A Ridge in Wessex: South Dorset During the Napoleonic Wars

A Ridge in Wessex: South Dorset During the Napoleonic Wars

Andrew North (Military Historian) and Mark North (Dorset Museum)


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Andrew and Mark North


In this talk we are going to explore the historical backdrop of the Trumpet Major Novel, In particularly the preparations of a possible invasion around the south Dorset area.

French preparation for the invasion of the United Kingdom

From 1803 to 1805 an army of 200,000 men known as the army of the ocean coasts or army of England was gathered and trained at camps at Boulogne, Bruges and Montreuil. Port facilities at Boulogne were improved and the troops were occupied with constant training and frequent visits from Napoleon. Such was the anticipated success of the forthcoming operation that a triumphal column was erected at Boulogne. A large scale test of the invasion craft, ordered by Napoleon against the advice of his naval commanders, showed how ill-designed for the task, the boats were.

Troop carrying balloons were also considered as part of the invasion force, this however was not put in place due to the changeable channel weather. Though British cartoonist depicted this alongside the possibility of a tunnel route.

British Response to the Threat

Although Napoleons fleet test proved unsuccessful Britain continued preparing its defences from Invasion. Perhaps the most visible example of countermeasures are the Martello towers, built closest to the anticipated invasion landing sites, south-east coast Suffolk to Sussex. Standing up to 40ft high their construction made them ideal to resist cannon fire and provide a platform for an artillery piece able to traverse 360-degree circle and fire. Dover Castles defences were improved having tunnels, added to house more troops, earthworks erected to modernize existing defensive works. Royal Military Canal was also built running between Seabrook near Folkestone and Cliff End near Hastings, 28 miles in length a defensible barrier to ensure a French army could not use the Romney Marsh as a bridge head. Planned by Lieutenant Colonel John Brown of the Royal Staff Corps of field engineers and endorsed by the Prime Minister William Pitt and the Duke of York Commander in Chief of the army.

Constructed in two sections, linked by the River Rother and River Brede, artillery batteries were located at about every 500 yards where the canal was staggered to create a Salient (projects outward or upward from its surrounding, especially an outwardly projecting part of fortification trench system, or line of defence), enabling guns to fire to the next stretch of water. A military road was built on the inland part of the canal and the piled excavated soil from the canal provided protection for the troops stationed there.

All the French preparation and successful conclusion to Napoleon’s invasion of these islands were of course dependant on Naval control of the English Channel. This would be accompanied by the breaking of the British Navy’s blockade at Brest and Toulon, sailing the Franco-Spanish fleet, across the Atlantic, to threaten the West Indies with the British Navy in pursuit return take control of the channel, before the British Fleet could counter this tactic, enabling enough time to transport the French Army across the channel and invade.

This plan was only partly successful, part of the French. Spanish fleet did break the British blockade and cross the Atlantic but did not assemble with the rest of the fleets as planned. On return to Europe the French Spanish fleet encountered the British Navy blockading the French coast, where invasion vessels had been prepared, and were defeated at the Battle of Cape Finisterre and forced back into port.

On 27th August 1805 Napoleon made the invasion force the core of the New Grande Armee and eventually it broke camp and marched eastwards to begin the campaign in central Europe which would culminate in possibly his greatest victory at Austerlitz. By the time of the Battle of Trafalgar 21st October, the invasion had already been called off, ensuring the threat of invasion was lifted and victory of Nelson guaranteed British control of the channel ensuring any future invasion plans would be at least very difficult.

Dorset Preparation

Being that the French army was massed at Boulogne in all probability the main landing would take place on the Kent Coast.

September 1804 – In a letter to Minister of War Bertheir. Napoleon said that Kent was the Grande Armees objective – being dictated by tides, winds, logistics of assembling an invasion force, the threat of the Royal Navy, the shortest route being the obvious choice through necessity.

However, King George III was certain that Dorset was one of the more vulnerable parts of the kingdom and increased activity by French forces, from time to time, at Brest may have caused him to think this.

In June 1804 he wrote to his second son Prince Frederick Duke of York and Albany, Commander in Chief of the Army.

“I cannot deny that I am rather hurt that there is any objection made to forming so large an army of reserves in Dorsetshire where, or in Cornwall I think an attack more likely than in Essex, Kent, or Sussex.”

Rumour and propaganda combined to spread fear in the minds of the local population. One such rumour was that one of Napoleon’s brothers had come to England to find out whether the English working classes would rise up against the government and that he was hiding in a French convent at Marnhall with a large supply of arms and ammunition this was later found to be a false report on completion of a search by magistrates.

Napoleon himself was also reported to be reconnoitring the south coast which is perhaps the basis of a story that Napoleon landed at Lulworth, was observed by a French speaking farmer’s wife who on seeing the obstacles of the landing of an army folded his maps, ruefully said “impossible” and returned to his waiting ship. The possibilities of this story are however small though French agents could have operated along the coast bearing in mind the amount of smuggling activity in the area.

Reinforcements from the regular army

With the increased activity of French troops at Boulogue the threat of invasion and the presence of the Royal family meant that the county was not only garrisoned by volunteer militia and yeomanry but by a number of regular troops as well.

Troop numbers would increase in the Summer when the Royal Family were taking their holidays and invasion fears were at their highest. Provision for the billeting of these men was difficult, the purpose built cavalry barracks at Weymouth, Dorchester, Wareham and Bridport started in 1794.

Dorchester being completed first in June 1795. Weymouth Barracks a larger establishment was completed later in 1796 – 1797, being built for 16 officers 6 Quartermasters, 169 other ranks 188 horses and provision for 26 hospital beds. This was however insufficient as numbers requiring accommodation increased during the emergency. This being the state of affairs surplus troops were billeted on the local community either in Inns, Public Houses and livery stables.

A cavalry soldier would of course have to be housed with his mount. Though a payment was made to “mine host” of 5d a day per foot soldier, 7d a day for a cavalryman for subsistence and 6d a day for each horse. Inn keepers would protest that this was not enough and friction would arise when for example the Quartermaster of the 1st Dragoons, Thomas Wrinch, complained that Thomas Johnson, Inn keeper provided inadequate straw for litter, and allowance of corn for feed, for a troop horse. Even after the new Act of May 1804, following a House of Commons Enquiry, increased the amount paid to feed and lodge troops to 1 shilling 2 pence per horse and straw there was no specified weight for hay and straw supplied which gave rise for further complaints from Inn keepers and Publicans from both Wareham and Dorchester.

Of course the presence of so many military men, in particular the foreign troops of the Kings German Legion did enliven the social scene of the provincial towns. Weymouth having the Royal Court amongst its citizens became a destination for high society with the numerous grand balls and events at the Assembly Rooms a particular draw. Officers of the Kings German Legion gained a reputation as fine dance partners and would amuse the local population with their broken English and attempts to introduce the ladies to the Waltz.

The Military did indeed provide a distraction from the usual peace-time activities. An inhabitant of Wareham Mr Thomas Oldfield Bartlett recorded observations in his diary. On the 9th May 1808 he mentioned the 1st Heavy Dragoons of the Kings German Legion and proudly listed the officers he knew. Whilst on the 15th June 1808 he also gave a dinner for the Officers of the 2nd Light Dragoons of the Kings German Legion. The Month of August saw Mr Bartlett attend a mock battle or sham fight between the German Cavalry Regiments at a location South of Dorchester. Though he recorded that the event was “not worth going 10 miles to see”. He had ridden from Wareham to see his new acquaintances but was perhaps disappointed in the spectacle.

Everyone is familiar with the children’s nursery rhyme “The Grand Old Duke of York”. It was the area around North of Weymouth (Ridgeway Hill, Bincombe and Sutton Poyntz) that became immortalised in this familiar rhyme as the place where the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men to the top of the hill.

William Barnes wrote a poem about the activities and sham fights on the Ridgeway which based on an actual incident involving a woman called Old Grace from Abbotsbury who was on her way to Dorchester market to sell Mackeral. In this poem she is called Nanny Gill.

Nanny Gill by William Barnes

AH! they wer times, when Nanny Gill

Went so'jerèn ageänst her will,

Back when the King come down to view

His ho'se an’ voot, in red an’ blue,

An’ they did march in rows,

An’ wheel in lines an’ bows,

Below the King's own nose;

An’ guns did pwoint, an’ swords did gleäre,

A-fightèn foes that werden there.

Poor Nanny Gill did goo to zell

In town her glitt'rèn macarel,

A-pack'd wi’ ceäre, in even lots,

A-ho'seback in a peäir o’ pots.

An’ zoo when she did ride so

Between her panniers wide,

Red-cloked in all her pride,

Why, who but she, an’ who but broke

The road avore her scarlet cloke!

But Nanny's ho'se that she did ride,

Woonce carr'd a sword ageän his zide,

An’ had, to prick en into rank,

A so'jer's spurs ageän hi flank;

An’ zoo, when he got zight

O’ swords a-gleamèn bright,

An’ men agwaïn to fight,

He set his eyes athirt the ground,

An’ prick'd his ears to catch the sound.

