04 January 2010
A Peninsular War award to the 53rd Regiment ...
It is well known that the award of general campaign medals was a long time coming. Although medals were presented on an ad hoc basis from the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, there was no national, standardised system of awards. It is usually stated that the Waterloo Medal of 1815 is “the first campaign medal” and as it was awarded in the same form to all present within the designated area, regardless of rank or status, and was named to its recipient, it does seem to be the precursor of the modern system of campaign medals. However, the award of the Waterloo Medal much more reflects the contemporary political significance of the victory rather than any general desire to give medals to soldiers and sailors. It was not until the Ghuznee Medal of 1839 and its successor awards for the Afghan and China wars of 1840-42 that a standardised system of awards came into being.
The East India Company actually began the process of awards for simply “being there” to all its Indian soldiers as early as 1784 with the Deccan medals, and campaign medals followed for every successive EIC campaign. But for the British Army prior to 1815 there were no such universal awards.
This lack of any medallic means of rewarding soldiers and sailors on campaign became more of a glaring omission during the French Wars of 1793-1815 when the long, gallant or meritorious service of individuals, sometimes over an extended period, was being brought to attention. The simple answer adopted at the time was the creation of separate regimental awards, conferred not by the monarch or national government but by commanding officers, groups of officers or interested parties. The result is the well-known plethora of “unofficial” awards for campaign service, gallantry, long service and meritorious service which sprang up during the period 1793-1815. Some regiments produced a range of attractive and well-produced awards; some never produced any. The details of most of this series (for the Regular Army) can be found in Regimental and Volunteer Medals (Volume I: Regular Army) by J. L. Balmer*
Not surprisingly, some of these awards are rare – awarded in ones or twos or in small numbers – and few examples survive of some types. The main award shown here is just such a rare survival. It is the only (known) example of the “Sergeants’ Reward” or “Mark of Distinction” given to selected NCOs of the 2nd Battalion of the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment for distinguished, gallant or meritorious service in the Peninsular War.
This war-raised battalion served through the campaigns in Portugal, Spain and Southern France from 1809-1814 while its parent 53rd Regiment was in India. At the end of the war, far from being allowed home after a long period of war service, it was posted as Napoleon’s guard on St. Helena and made the long sea journey southwards with him. The battalion remained on the island for two years, the men of what Napoleon apparently called “the Red Regiment” (they had “brick dust” facings) getting on very well with their illustrious captive.
Regimental tradition has it that it was Napoleon who raised the issue of medals, expressing surprise that such long-serving and active campaigners (the band of the 53rd accompanied him aboard HMS Northumberland) wore no medals or awards. This may be legend, since French soldiers of that period were equally unrewarded (apart from the Legion of Honour) in any general sense. At any rate, the idea of producing regimental medals of merit to selected NCOs seems to have originated while the 2nd 53rd was on St. Helena.
The Regimental Order authorising the award was promulgated from Huts Gate Camp, St. Helena, on 29th October 1815. Sir John Abercromby GCB, the Colonel of the 53rd, “consented to the adoption” of medals “to commemorate the different actions in which the sergeants of the battalion had been engaged in the Peninsula”. It seems to have been the idea of the then commanding officer of the 2nd 53rd, Col. Sir George Bingham, to produce awards to be given to deserving NCOs but what motivated Sir George is unknown. The Regimental Order goes on to say:
“Colonel Sir George Bingham has been directed... to distribute the following distinctions to the sergeants of the 2nd Battalion 53rd Regiment who were actually present at the several actions in the Peninsula. These badges are to be worn on the left breast; they become, when once delivered, the property of the sergeants and cannot be taken from them on any account whatever. Should a sergeant having a badge or badges be reduced by sentence of court martial, he will wear the distinction, which will often remind him of the situation he once enjoyed and which his own misconduct has forfeited, and which by his own exertions he may once more attain. These marks will remind them during their lives – and after their deaths, their descendants, to the last period of time – of the great actions in which they have been engaged, under the first [foremost] captain of our age [i.e. Wellington]; it will remind them that their discipline, gallantry and good conduct frequently was made mention of by the Duke of Wellington in his orders and procured to the officer that commanded them those honours and distinctions which he will always be proud to attribute to their exertions.
