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The 81st (Loyal Lincoln Volunteers) Regiment of Foot

Article by Allan Percival

A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History

© Lancashire Infantry Museum & Allan Percival


The 81st Regiment, raised late in the 18th Century amid the hurried expansion of the British infantry to face the armies of revolutionary France, was the regiment to which we trace the title “Loyal.” It was a distinction, unique in the regular British infantry, borne proudly by the 81st and its successor regiments for almost 200 years, until The Loyal (North Lancashire) Regiment became part of The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in 1970.

In February 1793, three weeks after France declared war on Britain, Major General Albermarle Bertie, late of the Foot Guards, was authorised by the War Office to recruit a new regiment in Lincoln. Soldiers from the Lincolnshire militia, already called up to defend against invasion, volunteered en masse for Bertie’s regiment which took the title of The Loyal Lincoln Volunteers to mark the militia’s ready patriotism. In January 1794, the regiment was numbered 81st by the War Office. It was the fifth of some 70 new infantry regiments to be added to the regular army during 1793-94 although many were short-lived training units.


Officer of the 81st Foot, circa 1798

1795 West Indies – annihilation by disease

In 1795, the 81st was ordered to join an expedition to the West Indies where valuable French sugar islands might be captured for the Crown. The British force landed on the island of Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in April 1795. The 81st saw little glory and was so reduced by disease that the battalion had to be merged for a time with the similarly stricken 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot.  Defeated more by fever than the French, the British withdrew and in March 1797 the 81st, a skeleton of a regiment, sailed for England. In two years, the 81st had lost the equivalent of its established strength twice over, almost all to disease.

1798 Cape of Good Hope – tribal warfare

The 81st was rebuilt with very young soldiers, defending Guernsey in the Channel Islands against the threat of French invasion. At the end of 1798 the regiment sailed to reinforce the British garrison at the Cape of Good Hope which was struggling against Xhosa tribal insurrections. The British had taken the Cape from the Dutch in 1795 after French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte claimed the Dutch throne. The Xhosa insurrections were suppressed  – not without losses – and the 81st was ordered home at the end of 1802 by which time the Treaty of Amiens had ended hostilities with the French – if only briefly. Once again, it was a much reduced regiment that returned because 600 men accepted War Office bounties to transfer to other regiments ordered to Bengal, India.

1806 Kingdom of Naples – triumph at the Battle of Maida; inactivity in Sicily

The war against Napoleon resumed in May 1803. The “Great Terror” – invasion fear gripped the British and the 81st was among the infantry regiments ordered to raise second battalions.  Most of the new recruits for both the 1st and 2nd battalions came from Wales.

In 1804, Spain joined the war against Britain in response to the Royal Navy capturing Spanish ships on the high seas. Emperor Napoleon and his new Spanish allies thus faced a coalition of Britain, Austria, Russia and Sweden. The British intended to use their navy to transport troops to fight in southern Europe, co-operating with the Russians in the Mediterranean Sea. The 1st Battalion, 81st Regiment (1st/81st) sailed for Malta in April 1805. In November two companies joined British and Russian forces which landed in the neutral but pro-British Kingdom of Naples and marched northwards to support Austria against France. The British naval victory at Trafalgar had ended Napoleon’s maritime ambitions but he inflicted crushing defeats on the Austrian and Russian armies on the Danube. Russia was forced to accept peace terms and withdrew her forces from Italy which caused the British to evacuate their army to Sicily, also part of the Kingdom of Naples, where the 1st/81st re-formed as a complete battalion.

Napoleon claimed the Naples throne and French regiments marched into the kingdom. To prevent an invasion of Sicily, the British landed seven battalions – 4,600 men – on the south Calabrian coast. This little army met over 6,000 veteran French troops near the town of Maida and defeated them in two hours of intense fighting on 4 July 1806. The 1st/81st had hard fighting, suffering 84 of the 327 British casualties. The battle of Maida was the first time that the British Army defeated French revolutionary troops on the European mainland. It was celebrated in London with the naming of part of Edgeware as Maida Vale.


James Kempt, who commanded the 81st at Maida, pictured later in his career as a Lieutenant General. This portrait hangs in the Museum’s Regimental Council Chamber.


