The 23rd Foot originated in 1689, raised by Henry, Lord Herbert of Chirbury and titled the ‘Welch Regiment of Fusiliers’ in 1702. Despite a proud history of Welsh culture (the regiment celebrates St. David’s day to this day), it has always been formed of men from all over Britain.
The 23rd Foot was active in conflicts in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, before being dispatched in 1773 to the American colonies. There they were involved in the battles of Lexington and Concord after the Boston rebellion, and many of the major battles that followed: Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, Germantown and Camden among them. The 23rd Foot were also used as Marines on-board ship; taking part in raids along the Virginia Coast.
Even their surrender at Yorktown was regarded as heroic when they surrendered only their cased flagpoles. The Colours were wrapped around the waist of the ensigns and smuggled away later. The 23rd Foot won the admiration of their enemy and the Fusilier Redoubt, held with a detachment of Royal Marines, still stands as a memorial of their bravery. A contemporary diary recorded that the French expressed ‘unqualified approbation and praise for their intrepidity and firmness in repulsing three attacks by such vastly superior numbers’. They returned from America in 1784.
FORMATION OF THE LIGHT COMPANY
An official order came on the 25th December 1770 that light companies would be added to each regiment. In contrast with the Light Infantry of the 1750’s, which was an ad hoc unit, this was the creation of a whole new arm of the services. It was in effect the start of the modern soldier as we know it today. Previously the soldier was an automaton who operated in ‘parade ground’ formation these new companies saw the soldier being expected to think and act as an independent unit as well as being part of the whole. Even the officers were told to ‘know their men as individuals and know their capabilities’.
Men were recruited for these companies from people such as poachers, gamekeepers and country folk who understood the land. Their training incorporated “leaping, running, climbing precipices, swimming, skirmishing though woods, loading and firing in different positions at marks, and marching with great rapidity.” It was also noted that the 23rd foot (in Boston) used barrels floating in the river as moving targets with a monetary reward for the best shot.
In order to be able to work in this environment changes were required to the uniform prescribed in the’ Royal Warrant of 1768’ and ‘A System for the Complete interior Management and Oeconomy of a battalion of Infantry’(published in 1768 by Bennett Cuthbertson). A report by the Board of General Officers from 4th March, 1771 documented some of these changes…
“That the cloathing of the coat and waistcoat to be of the pattern of Major-General Rufane, but the waistcoats to be red and laced, the breeches white or buff, suitable to the waistcoat of the respective regiments…
…a black leather cap with three chains round and a piece of plate upon the centre of the crown, in front a GR, a crown, and number of the regiment…
…That the gaiter to be up to the calf of the leg and no higher…
…That the accoutrements be conformable to Colonel Howe’s pattern, with a small cartridge box to contain nine rounds in one rowe, to be worn before, with a belt of tanned leather round the waist. The belt to be furnished with two frogs, one for the bayonet, the other for the hatchet occasionally, which at other times will be tyed upon the knapsack.”
The light infantry regulation were not strictly adhered to and regimental variations came in very quickly as shown by the fact that the 23rd foot went for a red plate on the front of their helmet with the Prince of Wales feathers rather than the GR specified in the regulations.
On 4th of June every year all men would be issued with new uniforms to parade for the King’s birthday (George III). The previous years uniforms would be returned to the regimental tailors to be converted into ‘fatigue’ uniforms to wear on a daily basis with the new uniforms being kept in store for parade days (Wednesday and Sunday) or formal occasions. The photographs show the Dress and Fatigue uniforms.
The period This was a period of increasing unease between American colonists and the Government in London due mainly to unpopular Taxes (later repealed) which built resentment as the colonists had no representative in the British Parliament. The so called Boston Massacre (1770) and The Boston Tea Party (1773) were indicative of the civil unrest prior to the 23rd, along with other regiments, being despatched to the Garrison town of Boston for a tour of duty which was mainly general policing at this time.
The lack of ‘active’ service meant that the soldiers had a lot of spare time on their hands and to make a little extra money they undercut the local labour force which obviously built further resentment.
It got the point that Militia units were openly drilling in front of the authorities in preparation for conflict, with French agents secretly supplying arms to the colonists. There are even accounts in a contemporary diary by Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie ‘A British Fusilier in Revolutionary Boston’ which tell of court martials for British soldiers caught selling weapons and ammunition to the colonists. Mackenzie’s diary also gives an interesting insight into day to day life of a fusilier in Boston.
1775 – Discovering an arms dump at a town just outside Boston the British Commander decided to conduct a lightening raid to capture or destroy the weaponry. The Americans were pre-warned and the Militia was drawn up in line on Lexington Green. Who fired first is a matter of dispute but the British opened fire clearing the Militia off the green. This was the catalyst that alerted the local population who swarmed onto the British column forcing them to retreat to Boston where they became besieged.
The colonists are now in open conflict with the British and this is the period we represent.
The picture shows, from left to right a Light Company Fusilier and officer; an officer of the 35th and a local dignitary.