John Colborne, first Baron Seaton, was born on 16th February 1778 and died in 1863. He was the only son of Samuel Comestible of Lyndhurst Hampshire and an Irish woman, Cordelia Garstin. Samuel had been an unsuccessful salt works speculator in Lymington Hampshire. John Colborne was educated first at Christ’s‘ Hospital and then, on the death of his father his mother married Thomas Bargus who had Colborne placed at Winchester College, where it was generally believed that he would achieve little.
Colborne’s chosen and lifelong career was the army. He entered the army straight from leaving school, joining as an ensign of the 20th (Duke of Devonshire) Regiment on 10th July 1794. He was soon sent off on the Quiberon expedition and there is the family story, probably apocyphal, that as he embarked at Cork that an old women called out, ”Ye‘ll come back here as a General and Commander in Chief”, which of course many years later he did. The Quiberon Expedition took place in 1795. It involved a landing in Brittany of French emigrees supported by the Royal Navy and British troops. It was ill-planned and under–supported, and it failed.
Still in the same regiment he was promoted to a Lieutenant on 4th May 1795, and Captain on 11th August 1799. Unusually, he won every promotion on merit, and not by purchase. In that year he first saw action in the fruitless expedition to Helder in North Holland. The aim was to encourage the Dutch to revolt against Napoleon. Despite some local successes the expedition was a failure. Colborne himself, distinguished himself and was wounded twice in the head.
Charlotte Yonge, the popular Victorian novelist, wrote that during the expedition Colborne was quartered in a priest’s house, and because Latin was their only common language, Colborne, realising his deficiencies, resolved to improve himself This comment by Charlotte is probably at least as much a reflection of her own character as his. Throughout her long life Colborne remained her supreme example of an upright, virtuous and honourable soldier. He epitomised her view that the characters in her books were not too good to be true: she really believed that chivalrous and knightly people did exist.
In 1801 Colborne went with his regiment to Egypt where he again distinguished himself. The British forces under General Abercomby had landed that year in Egypt despite French opposition. From Egypt the regiment went to Malta, Italy and Sicily, where he apparently taught himself Italian and thus obtained a position on General Fox‘s staff. Colborne especially distinguished himself at the battle of Maida, Calabria, in 1806, where a small British force under Sir John Stuart defeated a far larger French force.
Shortly afterwards Sir John Moore took notice of him, made him his military secretary and secured his promotion to Major on 21st June 1808. He went with Sir John to Sweden and then to where he was to make his name: Portugal and later Spain.
The expedition to Sweden was little short of farcical..Sweden was being menaced by France, Russia and the Danes and an expedition was sent to help, but the Swedish King refused to let it land and after some time at an anchorage off Sweden, it returned home. Ten days late the transport ships sailed for Portugal.
The battle of Corunna, which took place on 8th January 1809 saved a British army from disaster but also resulted in the death of General Sir John Moore. Setting out from Lisbon in the autumn of 1808 he had managed to draw the French armies away from Madrid, but then. greatly outnumbered, he had been forced to retreat until he reached the port of Corunna where he made a last desperate stand. Despite all the odds, he managed to check the French army and the British were able to embark in safety. Unusually for the time, Moore appointed staff officers for their ability not for their birth. One of these was his military secretary, Colborne, then only twenty one. Until his dying day Colborne remained an admirer of Moore.
In the retreat to Corunna, French units caught up with the British as they were crossing a stream at Bembibre. Earlier Colborne had ridden across the bridge to see what was happening at the front and was caught up in the confused melee. He described it thus:
“We had to wheel round and ride as hard as we could, and expected them on us every minute. When I saw a, cavalry officer draw his sword, I thought it was high time to draw mine too… We were nearly as possibly taken. We had no idea they were so near… At last we got to the bridge covered with Rifles, all jammed up on it.. at last we got over ... where I was very glad to see the 52nd all drawn up... found Sir John Moore in a real fuss.”
Colborne was present at Sir John Moore‘s death. Moore is reputed to have said, “I have made my will and have remembered my servants. Colborne- has my will and all my papers.” At that point Colborne came into the room and recounts that Moore recognised him, spoke to him, and asked, “Colborne have we beaten the French?“ Colborne replied that they had been repulsed at every point Moore then continued, “Well that is a satisfaction. I hope my country will do me justice.“.
Moore then turned to Colonel Anderson and said;
“Remember you go to Willoughby Gordon and tell him it is my request and that I expect he will give Major Colborne a Lieutenant–Colonelcy, He has long been with me and I know him most worthy of it”
Shortly after this Moore faded and died. His grave was dug that night on a bastion of the citadel and early next morning Colborne and a few others lowered his body into the grave, wrapped in his army cloak. At the same time the last brigade was leaving in the ships.
Moore‘s request was granted and on 2nd February 1809 he was gazetted to a Lieutenant Colonelcy.
Back in England Colborne was immediately summoned to Barkway, his step father’s home where he lay dying but, too late. His stepfather had never recovered consciousness after a fit and died on the 27th March 1809. He now had no sort of home. His promotion had been to the 5th Garrison Battalion. He wrote heavily to a friend:
“I really begin to think that a restless man like myself has no business in England in these times and how to get out of it I know not.”
Subsequently he was posted to command the 66th Regiment of Foot in the Peninsula. A few days before leaving for Cadiz he fulfilled a promise that he made to his married sister to visit her at her home near Plymouth. On June 21 he rode over with his parson brother in law Duke Yonge of Antony who his sister had married in 1806. In the words of Carol Oman in his biography of Sir John Moore
“one in scarlet coat one in black- to call on the family of the rev James Yonge squire of Puslinch and rector of Newton Ferrers. They picked their way cautiously down a succession of deep threaded Devon Lanes canopied by tress in full leaf and emerged under blue skies in front of the pale brick house of William and Mary date. In the panelled drawing room hung with portraits Yonge’s and Upton’s for many generations. There was a garden with a goldfish pond with many fine shrubs despite the fact that the sea was less than three miles distant and the sea fret came in. In the sunlit drawing room sat the daughter of the house “the Rose of Devon”
In her diary for the 21st June 1809 Elizabeth wrote “Duke Yonge and Colonel Colborne called at Puslinch”. Later she added an addendum “The first day we ever met and this day four years we were married, not aware for some time of it being the same month and day.”
