At the beginning of the War of 1812 British forces in North America were critically outnumbered by those of the United States. In response, Governor-General Sir George Prevost requested reinforcements from Great Britain. Unable to spare troops from its struggle against Napoleonic France, the British Government instead raised several ‘foreign’ units for service in North America by recruiting enemy prisoners of war captured in Europe.
Among these were large numbers of Germans from conquered states who had been reluctantly forced to fight for Napoleon’s Grand Armée. In early 1813 British authorities conceived a plan to employ them by raising a seventh battalion of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment, in which thousands of German, Swiss and French soldiers served Britain since the regiment’s formation in the American Colonies in 1756. On 2 August 1813 the Duke of York (the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army) informed the Secretary at War that “there are ready 1,200 eligible subjects who may be applied to this service,” and one month later the battalion was formed on the Channel Island of Guernsey under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry John, formerly of the 95th Rifles.
Due to the British Army’s high demand for light troops the battalion was trained as a light infantry corps. Although clothed in the green uniform of British rifle regiments, its organization mirrored that of other light battalions within the 60th Regiment, having eight companies armed with muskets, and two with rifles. The former were equipped with New Land Pattern Light Infantry muskets, whereas the flank companies received the Baker rifle. The entire battalion used black ‘rifle’-style belting, yet only the flank companies were provided with the additional accoutrements necessary for the Baker rifle.
German soldiers were preferred for enlistment, yet a mixture of 840 Germans, Dutchmen, Swiss, Frenchmen and even Hungarians were ultimately recruited. Not surprisingly, the resulting linguistic issues soon required officers “acquainted with their manners and language” to be transferred from throughout the British Army. Training also proved difficult; reports noted the NCOs were “well chosen & are attentive to their duty…but unfortunately many…cannot read English,” whereas the men had been “drilled in the French manner,” and were difficult to break “of the habits that they have contracted in that service.” Still, by the spring of 1814 the battalion was ready for active service, and embarked for Halifax, Nova Scotia, arriving on 31 May 1814.
Towards the end of August the rifle-armed flank companies (No. 1 & No. 10 Coys.) embarked to provide additional light troops for Lieutenant-General Sir John Sherbrooke’s amphibious expedition against the State of Maine. On 1 September this force captured Castine, following which Lt. Col. John and 700 troops (including No. 1 (Ward’s) Rifle Company ) proceeded up the Penobscot River to burn the sloop USS Adams. Two days later John’s detachment defeated a body of 1,400 American militia entrenched near Hampden. There, the 60th slipped around the enemy’s flank under cover of a heavy fog, and by capturing an artillery battery initiated the collapse of the American line. To the east No. 10 (Bagwell’s) Rifle Company took part in the capture of Fort Machias on 11 September, where the American garrison withdrew so precipitously the riflemen were “not enabled to take any prisoners” according to one British officer. During the occupation of Maine the two companies of the 7/60th Regt. were intially mistaken for another ‘foreign’ unit notorious for committing atrocities along the eastern seaboard; the citizens of Maine, however, eventually spoke “very highly” of the 60th, who maintained an excellent record of discipline throughout the campaign.
The remainder of the battalion guarded Nova Scotia against American seaborne raids until the conclusion of the war; companies were concentrated in Halifax and Annapolis Royal. In April 1815 the rifle companies withdrew from Maine, and once reunited the battalion was maintained on the peacetime establishment of the Atlantic Colonies. Peacetime garrison duties, however, were not entirely without incident. In November 1815 No. 6 (Barrington’s) Company garrisoned in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where it was nearly embroiled in a mutiny by the island’s militia over the appointment of militia officers. Called upon by Lieutenant-Governor Charles Smith to “have his ammunition ready” to suppress the mutiny, the commanding officer avoided bloodshed by keeping 60th in their barracks, allowing the situation to gradually diffuse itself and leading to Smith’s dismissal due to his “heavy handed tendency to interfere with the regular troops.”
The 7th Battalion remained in Nova Scotia until June 1817, when reductions within the British Army led to its disbandment. Most non-German personnel were discharged and repatriated to Europe, while the remainder transferred to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 60th Regiment, and were posted to Quebec City. Their discipline and good conduct continued to earn the praise of military and civil authorities, and was the subject of several published anecdotes. Captain Frederic Tolfrey (a British staff officer) recounted perhaps the most memorable of these in his memoirs, capturing the character (if not the mannerisms) of these “capital” soldiers:
It so happened that we had the 2nd Battalion of the 60th Regiment in the Garrison, which had arrived during the summer from the West Indies: nine-tenths of the men were Germans, and capital Garrison soldiers they are; so punctilious are they in all the minutiae of detail duty, that passing their post without going through all formalities to the letter would be as hopeless as to expect Dan O’Connell [a contemporary Irish political figure] to forego his rint… I got on tolerably well until I came to the first sentry box … when a vigilant German bellowed out “Who comes dar?” – “Friend,” I replied. “Advansh, frend, and give ze countorsoin.” – “Gibraltar,” said I. – “Dat’s not de voord – can’t parsh.” Whereupon down came his firelock turned up with a bayonet, which was politely presented within half a foot of my body… the fellow was not to be talked over.
‘Celer et Audax’
Banner photo courtesy of Alex Luyckx.