Thomas Merrick

A Dadlington soldier of the French Revolutionary Wars

This article appeared in The Stoker (May 2016) 
Thomas Merrick is the four times great grandfather of a Stoke Golding resident and he lived in Dadlington at the turn of the 19th century.
He decided in 1798 to give up his job as a stocking knitter to join the British army. Some men joined up at that time for patriotic reasons, but many left what they saw as humdrum jobs at home for a life of adventure. Or maybe it was for the money: Thomas had married Mary Young in Sutton Cheyney the previous year. His infantry regiment, the East Surrey 31st and 70th foot, had recently been amalgamated, and his first months as a redcoat would have involved endless drilling and training at one of the regiment’s bases in either Doncaster, Hull or York, learning how to load and fire a regulation Brown Bess musket so that he was up to speed, being able to fire three rounds in a minute. The musket wasn’t the most reliable of weapons, being inclined to misfire in wet weather and occasionally firing at random when stray sparks set the powder alight. Life in the army would have been tough for Thomas and the 853 other volunteers who’d joined the 31st foot that year, with fairly basic living conditions and severe punishments used to maintain order and discipline. Maybe this wasn’t the adventure that he’d envisaged when he’d taken the King’s shilling. However things were about to change.

Revolutionary France of the 1790s became embroiled in a series of wars with European monarchies. The first conflict of 1792 to 1795, known as the War of the First Coalition, ended with France victorious. A little known general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had emerged as a key player, and France had extended their influence in Europe and the Middle East. They had also created a puppet state in what had been the Austrian Netherlands. Now it was called the Batavian Republic, and it was here that Thomas was sent in 1799 as part of an Anglo-Russian expeditionary force. Their aim was to neutralize the Batavian fleet and to ferment an uprising against the government, but things didn’t go too well for both the expeditionary force and for Thomas Merrick.

On the plus side, the regiment did not spend long in Holland. Camp life would have been fairly unpleasant. Conditions were dirty and cramped and there was always the possibility of disease, which could spread very quickly (three years earlier, stationed in the West Indies, the regiment had lost all but 85 men to yellow fever.)  Thomas would have had an allowance of bread, meat, oatmeal or rice to eat, with either beer or rum to wash it down.

Under the overall command of the Duke of York, the 31st Foot set off on the evening of 18th September to march to the strategically important village of Bergen, near to the city of Alkmaar. The autumn weather had been that atrocious that the roads were flooded, and the journey took so long that by the time they arrived the next day, they had missed the battle altogether. The French and Batavian forces had triumphed and the Anglo-Russian regiments withdrew to plan further attacks. Minor skirmishes took place over a couple of weeks as torrential rain put paid to any major offensive. Finally, after two days of false starts where the soldiers found themselves knee deep in mud, the second battle began on 2nd October. The 31st foot were part of the 7th brigade, supporting Russian troops who were attacking the village of Bergen again. Just over two thousand of the forty thousand strong army were killed or wounded with the British and Russians claiming victory. However, a defeat by the French at the Battle of Castrium four days later meant that, by the end of November, all the British forces had returned to England.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               An artist's impression of the Battle of Bergen

And young Thomas, what became of him? His discharge papers of 19th November 1800 state that he “lost his leg in consequence of a wound received in Holland.” This is a year since the fighting ended, so one can imagine him spending time in hospital and then at home during the interim period in which doctors decided to remove his infected leg. He became a Chelsea Pensioner, and could have moved into the Royal Hospital, an institution founded by Charles II in 1682 as a retreat for veterans. However, all soldiers who were discharged with a pension became Chelsea Pensioners and the vast majority, by this time, were out-pensioners, receiving their pension but living elsewhere, with just a few in-pensioners who exchanged their pensions for board and lodgings at Chelsea. He returned home and worked as a farm labourer for much of his life. No doubt he wore a prosthetic leg which at that time would have been constructed from leather, paper and glue although a new design, called the Anglesey Leg, appeared in the 1800s, being wooden with an articulated foot and steel knee joint. He lived, minus his leg, to the ripe old age of 88,
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