The Maida Tortoise. After the battle the 81st were without rations but Colonel Kempt’s servant caught and cooked a small tortoise for his Commanding Officer’s supper. Many years later, the then Lieutenant General Sir James Kempt presented the tortoise shell, mounted in silver as a snuff box, to the Officers’ Mess of the 81st. The original shell, now very brittle, is kept in the Museum, but is brought out on special occasions and placed before the Colonel of the Regiment at Regimental Dinners.

After Maida, the British again withdrew to Sicily and did little else to challenge the French occupation of the Kingdom of Naples. The 1st/81st saw no action until early 1808 when it sailed with an expedition which failed to prevent the French capturing the island of Capri from Corsican troops. Inactivity and sickness lowered British morale on Sicily and nothing much happened until June 1809 when the 1st/81st took part in some small scale raids on French occupied islands in the Bay of Naples. Two more uneventful years followed.

The second battalion (2nd/81st), which had been raised in 1803, saw action in northern Spain while the first battalion remained in Sicily. In late 1807, Napoleon had suborned his hapless Spanish allies into letting French troops cross Spain to attack Portugal which was almost the only country in Western Europe defying his ban on trading with Britain. Portugal capitulated, the royal family fled to Brazil and a French force occupied Lisbon at the end of November 1807. 

Next spring, Napoleon declared his own Brother Joseph as King of Spain and expelled the Spanish royalty from Madrid. Spanish provinces and much of the army rose in revolt against their former allies, the French, and appealed to their supposed enemies, the British, for help. So did the Portuguese. 

In August 1808, the British landed an army 100 miles north of Lisbon commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) and marched on the capital. Outnumbered and faced with mass revolt in Spain and with the Royal Navy offshore, the French army in Lisbon was cut off from support by land or sea. The French offered terms to stop fighting and evacuate Portugal. Accordingly, British ships duly transported the 25,000 fully armed French troops home to France. When news of this deal reached Britain, there was public outrage at the French army’s repatriation and the British commanders were ordered home to face a court of inquiry – including Wellesley who was later cleared of blame.

In late 1808, with Portugal lost to him and all Spain in revolt, Napoleon himself crossed the Pyrenees, defeated several Spanish armies and re-captured Madrid in December.

1808 North Spain – the terrible retreat to Corunna

The British Lieutenant General Sir John Moore had replaced Wellesley in Lisbon and marched east to help the Spanish with 20,000 troops. A second British force of 12,000, among them the 2nd /81st, was landed on the North West coast of Spain at Corunna. They joined Sir John Moore north of Salamanca on 20 December 1808.  But Napoleon’s victories over the Spanish and the prospect of being cut off from the sea caused Moore to abandon plans to attack and to start to retreat across the barren and freezing mountains towards the port of Corunna 300 miles away. During the long, demoralising retreat, discipline broke down in many regiments, sick and wounded troops were abandoned and a rabble of an army eventually straggled into Corunna where it destroyed its own stores and waited for evacuation by the Royal Navy. Napoleon returned to Paris and left his generals to complete the British army’s destruction. Forced to fight before the Navy could rescue them, the British achieved a hard won defensive victory over the French in the Battle of Corunna on 16 January 1809. The 2nd  /  81st  had a desperate, two hour fight on the right flank, running out of ammunition and losing over 160 killed and wounded before the French were repelled. The army commander, Sir John Moore, was fatally wounded. Spanish troops in Corunna fought until the British were safely evacuated and then surrendered. The military disaster and the appalling state of the army which disembarked in England caused a public outcry although in fact the French had been drawn away from Portugal where there was still a British garrison in Lisbon.     

1809 The Scheldt – malaria and a failed expedition

The 2nd/ 81st , posted to Bletchingley, Surrey,  rested and trained replacements for the more than 300 killed, wounded and missing in Spain. They had six months before another even more costly and ill-fated expedition. In July 1809, Britain committed 40,000 troops, including 40 infantry battalions, to capturing Antwerp and the River Scheldt estuary.  The aims were to stop Napoleon developing Antwerp as a commercial rival to London, to bottle-up the Dutch fleet, to demonstrate support for Austria and to restore some British military prestige after the failure in north Spain. Progress was slow. Part of Walcheren Island was captured but any advance on Antwerp was abandoned. 

A malaria epidemic killed some 4,000 men and 106 fell in battle before the operation was abandoned in December and the force evacuated. The 2nd/81st had left home on 30 July with 656 soldiers; after two months, 40 officers and men were still fit for duty. The battalion had fewer than a dozen battle casualties, all the rest were lost to disease. 

