Lieutenant James Atcherley: Too late at Toulouse

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Royan is a poor unconnected hamlet, and the habitations truly ‘à l’Irlandoise,’ and the inhabitants chiefly consisted of Douaniers, yet they had among them some of the prettiest black-eyed brunettes which e’er had met an Englishman’s view; but exhalatory fumes of garlick which escaped their rosy lips, had such an effect on our olfactories as to form a barrier against a closer acquaintance. Upon the whole we were civilly received, and such articles were sold as we required at a reasonable rate. A whole sheep was purchased for about eighteen-pence, but then it was the size of an Angola cat. – A Provisional (1830), The Provisional Battalions.

Map of Royan, published 1856.

Homes in the style of Irish peasant dwellings, inhabited by customs officers, fragrant females, and suppliers of surprisingly small sheep – I wonder how accurate the colourful description provided by “A Provisional” (an officer of the 2nd Provisional Battalion of Militia) really was! Also, was James Atcherley (of the 1st Provisional Battalion) among those who went ashore and experienced the sights and (alleged) smells? If he was not, I have little doubt that James was regaled with (tall?) tales by those who were in the landing party. He probably welcomed this light relief after learning that Napoleon had been beaten and the Militia Brigade would not be fighting the French after all. Having said that, although James and his fellow militiamen did not, in the end, fire shots in anger, they came very close. What follows is a continuation of the opening paragraph above from “A Provisional”, who was on the scene:

The next morning we weighed and proceeded as far as a village nearly opposite Blaye, on the right bank, and there dropped anchor; and as it was not generally known that hostilities had actually ceased, some of our boats were fired upon by the French soldiery, but fortunately without any disastrous consequences. The Colonel of the West Middlesex, with Capt. Brew, went immediately to the French Commandant, and remonstrated with him on an act which might have led (and the Colonel had some difficulty to restrain the men from returning the fire) to a breach of that good understanding which it was the object of the English to cultivate: the Commandant apologised, and assured the Colonel the affair had entirely arisen from a misconstruction of his orders.

While anchored across the river from Blaye the fleet was, in the words of John Davis (writing in 1877), “visited by several French families, who were hospitably entertained by the officers, and who no doubt were as glad of the close of the long, cruel, and sanguinary war, as the Militiamen were mortified at the loss of the chance of distinguishing themselves on the field of battle. As it was, only the barren honour remained to them of being the first troops that directly invaded France from the sea, since the commencement of the war, all the others having entered that country from the neighbouring countries on the Continent.”

All (battle)dressed up with no place to go (and fight)

Having arrived in France almost immediately after the decisive Battle of Paris at the end of March, James Atcherley and rest of the Militia Brigade went to join the Duke of Wellington’s army as planned – only to turn up at Toulouse just in time to miss the Sixth Coalition’s final battle against the French army there. Robert Holden (in 1887) wrote: “After a stay of two or three days off Blaye the troops were piloted to [Pauillac], where all disembarked; and the Militia Brigade marched through Bordeaux for Toulouse, where they unfortunately arrived too late to take part in the battle, though the ground was said to have been marked out for them, and the guns engaged could easily be heard […].”

So near and yet so far! But perhaps this was just as well, as the lives of James Atcherley and his fellow soldiers were not put at unnecessary risk. To explain that statement, I will hand you back to John Davis: “The last stand was made by the French army at Toulouse […]; Wellington crossed the [Gironde] on the 9th April, and attacked the French in their entrenched camp on a range of heights on the eastern side of the city. It was a useless and bloody battle, for the French Senate had declared that Napoleon had forfeited the throne, and on the 4th he had abdicated; but the news had not reached the contending armies on the [Gironde], and eight thousand men were lost to their countries by this stubborn and useless fight.”

The exact date of Napoleon’s abdication varies according to which authority is consulted. On 4 April 1814, the date given by Davis above (and by others), Napoleon offered the Coalition his abdication in favour of his son, and on condition that his wife, the Empress, would act as regent. This was rejected by the Coalition sovereigns who simply did not trust Napoleon and (in the words of Russian Emperor Alexander I) “his devouring activity, his ambition.” So on 6 April Napoleon declared that he renounced “for himself and his heirs the throne of France and Italy”. The Treaty of Fontainebleau was then signed in Paris on 11 April by the plenipotentiaries of both sides, and ratified by Napoleon on 13 April 1814.

