North York Militia Rifleman

History of the 95th Rifles: From Birth to the Coa

Before we commence with the history of the 95th Rifles, it may be of interest to put into context how the need for such a regiment came about.

During the Seven Year War against the French and Indians in America, a new style of war was to have great effect on the British Army. In July 1755 General Braddock led a force of redcoats and bluecoats of Colonel George Washington’s Virginians through the forests of Ohio, where they were ambushed by a smaller force of French and Indians. Firing from concealed positions, some using rifles, the British and Americans were defeated and routed. As a direct result of this action Horse Guards in London decided to raise a regiment with the express purpose of meeting this new style of forest tactics; and so in 1756 the 60th Royal American Regiment was raised.

By the end of the 18th century the importance of Light Troops and Skirmishers was wide-spread in both American and European Armies. General Jeffrey Amherst, the 60th Colonel-in-Chief ordered that some of the Companies in each of the 60th four battalions were to become Light Troops and be armed with rifles. This was a familiar weapon to many of the men as they were formerly hunters and backwoodsmen, drawn mainly from German colonist who had first introduced the rifle to America. During the American War of Independence, Major Ferguson commanded a company of troops armed with a breach loading rifle ( known as the Ferguson Rifle ). However, when Major Ferguson was wounded at the battle of Brandywine in September 1777 the company was disbanded, the rifles put into store never to be seen again; not by the British anyway!

In 1795 the North Yorkshire Militia raised some companies of Riflemen. They were dressed all in green, armed with rifles, the first British troops to be so equipped and they served all over England and Ireland. Two years later and with The French Revolutionary Wars upsetting the balance in Europe, it was decided that a battalion of specialised light troops armed with rifles should be formed. Thus, in 1797 on the Isle of White the 5th Battalion 60th Regiment was raised. Even though the British Soldiers were regarded as the lowest of the low, it was thought that skirmishing was too hazardous and that British lives should be spared from such dangers. So the 5/60th was mainly formed from Germans and other Europeans willing to take the Kings shilling. Apart from the obvious differences, such as wearing a green jacket and blue pantaloons and being armed with a rifle, the main change in this new battalion was the way that they were trained and treated. Instead of the blind obedience and a brutal regime found in the British Army, riflemen were trained to think for themselves and use their own initiative. These new ideas were introduced by the 5/60th first Commanding Officer, Colonel Baron de Rottenburg who developed the training manual and regulations for Riflemen and Light Troops that would be adopted by Coote-Manningham, Sir John Moore and Colonels Stewart and Mackenzie, and it formed the backbone in their training of Light Troops and the new Rifle Corps.

An early Rifleman in Manningham's Rifle Corps, c1803.

The Experimental Corps of Riflemen was raised in 1800 under the guidance of Colonel Coote-Manningham and Lt. Colonel The Hon.William Stewart. Their recruits came from 13 regiments, each providing 33 soldiers including N C O’s plus 3 Officers. Further recruits came from 33 Fencible Regiments providing 12 recruits each. They wore green jackets and pantaloons and were armed with the newly issued Baker Rifle. From their raising in the spring of 1800 till August the same year they were trained in field exercises devised by Manningham. Later that month they saw their first action at Ferrol in Spain and, although a military failure, the Rifle Corps gained valuable experience in covering the amphibious landings. The only other action the Corps took part in was in 1801 where some detachments acted as marksmen onboard Nelson’s flagship during the attack on Copenhagen and the destruction of the Danish fleet. Even in this short period the Corps had proved they were elite troops and that their style of fighting would change the way the British Army would go to war. In 1802 the Experimental Corps of Riflemen was brought into line as the 95th Rifle Regiment.               

In 1803 the 95th moved to Shorncliffe in Kent where, with the newly formed 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry Regiments, they trained under the guidance of Sir John Moore and Coote- Manningham.

In 1805 the 95th was sent to Germany as a part of a British force to co-operate with other European Armies against the French who were upsetting the balance of power in Europe, but they returned home towards the end of the year having achieved no real effect. Also during this year, a second battalion was raised at Canterbury in Kent.

