Frederick English in the Napoleonic Wars

Having completed his training and received his commission in the Royal Engineers in September 1807, Frederick English was gazetted 1st Lieutenant and assigned to an army of 9,000 men which landed at Mondego Bay north of Lisbon in August 1808 to confront Napoleon’s forces occupying Lisbon. Within days they engaged with the enemy under Marshal Junot and twice defeated an army superior in numbers, at Roliça on 17 August and at Vimeiro four days later. This was English’s baptism of fire, recalled by his friend Colonel Tyler in a letter reported to Kate: ‘He commences his letter, ‘17 Augst 1808 Anniversary Battle of Roliça, our first fight.’ (letter 62). This is English’s only mention of his participation in the Peninsular War in the letters.

There followed the Convention of Cintra, a treaty which allowed the French army to return home. The British commanders, severely criticised, were removed, and Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore took command. By this time, Spain had been invaded by a large army headed by Napoleon himself, and Spanish guerrillas joined the British and Portuguese in opposing them. After crossing northern Spain by forced marches in wintry conditions with heavy loss of life, Moore was forced to withdraw to Corunna, where he died on 16 January 1809 fighting off the French while his troops were rescued by the Royal Navy. This must have been a gruelling experience for the 19-year-old lieutenant.

Back in England, English found himself in Suffolk, where he met and married Kate.

The war resumed in March 1809 when the French again invaded Portugal. The allied forces were now commanded by the 39-year-old Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later to become Duke of Wellington, who drove the enemy out of Portugal once more by May. English did not take part in Wellington’s victorious campaign through Spain, but he was back in action at Orthez on the French side of the Pyrenees on 27 February 1814, and at the final victory, the capture of Toulouse on 10 April. Two days later, Paris fell to the Allies, and Napoleon abdicated and went into exile.

After Napoleon’s escape from Elba in February 1815, English, by now a Captain, was in the Low Countries. He took part in the Waterloo campaign, but did not qualify for the Waterloo medal. He remained in France in the army of occupation until 1817.

To read about the medal English was awarded for his service in the Peninsula, see ‘The Colonel’s medals’. There are many passages in the letters from the West Indies demonstrating friendly relations with his former enemies, and he took a pride in his fluency in the French language.

Though he was a soldier for the rest of his life, Frederick English never again faced enemy fire.