Griffith Bowen Waterloo Soldier of Two Regiments
by Lyn John including an account of The Battle of Waterloo by B W Bamford Chairman & Officer Commanding 1st Foot Guards (1815) www.firstfootguards.org
The hamlet of Llangyndeyrn stands about 9 miles from Llanelli 'as the crow flies' on an old coach road leading to the county town of Carmarthen. The place is a small agricultural settlement set around an ancient church dedicated to St. Cyndeyrn.
The church register for 22 April 1790, records the Christening of Griffith, son of William Bowen [a]. At the age of seventeen, Griffith Bowen was listed as labourer because that was his Trade or Occupation, as recorded on his army papers when he signed up in His Majesty's 1st Foot Guards in 1807, where he committed himself for unlimited service.
The year of 1807 was beginning of the war against the dictator we know as Napoleon Bonaparte – the Peninsular War. Griffith Bowen was described as being 5 foot seven inches tall, and of light complexion. His hair was brown and he had black eyes. It is not certain why a man from such a rural part of South West Wales would enlist in the army? Perhaps there was a shortage of employment in the area or news from a traveller in a passing stage coach that the army was in need of soldiers and were recruiting? However like Thomas Morris, another local man, Griffith Bowen was at Merthyr when he signed up for service with the British Army. [b]
Within four years Griffith Bowen found himself in Spain in action against the French at the Battle of Barrosa, where his regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Foot Guards were under the overall command of General Thomas Graham and Major General Dilkes. They were in the South West part of Andalusia, as part of the allied attempt to break the French siege of Cadiz. Despite a 15 hour march against a heavily defended enemy, the composite brigade of Guards, commanded by Major General Dilkes, were victorious, but at a heavy cost, because the 1st Guards lost a third of their manpower being either killed or injured. It was in this battle, according to his discharge papers, Griffith Bowen received a gunshot wound in his left hand in action with the enemy at the Battle of Barrosa on the 5th March, 1811. [b][c]
Although the British contingent defeated the much larger French force under the command of Marshal Victor, Cadiz remained besieged. Despite this, Both Houses of Parliament unanimously voted their thanks to Lieutenant General Graham, and the officers and men under his command for his victory. The losses they inflicted helped to allow Wellington’s forces to move north and drive the French enemy from Spain.
Owing to the severe losses sustained by the corps in the late action it was ordered home [c] It is likely that Griffith Bowen then found himself back in Britain but more action was to follow...
The Battle of Waterloo
With Griffith Bowen and the 2nd Battalion, 1st Foot Guards in Belgium 1815
On February 26th 1815, Pte. Bowen was parading in his very best order as he and the 1st Foot Guards formed part of a huge review of allied troops in Brussels. The review was to celebrate the accession of the Prince of Orange as Sovereign of Holland and Belgium. As a British soldier Bowen most probably considered the whole affair an unnecessary misuse of his time but, in common with all his comrades in arms, had little choice in the matter.
What he, or anyone else involved in that parade, didn't know was that at the very same time Napoleon Bonaparte and his personal guard were making good their escape from exile on Elba: and so began the campaign known as the 100 Days which would culminate in battle at a place called Waterloo.
On March 25th Bowen and the rest of the 2nd bttn. marched straight for the French border, rested at Ath and then proceeded to Enghien on 4th April. On 14th April the 3rd bttn. arrived from England and together they formed the 1st Guards Brigade, part of the 1st Corps under the overall command of the Prince of Orange. It was at this time that Bowen’s company commander – Lt.Col. Fitzroy Somerset – took up his alternative post as military secretary and ADC to the Duke of Wellington. [d]
On 15th June came news that the French had crossed the border into Belgium; the Guards Brigade was put on alert and then marched towards Nivelles at 04:00 the following morning, reaching the outskirts of that town by about 15:00hrs. on the 16th tired, hungry and thirsty after such a march in the swelteringly sticky heat. But there was to be no rest for Bowen and his friends on this day. A major clash with French forces under Marshal Ney was taking place at a cross roads known as Quatre Bras. The allies there were outnumbered and needed re-enforcements. The Guards were marched at double time towards the action, and as the 2nd bttn. arrived it was immediately fed into the surrounding woodland by the Prince of Orange. Tired, confused and lacking detailed orders, the officers and men sustained heavy casualties as they attempted to clear the wood of the enemy, many of these from friendly fire. The French did not manage to take the area by force but by nightfall, when hostilities ceased for the day, the foot guards alone had lost over 500 men killed or wounded. If Bowen slept at all that night it was through complete exhaustion – the sound of the wounded would have kept him awake under any other circumstances.
