Thursday, 31 October 2013

Thomas Neal - Survivor of the Peninsular War

2014 is a special year for students of military history, not only will it be the centenary of the beginning of World War 1, but it will also be the bi-centenary of the end of the Peninsular War, a brutal war against Napoleon's occupying forces in Spain and Portugal, a war that could have been avoided, and until 1914, known as the original Great War. A war that saw Napoleon Bonaparte show his might on one side and Arthur Wellesey prove his skill and cunning on the other, a war that ended with Bonaparte attempting suicide and Wellesey becoming the Duke of Wellington, and a war that saw my 4x great grandfather, Thomas Neal fighting against the French army in the icy passes of the Pyrenees, marching for days through snow and rain, often under cover of darkness, and laying siege to ancient towns on the Spanish/French border.

Thomas Henry Neal was born in Fulham in 1791. During the 18th century, Fulham was in the borough of Hammersmith in the county of Middlesex. It was a rather seedy working class town with a bad reputation for gambling, crime and prostitution, so we can assume that Thomas did not come from a wealthy family and probably had a tough childhood. I have not yet been able to discover his parents, or anything about his schooling, if indeed he did go to school, but I do know that he was working as a cabinet makers apprentice in Fulham in 1808 when he was 18 years of age.

These were troubled times though. Napoleon Bonaparte and his French army had conquered most of mainland Europe. Thanks to Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar in 1805, Britain had so far withstood the power of France, but the tide took another unexpected twist in 1808. Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807 and within a few months he had deposed the Spanish monarchy and installed his brother Joseph as King of Spain. With these two actions Bonaparte had created a new enemy, and given Britain a new ally. The Spanish uprising encouraged Britain to send an expeditionary force to Portugal in 1808 and so began a new war against the French which would last for over 5 years. The British Army needed to recruit new soldiers and many were found in towns just like Fulham. Thomas would probably have seen the posters around his home town proclaiming...

"WANTED; Brisk Lads, light and straight, and by no means grummy: not under 5 feet 5 1/2inches, or over 5 feet 9 inches in height: Liberal bounty; good uniforms; generous pay! Step lively lads and come in while there is time." ....

...and so on the 3rd April 1809, Thomas Henry Neal enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the 57th Regiment of Foot (West Middlesex) Regiment and began his military training at Portsmouth. The 2nd Battalion had been raised in 1803 as part of the army of reserve, so while the 1st Battalion were pursuing Napoleon's army out of Portugal, the 2nd Battalion remained on home soil. The Channel Islands were considered to be at risk from attack by Napoleon, so Thomas was one of those posted to defend the Channel Islands with 57th Foot and was based at Elizabeth Castle in St Helier in Jersey.

Soldiers of the 57th Reg't of Foot
Elizabeth Castle, St Helier, Jersey. 
In October 1809, the 1st Battalion had landed in Lisbon. As part of 2nd Brigade they were under the command of Daniel Hoghton. They suffered some heavy losses during the first two years of the Peninsular War, most notably at Albuera on May 16th 1811 when 87 men were killed and a further 318 soldiers and officers were wounded. The battalion does not appear to take part in any further battles in the months following this heavy massacre.

In late July 1811 Thomas Neal would have been told that he was leaving Jersey and going to Spain. In August a draft of men from the 2nd Battalion arrived in Spain and was used to supplement the survivors of the 1st Battalion. The reformed 1st Battalion of 57th Foot were reassigned to 2nd Brigade, which was part of William Stewart's 2nd Division, which in turn formed part of Sir Rowland Hill's right column of the British Army, commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesey, Marquis of Wellington. 2nd division became known as the "Observing Division", so Thomas Neal would not have been on the front line during his first few months in Spain. The division did get a reputation for launching surprise offensives though, which would have introduced the new recruits to a new style of "Guerrilla" type warfare.

After the winter camp of 1812, Major General John Byng takes command of the 2nd Division and the 57th march northwards until the French army halts and tuns to attack its pursuers at the Pueblo Heights, Vitoria in June 1813. Hill's column are on the right flank overlooking the main battlefield and are engaged in battle for most of the day. Eventually the French retreat and the 57th take stock of their casualties. 5 soldiers were killed at Vitoria and a further 23 injured. Following this decisive victory at Vitoria, Sir Arthur Wellesey is promoted to Field Marshall.

Battle of Vitoria June 1813
57th Foot were then pushed forward to guard the Pass of Roncesvalles in the foothills of the Pyrenees and are attacked by two converging French forces. This battle sees Thomas Neal in the thick of the action and signals the first of many battles in the icy passes of the Pyrenees. Fought in terrible terrain, these actions cost the French over 13,000 casualties, but as Wellington remarked in his diary ... "It was a close run thing"

Fighting in the Pyrenees during July and August 1813
Following another decisive victory at Sorauren, Wellington decides to go on the offensive and the 57th are heavily involved in chasing the enemy towards the French border. During the attack on the fortress of Pamplona in July 1813, Major General Byng is wounded in action and Thomas is also wounded in the leg. Pamplona was a French Garrison which Wellington besieged for weeks, sometimes in violent rainstorms, denying the inhabitants any supplies or aid. The garrison eventually capitulated in October 1813 and the 57th were to march northwards again. This only gives Thomas a short time to recover before he rejoins the Brigade at the Battles of the Nive and Nivelle rivers. By this time snow was falling and the 57th were fighting by day and marching by night. On December 13th 1813, the 57th encountered the 3rd Battalion running towards them pursued by the enemy. 57th organised themselves into a firing line and fired volley upon volley of musket fire into the fast approaching French, stopping them dead in their tracks.

