Follow the Scots Greys from the start of the 1815 campaign to the battle of Waterloo.
Cornet Francis Charlton Kinchant, 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) was determined to go to see active service. To be sure of his place in one of the six service troops that would go abroad to fight Bonaparte if the regiment was ordered, he and another cornet, the most junior commissioned rank in the cavalry, had been perfecting their equestrian skills.
In March of 1815 Kinchant was 21 years old. Three times every day the two red coated figures could be seen leaping their grey steeds over jumps and around obstacles near their cantonments at Bristol. Cooly putting themselves through the evolutions of field exercise, both mounted and on foot, and to give them a firmer seat, they were riding without stirrups.
The Greys were one of the most senior regiments of dragoons in the British army, denied the number 1 by a quirk of circumstance very similar to the reason the Coldstream Guards were officially the 2nd, both regiments held to the motto “Nulli Secundis”. Second to none.
Despite a proud reputation dating from the Wars of the Three Kingdom’s, the Greys had not seen active service since 1799, so the eagerness young Kinchant felt to test himself in battle was also felt by the whole regiment. Not least its commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel James Inglis Hamilton.
The previous year his regiment had been present in a Royal review in honour of the visiting allied
sovereigns, were it had been positioned on the flank of General Platov’s Cossacks. The contrast between the tall dragoons in bearskin caps and red coats faced with cavalry yellow and royal blue, riding muscular white horses, and the blue clad stocky, hungry cheeked Cossacks, holding lances and riding small but tireless steppe ponies was stark. The Russians had been in constant action for the last three years, the Greys had not heard a shot fired in anger for fifteen.
In that time though they had gained a reputation as a fine regiment, they looked well on parade, and moved well in exercises and field days. If a district commander wanted to make a good show at a review, or had a request from a member of the royal family to see a regiment of dragoons, he could not do much worse than asking for the 2nd.
As such the Greys had become quite a fashionable corps for young blades to join. With that distinction of course came the responsibility to keep up the reputation of the regiment. Kinchant was the only son of a Reverend from Herefordshire, and was increasingly strapped for ready cash to pay his bills. Living a rather wayward life as a dashing cavalry officer, a life far removed from his rural upbringing as the scion of a pastoral ideal, he kept a delightful “Piece” called Letitia in London and frequented the bawdy houses in Covent Garden and Drury Lane when on leave. As such he was at a loss as how to pay for the expensive uniform officers were required to wear. Items like the dress coat costing 40 Guineas, while other coats sang to the tune of £15,15s. As it was it looked as if he had wasted money on a horse that was two inches too short. Colonel Hamilton would only pass it as a number 2 charger, and Kinchant would have to start looking for another more suited to his big frame. As far as he was concerned he had joined a crack regiment, full of large strapping, mostly Scottish fellows, none of which to him looked under 5’11”, most able to ride what were passed as excellent grey steeds.
Kinchant put his little charger through its paces, gripping hard with his thighs, and executing the famous “Six Cuts” that had fenced the French cavalry out of Spain. Cutting away from the horse’s back or on foot against a chalked circle on a wall, worries of money, uniforms, horses, women and family fled his mind. He was there in the midst of a battle, bigger than life, advancing with his comrades and leading his men cooly and fiercely in his first full regimental charge, swords gleaming in the sun, trumpets brazenly sounding over the sound of hooves and guns.
Such dreams may have crossed the mind of Lt, Colonel Hamilton as well. With each passing day since Bonaparte had escaped from Elba and retaken the throne of France, he awaited orders to march for the coast were the board of transport would already be organising and commandeering ships to take the troops to the Low Countries. In many ways James Hamilton incorporated the spirit of the regiment on the eve of war. A regiment enshrouded with the romantic aura of individuality and singular appearance with much to prove. He had been born at Ticonderoga in 1777 during the American War. His father had been a Sergeant Major of the 21st Royal North British Fusiliers called William Andrews. After the war ended Andrews moved back home to Scotland where another veteran, General James Inglis Hamilton became his patron and saw to the education of his children. Young Jamie Andrews was an especial favourite of the General’s, and with his brother he went to study at Glasgow University. When he was sixteen he found yet more marks of favour from Hamilton awaiting him. “A pair of colours” as the saying went.