Due to the situation of Wellington’s Prussian allies, who had been forced back to Wavre by French forces commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, there was no option for the Guards Brigades but to fall back during the day of June 17th. To Bowen and the other men in the ranks it must have seemed as though despite all their valiant efforts of the previous day they had, none the less, been beaten and were in retreat. What the men in the ranks did not know was that Wellington was in fact consolidating his position by retiring to ground previously identified by him as an ideal place to stop a French advance on Brussels [e]. It was just to the south of a small village called Waterloo.
That afternoon it began to rain. It was a downpour of biblical proportions accompanied by great flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder which ripped the summer sky. It kept up all night while the men did their best to keep dry and prepare for the inevitable battle which was to follow on the morning.
The 1st Guards Brigade was posted high upon the ridge, overlooking the farm complex of Hougoumont, on almost the extreme right end of Wellington’s line. In a style of fighting developed over years the Duke would post some of his men on the front of a slope in view of the enemy, but would post still more just over the ridge on the reverse slope, where they were hidden from view and, more importantly, shielded from direct fire. Lord Somerset’s company, as part of the 2nd bttn., found itself on the reverse slope whilst the 3rd bttn. stood to their left and slightly ahead of them.
It had stopped raining early on the morning of Sunday 18th June but even with all troops in position a French attack could not start until the ground had begun to dry. Delaying the engagement aided the allies on that field as they knew the Prussians were on their way to assist them. Napoleon could only be defeated if Wellington could hold him in check until the arrival of the Prussians under Blucher. The French also knew this and so were determined to smash their way through the allied line which stood impudently blocking their way to Brussels.
The main French artillery barrage commenced at a little after 11:00 and for the entire day the men of the 2nd and 3rd bttns. of the 1st Foot Guards had to stand and endure a continuous enemy canon fire of shot and shell. The only relief from the artillery onslaught was when the French launched a series of unsupported cavalry charges up the slope in an endeavour to break the foot soldiers of Wellington’s army. Surge after surge of the finest French horsemen raced towards the allied troops only to find them fall back into a static square formation, bristling with bayonets to keep horses at bay whilst musket fire from within the square brought down horses and men alike.
It is almost impossible to imagine the horror of being either in line or in square in such circumstances as were endured by Bowen and his colleagues that day. The noise of men and musketry, of horse and howitzer, of shot and shell would be enough to drive a man insane; but consider also the carnage of battle as men and animals are torn literally limb from limb in front of one’s very eyes. Of comrades reduced to offal as they stand at one’s very side. And all the time being ordered to keep close to the next man – and to keep loading and firing. After more than six hours of this continuous cacophony and carnage it seemed to fall almost silent.
By this time men were almost inured to the horror of their immediate situation and had been almost deafened by the noise of battle; and yet, in that eerie, whistling moment of respite it was there that Bowen, and what was left of his company, could just hear the sound of a general infantry advance.
Knowing that the Prussians were now arriving to assist Wellington, Napoleon had sent in his elite Guards. These men – never beaten in battle – respected and feared by all sides, were marching up the slope to finally break the allied line. And they were heading directly towards the Foot Guards. The men formed and crouched in a line four deep, and as the French crested the slope to what they believed would be a defeated, retreating army, a host of red coated soldiers sprang to their feet and opened fire upon them at point blank range. The finest French infantry had met the finest British infantry. The French advance faltered and then, in the face of overpowering musket fire, began to fall back. Bowen and the other foot guards could not contain themselves; and as the French retreated they surged forward. Another regiment of red coated infantry fired into the flank of the French and the attack was finished. For the first time in its long and proud history the French Guard had been bested in battle. When the news spread through the French army their retreat was turned to rout [f].
The 1st Foot Guards followed the retreating French for a distance of about two miles before being ordered to halt. Bowen fell to the ground exhausted, shell shocked and deafened. His company commander, Lord Somerset, was having his mangled right arm amputated, but Griffith Bowen was both alive and uninjured. He slept that night on the field of battle, surrounded by the dead and dying who, that day, had secured peace in mainland Europe for the next 99 years.
Bowen in the Rifle Brigade
Following the declaration of peace with France, Griffith Bowen was discharged from the 1st Foot Guards (The Grenadier Guards) on the 16th February 1816, after seven years and 169 days service. Although he received his due allowances, including two weeks pay to carry him to his home he re-enlisted in the army with the Rifle Brigade on 25th February of 1816. In August 1821 Griffith Bowen was discharged from the Rifle brigade in consequence of a reduction in the establishment of the battalion. His general conduct was described as indifferent [g].
Bowen the Toll Collector
Twenty years on, we find a Griffith Bowen and his wife Elizabeth living next to Black Horse Inn, in the hamlet of Meinciau on the main road to the village of Pontyates where he is listed as an Army Pensioner [h]. Meinciau was only two miles south of Llangyndeyrn, the village where Bowen was Christened. (The 1880 OS Plan of this area show a small farm holding named Llwyn-dau -filwyr which translates from Welsh to The field of two soldiers.)
The Farmers Arms public house in Llangyndeyrn was the occasional meeting place of The Kidwelly and District Turnpike Roads Trust, a body of businessmen, Justices of the Peace and members of the local gentry, set up to manage the toll roads in the area [j]. They were also responsible for employing the toll collectors that manned the toll houses collecting gate money for the use of the roads. Given the reputation that Griffith Bowen had been a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo, and an Army Pensioner it is likely that he was employed by the Trust as a toll collector.
Toll collectors were not very popular in the early part of the 1840s, particularly in West Wales as it was the time of the civil disturbances known as the Rebecca Riots. These riots were instigated by the unfair cost that the toll gates placed on society as a whole, the populace rose up under the cloak of anonymity. Disguised as women with blackened faces and armed with guns, axes and saws the rioters would be led by 'Rebecca', They would ride out at night and destroy the toll gates and their houses as a protest. One such gate was the Pen-y-Garn Toll Gate, which was probably located in the village of Llanegwad approximately seven miles east of Carmarthen on the Llandeilo road.
The Times of London frequently reported on the Rebecca Riots in Wales, and on Friday 30th June 1843 its reporter published his investigation in to the attack upon the Pen-y-Garn Toll gate.
The Rebecca Riots
The gate I speak of is called the Pen-y-Garn Gate, and is a regular turnpike upon the main London road between this town and Llandeilo Fawr. With a view to the utmost accuracy in my statement, I to-day drove to the spot, and was surprised to see a large tollhouse, built entirely of stone, two stories high, containing four large rooms being 36 feet long by about 20 feet wide, the walls of which were 22 inches thick, having a slate roof with lead gutters and every other requisite, which at 11 o'clock last night was standing in complete repair, but now in a heap of ruins. The gate, it appears, was kept by an old pensioner named Griffith Bowen, who had been in the peninsular war and served at Waterloo in the 2d Battalion of Grenadier guards. I think I cannot depict the outrage by giving the simple narrative of the old man himself:-
“About a quarter before 12 o'clock last night,” said he, “I was standing at the door of the tollhouse, which has been built about 15 years, smoking my pipe, when, looking up the hill, upon hearing some talking, I saws two men at a distance of about 50 yards. After the men had talked a little, I saw a body of them, to the number of between 200 and 300 disguised, and with their faces blacked – most of them had women’s caps on and they had Rebecca at their head: many of them were on horseback, but they dismounted at the top of the hill, and left their horses there. They then marched down the hill and I could see that they were armed with guns and pistols, pickaxes and sledge-hammers, and all sorts of offensive weapons. Being much alarmed, my wife and myself fled from the house, and I hid myself behind an ash tree, a short distance off, but from which I could observe their motions. Upon their reaching the gate, Rebecca called out, “Hallo! Hello! gate!”. After a short interval, he gave the word of command, “Go on,” and the work of destruction immediately began.
The whole mob fell to work, pulling down the gate, and sawing off the posts, which were solid oak, and each four feet in circumference. A portion of the body also entered the toll house, and having thrown out the furniture on the roadside, and torn down the bedstead, &c, they began pulling down the walls of the house, and left it and the gate in complete ruins. They kept firing guns and pistols at intervals during the whole period, which occupied upward of an hour, and then, at the word of command, marched up the hill and disappeared, taking with them the Waterloo medal of the collector and 12s in silver which was in his desk, and escaping without detection, although they must have marched more than two miles each way upon the main London-road to and from the scene of the outrage”
When I went to the spot I saw the poor man and his family sitting houseless by the wayside. [k]
Bowen is recorded as being a recipient of the Waterloo Medal. There is some evidence that he was also awarded the Peninsular Medal (General Military Service Medal) with the Barossa Clasp [l].
The Census Returns of 1851 record a Griffith Bowen living with wife Elizabeth as the toll collector or gate keeper, in the toll house at Cwmduad, a village near Conwil Elfed, Carmarthenshire. Although his place of birth is not recorded in this document, his wife's are, she was born in the village Llanddarog which situated in the same county. So it is be possible that the last resting place of our Waterloo hero and his wife was in the Church of St Twrog, