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A Brief History of the 23rd Foot

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A Brief History of the 23rd Regiment of Foot
The Royal Welch Fusiliers

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Formation and Early Years of the Regiment / War of the League of Augsberg / War of the Spanish Succession / Royal Regiment / War of the Austrian Succession / Seven Years War /
The War of American Independence /

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Formation and Early Years of the Regiment

Formed on March 16th, 1689 by Lord Herbert of Chirbury in response to the emergency created by the overthrow of James II and the succession of William III, Lord Herbert's Regiment was raised in the counties of Radnor, Montgomery, and Shropshire. Assembled at Ludlow, the regiment was soon designated as the 23rd of Foot under the command of Lord Herbert's cousin Charles and was sent to Ireland in time to take part in the Battle of the Boyne, the pivotal battle of the War of the English Succession. Prior to the battle, losses from exposure and disease had claimed a good many of the regiment, and a general inspection had revealed deficiencies in their weapons, but had remarked well upon the commanding officer and the uniforms. It is also reported from this time that Lord Herbert's cousin Charles accidentally wounded himself in the head by "rashly flourishing a loaded pistol!" Following the Battle of the Boyne in which the raw English regiments were kept in reserve, the 23rd Foot garrisoned the town of Drogheda. In 1691, at the Battle of Aughrim, the 23rd Foot got their first real taste of action when they were sent through a waist deep bog to attack the Franco-Irish right wing. Upon being attacked by enemy cavalry, they suffered serious losses, including Colonel Herbert, who was captured and murdered a few hours later to prevent his rescue.

The following day, Major Toby Purcells was promoted to Lt. Colonel and commanding officer. The spurs which he wore during the Battle of the Boyne and which were destroyed in a fire in Canada in 1842, are toasted on every St. David's Day. The Irish rebellion came to an end in 1691, at which time the regiment was in garrison in Galway.

On the 20th of April, 1692, John Morgan became the third colonel of the regiment upon the death of Toby Purcells, and upon his death in 1693, he was succeeded by Richard Ingoldsby of the 18th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Irish.

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War of the League of Augsberg

 Under Colonel Ingoldsby, the regiment was moved to Flanders in 1694 to take part in the War of the League of Augsberg , and won its first battle honor at the Siege of Namur in 1695 where the regiment suffered casualties of 92 dead and 123 wounded. The part given the regiment in the siege remains unclear, but the casualty figures would argue that it was one of honor.

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War of the Spanish Succession

Following the short lived Peace of Rijswijk in 1697, the 23rd Regiment found itself dispatched to Holland in 1701, this time under the Imperial commander, John Churchill,  Earl of Marlborough. On October 12, 1702, the grenadier company was part of a force that stormed and took the fortress of Liege and honors came the following December to both the 23rd Regiment and John Churchill,  the 23rd being named the Welch Regiment of Fusiliers, and Churchill being elevated to a Duke. The title of "fusilier" or "fuzileer" was, by that time, mostly an honorary one. The "fusil" or "flintlock" had originally replaced the "matchlock" as the weapon of choice for guarding the artillery train, its ignition system being more suitable around barrels of gunpowder than the older, slow burning match ignition system that the "matchlock" utilized. It was also at this time that company colors were dispensed with, and from that time since, the 23rd has had second lieutenants instead of ensigns. The additional honor of wearing a mitre cap similar to the grenadiers came into being as a signal of their new status as an elite unit.

 The Duke of Marlborough's campaigns in the War of the Spanish Succession have been studied by students of military history down to the present day, but the storming of the Schellenberg on the 21st of June, 1704 was probably eclipsed by the later victories at Blenheim and Ramillies, as no battle honors have ever been granted for this action in which the Welch Regiment of Fusiliers lost one third of their strength.

 Considered by many one of the decisive battles of the modern age, Blenheim was fought on August 2nd, 1704 with the Imperial forces commanded jointly by the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy attacking the forces of France and Bavaria near the village of Blindheim. As part of the five brigades leading the attack under the command of Brigadier Rowe, the Welch and Scots Fusiliers were ordered not to fire a shot until Rowe had struck the palisade with his sword.

 The town of Blenheim was a natural defensive position. Being built almost entirely of stone, and defended by nine battalions with artillery support and seven more infantry battalions in reserve, it was a very bloody affair. The attacking brigades suffered heavily under French fire which they did not return until Rowe, who was shot dead a second later,  had struck the palisade with his sword. The attack was repulsed, reformed, and repulsed a second time, but not before the French had committed the last of their reserves to the defense. Being assaulted on the opposite flank by the Austrians, with the bulk of their infantry tied down in the village of Blenheim, Marlborough won the day by attacking the French center with his cavalry. The Welch Fusiliers lost 9 officers and 120 other ranks adding the Battle Honor, BLENHEIM to their Colors. The victory cost the French 12,000 prisoners, which was roughly equivalent to the losses of the entire allied army.

 Following the Battle of Blenheim, the Welch Fusiliers did not see any significant action until the Battle of Ramilles on the 12th of May, 1706, in which the French were once again defeated soundly, and the major French threat to the Lowlands was eradicated.

 Two more battle honors were added to the regimental colors before public opinion in England turned against the war. The Battles of Oudenarde and Malplaquet brought additional recognition and heavy casualties, the Welch Fusiliers always being at the point of the attack.


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Royal Regiment
     Although the first reference to the regiment as  "Royal" occurs in 1712,  the following year, the cumbersome title of The Prince of Wales's Own Royal Regiment of Welch Fusiliers was granted by George I in recognition of the bravery and loyalty of the regiment. Also granted at this time was the privilege of wearing the Prince of Wales's Feathers and the Badge of the Rising Sun on the Regimental Colors.
War of the Austrian Succession
     Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the regiment was in garrison and on coastal watch duties in England and Ireland, until the War of the Austrian Succession erupted across the face of Europe. At the Battle of Dettingen on June 27th, 1743 the regiment participated with honor in the last battle in which a British monarch, George II led the troops. The Royal Welch defeated three French regiments including the famous Regiment of Navarre, and in commemoration of the King's presence, were allowed the inclusion of the badge of the White Horse of Hanover to their colors.

     In 1745, the regiment was very badly mauled at the Battle of Fontenoy when the Duke of Cumberland foolishly attacked a very strongly fortified position. Although twice successful in breaking the French line, the position was untenable and with losses of 323 men, the regiment fell back.

      There was one further engagement in 1747 at Lauffeldt in which the Duke of Cumberland again was defeated and the regiment was run down by its own cavalry and subsequently attacked by French infantry. Losses to the regiment stood at about 241 men, most of whom were prisoners.

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Seven Years War

Following a period of tranquility in which the regiment was garrisoned in Scotland, 1754 found the Royal Welch bound for duty in Minorca where they joined a garrison that was ill prepared for the undeclared war that descended upon it in 1756 when 16,000 French soldiers besieged the 2,800 defenders. Short of men, supplies, and ordnance, the garrison was still able to hold out for almost three months before surrendering with the honors of war.
The regiment returned to England in 1756 to recruit a second battalion, which in 1758, became the 68th Foot, the Durham Light Infantry. Returning to the continent in 1758, the Royal Welch played a conspicuous role at the epic Battle of Minden. In responding to a vague directive from Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, Major General Waldegrave's Brigade, of which the Royal Welch were a part, marched unsupported against the bulk of the French center. Receiving flanking fire from the French artillery and charged by eleven squadrons of cavalry, Waldegrave's Brigade broke the cavalry attack with a well timed volley, and despite heavy casualties, proceeded to advance against the bulk of the French cavalry. By now, Ferdinand had sent support in the form of Kingsley's Brigade, and had posted two British batteries to harass the French artillery. With Kingsley's Brigade in support, the attack resumed once more, but was once again charged by 22 squadrons of French cavalry which were again disposed of with a devastating volley.

The issue was far from settled, however, for casualties among the two brigades were extremely heavy, and now the French swung eight battalions out from their center to enfilade the right flank of the attacking English and Hanoverians. In addition, a very strong threat developed on the left flank when the last of the French cavalry, consisting of the elite Gens d'Armes and the Carabineers, attacked on the left flank between the two brigade lines. In response to these two moves, Kingsley's Brigade wheeled to the right to oppose the French infantry, and a division of Hessians and Hanoverians closed the gap on the Allied left. Waldegrave's Brigade, badly battered, but advancing once more, finally reached and broke the French center. The engagement having become general all along the opposing lines, this was sufficient to force a precipitous retirement by the French. The victory was marred by the escape of the French forces when Lord Sackville's cavalry inexplicably failed to follow up the infantry's dearly bought victory. Sackville was court martialed and dismissed from the service forever, but ironically ended up directing the British effort in North America some twenty years later with an equal lack of success. As a result of their heroic conduct at the Battle of Minden, the Royal Welch were granted the Battle honor MINDEN for their colors, an honor which remains one of the rarest in the British army. The regiment still celebrates August 1st as "Minden Day." Peace was signed in 1763, and the regiment returned home for the next ten years.


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The War of American Independence
     The tensions between the American colonies and Great Britain becoming steadily more pronounced, the 23rd was embarked for New York in 1773 and were soon moved to Boston under command of General Gage in 1774. In April of 1775, the regiment took part in the Battles of Lexington and Concord as part of Lord Percy's relief column.

     On the 16th of June, 1775, the British Army, now under command of Sir William Howe, attacked the American forces  on Breed's Hill in what has come to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill.  While the "fusilier" companies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers were not involved losses to the Grenadier and Light Infantry companies were extremely heavy, the former only having five men left who were not killed or wounded. It is reliably reported by several sources that the regimental goat also took part in the attack, although whether or not he survived is unknown.

     The following year found the Royal Welch in New York where they were engaged in the Battles of Long Island, Brooklyn Heights, Harlem Heights, White Plains, and Fort Washington. Following the successful outcome of these ventures, the regiment was garrisoned in New York until 1776 when they took part in the Danbury, Connecticut raids in which as the rearguard, they distinguished themselves once more by holding off several determined attacks of overwhelming American forces commanded by Benedict Arnold.

     In 1777, the theater of operations moved south to the Mid Atlantic states with the regiment taking part in the Battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and the capture of Philadelphia and the river forts protecting it. With the surrender of the British Northern Army at Saratoga that same year, the war became a global one when France declared alliance with the Americans, and in 1778, it was the decision of Lord George Germaine (formerly Lord Sackville of Minden notoriety) to abandon the rebel capitol and retreat overland to the British base in New York. Washington, whose army had endured a bitter winter at Valley Forge, decided to attack the retreating redcoats, and at Monmouth Courthouse an indecisive engagement ensued, after which the Grenadier Company, which had lost a third of its strength, received the thanks of Brigadier General Sir William Meadows.

     During the late summer and early fall of 1778, the Royal Welch Fusiliers served as marines aboard the fleet during several inconclusive engagements with the French fleet. Following their return to New York, Admiral Lord Howe was pleased "to present his most particular thanks to the officers and soldiers of the three companies of the Royal Welch Fusiliers for their spirited and gallant behavior on board the ships that had engaged the enemy, and to the whole regiment for its conduct during the time it served on board the fleet."

     The regiment remained in New York throughout the winter of 1778 -1779, venturing forth in May of 1779 to capture several of the small Hudson river forts and then joining a punitive expedition against the Connecticut ports of New Haven, Norfolk, Greenfield, and Fairfield. Towards the end of the year, they embarked aboard the fleet once again, this time for the southern colonies under the Sir Henry Clinton and the Earl of Cornwallis arriving before the South Carolina port of Charleston in early 1780. The city was soon laid under siege, and after a short time was surrendered, yielding several thousand captives, a vast quantity of supplies, ordnance, and several French and American naval vessels. Shortly thereafter, Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York leaving the Earl of Cornwallis in command of four thousand men, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

     British strategy at this point in the war was greatly influenced by the need to protect her other interests from the West Indies to Gibralter, and with Spain following France in declaring support for the revolting colonies, British forces were in very short supply.  Having heard rumors of strong loyalist support in the southern colonies, Cornwallis' plan was to establish a series of outposts across the south to encourage these loyalists to rally to the flag.

     With the fall of Charleston, American morale was probably at its lowest point of anytime during the war, and to try to reverse their fortunes, Congress dispatched General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, to take command of all southern Continental forces.

     Advancing deep into South Carolina with approximately 6,000 men, many of whom were raw militia, Gates and Cornwallis collided with each other at the small town of Camden. Although outnumbered, Cornwallis' force was able to break the American militia, and the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 33rd Regiment of Foot were able to turn the American flank resulting in a precipitous American retreat after forty five minutes of stubborn resistance. Pursued by the British cavalry, the retreat soon became a rout, with about 1,000 prisoners taken and about 900 casualties inflicted upon the hapless Americans.

     Although the success of British arms at Camden removed all organized resistance in the south, their position was still precarious due to extended supply lines and American guerilla tactics. Cornwallis' force was reduced to living off the land as a result, and in an attempt to cover his western flanks and encourage the Loyalists, he sent Major Patrick Ferguson with a force of Loyalist militia west. This effort was annihilated at the Battle of King's Mountain, and  the further defeat of Banastre Tarleton by American General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens on the 17th of January, 1781, forced Cornwallis to burn his baggage and chase Morgan north in a valiant attempt  to recapture British prisoners. In what must be viewed as one of the epic marches in history, Cornwallis came within hours of catching Morgan after crossing into North Carolina, but was ultimately forced by his lack of supplies to retreat south again.

     Congress having replaced General Gates with General Nathaniel Greene, the later moved to the vicinity of Guilford Courthouse where on the 15th of March, 1781 Cornwallis attacked him in his entrenched positions and after a very bloody and fought engagement, succeeded in driving the Americans back with heavy losses including all their guns and ammunition. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, his own casualty figures of 548 killed and wounded prevented any effectual follow up of this victory.

     The part played by the Royal Welch Fusiliers in this engagement was one of prominence, having been in the forefront of the charges that broke through two successive American lines. The regiment had lost a third of its officers in this battle, which proved to be a Pyrrhic victory as Cornwallis was now forced to Wilmington to replenish his supplies.

    Sensing his advantage, Greene penetrated into South Carolina, and in an attempt to draw him into a decisive engagement,  Cornwallis marched into Virginia. After some minor engagements, the British army found itself at Yorktown awaiting reinforcement and supply from the Navy.  After the defeat of the British fleet by the French, under the command of Admiral DeGrasse, Cornwallis' position became untenable, and the surrender which followed effectively ended all fighting in the American Revolution. During the siege, the Royal Welch Fusiliers held their redoubt against overwhelming odds, and gaining the respect of their foes. The redoubt still exists at the Yorktown Battlefield National Park  and is named the Fusilier Redoubt in honor of the regiment's brave stand.

    The next two hundred years of regimental history added many laurels and Battle Honours to the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The campaigns and wars are numerous include Wellington's Peninsular campaigns, Waterloo, the Crimean War, India, Peking, the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, and most recently the Gulf War.

    In 1989, the regiment celebrated 300 years of service, a celebration in which the Royal Welch Fusiliers in America were honored to be a part of.

Sgt. J. Morgan
23rd RWFiA
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