Those who have read Scottish Military Disasters will know that I pretty much wrapped up the story of the 71st Highland Regiment’s part in the 1806 invasion of Argentina with their surrender.
I thought it might be worth having closer look at their almost year in captivity. The 71st had formed the bulk of the troops detached from garrison duty in South Africa for the invasion of the Spanish colonies in South America – Spain being at war with Britain at the time. The British managed to seize Buenos Aires and shipped around one million dollars in Spanish treasure back to London. But when a small Spanish army approached the city in August 1806, the population rose against the tiny British force and it was forced to surrender. The terms of the surrender included a provision that the British would be allowed to leave Buenos Aires on British ships. But the Spanish did not honour the deal – possibly because more British troops were on their way to Buenos Aires.
The officers and men of the 71st found themselves attacked by mobs in the city as they were marched to the city hall where they were to be imprisoned. It was only the intervention of local priests and some of the wealthier citizens that prevented many of the soldiers from being lynched by the mob. The mobs spent several days trying to capture British soldiers not being held at the city hall. At least one was forced to hide under a bed to escape the howling mob and most were afraid to venture out in public unless escorted by a priest. A Royal Marine was not so lucky and was lynched. The bodies of British soldiers killed were often mutilated and stripped. Some citizens of the city wore severed British ears in their hats.
It was decided to disperse rank and file of the 71st amongst several settlements deep in the interior of Argentina. It was feared if the regiment was kept together it would overwhelm the guards and attempt to join a British army operating on the other side of the River Plate. The soldiers had their packs, which had been put into storage two days before the surrender, returned to them. But the contents had been plundered. Some of the troops found themselves being marched almost 600 miles to the foothills of the Andes. Crossing the waterless pampas plains, the ragged soldiers were forced to use animal excrement for fuel.
The exotic strangers found themselves welcomed into the remote communities and many of the soldiers with civilian trades soon found themselves plying them. The wealthier families in the communities to which the 71st were sent played host to the soldiers and generally treated them well. Many of the soldiers learned Spanish during their captivity and their proficiency in the language was to come in handy later in the war when the 71st fought on the Spanish side to liberate Spain from its French occupiers.
The officers, and at least one of the senior sergeants, were kept closer to Buenos Aires and at first allowed some freedom of movement. They were billeted on richer families and received $1 a day in allowances from the Spanish Government. But life was not all peaches and cream for the officers. Two were ambushed while out for a horse ride. Captain Ogilvie of Royal Artillery was lassoed and pulled off his horse before being murdered and his companion, Lieutenant Colonel Denis Pack, the 71st’s commanding officer, would have suffered the same fate if two passers-by had not intervened. An Irish woman who was married to one of the officers’ soldier-servants was murdered after being sent on an errand carrying a Spanish doubloon coin. Her two killers wept when they learned they had killed a fellow Catholic. One of the officer's servants was lassoed and dragged from his horse while out riding near the village of Capel. His attacker, or attackers, dragged the man, sadly not named, for some distance with a horse before slitting his throat from ear to ear.
The murders were used as an excuse to mount a guard on the officers but everyone knew the Spanish soldiers were jailers and not protectors. Pack managed to slip away from his minders while being moved deeper into the interior of Argentina and managed to reach British troops on the other side of the River Plate. There were accusations that Pack had broken parole, that he had given his word not to escape in exchange of freedom of movement. Pack demanded to be brought before a court of inquiry at which he successfully argued that as he was under guard when he escaped, he could not have been on parole.
Sergeant William Gavin was held with the officers. When he was told he was being shipped into the interior he tried to buy some food for the journey. He had no money, so he attempted to sell his watch to a Spanish friend. But the friend misunderstood and tried to thrust 30 to 40 doubloons on him with a promise of more. Gavin gave the money back.
In July of the following year the British suffered another defeat at the hands of Spanish troops and agreed to another evacuation. The men of the 71st were included in the deal but it took two months to bring them to Monte Video. They arrived dressed in civilian clothing, including ponchos.
It wasn’t until 27th December that the 71st finally reached the Irish port of Cork. There they found a year’s pay and at least £18 each as a share of the treasure captured at Buenos Aires. Barrels of beer and whisky were ordered from Cork and for several days some rooms in the 71st’s barracks were ankle deep in booze.
Not all the men in the regiment came back from Argentina. At least 30 and perhaps as many as 96 opted to remain on the other side of the Atlantic. These were said to have been Dutchmen recruited before the 71st left South Africa or Irish Catholics who preferred the comforts of life in Argentina to what awaited them back on their native soil.