Thomas Plunkett: A Pattern for the Battalion

By Dave Gower

The 95th was one of the most prolific regiments to leave us with many accounts of its actions through the memoirs and diaries of the men who served in it. One name above keeps cropping up; Thomas Plunkett.

Born in 1785 in Newtown, Wexford, Ireland, and like many of his comrades in the 95th he served in the local Militia. Described by Edward Costello as ‘a smart, well made fellow, about middle height, in the prime of manhood; with a clear grey eye, and handsome countenance’- the model of a Rifleman. His character was only marred by his drinking problem. 

Plunkett joined the 95th in May 1805, but it wasn’t till 1807 he first saw action during the ill-fated attack on Buenos Aires. Commanded by the incompetent Lt Gen John Whitelocke the expedition started off well, with the 95th excelling as an advance guard. Their luck was to run out on the assault of the city itself. With the narrow streets and unfamiliar terrain the Redcoats were unable to deploy to their full potential. The 95th however found street fight to their liking; Plunkett plus other Riflemen from a rooftop halted a Spanish counter attack. Plunkett calmly shot 20 Spaniards before being forced to take cover when the enemy brought up artillery and fired volleys of grapeshot at him. This may of provoked Plunkett to shot a gaudily uniformed Spanish Officer who stepped out with a white handkerchief presumably invite the British surrender. If Plunkett was ignorant of the rules of war or found the Officer a too tempting target, it caused the Spanish to bring up big guns and pound the British to surrender. Whitelocke agreed a truce and surrender. The troops he led out of South America felt betrayed by Whitelocke, and was shamed at his court-martial. This gave rise to a 95th toast of “Success to Grey hairs and bad luck to Whitelocke”.

In 1808 the British was again at war with France. Plunkett again was soon to come to the fore whilst the British Army was retreating to the Spanish port of Corunna. The 1st 95th was to form the rearguard just outside a little village called Cacabellos. As the last British past the 95th they too started to pull back leaving two companies as the rearguard. Within minutes the French Cavalry vanguard appeared putting the Rifle piquets to flight. The 2 companies of Riflemen hastily formed line across the main road, just allowing Sir John Moore and his staff to escape. Several well-aimed volleys stalled the French attack, but once they regrouped they pressed home a more co-ordinated charge. The Rifles having to fall back across the bridge into the village when the French Cavalry fell on their rear, killing and capturing about 40 Riflemen. On the far bank of the river the 28th formed line over the road and flank, supported by six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery, with the 52nd coming up to cover the other flank. The French having been halted from crossing the bridge withdrew and awaited reinforcements. Their commander was a young talented General Auguste-Marie-Francois Colbert. Mounted on a grey horse and at just 31 was the hero of Jena and a favourite of Napoleon. He realised if he could break through this thin frozen British line before dusk, he could wreak havoc in the retreating British columns. By mid-afternoon French Infantry were fording the river either side of the British position, a sharp fire fight ensued and the British were forced to fall back. Colbert led a charge and gained the bridge. The 28th, 52nd and 95th reformed at a crest of a ridge, mean while Colbert rallied his cavalry and Infantry for one more push before darkness fell. Colbert on his grey mount his gaudy uniform made him easy for his men to see and taking up his position in front of the French also made him stand out to Plunkett. Dashing through the British line into open ground before throwing himself onto his back took aim and shot Colbert at a range some say was 800 metres. Colbert Trumpeter racing to his general’s side, for which Plunkett calmly reloaded and shot as well before jumping to his feet and returning to the British line to the cheers of his comrades who then started to shot the perusing cavalry. Plunkett only paused to pick up the purse thrown to him by Paget in appreciation of his deed. The French disheartened with their loss of their leader withdrew back over the bridge.

Plunkett's famous shot, using the unorthodox firing position now synonymous with his name.

