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Thursday
May042017

John Phillips (1793 – 1847) BRIEF GLORY

John Phillips (1793 – 1847)

Sometimes the researching of our ancestors is like the books that we had as children where you join up the dots to make a picture. You often have to assume that their lives were described by a direct line between the dots. The official records are our dots and if they show a birth marriage and death in a locality we may not look further for the story of their lives unless a Census or other document alerts us to a hidden deviation in the lifeline.

It was in the mapping of my family tree that I first came across John Phillips the maternal grandfather of my grandfather, John Ball. He had been baptised in Ringstead Church on 31st March 1793, the third child of Henry and Ann. Ann died on 24th February 1811 aged 49 and his father married Elizabeth Fryar on 24th January 1813 in Raunds.

The next time that I found John in the local records he was marrying Elizabeth Rands in Raunds Church on 27th October 1817. They went on to have a large family. I have not managed to find him in the 1841 Census although there are some John Phillips of about the right age around the county. Perhaps he had had to “go on the tramp” to find work as a labourer. At first I thought that he had died before 1841 but then found his burial in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church in Raunds (not Ringstead as I put originally) on 18th April 1847, aged 56.

So that was his life, spent labouring in the fields of Northamptonshire. Then I discovered that John had hidden in his life three years of excitement, fear and tragedy.

Jon Abbott had alerted me to a booklet written by Martin Aaron entitled Waterloo Men of Northamptonshire which listed two men from Ringstead who had served in one of the most famous battles in our history. One of these men was Sergeant Samuel Nichols who was killed at Waterloo. The other was John Phillips who had enlisted aged 20 in 1813, the year of his father’s marriage, in the 2nd Battalion of the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Foot Regiment).

I have not found any similar advertisement for the 69th Regiment but it does show some of the inducements offered at this time

Northampton Mercury 6th February 1813

The 2nd Battalion had been formed in July 1802 and was very young and inexperienced with the average length of service in 1815 being only 3½ years for Privates, less than any other British Regiment. It was approximately 57% English, 35% Irish and 7% Scottish. John was possibly recruited locally and probably embarked, with some artillery and horses, at Landguard Fort at the mouth of the River Orwell, near Felixstowe on December 17th 1813 and sailed with the Battalion to Willemstad in Holland the next day.

The French still held Holland but as they had now been mainly pushed out of Germany the Dutch and Belgians began to revolt against the occupying force and the British were eager to help this cause and also secure their own interests. Their first objective was to take the ports held by the French, particularly Antwerp. In this assault on Antwerp the British and Prussian allies had an insufficient force and as an alternative the British tried to take Bergen op Zoom, a port some 25 miles north of Antwerp  The 2nd Battalion took part in this ill-fated siege, on the 8th and 9th March 1814. It was an assault on an extensive fortified garrison held by the French. They managed to seize part of the defences but the French counterattacked and the British forces took heavy casualties and many others were forced to surrender. Of the 4000 British troops who took part, 2,100 were killed, although I have not yet discovered how many of the 487 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 69th Foot were killed or injured. After the battle, a negotiated exchange of prisoners took place.

We do not know if John Phillips was one of those exchanged prisoners but, after all the excitement and expectation of enlisting, it must have been a frightening and demoralising introduction to the realities of war. But worse was to come. Napoleon had escaped from his enforced exile on Elba and took his French army of 125,000 men into Belgium to confront the Duke of Wellington who commanded an alliance of British, German, Dutch and Belgian troops based at Brussels but camped across the surrounding countryside. 

The first encounter was at Quatre Bras. This was an important crossroads held by allies of Britain, the Dutch and Belgians but on learning that the French under Marshall Ney were advancing on them Wellington sent his 3rd Division to reinforce them. The 2nd Battalion, part of the 3rd Division, now consisted of 30 officers and 516 other ranks. There had obviously been some re-arranging of personnel. They had a forced route march of 12 hours but had just arrived there when they were immediately sent to relieve an exhausted and mutilated defensive square.

Uniform of the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment

(From my own 1930s cigarette card)

As we have seen, the 2nd Battalion of the 69th was very young and inexperienced and perhaps partly because of this, although officers up to the Prince of Orange have been blamed, they were caught off guard. After being first told to form a line of battle, they were still trying desperately to form a defensive square, which was the standard defence against charging cavalry, when the French cuirassiers were in among them, appearing with frightening speed out of the tall rye crops. Michael Aaron has written:

The experience of the 69th at Quatre Bras was a horrific one - youngsters stumbling through the rye in terror whilst cavalrymen in armour hunted them down, slashing downwards with their sabres.

The two companies who had managed to form a square mainly survived but those unfortunate soldiers not formed up were massacred.

In all some 41% of the 2nd Battalion were casualties at Quatre Bras but this was not an unusual rate among the British forces who fought there. Nevertheless, the French had a series of mislaid or misunderstood orders and missed their chances for a decisive victory and the cavalry were repulsed and retreated.

The 69th lost 38 killed and 115 wounded and the “King’s Colour”, the regimental flag, was captured, which was seen as a great shame for the battalion.

 

The King’s Colour. Lost at Quatre Bras and regained after Waterloo

©Firing Line Museum of the Welsh Soldier (Commercial Commons Licence)

After Quatre Bras Wellington withdrew to a ridge near to the village of Waterloo. Most of the troops marched there with little trouble from the enemy but a violent thunderstorm flooded the area and the infantrymen had to try to wade through water up to their knees. At nightfall, soaked and weary they had to get by on sodden biscuits and hunks of meat, uncooked because it was too wet to light camp fires. So, when we picture John Phillips at Waterloo we must remember that, like most of the foot soldiers, he would have been tired, soaked and caked in mud. He must have longed for home.

John and the 69th were positioned a few hundred yards north of the outposts of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. He was part of Isaac Downing's Company. Because of their losses at Quatre Bras, they had had to join up with the 33rd Regiment of Foot to have sufficient numbers to form a defensive square. At about 11, on the morning of the 18th June 1815, when the sun had broken through the thick morning mist the battle commenced. Warfare was often a contest between charging cavalry and the foot soldiers formed in defensive squares and if these were properly formed and there was supporting artillery the cavalry would rarely win the day.

The heavy cavalry of the French thundered on the British squares only to be repulsed. Captain Mercer who was there said that it was “like waves beating against rocks”. The French, however, could have taken the day but the delayed Prussian army under Blucher arrived just in time and the battle was won. Wellington wrote, “It was the most desperate business I ever was in…”. Waterloo is remembered as a glorious victory for the Duke of Wellington and the end of Napoleon but for the ordinary soldier it would been a confused tumult of individual skirmishes with little idea of how the battle was unfolding.

 

 

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler (1782 - 1839)

This painting gives some idea of the chaos and the separate skirmishes within the battle.

(Wikipedia Commons)

The 69th who had lost their commanding officer and 153 others at Quatre Bras suffered a further loss of 6 officers and 64 other ranks killed, wounded and died of wounds. Among the wounded was John Phillips who was shot in the left shoulder by a musket ball. It is possible that his left arm had to be amputated but as yet this is not certain. Did he march with the rest of his 2nd Battalion of the 69th when the victorious troops marched into Paris and were reviewed by the Emperors of Russia and Austria and the King of Prussia?

Waterloo brought the French Wars to an end and the following year the 2nd Battalion of the 69th, along with many others, was ordered to disband. The battalion returned home in January 1816 and was “struck off” in the following October. Wounded soldiers were discharged and others moved to the 1st Battalion or other Regiments.

All the British troops who fought at Waterloo were awarded a “Waterloo Medal” (or should have been – there were many discrepancies) and had an extra two years added to their record of service in calculations of their pension. John was admitted to the pension scheme on 30th October 1816 and it was noted as a “permanent” pension perhaps indicating that he had a disablement that would not improve. In addition, prize money was awarded to all ranks: £433 2s 4d to field officers and £2 11s 4d for privates like John Phillips.

He returned to Ringstead and Raunds and suddenly back to ordinary life as a labourer. He would have had many stories to tell but, as we are now very aware the fear and uncertainty of battle can destroy a man’s mental health. There is no mention of him in the local newspaper so not for him the glories and the honours. As we have seen he married and had children but it would have been a difficult life if he had a damaged or amputated left arm, even with his small allowance as a “Chelsea Pensioner”.

References

Much of the military history is taken from Fact Sheet 5-D02-01 on the “2nd Battalion 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot. Quatre Bras and Waterloo” produced by the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh (Brecon) which is an extract from A History of the Royal Regiment of Wales (24th/41st Foot) by J M Brereton. Cardiff 1989. [The 69th became part of the Royal Welsh Regiment.]

Waterloo Men of Northamptonshire by Martin Aaron [Lindon House 2015]. www.waterloomen.com

http://waterloo200.org (Standard of the 69th Regiment of Foot).

British Army Service Record Transcriptions (www.findmypast.co.uk).

Waterloo Medal Roll 1815 (www.Ancestry.com)

The National Archives WO 97/821/157 Subseries of Records of the Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers Service Documents: Discharge Papers. {on John Phillips of Kingstead [sic]}

Windsor and Eton Express 19th December 1813 (www.findmypast.co.uk).  

The National Archives: Catalogue References MINT/16/112/46 1 &2: Waterloo Medal Book for the 2nd Battalion 69th Foot.

The British Army in the Low Countries 1813-1814. Andrew Bamford  (www.napoleon-series.org)   

69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot (Wikipedia)