O’er the Hills and Far Away: With the Devil’s Own in the Peninsular War

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Here’s fourteen shillings on the drum
For those who’ll volunteer to come
‘List and fight the foe today
Over the hills and far away
O’er the hills and o’er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away
Friends,
In the interest of full disclosure, I must start by saying that my family has a combative streak. My ancestors have fought in wars the world over for freedom or for pay. As with many Irish families, it didn’t necessarily matter in which army they were serving. I have a fifth great-grandfather who fought with Wellington at Waterloo and another in Napoleon’s Grand Army. Yet another fifth great-grandfather is the subject of this tale. His father served in the 18th Regiment of Foot, aka: The Royal Irish Regiment during the American Revolution and as part of the grenadier company, made the long march to Lexington, Concord, and back on that April morning which started the American Revolution. A few months later he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Sometime thereafter, he was discharged due to injury and made his way home to Ireland where he married and gave birth to a son. At the age of 17, said son enlisted in the 88th Regiment of Foot, better known as the Connaught Rangers. Or as The Devil’s Own. The regiment came into existence in 1793 and had its recruiting base in the west of Ireland. From Buenos Aires to Salamanca, from India to The Crimea, and from The Transvaal to the Somme, the men who served in this gallant regiment sold their lives dearly in battle and earned the reputation as one of the crack regiments in the world during their day.
After a little visit to Argentina which saw them spend six months aboard ships before finally being sent into battle, they arrived in Portugal in 1809. This was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars and as such, it involved numerous shifting alliances and much confusion at times. The British allied themselves with the Portuguese and anti-Napoleon Spanish troops whereas the French enjoyed the support of some Spanish allies. It was a nasty war as the Spanish waged a fierce partisan campaign against the French who often exacted a heavy retribution. The British troops were commanded by Arthur Wellesley, who thanks to his eventual defeat of the French in Spain, would be known as the Duke of Wellington when he met Napoleon at Waterloo and sent him packing. But it is doubtful that he would have received his title had it not been for the help of The Devil’s Own!
The 88th took part in the advance into Spain from Portugal moving forward in absolutely miserable conditions. Mistakes were common on Napoleonic battlefields, often with serious results. The night before the the actual battle began, Rufane Donkin’s brigade, which included the 88th, were detailed along with a cavalry brigade to cover Wellington’s army as it moved into position. The cavalry brigade, mistaking the orders they received, pulled back and left Donkin’s brigade exposed. They were attacked by the French and suffered 400 casualties before being forced to pull back. For many of the men in the 88th, this was their first action and they acquitted themselves gallantly. The following morning, the battle commenced in earnest. At a crucial point of the battle, The Guards Brigade drove off a French attack and charged headlong after them. They ran into a very strong French second line and suffered heavy casualties. As they streamed to the rear, General Wellesley personally placed the 48th Regiment of Foot in line to fill the gap in the lines. With the support of the 3rd Division, including the 88th, they broke the French lines and Wellesley had his victory. And he was also named Viscount Wellington of Talavera. Both sides suffered heavily in this contest with the British losing over 6,000 men killed, wounded, or missing.
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So fall in lads behind the drum
With colors blazing like the sun
Along the road to come what may
Over the hills and far away
The 88th had only begun to add luster to their name. The following year they repulsed a French attack at bayonet point, earning a reputation for hard fighting. (And also ill discipline!) In 1811, they 88th played a central role in the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro. At a crucial point in the battle, with the tide swinging towards the French, Wellington ordered a counterattack. The 88th led the attack and checked the French advance. But then the French launched their own counterattack with bayonets as they were short on ammunition. The 88th and her sister regiments held fast and broke the French effort, causing them to retreat. Thus the last French Army in Portugal met its demise. Napoleon was not pleased! Greater glory awaited them at the city of Badajoz.
The town had twice been unsuccessfully put under siege. It had strong defenses, very strong. So on this third attempt, the British soldiers dug approach trenches to protect themselves and also the artillery they planned to employ. World War One soldiers would have been familiar with what they were doing. Heavy artillery arrived and battered three breaches in the outer wall. Wellington now planned an assault. As the defenders knew the British would try for the breaches, they covered that area with artillery and plenty of riflemen. When the attack began, soldiers reaching the holes in the walls were slaughtered by French defenders. The bodies were piled so high in the breaches that soldiers had a difficult time trying to climb over them to get inside the city. In the meantime, the 3rd Division, including the 88th, launched a diversionary attack on the walls themselves. Armed with scaling ladders, the men of the 88th suffered heavy casualties themselves. But slowly they made their way into the city, drawing attention away from the breaches and allowing the assault regiments to enter the town. The scene the following day resembled more a massacre than a battle. Blood ran down into the trenches outside the city and filled it to ankle depth. As often happens during sieges throughout history, the soldiers vented their fury over the attack on the townspeople in an orgy of looting, murder, and rapine. Several officers were murdered as they tried to restore order, which took close to three days. But the 88th helped carry the day and by this time they were considered one of Wellington’s crack units.And Spain was not finished with them yet.
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If I should fall to rise no more
As many comrades did before
Ask the fife and drums to play
Over the hills and far away
At Salamanca, the 88th served in the Third Division commanded by General Pakenham who would later be killed at the Battle of New Orleans. They were one of the first divisions engaged that day, carrying home their attack on the advancing French troops with the bayonet. By blunting the French advance, the rest of the Army was able to attack a French force that was strung out along a ridge and not fully concentrated. It is said that Wellington won this battle in 40 minutes. With the gallant 88th Regiment of Foot as one of the pivotal regiments in this engagement, it is of little doubt why Wellington was so successful. This was the last major engagement of the Peninsular War that the 88th participated in, but as a regiment that came into being as the Napoleonic Wars began, they wasted no time in adding battle honors to their name. This tradition would continue until the regiment was formally decommissioned in 1922 as its recruiting grounds would be in the Irish Free State and now Republic of Ireland.
For many Irishmen, like my family, who took the King’s shilling, it was more a matter of economic survival than a desire to serve King and Country. In fact, the son and grandson of my fifth-great grandfather who served in all the aforementioned engagements were both active members of the Fenian Brotherhood. Surely they dreamed of a united Ireland, but those dreams wouldn’t feed a family. I don’t know if signing up was a difficult decision for them or not. Or indeed if they even went willingly. But what I do know is this. No matter what name they go by; the 88th Regiment of Foot, the Connaught Rangers, or The Devil’s Own, these intrepid Irishman made their mark on battlefields the world over, fighting for every cause but their own.
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O’er the hills and o’er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away
L.H.
Source for the lyrics is here.

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