To the Peninsula
On the 2nd November 1809 Colborne joined the 66th Regiment in the Iberian Peninsular and was sent by Wellington on a liaison mission to the Spanish general Venegas in time to witness his rout at Ocana.
In 1809, after the victory at the crossing of the Douro, Wellington found that he had to co–operate more with the Spanish. One of the Spanish generals was Don Gregono de la Cuesta. who was described by Colborne as, “a perverse stupid old blockhead.”
In May 16th 1811, at the battle of Albuera, Colborne temporarily commanded a brigade of the Second Division as a senior Colonel. It was at this battle there occurred one of the worst disasters of the Peninsular war under Wellington. In May 1811 General Beresford was besieging Badajoz when. hearing that Marshal Soult was advancing on him, he abandoned the siege and took up position near Albuera. Forming part of his army was the 2nd Division. comprising three brigades with a total strength of 5,460 men.
One of the brigades, made up of the 1/3rd, 2/31st, 2/48th and 2/66th Regiments, was commanded by Colborne. Untried Spanish troops under general Zaya were on the right wing, and it was there that Soult launched his main attack. Beresford ordered the 2nd Division to lend support to the Spaniards. The idea was that the Division would form a second reserve line, but their commander, Stewart, only sent part of the Division. and though he had no orders to attack, took it upon himself to take the offensive. The situation must have been tempting: despite fierce fire the Spaniards were holding their own. and the French had no protection on their flanks.
Accordingly he sent Colborne‘s lead Brigade straight in to attack. With artillery in support, Colborne’s Brigade poured a withering fire into the French left at not more than 60 yards range. The French began to break and with a loud cheer Colborne’s men, bayonets fixed, moved forward. Success however soon turned to disaster. The infantry had moved too far forward and were unsupported by cavalry. The French general Latour Maubourg, looking across to the action, could see the danger his troops were in and ordered into action the 1st Lancers of the Vistula and the 2nd Hussars. At that moment a sudden torrential downpour rendered the British muskets useless and this, coupled with the dense gunpowder smoke which was always part of any 19th century battlefield, reduced visibility so much that, taken by surprise, the Brigade was unable to form squares and defend itself, and there was a massacre.
Such was the effectiveness of the lances and the ruthlessness of the Poles, there was an unusually high proportion of dead to wounded. The long lances, a weapon with which the British were largely unfamiliar, enabled the Poles to attack with little risk to themselves. Only just over two hundred of the enemy cavalry were killed.
In his account of the battle Beresford suggests that Colborne asked Stewart for support for his flanks but this was refused. Colborne does not make this claim in his account, but perhaps he felt circumscribed because he was a friend of Stewart’s. Colborne did say however, that the plan of attack was not his, which might suggest that Beresford‘s account contains a germ of truth.
The Spanish however, kept their nerve, and were able to hold the French who, as a result of Colborne’s attack, had lost their momentum and drive. When the British recovered from the shock of this massacre the other brigades moved up, and a long and bloody struggle ensued which eventually resulted in a British victory, but at great and probably unnecessary cost.
This disaster led to some of the worst British casualty figures of the entire war in the Peninsular. Three infantry battalions were virtually wiped out in a matter of minutes. The 3rd Foot lost 643 men out of a total strength of 755, and in total 58 out of 80 officers and 1190 men out of 1768 were killed, wounded or captured. The 62nd (Wiltshire) Foot lost its Colours and 272 men out of a total strength of 441; and the 57th Foot lost, killed or wounded, 1,054 men out of 1,600, including their commanding officer, Colonel Inglis.
Such were the casualties at Albuera that the 29th, 3rd, 31st, 57th and 66th were formed into one provisional unit under Colborne. So though his losses were some of the worst of the war it did not affect his career.
In 1811, Colonel Barclay of the 52nd Regiment died from wounds received at Busaco the year before, and on 18th June 1811 Colborne was gazetted Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st battalion of the 52nd (Oxford Light Infantry) Regiment, one of the three regiments that formed the Light Brigade, later part of the equally famous Light Division.
Towards the end of 1811, with some of the French forces having moved away from the area of Portugal to Valencia, Wellington decided on the capture of the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo, one of the two major gateways between Portugal and Spain. From August to October 1811 Colborne was in England on sick leave, but he rejoined the regiment in November and in January marched with the regiment to begin the investiture of the town on the 8th January.
However before the assault on the town could begin, the outlying fortress of San Francisco had to be taken.‘ On the night the town was invested, the thirty three year old Colborne was given command of 3–400 picked men, made up of two companies of the 43rd regiment, four of the 52nd, two of the 95th and the 1st and 3rd Cacadores, Colborne formed his men into three parties and gave them the most precise and detailed instructions.
Absolute silence was essential in order to preserve surprise. In pitch darkness four companies crept up the hill from where they could fire straight into the fort. Behind them was a ladder party, and behind them the troops who would scale the walls of the redoubt, which was on a promontory and only six hundred yards from the town walls.
There was to be no preliminary artillery bombardment Apart from relying on the darkness to get close to the redoubt unobserved, the British also expected that. when they were discovered, the French artillery would be reluctant to shell them for fear of hitting their own men.
Surprise was total: the attacking troops got within fifty yards before the French were aware of them. The British kept up such a withering fire on the redoubt that the French barely showed their heads, and instead concentrated on lobbing grenades randomly. over the walls.
