The long walks of Pte. Joseph Crowther
– with the 1/82nd (sometimes!) in the Peninsular War
One of the things which impresses me most about the service of men who went through the Peninsular War and the campaign in the south of France between 1808-1814 is just how far they walked. Never mind the major battles and the plethora of smaller actions, the men who served right through the war – and there were plenty of them – covered huge distances on foot and often under awful conditions of weather, terrain and privation.
This aspect of the war – distances covered and conditions of service – was impressed on me recently with the appearance on the market of the Military General Service Medal awarded to Pte. Joseph Crowther of the 1st Battn., 82nd Regiment. It carries just two clasps – Corunna and Talavera – and whilst neither is especially rare, they are more unusual to this regiment. Only 5 officers and 20 men of 1/82nd (counted off the actual roll) received Talavera and Crowther is the only recipient in the battalion with just these two clasps.
Crowther (or Crowder as his and the family name often occurs) was born around 1787 in the village of King’s Sambourne in Hampshire and as a “Militia Man” enlisted into the 82nd, the Prince of Wales’ Volunteers, in 1805. The 1/82nd was at Copenhagen in 1807, but Crowther’s “long walks” really begin in 1808 with the regiment’s deployment to Portugal.
The 82nd was already in Portugal (having served at Rolica and Vimiero) by October 1808, when Sir John Moore led a powerful British expeditionary force of 30,000 men to Portugal; his aim was to cross into Spain and enter Madrid, to strike a significant propaganda blow against Napoleon and his empire and stir the Spanish into greater efforts of resistance to the French occupation. In addition, Sir David Baird led a reinforcement of about 13,000 men which landed at Corunna on 13th October and marched across the mountains to join Moore’s force.
Moore’s army advanced from the Lisbon area in a number of columns, aiming to concentrate at Salamanca before advancing towards Madrid. However, the actual presence of Napoleon to lead his armies in Spain galvanised the French – the only time that the Emperor came into Spain. Under Napoleon’s command and inspiration, French forces dispersed the Spanish armies and turned against Moore – who suddenly found himself facing the coalescence of various French armies which would outnumber the British and were heading to cut him off. By the beginning of December 1808, Moore felt that he had no alternative but to retreat and the only feasible route, given the location of French armies massing against him, was north-westwards towards Vigo and Corunna – a hugely difficult mountain route with little in the way of decent roads, supplies or facilities and in what turned out to be a very severe winter. Baird’s force had already made this journey in the other direction (and how delighted they must have been to hear that they were going to go back the same way!) and joined Moore’s force as he concentrated his army around Benevente and Salamanca to begin his retreat.
But the 1/82nd saw none of this. Although already in Portugal and prepared to march out with Moore, the regiment was struck down by “fever”, with fully one third of its number falling sick. It was one of a dozen regiments left behind because of sickness, but most of these actually did march out to reinforce Moore. To its dismay, the 82nd was destined to stay in Portugal while its men recovered and was then dispatched by ship to Oporto (Porto) on the northern coast of Portugal to garrison this important port and supply base. And there they remained while Moore advanced into Spain.
However, once Moore had decided on retreat, he ordered the 82nd to leave Oporto and join his army. Here is the first “long walk” of Joseph Crowther – in December, the 82nd was ordered to join Moore at Benevente, marching from Oporto via Villa Real and Braganca, a distance of over 300 km.
Once united with Moore’s main force, the 82nd took part in the notorious “retreat to Corunna” in December 1808. Joseph Crowther’s second “long walk” – under appalling conditions, and closely followed and harassed by the French under Marshal Soult – was a distance through the mountains of another 300 km or so, via Astorga and Lugo. Putting aside the hardships of the march (well enough recorded), the 1/82nd then fought at the battle of Corunna on 16th January 1808, though they played only a minor role in the actual battle, being largely confined to a defensive position on the outskirts of the port as a mass embarkation got underway. The 82nd nevertheless lost one third of its men between Oporto and Corunna.
The regiment was duly evacuated from Corunna and returned to its depot at Lewes in the UK in January 1809, shortly afterwards (July) embarking for Holland on the disastrous Walcheren expedition. However, Joseph Crowther’s movements were very different.
Crowther’s medal carries the clasp Talavera, for the major battle fought in central Spain on 27-28th July 1809. At this time, Crowther’s regiment was in Walcheren, involved in the siege of Flushing. So what was he doing so far away in central Spain – and since the medal roll shows 5 officers and 20 men of his regiment with the clasp, what were they doing there?
The story is one of considerable interest. It turns out that during Moore’s advance into Spain, as well as during the retreat to Corunna and after the battle itself, large numbers of men had dropped out or become separated. Many of those who had retreated to Corunna and fought at the battle fled southwards along the only route open to them, since the French controlled the main route, across the wild mountains, heading towards Oporto or anywhere else they could reach. This would have been Joseph Crowther’s third “long walk” – 300 km from Corunna to Oporto or 600 if he walked to Lisbon.
General Cameron, remaining in command of the British garrison at Oporto, recorded as early as 16th January that he had “collected several detachments of recovered men belonging to Sir John Moore’s army, whom I found scattered in all directions, without necessaries…” Many of these made for Oporto, where they could at least be transported to Lisbon by ship; many others simply walked back into Portugal and made for Lisbon as best they could under the most difficult conditions. They included “stragglers” and sick or injured men who had never made the retreat towards Corunna, men who had fallen out en route to Corunna, men captured by the French who had escaped and men who had fought at Corunna but had been cut off before they could embark in the port – presumably Crowther’s fate, since he was later credited with the battle clasp.
As a result of the presence of this large number of men from a mixed list of regiments, two Battalions of Detachments were formed by General Cradock, commanding at Lisbon. The 1st Battalion comprised approx. 45 officers 820 NCOs and men; the 2nd Battalion comprised approx. 46 officers and 730 NCOs and men [see * below]. Since Crowther had the clasp Corunna, one assumes that he was one of those who, after the battle, could not join his regiment and headed south. The regimental history of the 82nd by Jarvis (1866) records that two officers and 64 NCOs and Other Ranks of the 82nd became “detached” – but he is way off the mark. At least nine officers and as many as 96 NCOs and men are shown as detached from the 1/82nd by this time in other records. The men of the 82nd were in formed into a company commanded by Captain Carew.
In April 1809, these two mixed battalions joined Sir Arthur Wellesley’s forces in the renewed British campaign in Portugal. By this time, Soult had captured Oporto and Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) decided to take it back and force Soult into retreat. Both battalions served to general acclaim in the subsequent “Douro Campaign” which struck suddenly against Oporto, seeing their first action at Grijo en route, and took part in the famous “crossing of the Douro” and re-capture of the port on 12th May. Soult was forced into a humiliating retreat back across the border. This was Joseph Crowther’s fourth “long walk” – a distance of 600 km there and back.
In June 1809, Wellesley decided to renew operations in Spain in conjunction with the Spanish and on 27th June British forces, assembled around Abrantes, marched into Spain. Both Battalions of Detachments were part of this force and subsequently served at Talavera. The march into central Spain at the hottest time of the year, June-July, was rigorous by any standard and ended in the major action at Talavera, on 27-28th July 1809, where, in a battle which saw more British casualties than any other in Spain (including Albuhera), Wellesley held off the French under Marshal Victor. Both Battalions of Detachments fought in the middle of the British line around Medellin Hill, the 2nd Battalion as part of Genl. James Kemmis’s Brigade with the 40th and 97th Regiments. However, the campaign (and Spanish co-operation) was not a success and Wellesley was forced to abandon his plan to advance on Madrid in face of renewed French combinations against him and his line of retreat. By late September, after a long, dispiriting, complicated retreat via Badajos, his army reached the Lisbon area. This constituted Joseph Crowther’s fifth “long walk” – from Abrantes to Talavera and back via Badajos into Portugal – about 600 km in total. The medal roll shows that five officers and Crowther with only 19 other men of the 82nd lived to claim Talavera for service with the 2nd Battn. of Detachments.
From Lisbon, the constituents of the two Battalions of Detachments were shipped home to rejoin their parent units and the Battalions were formally disbanded. The men of the 2nd Battalion of Detachments landed at Gosport, those of the 82nd rejoining their battalion at Lewes, where, after all their trials and tribulations, “we certainly cut a very ludicrous appearance from our ragged state, but we received a hearty welcome from our long-lost comrades”.
The 1/82nd returned to campaigning in Portugal in the Spring of 1811 and was deployed to the south as part of the Cadiz garrison and two companies saw action at the battle of Barrosa in March 1811 and four at the siege of Tarifa in December. After a brief spell in Gibraltar, 1/82nd returned to Portugal – and Crowther would have had another long walk of 800 km from Lisbon with his battalion to join the the main army under Wellington at Cuellar in 1812. They then served at the battle of Vittoria in June 1813 and the siege of San Sebastián in July before joining the pursuit of the French Army into France, fighing in the battles of the Pyrenees in July 1813.
Crowther’s movements at this time have not been fully researched; he was with the regiment in southern Spain, but he certainly didn’t claim the clasp for Barrosa and he missed Vittoria and San Sebastian. He did, however, claim the clasp Pyrenees, which was disallowed for the very obvious reason that he is returned in the Muster Rolls from at least November 1812 as “missing”.
Exactly what happened to Crowther has yet to be definitely established but from December 1812 he occurs in French records as a Prisoner of War (“Crowder”), captured on 30th October 1812 in Spain – hence missing the 1813-14 campaigning – and held in the large French PoW camp at Cambrai.
The musters of 1/82nd for September-December 1812 make depressing reading. There are significant numbers of men returned as “sick” at various places or sent ill “to the rear” during the period – more in one muster than I have ever seen. On top of this loss, Joseph Crowther was one of 72 men listed as “missing” as of 30th October; there were 30 more on 16/17th November, a further 20 on 18/19th November and another 18 for 22nd-24th November. Thus, more than 135 men of 1/82nd were recroded simply as “missing” from October/November 1812 – but the main regimental history gives no indication of why or where these losses might have occurred and the muster only gives “Spain” as the battalion’s location! Perhaps it was better to draw a veil over what actually happened!
It looks likely that Crowther (et al) were captured at the time of Wellington’s unsuccessful operations against Burgos which forced an awful retreat following the siege of the citadel. As Wellington was leading an increasingly dispirited army back towards Salamanca, Lord Hill was commanding British and allied troops covering Madrid and faced the advance of Marshal Soult and King Joseph in great strength towards the Spanish capital, forcing his own withdrawal. On 30th October 1812, Soult attacked one of Hill’s brigades at Puenta Larga and as Hill’s forces fell back there were numerous small-scale clashes throughout November as he attempted to rejoin Wellington.
This probably accounts for the frequent (almost daily) losses to the 82nd, who were part of the 4th Division, over that period. Many of the men captured along the route were taken because they were ill, exhausted, straggling or drunk! It has been suggested that the 82nd was the most ill-disciplined corps in Hill’s army at that time, disgraced by their behaviour during the retreat and actually being singled out as an example of the worst type of conduct shown by any corps; Wellington had harsh words for them all and the Colonel of 82nd, William Grant, was placed under arrest for gross negligence and his battalion lambasted for their irregularity in the field.
Wellington then led his very dispirited and ill-disciplined army back to Ciudad Rodrigo.
Thus we have – apart from his “long walks” in Spain between 1811-1812, Crowther’s next “long walk” – from northern Spain to Cambrai, a distance of nearly 900 km, and all no doubt done on foot. [for conditions, see article on PoWs at Givet on this site].Like other British PoWs he was released in April 1814 at the (apparent) end of the war. His battalion at that time was serving along the Canadian frontier at the tail-end of the 1812-14 War, so Crowther was posted in the rank of Corporal to the 2nd Battalion, though he returned to the 1st Battalion in August 1815 and joined it with the “Army of Occupation” in St. Denis near Paris. The 82nd returned to Dover in January 1816 and then moved to Cork, losing nearly 200 men and their families in the wreck of the transport Boadicea.
Crowther’s last overseas’ service with the 82nd regiment came with its posting from Ireland in January 1819 to “the Mauritius”; he returned to the UK in March 1821 to be discharged after 16 years and 243 days’ service. He returned home to King’s Sambourne and is recorded there later with his wife and family, working as an agricultural labourer on Upsombourne Farm. Crowther died in 1850 in King’s Sambourne at the age of about 63.
Crowther is probably not unusual in the sheer amount of ground he covered during only four years in Portugal and Spain, but his “long walks” – and only some can be recorded – leave us with no doubt as to why so many discharged soldiers of this era, who might seem to us to be “young” or “youngish”, are so often described in the documents as “worn out”.
* Regiments contributing more than one officer/man to the Battalions of Detachments, 1808-09:
1st Battalion – (under Lt. Col. W.H. Williams, 3rd Foot)
– 3rd, 20th, 28th, 42nd, 2/43rd, 52nd, 79th, 91st, 92nd, 95th Rifles.
2nd Battalion – (under Lt. Col. E. Copeson, 5th Fusiliers)
– 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 32nd, 36th, 36th, 50th, 71st, 82nd
For a detailed study of the Battalions of Detachments, see C. T. Atkinson –