In 1806 two expedition forces set sail from England to South America. Three companies of the 2/95th saw its first action in 1807 when they were sent as part of a force under Sir Samuel Achmuty. These companies took part in the siege and storming of Montevideo and also in the action near Colonia, much to the praise of Sir Samuel Achmuty. At the same time five companies of the 1/95th went with an expedition force under the command of General Whitelock against the Spanish at Buenos Aires.

The 1/95th and other Light Troops acted as the British advanced guard and engaged a Spanish force sent from Buenos Aires to stop the British advance. This advanced guard routed the Spanish force and captured their field artillery. The three companies of the 2/95th who were at Montevideo now joined up with the 1/95th in the attack on Buenos Aires City . The British attack was unsuccessful and the 95th sustained a great loss in both men and officers. General Whitelock was forced to surrender on the 5th July 1807.

The remaining companies of the 1st and 2nd 95th in England during the same year, were sent to Denmark under Lord Cathcart. The expedition destroyed a large part of the capital and succeeded in capturing the whole of the Danish fleet and bringing it back to Britain. The 2/95th then made it’s way to Portugal, and in the spring of 1808 the 1/95th was sent to Sweden under Sir John Moore, but due to a misunderstanding between him and the Swedish government, the troops did not disembark.

The Peninsular War

Four companies of the 2/95th landed in Portugal in the summer of 1808, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. The 2/95th had the honour of firing the first shots of the war at Obidos on the 15th August 1808, but they also had the misfortune of having the first British officer killed in the Peninsula. Two days later the first pitch battle between the British and French took part at Rolica. The French were driven out of the village and forced to leave some of their artillery behind together with over 600 casualties. The next encounter with the French was on the 21st August at Vimeiro. Again the 2/95th and 5/60th Riflemen were sharply engaged and were only pushed back when confronted by the main French attacking columns. The effect of the Baker Rifle accuracy took a great toll on the French artillery, the guns being left behind as the gunners and horses fell to the Riflemen’s shots.

A lull in the fighting then occurred due to the Convention of Cintra by which time the British had reached Portugal’s capital Lisbon, where the companies of the 1/95th who had been with Sir John Moore in Sweden arrived. The remaining companies of both battalions who were still in England were dispatched and landed at Corunna in Spain under Sir David Baird. What followed was to be one of the darkest moments for the British Army in the war, but showed how an army hard pressed can achieve almost impossible gaols in the face of an overwhelming force, and the 95th gained it’s reputation of being a formidable regiment. Due to ineptitude by the Spanish in failing to deliver supplies and Napoleon himself directing his armies and sending Marshall Soult to intercept the advancing British army, Sir John Moore was forced to retreat. The 95th formed the rear guard and kept the pursuing French at bay. With the Winter inflicting terrible conditions on the British it was decided that the army would split into two, and so on the 31st December 1808 at Astorga, the 2/95th and some other regiments under the command of Robert Craufurd made it’s way to Vigo, and the rest of the army under Sir John Moore went to Corunna. In a hot action at Calcabello on the 2nd and 3rd January 1809 the 1/95th drove back the French with considerable loss and again the effectiveness of the Baker rifle was shown when Rifleman Plunket shot and killed the French cavalry General Colbert at a great range unheard of at the time, and to show it was not a fluke he also shot the General’s Trumpeter. Plunket was rewarded with a purse of money for his action and the French would be very cautious when they next encountered the green coats.

All the way to the coast the retreating British were being harassed by the pursuing French and after some rear guard actions at Lugo and El Burgo, Sir John Moore knew he would have to face the French in an open battle at Corunna whilst trying to evacuate the remains of his army to awaiting ships. On the 15th January the troopships began to arrive and on the 16th 20,000 French also arrived. The 1/95th acted as a reserve force and aided in driving the French out of Elvina were the battle raged and so enabled the British army to embark in safety. The battle was not without loss, Sir John Moore was hit by a round shot in the shoulder, but before he died he knew that his battered and ragged army had defeated the French and were now sailing back to England. On arrival in Vigo, the 2/95th and the rest of Craufurd’s Light Brigade also set sail for England leaving just one company of the 2/95th to remain in Lisbon.

The Rear-Guard by J.P. Beadle. Brigadier-General Craufurd with his rearguard on the retreat to Vigo in December of 1808; 2nd 95th Rifles, 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry.

On arrival in England, a third battalion was added whilst the other two battalions made up their losses, and it would not be too long before the regiment saw service again. By late May 1809 the 1/95th, together with the 43rd and 52nd under the command of Craufurd, was on it’s way back to Portugal and landed at Lisbon in the 2nd July 1809. Absent from the 95th ranks was Colonel Coote Manningham. Due to his earlier service in the West Indies and weakened by wounds, he was too ill for further active service and died on the 26th August the same year.

Once settled, the Light Brigade had to undergo a gruelling 42 mile march to link up with Wellesley at Talavera. Despite covering the 42 miles in the blistering summer heat in only 26 hours, they were too late. Wellesley had fought and won the battle on the 27th and 28th July and the Light Brigade arrived only to see the French fleeing in the distance. It was for this victory that Sir Arthur Wellesley was made Baron Douro and Viscount Wellington, better known as the Duke of Wellington.

Despatches captured at Talavera informed Wellington that the French were far more numerous than he had thought, and to avoid being cut off from his supplies in Portugal, he withdrew back to the Spanish – Portuguese border.

Also during the summer, the 2/95th was part of another expedition to attack the French on the Dutch cost at Walcheren. At first the campaign went well for the British with the port of Flushing being captured on the 15th August. But from then, the position deteriorated fast as a fever had broken out in the British camp. Within a week of the first outbreak reported, 3,400 troops had contracted the miasmatic fever. By December when the British force was evacuated, the fever had claimed over 4,000 lives whereas just 100 were killed in the campaign. Many that survived the fever still suffered from after effects. As Rifleman Harris tells in his accounts of the Walcheren campaign, ‘fits of shaking would grip hold of him rendering him unfit for further active service’.

The next encounter with the French for the Rifles took place at the Bridge over the Agueda, at Barba Del Puerco in February of 1810. Several minor clashes in the village between the 95th four companies and the French saw the 95th gaining possession and driving the French back over the Agueda. The 95th were the only British Infantry deployed so close to the French, Craufurd mainly relying on cavalry to provide a screen. On March 19th the weather was foul with bouts of heavy rain, and thick cloud made the night very dark. General Ferey with his brigade of 3,000 men was about two and a half miles away at the village of San Felices. He decided to take advantage of the weather conditions and attack the small force of just under 200 Rifles.

General Ferey assembled 600 Voltigeurs and Grenadiers to be the assaulting troops, backed up by a further 1,500 troops. That night, Captain Peter O’Hare’s company of just 53 Riflemen was the outline piquet placed just above the bridge. O’Hare placed a sergeant’s piquet of 13 Riflemen 50 yards from the bridge and then a double piquet 15 yards from the mouth of the bridge, with the rest of the company stationed in a little church on the hillside. The Officers regularly checked the pickets but, with the noise of the river and the dampening effect of the weather, they did not hear the approach of the French assault. The double piquet of two Riflemen was rushed and bayoneted, but they managed to fire off a warning shot. The sergeant’s piquet opened up into the main French force as they charged across the bridge, but the Riflemen were hopelessly outnumbered. They slowly gave ground, retreating up the steep rock strewn hill, but not before sending a runner back to the church to alert the rest of the company. The small piquet fell back in good order even after the sergeant was shot through the mouth. As the French made their way up the steep slope the remainder of O'Hare's company arrived, loading as they ran.