Using scaling ladders, and Shouting. “St George for England!”, after only twenty minutes the troops were in the redoubt where the French were only too ready to surrender. The redoubt was captured with a loss of only sixty five men, none of whom fell in the redoubt itself. It has been estimated that it would have taken five days of shelling to reduce the redoubt to submission.
Wellington wrote in his report,
“I can not sufficiently applaud the conduct of Lieutenant Colborne and of the detachment under his command on this occasion.”
General Craufurd ,who was very mean with his praises, said, “Colonel Colborne seems a steady officer.”. Praise indeed.
The redoubt taken, the next task was to prepare the ground for an attack on the town. Colborne accordingly withdrew his troops from the redoubt, which the French then shelled! After some ten days, two breaches had been made in the town walls, and Colborne and Crauford led the attack through the lesser breach. The capture of the town quickly followed. Despite the best efforts of the officers, the town was plundered by drunken and out–of–control troops. As Colborne said, every battalion in the British army contained 50 to 100 incorrigibles, and it was simply that on this occasion the incorrigibles were an example to most of the rest.
In his despatches after Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington praised the officers and men for their gallantry, despite the fact that many of their leaders had fallen. Colborne was among those who were singled out for individual praise. Wellington wrote, “I have to add to this list Lieutenant Colonel Colborne of the 52nd Regiment and Major George Napier, who led the storming party of the Light Division and was wounded at the top of the breach. I have already reported my sense of the conduct of ... Lieutenant Colonel Colborne … in the storming of the redoubt of St Francisco on the evening of the 8th inst.”
When Colborne had been leading the attack on the breach, a spent musket ball entered his shoulder. According to Charlotte Yonge he suffered terribly, more so indeed than George Napier who suffered the loss of an arm at the same time. The army surgeons were not able to remove the bullet and Colborne returned to England There he attended on Dr. Moore, brother of Sir John Moore, who located the bullet
However before the bullet could be removed, Colborne had to hurry to Antony in Cornwall, where his sister, who had married Duke Yonge, was seriously ill. Whilst there he had the ball removed at the Military Hospital in Plymouth, together with a piece of epaulette which had been caught up with it. The musket ball is now in the possession of of the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester.
Sir Harry Smith wrote of the operation;
The pain Colborne suffered in the extraction of the ball was more even than his iron heart could bear. He used to lay his watch on the table and allow the surgeons five minutes exertions at a time and they were three or four days before they wrenched the bone from its ossified bed.
When Colborne returned to London to give away his half sister Alethea at her wedding to the Reverend John Yonge, he still only had the use of his left hand.
Colborne was away in England for 18 months. On the 21st June 1813, he married Elizabeth Yonge at Flaxley Abbey in Gloucestershire. Flaxley had been the home of Elizabeth’s mother, Catherine nee Crawley Boevey. On the 12th July he sailed for Spain again.
Back in Spain he resumed command of the 52nd on the 20th July, just in time for the siege or‘ San Sebastian. His regiment formed part of Vandeleur‘s brigade of the Light division under Alten, but the Light Division played little part.
By the end of September 1813, Wellington was ready to enter France. The objectives of his next battle were strictly limited, to gain the heights on the French bank of the Bidasoa River, where the French under Soult had built a number of redoubts. The French line was strung out and over–extended but one of their strong points was Le Repune some three kilometres from Vera. The Light Division was positioned opposite Mount Laourrain and its task was to seize the high ground above Vera. Wellington planned to advance along the entire French line, but to concentrate on the centre and left, as victory there would enable him to swing north and cut off the French right.
The task of attacking the redoubts was entrusted almost entirely to the Light Division. In the absence of General Skerrett, Colborne commanded the 2nd Brigade. The attack started at 7.15 on 7th October. The Light Division advanced in two columns along two parallel ridges. Colborne advanced on the left flank. Colborne wrote, “there were two fortresses on an immensely steep hill, one above the other. Below the lower one the hill divided into three tongues … the 52nd was to attack up the hill in the centre. I arranged the attack in this manner and I did not allow the picket to be relieved in the usual manner at daybreak so they were actually in the town of Vera
before the French had any suspicion an attack was intended. ... I then led the 52nd on to a most successful charge.”
Colborne continued his account, ‘The Rifles being the first to attack the fort, the French mistook them for Portuguese Cazodores and rushing out of the redoubt drove them all back, so that they all came tumbling on the 52nd. The French were excessively astonished when they saw the red coats behind the Rifles. The Adjutant of the 52nd was surprised to find we were so near the fort. .. ‘to be sure we are’, I said, ‘and now we must charge.’ ”
Having stormed the first redoubt in such force the 52nd rapidly reformed and with other units marched up the spur to the redoubt at the junction with the Commisari ridge. Colborne wrote again, “to our astonishment the enemy did not defend their well constructed work as determinedly as we had anticipated. Although they stood behind their parapets until we were in the act of leaping in them they then gave way ... and fled”
With 242 casualties, the highest figure in the allied army, the 52nd paid a high price for its storming attacks, but by noon the British Army was on the crest of the Pyrenees and the way was open to France. Colborne wrote, “leaving my column I rode on alone with the present Sir Harry Smith into France.”
Some prisoners had been taken, and while they were being escorted back into Spain, the officer escorting revealed to the Duke of Wellington that the allied troops had also liberated some French farm animals. The Duke, always a stickler in such matters, warned Colborne that his troops must respect enemy property. Colborne tried to stand up for his men but was told, “Stop it in future Colborne.”
There was to be one more major battle before the campaigning season was over: this was the battle of Nivelle in November 1813. Although the French were in a better defensive position than at Vera they were over–extended as before, in a line which ran from the sea to Mondarrain.
One of the key features of the French line was the Lesser Rhune, a prominent ridge, lying in front of the Greater Rhune. If the Lesser Rhune was taken the entire French line would be in danger. A main frontal attack at this point was ruled out as there was a deep gully between the two ridges and moreover, it was too obvious a route. Instead the 52nd and other regiments advanced parallel to the ridge from the west. The 52nd was to swing round to the north and seize the Mouiz redoubt whilst Kempt was to storm the feature itself.
The attack started at 6 am, and surprise was total: the ridge and the Mouiz redoubt were taken by 8 a.m. The Light Division reformed and waited until the troops on their right secured the village of Sare and a general advance could be made. After an hour the entire allied army was on the move again. At the western end of the line, near the Col d’Est Ignace and blocking the advance, was the Ignace redoubt. The 52nd scrambled down the precipitous slope of the Lesser Rhune, crossed a narrow stone bridge over a ravine, then charged and took the redoubt with barely a fight.
The 52nd then moved on to Signal Redoubt. There was apparently some confusion over orders and the 52nd attacked this stronger fortress without support. Twice they attacked and twice they were repulsed. The attack up a long exposed slope had cost 200 casualties and the Regiment had been driven to take cover in a ravine. General Alten sent Harry Smith to call the regiment back but Smith’s horse was shot and the message was not received.
“There I was on top of the hill leading the 52nd and exposed to a most murderous fire, the balls and shells falling like hailstones… my ADC dismounted and begged me to do the same. I was never in such peril in my life but thinking the boldest plan was the best, I waived my handkerchief and called out loudly to the French leader ... ‘you see, you are surrounded on every side”.
Sounding the bugle for a parley he advanced alone to the redoubt and called on the French to surrender. At first the French refused, but then, under a flag of truce Colborne went into the redoubt and after some parleying the French surrendered the redoubt and the regiment defending it, one of the great bluffs in the history of that war. Colborne encouraged the French to surrender by telling them there were Spaniards nearby, they feared Spanish reprisals in revenge for what the French had done to their country and its people.
In 1814 there was one last battle before the Battle of Toulouse and Napoleon’s downfall, that was the battle of Orthes in February 1814. It was a hard fought battle and by mid- morning all the allied troops apart from the Light Division had been committed, and although the French were being severely pressured by Wellington, little progress had been made. Colborne was asked by Wellington to check whether a piece of marshy ground to the right of the road could take artillery, and replied that it could. So Colborne was ordered to take his Regiment across it and deploy in support of the 7th and 4th Divisions. Wading through knee–deep mud, the 52nd reached a crest and took Taupin’s Division on its left flank. Colborne wrote,
”They did it beautifully; when all the rest were in confusion the 52nd marched down as evenly and regularly as if on parade. The French were keeping up a heavy fire but fortunately the balls passed over our heads… we were soon supported by other divisions and the French were dispersed. ”
The French had not been expecting an attack over the marshland, and, taken by surprise, the Division broke under a determined attack. The French right then collapsed, “which in turn led to the rout of the entire French army”.
Wellington wrote in his despatches, “This attack led by the 52nd regiment, dislodged the enemy from the heights and gave us the victory.”
Sir James Shaw Kennedy of the 43rd wrote, “This attack was one of the two most brilliant events of Lord Seaton’s [Colborne’s] life”. Sir Harry Smith expressed the view that Colborne was, in the judgement of the entire army, inferior to none but Wellington himself. Certainly he was the perfect instrument for executing Wellington’s wishes. In many ways he had the same direct approach as the Duke.
The Battle of Toulouse on April 10th 1814 was the last of the war, though unknown to the parties a peace had been signed a few days before. Colborne was critical of the battle: ‘‘the worst arranged battle that could be, nothing but mistakes … I think the Duke almost deserved to be beaten.”
He continued, “When the battle began the Spaniards were sent up a hill to attack the French It was a most difficult thing, I should have been sorry to do it with two Light.”
When at one point the Spaniards came back in retreat, it was suggested that the Light Division be sent in, but Wellington “I will be hanged if do.“ The lightly equipped, mobile and aggressive troops of the 43rd and 52nd were the troops Wellington relied on in moments of crisis and sudden emergency, and they were too precious to be squandered on a long hard slog or set piece battles.
The False Peace
With the arrival of peace, on 4th June 1814 Colborne was promoted to full Colonel, and was awarded a gold cross and three clasps for services at Corunna, Cindad Rodrigo, Nivelle, Nive, Orthes and Toulouse. He was also made a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George, and of the Legion of Honour, and was installed as Aide de Camp to the Prince Regent. He was appointed Military Secretary to the Prince of Orange, and he took his young wife Elizabeth with him to Brussels.
Also in June 1814 the Light Division was disbanded The 43rd, 52nd, 95th and the Portuguese Cacadores went their separate ways. Colborne described the parting as, “a very effecting scene.” Napier wrote;
”These Regiments were avowedly the best that England ever had arms, this is no idle boast”
The 1st battalion of the 52nd was ordered to North America, and had twice embarked from Cork and twice been driven back by contrary winds, when news arrived that Napoleon had escaped from Elba. The Regiment was ordered to sail to Ostend, where it arrived on 31st March 1815 marched to Brussels on 4th April, and then on to Queraucamps near Mons. Late on 5th June Colborne received orders to move out with the rest of Clinton’s 2nd division. Together with the 71st and 95th regiments they formed a brigade under Major General Adam in Clinton‘s 2nd Division, which was itself part of Hill‘s Corps.
Early on the morning of 16th June the 52nd moved out along the Enghien Road. In the distance they could hear the guns firing at the battle of Quatre Bras, but the 52nd played no part in the battle. At nightfall, in the pouring rain, they arrived at Braine-l’Alleud, having been twenty-four hours on the road.
Early on the morning of 18th June they formed on the right wing of Wellington‘s army, blocking the road to Brussels. Colborne used to say that Wellington had fixed on this as the battle site some days before, but that he had not wished to dig entrenchments as that would have shown where he meant to stand.
The morning of 18th June found the 52nd at Mont St. Jean on the extreme right of the line, keeping communications open with Hal. They were lying in a ploughed field in the drizzling rain, wet and hungry.
