MILITARY GENERAL SERVICE 1793-1814, 2 CLASPS, NIVELLE, NIVE ‘W. JOHNSTONE, ENSN. 1ST FT. GDS.’, WATERLOO 1815 ‘[CA]PT. W. FRED. JOHNSTONE, 2ND BATT. GRENAD. GUARD.’
William Frederick Johnstone was commissioned as an Ensign in the First Foot Guards on 12 December 1811. Initially serving in the 2nd Battalion, he served with the 1st Battalion in the Peninsula from April 1813 to April 1814, and was present at the passage of the Bidassoa in October 1813, when the 1st Foot Guards spearheaded the crossing of the river. Subsequently taking part in the battle of Nivelle, on 13 November 1813, where his battalion were only lightly engaged. Further taking part at the crossing of the Adour and the battle of Nive, 9-13 December 1813, Johnstone’s final action of the Peninsular War was at the battle of Bayonne, when on the night of 13-14 April 1814. Here the French troops made a sortie in strength from the besieged city, inflicting heavy casualties on the besiegers. Promoted Lieutenant & Captain, 16 March 1814 and being transferred back to the 2nd Battalion, during the Waterloo campaign, Captain Johnstone served in Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Hardinge’s no.4th Company (later Field Marshall). During the campaign, Hardinge had been appointed to the staff of the Prussian Army and as next senior Officer, command of the company fell to Captain Johnstone, who commanded it at the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. With many of the other Company commanders also on Staff appointments, it left just 3 Company Commanders listed as present with their Companies at these battles, all others being commanded by Lieutenant & Captain’s and one by an Ensign!
At the battle of Quatre Bras, both battalions of the 1st Foot Guards were very heavily involved. Advancing through with fixed bayonets through the wood, they drove the French back, suffering very heavy casualties themselves during the often hand to hand fighting. Johnstone’s Company was clearly in the thick of the action, loosing a number of men killed and wounded, including Ensign Hon. Samuel Barrington killed (see The Waterloo Archive Vol IV Pg 133-40). This would leave Ensign Samuel Hurd as the Companies only other Officer going into the battle on 18 June.
At Waterloo, the 2nd, 1st Foot Guards “stood it with the utmost steadiness” under a furious cannonade, before forming square in anticipation of the imminent French cavalry attack. When the attack came, the French cavalry advanced in and immense masse and with great gallantry, repeatedly charging the allied squares;“After an unsuccessful attempt against the squares of the Guards, they would retire 100 or 150 yards, and again return to the charge, only to be again driven off and decimated by the British bayonet and musketry fire.” With the failure of the cavalry attack, the Guards were ordered back behind the ridge and ordered to lie down, the French artillery opening up on them again. At 7.15pm, the artillery fire ceased and 5000 men of Old Imperial Guard, advanced towards the Guards position with shouts of “Vive l'Empereur!” Unable to see the enemy they were advancing upon (as they were still lying down), the Imperial Guard advanced to around 30 yards from the 1st Guards position when Wellington ordered; “Now, Maitland, now's your time,” and the Guards immediately rose and poured a devastation fire into the French columns at near point blank range. Startled by the appearance of the Guards springing up directly in front of them and by the fire poured into them, the Imperial Guard broke and retreated in disorder, pursued by the 1st Guards and other nearby regiments. This was something the French had never seen before, Imperial Guard had never retreated and with this the entire French Army broke and the Allied victory was sealed. As for Captain Johnstone, he would lead his company at the capture of Peronne, 26 June 1815 and serve for a while with the Army of Occupation.
Total casualties for the 2nd Battalion, 1st Foot Guards during both battles were 3 Officers and 73 men killed, 9 Officers and 353 wounded. The is from a strength of 976, or 45% casualties. Of course, as with all regiments present, the number of men actually on the field of battle would have been much lower and consequently casualty rates significantly higher.
Examination of the roll for Hardinge’s (spelt Harding’s on roll) which is signed off by Lieutenant & Captain Johnstone, shows the company suffered 12 Officers and men killed in action or died of wounds and 5 men are noted as absent since 18 June who may were almost certainly very severe or fatal casualties. Only Lt Colonel Banlay’s Company suffered more (14) and Fiztroy Somerset’s (12 also); most of the other Companies suffering significantly lower numbers. With a conservative ratio of around 5 wounded for every man killed or Died of wounds, this would suggest Hardinge’s Company would have additionally suffered approximately 50 men wounded, from a company strength of 98 Officers and men on the roll. This is borne out by the roll for Lt Colonel Sir Noel Hill’s company which is the only one to list both killed or died of wounds and wounded. His company notes 5 killed or died of wounds and 24 wounded.
In the latter part of 1815, whilst encamped in the Bois de Boulogne the “Second and Third Battalions of the First Guards received the notification that H.R.H. the Prince Regent, in the name of the Sovereign, had been pleased to direct that their Regiment should hence forward be styled “THE FIRST OR GRENADIER REGIMENT OF FOOT GUARDS,” in commemoration of having defeated the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo.”
Post War, Johnstone remained with his regiment and was appointed Captain & Lieutenant-Colonel on 10 January 1837. Johnstone (Johnston in later Army Lists) went on half-pay with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel on 10 January 1837. He retired on 30 October 1840, and died in 1877 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. The inscription on the monumental cross raised in his memory is now illegible.
Condition NVF/GVF. The first fitted with contemporary silver loop and bar suspension. As often seen with Waterloo medals where the naming is very long, the first two letters of rank and last of unit obscured by suspension. Sold with copy rolls and 2 volumes of ‘The Origin of the First Foot Grenadier Guards’, which details the service of the Regiment during the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns (on CD). Ex Gaskell Collection 1908, Mackenzie Collection 1934and Sotheby, December 1991; catalogue page for the latter included.
A fine pair of medals to a 1st Foot Guards Officer who commanded a company during the Waterloo campaign. Such medals rarely come on the market.