History of the Foot Guards

Revolutionary France and Napoleon

Image: Coldstream Guards defending Hougemont Farm at Waterloo

Revolutionary France 1793-1800

On their return from American the Foot Guards disbanded their Light Companies but in 1793 it was decided that each battalion would form a Light Company, in the side of their caps they wore a green plume, where as the Grenadier Companies had a white plume and the Battalion Companies had a white out of red plume. 

The Foot Guards had the dubious honour of being amongst the first British troop to fight the Revolutionary French army on the continent at the time. A Guards Brigade consisting of the first battalion from each regiment and a fourth consisting of the Grenadier and Light Companies were sent to Holland in February 1793. One of their first actions was to support the Prince of Orange whose troops had been drive from the village of Lincelles. Despite heavy musketry and artillery fire the Commander Major General Lake decided to make a frontal attack on the strongly entrenched French with some 5,000 men in the village. The three Guards battalions with only 1,100 men climbed the steep slope, stormed the defences and cleared the village. Here they gained another Battle Honour ‘Lincelles’. A month later they were in action again at the battle of Tourcoing.  In April 1795 the Guards finally return home after a grueling retreat across Northern Europe.

Egypt 1798-1801

The 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and the 1st Battalion Third Guards joined Abercromby’s force at Gibraltar in 1800 and sailed with him to Minorca and then onto Marmorice in Turkey where they trained with the Royal Navy in beach landings. In March 1801 the force sailed for Aboukir Bay in Egypt about 10 miles from Alexandria which was under French control. The British made a dawn landing at the Bay under the guns of the French garrisoned fort. One of the boats with fifty Coldstream Guards and another from the Third Guards was hit. As the boats neared the short musket fire was also being direct at them. On landing there was great confusion amongst the Guards due to their losses. French cavalry charged them before they could reform but thanks to the quick thinking of the 58th Foot who fired volleys at the French this gave time for the Guards to reorganize, load and push the French back off the beach, and the British claimed victory. On 21st March the British marched on Alexandria where a battle was fought and the Third Guards sustained 186 casualties and the Army commander Sir Ralph Abercromby was killed. The First Guards amongst others occupied Alexandria in September. Cairo was also captured from the French, this marked the end of this successful campaign and in December the Guards Brigade sailed home. For their actions the Coldstream and Third Guards were awarded the Battle Honour ‘Egypt’ and to carry the badge of the sphinx superscribed with Egypt.

Europe 1802-14

1802 saw Napoleon master of Europe with only England standing against him. Napoleon was making plans to invade England. Due to the Royal Navy this invasion never materalised. On 2nd August 1807 the Guards Brigade took part in a successful raid against Denmark’s capital Copenhagen and the entire Danish fleet was seized and moved from the grasp of Napoleon. In 1808 Napoleon turned against his once ally Spain. He marched through the Pyrenees deposed the King and put his brother Joseph on the thrown. He next turned his attention to Portugal. The British government sent an army to help defend Portugal under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley He soon drove the French from Portugal. The British Government sent reinforcements that landed at Corunna including the 1st Guards Brigade consisting of the 1st and 3rd Battalions First Guards to bolster the British. They eventually joined up with General Sir John Moore’s forces. The whole force marched inland to around Salamanca. News reached Moore that the Spanish had been defeated by Napoleon and some 50,000 men under Marshal Soult was marching north in the hope of cutting him off from his escape route at Corunna. Outnumbered two to one Moore had no option but to retreat. The British eventually reached Corunna only to realise that the Royal Navy wasn’t there to evacuate them. Two weeks later the Navy finally arrived but not until after the army had suffered terribly from the very cold and harsh conditions. On the same day as the arrival of the Navy, Marshal Soult’s troops arrived and attacked the British. After the evacuation the only British troops left were 10,000 around Lisbon. They managed to hang on until in April 1809 when reinforcements arrived including the 2nd Guards Brigade. 

The first action was at the crossing of the River Douro in May 1809. On 28th July the battle of Talavera took plate. The Guards Brigade was in the centre of the line as part of Sherbrook’s 1st Division which was attacked by 15,000 French infantry which they managed to force back. During the advance the Guards found themselves far out in front and surrounded by the French, they were rescued by the 48th Foot, and managed to extracts themselves and make it back to the British lines. The French withdraw during the night ending the battle. Both Guards battalions lost 300 men each out of 1,000. Both the Coldstream and Third Guards were granted the Battle Honour ‘Talavera’.

In 1808 The 1st Guards Brigade found themselves in the Netherlands at the island of Walcheren. The purpose of the expedition was to capture Antwerp, but the attack failed and fever decimated the British troops, in September the army was ordered home.

Between 1810-1812 The 2nd Guards Brigade in the Peninsular had a frustrating time with very little to do. They saw action on 8th May 1811 at Fuentes d’Onoro, near Ciudad Rodrigo. Both the Coldstream and Third Guards won the Battle Honour ‘Fuentes d’Onoro’.