Wellington's 2nd Division fight their way across the Nivelle river into France.
Another titanic struggle was going on to the left of the 57ths defensive position, so Byng ordered his men to put in another counter attack and he led a spirited charge at the flank of the French infantry. The Nivelle was finally crossed later in the day, but 57th had suffered heavily in the days fighting with 16 officers and soldiers killed and a further 112 wounded. Major General Byng was one of those wounded, but he still continued to lead the 2nd Division from the front. Sir Rowland Hill's entire right column were now in France, encamped against the worst of the winter weather and defending the Pyrenees. By February, the 57th were on the march again towards the town of Orthez, where once again they faced the French in a bloody battle on February 27th.  The battle is another victory for the British army as they continued to push the French army further away from the Spanish border. At the siege of Bayonne in February 1814 Thomas is wounded again, this time with a head wound. This is strapped up in the field hospital and he is declared fit enough to be promoted to Corporal and join the brigade as they march towards Toulouse in April 1814. It is during the battle there that the British forces hear the news that Napoleon had officially surrendered. Thomas was awarded the Peninsular War Medal and granted 6 clasps for his part in the battles at Vitoria, Pyrenees, Nive, Nivelle, Bayonne and Toulouse.

British soldiers storm into Toulouse in April 1814.
57th Foot remains in France and marches all the way to Bordeaux from where the Battalion is shipped over to Canada to defend the frontier with the United States. This is only a short posting and Thomas is soon back in France where 57th Foot form part of the army of occupation for the next two years. On 25th March 1817, Thomas is promoted again to the rank of Sergeant, a rank he maintains until June 1818, when 57th Foot begins a 6 year stint in Ireland and Thomas is reduced back to the ranks as a private. During his stay in Ireland he is married to a local girl named Eleanor who is about 10 years his junior. They are married in Charleville, County Cork and in 1822, their first daughter, Sophia, is born. As with many Irish family records, I've hit the proverbial "brick wall" trying to find anything about Eleanor or her family, but I do know that Sophia was baptised in Charleville on 13th January 1823.

In September 1824, 57th's garrison in Ireland comes to an end and their new posting is to to sail with the convict ships to New South Wales, Australia, but possibly due to his age (he was 33 now) and the injuries he had suffered in the Peninsular, Thomas is transferred to the Royal Veterans Company on September 25th.

The Uniform of the Royal Newfoundland Veterans Company
The Royal Veterans Company of the British Army consisted of soldiers from the rank who were no longer considered fit for duty. These soldiers could be discharged as in-patients and admitted to the Chelsea Royal Hospital (Chelsea Pensioners) or as out-patients and allowed to return to their families. Men who were still fit for garrison duty could transfer to a Veterans Company, which is the route Thomas Neal chose.

The first detachment of the Royal Veterans Company arrived in St John's, Newfoundland, Canada on November 19th 1824. The main duties of the garrison were usually ceremonial, but they could also be called upon for police duties or to break up riots in Newfoundland. Thomas was stationed at Fort Townsend in St Johns. In 1827 the company was renamed the Royal Newfoundland Veterans Company and Thomas was promoted back up to the rank of Sergeant again.

Thomas had taken his wife and young daughter to Canada with him and during their stay, four more children were born. George born in 1826, Margaret in 1831, Richard in 1833 and Thomas Jr in 1835. By this time Thomas's eyesight was beginning to fail.  He must have returned to England as his medical examination was undertaken at Chatham in January 1835.  The report reads ...

"I am of decision that Sgt Thomas Neal is unfit for service and that treatment in hospital is not likely to be of any advantage to his impaired vision, the effects of age". 

On March 10th 1835, Thomas is officially pensioned out of the army on medical grounds. He was aged 43 and is described on his pension documents as 5 feet 6 inches in height, brown hair, grey eyes with a fresh complexion.

I have no record of the families movements after this date until they turn up in Jersey again on the 1841 census. The family are living on Regent Road, St Helier and Thomas is listed as an "Army Veteran". Eldest son George is now 15 and working as a smith's apprentice and eldest daughter Sophia (my 3x Gt Grandmother) has found work as a live-in domestic servant with a family in St Saviour. Looking through the 1841 census, it's quite clear that a large number of Chelsea Pensioners relocated to the Channel Islands following the Napoleonic wars, so I wonder what the connection is. Let's not forget though that Thomas had already been to Jersey early in his career and there were also very strong  trading links between Newfoundland and Jersey, so I wonder what really brought him back to Jersey?

The family appear to have settled into their new surroundings and Sophia is married at St Helier Town Church on May 25th 1843 to Thomas Gallichan, a local shoemaker who later became the Harbour Policeman. On the 1851 census, the family have moved to Milbrook Place, Colombus Street in St Helier. Thomas is now listed as "Pensioner; late Sg't of Veterans Company". Sons Richard and Thomas are still living at home and interestingly, both are now working as "Apprentice Cabinetmakers", the same occupation Thomas had begun before he enlisted with the army 42 years earlier. There is also a grandaughter living at their home, Eleanor born in 1847. 

This is the point where I lose track of some the family. Their son George was married to Susan Hinchcliffe in St Helier in 1846 and Richard married Elizabeth Davey in St Helier in 1852. Margaret married Peter Main in 1850 and were soon living in Alderney where peter was ablacksmith. They had 7 children all born in Alderney. Margaret and peter were still in Alderney on the 1901 census but by 1911 Peter was widowed and living with his daughter Margaret and her family back in Jersey. I have not been able to find any burial records for either Thomas or Eleanor and I have no further information about their son Thomas. I can confidently trace Sophia through to her burial in St Helier in the 1870s, but her story is a whole different tale to tell another day.

Discovering the army career of Thomas Neal has answered so many questions in my family history, but at the same time it has created even more questions.... Who were Thomas Neal's parents? What really brought the family to Jersey in the first place? As with every family history project, the quest for answers goes on.

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