Eastern Spain and amphibious operations

The British land war against Napoleon moved back to the Iberian peninsula. With Sir John Moore dead, Wellesley was ordered back to Lisbon in April 1809, built massive fortifications around the capital and stayed on the defensive until 1812 when Napoleon was suffering in the depths of Russia.

The Spanish continued the fight with British help and Madrid was re-captured in August 1812. To divert French forces from the allied advance in central Spain, the British deployed their long-inactive forces in Sicily, including the 1st /81st, to mount an expedition of 8,000 men which landed on the east coast at Alicante in May 1812. The 1st / 81st took part in a brave but failed seaborne attack on the Castle of Denia but the  Alicante expedition did little else to trouble the French that year. In 1813, the British and Spanish began another tentative advance and defeated a French force at the Battle of Castalla before retreating again to Alicante.  A seaborne expedition was then landed to besiege Tarragona but, fearing a French relief force, the British hastily abandoned their heavy siege guns and re-embarked for Alicante. The British commander was brought to account by court martial. It was allied successes elsewhere, not least in central Spain by the Duke of Wellington’s army, which forced the French back towards their frontier.  The 1st / 81st saw some further action, with few casualties, and took part in the allied march into France. They arrived at Toulouse on   4 May 1814 to hear that the war was over and Napoleon to be exiled to Elba.  And, although they had not seen Britain for eight years, they were posted to a different war within weeks – across the Atlantic.


An officer of the 81st Foot circa 1812

1814 Canada – war with the United States of America

The United States of America (then 17 states) had declared war on Britain on 19 June 1812, accusing the British of impeding US commerce with Napoleon’s Europe and of arresting US sailors as Royal Navy deserters. With Britain desperately stretched by the European war, belligerent Americans also saw the prize of extending their own revolution to the thinly inhabited vastness of Canada.

British regular troops, Canadian militia and allied Indian tribes defeated three invading American armies although the young US Navy had some success on the Great Lakes and a British attack on New Orleans was defeated. America was worn down by British naval blockade and the US Government was forced to flee Washington where the White House was duly burnt by the British in August 1814. The 1st / 81st Regiment arrived in Quebec later in the same month and saw no action before a peace treaty was ratified in March 1815 which restored the status quo.

1815 …….a few days or a few miles from Waterloo

Napoleon escaped Elba in March 1815, King Louis XVIII fled Paris, and the European war started anew. The 1st/ 81st left Canada in July and arrived in England a fortnight after the Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon’s ambitions for good. The 1st Battalion served in the occupation army in France until April 1817 when they were posted to Ireland.

Although the 2nd Battalion had been in Brussels since April 1815, they too missed the climactic Battle of Waterloo which happened a few miles south of the city on 18 June 1815.  In the days before the battle, they were waiting to be brigaded with battalions brought from Canada and were employed on duties such as guarding the Army’s pay chest. To their great dismay, they were required only to continue such dull work and to cope with escorting French prisoners and helping the wounded. Afterwards, they marched to Paris with the occupation forces, drafted over 300 men to the 1st/ 81st and then returned to England. The 2nd battalion, 81st Regiment disbanded at Bletchingley, Surrey, on the 24th March 1816 after 13 years of service.

35 years of peaceful service

The  81st left France in 1817 and for the next  35 years  the 1st  Battalion served peacefully in Ireland, Canada, Bermuda, England, Ireland again, Gibraltar, Ireland again, the Channel Islands, the West Indies, Canada again, England again and Ireland again. In 1832, while in Dublin, the 81st re-affirmed its Lincolnshire origins with a formal notice in the London Gazette recording King William IV’s   approval of their resuming the title The Loyal Lincoln Volunteers.


The 81st is reviewed at Devonport on return from Canada, 1847

In 1848, as a foretaste of things to come, for a short while the 81st was based in the North West of England, with its headquarters in Fulwood Barracks, Preston.