For their part in the battle, the 52nd had to wait nearly all day. Adam’s Brigade was first held in reserve and did not move out from its bivouac until 3 p.m. when the French attacked the Allied centre. The Regiment was first moved to replace the Brunswick Light Infantry, which had been badly mauled; then it was moved five hundred yards down the slope to support the troops defending Hougoumont.
At one point the Regiment, under cannon fire, had to retreat a short distance, and there was a danger of their morale collapsing. Colborne is reputed to have called out, “That must be the second battalion!“, at which the men rallied. The second battalion of every regiment was always composed of the most junior officers.
For a time the 52nd were in danger of being outflanked by French cuirassiers’ who were trying to pass to the rear of Hougoumont On several occasions they threatened to charge the 52nd, which at least meant a relief from the artillery fire.
At one point Wellington ordered a withdrawal which Colborne was reluctant to do, though later he did pull back when it seemed that Hougoumont would fall. As he was pulling back, a French deserter from the cuirassiers came galloping through the artillery fire,shouted, “Vive Le Roi!’ and pointing across the valley to the French centre: “Ce coquin Napoleon est la avec les Gardes, voila I’attacque qui se fait”. Colborne put his telescope to his eye and for the only time in his life saw Napoleon. He sent a message to Wellington that the Imperial Guard was on the move. Though there was little Wellington could do to meet the threat, it at least gave some advance warning.
At about 7 p.m. in the evening there occurred one of the most memorable, although controversial events of the battle. The crisis of the battle had arrived. With the French being held by the allies and with the need to act before the Prussians arrived on the scene in force, Napoleon launched his grand reserve, the Imperial Guard. The French pushed forward up to six battalions (the exact number seems unclear). As the Imperial Guard approached the ridge, with the beat of their drums and the occasional cry of: “Vive l’Empereur”, they separated into two bodies. One headed for the 30th and 73rd regiments, and the other, comprising the 4th Grenadiers and the 1st/3rd Chasseurs, headed towards Maitland‘s Guards on the right centre of the line. When the French advanced up the crest, the Guards, which were hidden four deep in the high corn, suddenly rose up and poured a fusillade into the 3rd Chaussers at fifty paces distance. In the face of this sudden onslaught the 3rd fell back, followed up by Maitland’s Guards.
The 4th Chaussers then entered the fray and pushed Maitland’s troops back up to the crest, where they managed to hold their ground
This was the moment when all of Colborne‘s military skills, and the training of the 52nd, reached their climax. With no chance to obtain orders, and not knowing if the Guard would be able to hold out, he pivoted his Regiment on the left hand company, swinging the entire regiment 90 degrees left, so that it was parallel to the western flank of the Chaussers, who were still heavily engaged with Maitland. At this moment Brigadier Adam rode up and asked Colborne what he was planning to do. Colborne explained and Adam rode off to give the same order to the 71st. A company was sent forward in extended line and fired at the French. The French, turning to face this new threat, lost their momentum, and Colborne’s men charged with fixed bayonets.
Colborne saw the opportunity. To the accompaniment of Wellington‘s reputed cry of:
“Well done Colborne well done Colborne, don’t give them time to rally“
The entire Brigade now moved forward and the Imperial Guard was swept back and down the slope, right in front of Maitland‘s Guards, with the 52nd and others in pursuit. Just at this moment the 52nd had to open up their ranks to let through the 23rd Dragoons, who at first were fired upon in the mistaken belief they were the enemy. (“Friendly fire” is nothing new). The 52nd formed up again imediately afterwards and the advance continued, across the Charleroi Road and up the other side, towards La Belle Alliance.
Both sides lost heavily in the confusing melee, but it was clear that for the first time in its history the Imperial Guard had not just been checked, but had suffered a defeat. The French were already in difficulties and were disheartened by the arrival of the Prussians, but when the word went up, “La Garde recule“, French morale crumbled: a local setback turned into defeat, a defeat into a retreat, and when the Prussians arrived on the field and Wellington ordered a general advance, the defeat turned into a rout. The battle was won.
With the advance of the entire allied army, the 52nd with the other regiments pressed forward. French guns were still firing at them and several officers were hit and Colborne had his horse killed under him. Lieutenant Gawler of the 52nd wrote, ‘The Colonel suddenly disappeared while his horse, mortally wounded., sank under him.” In his haste to maintain the advance, Colborne mounted a horse attached to an abandoned French gun carriage, and rather than waste time unharnessing the horse, cried., “cut me out., cut me out”
The Regiment then swung towards the artillery which promptly limbered up and retreated. Then, four hundred yards away, once the smoke had cleared they saw three squares of Napoleon’s Old Guard. There was a brief exchange of fire and the Guards retreated. At the foot of the slope in the valley the 52nd together with other units met up with the advancing Prussians.
The 52nd bivouacked on the spot Prior to writing up his despatches of the battle Wellington sent for Colborne but he was out on the battlefield with the wounded and could not be found. Possibly this is why the 52nd failed to receive what many considered to be its due credit.
Whist there is still controversy as to which battalions were routed by Maitland, and which by the 52nd and other units of Adams Brigade, it is clear that Wellington never gave Colborne proper credit for his achievement in the battle.
In his book, Sir Colin Campbell, who was with Wellington, gave the following account: “When the column of the Imperial Guard which the 52nd attacked, was gaining the summit of the British position. .. seeing his own left getting into danger, Colborne started the 52nd on its right shoulder advance. The Duke instantly sent to desire Colborne to continue the movement and to order the troops on his right to support him... at this moment Adams and Hill were sending orders to the 71st to advance on Colborne‘s right and Colonel Halkett, still further down the, hill, joined in with his Hanoverian battalion.” It seems clear that Colborne‘s initiative led to a general movement of a number of allied troops.
A statement of one of Marshal Ney’s staff officers gives a similar account, in that,although the British troops in front of the Guard showed., “tres bonne contenance, nous sommes principalment repousses par une attacque de flanc tres vive qui nous ecrasa”.
The Regiment lost 199 men in an exchange of fire which lasted no more than five minutes.
The 52nd had a long and honourable career through the entire Peninsular War and at Waterloo and Colborne‘s career was equally long and honourable. Colborne was not a vain man and it is with characteristic modesty that he wrote to his niece, Fanny Bargus, “My dear Fanny, you will be surprised by the Gazette. The army behaved well, the 52nd as usual.” He never uttered any public complaint at the passing over of the 52nd or commented on the alleged cry of “Up Guards and at em”. It is believed the Guards were in fact out of ammunition. It was indeed with some reluctance that he contributed to the Waterloo Letters.
In 1843, as part of a plan to produce an accurate model of the field of Waterloo, Captain William Siborne wrote to all the major surviving combatants asking them to give their account of the battle. Colborne wrote to him on the 9th of February 1843. He sent a long memorandum accompanied by a short letter.
“I have been so fully occupied since the year 1815 that I have seldom had time or inclination to read any of the accounts of the battle of Waterloo. Indeed it has always been a most unpleasant task to refer to our past military operations, which are connected with many painful recollections.
I have cautiously abstained from giving opinions on controversial points that would draw me into discussions. I think, however, it almost becomes my duty to give you every assistance in my power to enable you to compare the facts in my statement with the information you have received from various sources, and to correct the errors which appear in the account you have forwarded to me.
We were all so intent in performing our own parts, that we are disposed to imagine that the brigade or corps with which we were engaged played a most distinguished part, and attribute more importance to the movements under our own immediate observation than they deserved ...
I remain etc.
There then followed the memorandum which ran to some five pages of text Only part is reproduced below, namely that part immediately leading up to, and the attack of, the Imperial Guard:
” … supposing that Hougoumont would be abandoned and our flank would be exposed…. we faced about and retired in two lines through the Belgian guns … On our arriving near the crossroads on the summit of the hill, near the Belgian guns, I halted the 52nd… My attention had been attracted to the dense columns moving on the Genappe road towards the centre of our positions, and observing their rapid advance, I ordered our left hand company to wheel to the left and formed the remaining companies on that company ... ‘This movement placed us nearly parallel with the moving columns of the French Imperial Guards. I ordered a strong company to extend our front, and at this moment Sir F. Adams rode up and asked me what I was going to do. I think I said ‘to make that column feel our fire’ ..
I instantly ordered the extended company of the 52nd under the command of Lieutenant Anderson, to advance as quickly as possible without any support.. and to fire into the French column at any distance. Thus the 52nd formed into two lines of half companies, the rear at ten paces distant from the. first, after giving three cheers, followed the extended company, passing along the front of the Brigade of Guards in line... I observed that as soon as the French columns were sharply attacked by our skirmishers, a considerable part of the column halted and formed a line facing towards the 52nd and opened a very sharp fire on the skirmishers and on the battalion. The only skirmishers I think that were out that day from our Brigade were those of the 52nd but I am certain none fired but from the 52nd. ..
I have no doubt that the fire on the flank of the French columns from the 52nd skirmishers and the appearance of a general attack on its flank from Sir F. Adam’s Brigade and Sir Henry Clinton‘s Division generally was the cause of the first check received or halt made by the Imperial Guard .. ”
…… ”The Duke of Wellington came to the rear of the left of our line ... I said to his grace, ‘It is our own cavalry which has caused this firing.‘ His Grace replied ‘Never mind, go on, go on.‘ ordered the bugles to sound the advance and the whole line charged up the hill… we observed the enemy in great confusion. .. At the junction of the Genappe road and I believe the Wavre to Nivelles road the skirmishers of the 52nd and the advance of the Prussians mixed ...
I think therefore this was the time when a portion of the Imperial Guard halted to fire on the 52nd and that immediately after this halt the British guards charged and made their forward movement It appears to me… that the movement of the 52nd took place before any forward movement by the Guards.
I have been particular in stating many unimportant occurrences, because I am persuaded that several absurd blunders and stories originated from the movements of the 52nd and General Adam’s Brigade, having been misrepresented”
This is a typically modest account. Whilst not claiming as much for the 52nd as some writers did, makes it clear that the 52nd played a crucial role at a critical point in the battle.
William Leeke, who had carried the colours of the 52nd at Waterloo, and who was by then incumbent of Holbroke, Derbyshire, published in 1866 a two volume history of the regiment: In it he claimed that the 52nd on its own defeated some 10,000 troops of the Imperial Guard, which was then followed by the flight of the entire French Army. In 1871 he published a slim volume rebutting the critics of his earlier account. Clearly his views were partisan and exaggerated but it does show the strength of feeling in some quarters on the topic
Charlotte Yonge was very proud of her father’s (William Crawley Yonge’s) period of service in the army, in the 52nd foot under Colborne, her second cousin by marriage. She had strong views on the role of the 52nd at Waterloo. She believed that the Brigade of Guards with their reported cry of ”Up Guards and at ’em“, had unfairly stolen the glory of the last charge at Waterloo from the 52nd Foot. In her novel Heartease, Charlotte launched a passionate vindication of what was really the 52nd Foot’s achievement
Perhaps the last word should be left with General Sir James Shaw Kennedy, of the 43rd, who wrote some years after the battle;
“I don’t think I impose upon myself a formidable task when I said that no man can point out to me any instance either in ancient or modern history, of a single battalion so influencing the result of a great general action as the result of the Battle of Waterloo was influenced by the attack of the 52nd regiment, on the Imperial Guard, of which it defeated four battalions and afterwards three other battalions: and Colborne did almost all this from his own impulse and on his own responsibility.”
