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11th Regiment of Foot in The Napoleonic Wars - The Early Years

THE 11th REGIMENT IN THE NAPOLEONIC WAR by SIR DAVID PEPPER KCMG

The history of the 11th Regiment of Foot in the Napoleonic War falls into two strikingly different parts: the first a period mostly spent on the sidelines, and the second a sequence of battles in Spain in which they consistently shone and for which they were awarded six battle honours.

The Early Years – the Ostend Raid, West Indies and Madeira

When France declared war on Britain in January 1793, the 11th Regiment were returning from duty in Gibraltar.  In May they formed part of a force that sailed with Admiral Lord Hood to the Mediterranean; the soldiers were to be the marine fighting force, and to fill the vacant berths on the undermanned ships. 

Between September and December 1793 the force seized and held Toulon, but they were eventually forced out when the French army arrived in strength. 

From Toulon, Hood sailed for Corsica, where the Regiment remained until the summer of 1795, during which period they were involved in several actions on land and at sea.  Most of the Regiment then returned to England, but around 90 remained with the fleet.  In February 1797, by then under Nelson’s command, the fleet defeated the Spanish at Cape St Vincent.  Despite the number of officers and men of the 11th involved, for some reason the Regiment was denied the ”St Vincent” battle honour that was awarded to the 69th Regiment. 

When the majority of the Regiment returned to England in 1795, they were based at Tiverton.  Here and at Kingston-upon-Thames a major recruitment drive was established, and strength more than doubled to over 1100.  By 1797 there were growing fears of a French invasion, and in May 1798 the Regiment took part in a disastrous action that was intended to help avert this threat – the “Ostend Raid”.

The operation to immobilize the lock at Saas, on the canal from Ostend to Bruges, would begin with a landing at Ostend, and the 11th were part of the landing force under General Sir Eyre Coote.  The force reached the Ostend coast in the early hours of May 14th, but a gale blew up and they had to remain at anchor.  After five days the wind was still too strong for a safe landing, but General Coote insisted on launching the assault.  The attack was in fact successful, and some of the planned demolition was achieved. 

However, by the time the force had assembled on the beach to re-embark, the wind had increased to the point where embarkation was impossible.  As they waited for the wind to drop, a large French force arrived.  The British were trapped and outnumbered, and in the fighting that ensued the 11th lost 40 officers and men killed and wounded.  The whole force was taken prisoner.  The 11th were interned in miserable conditions in a prison camp near Douai, and remained there for over a year, the last of them not returning until July 1799.

The Regiment had barely six months in England before they were sent to the West Indies.  They sailed in February 1800, and after a miserable journey lasting several weeks in cramped and leaky vessels with dreadful rations, they arrived in Martinique.  They had little or no fighting to do, and their main enemies were the heat and disease.  They spent the next six years variously in Martinique, Dominica and St Kitts.  In July 1806 they sailed for Britain, “worn down by the climate and unfit for service” according to their final inspection.

Back in England, the Regiment settled in Tiverton and then Plymouth, and recruited to rebuild its strength.  In October 1807 Napoleon declared war on Portugal, and Britain exercised its right under an old agreement to take over Madeira in order to safeguard the sea routes.  The Regiment was sent as part of the occupying force, embarking in November.  Again there was no fighting to be done, and they remained there for 18 months.

In 1808 the 2nd Battalion was formed; it lived a separate existence for the 8 years until its disbandment.