The 81st encamped at Everton in anticipation of Chartist riots in Liverpool, 1848.The Regiment was based at the newly-built Fulwood Barracks, Preston

1857 The Indian Mutiny – decisive action saves the Punjab

In 1853, the 81st sailed for India where the Honourable East India Company (HEIC), originally a trading body, ruled vast areas with the distant approval of the British Government. British army regiments were deployed in the Company’s service alongside a few regiments of European mercenaries and three separate, large armies of Indian soldiers with British officers – the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies. In May 1857 a series of mutinies within the Bengal Army and wider civil revolts drove the British out of Delhi and sparked insurrection across large areas of northern and central India. When this “Indian Mutiny” began, the 81st was the only British regiment in Lahore, the capital of the generally calm Punjab, and for miles around.  They were alerted by telegraph and in a decisive hour’s work at dawn on 13 May (and after a military ball the night before!),  the 81st and two HEIC artillery batteries, paraded, disarmed and detained  2,700  unsuspecting Indian soldiers from four reputedly mutinous regiments and took over Lahore Fort. The 81st also moved quickly to secure Amritsar and forts along the way. The local Sikh population had little sympathy with the Hindu mutineers and raised battalions to fight alongside the British.

The 81st, with Sikh help, guarded, marched and skirmished across the region until the end of 1857 when it was ordered to Peshawar on the North West Frontier. They were to join a force of about 5,000 troops to suppress a frontier Pathan tribe – called the Hindustani Fanatics by the British – who were upsetting local security and helping mutineers. The punitive mission of April and May 1858 was known as the Sitana Expedition.

Peace was restored in India in July 1858. The British Government abolished the HEIC, and took direct control of the Indian territories. In 1877, Queen Victoria was pronounced Empress of India.

1865 The Sultana – sailing through a hurricane

The 81st was posted home in February 1865 and sailed from Calcutta – without more than 200 men who volunteered to stay in India and transferred to other regiments.  Aboard a troopship called the Sultana, five companies with women and children sailed into a hurricane in the Indian Ocean on 22 March. The ship lost sails and masts but succeeded in completing 2,000 difficult miles to Mauritius, arriving there without loss of life on 13 April. When the Sultana was repaired, they sailed on and finally arrived in Britain five and a half months after leaving Calcutta.


The 81st under canvas at Port Louis, Mauritius, in 1865, while repairs to the Sultana are completed

The regiment served in England and Ireland until 1870 when it was posted to Gibraltar. In 1874, the 81st was posted to India and in 1877 – 78 took part in punitive expeditions against troublesome tribes on the North West Frontier.

1878 Afghanistan – mountain fighting and sickness in the Khyber Pass

By 1878, the British Indian army was preparing to invade Afghanistan. In Kabul, the unfortunate ruler, the Amir Sheer Ali Kahn, had resisted various British and Russian attempts to interfere in Afghanistan’s foreign policy since 1874. In May 1878, under duress, the Afghans allowed a Russian military mission into Kabul. They then refused a British demand to install an envoy and his 1,000 – strong escort in the capital. Insulted, the British invaded Afghanistan with 46,000 British, Indian and Gurkha troops in November 1878. So started Britain’s 2nd Afghan War. The 81st played a part in capturing the great hill fortress of Ali Musjid which dominated the Khyber Pass, the northern route from India to Kabul, and then in defending the route against local tribal raids. The Amir fled Kabul and the Russian mission packed up and left. In the Khyber area, the 81st  were so badly stricken by sickness that they were ordered back to India in January 1879. They played no further part in the war. The British finally withdrew completely in April 1881.  The 2nd Afghan War cost close to 10,000 British, Indian and Gurkha lives and an unknown number of Afghan lives; it excluded the Russians from Kabul and it left Afghanistan as an economically ruined buffer state whose foreign affairs were controlled by Britain until August 1919.

1881 –The 2nd Battalion, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

The year 1881 saw the most far reaching changes to the British infantry. Under the Army reforms of 1 July that year, the Regiments lost their numbers and were linked in pairs and given new ‘territorial’ titles and regimental recruiting areas, often regardless of any previous regional connections or regimental preferences. The 81st (Loyal Lincoln Volunteers) Regiment of Foot was linked with the 47th   (The Lancashire) Regiment of Foot to form the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. The 47th became the 1st Battalion and the 81st the 2nd Battalion of the new regiment which established its headquarters in Preston.  As the 2nd Battalion, The Loyal Regiment, the old 81st served on until 1949 when the 1st and 2nd Battalions of The Loyals were amalgamated.


In March 1970, The Loyal Regiment(North Lancashire) was amalgamated into The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, which in turn became part of today's Duke of Lancaster's Regiment in 2006

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