following their return to Kent they had an average of 250 sick and it was quite impossible to train or drill them to any acceptable standard. On top of this they were deprived of even their trews and bonnets. Henceforth they wore the blue-grey trousers and black cap of an English line regiment: a uniform in which few of the troops and none of the officers took the smallest pride. All that remained of their origin was the Pipe Band and the title of His Majesty's 91st Argyllshire Regiment.

1812 campaign As such, they rejoined Wellington in 1812. They missed Vitoria. But were with the 6th Division at Sorauren on 28 and 30 July 1813, in what Wellington called 'bludgeon work', they played a decisive part in dislodging Marshal Soult from the positions he had hoped to hold in the Pyrenees. On the first day the 91st suffered heavily, losing 115 killed and wounded out of a total strength of 821 . On the second day, when the brigaded light companies bore the brunt, they got off lightly. But they clearly played their full part in what even Wellington called 'desperate fighting', adding that he had 'never known the troops behave so well'. 'Pyrenees' was another battle honour on the 91st Colours which was well and truly earned. They were to win four more in France: 'Nivelle', 'Nive', 'Orthes', 'Toulouse', and 'Peninsula'. The first three were not costly, and the only distinction was the promotion in the field of the Adjutant, Lieutenant MacNeil of Colonsay after he had had two horses killed under him at the passage of the Nivelle.

At Toulouse, on 10 April 1814, Soult put up a last, desperate fight, which cost Wellington close on 5,000 casualties. Sir Denis Pack's Highland Brigade led the 6th Division attack brilliantly, ending up with the 42nd and 78th holding three captured enemy redoubts, and the 91st in close support in a farmyard behind. The crunch came when a French column, 6,000 strong, counter-attacked. The 42nd were driven back in some disorder, but the prompt support of the 91st gave them time to re-form; and the two battalions together then successfully restored the position. By the time the 91st got back to their farmhouse the other wing was in trouble; once more they sallied out, restored the position and incidentally rescued a large party of the 78th who had been surrounded and were in danger of being made prisoner. Every general present reckoned that only the prompt and vigorous support afforded by the Argyllshire Regiment had saved the Brigade at a very critical moment in the battle. So the war ended for the 91st in a blaze of glory, with nine battle honours on the Regimental Colour. But at Waterloo they were left far on the right flank; and though they got the campaign medal, that great battle was never inscribed on their Colours. One more fragment of military glory nevertheless came their way. The 2nd Battalion, raised purely as a feeder for the 1st, was a pretty motley crew. At their annual inspection in 1809 the older men were still wearing out their forbidden kilts, the rest were wearing 'pantaloons, breeches, or trews', and they could only muster 130 all ranks. But their acquisition three years later of a dynamic Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ottley, some able lieutenants and 309 disbanded militiamen, encouraged the War Department to bring them up to full strength with all sorts of 'undesirables' - 'old, worn-out men', 'an inferior type of boy' and some displaced Swedes, Pomeranians and Hanoverians - and send them to the Baltic. They saw their first and last action at the disastrous night attack on the fortress of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1814, and thanks to Ottley's training did very well. All four of the assaulting columns successfully stormed the outer walls, only to be thrown back by superior numbers of veteran French troops manning the inner defences.

The Battalion withdrew in admirable order, leaving 13 officers and an unrecorded number of men wounded and losing altogether 45 killed or mortally wounded. So far as is known, the Surgeon and Assistant Surgeon were the only unwounded to fall into enemy hands; and Sergeant-Major Cahill was commissioned in the field for saving the Regimental Colour when the Ensign carrying it went down. So, having unexpectedly found a niche in military history, the 2nd Battalion came home to be disbanded after sending 240 men to the 1st Battalion for the Waterloo campaign.


Return to the top ˆ