Then Nanny gi'ed his zide a kick,

An’ het en wi’ her limber stick;

But suddenly a horn did sound,

An’ zend the ho'semen on vull bound;

An’ her ho'se at the zight

Went after em, vull flight,

Wi’ Nanny in a fright,

A-pullèn, wi’ a scream an’ grin,

Her wold brown raïns to hold en in.

But no! he went away vull bound,

As vast as he could tear the ground,

An’ took, in line, a so'jer's pleäce,

Vor Nanny's cloke an’ frighten'd feäce;

While vo'k did laugh an’ shout

To zee her cloke stream out,

As she did wheel about,

A-cryèn, ?Oh! la! dear!” in fright,

The while her ho'se did plaÿ sham fight.

Life as a Light Dragoon as part of the defence of the county

Included in the ranks of the pleasure seeking population was a Captain Edwin Griffith of the 15th Light Dragoons. In July 1805, the 15th Light Dragoons arrived in Weymouth and the regiment camped at the village of Radipole. Here they joined the 1st Hussars Kings German Legion and three brigades of Horse and Field Artillery. At Radipole Barracks, located at Lodmoor, Weymouth, were stationed the 1st and 2nd Dragoons, Heavy Cavalry, Kings German Legion.

In addition to the nearly 8,000 Infantry, Foot Artillery, Companies of Riflemen camped in the area there were around 11,000 troops located for the areas defence. The Royal Family at Weymouth at the time to enjoy the bathing, frequently visited the troops. Throughout the Summer a number of field days were held and the troops were exercised daily in outpost work, advance and rear guards. The Light Cavalry of the Kings German Legion later gained a reputation to be the best in the British Army and the training would without doubt been of benefit to Edwin and his Regiment.

The Camp eventually broke up in September and Edwin with the rest of the 15th Light Dragoons moved to the Barracks near Weymouth to replace the Dragoons of the Kings German Legion. Edwin was to write home just before Christmas and clearly missed his family, recording in his letter an invitation to attend a Grand Feast at Mr Charles Buxton, although he was not complimentary about the other guests.

Other than time spent socialising with the local ladies and dignitaries of the town Edwins time was spent on the repetitive routine of Barrack life. Rising at 8am attired in his uniform he would make sure his chestnuts, all of the horses of the regiment of the 15th Light Dragoons had to be of that colour, had been made ready for their walking exercise. Following this with reading the papers in the Officers Mess, he would take breakfast in his room, until mid-day he would when time permitted complete his studies.

After 12 noon time would be spent inspecting his troops, making sure all rooms were clean checking the regimental cooks had all provisions necessary for the men's meals. At 1pm Edwin would mount his horse Pegasus to take lessons in the riding school until it was time to dress for evening parade. This would last to 4pm and from then to 5pm write letters before having a good dinner in the mess room. At 7pm he would inspect the Stables drink tea at 9pm and go to bed at 10pm.

As you can imagine life so repetitive and mundane could mean some of the men would find ways to entertain themselves.

 Regimental Order dated 17th February 1806 would provide an example of this :-

“The Commanding officer has observed that in some rooms the men have amused themselves with throwing herring guts against the ceiling. If any such irregularity is again observed, the rooms will be fresh white washed at the expense of the men occupying them”

Any breach of military discipline would be punished according to the nature of the offence. The punishment for a capital offence ie desertion would be carried out in the presence of troops stationed in the locality. In the case of the two non-commissioned officers in the York Hussars executed on the downs near Bincombe, the four troopers found guilty of the offence as well were later marched back to camp, by the same men of the firing party, to be dealt with later probably the “lesser punishment” a flogging again in front of assembled troops.

The pattern of daily soldierly duties and social interaction with the locals at Weymouth would continue until January 1807 when the 15th Light Dragoons moved to Dorchester. Whilst stationed here the Regiment in March 1807 was ordered to convert to Hussars adopting a new uniform including the famous pelisse or hanging jacket.

Weapons to be carried were to be a small carbine, a short barrelled version of the infantry musket, pistol and Light cavalry sabre 1796. Remembered as one of the best of its time and has been described as the finest cutting sword ever manufactured in quantity.

In June the Regiment finally moved out of the county on its long journey to campaign in Portugal and Spain gaining battle honours and a fine reputation along the way.

Edwin Griffith after seeing much action with his Regiment he saw his fair share of active service, eventually becoming a Major in the 15th Hussars and taking part in the Waterloo Campaign June 1815. Whilst leading his Regiment, after the Colonel had been wounded, in a charge he received five musket balls to the chest and died instantly.

