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The Sergeant Major’s Story- A Waterloo Veteran’s Struggle for Justice

by Elizabeth Lancaster

On May 1st 1903, the Batley News published an obituary to my great grandfather, Armitage Colbeck, which stated, among other things, that the deceased’s grandfather had fought at the Battle of Waterloo. This was the starting point to my search for my soldier ancestor.

War Office records yielded the information that a Sergeant Major James Colbeck was serving with the 33rd Regiment of Foot at the time of Waterloo and that his place of birth had been Batley in Yorkshire. This seemed to be the soldier I was looking for, but I little dreamed of uncovering the fascinating story which has since emerged.

Wellingtons33rd Re-enactors by Wyrdlight

I discovered that the 33rd has been known as the Duke of Wellington’s since 1853 and that their headquarters are in Halifax – hitherto I had been a complete ignoramus about army history. A gem of a find turned up in the Regiment’s archives in the form of Sergeant Major Colbeck’s notebook dating from April 1813 to November 1821. I have been able to study this original document at length and found in it a most interesting and moving account of one soldier’s career in the British army in the early part of the nineteenth century.

James Colbeck

James Colbeck was born on the last day of the year 1782, the eldest child of Joseph and Ann Colbeck, in the parish of Batley, West Yorkshire, into a family engaged in the wool industry, probably as cottage weavers. This much can be ascertained from local public records. How this boy from such a humble background learned to write so fluently is a mystery, but the evidence of his handwritten notebook shows that he had been well educated.

The vendor’s label on the inside cover indicates that James’s notebook was bought in Paris where he had been taken as a prisoner by Napoleon’s army and subsequently released on 7th July 1815 by the advancing British and Prussian troops. The initial purpose was evidently to keep a record of casualties as the title Casualty Book is written in flowing script on the fly leaf; but what follows is a series of instructions for drill and manoeuvres, such as “To form Line to the Front by Echelon”, and “Mode of forming the Rallying Square”, all written in beautiful handwriting and embellished with many fine flourishes.

The book was then turned upside down and used again from the other end. The fly leaf from this end of the book bears evidence of its having been, at a later date, in the hands of James’s widow and young son, as the names Joseph and Catherine Colbeck appear several times as if a child has been practising his handwriting. Then follows a record of the “Officers who have become Non-Effective” and lists of the “Succession of Officers and of non- commissioned Officers” from Commander-in-Chief to humble Corporals.

James must have kept notes in an earlier document as he takes up the story from the time he joined the Regiment in Windsor two years previously. His title here is: “Journal of Stages &c. on March Commencing 19th April 1813, by Serg’t Major Colbeck”.

This section is five pages long, each page being divided into columns showing the dates and activities he was involved in with the Regiment for the next eight and a half years. Each march and engagement is recorded on a daily basis, his first assignment being to supervise recruitment in Dover. He is then sent to the garrison in Hull and from there to Harwich, where he embarks for Holland, and joins the Regiment at Zevenbergen on the 27th December 1813.

Active Service

From this time on he attaches some interesting comments to his record of events. For example, he records with relish:

“1814 January 10-11 Calampthout – Here we had the meat which had been provided for the French – formed Lines to attack. French retreated on West Weasil, where they were met by the Prussians who defeated them.” and “1814 January 13 Merxham – Attacked the French in the Village & drove them from Breakfast – into Antwerp
to dine – killed many and took many prisoners.”

“1814 March 8 Highburgen – and on this same night to Bergen-op-Zoom – and made an attempt on the Fortress by Escalade. The attack was made by 4 columns at different points – and the’ successful was attended with much loss and inconvenience”

One can sense the pride with which he records:

“1815 April 16 Graty – Inspected at Lens (a short stage from Graty) on the 19th by Wellington – returned same day.” Then: “1815 June 16 Quatre Bras – In 5 Divisions 30th, 33rd, 69th and 73rd English and ten Hanoverian Regiments Commanded by General Sir Charles Baron Alton – Right Wing by Prince of Orange. Engaged a superior force of the Enemy. Taken Prisoner after sustaining a loss in killed, wounded and prisoners of 10 Officers, 7 Serg’s, 7 Dr’s & 85 R & File”.

