Coldstream Guards: The Struggle against Napoleon, 1793–1815

The French Revolution of 1789 led to over twenty years of conflict between England and Napoleonic France that would only end at Waterloo in 1815. It is a war that is of particular historical interest because of the series of remarkable parallels between the struggle against Napoleon and that against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany 146 years later.

In both cases a ruthless, ambitious dictator conquered and dominated all Europe, and Britain stood alone against him for several long years. The British Army was driven from the Continent at Corunna in 1809 as it was at Dunkirk in 1940. There was a recurring threat of invasion that was only thwarted by our sea power and in both struggles the nation was inspired by the oratory of a great leader, be it William Pitt or Winston Churchill. Both dictators tried and failed to defeat Russia. Above all, our supremacy at sea enabled us not only to thwart invasion threats and blockades, but in due course to take the offensive by attacking the enemy’s possessions overseas and finally launching our own invasion of Occupied Europe.

The actual campaigning against Napoleon began in 1793 when the French Government sent an expeditionary force against Holland who was an ally of England at that time. The British Army had as usual been reduced to a dangerously low level as soon as there was a moment of peace and it was only with the greatest difficulty that an effective force could be raised at all. The troops most ready for action were the Foot Guards and they were hurriedly formed into a Guards Brigade consisting of the 1st Battalion of each Regiment, together with a fourth or Flank Battalion formed from the grenadier and light companies.

They sailed for Holland in February 1793 and the Regiment thus had the dubious honour of being among the first troops to engage those of Revolutionary France on the Continent. They were extremely ill-equipped, with no transport, no reserve ammunition and few stores; shipping was so short that they had to be transported across the Channel in Thames coal barges.

It was not a particularly successful campaign, but there was one moment of glory when the Guards Brigade was sent to support the Prince of Orange, whose troops had been driven out of the village of Lincelles. On arrival there was no sign of the Dutch force that was supposed to reinforce them and they found themselves expected to attack 5,000 strongly entrenched enemy even though they had only 1,100 men. Despite heavy artillery and musket fire, the three Guards battalions stormed the defences and cleared the village, thereby earning one more Battle Honour. It was the Regiment’s seventh and was the first to be awarded at the time, rather than much later.

The campaign dragged on, but little was achieved and no one was sorry when the force was withdrawn in April 1795. During the next three years Napoleon established his dominating position in Europe, just as Hitler did between 1939 and 1941, and by 1797 Britain stood alone, facing an apparently invincible dictatorship.

Determined to defeat this impudent island, Napoleon planned invasion. But although he assembled a large invasion fleet off Dunkirk, he was prevented by the Royal Navy from using it. Then in February 1797 the fleet of his ally, Spain, was destroyed off Cape St Vincent and in October his Dutch fleet was defeated at Camperdown. So, as in 1940, the invasion barges never left France and England breathed again.

Just as Hitler attacked Egypt in 1940 when his invasion plans failed, so Napoleon in 1798 struck in the Middle East and occupied Egypt. Even though his fleet was destroyed by Nelson in Aboukir Bay on 11 August 1798, he pushed on into Palestine, only to be halted in 1799 by the defiant garrison of Acre under Sidney Smith. He thereupon decided to cut his losses, abandoned his army in Egypt and returned to Europe to continue his conquests there.

So by 1801 Britain stood alone yet again and the daunting prospect was made worse by the imposition of a monstrous new ‘income tax’ at the exorbitant rate of two and a half per cent. But by skilful use of her sea power, she started operations at opposite ends of Europe that would within the next twelve months dramatically change the situation.

In January 1801 Nelson destroyed the Danish fleet in Copenhagen, while General Sir Ralph Abercrombie set sail from Minorca on an expedition that was intended to drive the French out of Egypt. He had with him a Guards Brigade consisting of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and 1st Battalion Third Guards. They sailed with him to the Bay of Marmorice on the coast of Turkey where they were relentlessly trained with the Royal Navy in carrying out an opposed landing until everything ran like clockwork. It was an early instance of thorough combined operations planning and training and it would pay good dividends.

On 8 March 1801 the assault force landed at Aboukir Bay, a beach some ten miles east of Alexandria. It was covered by the guns of Aboukir Fort and was such a strong position that the French commander had allotted only 2,000 men to its defence.

As dawn broke three lines of assault boats, each containing fifty men, moved slowly inshore towards the two-mile-long beach, in perfect formation, as if on parade. There was no firing and no cheering, only the rattle of the rowlocks. Then with a roar the guns in Aboukir Fort opened up with a storm of grapeshot, round and chain shot. A direct hit sank a boat of fifty Coldstreamers, then a Third Guards boat was hit and it looked as if the landing might fail.

But without reply the flotilla pushed steadily on and at last they reached the shore. Despite heavy enemy fire the men formed up in line and prepared to advance inland. But the battle was not yet won. There was some confusion, due to the heavy casualties, and a French cavalry charge almost drove them back into the sea. But it was repulsed and the three brigades advanced. The French withdrew and a bridgehead was safely established. It had been a highly hazardous operation, but, thanks to the fine discipline, leadership and training, it was an impressive victory.

Cairo was captured on 27 June and on 28 September a force that included the Guards Brigade seized Alexandria. This marked the end of a highly successful campaign that left Egypt in our hands and ended French expansion in North Africa. In December 1801 the 1st Battalion sailed home with the brigade, stopping briefly en route in Malta.

For their ‘conspicuous service’ in this campaign both the Coldstream and Third Guards were awarded the distinction of carrying on their Colours a badge of a Sphinx, superscribed with the word ‘Egypt.’

Threat of Invasion

Despite his setback in Egypt Napoleon still dominated Europe and in 1802 England signed the Treaty of Amiens, which it was hoped would lead to peace. But within a year it became clear that Napoleon remained set on world domination and by May 1803 Britain and France were again at war.

Britain stood alone in defying the Emperor and, as in 1798, there was a very real threat of invasion. But as in 1940 Britannia ruled the waves and, although Napoleon assembled a Grand Army of 160,000 and a fleet of 2,100 barges, he was still thwarted by the Royal Navy.

“Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours,” he demanded angrily of his admirals, “and we shall be masters of the world.” But Admiral Villeneuve could no more grant him that than could Admiral Raeder and Field Marshal Goering grant it to Hitler 137 years later.

In England almost a tenth of the population joined the Volunteers, the equivalent of the Home Guard of 1940, only to find to their indignation that, as in 1940, there were not enough muskets to go round and many were issued with pikes! Martello Towers were built to defend the coast, while among the forces defending the capital were three Guards Brigades, the 1st and 2nd formed from the Regular battalions while the 3rd contained the depot battalion of each Regiment.

The threat reached its peak in the first days of 1804. All Press mention of troop movements was forbidden and any editor who disobeyed was liable to arrest. Plans were made for the gold in the Bank of England to be moved to Worcester Cathedral and the Volunteers hurried to their posts. Invasion seemed inevitable, but the Royal Navy was not dismayed.

“I do not say the French cannot come,” growled Lord St Vincent, the First Sea Lord. “I only say they cannot come by water.”

He was right. As 1804 passed, Napoleon’s fleets dared not put to sea and his hopes of a successful conquest of England steadily dwindled. Then, when a combined French and Spanish fleet finally ventured out of Cadiz on 21 October 1805, it was promptly destroyed by Nelson off Cape Trafalgar and the threat of invasion was ended.

Britain immediately began to think once more of using her sea power for offensive operations and in October 1805 2nd Guards Brigade, which included the 1st Battalion, was sent to Hanover to join an Allied force there, but the campaign petered out and the troops returned home in February 1806.

Undaunted, the same brigade was sent in August 1807 on a daring but this time successful expedition to Denmark. Copenhagen was captured and the entire Danish fleet was removed, just ahead of Napoleon, who had also planned to seize it.

The Peninsular War, 1808–1814

Having failed to crush England by invasion, Napoleon now tried to starve her into submission (as did Hitler with his U-Boats from 1940). He issued the Berlin Decrees, which forbade any European country to trade with us, and he enforced it ruthlessly. But there was one defiant exception, Portugal, who was not only England’s oldest ally, but also did most of her trade with us.

When Portugal defied Napoleon he promptly sent an army to invade the country in November 1807. The following spring he also invaded Spain, whereupon both countries appealed to England for help. Eager to support any nation that was prepared to stand up against the French, the British Government boldly agreed to send troops to Portugal. So, on 1 August 1808 14,500 men under the command of a promising young general called Sir Arthur Wellesley landed at Figueiro and the Peninsular War had begun.