After arriving too late at Toulouse, the officers and men of the Militia Brigade – disappointed but alive and well – marched back whence they had come. The 1st Battalion, of which James Atcherley was a Lieutenant and which was under the Colonelcy of the Marquess of Buckingham, stopped at Bordeaux and was quartered there and in the immediate vicinity. The 3rd Battalion, under Colonel Sir Watkin Williams Wynn (5th Baronet), was quartered nearby. The 2nd Battalion, under Colonel Edward Bayly, brother to the Militia Brigade’s general, marched all the way back to Pauillac.

The natives of Bordeaux seem to have had less than flattering descriptions for the commanders of the Militiamen in their midst. Captain Gronow of the 1st Foot Guards, in his Last Recollections, noted that the locals denominated them “Les boeufs-gras anglaise.”  Earl Bathurst, who was also in Bordeaux at the time, wrote of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn that: “The ladies here call him ‘le Gros Commandant Whof Whof Whof’.”

Both Buckingham and Wynn were, it is fair to say, generously proportioned men. The caricature shown here gives an idea of how the Marquess of Buckingham appeared to his own countrymen (he was Earl Temple prior to becoming Marquess in 1813). Wynn was described by hunting enthusiast ‘Nimrod’ (in reminiscences published in 1833) as “a person of great weight in every sense of the word” – the writer went on to pay tribute to the horses which had carried Wynn’s eighteen stone bulk. As for Sir Watkin’s speech, Lady Holland (Elizabeth Fox) wrote privately in 1799 that “his tongue is immensely too big for his mouth and his utterance is so impeded by it that what he attempts to articulate is generally unintelligible.”

Did the wine for which Bordeaux is well known also contribute to Colonel Wynn’s mocked manner of speaking? If it did, the Colonel was possibly not the only member of the Militia Brigade to imbibe a little too freely. To quote Captain Gronow again: “our militiamen [at Bordeaux] did not conduct themselves in a becoming manner; for, delighted at the cheapness of the wine and brandy, and happening to be officered by men incapable of looking after them properly, when off duty they were constantly tipsy, and getting into all sorts of scrapes and broils with the inhabitants”.

Plonk purloined

Wine was at the centre of another incident involving the Battalions commanded by Buckingham and Wynn, one in which James Atcherley and the rest of the 1st Battalion lost an opportunity to sample some of St Julien’s finest. I’m detecting a warm Spring day in the south of France, with finely balanced notes of both appreciation and resentment, and an aftertaste of amused resignation in this part of the recollections of “A Provisional”:

  A general order soon announced that the brigade was placed in the division of the Earl of Dalhousie, and a day was announced for its inspection by his Lordship, in a flat open part of the country about twelve miles distant, when he expressed his highest encomiums on the accession of a body of men so disciplined to strengthen his division, adding that the Colonels of the several regiments deserved their country’s warmest thanks.
  The men [of the 2nd Battalion] being in heavy marching order on this occasion, and unused to a march of thirty miles through a loose sandy soil under a burning sun, and without provisions, became somewhat exhausted; but fortunately on their return they met a cart laden with a pipe of wine. There was not the least occasion for the word “attention ! eyes right,” they were instantly directed to it, and no doubt, being in an enemy’s country, many from necessity might have considered it “lawful plunder;” however, there was not the least occasion even to hold a parley on the subject, much less to storm the outworks, for the Frenchmen pressed the wine upon us, giving them us to understand it was a present from Monsieur le Maire de St. Julien. It was imagined there must be some mistake, but le porteur insisted, on the honour of a Frenchman, it was really the fact. The cask was broached, and proved to be most excellent Château Margaux; we expressed our gratitude towards Monsieur le Maire, by quaffing his health with the sincerest cordiality for so singular a proof of generosity and seasonable relief. The men participated (thanks to our pourvoyeur, who was provided with buckets and glasses, for our worthy Mayor determined to do the thing handsomely, and that we should not be put to any inconvenience) in la bonne fortune which had been so happily bestowed upon us, as each of them had a tumbler of it as they passed in file; on the regiment reaching quarters, the Colonel dispatched the Adjutant to return the most sincere thanks of his officers and men, in his own name, for the high mark of friendly attention which the Mayor had so generously afforded them. So far so well; but alas ! the wine was gone, and the gratitude took her flight too on the Colonel receiving a letter of remonstrance from the Marquis of Buckingham, wishing to be informed by whose authority the Colonel’s battalion had intercepted and drunk a freight of Claret, which he had ordered for his own men [of the 1st Battalion]. An explanation was accordingly given of the facts as they had really arisen, and the noble Marquis heartily enjoyed the joke, which the officers of the second Provisionals had to pay for.