He omits to mention here that he was wounded at Quatre Bras, but it is recorded in the Medal Rolls that he was, though it could not have been seriously enough to prevent the following from happening:

“1815 June 26 Marched with 27 Prussian Officers 12 miles on the road (parole) – but on Perceiving the British uniform as Sergeant Major and not a Commissioned Officer, I was refused the privilege of a Parole and Marched back to S1. Denis. June 27 Marched under another party to Paris and ordered by the Commandant to the Château de Bi- Remained until 4 July.”

This episode of James’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars ends thus: “1815 July 7 Released from Prison & Joined the Regiment at Camp Bois de Boulogne.”

Back to England

The following three months were no doubt spent in comparative relaxation in Paris as there are no more entries until October 30 when the long march begins back north to Calais where the Regiment embarked for Ramsgate, arriving in Colchester in time for the New Year. James received his Waterloo Medal for his Quatre Bras contribution and this now resides in the Regimental Museum in Halifax along with his red uniform sash.

An example of the Wateloo Medal

The Sergeant Major did not see front line action again but spent the next five years on garrison duties up and down the country, including five months on the Island ‘of Guernsey and another five in Scotland, which latter posting led to a very important event in James’s personal life. After having spent three months on duty at Stirling Castle, the Regiment moved on to Glasgow, then to Ayr where a forty-eight hour halt was called. Beside the date

October 29 1820, James makes this cryptic note: “Halt, and ***”.

A search of the Public Records in Glasgow reveals that: “James Colbeck, Sergeant Major in the 33rd Regiment of Foot married on this day Catherine Ross of Glasgow at the Gaelic Chapel in Duke Street.”

There could have been no time for a honeymoon as James records the next day’s march to Girvan and from there by stages to Port Patrick where they embark for Ireland on November 8th. By the 11th they are in Armagh.

From 28th February 1821 to 20th June, James notes that the Regiment is stationed at the Richmond Barracks in Dublin. Then, after a brief spell in Naas, they are back in Dublin and James writes this last proud comment on his itinerary: “July 26 1821 – Royal & Park Barracks – remained doing duty during the King’s visit.”

The Regiment then begins its march south and by October 1st it is in Fermoy. There is one more terse entry:

“November 18 – Cork.”

Disappointment

Why the meticulous recording of his movements stops so abruptly after such a jaunty beginning would have remained a mystery had not the rest of his notebook been used by James to collect together copies he had made of a lengthy correspondence between himself and his superior officers. There are fifty-three pages of letters and in reading them one gains an insight into the character of the man and into some of the difficulties which beset him. Knowledge gained from other sources also help to fill out the picture of a keen and ambitious soldier, who, in the prime of life, looks forward with enthusiasm to a successful military career, only to be worn down finally by
disappointment, frustration and worries concerning his health and financial provision for his family. It is clear that James set great store by these letters as he prefaces the collection with a carefully drawn-up index, giving page numbers in one column and “Purport” in another.

Guernsey, Fort George


The first letter, written whilst James was stationed at Fort George, Guernsey, is dated 13th September 1819 and is addressed to Lieutenant Colonel Crookshank, who was acting as Commanding Officer in the absence of Lieutenant Colonel Elphinstone. 1 It takes the form of a covering letter accompanying copies of earlier correspondence supporting James’s plea to be allowed to re-enlist in April of the following year, when at thirty- seven years of age he would technically be over age. Hoping for the recipient’s support for his application, James requests that his enclosed letters be passed on to Lieutenant Colonel Elphinstone, who, in addition to putting in a good word for him in this respect, he hopes:

—may be pleased to recommend my case in a manner to get me credited with some additional service, that I may still have a faint hope of some future advantage by obtaining a Pension suitable to my merits (as J at present can see no better prospect in consequence of the late Reduction) which, only from my having been repeatedly
refused the privilege of volunteering sooner than J did, J might now be in possession of, and which, from the great disappointments J have already received, is now rendered of double importance to me. I have the Honour to be,


With the Greatest Respect, Sir, Your Devoted and Very Humble Servant, James Colbeck, Serg ‘t Major 33rd Reg ‘t.