Jamie had been accepted by the King as a Cornet of Horse in Hamilton’s old regiment, the 2nd RNBD (Scots Greys), but he was too late to join them in the Low Countries and missed his first taste of action. Though the General may never have meant to usurp Jamie’s family name, a secretary at Horse Guards certainly did so, by assuming that the young gentleman was Hamilton’s son. It was an impression perhaps fostered by the General to ensure the youngster got his commission, as the powers that be preferred to give commissions to gentlemen’s sons. The secretary therefore put his name as James Inglis Hamilton, a name which he kept in deference to his generous patron and most probably to avoid having to change the name on the paper. In 1814 he finally rose to command and by 1815 the workaday reality of “Regimental business”, marriage and being forced to read of the cavalry’s successes in Spain while he did nothing, had worn off. With Bonaparte’s escape. Yet he could take comfort that due to all his inactive work, he could offer a well drilled, highly motivated regiment for service, and he was keen to show his superiors what it could do. As a noted man of spirit he must have anxiously awaited his marching orders.
The much anticipated route of march to Northfleet and Gravesend came on 6 April 1815. Yet some were caught unawares by the precipitous proximity of the date. An exuberant Kinchant sent hurriedly away for camping equipment to meet him at the coast, and just managing to secure a new mount to act as his number 1 charger. Doubtless the mess was the scene of many belligerent and humorously dark toasts, about short, bloody wars, sickly seasons and empty boots.
The route took just over a week’s easy marching, taking the Greys through the picturesque heart of the south east. As the cream and scarlet columns threaded their way through Chippenham, Marlborough, Newbury, Reading, Staines and Camberwell, Kinchant found time to pay a few calls to mutual acquaintances, were no doubt he made a great fuss about how well the regiment would perform.
A young officer’s boast is an NCO’s burden. After eight days of marching four Troops of the RNBD arrived at their embarkation points, two more would follow presently. With them they brought the accumulated emotional baggage of a regiment that had been on home service for too long, leaving for war.
Sergeant Archibald Johnston was in Captain Poole’s Troop of the 1st Squadron, and on the 14 April, a clear spring day with perhaps a rising wind building from the east, the Greys were ordered to embark. With a heavy heart Johnston kissed his wife and three children goodbye, and putting a manly face on it for his men, many of whom were also forced to tear themselves away from their own loved ones at the quayside, boarded the “Fame”, which would carry 2 Officers 3 NCO’s 29 privates and 37 Horses to the Low Countries.
In the morning, after spending the night aboard the ship the Troop Sergeant Major’s were called to go ashore and make copies of orderly books being left behind. Johnston was ordered to assist his TSM and so made his way down the gangplank and back through the tearful crowds still gathered to see them off, it was a long job and it wasn’t until until 11.00 p.m., that Johnston reembarked, this time on a different ship, as presumably the “Fame” had stood out to sea. Emotional farewells were still being said as he boarded. Finally at 9.00 a.m., on 16 April the small fleet of transports had closed up and got underway.
It was a stormy passage and the convoy was held up off the Nore by contrary winds, the violence of which did not let up until they sighted land. Causing not a few bruises to be raised on fine grey equine coats who were bumped mercilessly about in the stall’s. Fortunately not a one was seriously hurt. On the 20th the ships emerged on the choppy sea in sight of Ostend and in spite of the strong Spring tide, made for the harbour. As they entered, one of the transports hit a shoal, and looked in danger of foundering. A rescue effort was launched by two local boatmen but the sea proved too dangerous and they were both drowned in the attempt.
In spite of their sacrifice, the fears of all proved unfounded as the ship was re-floated sometime before 9.00 a.m., when they entered the harbour. At 3.00 p.m., adjutant Macmillan could report four troops safely disembarked, all present and accounted for. Colonel Hamilton then ordered the quartermasters to draw three days rations from the ships.
Three hours later the RNBD mounted and marched for Bruges. They arrived late at night, with many stiff dragoon and limbs after their voyage. The sound of hooves on the cobbles of the chausée & the music of bridle chains and equipment echoed in the silent streets. The calls of command announcing that the Greys were back in the Low Countries.
A Soldier’s Life.
Late May – Early April 1815.
All things considered Cornet Kinchant enjoyed his brief 11 day sojourn at Ghent. The regiment had arrived on the 22nd after two days easy march from Bruges, passing through Maldegem on the first day and stopping in a vertical downpour at Eeklo. Here all the “Johnny Newcomes” got a taste of being billeted “On” a foreign town, or rather hamlet, Kinchant probably got a small house, shared with other junior officers.
Sergeant Johnston and a comrade had to go three miles through the rain to find an accommodating farmer to put them up. Despite being a large city, arriving at also Ghent was to arrive on the outskirts of the army which had been assembling since March. The closer to Brussels they got the harder it was to move without tripping over a soldier at every turn. To say the allied force infested the country would be an understatement. Nevertheless Kinchant had been determined to live the life of a soldier to the hilt, as he felt a true cavalryman should.
His zest for life and duty had already made him well liked amongst his troop and he seems to have been highly thought of by Hamilton. While in Ghent he had turned this energy to exploring the well regulated, and stocked, bawdy houses of the city, where he had a fine old time amongst the beautiful French “Pieces” whose “Action” apparently outdid the finest Drury Lane and Covent Garden could offer.
In Ghent the Greys joined the 2nd cavalry Brigade under General Sir William Ponsonby, here old regimental bonds were re-cemented, for the Greys and 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, had a long association. While Cornet Kinchant completed his tour of inspection of the local houses of ill repute. Sober minded married NCO’s like Sergeant Johnston, who made up the backbone of the regiment, were occupied with the well practised routine of regimental duties.
The regiment was warned on 1 May. The order of march had been posted, which gave the Royals the position in front when in column, and on the right in line of battle, the Inniskillings would stand in the centre. This put the Greys in the rear and on the left in line.
As such the 1st and 6th drew 10 days rations for man and horse from the commissary and marched out early on the 2nd, being last meant the Greys were delayed in gathering their rations. When they were collected these necessaries seem to have overburdened the regimental transport, as a quantity of excess baggage was left in the middle of the street. It is intimated that an order had been passed for the TSM’s to turn in all extraneous tents and equipment before they left.
Regimental Quartermaster Lennox and Sergeant Johnston, who seems to have commanded the guard the previous night, were left behind to see that the tents were turned over to the commissariat while the regiment marched on. Mr. Lennox took the privilege of superior rank and delegated the task of compiling the abandoned gear to sergeant Johnston, and to have it done by six o’clock whether he was there or not. Making careful notes in his day-book Johnston catalogued and arranged the pile of equipment just in time to report his tally to Mr. Lennox when he returned.
Unfortunately, on his inspection the quartermaster found that four tents were not accounted for. Johnston had no idea about four other tents, he had readied those stores that had been entrusted to him, nothing more, and therefore an angry Mr. Lennox rode after there brigade to take it up with the Troop Sergeant Major’s who must have been responsible.
At the appointed time, with no sign of Lennox returning Johnston handed over his stores to the Commissariat and set off without a clue as to were to find the regiment. As night fell, Johnston had to admit defeat and began searching for a billet to spend the night. Despite the generally friendly reception by the locals so far, Johnston was unable to find a place to spend the night until he ran into a man that had been the butcher to the Scots Greys when they had last been on the continent in 1798. Upon hearing that Johnston was in the RNBD the butcher afforded him the hospitality of a lost family member, the Greys were after all in familiar country.
Sergeant Johnston caught up with the Greys at Denderhouten. A small village of country houses, clustered around the spire of an impressive Medieval church and a Village Hall, roughly halfway between Ghent and Brussels. He rode in and reported himself, then asked whether Mr. Lennox had found his missing tents. To his surprise he was told that the quartermaster had not found the missing articles with any of the Troop Sergeant Major’s and had put him on report, holding him responsible for their loss.
Johnston wasted no time in seeking out Colonel Hamilton and he waited on him at headquarters in the village. Hamilton had most probably been informed by Adjutant Macmillan that the quartermaster had reported some tents lost by Sergeant Johnston the previous day. He told the sergeant that he must either pay for the lost goods or face a Regimental Court Martial. Johnston was unhesitant in requesting the latter, and allowed himself to be put under arrest and confined, until the court sat, during which time he consulted his day book to consider witnesses for his defence.
Johnston would have to wait four days to state his case, in which time the regiment settled into it’s quarters, spread over a large area of rich agricultural tableland surrounding the village.
Cornet Kinchant was not impressed with Denderhouten. A place he considered not large enough to house a troop let alone a regiment and the houses themselves he said more like hovels inhabited by vagabonds, to which the lowliest pig sty in England would have been preferable. He thus set up the tent he had ordered from London beside his allotted quarters and slept “Sub Deo”.
He might have forgiven the “vagabonds” who inhabited the village had their women been at all acceptable to him. As we have already seen, Cornet Kinchant was the reason why sensible parents sent their daughters away to distant relatives when soldiers came to town. This does not seem to have occurred to the residents of Denderhouten, unless they had sent only their attractive daughters away. Kinchant found those that were present spoke only Flemish, with wide peasant mouths and were terribly stupid, but as the saying goes beggars can’t be choosers and plain or not Kinchant was going to have a crack at them.