The Death of General Colbert

But did Plunkett actually shot Colbert? With all the lead flying around in all directions, can you really attribute a single death to a single gun? French noted Colbert’s death to artillery, but the British guns had long since been withdrawn. 800 metres would have been a very long shot any powder weapon in perfect conditions. Here it was mid-winter, damp. Plunkett’s rifle would have been in poor condition owing to the hard continues forced marching over the last few days. The quality of the powder is another factor as well as the state of Plunkett himself. He would have been hungry, cold, wet and having just run from his lines breathing heavily, would his aim be steady? In reality the range would have been between 200-600 metres, whatever the distance it was still an incredible shot. They’re also the evidence of Plunkett’s Commanding Officer, of the 1st 95th Colonel Beckwith and General Paget. They were both intelligent and honourable Officers, and were convinced that Plunkett had taken the shot, both Officers rewarding Plunkett accordingly. 

Back in England the 95th had to be brought back up to strength. At a special parade for the survivors from Corunna, Beckwith singled Plunkett out as ‘a pattern for the Battalion’ and promoted him to a corporal and promised him a medal of merit. Captain John Kincaid said of Plunkett a ‘quick-witted, resilient, daring, tough and a crack shot’. This made Plunkett an ideal candidate for the recruiting parties. Trawling round the Hythe area searching for new recruits from the local militias, as they were ready trained soldiers. Round the towns and villages were placed large vats of beer to refresh the soldiers stationed there. Another one of Plunkett’s skills was dancing; he would perform hornpipes on board transport ships to the amusement of the men and crew alike. Leaping onto one of these vats and started a shuffle to attract attention, once a crowd had gathered round when the head of the vat gave way, depositing Plunkett in beer. Seizing the opportunity Plunkett turned this to his advantage. Leaping from the vat he disappeared into a public house, scrambling up a chimney, returning to the now large crowd of militia soldiers that had gathered drenched and covered in soot, giving his coat a quick brush down then gave a bow and proclaimed ‘there now! Damn your pipe clay, now I’m ready for the grand parade’. 

Back in Spain Plunkett continued to distinguish himself with his dash and bravery, and was promoted to sergeant. But at a company parade Plunkett was in an advanced state of inebriation, with his drunken orders soon brought the parade into chaos. The Commanding Officer the Honourable Captain John Stewart, had Plunkett arrested and escorted back to his quarters. Captain Kincaid noted that Plunkett suffered for the “curse of his country” whilst fellow sergeant William Surtees says of Plunkett he was a “noted Pickle”. Whilst sober Plunkett was always good humoured, but in his drunken state he took it into his head to avenge his disgrace against Captain Stewart and proceeded to barricade himself in his room, loaded about a dozen rifles and declared he would shoot the Officer on sight. Captain Stewart was warned of this and persuaded to keep away, all attempts to prevail upon Plunkett failed and it look as if force would have to be used, when finally Lt Johnston, a particularly popular Officer talked him out. There could be no doubt of the seriousness of Plunkett’s offence, thankfully his court-martial would be held at a regimental level and would be chaired by Colonel Beckwith. His sentence would be the loss of his stripes off his arm and given 300 lashes on his back.

It was usual practice for a flogging to be conducted by first constructing a frame using sergeant's halberds.

This was not a popular sentence with both Officers and men. It pained them to see the best shot in the regiment, a dashing soldier and well liked by all to be so reduced. Even Beckwith had difficulty in containing himself as the Battalion formed a hollow square; Plunkett was tied to a tree looking pale and scared a condition his comrades attest that no battle had ever caused him. Catching Beckwith’s eye, Plunkett appealed directly to his Commander: ‘Colonel, you won’t, will you? You won’t- you cannot mean to flog me? But with emotion Beckwith ordered in a husky voice for the punishment to begin. Plunkett suffered badly as the cats bit into his back, after 35 lashes and to the relief to all Beckwith ordered the punishment ended. As Plunkett was cut down Beckwith declared: ‘You see sir, now how very easy it is to commit a blackguard crime, but how difficult it is to take his punishment.