In the grounds of our local parish church St Nicholas, Broadwey, lie three soldiers of the 15th Light Dragoons. Of interest as one of the company was a trumpeter: -

Inscription on the memorial stone.

Sacred to the Memory of

Trumpeter Michael Melchior

Privates James Mussell & John Newman


The 15th King's Regiment of Light Dragoons

who lay buried in this churchyard.

This Stone was raised as a mark of respect by their affectionate comrades.

Anno Domini 1807

Tria Juncta in Uno (Three become one)

“The Good and Brave in every Clime with due regard shall meet

And Travellers passing near this spot the Soldiers virtues greet.

Three Light Dragoons of 15th Corps beneath our feet doth lay

Their Country’s duties having done, retired to parent clay.

However Good, however Brave, to this at last we come

A Soldier’s valour ne’er should yield, to fear his foretold doom.

Oft as the Trumpet sound to Arms, their youthful bosoms glow

And native valour knew no bounds where ere it found a foe.

To deeds of Arms the one has called, the others quick obey’d

And Comrades by each others side great courage have displayed.

Oh Melchior, who with Trumpet loud, thy Comrades oft did raise

Be then prepared at the last call to sound immortal praise.

Those Comrades you have left behind these little rites do give

T’is all their generous bosoms can; t’is all thou canst receive.”

It is highly likely that Hardy, who had an interest in the Napoleonic wars and local history would have read or at least been aware of this poetic inscription whilst working for Crickmay Architects had often done improvement work on the church and the school (built in 1830) opposite and associations with the mason’s at Hounsell's Stone, Marble and Granite Works at Broadwey (It was mason, Leonard Hounsell, that placed the casket of Hardy’s Heart in his grave at Stinsford). It may be that the tomb stone inscription may have given him inspiration for his historical martial hero.

John Loveday Light Dragoon?

The British Cavalry, of the Napoleonic Wars, had two main components: -

Heavy Cavalry comprising the Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards and Dragoons these were attired in Red Jackets, though there was the exception of the Royal Horse Guards who wore blue.

Light Cavalry comprising Light Dragoons and Hussars. These regiments wore blue jackets.

Reading the Trumpet Major, although a detailed description of John Lovedays uniform is not forthcoming, a general reference is made:-

Chapter One – What was seen from the window overlooking the down

“Other troops had, during the last few minutes, been ascending the down at a remoter point, and now drew near. These were different weight and build from the others, lighter men, in helmet hats with white plumes”.

Tarleton Light Cavalry Helmet

2 Chapter Three – In which the mill becomes an important centre of operations

“Few would have supposed that the white coat and blue coats of miller and soldier covered the forms of father son”

3 Chapter Ten – The match-making virtues of a double garden

“So his epaulettes and blue jacket, and Ann's yellow gipsy hat, were often seen in different part of the garden”

With these few references to John's Uniform we can make a calculated guess to his branch of the Cavalry.

With these facts in mind I return to the description of Edwin Griffith Uniform.

Would have consisted of a short tight fitting jacket in dark blue. Laced across the front with twenty bars of silver braid, (the regulations called for scale epaulettes and wings but it is uncertain whether the 15th Light Dragoons wore this), buff breeches and long black boots, all topped by a Tarleton Helmet with a black fur crest and a distinctive all scarlet plume and turban, a Regimental distinction.

Though the Officers Uniform would be more ornate and of better quality the rank and file be the same.

The Alarm

The Kings safety, when visiting Weymouth was paramount as the war progressed, and was of great importance. There was a plan to carry him and the Royal family to London should Dorset be invaded his coach was always on standby when he was staying at the Gloucester Lodge.

In May 1804 the King and his family were visiting Weymouth when news of a French Fleet was seen off the Isle of Portland. There was a heavy fog that morning and the signal stations located along the coast at Abbotsbury, Golden Cap and the Verne had no visibility. This meant that news came from the local coastguard who were finding it difficult to view the sea through the fog and the attendant limited visibility. The Alarm was raised and the volunteer militia mobilized and headed towards Portland. We can only imagine the panic of the local population, as they fled inland towards Bere Regis, the road over the ridgeway a procession of carriages, carts carrying their human cargoes and associated possessions. Thankfully it was realised that there was no French landing but a group of fishing boats. It was noted in Parliament when an MP referred to the residents of the Weymouth area as “Panic stricken bumpkins”.


During the 19th Century, as with those previous, beacons were positioned along the Dorset Coast to alert the local population of an imminent invasion. These were set on prominent positions and were fuelled by rushes. One such site was near where the Hardy Monument stands indicating position and plan for the network and importance as a method to communicate an emergency.


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