There were no Coldstreamers involved at this stage, but the force included 1st Guards Brigade composed of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the First Guards. Wellesley successfully drove the French out of Portugal, but was then ordered home, and handed over to Major General Sir John Moore. He was ordered to advance into Spain to support the Spanish army there, but this provoked Napoleon to intervene himself at the head of an army of 200,000. His ‘blizkrieg’ forced Moore to retreat in haste in January 1809 to the port of Corunna in order to save his army (the only one that England possessed).

The retreat over mountains in midwinter involved extreme hardships and, as the demoralized 15,000 survivors straggled into Corunna on 11 January 1809, there occurred a famous incident, much valued by Guardsmen of all Regiments. It cannot be better described than in the words of the military historian, Sir John Fortescue:

“A brigade caught the General’s eye at a distance, for they were marching like soldiers. ‘Those must be the Guards,’ he said, and presently the two battalions of the First Guards, each of them still 800 strong, strode by in column of sections, with drums beating, the drum major twirling his staff at their head and the men keeping step as if in their own barrack yard. The senior regiment of the British infantry had set an example to the whole army.”

They also established a tradition that day that would inspire future generations of Guardsmen of all Regiments in years to come. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Coldstream set the same standards of discipline on the Retreat from Mons in 1914 and so did the 1st and 2nd Battalions on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.

Undaunted by the disaster of Corunna, the British Government resolved, as in 1940, that they would fight on regardless, and within a mere three months a second expeditionary force was on its way to Portugal, again commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley. This time it included 2nd Guards Brigade, composed of the 1st Battalions of the Coldstream and Third Guards, who would together fight on for the rest of the Peninsular War.

The Crossing of the Douro, 12 May 1809

The Guards Brigade was part of Sherbrooke’s 1st Division, and on 12 May it took part in Wellesley’s remarkably bold Crossing of the Douro and the capture of the Portuguese city of Oporto. The Guardsmen were due to be among the first troops to cross in the main assault, but the 29th Foot (Worcester Regiment) were in front of them in the assembly area and sent back word that the streets were so narrow that such big men as the Guardsmen would never get through. It was not true, but it gave the 29th the satisfaction of beating the Guards to it!

Talavera, 28 July 1809

Having driven the French out of Portugal for the second time by his capture of Oporto, Wellesley turned south and boldly advanced towards Madrid. But he had now to cooperate with the Spanish Army, which proved far from easy, and as a result of their incompetence he found himself having to fight the Battle of Talavera on 28 July 1809, although outnumbered two to one.

“Never was there such a murderous battle,” he himself declared, but at the end of the day it was the French who withdrew, despite their superiority in numbers. The Guards Brigade was again in the 1st Division and at one moment the battalions advanced too far and found themselves cut off and under fire from both flanks. They were rescued by a timely charge by the 48th Foot (Northamptonshire Regiment) and rallied in time to join in the final victory. Talavera was awarded as a Battle Honour and a special medal was struck for issue to ‘meritorious officers’.

Wellesley withdrew after the battle back into Portugal, where he remained on the defensive until he felt strong enough to take the initiative again.

Battle of Barrosa, 5 March 1811

In March 1810 three companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment joined the Peninsular Army as part of a Composite Guards Brigade of all three Regiments. It was, however, used to reinforce the garrison of Cadiz and so found itself besieged there for the next two and a half years.

But they did have one moment of glory, which was the Battle of Barrosa, one of the finest actions against overwhelming odds in the history of the Regiment. In 1811 part of the garrison, including the Composite Guards Brigade, was withdrawn from Cadiz and sent by sea to Tarifa, west of Gibraltar, with the aim of then marching back towards Cadiz and attacking the besieging French force from the rear.

But, again due to Spanish incompetence, the rearguard of the force was ambushed by some 9,000 French near the village of Barrosa and was cut off from the main body. The British were only 5,000 strong, but they were commanded by a fine, fighting soldier, Lieutenant General Thomas Graham, who decided that the only hope lay in a bold counter-attack. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment and the 2nd Battalion First Guards were involved in desperate close-quarter fighting, led by General Graham himself. They were outnumbered almost two to one, but finally it was the French who withdrew, and the enemy commander spoke afterwards of “the incredibility of so rash an attack”.

It was not a major battle, but it was a great victory and a fine feat of arms, which became a very well-earned Battle Honour for the Regiment.

Battle of Fuentes d’Onor, 3–5 May 1811

The 1st Battalion meanwhile, as part of 1st Guards Brigade, took part in the Battle of Fuentes d’Onor (3–5 May 1811), a hard-fought two-day contest on the Portuguese border, which Wellington described as “a near-run thing”. The Regiment was not too heavily involved, but it was awarded another Battle Honour.