For his part in the battle Colborne received the Waterloo medal, the Order of Maria Theresa of Austria and St George of Russia. During his lifetime he received additional British and foreign awards: GCB, GCH, GCMG, Knight of the Tower and Sword of Portugal, Order of St George of Austria, Grand Cross of Bath, Grand Cross of Hanover, and a silver war medal with five clasps
Colborne and his brother officers had all their baggage stolen by Belgian civilians during the battle. They were left with only one razor between them, and on their way into Paris they had to stop off at a horse pond at St Cloud to shave. In Paris the Regiment camped in the Champs Elysée.
Colborne and the 52nd stayed in France until November 1818, being the last regiment of the occupation army to leave.
On 27th July 1821 Colborne was made Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey. There he made himself useful and popular, especially by restoring the Elizabeth College, with its rich foundation, to its legitimate educational purpose. He was paid 9s 6d.per day. He obviously liked it there for in a letter he wrote that he shortly expected to be made up to Major General …
“whether it will occasion my removal from this island I have not yet been informed, I am anxious to remain here for in every respect, I find it a very convenient post”
However his life was not to be a life of civilian semi-retirement and living off old memories. In the same letter he expressed the hope that his children would not go into the army, “I think so badly of our profession.” In the event, three of his sons did go into the army and two became generals.
Still with the 52nd Foot he was made Major General on 27th May 1825.
In 1827, Colborne‘s entire future nearly took a radical change. During Canning’s ministry, it was proposed to abolish the post of Commander in Chief, appoint Palmerston as Minister of War, and to offer Colborne the post of Military Secretary to the Minister, C-in-C in all but name. Colborne, after some initial doubts, wrote accepting the offer, but two days later Canning died and the plan was dropped.
On April 25th 1828 Colborne left for Canada to take up his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. At that time Canada was divided into Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Lower Canada was a perennial problem with its large French majority, ever fearful that it would lose its identity, especially in Montreal which had a large English minority.
In Upper Canada, although there were few French, a small and minority Anglican establishment. through its control of vast state and church lands, was frustrating the growth of the colony. Whilst in time, reformers gained control of the provincial assembly, it lacked real power and neither of the ruling parties in London were prepared to grant it real powers.
Colborne managed ‘hold the ring’, but in 1836 Sir Francis Bond replaced Colborne and immediately began to impose extreme loyalist policies. This, coupled with attempts by London to cut down on what self-government there was, and more trouble from an expansionist America with its apparently open society, led to open revolt just as Colborne was getting ready to return to England. He was hurriedly appointed to assume the office of Governor General and Commander in Chief.
Troubles started first in Lower Canada in the Autumn of 1837 but rapidly spread to Upper Canada. Though the situation in the two provinces was very different. there were superficial similarities in the two revolts. Most of those involved were poor farming people, neither group had any clearly defined objectives. They were both poorly led and soon the rebel leaders – Papineau in Lower Canada and MacKenzie in Upper Canada – had fled to America. Both lacked mass support, so both needed the help of American volunteers.
The outbreak that took place in Lower Canada was mainly confined to the Montreal area and the border. It was largely dealt with by the militia with the support of the 43rd Regiment After some time spent in England after the Napoleonic Wars, the 43rd regiment had been sent to Canada and remained there for ten years. It would have been well known to Colborne from his time with the Light Division, of which it formed part. In the years 1837/8 it played a key role in the suppression of the Canadian revolt
In Upper Canada the rebels marched down Yonge Street towards Toronto. Colborne quickly quelled the rebellion by the use of loyal local militia, without the need for the active involvement of regular troops .
The revolt had frightened London. They sent Lord Durham to find a permanent solution and it was his report in 1839 which eventually led to responsible self-government in a united Canada. As part of this process there was the Indian question to deal with and in his remaining time in Canada, Colborne took a keen interest in this. The policy had been always to treat them as potentially hostile and to keep them well away from Europeans and their settlements. Colborne took the view that they were no longer a menace and should be assimilated. With one only short break this policy was followed and the Indians were settled in European–style homes, taught to dress in European clothes and instructed in European manners.
The Government in London probably over-reacted and there was little risk of another war of independence on the American continent They were, however, grateful for Colborne’s efforts and on 28th June 1838 he was promoted to Lieutenant General and Colonel of the 26th Cameronian Regiment. In 1839 he was raised to the peerage and became known as Lord Seaton.
As Lord Seaton rarely spoke in the House of Lords. However on one occasion when there was a debate on the proposed union of the Canada’s. He felt that it would hamper the development of the area as the proposal was to give Upper and Lower Canada equal voting rights, a proposal which he felt could only lead to deadlock.
The Ionian Isles
From 1843 to 1849 Colborne was Lord High Commissioner for the Ionian Isles, which were acquired from the French at the end of the Napoleonic wars and were seen as useful for controlling the Adriatic Sea. The Islands were‘ firmly but fairly ruled by a succession of distinguished soldiers and very much as their own fiefdom. 1848 was a year of revolution in Europe and the Islands were not spared the ferment, but Colborne kept control with a light but firm hand. He was made KCMG at the end of his appointment
By this time Colborne was one of the last survivors of senior officers of Waterloo. Of those of top rank, Wellington died in 1852 and the Marquis of Anglesey in 1854.
There is a story that at Wellington’s funeral, which took place on a cold day, Anglesey complained of the cold and that his friend Colborne had replied, “all the old boys bore the breeze well and I have not heard that they suffered for it”
On the 24th March 1854 Colborne was transferred from the Colonelcy of the 26th Regiment to that of the 2nd Life Guards. On 2nd June 1854 he was promoted to General rank.
From 1855 to 1860 Colborne was commander in chief of all land forces in Ireland During this period he became an Irish Privy Councillor and a Governor of the Royal Hospital, Dublin.