Helpfully these provincial maidens’ only means of communicating with the British was to mindlessly nod and say, “Yaw, yaw,” to everything. Taking advantage of this Kinchant subsequently propositioned one young lass in French, who co-operatively replied to his initial advance; “Yaw yaw,” she said agreeably, however when he made his first advance the girl suddenly realised what she had agreed to, and proved that the parents of girls in the war torn low countries didn’t need to worry when it came to soldiers. Screaming and wriggling, kicking and punching she forced Kinchant to beat a hasty and precipitous retreat.
On the bright side Kinchant was at least now feeling a little freer in coin, having gotten his father to pay his bills. As it was he would not need cash sent over as the exchange rate was 17.1/2 francs to £1. And any romantic disappointments could be assuaged by taking a leave to the familiar and friendly houses of Brussels and Ghent, where he could take his pick of numerous more tempting “Pieces” and where his French advances, would be welcomed in a more professional manner. In the meantime he had other things to distract him.
On 6 May, Lord Uxbridge, the dashing, scandalous and brilliant commander of Wellington’s cavalry division, who had so ably commanded Sir John Moore’s rearguard in 1809, came to inspect the Greys. At the end of the review, the regimental messes were buzzing with the news that Uxbridge thought them a very fine and able body of men and horses fit for any service. The earl hoped that they should they come up against the French on ground that would allow him to show the cavalry to the best advantage.
The day after these laurels were accrued Sergeant Johnston’s Court Martial sat and Kinchant’s name was down as one of the officiating officers. Regimental Standing Orders for the 7th read that Sergeant Johnston of Brevett Maj Poole’s troop was to be tried for the loss of 4 tents left under his care. Hamilton’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Pate Hankin sat as President, and the members of the court were Brevet Major Vernor, Captain Barnard, Lieutenant Mills and Cornet Kinchant.
After opening the proceedings Hankin asked how Johnston pled. Confident in his innocence, he gave an answer of not guilty and witnesses were called to speak for Mr. Lennox. Troop Sergeant Major’s Dingwall, Robertson, Wier, McMillan, Perrie, and Russel were called, all giving evidence of having deposited tents in Ghent but could not speak to the amount Sergeant Johnston received. The defence called Pvt Dragoon Tait, Sergeant McNeil, & Private Dragoon Bell, the two privates having been on guard that night and McNeil probably being Johnston’s relief, spoke to the fact that Johnston had stayed with the wagons, and had not left them at any point that could be remembered, nor could the exact amount of supplies in the wagons be specified.
At the end of these testimonies Bvt, Maj. Poole stood, as officer commanding Johnston’s troop, and dutifully testified to the sergeant’s five years of good service and conduct, these words were then backed by Lt, MacMillan, the adjutant. The court then deliberated and on the basis of the prosecuting officer being unable to substantiate the amount of tents handed over initially, they found Sergeant Johnston innocent and he returned to duty with a clear record.
Sources used in this series.
British Cavalryman 1792 – 1815: Phillip J Haythornthwaite
British Cavalry Equipments 1800 – 1941: Mike Chappell
Wellington’s Heavy Cavalry: Bryan Fosten
Waterloo Myth and Reality: Gareth Glover
History of the Second Dragoons (Scot’s Greys): Edward Almack
Norfolk Annals: Charles Mackie
Scum of the Earth: Colin Brown
Royal Scots Greys: Charles Grant
Peninsular War Roll Call.
The Battle: Alessandro Barbero
Waterloo new perspectives: David Hamilton Williams
Wellington’s Regiment’s: Ian Castle
A Near Run Thing: Ian Castle
The Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin
One Leg: Marquis of Anglesey
Radical General: Edward M Spiers
With Napoleon at Waterloo: Edward Bruce Lowe
Who was who at Waterloo: Christopher Summerville
Waterloo Archive: The British Sources, vol 1
Waterloo Archive: The British Sources, vol 3
Waterloo Archive: The British Sources, vol 4
Waterloo Letters: Gareth Glover
Waterloo Letters: Maj-Gen H.T. Siborne
The Waterloo Campaign: William Siborne
The Battle of Waterloo, a series of accounts by a near observer, 1815.
Instructions and Regulations for the formations and movements of the cavalry. 1799-1800.
With deepest thanks to:
Napoleonic Wars Forum Members: JF42, jasonubych, Jonathan Hopkins, StudentOf1812, Andrew W Fields. For their ever generous assistance and helpful, friendly input.
And to the Scots Military Research Group on Twitter.
This series as a whole is dedicated to the memory of the Officers and men of the old Royal Scots Greys who served in 1815, many of whose stories I have come to know so well and have tried to tell here, and to the men of their descendant Regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards who carry on their fine traditions today.