The “disappointments” alluded to refer to James’s unfulfilled hopes for further promotion, hopes which had been raised by Sir Arthur Gore (who was then commanding the Regiment) in his initial letter of welcome to James upon his entering the Regiment after ten years of service in the First West Yorkshire Militia up to April 1813 – service which would not count towards his pension. A copy of this letter forms one of the enclosures:

Windsor April 4th. 1813
Sergeant Colbeck, I have learnt from Major Parkinson your inclination to volunteer your service for the 33rd Regiment, and from the very high character I have heard of you, I do not hesitate a moment in assuring you that you shall be at once appointed Sergeant Major of the Regiment, and I do this without further stipulation of the number of Men you may induce to volunteer for the 33rd But at the same time, I will state to you, that should the Regiment be Completed to the full Establishment, we shall undoubtedly have a second Battalion formed, in which case, I cannot but think that your conduct will have been proved to be such as to entitle you to the Adjutantcy, which shall have my strongest support & recommendation.

A Promise Broken

James felt that the fulfilment of this promise of the Adjutantcy had unfortunately eluded him whilst he had been occupied with recruiting volunteers in Dover and had thus not been in the field of action with the Regiment at the time the opportunity arose.

He wrote to Colonel Elphinstone:

… shortly after my joining, an order was received from the Horse Guards (dated 1st July 1813) to send an Officer with a detached party to superintend the volunteering for the Regiment at Dover. Colonel Gore, considering me well fitted for this Duty, sent me instead of a Commissioned Officer and during my absence the Regiment Embarked for Germany. Shortly after its arrival a Melancholy event happened in the Regiment, which occasioned a vacancy as Adjutant by Mr. Moore ‘s decease. On Brigadier General Gore’s joining the army in Holland with his Brigade from Germany, I had the satisfaction of receiving another assurance of his Esteem, having told me, that had I been present with the Corps at the time of Adjutant Moore’s decease, I should then have received his full countenance for Promotion, but that, as he was obliged to comply with an order from Major General Gibbs for the immediate appointment of an Adjutant on the spot, he could not at that time confirm his wishes for my welfare, but that at some future period he would be happy to do for me what he so anxiously wished. Captain Priestly was then appointed Adjutant of the Regiment —-

James then included the following citation issued by Captain Priestly:


Captain Edward . Priestly, 33rd Regiment present the accompanying Sabre to Sergeant Major Colbeck as a mark of approbation of his Zeal and good Conduct as a Soldier during the time Captain Priestly was Adjutant of the Regiment.

Sheffield 22nd(J. July 1816)
Captain Thomas Butterfield, formerly of the First West Yorks Militia, was also stationed in Guernsey with the 33rd when James was making his application and he adds his recommendation:

.. .I am most desirous of rendering you any Service in my power, which is not more than I conceive you truly deserve from your good conduct whilst under my Orders … .I enclose a certificate of your behaviour whilst in the 1st. West York militia, and I regret much for your own sake that you was not permitted to volunteer when you first proposed it. – Your Character in the Corps has been such as caused me to regret your leaving it.
I certify that Sergeant James Colbeck, during a service of upwards of Ten Years in the 1st West York Militia, having been under my particular and immediate observation, conducted himself in such a manner as fully entitled him to my Confidence and good opinion; – His Capability & strict attention to the duties imposed upon him as a Non Commissioned Officer having rendered him of much Utility to that Corps. I have no hesitation in declaring him so fully Qualified for his station as to be considered a great acquisition to the Service.

The regulation regarding the age limit was waived and permission for James to re-enlist was given after sanction had been obtained from His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief (no less).

Sadly, this was the only point on which regulations were to be interpreted liberally to James’s advantage. He re-enlisted for an indefinite period but neither the much hoped-for promotion nor the desired enhancement to his retirement pension ever materialised.

In April 1821 James was stationed with the Regiment in Dublin. Here his second series of letters began with what he termed a “Memorial“, addressed to “Field Marshal, His Royal Highness, Frederick Duke of York, Commander in Chief of all His Majesty’s Forces.” In it he summarised the main points he had made before, with the express purpose of pressing his case for having his service in the Militia count towards his pension.

He did not mention that he now had family responsibilities with a wife expecting their first child, but we can recognise his growing sense of urgency as he involved Colonel Elphinstone once more as an intermediary, referring to “the particular situation in which, as to my future prospects, I am now placed.”

The Regiment had now received the order to proceed to Cork for embarkation to the West Indies, a destination at that time widely associated with life-threatening disease. The Colonel forwarded the “Memorial” with a supporting letter of his own to Sir John Sherbrooke for the Commander in Chiefs attention and once again praised James in fulsome terms:

… he is a man most deserving of any benefit that can be conferred upon him; He has served as Sergeant Major in the 33rd Regiment during the time it has been under my Command. and I have ever had the greatest reason to be well pleased with him. Having on every occasion. both in the field and in other situations found him a brave and
Zealous Soldier.

General William Elphinstone by William Slater

Colonel Elphinstone did his best to further his Sergeant Major’s interests and had an interview with Sir Herbert Taylor to whom Sir John Sherbrooke has passed on the “Memorial”. But regulations could not be circumvented this time and James’s request was firmly turned down.

However, the suggestion was made by his Royal Highness that the Adjutantcy of a Militia Regiment might be obtained for James, and Colonel Elphinstone promised to continue in his efforts to do what he could in this respect, although he had now left the Regiment. His place was taken by Lieutenant Colonel Moffat as Commanding Officer, who took up James’s cause. James wrote:
” After waiting a short time in much anxiety. I at length received the following Letter, and its enclosures. which
had been addressed to Lieutenant-Colonel Moffat, the Commanding Officer, as an answer to my ‘Memorial ‘.”


But even His Royal Highness’ suggestions cannot over-rule established procedure and the following letter was received from Horse Guards:

Sir,
The Commander in Chief having referred to the Secretary at State for the Home Department your letter, with its enclosures in behalf of Sergeant Major Colbeck of the 33rd Regiment, I am directed to transmit to you the copy of a communication received from Mr. Clive in reply, stating that the Appointments of Adjutants of Militia for which His Royal Highness recommended him, is vested wholly in the Lords Lieutenant of Counties, subject only to the approval of His Majesty.
I have &.&.&.
H. Taylor

The Sergeant Major was nothing if not persistent and, although his pleas had not so far met with success, he was encouraged by the sympathetic hearing he had to try again. As with the first packet of letters, he concluded this group with a resume of his thoughts:


” Memorandum on the issue of the 1st Memorial. The very Handsome manner in which my Memorial had been forwarded, and the satisfactory manner in which it had been answered. as well as the kindness with which HR.H the Commander in Chief seemed to treat my case, induced me to draw up a second Memorial to General Sherbrooke of which the following is a copy – I was emboldened to do this, from the Circumstance of Lieutenant Colonel Moffat’s having previously given me a pledge of his best assistance for my Welfare.”


