The Gordons on Guernsey

28th September 2015

By the writer and prolific journalist, Basil Campbell de Guérin. From The Scots Magazine, XLVIII (5), February 1948, in his Scrapbook H, in the Library. Although this is a fascinating article, the premiss upon which De Guérin wrote it is fundamentally flawed; the 92nd Foot did not become the Gordon Highlanders until 1798. This version of the 92nd Regiment was raised in Ireland by George Hewett on 31 December 1793. Also known from October 1794 as Colonel Hewitt's Regiment of Foot, it lasted less than two years, until it was disbanded in October 1795.

In the article on Scotland and the Channel Islands (The Scots Magazine, October 1947,) reference was made to the presence on Guernsey, as the garrison of that island, of the 75th Foot (1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders) in the year 1877, and the 2nd Battalion of the same regiment from 1885 to 1887.

These troops were by no means the first Scots to fill this position.

One has to go back nearly a century from that time to find the first recorded instance of a Scots garrison on Guernsey, the 92nd Foot or 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders. This was in 1795, and that their post was considered an important one, in view of Napoleon's successes on the continent, is proved by the fact that on the island at the time were also stationed: the 102nd, Royal Dublin Fusiliers; the 94th, 2nd Connaught Rangers; the 50th, Queen's Royal West Surreys; the 60th, 4th the King's Royal Rifle Corps; and one battalion of Invalides.

All these were regular regiments of the line, but in addition there was also the local militia of some 3000 men, comprising three regiments of Light Infantry, several batteries of Garrison and Field Artillery, and a troop of Light Horse. It would seem that had Napoleon's projected invasion of the island not been cancelled at the last moment, his troops would have had a warm reception, a fact of which his spies no doubt informed him.

In the meantime, while they awaited Napoleon's arrival, the soldiers of Scotland, Ireland, and England, to say nothing of the native corps who spoke French but thought British, got in plenty of unorthodox practice at fighting amongst themselves. Guards and picquets were placed in strength in many parts of the island nightly, and it appears to have been a matter worthy of a congratulatory order by the Commander-in-Chief when a night passed without some more or less serious fracas involving the different regiments.

All facts, figures and dates here are extracted from copies of Daily Orders issued from Island Headquarters and signed by the Lieut.-Governor of the time, Major-General John Small.

When one considers the type of men condemned to this [grim, no roads, French-speaking population &c] existence it is easy to realise how the sparks flew when Scots and Irish met. On one occasion we learn that night patrols, which had been sent out because of the murder of a civilian, had to be withdrawn lest there should be need for subsequent inquests on the military.

Punishment of troops was both frequent and ferocious, and Courts Martial were weekly occurrences. On June 15, 1795, an Order issued to all ranks detailed the findings of a Court Martial held on six men of the Oxfordshire militia (not even a regular regiment) for attempted insubordination. Two were to be shot, one sent for ten years' garrison duty in the 'recently founded' settlement of New South Wales, and the other three were to receive 1500, 1000 and 500 lashes respectively with a cat-o'-nine-tails on their bare backs. One almost envies the fate of the first two.

On Guernsey, however, the troops had other duties besides keeping watch over the empty Atlantic, and the gallant 92nd had their fair share of ceremonial parades. Their reward was not forgotten, as the last paragraph of the following order will show:

Headquarters, June 3 1795. To-morrow being the anniversary of the birth of our Most Gracious Sovereign,¹ every demonstration of joy and respectful attachment to his Sacred Person and Family will be manifested by all His Majesty's Loyal Subjects inhabiting this Flourishing Island, and by the Troops both Militia and those of the Line destined to defend so important a post. At the parade, the Second Brigade of the Line will consist of the 92nd and 102nd Regiments commanded by Lieut.-Col. Cockburn as Brigadier-General. Senior Captain of 92nd on parade will be Capt. Mackeskill, acting as Major of the Line. Infantry will fire a volley by Brigades followed by a feu de joie, the Corps then resuming their position in the Line. Whereupon the distribution of Liquor for the refreshment of the non-commissioned officers and Soldiers and to drink His Majesty's Health then will immediately take place, after which the regiments will march back to their respective quarters.

The Officers are then requested to return to the different apartments at HQ, where a cold collation is provided, whereof they are invited to partake and conclude the Proceedings of the Joyful Occasion by fervent wishes in drinking Health, Life and Happiness to His Majesty and the Royal Family and success to the British Arms by sea and land.

The Pioneers of the different Rrgiments to bring with them a proportion of their Beer Cans, at least one per company, for the purpose of more expeditiously distributing the Liquor presented to the Men after the firing.

The Commander-in-Chief having proved his thoughtfulness of the men's welfare as above, issued a laudatory message the following day which must have gone far to compensate them for the bad weather they experienced. He said:

Headquarters, June 4, 1795. Major General Small thinks it due to His Majesty's Forces to express his approbation of their appearance and conduct in the Field. Their firmness and unhesitating patience for several hours under heavy rain discovered a manliness worthy of British Troops.

About this time there was an awakening of interest in hygiene, and after complaining of 'collections of rubbish and filth at and near the entrance of some of the Quarters,' an Order contimues:

A proportion of Gun Powder and Vinegar will be issued to the Quarter Master of different Corps, for being daily used in fumigating the Quarters of the healthy as well as the sick, as a means pointed out as absolutely necessary and extremely useful in the present general state of the troops to prevent Epidemic and infectious disorders from spreading as well as to diminish the virulence and malignancy of the Distempers.

Next came a rap over the knuckles for the Gordons. Those in charge of the Prisoners-of-War captured from Buonaparte's Forces appear to have been guilty of fraternising, and the C-in-C thunders at them:

A shameful and indecent improprietory has been, by the Field Officers reported, that the Soldiers of the Prison Guard have in some instances degraded themselves so unworthy as to receive food and refreshment from the Prisoners of War, this offer could not but be intended for sinister purposes, and such undignified means in British Soldiers as to accept of such an impudent offer is from hence forward absolutely forbidden and pronounced a Crime, that on detection will be punished with the utmost severity as a flagrant disobedience of Orders.

Hogmanay appears to have given an excuse to the Scots to indulge their high spirits at the expense of the residents of St Peter Port, as there appears a rather peevish Order which states that:

Complaints have been received of turbulent and unruly persons, with a wanton and savage barbarity, disturbing the inhabitants by noise and knocking at doors.

To prevent any recurrence of this 'savage barbarity,' the 92nd were ordered to furnish picquets for night duties, consisting of two Officers, a Serjeant, two Corporals, and eighteen Privates, to patrol every hour from 10 pm to 7 am. In addition, a Patrole of the local Cavalry was ordered to ride through the streets and avenues of the Town, all with order to 'seize, confine and report all licentious disturbers of the Peace.' One imagines the cure would have been much more noisy than the ill it was meant to check.

An almost paternal regard for the welfare of the Troops and the religious devotions of the civil population is dispayed in the following Order:

Headquarters, January 17 1795. The heavy and continuing fall of snow from an increasing depth will create much delay and retard the troops that parade tomorrow for firing if formed on the beach, in order therefore to save every unavoidable inconvenience to the troops, those destined for duty in question will form on the North and South Piers, for which reason the Pionners of the different Corps quartered in Town, are ordered to assemble at the Pier Guard to-morrow at nine, where under direction of Lieutenant Armstrong of the 92nd Regiment they will be furnished with shovels and brooms to clear and sweep the snow from the pavements of said Piers. The arrangements for celebrating Her Majesty's Birthday² being at the usual hour of Divine Service, and the firing taking place so contiguous to the Parochial Church, would cause an interruption to Devotion and Decency, the Service will therefore be deferred until after the firing, when the troops off duty will attend as usual. The 92nd gives the Guards to-morrow and the Picquet this evening. Field officer for the day, Major Byng.

On February 2, the 92nd were called upon for the sad duty of providing a Mourning Party for the funeral of the Major Byng mentioned above. The Order further commanded that crepe should be worn by all ranks for a period of six weeks.

On April 12 1795, a gang of civilian robbers was rounded up by the military, and three days late the C-in-C's Order states: 

Public thanks are due to Sergt. Curry of the 92nd regiment, who so attentively performed his duty at the Pier Guard on the evening of the 12th inst. Capt. Mackeskill is requested to signify this approbation from the General on the Regimental Parade.

The Gordons left Guernsey some time in 1795, but the last order referring to them is again of a considerable nature and is on that all-important subject, beer.

Headquarters, 20 April 1795. The mode of issuing Beer having been repeatedly pointed out as a necessary means of contributing to the health of the troops, and rendering that useful beverage palatable as well as healthy, in having it conveyed to the different stations, at least 48 hours before being used, to be immediately on its arrival deposited safely and to remain undisturbed and unmoved, until by the Regimental Quarter Masters and in presence of the Officer of the Day, distributed to the different Companies and Messes to enable the Contractor therefore to be punctual in a timely previous conveyance of the Beer to the different posts and Garrisons, the Returns from the several Corps will require to be very correct as to numbers and several situations, and in any case alterations happen during the interval between the weekly sending in the Beer returns. The same must be immediately signified to the contractor that he may be the master of the specific numbers at each station thus informed, no error on his part can happen, and if such was the case, would not be tolerated.

Four years later another Scots regiment had arrived on the island to reinforce the Garrison.This was the 79th (Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders) but unfortunately no records exist of their period of service, other than an Order dated April 3 1799, stating that this Regiment is to be held in readiness to embark at the shortest notice on board transports, which will be sent to convey them from Guernsey to Minorca.

In 1802 we find that still another regiment from north of the border was on the island, their only mention being in an Order dated May 3 of that year, which states: 'A Royal Salute to be fired to-morrow from the Upper Battery of Castle Cornet as soon as the Peace (Treaty of Amiens) shall have been proclaimed. This salute is to be followed by 3 volleys from the 93rd Regiment (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.)'

The peace did not last long, however, and in the following year Napoleon declared war once again. That he meant business this time was soon realised in the Channel Islands, and the Lieut.-Governor of Guernsey, Sir John Doyle, Bart., KB, issued the follwing Order dated July 24 1803:

The Commander-in-Chief feels that he should ill deserve the Confidence of the loyal inhabitants of this Island if he hesitated a moment to lay before them without disguise the real situation. From certain intelligence he knows that the most energetic measures are carrying forward in the Ports of that Country for the immediate invasion of these Islands, not merely with the intention as in former Wars of pillaging the inhabitants or even taking possession of this Island, but for the entire destruction of every person found in it. He therefore calls on every man who values his liberty, who cherishes the fond hope of preserving a loved wife from the violation of a licentious Soldiery and his infant progeny from their Destructive Bayonets, to come forward at this awful crisis to defend everything dear to man. In the loyalty, courage and zeal of the troops he has the most perfect confidence. But these qualities, however estimable, will not be alone and sufficient against the formidable enemy who threatens the Island. To ensure its defence the utmost vigilance and energy is required and even the personal labour of the inhabitants absolutely necessary.

The commanding officers of the 'ephemeral' 92nd Foot, 1793-1795, including Majors Byng, Cockburne and McCaskall. George Hewett (also spelt Hewitt), a Brevet Colonel, was promoted to full Colonel of the regiment in December 1794.

¹ See also The King's Birthday, 1794, for a newspaper report of the previous year's festivities provided by General Small.

² See The Queen's Birthday, 1803.