It would have been very satisfactory to the commanding officer could he have extended this distinction to all present but this has been out of his power. It will, however, be a gratification to them, when they recollect that they have assisted in procuring the distribution of distinctions, that the path of military promotion is open to all and that their merit will, in the 53rd Regiment, lead to promotion and honours, which no one knows better than Sir John Abercromby how to bestow.”
Accordingly, 15 “distinctions” were conferred upon sergeants (only) whose names were brought forward for distinguished service. The award took the rather unusual shape shown here – a curved silver plate bearing the words 2nd BATTN. 53rd REGT / OR SHROPSHIRE within an engraved wreath, above an oblong silver plaque (or plaques) carrying the engraved name of the battle(s) in which the NCO had distinguished himself. The reverse of the battle plaque bore the recipient’s name. It is understood that they were worn from a half blue, half red ribbon on the left breast as with other decorations.
The 15 awards were :
• To Samuel Sutcliffe, James Whitehead, James Mellor and Joshua Rushton, with 6 bars: Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Toulouse.
• To George Bannister, William Hartley and William West, with 5 bars: Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Toulouse.
• To John Whitely (or Whiteley) with 3 bars: Talavera, Salamanca, Toulouse.
• To John Robertshaw, with 3 bars: Talavera, Vittoria, Pyrenees.
• To John Wilton, Abraham Peel and Henry Cockroft, with 2 bars: Talavera, Salamanca.
• To William Brooksbank with 1 bar: Salamanca.
• To Thomas Cox, with 1 bar: Salamanca.
• To John Smith, with 1 bar: Salamanca.
Mellor and Robertshaw were promoted to Sergt. Major and Smith and Rushton to QM Sergt.; John Wilton was commissioned and later became Adjutant of the 2nd 53rd.
Of these 15 distinguished NCOs, only four went on to receive the Military General Service Medal in 1847-48.
Sgt. John Whitely received the MGS with clasps Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees and Toulouse.
Sgt. Major John Robertshaw received the MGS with clasps Talavera, Busaco, Vittoria and Pyrenees.
Sgt. Thomas Cox received the MGS with clasps Talavera and Salamanca.
QM Sgt. John Smith received the MGS with clasps Talavera, Busaco, Vittoria and Pyrenees.
The regimental collection in Shrewsbury Castle has only two MGS medals from this illustrious group of 15 - those to Sergt. Major John Robertshaw and Sergt. Thomas Cox. Cox’s MGS and regimental award ended up in the magnificent collection of Lord Cheylesmore and were loaned to the RUSI in London where they formed part of their display in The Banqueting House, Whitehall, for many years.
After Lord Cheylesmore’s death in a car crash in 1929, most of his collection was auctioned off, much being purchased by Messrs. Spink. Two officers of the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (direct descendant of the 53rd) purchased the Regimental Medal from Spink at that time and presented it to the Officers’ Mess collection; Cox’s MGS was purchased by the officers of the KSLI in a sale in 1948 and the two were united and have been on display in the regimental museum (at various locations) from then onwards.
Fortunately, we have quite a lot of information on Thomas Cox, thanks to the chance survival of his papers in Kew in series WO.97 and WO.120 and these, with muster rolls in WO.12, local information and research by his descendants, the Chandler family, enable a reasonable picture of the man to be put together.
Cox was a flax dresser, born in Beaminster, Dorset, in 1777 – a long way from Shropshire! – and enlisted in the 9th Regiment in Norwich in 1799. Discharged in 1802 without seeing campaign service, Cox re-enlisted in 1807, joining the 2nd 53rd in Devon. He served with them through the Peninsular War, recorded as severely wounded at Salamanca, though what his act of gallantry was is unknown, and on to St. Helena. When the 2nd 53rd returned to the UK to be disbanded, Cox was discharged. After his military service he is variously described as a “labourer” or simply “Chelsea Pensioner”; in the one remaining photo of him as a very old man, he wears an eye patch, perhaps reflecting the wounds he received long before at Salamanca in 1812. Cox died in his home town of Beaminster in 1860 aged 82.
Sadly, of the 15 “badges of distinction”, four of which would have been accompanied originally by an MGS, only Sgt. Thomas Cox’s MGS is still accompanied by the regimental award and this in itself is at present the only known surviving example of this regimental medal. News of any other known survivors would be very welcome!
· Langlands, Chippenham, 1988. I do not think that any other volumes actually appeared.