This time he stressed the length of service he had devoted to His Majesty’s forces, referring to himself, as in the earlier ‘Memorial’, in the third person. He asked that his plea would be brought once more to the attention of H.R.H. the Duke of York and he expressed himself even more forcefully, in more explicit terms. He wrote that he:


… has been in his Majesty’s Service without a day’s intermission since he was nineteen, but is likely, from the circumstances above alluded to, to find himself without any better provision after four years more service at an advanced period of life, in a tropical climate, than an Out Pension of five pence a day to support himself and family.

… trusts you will not think he values himself too highly in praying that you will be pleased to make application to His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief that Memorialist may be placed upon the List of Officers on half-pay, on an Ensigny becoming vacant in the Army without Purchase.

Colonel Moffat added in his covering letter to Sir John Sherbrooke his strong recommendation for this proposal to be given favourable consideration, but suggested that if this outcome was not feasible, then perhaps some other situation affording permanent support could be found for this deserving soldier:

“… such as the appointment of Sergeant Major at the Royal Military College or Asylum, an Assistant Barrack Master, Barrack Sergeant or Officer of Police.”


These suggestions imply that James had discussed the question of his future in depth with his Commanding Officer and other options had been considered. The fact that these other options all entailed remaining on home ground also indicate that his anxiety was growing more intense as the time for embarkation drew closer. He enlisted the help of his former Commanding Officer Colonel Elphinstone, who supported him so generously earlier.

On 13th July Sir John Sherbrooke replied with the disappointing comment:

… Had this application been made at the Conclusion of the War, or previous to the reduction at the Peace, I should have forwarded the Memorial with pleasure, as I should then have seen a probability of the Prayer of it being attended to. But as I have now reason to know that the Commander in Chief is desirous of Reducing the Half
Pay List, I regret that I cannot with propriety ask the indulgence for Sergeant Major Colbeck which he solicits. I will, however, Communicate with Sir H. Taylor (privately) on the Subject, & if I find that there is any hope of Success, the Memorial shall be sent in.

Sir John Sherbrooke went on to say that no promises could be given in advance regarding the other appointments mentioned, as there are many other ‘Meritorious Candidates’ awaiting such vacancies. Sir Herbert Taylor did indeed take up the cause with regard to the alternative suggestions but reported back to Sir John Sherbrooke that regretfully there is nothing to be done.

Lieutenant Colonel Grant had a conversation with the Secretary at State, Lord Sidmouth, regarding entry into the police force but even here failure ensued. A letter from Whitehall stated:

.. .I lost no time in referring to the memorandum which I received from you some days before I quited Dublin, with a view of appointing Sergeant Major James Colbeck to a situation in the Police; but I was sorry to find that, being more than 35 years of age, He was not eligible for the Foot Patrole; and I have made it a Rule to select Men for the Service of the Horse Patrole from amongst the discharged Soldiers of Cavalry Regiments only. It is a great disappointment to me to be unable to accomplish the wish you have expressed in behalf of a Soldier whose Character appears to have Stood high in the Estimation of all those under whom he has served; but, for the reasons I have stated, it is not possible.

James took it very hard that his friend Colonel Elphinstone had made such strenuous exertions on his behalf and all to no avail. A note of bitterness crept into his next letter to him, written from Naas, south of Dublin, on 12th September:

Sir John Colborne whose lobbying appears to have been more effective. (c) Government House, Guernsey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

.. .It is a matter of extreme regret to me that Sir John did not conceive it prudent to forward my second Memorial, particularly when I look around me and see a man who had been placed exactly in a similar situation (I mean the Sergeant Major of the 52nd Regiment), appointed Ensign and Adjutant, actually by the same mode of procedure as I have adopted, namely, through the Colonel of his Regiment, Sir John Colborne, especially as I am now nearly the oldest Regimental Sergeant Major in the Service; – and the more so when I consider that I now stand exactly in the same situation, after the greatest influence being used, as I did on my entrance into the Regiment 8 years ago (see Colonel Gore’s letter), with the promise of an Appointment to Adjutant or Quartermaster when a Vacancy shall occur … I state to you that, since I was first promised a commission, (after assisting in getting 116 Men for the Regiment previous to my joining), 113 Commissioned Officers have been promoted (some of them twice) and, one individual, three times without Purchase, and every Non-Commissioned Officer in the Regiment, with the exception of the Armourer Sergeant – Total Non- Comm ‘d Officers promoted since I joined 284. – Eleven Hundred Recruits have joined, all of whom have been trained under my Continued personal Superintendence.

