1787 – 1834: Early Years of the Regiment

1835 -1880


The 75th Regiment of Foot was raised in 1787 for deployment to India, where it served with distinction for twenty years. The 92nd, originally numbered as the 100th Regiment of Foot, and informally known from the early days of the Regiment as ‘The Gordon Highlanders’, was raised by the Duke of Huntly in 1794 for service during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1881, the 92nd and 75th Regiments of Foot were amalgamated into a regiment officially known as ‘The Gordon Highlanders’. The 92nd, although the junior of the two Regiments, retained much of its identity in the 1881 amalgamation because the regimental insignia and motto of the new regiment were used by the 92nd Regiment of Foot.


Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore and an ally of France, invaded the nearby state of Travancore in 1789, which was a British ally. The resultant war lasted three years. The war ended with the siege of the stronghold city of Sriringapatna in 1792. The treaty of Sriringapatna was signed on 19 March, according to which Tipu had to surrender half of his kingdom to the British East India Company and its allies.


Seringapatam (now known as Srirangapatna) was the scene of the last and decisive battle of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore Campaign fought between Tipu Sultan and the East India Company and its allies. Following the French Revolution, Tipu Sultan had re-endorsed his support for France. On 5 March 1799 Tipu attacked 3 native battalions at Peripatam with a force of 10,000 men. He was met by Major General Stuart heading up the 77th and flank companies of the 75th who defeated him.

Four weeks later, the 75th joined the Madras Army and on 17 April helped to storm and capture the village of Agrar. Three days later a combined force of 73rd, 74th and 75th ascended the ramparts of the city of Seringapatam. The British task was to breach the city walls which they achieved by using ladders to mount the walls and then secure their goal. 80 British soldiers were killed in the attack as opposed to 10,000 Indians including Tipu Sultan. His death ended the long series of wars in Mysore. 


The first active service of the newly numbered 92nd Highlanders was in Holland in 1799 on the beaches and sand hills at Egmont-Op-Zee. The 92nd was ordered to guard the British guns during the attack on French lines. The fighting was often bayonet to bayonet and ended inconclusively with an agreed truce.


The British Army landed at Aboukir Bay in Egypt on 8 March 1801 and successfully routed the French defenders of the Heights.  Five days later, they advanced against Alexandria. After many months at sea, the 92nd had only 500 men fit to parade. They acquitted themselves well in the attack at Mandora. General Sir Ralph Abercromby‘s dispatch after the battle mentions the 90th and 92nd as having ‘behaved in such a manner as to merit the praise both of courage and discipline’.  The battle honour ‘Mandora’ was awarded to the 92nd and two other regiments for their exploits in the attack.


The French Army under General Menou launched a surprise attack on 21 March near the ruins of Nicopolis. The Gordon Highlanders were on route to Aboukir Bay but were given permission to join the fighting and Major Napier immediately marched them to where the fighting could be heard on the edge of a set of Roman ruins.  The French were unable to defeat the British, who then successfully besieged Cairo before returning to Alexandria in August. The Gordons were granted the inclusion of the sphinx as an emblem for service against the French in Egypt in 1801. The surrender of Alexandria signalled to other armies in Europe that the French were not invincible, and led directly to the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 which restored a temporary peace in Europe.

IRELAND, 1804 – 1811 

The 2nd Battalion of The Regiment, formed in 1803, was stationed in Ireland so that new recruits could receive a form of on-the-job training before being drafted to fill the ranks of the 1st Battalion when needed. The duties of the battalion altered depending on where they were stationed. A posting in Dublin in 1806 meant performing ceremonial duties for the Castle government and Lord Lieutenant, whilst postings elsewhere involved mainly police-style work, including aiding Excise officials to hunt down and stop trade in illicit whisky. The 2nd Battalion was moved to Scotland in 1811 and then disbanded in 1813.


