The 95th Rifles at Buenos Aires
Success to Grey Hairs, but bad luck to White-Lockes
By Adam Barnes
One of the first major campaigns in which the 95th had the privilege of playing a role , happens to be one of the most disgraceful episodes in British Military history: the disastrous campaign led by General Whitelocke to Buenos Aires. Although the British Army was completely and utterly defeated during this campaign, the eight companies of the 95th Rifles, under the command of their future Divisional Leader, Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd, were able to come away from it with their reputation intact. It is stated in many sources that Craufurd’s command of the Light Brigade, consisting of about seventy recruits of the 71st Regiment of Foot, and the eight companies of the 95th, very nearly won the battle to take Buenos Aires, and it was through the indecisiveness and poor command of Whitelocke that the Campaign turned into such a disaster. With the Brigade formed and ready to march, Craufurd suffered a setback as the strength of his command was effectively halved after four companies were removed from his command and attached to the command of the Commander-in-chief.
On July 2nd 1806, the Light Brigade, marching with a force of troops under the command of Major General Gower had approached close to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, having found very little resistance. The most resistance came from a small force of Spanish Cavalry, who, according to an unknown officer, dispersed quickly after the 95th scoured a wood to the left of the brigade allowing light artillery to be brought up to add fire onto the Spanish horse. Although little is known about the 95th’s assault on the wood that allowed this early skirmish to be won, it can be assumed that there was little to no resistance from Spanish troops given how easily the wood was taken and with very few casualties.
The 95th’s part in this early engagement was not over; Craufurd, pressing on the momentum he had gained from pushing back the enemy cavalry sent his riflemen forward to take a ridge to his front. Fighting in sections, up a road, Craufurd’s and Lumley’s brigades took the summit of the ridge. Having continued to advance, it appears that the Craufurd’s Light Brigade came under a sudden barrage of grape and round shot.
According to eyewitness sources, Craufurd, after an apparently uncharacteristic moment of hesitation, (which, according to the unknown officer, was owing to the sudden ambush of enemy artillery) ordered a general advance onto the enemy positions. Although sources agree that this charge was a great success, there is a discrepancy in the outcome. It is agreed throughout various sources that the charge was so much of a success that Craufurd was able to drive back the enemy and capture a battery of enemy guns, however it is here that the various reports disagree. The unknown author of An authentic Narrative of the Proceedings of the Expedition sets the number of guns captured at eleven; ‘ten field pieces of four and eight pounders, with one five and a half inch howitzer,’ whilst the Revd. Alexander Craufurd, referencing mostly the unknown officer’s source, quotes the number at ten guns, being ‘nine guns and a howitzer.’ Additionally the author of the Memoir of the late Major-General Robert Craufurd states that the number captured was higher, at twelve pieces of Artillery, whilst General Gower, giving evidence at the Court Martial of General Whitelocke states that the number of artillery pieces captured at ten. Whatever the number, the light Brigade acquitted itself in a highly effective manner, checking their advance on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to await Gower’s division to reinforce the small force.
Had Gower arrived, it is commonly agreed in both Spanish and British accounts of the campaign that Buenos Aires would have easily fallen. Craufurd himself confirms this view in a letter to his brother in October 1810, writing; “The Duke told me, when here a few days ago, that he read lately in one of the papers an account of Whitelocke’s affair at Buenos Aires by the second in command to Liniers, in which it was asserted that if you had been allowed to advance into the town that evening, after defeating Liniers, as you proposed to do, you would certainly have taken the place.”, The unknown officer describes how Gower’s division lost Craufurd's division, so quick was their advance, and only located the division after having the position pointed out by an officer of the 95th and also by following the sound of the ensuing battle. Had this not have happened, and Gower authorised Craufurd's request to advance into the city, then the resultant battle a few days later would have been unnecessary. Indeed the unknown officer writing in An Authentic Narrative states “we were momentarily expecting the order to advance into the town, particularly as some companies had been detached on the flanks, with an apparent view of covering such a movement. This General Craufurd had already proposed doing; but General Gower would not authorize the attempts, which, by all the information we afterwards received, would have been crowned with success, with but little if any loss. Our vexation, when ordered to retire, may therefore be easily conceived.” This frustration from his troops was strongly echoed in Craufurd's evidence given against Whitelocke’s Court Martial, stating “I trust the court will allow me to say, that from all I heard since, I am convinced, that if the main division under General Whitelocke had been as near as I thought it might have been, we certainly should have taken the town with ease; I had very strong doubts whether we might not have taken it with General Gower’s corps.”
The Court Martial of General Whitelocke
Through examining the evidence given by Craufurd at Whitelocke’s Court Martial, it is clear that the Light Division executed itself in a most professional manner, achieving what was asked of them against overwhelming odds, with Craufurd estimating in his evidence at court, the enemy force at around two-thousand men. Even once Whitelocke’s division finally arrived, the final assault was still further delayed, giving enough time for Buenos Aires to reorganize its shattered defence. The failure of Craufurd's superior officers to react quickly to the presented situations, certainly negate any advantage gained on the general advance by Craufurd's Brigade.
The campaign’s bloody conclusion was, for the 95th and the Light Division, a dark time in its short history. During Whitelocke’s final assault on Buenos Aires, having occupied a convent, Craufurd's force was largely forgotten about and consequently, Craufurd was completely unaware of any happenings on the battlefield. Completely cut off, despite conducting a defence of the convent, the numerically superior Spanish force and complete lack of British reinforcements presented Craufurd with a dilemma; carry on fighting and face almost certain annihilation, or surrender the whole of his Brigade to the Spanish. In his evidence at the Court Martial, Craufurd stated that “at about half past three o’clock, I assembled the field officers, Colonel Pack, Colonel Guard, and Major Macleod, who commanded the detachment of the artillery corps. After mature deliberation, a flag of truce was held out by us to the enemy; and finding that no other terms could be obtained, I thought it better to surrender the remainder of my brigade as prisoners of war. The number which surrendered I believe to have been about six hundred rank and file.” Although the 95th, along with the rest of the Light Division, were compelled to surrender in this action, they saved themselves from a general defeat, a fate which bestowed itself on the rest of the army, without losing a large number of casualties.
Upon their return to England, Whitelocke faced Court Martial in Chelsea, whereupon he was found guilty on all but one count, and dismissed from the Army