He continued to urge his ex-Commanding Officer to intercede on his behalf with Sir Herbert Taylor, the Adjutant General, reminding him (whom he called “my only friend”) of the occasion when both these Officers were witness to the Sergeant Major’s commendable behaviour in action against the enemy:

When at Merxham in February 1814, I succeeded with the first party in stopping the progress of the flames when the entire Centre of the Town was on fire occasioned by the constant fall and explosion of shells from the Enemy’s Works – after being relieved by a Commissioned Officer I returned to my Regiment which was stationed in the Field on the right side of the Road leading to Breschat, with one Prisoner whom I had taken in a Stable of the House which was on fire; I had the Honour of being personally Commended by M General Taylor for my exertions and the manner in which I had done my duty.

We hear of no results from this baring of his soul, but on 8th of October when the Regiment was stationed at Fermoy Barracks, he made a last desperate appeal, setting down once again, at the instigation of Colonel Moffat, the main points of his case for the consideration of Major General Lambert who had made an inspection of the Regiment the previous day.

Signs of agitation are apparent in the rather hurried style of this communication and several alterations occurred in his copying of it. Recognising that his merits from the military point of view have not achieved his objective, he introduced a plea on compassionate grounds:

I had so firmly grounded my reliance on this last promise (i.e. a situation in the police) that I was induced to leave a sum of money entirely unsettled at Home. and now that the Embarkation of the Regiment is about to take place. I have not the means of seeing this money safely deposited – in addition to this I am most unfortunately placed with respect to a still more serious circumstance not unknown to you; I am therefore induced to hope that as something may still be done for me in the first proposal of an Adjutantcy of Militia. or the half pay of an Ensign. you will be pleased to recommend that I may obtain a few Months leave to remain in England after the Regiment has Embarked. the more particularly as my present state of Health is such as to render a tropical climate. of all things the most [here the word ‘fatal’ has been crossed out]
injurious to me.

I have troubled you with a Certificate to this effect from the Surgeon. and I now leave my case entirely to the Consideration of the Commander of the Forces. who. I Humbly trust. will treat it with the same Humane Consideration which it has already met with from H.R.H. the Commander in Chief and that in his gracious kindness he will be pleased to extricate me from my present most Critical situation.

James wrote no more letters, but in the Regimental Register of Army Births and Baptisms, Volume Ten, held in the National Archives at Kew, under the year 1821, there appears the record of the birth in the 33rd Regiment at Fermoy, of twin babies, Joseph and Annie Colbeck. The Regiment left Cork on the 29th.

The End

December 1821 and the Casualty Return for the following summer records the death of Sergeant Major James Colbeck on the 8th. August 1822 at Stony Hill, Jamaica. There is a final letter in James’s notebook, written from Stirling six years later by Catherine Colbeck:

Sir. In thus taking the liberty of addressing you I hope I may not be intrusive on your goodness my late husband Sergeant Major James Colbeck being under your command and well knowing the trouble you took to promote his welfare leaving a little boy entirely unprovided for who is now seven years of age my anxiety on account of his education has induced me to solicit your interest to get him placed on the compassionate list as Colonel Elphinstone is acquainted with the repeated promises of advancement which my late husband received begging Colonel Elphinstone’s pardon for the liberty I have taken in addressing him. Catherine Colbeck

We have no means of knowing whether this appeal was any more effective than those of her husband had been.

Originally published in the Waterloo Journal ed. for Website