John Lyle of the 91st Regiment of Foot (later the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders)
John Lyle, eldest son of weaver and/or farmer Robert Lyle (ca 1768-1793) and Mar(e)y Cochran(e) (1765-1797), was born 24 Feb 1789 in Paisley, Scotland and died of yellow fever at the Uppark military camp in Jamaica on 16th June 1822. At that time he was a Colour Sergeant in the 91st Regiment of Foot.
John’s grandmother Ann Kerr 1733-1789 married Thomas Cochrane in 1756 and kept a bible in which she faithfully recorded the birth of their ten children. Her fifth-born, Marey, married Robert Lyle. The last child was born in 1776, the year of the American Declaration
of Independence. John’s parents married in Paisley on 16 April 1756 – the same year that the Seven Year War with France began, when George II was the reigning monarch.
John’s younger brother Thomas eventually inherited the Cochrane Bible. He must have been informed of his brother’s death as he recorded the details, which also included the death of their father Robert Lyle at age 30 in 1793, and mother Mary or Marey Cochran(e) at 32 in 1797.
The records of the 91st Regiment of Foot are in the British National Archives and have proved very valuable in tracing many milestones in John’s life. Unfortunately his full service record is not available as he died in service; such records were only for men who received army pensions on discharge.
Description Book records show that John enlisted at Paisley on 24 August 1805 when he was 18 (the Battle of Trafalgar was on 21 October of that year). His occupation was given as weaver. He was 5 ft 3 inches in height, which increased to 5 ft 7 inches within 6 years. He had brown complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, and a round face. He was one of at least ten young men aged mostly between 14 and 19 who all enlisted in Paisley that day. Of those ten, 4 others were also weavers, 4 were to go on to the West Indies in 1822, 4 became pensioners, and the oldest of the group, aged 26 at enlistment and who had already served from 1799 to 1891, was also pensioned off “worn out”. Their characters ranged from ‘A good soldier’ to ‘Notorious bad character’. As a Sergeant John would have been a strong person and well respected.
What caused John to enlist? Perhaps he was bored, like so many other weavers. Did he see a martial display which inspired his patriotic fervour, aided by the allure of a uniform and firearm? Or was he attracted by the enlistment bounty – which never actually covered the cost of clothing and necessaries, except during the French and Crimean wars. Or he could possibly have been kidnapped, as was common in the early years of the French wars.
John rose in the ranks quickly, becoming Corporal a year after enlistment and attaining Sergeant rank 7 years later. Some time after Waterloo he was made Colour Sergeant.
In his book “ British Military Spectacle” , Scott Hughes Myerly says:
Nothing was more important for regimental pride and esprit than the colours (battle flag), which were a centrepiece in peacetime ceremony and ritual and a rallying point in battle. Until 1813, the most junior ensign carried them ….. The colours were associated with the creation of the honorific rank of colour-sergeant during the Peninsular war in 1813, when colour-sergeants carried the colours in battle and received extra pay and a large, gold-lace badge on their right sleeves.
Left: Colours of the 91st
Right: Waterloo cap badge
John married some time after he had enlisted. His first son John was born in Dumfries, Scotland in 1810, after the Regiment had been serving in the Peninsular Wars for several years and had returned home. His second child, a daughter named Agnus or Agnes, was born in Liverpool, presumably while John was away again fighting in the Pyrenees.
How many years was it before he saw his daughter? Or did his wife and children follow the Regiment? John was by that time a Sergeant so his wife would have had some standing among the women. After Waterloo the Regiment remained in France, and in 1818 John’s third child, another daughter named Mary, was born in Valenciennes. If the first child was named after his father and the third after the father’s mother, it seems logical that the second, Agnes, was named after either her mother or her mother’s mother.
John’s wife died some time after the birth of Mary. It is not known if she and the children accompanied him to Jamaica in 1822. John died only a few months later. The Regimental Returns for June-July 1822 show that following John’s death, a quite reasonable sum for those days was retained “…for the benefit of his three orphan children left with the Regiment.”
The above-mentioned Return of Non-commissioned Officers, Drummers, Fifers and Privates of the 91st , June to July 1822, shows that he was under Captain R Stewart, repeats that he was born in Paisley, a weaver, enlisted 24 August 1805 and died in Jamaica 17 June 1822. (John is in the third row). One marvels at the time which must have been spent on keeping all these records up to date.
John Lyle’s military history can be traced to some extent using information from the records of the 91st and also “The Forlorn Hope”:
- 1805 – 24 August – enlisted at Paisley (The Battle of Trafalgar was on 21 October)
- 1806 – Made Corporal, 1st Battalion
- 1808 – 1 Aug – British Army lands in Portugal under command of Sir Arthur Wellesley (Wellington)
- 1808 – 17 Aug – Battle of Rolica (91st Battle Honours)
- 1808 – 21 Aug – Battle of Vimiero (91st Battle Honours)
- 1808 – 24 Dec – British Army retreats to Corunna
- 1809 – 16 Jan – Battle of Corunna (91st Battle Honours)
- 1809 -.9 Dec – British evacuate Walcheren
- About 1810 – Son John born in Dumfries
- 1811 – The Prince Regent held a Royal Review at Wimbledon Common to celebrate his accession to the Regency .. 20,000 soldiers performed, drawn up in two parallel lines that extended for two miles.
- 1812 – Made Sergeant. The 91st rejoined Wellington.
- About 1813 – Daughter Agnus/Agnes born in Liverpool.
- 1813 – 25 July – The start of the Battles for the Pyrenees (91st Battle Honours)
- 1813 – 7 Oct – British Army invades France
- 1813 – 10 Nov – Battle of Nivelle (91st Battle Honours)
- 1813 – 9 Dec – Battle of Nive (91st Battle Honours)
- 1814 – 27 Feb – Battle of Orthez (91st Battle Honours)
- 1814 – 31 Mar – the Allies enter Paris
- 1814 – 6 April – Napoleon abdicates
- 1814 – 4 May – Napoleon lands at Elba
- 1815 – Colour Sergeant in Capt. Ross’s Company
- 1815 – 26 Feb – Napoleon escapes from Elba – enters Paris 20 March
- 1815 – 18 June – Allies defeat the French at Waterloo
- 1815 – 17 Oct – Napoleon arrives at St. Helena
- 1815 to 1818 – the 91st remained in France, as part of the two British & Hanoverian Contingents of the Allied Occupation Army under Commander-in-Chief: Field Marshal 1st Duke of Wellington, formed under a General Order of 30th November, 1815. The 91st Foot, first Battalion were in the 2nd division, 3rd Brigade under Major General Sir Robert O’Callaghan.
- About 1818 – Daughter Mary born at Valciennes, France. Regiment returned to England.; to Ireland (Dublin) in December.
- 1819 – Ireland
- 1820 – Ireland until July. Received orders for Jamaica from the Clyde.
- 1821 – 5 May – Napoleon dies of ill health, or was he murdered by slow arsenic poisoning?
- 1822 – 16 Feb – Colour Sgt John Lyle disembarks from the ship “Brilliant” in Jamaica.
- 1822 – 17 June – Colour Sgt John Lyle dies of yellow fever. Presumably buried in Kingston, Jamaica. Record says he left 3 orphan children “in the care of the Regiment”.
John was awarded a Waterloo medal, one of approximately 40,000.
Though styled the Waterloo Medal, it was awarded to anyone who had taken part in one or more of the following battles Ligny, 16th June; Quatre Bras, 16th June; Waterloo, 18th June. Every soldier present at either of these battles was credited with two extra years’ service, to count for all purposes.
This is the first medal issued by the British Government to all soldiers present. This statement must not be confused and read as if this were the first battle for which a general issue was made. It is also the first campaign medal awarded to the next-of-kin of men killed in action.
It is not generally known that this medal also has another distinction in that it was the first on which the recipient’s name was impressed around the edge by machine.
The Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders is at Stirling Castle, Stirling, Scotland. Records are also held by the Scottish Military Historical Society. In 1793 when Britain was threatened by the French Republicans, George III wrote to John, 5th Duke of Argyll, asking him to raise a kilted regiment of 1,100 men. The Duke was unwell at the time and deputed the task to his kinsman, Duncan Campbell, 8th Lochnell. On 9 July 1794 they were formally gazetted into the British Army as the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders, renumbered later, in October 1798, as the 91st. They were a kilted regiment and wore the Government or Black Watch tartan.
The Raising of the Regiment
On 5 May 1795 the regiment embarked for South Africa to capture the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch. They remained as part of the garrison in Cape Town, South Africa, for seven years, returning in 1803 to England to help patrol the southern counties against the event of an invasion by Napoleon. (This would have been about the time John Lyle enlisted).
The Regiment rejoined Wellington in time to take part in the desperate struggles in the Pyrenees, and fully maintained the best traditions of Scottish valour on the Nivelle and at Nive, Orthes and Toulouse. In 1808 it went to Portugal with Sir John Moore where it was part of the rearguard action against Napoleon’s army (under Marshall Soult) which ended with the British evacuation at Corunna. The 91st was present at the victories of Roleia and Vimiera in the Peninsular War and gained much credit in the memorable retreat of Sir John Moore on Corunna during which it formed part of the rearguard and was seven times engaged with the enemy.
At this time the 91st, together with five other Highland Corps, lost the right to wear Highland Dress, though it was allowed to keep the title The Argyllshire Regiment. The tartan was not restored until 1864, when the 91st adopted and were permitted to wear Campbell of Cawdor tartan trews, being the Government tartan with a red and light blue stripe, which they wore until 1881.
1812 found the 91st taking part in the advance which pushed the French out of Spain. In 1814 the 91st was fighting at Bergen-op-Zoom in Holland.
They were present during the Waterloo campaign of 1815. Later at least part of the regiment was also at St Helena supervising the exhumation of Napoleon’s remains prior to reburial in France.
The 91st was renamed the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment of Foot in 1820. There have been several name changes since then. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are still an active serving regiment in the British Army. They have the right to march through the Royal Burgh of Stirling with bayonets fixed, flags flying and drums beating. The Argylls are the only regiment to wear a plain red and white dicing on the glengarry and feather bonnet.
Uppark Camp, Jamaica.
Yellow fever was endemic in the Jamaica camp. The 61st Foot, a Gloucestershire Regiment, was also stationed at Uppark for 5 years from 1817. During that period it lost by disease 7 officers, and 356 non-commissioned officers and soldiers.
Conditions can be imagined from an extract of a letter from a Private soldier of the 91st Regiment, stationed at Stoney Hill, Jamaica, and published on 4 October 1822 – Guiana Chronicle and Demerara Gazette (John Lyle died on 16 June):
There are a great many casualties occurred since our arrival here, which I make no doubt but you and your comrades will be sorry to hear. I landed here on the 16th February, and I thought when I first came I had found Paradise; but now I find Paradise Lost. The barracks we are in at present are on the top of a very high hill, and a very healthy place; they are built in form of a granary, and we have a hammock and a blanket for each man, and no utensils whatever except we purchase them ourselves: they have shades in front of them where we breakfast and dine, and in wet weather, parade. In regard to the heat, you would not believe it, except you had experienced it; it is about 6 degrees cooler here than what it is in camp, though it is only 7 miles distance between the two places. Provisions are as follows: –
beef 10.5d a-pound, salt pork do. flour 5.75d. a quart, butter half a dollar, or 2s.4d a-pound, eggs do. a-dozen, sugar from 3.5 to 5.24 a-lb. rum from 7d. to 1s5.5d. a quart., tobacco 1d. to 5.5d a-lb. and fruit I can hardly put any value on, as we are situated in the centre of orange groves and other fruits. The country is excessive hot and there is about five hours difference in the day between us and you; when it is 7 o’clock with us, it is 12 with you. Our rations cost us 3.5d. a day and we have a pound and 5 ounces of fine bread a day, a pound of fresh beef a-day, for 4 days in the week, the other 3 days we have three-quarters of a pound of salt pork, and a gill of good rum a-day, with plenty of good vegetables, viz.- cabbage, onions, pumpkins, parsl(e)y, yams, cocoas, &c. I hope you will excuse me now, as I am rather confused at this time, thinking on the deaths of so many of my comrades. There is at present time upwards of an hundred of the regiment dead; – they all died in camp with the exception of 4.
Uppark or Up Park Camp, just outside Kingston, still exists today.
It is hoped to trace John’s children further and to discover the identity of his wife. From the birthplaces of the children it can be deduced that she was Scottish. She would have been with her husband after Waterloo, at least. It is not known if she and the children accompanied him to Jamaica; the burial records there have not yielded any information.
The book “Sharp’s Waterloo” by Bernard Cornwell, although fictious, is extremely well researched and gives a graphic picture of conditions existing in a regiment such as the 91st, and the life of a foot soldier and also his wife – which does not sound very pleasant, although conditions would have improved once John became a Sergeant. It seems incredible that John survived for so long, and ironic that he should die of a tropical disease and not during battle. Another more recent work of fiction, “Four Days in June” by Iain Gale, based on actual persons, gives equally graphic descriptions not only of Waterloo but of some of the earlier Peninsular battles.