Despite his experience, Plunkett never gave up drinking or lost any of his qualities as a soldier. Indeed he was soon back up to corporal and ‘notwithstanding little fits of inebriety’ as Costello puts it went on to distinguish himself on further battlefields, always at the fore and leading a charmed life. Plunkett never received so mush as a scratch in battle until his last, when a musket ball creased his forehead whilst he was in the sand pits at Waterloo. His then girlfriend was not so fortunate. Whilst standing near an artillery wagon during the battle of Quatre Bras when it received a direct hit. She survived but was hideously burnt. Costello describes her as having ‘no face, or in all events, was so defaced, it amounted to the same thing’. Her face was ‘rendered a blue, shapeless mass’ for the rest of her life. To Plunkett’s everlasting credit, this made no difference, and shortly after waterloo they were married. 

In 1817 Plunkett was demobilised out of the Army. At his appearance before the Board of the Military Hospital Chelsea. Expecting a good pension for the 12 years service plus 2 more as a bonus for Waterloo, but his papers showed he being discharged as being worn out and of a bad character. The Board awarded him sixpence a day pension. Plunkett lost his temper telling the Board ‘to keep it for the young soldiers, as it wasn’t enough for the old, who had seen all the tough work out’. The Board was so offended by his remarks they reduced his pension to zero. All he and his wife had was her sixpence a day she received for her wound.

The outlook was not good for them both, with so many other ex-soldiers looking for work, job prospects were poor. He turned back to what he knew, and re-enlisted back into the Army with the 41st Foot. But being a peacetime soldier as a redcoat on garrison duties could not have been much fun for a character like Plunkett. However escape form this drudgery came from an unexpected angle. At a six monthly review of the 41st by the local area commander none other than General Sir Sydney Beckwith. As he walked down the ranks his eye was caught by one of the men sporting two medals. In 1818 medal were still rare and as the 41st missed Waterloo, these two medals must have stuck out like a saw thumb. Beckwith stared at the Waterloo medal and the one he commissioned himself and then looked up at the face of the soldier wearing them, ‘Do my eyes deceives? Surely you are Tomas Plunkett, formerly of my own regiment’. After a brief conversation with Plunkett explaining why he had re-enlisted. Moving on Beckwith commented to the Colonel of the 31st, ‘One of my bravest soldiers’. Later that evening at a reception held for Beckwith, Plunkett was summoned to propose a toast. ‘Then sir, here’s to the immortal memory of the poor fellows who fell in the Peninsula’. Afterwards Plunkett talked further with Beckwith. The following day Plunkett received his corporal stripes. A sort time afterwards and no doubt with the help from Beckwith, Plunkett was again brought before the pension board. This time he kept his cool and was awarded a full shilling a day, with this he took his leave from the Army for good.

In civilian life the Plunketts found it hard, not being able to hold down a job and continually rooming the country. They took up an offer by the government for ex-servicemen to colonise Canada. They would receive four years full pay and a few acres of land, but he would have to sign off his pension rights. They lasted about a year before returning to Britain. Nearly totally destitute, they wondered the country selling matches, tapes and needles and scraped a meagre living. Whilst Plunkett and his wife were walking through Colchester in 1839 he dropped dead. His wife collapsed in tears next to him. This attracted a crowd and some retired Officers came to her aid. A public subscription was raised and the wife of a Colonel in the garrison paid for the funeral and a tombstone for Plunkett, a sum of £20 was given to Plunkett’s widow.

In his life as a soldier Plunkett showed his Bravery time and time again, every inch a hero. If he did or did not shot Colbert we will never know, but what matters he had the bravery to try, and in doing so his actions of dashing forwards steadied the British line, which then affected the outcome of the action at Cacabellos. It is tragic that Plunkett and so many of his comrades after years of hard service were abandoned to the streets, neglected by the country for which they fought so long and well for. But Plunkett would not be forgotten by the men and officers of the 95th. This is witnessed by so many accounts of his actions both good and sometimes bad in many memoirs. Tomas Plunkett above all else was a ‘Pattern for the Battalion’, Rifleman extraordinaire.