Going by the book!

The last battle on English soil was fought on 18 December 1745, when dragoons of the Duke of Cumberland’s Government army caught up with the rearguard of the retreating Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. The rebel Jacobites had advanced as far as Derby, but due to lack of support from the people of England decided to retreat back towards Scotland.

Front page of the manuscript

Front page of the manuscript

By 18 December they had reached Penrith in Cumberland, and as the rearguard was passing through the village of Clifton the advance elements of Cumberland’s army – a body of dragoons several hundred strong, caught up. The Scots rearguard was made up of several infantry units. Charles chose not to commit his main force but continued to retreat in the direction of Carlisle, ordering his rearguard to catch up. However, with the Government cavalry in the vicinity it was not possible for them to do so without first offering battle.

In our archive we have a rare survivor from this period, a small 31-page booklet entitled: The new exercise of firelocks and bayonets appointed by his Grace the Duke of Marlborough to be used by all the British forces: with instructions to perform every motion by body, foot and hand. This manual was written by an anonymous ‘Officer in Her Majesties Foot Guards’, and published in 1708. Prior to the Act of Union of 1707, the Government forces in England, Scotland and Ireland had been separate, so this booklet was one of the very first drill manuals used by the British Army. It is not illustrated, but the descriptions of the orders and words of command give us a good feel for small-arms handling at this time.

Pages from the manuscript

Pages from the manuscript

At Clifton, the dragoons dismounted and, lining a series of hedges and ditches opened fire upon the Jacobites. After a brief exchange of fire, the Jacobite regiments charged and dispersed the Government forces, and then resumed their retreat. Reports as to the numbers of casualties vary, but an account written on 29 December 29by Thomas Savage, a local farmer whose house seems to have been at the epicentre of the fighting, put the number of Government troops killed at ten, with 21 wounded. Only five Jacobites were killed according to Savage, and although many were wounded only two were taken prisoner.

On the face of their poor show at Clifton, it might seem that the manual the dragoons followed had been of little use. However they were probably outnumbered by the Jacobites, and as the events of Culloden would show the following year, when troops using manuals like this were commanded by a resolute and skilled general such as Cumberland, they proved to be very effective indeed.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant