It is easy to criticise the decisions made by a soldier in the heat of battle, and it can be a difficult task to establish just why he took this or that action. Consider the case of Lieutenant Colonel John Montagu Mainwaring (1761–1842), my first cousin seven times removed, who during a battle in the Peninsular War burned the regimental colours.

John Montagu Mainwaring was the second son of Benjamin Mainwaring (1719–1782), an attorney.

In 1784, at the age of 23, he joined the 67th Regiment, where he was promoted to lieutenant in 1789, captain in 1794, and major in 1800. In 1804 Mainwaring transferred to the 90th regiment as lieutenant-colonel, then, in 1808, to the 51st regiment. (John’s older brother also served in the army and his younger brother was a naval officer.)

In the Walcheren Campaign in the Netherlands Mainwaring commanded the advance at Flushing. With two companies of the 51st Regiment and two of the 82nd, he repulsed a French sortie, taking 600 prisoners and capturing two nine-pounder guns.

Early in 1811, he accompanied his Regiment to Lisbon, and commanded it in the three-day-long battle of Fuentes de Oñoro.

Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro painted by Henri Dupray (public domain)

During the fighting, standing on defence behind Poço Velho, Lieutenant Colonel Mainwaring, believing—falsely, as it turned out—that his men were soon to be defeated and over-run, deliberately burned the Regimental Colours. This was a grave matter. The flags and banners unique to a regiment, symbol of its identity and history, were always defended, at any cost. His supporters explained that these precious objects had been destroyed to prevent them falling into enemy hands. Wellington, the commander of the British army, greatly displeased, had Mainwaring court-martialled, and when Mainwaring was wounded in a later engagement had him returned to England.

John Colburne, Field-Marshal and a colonial governor, who during the Peninsular War commanded the 52nd Foot, gave his account of what happened:

Colonel Mainwaring, of the 51st, was placed in a position [Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro] in which he thought he was sure to be surrounded by the French. So he called his officers and said, ‘we are sure of being taken or killed; therefore we'll burn the colours.’ Accordingly, they brought the colours and burnt them with all funeral pomp, and buried the ashes, or kept them, I believe. It so happened that the French never came near them. Lord Wellington was exceedingly angry when he heard of it, as he knew well enough where he had placed the regiment. So he ordered Mainwaring under arrest and tried him by court-martial. An old colonel, who undertook his defence, said, ‘I believe it was something to do with religious principles.’ ‘Oh,’ said Lord Wellington, ‘if it was a matter of religious principles, I have nothing more to do with it. You may take him out of arrest; but send him to Lisbon.’ So he went to Lisbon, and was never allowed to command his regiment again; he was sent home.

John Mainwaring’s nephew, Frederick Mainwaring (V is for Vitoria and for Van Diemen’s Land), was with his uncle and the 51st at the battle. He wrote an account of the Peninsular War, published in 1844. Of Fuentes de Oñoro he said:

Day broke at last; and I well remember , in the early grey of a summer’s morn, as the men stood to their arms, how my eyes stretched to see the French; but they were hidden generally from view by the woods, and I could only just discern two or three dark heavy columns, as quiet and apparently as motionless as ourselves. Soon, however, the musketry began with the attack upon the village, then the deep heavy roar of cannon, and we saw troops in our front, the 3rd Light Division, smartly engaged. We were kept in reserve all this day, remaining under arms, but doing nothing. During the night we were moved to the right on account of some movement of the enemy; but with the dawn of day we were back in our places, and deploying into line, were formed with our left thrown back; a Portuguese brigade was immediately behind us, lining a long broken stone wall, and they began a heavy straggling fire, which would have done us considerable harm, had it not been for the presence of mind and gallantry of our Colonel, (my uncle,) who rushed up, and at the imminent risk of his own life, knocked up their muskets with his sword, and succeeded in stopping (to us) this most dangerous fire. We had not as yet seen the foe; soon, however, a round shot whizzed over our heads, and went bounding away far behind us. I made a most polite bow as it passed: it was the first I had ever heard. I was but a boy, and breathing a short prayer to Heaven, for I was then young and innocent, and such prayers we are told never ascend in vain, I murmured to myself, whilst my heart beat most violently, “Now, I am in earnest in battle;” not that it was fear, --it was a mingled emotion of awe and pleasure, and I know not what, I have never felt it since, and cannot now describe it. I looked towards my uncle, heard I him steadily and coolly giving his orders; then came the heavy gallop and rush of cavalry, an immense column of horse advancing at full speed; again the deep manly voice of the Colonel, “Steady, soldiers; ready--present--fire! In a second all this passed; the regiment, all young soldiers, stood in line like a solid rock, poured in a deadly volley; and when the smoke cleared away, horses were to be seen galloping wildly about without riders, and the enemy’s column were moving, much thinned, round our left flank, to attack the regiments posted there; from them they met the same warm reception, and were repulsed with great loss.

We now retired from the right by companies through a small wood, and reformed again in line on some rising ground, exposed to a heavy cannonade. The officer who commanded out brigade, was not to be found; and upon our commanding officer asking the General of the Division what was to be done, his reply was, “Do whatever you please, Colonel M----g.” This officer then taking the command, retired over a plain, in the presence of a large cavalry force, in the most judicious manner, showing, through the whole operations of the day, the greatest possible skill, judgment, and bravery, and yet his honourable breast has been denied the medal he so nobly earned on that field, as an action two days afterwards, in which this officer took the greatest responsibility upon himself, and which ought to have reflected credit upon him rather than annoyance, was misrepresented to the Great Duke, who, with all his bright qualities, is said (if report does not greatly belie him,) never to alter an opinion or a resolution once formed, and thus a brave and distinguished old General is deprived of an honour he so justly deserved…
Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (3–5 May 1811). Watercolour in the collection of the National Army Museum.
An ensign and colour sergeant of the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment, 1812.
Aquatint in the collection of the National Army Museum.