Au revoir

The three battalions of the Militia Brigade hoped that they would remain in France to become part of the army of occupation then being formed in Paris, but a despatch issued by Sir Henry Bayly towards the end of May ordered the brigade to begin its march to the coast, for the journey home. Transports carrying James Atcherley and rest of the 1st Provisional Battalion left Bordeaux on 6 June, protected by the Thais (20 guns) and the Tigress (16 guns). The men disembarked at Plymouth on 15 June, at Portsmouth on the 17th (where James and those who had served with him in the Worcester Militia most likely rejoined their former regiment) and Hilsea on the 18th. The unique adventure of these Militiamen was over.

I wonder if the officers and men of the Militia Brigade ever discovered that the Duke of Wellington (pictured left) had expressed grave reservations about the usefulness of their unit? He wrote (to the aforementioned Earl Bathurst) in 1813 that he very much doubted “that a large militia army would be very useful in the field for more than a momentary exertion”, and went on to suggest that the militia officers had “all the faults of those of the [regular army] to an aggravated degree, and some peculiarly their own.” Colonel Torrens of the Horse Guards, writing to Wellington ahead of the deployment of the three provisional battalions, expressed the view that they were “more troublesome than the whole army put together.” Other members of the regular army also looked down upon the Militiamen – as we have seen from the quotes of Captain Gronow’s words.

Whether or not they were aware of the low opinions some had of them, and although they were never bloodied in battle, those who served with the Militia Brigade looked proudly on their service in France – and there is at least one physical reminder of that pride which has survived to this day. Some time after returning to his home at Stowe House, the Marquess of Buckingham (Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, who became the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos) had tablets placed in the private chapel there in honour of the 1st Provisional Battalion which he had led. Those tablets remain in place to this day, the room in which they are housed now being a boarding house houseroom of Stowe School. Among the names of the officers inscribed upon them is that of Lieutenant James Atcherley.

Picture credits. Map of Royan, published 1856: Adapted from an image (from Itinéraires à Royan et Arcachon, ou Bains de mer du bassin de Bordeaux) in the British Library Flickr photostream; no known copyright restrictions. Map of the Gironde, published 1838, showing Royan, Blaye, Pauillac and Bordeaux: Adapted from an image (from France Pittoresque) in the British Library Flickr photostream; no known copyright restrictions. View of a Temple near Buckingham: Cropped from an image © The National Portrait Gallery, item D13296, and shared under a Creative Commons licence. Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington: Adapted from a public domain image (original painting from around 1815) at Wikimedia Commons.


See also Reference [1] for Lieutenant James Atcherley and the War of the Sixth Coalition (Robert Holden (1887), Historical Record of the Third and Fourth Battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment.)

[1] “A Provisional” (1830), The Provisional Battalions. In: The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine, 1830 Part II, pages 71-6. Copy viewed at the Hathi Trust website.
[2] John Davis (1877), Historical Records of The Second Royal Surrey, or Eleventh Regiment of Militia. Volume II, Part IV, pages 196-9. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[3] Treaty of Fontainebleau (1814). At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 27 Jan 2020).
[4] Rees Howell Gronow (1866), Captain Gronow’s last recollections, being the fourth and final series of his reminiscences and anecdotes. Pages 44-5. Copy viewed at the Hathi Trust website.
[5] F Bickley (ed.), Historical Manuscripts Commission (1923), Report on the Manuscripts of Earl Bathurst, Preserved at Cirencester Park. Page 278. Snippets and OCR text viewed at Google Books.
[6] Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 25 Feb 2020).
[7] “Nimrod” (1833), Hunting Reminiscences. In: New Sporting Magazine, Volume V, No. 27, page 197. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[8] Giles Stephen Holland Fox-Strangways, 6th Earl of Ilchester (1908), The Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland. Volume I, Page 238. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
[9] Ron McGuigan, Robert Burnham (2017), Wellington’s Brigade Commanders: Peninsula and Waterloo. Pages 41-2. Copy previewed at Google Books. Note: Although the authors, quoting the anonymous Provisional whose words appear in this story, state that “The officers of the brigade had a high opinion of their troops and thought ‘we should have the honour of the occupation of Paris’”, this is I believe an uncharitable interpretation of part of a sentence which in full read: “The battalion was then pushed on to Soisson, Château Margaux, Cautenac, &c. and we really imagined we should have the honour of the occupation of Paris.” I read ‘should’ in this context as meaning ‘might’ and that they had hopes rather than expectations. That was certainly the interpretation of John Davis (see reference [1] above), who wrote that “they were in hopes that they would form part of the Paris Army of Occupation”.
[10] Anon (1817), Stowe. A Description of the House and Gardens [etc]. Pages 39 – 41. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[11] Email from Anna McEvoy, House Custodian, Stowe House Preservation Trust, dated 27 Jan 2020.