In 1807, Napoleon seemed to have Europe under his control.  However, he was unable to secure command of the Channel and had to abandon his plans after his navy’s conclusive defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The British then mounted an expedition to seize the Danish fleet before Napoleon could make use of it. The Danes were given the option of surrendering their fleet voluntarily on the basis that it would then be returned to them at the end of hostilities, but did not accept this. The troops landed in mid-August and marched towards Copenhagen; the main engagement took place at Kioge on 29 August and was a complete rout of the Danish army. After three days, the Danish government capitulated and the Danish fleet was seized.


In 1807 the French seized Portugal, and persuaded the Spanish king to abdicate.  Spanish patriots, with British help, had several initial successes and defeated the French at the Battle of Vimiera in July 1808. However, the Spanish armies alone were unable to follow up this success. Napoleon greatly increased his army in Spain, counter-attacked and took Madrid.

The British force was vastly out-numbered and in danger of being encircled; General Sir John Moore ordered a retreat to the coast. The 92nd Highlanders were in the thick of the fighting retreat, covering 500 kilometres and through horrendous winter weather. After three weeks, the army turned and defeated the pursuing French army at Corunna, before being able to board ship and sail for Britain.


On arriving on the Iberian Peninsula Lord Wellington was anxious to confront the French and gain a victory. After some marching in search of the enemy, Wellington finally faced them at a place called Fuentes d’Onoro. After some fighting, the French withdrew from the village and the hostilities died down. The battle resulted in a bit of a stalemate, although the French forces under Marshal Massena had failed to achieve their purpose which was to relieve the besieged city of Ciudad Rodrigo, so the Allies designated it as a victory.


By October, 1811, the 92nd had become part of the Army under Sir Rowland Hill, which was operating under the Duke of Wellington.  Hill was ordered to drive off the French under General Gerard and determined to intercept them in the region of a village named Arroyo dos Molinos.

The Army bivouacked close to Arroyo and in the early hours the 71st and 92nd were ordered to attack the village. The Highlanders charged and the French immediately formed themselves into two squares and directed their main fire on the charging Highlanders. The fighting raged on until the French, finding that their supporting cavalry had disappeared, withdrew, leaving the field in the hands of the Allies. 


Sir Rowland Hill was given the task of capturing a bridge of boats constructed by the French at the village of Almaraz, which provided a key supply role. A force, which included the brigade under Major General Howard, comprising the 50th, 71st and 92nd Regiments, together with a Company of the 60th Rifles, was dispatched for this purpose.

The initial attack was made by the 50th and part of the 71st and was successful. Meanwhile the 92nd reached the bridge just as the fleeing French were endeavouring to make their way across. Such was the crush of French on the bridge, together with fire from the guns which the Allies had turned on them, that some of the boats had been cut away. Many of the fleeing French were pushed to their deaths in the raging torrent, whilst others took the safer option of surrendering to the Highlanders.


At the Battle of Vitoria a British, Portuguese and Spanish army under Wellington defeated the French army under Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan near Vitoria in Spain, eventually leading to victory in the Peninsular War.

At 8am on 21 June, Wellington’s co-ordinated attack was opened by Hill’s 2nd Division, Morillo’s division of Spanish infantry and Cadogan’s Brigade crossing the Zadorra at Puebla to attack the heights overlooking the French position. By noon the road had been cut. Throughout the afternoon, the French were gradually pushed back before being finally sent into headlong retreat. Bonaparte had not only suffered severe casualties but also the loss of virtually all his artillery and transport. His army was spent as a fighting force.


Collectively known as the Battles of the Pyrenees, the 92nd were primarily involved in the battle to hold the Pass of Maya. The defence of the Pass was entrusted to the 1st Brigade, commanded by Colonel John Cameron of Fassifern of the 92nd. Scarcely had the right wing of the 92nd (only 200 strong) formed line than they were assaulted by a French force of about 3,000 veterans.