A furious fire fight then ensued and breaks in the clouds allowed the moon to light up the hillside, illuminating the white crossbelts against the French greatcoats. This made excellent targets for the Riflemen, whose dark uniforms and equipment made them blend into the shadows of the rocks. The Riflemen had been fighting for over 30 minutes, slowly retreating up the hill but inflicting a heavy toll on the French as they scrambled after them. At times they were almost firing at point blank range and it was then that Lt. Mercer was shot through the head An enraged Rifleman placed the muzzle of his rifle to a French Officer’s head and blew his brains out, crying "Revenge for Mr Mercer", but in return the Rifleman received several bullets himself. Rifleman Green tells of an instance when he and his front–rank man were confronted by ‘three of these big ugly fellows who came within 10 yards’. Green was still loading his rifle when he was forced to fire both ball and ramrod, both of which passed through one of his assailants. Green’s partner then fired, striking another in the chest. Meanwhile Green, who had discarded his own rifle as he was unable to fire it, ran back and obtained another from a wounded sergeant, and then rejoined his comrade.

O’Hare’s men were now very hard pressed, O’Hare calling out "We shall never retire. Here we will stand. They shall not pass but over my body". But before they were overwhelmed, Lt. Colonel Beckwith arrived with two more companies of rifles, the third being detached to prevent any flanking move. Beckwith and his men went straight into the fray with swords fixed. As Lt. Simmons describes, "They came on like lions!". Now the fight was taken to the French; Beckwith was seen throwing large pieces of stone, and while engaged in this activity he received a bullet through his cap. Some French Grenadiers managed to work their way around the flank but a small group of Riflemen led by Lt. Stewart drove them back down the hill. At one point Lt. Stewart was fighting three of the Grenadiers at the same time; a rifleman came to his aid by shooting one of them and the others turned and fled. The French, exhausted by their efforts to scramble up the hill, were now being driven back towards the bridge. The rifles kept up a heavy fire upon them and in extended order swept all before them. As the French retreated back across the bridge they were supported by the main body of 1,500 infantry who fired from the other side of the river to prevent the rifles pursuing any further.

This action by the 95th justified their claim to be an elite regiment. The three companies of about 150 Rifles, (the fourth company, sent to protect the flank was not widely engaged), defeated 600 French Voltigeurs and Grenadiers. The 95th losses were 23 casualties; Capt. O’Hare’s company sustaining the most with one Officer and five Riflemen killed and seven wounded. Two of the wounded were the double piquet, which was captured at the outset of the attack. The other companies suffered two Riflemen killed and eight wounded. The French however suffered over 100 killed and wounded. The attack showed that the position was vulnerable to another attack, so Craufurd re-enforced the rifles with the 43rd and 52nd. Soon after this he again felt that the bridge would be better protected with troopers of the K.G.L. cavalry.

In May of the same year, Napoleon replaced Junot, who commanded the French army in Portugal, with Massena. Wellington could never hope to defeat the French army of 65,000 men in a single decisive battle. All he could do was to delay Massena while he prepared a defensive position, which became the lines of Torres Vedras, just outside Lisbon. Massena first turned his attentions to the fortresses of Cuidad Rodrigo and Almeida, which guarded the main route from Spain into Portugal. With such a large force against him, Wellington was unable to help the Spanish garrison, which fell to the French on the 9th July.

Almeida was next, but between the Portuguese Fort and the French was Craufurd’s Light Division. Craufurd placed his division at a bridge about 2.5 miles away form Almeida, with his force of about 4,000 men on the French side of the river. Even Wellington advised him to pull back over the bridge, but Craufurd chose to remain where he was, with the single bridge as his only way of retreat. On the 23rd July the Light Division would face a force of 24,000 Frenchmen under the command of one Napoleon’s finest commanders, Marechal Ney. After a stormy night, dawn brought the French advancing with two cavalry brigades and three infantry divisions. They fell onto Craufurd’s outline piquet of Capt. John Stewart’s Company of the 95th and two guns, which fell back. The French troopers caught up with the retreating Riflemen and captured about 12 of them. To try and stabilise the situation, O’Hare’s company of the 95th was sent forward to help Stewart’s withdrawal, and taking up a strong position behind some stone walls, they managed to check the French advance. Both companies withdrew to the main body of the Light Division, which had now formed up, parallel to the river Coa. However, Craufurd did not realise the size of the French attack and, instead of using the remaining time to withdraw his force over the bridge, he decided to stand his ground. On his right he placed the 52nd with two pieces of artillery; in the centre were the 1st and 3rd Portuguese Cacadores, while the left was held by the 43rd and 95th. Marking his extreme was an old stone windmill where Craufurd placed a single company of the 52nd. About an hour into the French attack, Ney drove forwards into the Light Division who, even with well-aimed volleys, could not hold the French back. As Lt. Simmons recalls, "The enemy now advanced in vast bodies. The whole plain in our front was covered with horse and foot advancing towards us". The first attack was repulsed but they still kept coming. Simmons again, "We repulsed them, they came on again yelling, drums beating". Lt. Colonel Beckwith gave the order for the 95th to retire by half companies. O’Hare withdrew part of his company leaving the rest under Lt. Johnston to fend off the French. Whilst the Riflemen were retiring, a squadron of French Hussars caught the Riflemen in the open and fell upon them. They stood no chance, loosing over 50 men killed or captured. The rest of the 95th found shelter where they could, helped by some well-aimed volleys from the 43rd which drove off the main body of troopers. It was here that Rifleman Costello was captured by one of the Hussars; he escaped when the trooper was killed by the 43rd but was himself wounded in the knee.

