RIO DE LA PLATA, ARGENTINA AND URUGUAY, 1805-06
Captain Charles Eeles, 95th Rifle Regiment
Colonel William Eeles, Rifle Brigade
St. Mary's, Amersham, Buckinghamshire
Monumental inscriptions do not have to commemorate men who died in action, and the one I am concerned with here illustrates that, as it names one brother who died at the most famous British battle of the 19th Century, and one who survived it. But Waterloo is not the subject of this piece, being outside my remit of forgotten wars. Rio de la Plata, however, is. An obscure little war, albeit part of a much bigger one, with an ignominious close.
In a number of these accounts of the Napoleonic period it is evident that France’s control of the majority of mainland Europe posed many problems for the British. Our dependence on North African ports prevented us joining in America’s war with the Barbary States, the French influence over the Dutch prompted the 1798 invasion of North Holland, and in far-flung corners of the world Britain’s colonial interests clashed with those of other European nations. In this case we are concerned with the Dutch and the Spanish.
I begin this story in January 1806, when Sir David Baird, with six thousand and three hundred men, captured the Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa, from the Dutch. Rumours must then have reached the Cape saying that the enemy were planning to reinvade with forces sailed across from South America, specifically Spanish-controlled Argentina and Uruguay. The wonderfully-named Sir Home Riggs Popham was therefore sent to patrol the East coast of South America and to detect any such forces. As he prepared for the voyage, Popham heard rumours that discontent existed amongst the inhabitants of the Rio de la Plata region, and so persuaded Baird to give him troops for a possible invasion. Baird gave him one thousand men and some artillery, and he set sail on 14th April, collecting another fifteen hundred troops from St. Helena on the way. Pop ham was not an army man, so Baird promoted the one-eyed Colonel William Beresford to General, placing him in charge of the troops.
When the fleet arrived off the Rio de la Plata the Spanish viceroy, Sobremonte, believing the more vulnerable city was Montevideo, sent the majority of his troops there, leaving Buenos Aires relatively undefended. Siezing the opportunity Beresford and Popham occupied Buenos Aires on 27th June 1806. Sobremonte fled for Cordoba, with his treasury, only for the treasury to be intercepted and captured. Popham immediately returned home with the money and news of the victory, but left Beresford in a difficult situation.
Initially the British were welcomed by the local politicians and dignitaries. However, delicate situations need delicate handling, and the British military of the age are not renowned for subtle diplomacy. So if you have local people wishing to rid themselves of European control it is probably not helpful to tell them that they must do what you, an invading British General, say. And if you have local merchants making money from Spanish trade monopolies, telling them that those will have to go, as Britain stands for Free Trade, is not going to endear them to you. And if there is a strong local emancipation movement who, given the campaigns in Britain, think you are going to free slaves, and you say you are not (because the slaves are owned by the rich local politicians who are your only support), they are not going to be too content. Moreover, Beresford only had a couple of thousand troops to defend the city.
Beresford misread all those situations, and so allowed the displaced Spanish to quickly regroup. A French officer serving with the Spanish, Jacques (or Santiago) de Liniers, organised the opposition and, realising how weak in numbers the British were, landed north of Buenos Aires with more than one thousand men on August 8th. A week later he had taken control of the northern and western entries to the city, and was moving in.
It only took a few days. On the 14th Beresford surrendered, the 71st Regiment having suffered the ignominy of losing both their colours as they defended, and lost, the Santa Domingo Convent. The colours are still there, preserved in glass cases. Beresford was kept prisoner for six months, before escaping. Somewhere there will be a record of what happened to the surviving troops of the 71st.
The British came back in 1807. Montevideo was taken on February 3rd, and in July, under Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke, they attempted to retake Buenos Aires. After a month’s campaign Whitelocke made an armistice with de Liniers and withdrew, not just from Buenos Aires but from the whole Rio de la Plata – the surrendering of Montevideo led to his court-martial and cashiering, which meant he became one of the few colonels to be dismissed in disgrace from his regiment (he died in 1833, having retired to Beaconsfield). It was in this campaign that William Eeles fought, as an officer in the 95th Regiment, also known as The Rifle Brigade, the same regiment with which he fought at Waterloo, and with which his brother Charles was killed.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF CHARLES EELES ESQ LATE CAPTAIN IN HIS MAJESTY'S 95TH RIFLE REGIMENT WHO AFTER SERVING WITH THE BRITISH ARMY THRO' THE VARIOUS CAMPAIGNS IN THE SPANISH PENINSULA TERMINATED HIS GLORIOUS CAREER ON THE 18TH JUNE 1815 IN THE 30TH YEAR OF HIS AGE HE NOBLY FELL IN HIS COUNTRY'S CAUSE ON THE EVER MEMORABLE FIELD OF WATERLOO ESTEEMED LAMENTED AND BELOVED HIS MOTHER MRS SABINA EELES NEE LAURENCE DIED AT AMERSHAM IN 1836 HIS BROTHER WILLIAM EELES LT COLONEL IN THE RIFLE BRIGADE (OLD 95TH) DIED AT WOOLWICH IN 1838, WAS AT BUENOS AYRES (UNDER WHITLOCK), PENINSULA CAMPAIGN AND WATERLOO
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St. Mary's, Amersham - by Magnus Manske, from the Wikimedia Commons
La Reconquista de Buenos Aires - by Charles Fouqueray, in the Buenos Aires Cabildo
'Redcoat', Richard Holmes (Harper Collins, 2001)
© Jonathan Dewhirst 2013