The Regimental Colours acted as a rallying point in the heat and smoke of battle, so that soldiers could easily find their unit by its Colours. Losing the Colours to the enemy was a great disgrace for a Regiment. The loss betokened complete defeat.

In The Life of a Regimental Officer During the Great War 1793-1815 by A. F. Mockler-Ferryman published in 1913, Mockler-ferryman writes:

Now, as a matter of fact, Sir John Colborne was wrong in saying that "the French never came near them," for it is perfectly certain that the 7th Division was posted in a most perilous position, and was very seriously attacked, although certainly the 51st was not so desperately engaged as were some of the other regiments. The division, numbering some four thousand infantry (of whom the 51st and 85th were the only British regiments), and supported by fourteen hundred cavalry, was detached two miles from the main position, on practically open ground, and every one in the division knew that since Wellington's left flank was impregnable, Massena would, of necessity, direct his attack on the right flank. Wellington himself was well aware of this, but either he did not anticipate so vast a turning movement as his adversary eventually launched, or he had intended that the 7th Division should only hold the outlying position assigned to it long enough to induce Massena to develop his attack against it. Be that as it may, the fact remains that, at one time, the 7th Division was threatened by twenty thousand of Massena's infantry and nearly the whole of his masses of cavalry, and for a while was in imminent danger of being cut off and annihilated. Wellington, of course, set matters right as soon as he realised that the situation was becoming critical, but there were some who imagined that he was intensely annoyed at having made faulty dispositions in the first instance, and that he endeavoured to justify himself in the eyes of the 7th Division by venting his wrath on the colonel of the 51st. At the same time the burning of the colours was an extraordinary procedure on the part of the colonel, and it is not easy to understand how it was that the other senior officers of the regiment acquiesced in it, if, indeed, they did so. When the circumstances became known to Wellington, he was bound to take notice of what had occurred; but apparently the officers of the 51st considered that he was unduly severe in treating their colonel's action as anything more than an error of judgment, for which a reprimand might have been sufficient. As it was, they always maintained that the commander-in-chief had been harsh and unjust, because it had been represented to him that Colonel Mainwaring had doubted the wisdom of his dispositions.

Years afterwards his nephew, Frederick Mainwaring, who, when only fourteen years of age, fought as an ensign of the 51st at Fuentes d'Onor and elsewhere, wrote very strongly on the subject, and referred to the incident of the burning of the colours, though without actually mentioning what had occurred, in the following words:—

"An action, in which this officer took the greatest responsibility upon himself, and which ought to have reflected credit upon him rather than annoyance, was misrepresented to the great Duke, who, with all his bright qualities, is said (if report does not greatly belie him) never to alter an opinion or a resolution once formed."

Colonel Mainwaring was not the only commanding officer in the Peninsula who was troubled by the presence of his regimental colours in the field, for there were occasions upon which the colours hampered the movements of a regiment very considerably. In action they could never be neglected, since they were held to contain, as it were, the soul of the regiment. Originally used as the rallying-point, they had gradually come to be regarded as what nowadays would be termed the mascot of the regiment, so that their loss in battle was thought likely to lead to the most dire consequences. The officers who carried them knew that they were in honour bound to defend them to the last, and when a whole regiment was ordered to skirmish to the front, it was often necessary to leave a company behind to guard the colours. As the war in the Peninsula went on, light infantry regiments realised that their colours were an encumbrance, and observing that rifle regiments were not provided with colours, some of them got permission to place theirs in store. But this was exceptional, and most regiments continued to carry their colours into action. At Waterloo they were everywhere conspicuous, and even in modern times their defence in the field has led to fierce fighting and the performance of signal acts of gallantry. Now, however, the extended battlefield has made their presence an impossibility, and they are no longer taken on active service. Perhaps, in this way, the sentiment attached to the "flag that bore the battle and the breeze" has been rudely crushed; yet the colours of to-day, emblazoned with numerous battle honours, are useful in reminding the young soldiers of a regiment of the victories won by their ancestors.
The Colours of the 51st Foot that were carried at the Battle of Waterloo 1815.
John Mainwaring was not present but his nephew Frederick was a lieutenant with the 51st and present during the battle.
Image from British Light Infantry Regiments: The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry

On his return to England John Mainwaring was appointed Commandant of the Depôt at Hilsea near Portsmouth. Afterwards he was appointed Commandant of the Isle of Wight. He was promoted to Major-General in 1819 and was placed on Staff in the West Indies, where he commanded the Army forces for several years. He was appointed Governor of Saint Lucia in 1825.

He retired to the Isle of Wight and died at Cowes in January 1842.

Related posts and further reading

  • A Record of the Services of the Fifty-first (Second West York), the King’s Own Light Infantry … by William Wheater, published 1870, The battle of Fuentes de Oñoro is mentioned on page 76 but there is no mention the loss of the colours
  • The Royal Military Calendar, or Army Service and Commission Book. Containing the Services and Progress of Promotion of the Generals, Lieutenant-generals, Major-generals, Colonels, Lieutenant-colonels, and Majors of the Army, According to Seniority: with Details of the Principal Military Events of the Last Century. by John Philippart, published 1820, Major-General John Montagu Mainwaring pages 12-13
  • The Annual Biography: Being Lives of Eminent Or Remarkable Persons, who Have Died Within the Year 1842 by Charles Roger Dod, published 1843 page 420 Lieutenant-General John Montagu Mainwaring

Wikitree: John Montagu Mainwaring (1761 – 1842)