Craufurd, now realising his hopeless position, started to withdraw his guns and baggage over the bridge leaving the infantry to face the full force of the French. The 95th in a desperate situation formed in small squads around the road leading to the bridge. As Capt. Leach described, they were soon overwhelmed with the French Voltigeurs ‘swamping us like a swarm of bees’. Leach goes on to say that some Riflemen found themselves being ‘hunted down like deer’, but despite the chaos and confusion, the 95th discipline and training enabled the Riflemen to make their way back to the bridge, with or without an officer or N.C.O. leading them. The French Voltigeurs were forced to fight for every inch of ground slowly driving the Riflemen from every wall, rock and tree. The scene at the bridge was also in chaos as men, horses and wagons scrambled their way over it. To help cover the retreat the 43rd, several companies of the 52nd and 95th took up position on a small knoll covered with trees. Their stand was brief as the sheer weight of the French onslaught drove the British off and isolated the five companies of the 52nd, trapping them on the wrong side of the riverbank.

It was now the British turn to attack. Lt. Colonel Beckwith of the 95th and Major Macleod of the 43rd led a counter-attack at the head of about 200 Riflemen and Redcoats and recaptured the knoll. With swords and bayonets fixed they drove off the French and held it against all comers to allow the trapped 52nd to make their escape over the bridge. With one final stand at the mouth of the bridge, the remaining 43rd and 95th dashed to the safety. Again Capt. Leach described the way they retired as ‘skilter-Devil-take-the-hindmost’. As the last 95th officer and men made their way over the bridge, they found it blocked by two artillery caissons that had become unhitched and a frantic Artillery officer trying to get them away. The 95th lined the battlements and kept up a constant fire whist the Artillery Officer got the caissons re-hitched and off the bridge.

Ney, sensing that the day was won, ordered an assault across the bridge. But instead of fleeing British and Portuguese troops, he found that they had taken up strong defensive positions behind walls and rocks on the other side of the river, and placed across the main road were Ross’s guns which could sweep the mouth of the bridge. The first French assault was decimated and even a second attack by the Corps d’Elite of Chasseurs faired no better. A frustrated Ney sent a mounted staff officer to discover if the river could be forded, but he and his horse was soon killed as they tried to cross the river.

Ney, realising that the Light Division had escaped him, called an end to any further attacks. Craufurd’s losses were 333, with the 95th share being 1 Officer and 11 Riflemen killed, 6 Officers, 1 Sergeant and 54 Riflemen wounded (later, 2 Officers and a number of Riflemen died of their wounds), 1 Officer, 1 Sergeant and 52 Riflemen missing (captured). The French losses were 527, most being caused when Ney tried storming the Bridge. Craufurd did his men no favours by not heeding Wellington’s advice and withdrawing over the River Coa earlier. But the men of the Light Division carried out a tactical withdrawal in the face of an overwhelming enemy and with hand-to-hand fighting, left no guns or baggage and few prisoners. These events on the 23rd July gained the admiration from the rest of the Army.