Whilst in Dublin a daughter married a Captain Montgomery Moore. For the wedding Charlotte Yonge went to Dublin to act as one of the bridesmaids. In a letter to her mother she described Lord Seaton thus: “most beautiful, white haired and upright”, whilst others described him as being very tall and upright, with bright blue eyes, curly white hair, a fresh complexion and bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Duke of Wellington.
Following his retirement from. the Irish post. on 1st April 1860 Colborne was made Field Marshal. There were only two other Field Marshals at the time, Viscount Stapleton and the Belgian King. He wrote a letter to a friend at the time ... “My promotion has been accomplished and notified, in a way that should be as gratifying, as this approval of my services can be to an old boy.“ He also held the honorary post of Gold Stick in Waiting to the Queen.
Shortly after this Colborne‘s health deteriorated, but he did not give up easily. In May 1861, when he was in his 85th year, he wrote to William Leeke, “I am living the life of a farmer at Beechwood, three miles from Plymouth and five from Puslinch, I am still able to take my usual rides ... ”
His brother in law John Yonge, wrote in July 1861 to William Leeke ... ”Lord Seaton is quite recovered from a most alarming illness, which he sustained in the winter, he and his family are now on courtly duty in London but Lord Seaton will seize the first moment for returning, he takes very great interest in improving his plantations and fields.”
He was to receive one further honour. In December 1861 Prince Albert died. The Prince had been Colonel in Chief of the Rifle Brigade, and Queen Victoria wrote personally to Colborne to the effect that nothing would give her greater pleasure than that he should succeed to the appointment He accepted and was gazetted in February 1862.
He continued suffer frequent illnesses, in April 1862, Lady Seaton wrote to William Leeke … “he is decidedly better than he was a week since and we have much cause for hoping that God in his own good time, will restore him to health. In the meantime he mercifully grants him great patience and submission to his will ... “
In February 1863 Lady Seaton wrote to William Leeke, from Torquay ... “Lord Seaton is still in a very suffering state though certainly much better than when we left home some weeks since. He had previously been a whole year almost entirely confined to his room and plunged into this state of trial very suddenly, from high health and vigour from taking cold from a long ride the end of December 1861. Our bitter affliction too is the loss of one of our most devotedly affectionate daughters …. ”
John Colborne, first Lord Seaton, died at Valletta House. Torquay on the 17th April 1863 aged eighty five. He left two sons, who became generals, and other children. His wife Elizabeth lived until 1872.
The day following his death his obituary appeared in the London Times.
“Another of those worthies has departed, the beginning of whose life stretches so far back, that in recalling the dates we seem as if reverting to fabulous times. Lord Seaton was one of the old Peninsular heroes who were engaged in the transaction of history before the present century commenced … a kindlier heart than his never beat There were in his character certain elements which acquired for him the esteem of all who could obtain a near view of him … His chief military feat, however, was performed at Waterloo, where he again commanded the 52nd as part of Adam’s brigade. Of his own accord he had the fortune of the day. When the column of the Imperial Guard was obtaining the summit of the British position… Colborne seeing his left endangered started the 52nd on its advance. The Duke saw the movement and instantly sent to desire Colborne to continue it… This was Colborne’s attack. .. Lord Seaton was one of the race of heroes who fought in the mightiest wars of modern times, who through those wars made England glorious and maintained her independence and who have left us an example which is part of our heritage.”
In Bell’s Messenger of 23rd April 1863 there appeared:
“Another of the famous veterans of the Peninsula and Waterloo has been taken from us. Field Marshal Lord Seaton died at Valletta House, Torquay, on Friday last. His Lordship with Lady Seaton and family, had been passing the winter months there for the benefit of his health. He died full of honours as of years, and the heart of many a weather beaten soldier will throb impetuously at the mention of the great chiefs death, conjures up feats of daring, of which Colonel Colborne of the Light division was the hero.”
In the year of his death a committee was set up to raise money for a statue. Over ￡900 was raised and by September of the following year, the eight foot bronze statue was ready for erection on the parade ground at Mount Wise, Plymouth. In 1904 it was moved to the grounds of Government House, and when that became the residence of the Commander in Chief Plymouth, it was moved to Seaton Barracks, Crownhill, Plymouth. When those barracks were vacated the statue was moved, hopefully for the last time, to the museum at Winchester of The Royal Green Jackets – the successor regiment to the 52nd Foot.TheMuseum has on display all his medals.
Colborne’s grave is in the church yard at Newton Ferrers, a village to the east of Plymouth. The grave has recently been re-lettered, and together with the graves of his wife and various of his children, lies among those of the Yonge family. In 2015 a short service was held at the graveside attended by a large number of locals when an account of his life was read out by the writer.
When Colborne’s army days were over, he bought a house, Beechwood, which was close to the family seat of the Yonge’s at Puslinch, itself just a few miles from Newton Ferrers. As Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen, is buried in the grounds of Stratfield Saye, so a horse that Colborne rode at Waterloo is buried in the grounds of Puslinch.
Probate of Colborne’s will was granted later that year and showed a personal estate of under ￡5,000, a respectable sum but by no means a fortune, even in Victorian times. Although this sum excludes Beechwood, which is still owned by his descendants, and ignores his marriage settlement, clearly a lifetime of distinguished service to one’s country was not a way to became rich. In his will he left all his medals and decorations to his eldest son, James.
by Ian Yonge
Lord Seaton ‘s Regiment at Waterloo and supplement
The Life of John Colborne Field Marshall Lord Seaton by G.C. Moore Smith
Waterloo: The Hundred Days by David Chandler
Charlotte Mary Yonge by Christabel Coleridge
Dictionary of National Biography
Wellington’s Regiments by Jan Fletcher
Napoleon‘s War in Spain by Henri Tranie and J. Carmigniani
Sir Charles Oman, History of the Peninsular War
Waterloo Letters, edited by H Silbome
Corunna by Christopher Hibbert
One Leg by The Marquis of Anglesey
The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry by Sir Henry Newbolt
Diaries of Elizabeth Colborne nee Yonge