The French opened a terrible fire of musketry on the Highlanders, which they returned with vigour. At length the wing of the Regiment, together with the 50th Regiment, retired to that part of the Pass held by the left wings of the 92nd and the 71st Highlanders. The defenders now sustained harsh fire from the French, suffering 50% casualties but they held the pass. The fighting in and around the Pass continued for a further six days, although the fighting on 25 July was the fiercest.


On the night of 12 December, a temporary pontoon bridge over the River Nive at Villefranque was washed away. This isolated General Rowland Hill’s 14,000 men and 10 guns on the east bank of the river, just as the French under Marshal Soult were reorganizing for an assault. Seizing his chance, Soult quickly concentrated his forces to the east bank of the river and attacked. Hill’s troops were outnumbered 3:1 but held on to their position for hours in a bitter fight. The arrival of reinforcements under Wellington across the now repaired pontoon bridge enabled Hill to launch a counter-attack. The French were forced back to Bayonne. They had lost 3,300 men killed, wounded and captured.


On 13 December 1813, the 92nd Regiment were tasked with clearing the village of St Pierre of French forces. During the battle, one of the pipers at the head of the Regiment was killed as he played ‘Cogadh na Sith’. Another quickly took his place and when he too was killed a third stepped forward before the village was finally taken. The tale of the three pipers of St Pierre spread back to the Highlands, where their courage was widely celebrated, and the story entered into the lore of The Gordon Highlanders.


The battle began with clashes and artillery fire on the right bank of the river, before Wellington commenced his attack on Marshal Soult’s position on a ridge of hills. After three hours of fierce fighting, victory seemed to declare for the French forces. Watching this reverse from his command, Wellington changed his plans and sent in two divisions he had held previously in reserve. This move drove a wedge between the right wing and centre divisions of French forces. Seeing that his defences were compromised, Soult ordered a retreat. Pursued by the 92nd Highlanders, Soult’s retreat disintegrated to a disorganised flight.


When Napoleon escaped from exile in 1815, allied troops instantly made plans to put their armies back in the field to oppose him. Napoleon tried a pre-emptive attack at the crucial crossroads of Les Quatre Bras. This engagement was long and costly, especially for the 92nd Highlanders. They suffered the loss of their commanding officer, Cameron of Fassifern. Although in the end neither side had gained ground, the French were not able to secure the crossroads. The Prussians, however, were still in retreat, so Wellington was forced the next day to withdraw his troops to a small village called Waterloo


Blooded at the Battle of Quatre Bras two days before, The 92nd Regiment (The Gordon Highlanders) stayed in the reserve on the morning of the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday 18 June 1815. They nevertheless came under enemy artillery fire and had to move position to avoid further casualties. New losses meant that the Regiment numbered less than 300 men. Just before 3pm, the Gordons were ordered to stand to arms when a 3,000 strong French column threatened the British line.The French became aware of the advancing Gordons and were in the act of shouldering when they received a volley at 20 yards from the 92nd, which they then returned. Then the cavalry of the Scots Greys appeared, doubling round the flanks and through the openings made in the ranks of the Gordons. The pipers played. Both regiments cried out ‘Scotland forever!’ and charged together. Some Highlanders were knocked down by the horses, others managed to catch hold of the stirrups and legs of the Greys. Smashed by the Highlanders’ volley of musket fire and charged in front and flank by infantry and cavalry, the French resistance collapsed. In three minutes the column was completely destroyed and many were taken prisoner. It was one of the most famous moments in the Regiment’s history and one that has lived down the ages. The 92nd saw further action later in the day; the Regiment’s strength diminished to fewer than 200 by the time night fell. 


Throughout the 1830s there was a concentrated campaign to end the legal requirement of Catholics to pay tithes to the Church of England, known as the Tithe War. The conflict lasted until 1838 and would involve persistent lawlessness across Ireland. The Gordons were deployed across the island during this time ‘aiding the civil power’, whereby soldiers are used to enforce laws. This not only involved keeping order at elections, and enforcing the collection of tithes – which was an extremely unpopular duty among the soldiers – but also fighting common gangs of agrarian criminals.