On to the Offensive, 1812

By the beginning of 1812 Napoleon had withdrawn troops from Spain to build up his army for the invasion of Russia in June and, as a result, Wellington was at last in a position to go on to the offensive in the Peninsula. In January 1812 he captured the key fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo and the 1st Battalion took part. This was followed by his dramatic victory of Salamanca on 22 July 1812 when “40,000 Frenchmen were defeated in 40 minutes”. Again, the 1st Battalion was involved and the light companies of the Guards Brigade received a special mention in Wellington’s Despatches for seizing the key village of Los Arapiles and holding it against constant counter-attacks. Salamanca became the Regiment’s eleventh Battle Honour.

From there Wellington went on to liberate Madrid on 12 August, which forced the French to lift their two-and-a-half-year siege of Cadiz. The liberated garrison, including the Coldstream Detachment, promptly marched north, determined not to miss any more fighting. They covered 400 miles in nineteen days but only reached the main army on 18 October, in time to return with it to winter quarters in Portugal.

In October 1812 1st Battalion First Guards arrived in the Peninsula from England and thus made a total of five Guards battalions in the Peninsular Army. Wellington therefore formed two Guards Brigades both of which were placed in 1st Division, now commanded by General Graham of Barrosa fame.

The Great Advance, 1813–14

So we come to 1813 when Wellington decided that, following Napoleon’s disastrous losses in Russia, there was now a chance of the Peninsular Army finally driving the French out of Spain altogether. The parallels with 1944 are striking at this point, for Napoleon, like Hitler, was now committed to a war on two fronts against confident, well-trained Allied armies that were steadily liberating the occupied countries of Europe and advancing towards the enemy’s homeland.

Wellington set off from Portugal on 22 May 1813 and by the end of the year had advanced 500 miles, crossed the Pyrenees and established his army deep in French territory. The last eighteen months of the war brought both triumphs and disasters for the Regiment, who were represented by the 1st Battalion and also their detachment in the Composite Battalion. Both fought in the overwhelming victory of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, but then suffered severe losses in the costly siege of San Sebastian, where a detachment of one officer and fifty-three men volunteered for the storming party on 21 August and suffered over fifty per cent casualties.

Both Guards Brigades took part in the series of operations in the Pyrenees, including three bold river crossings over the Bidassoa (7 October 1813), the Nivelle (10 November) and the Nive (9 December;) the last encounter becoming the Regiment’s twelfth Battle Honour.

The advance continued in 1814 and 2nd Guards Brigade distinguished itself at the Crossing of the Adour on 23 February 1814, when two Coldstream companies and six from the Third Guards held a precarious bridgehead across the river through the night against constant attacks.

On 5 April 1814 Napoleon abdicated and on the 12th an armistice was signed between Wellington and the French commander, Marshal Soult, at Toulouse. But the war ended on a tragic note, particularly for the Regiment, because of the Sortie from Bayonne. The bulk of the Allied Army began enjoying the end of hostilities, but the 1st and 5th Divisions were still besieging Bayonne, 140 miles to the west, where the French garrison of 14,000 was still holding out under its fanatical commander, General Thouvenot. He had been told of Napoleon’s abdication and the armistice, but refused to believe it and vowed to fight on.

1st and 2nd Guards Brigades both formed part of the besieging force and were positioned to the north of Bayonne. Having been told of the armistice, security seem to have been relaxed. Unfortunately, the French had other ideas and at 0300 on 14 April they launched a powerful sortie northwards from the citadel with 6,000 men.

The attack achieved complete surprise and the brunt of it fell on the two Guards Brigades. There was fierce, confused fighting throughout the night and, although by dawn the sortie had been repulsed, this was not achieved without heavy casualties. The Allies lost 826 men with 231 taken prisoner. Out of this total the Coldstream lost two officers and thirty-two men killed and five officers and 122 men wounded – a tragic end to a highly successful campaign.

The dead from the Guards Brigades were buried by their regiments in military cemeteries on the outskirts of Bayonne, one for the Coldstream and one for the Third Guards, on the sites of their battalion camps in 1814. They still exist today and are thought to be the oldest British Army cemeteries.

So the Peninsular War was over at last and in July 1814 the Coldstreamers in the two Guards Brigades returned home after five years of active service overseas. They had certainly played their part in the final victory, earning six Battle Honours.

But there was one final round yet to be fought against Napoleon at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.


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