In March 1810 a Composite Battalion of Guards arrived in Cadiz where they performed garrison duty for the next two and a half years. By the end of 1811 Portugal was clear of the French and Wellington started to make plans for a winter campaign. On 4th February 1812 Wellington marched his army into Spain, surprising the French. By 19thJanuary 1812 Ciudad Rodrigo had fallen followed in April by the capture of Badajoz. On 22nd July Salamanca was also taken and on the 12th August Madrid followed. This led to the siege of Cadiz being lifted. In the meantime the 1st Battalion First Guards had landed at Corunna and marched to join Wellington. A total of five Guards battalions were now serving in the Peninsula. Wellington now had an army of 80,000 men 47,000 who were British. It was time to drive the French out of Spain. Wellington decided to strike at their communications which were concentrated at Bayonne the main route through the Pyrenees. On the 4th of June he crossed the River Douro and onto Burgos which had defied him the previous autumn. Wellington all but destroyed the French at Vittoria on 21st June. The French retreated back to France but Wellington had to deal with the fortress of San Sebastian which stood in his way. The siege was successful but the Guards suffered heavy casualties. Wellington moved into France and both the 1st and 2nd Guards Brigades were heavily involved at Bidassoa 7th October, Nivelle 10th November, Nive 9th December and the river Adour 23rd February 1814. The 2nd Guards Brigade distinguished themselves at Adour when six companies of the Third Guards and two of the Coldstream Guards crossed the river before dark and held a bridgehead all night until relieved.

The news of Napoleon’s abdication did not reach Wellington or the French until a week later, by that time Wellington has attacked the town of Toulouse on 10th April. The French commander of Bayonne did not believe Napoleon had abdicated and attacked the British. After a fierce confrontation he was defeated but not until over 506 Guardsman had been either killed or wounded. The war was over.

The End Game for Napoleon

News arrived that Napoleon had escaped from Elba. After much debate with Whitehall, Wellington managed to assemble a force some 24,000 men in Brussels, which the 1st and 2nd Brigade of Guards formed part of.

On the 16th June 1815 the two Guards Brigades were order to move to Braine-le-Comte and then onto Quatre Bras joining the Prince of Orange with his Dutch and Belgian troops around 6,000 in all. They were opposed by 20,000 French under Marshal Ney. The Guards had been marching for thirteen hours and were thrown straight into the fighting as and when their battalions arrived with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions First Guards going in first. The losses were heavy but they did manage to hold the French and so help win the day. Whilst the Guards were recuperating a Staff Officer rode up and gave the news that the Prussians has been defeated at Ligny. The army and Guards left Quatre Brass and moved towards their new position of Mont St Jean just south of the village of Waterloo.

Wellington ordered General Cooke to secure the Chateau of Hougoumont, to hold the flank of the British Line. He ordered the four Light Companies of the Foot Guards with the task. They arrived just in time as Napoleon appreciated the tactical advantage of holding the chateau. Immediately behind Hougoumont was the 2nd Guards Brigade with the 1st Guards Brigade on their left. That night the Guards fortified the chateau, loopholing the walls and building fighting platforms all entrances were barricaded except the north gate. Lieutenant Colonel Lord Saltoun of the First Guards was in command of the 2nd and 3rd Battalion Light Companies defending the garden and orchard. Whilst Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards commanded the Light Companies of the 2ndBattalions of the Coldstream and Third Foot Guards. The French attacked the chateau after 11am. Lord Saltoun’s force had been replace by some German troops who could not hold the French, Lord Saltoun’s Light Companies were ordered back, they stopped the French and remained there for the rest of the morning. Due to the increasing strength of the French attacks the British forces retreated into the chateau. The French managed to get into the chateau a number of times but each time were repulsed, the only Frenchman to survive was a young drummer boy. Because of his young age the British let him live. With no more than 2,000 men the British hung onto the chateau being up against about a third of Napoleon’s infantry. The French had bombarded it, setting light to all the buildings. In all the Guards lost 540 all ranks and the French 8,000. One of Wellington’s famous sayings was ‘The closing of the gates of Hougoumont won him the day’.

Two parts of Napoleon’s plans had gone wrong. He didn’t take Hougoumont and Wellington had not weakened the centre of his line. With the Prussians now approaching Napoleon had to do something. He decided to try and annihilate Wellington’s army before attacking the Prussians. Napoleon decided to use his elite troops, his Imperial Guard. He marched them straight up towards the British lines hoping to punch through them, come around the back and destroy them. They marched in two massive columns 70 to 80 men wide. One of those columns comprising two battalions of Grenadiers and two of Chasseur, some 3,000 strong advanced directly at the 1st Guards Brigade. When the French were forty yards away Wellington rode up to the Guard commander and said ‘Now Maitland, Now’s Your Time’ He ordered the Guards to stand up and fire. The Guards were four ranks deep and their first volley killed 300 French this cause havoc, other British units joined in and for the first time in their history the French Imperial Guard broke and ran. The Battle of Waterloo was over and the French retreated back to France and Napoleon surrendered.

Most of the Guards regiments returned home but the 2nd Guards Brigade remained near Paris as part of the Army of Occupation. The First Guards received special recognition for the part they played. The London Gazette of 29th July 1815 stated: ‘His Royal Highness has also been pleased to approve of the First Regiment of Foot Guards being made a Regiment of Grenadiers and styled the First or Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards in commemoration of their having defeated the Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the French Imperial Guard. Also they could take on the headdress of the enemy the bearskin cap. The Coldstream and Third Guards did not take on the cap until 1832.

This was the last time the Guards fought until the Crimean War. The 1st Battalion Grenadier and Scots Fusilier Guards were in Portugal from 1826-1828 and then in 1839 the 2nd Battalions Grenadier and Coldsteam Guards were sent to Canada.

At home there were not enough barracks to house all the battalions and so some were billeted on the public. It was not until 1834 that Wellington Barracks was completed and from there on in all battalions were based in barracks. At this time the Guards were in the following barracks: Wellington Barracks; King’s New Barracks (near the National Gallery); Portman Street Barracks (later called St George’s Barracks); Knightsbridge Barracks and the Infantry Barracks (Windsor).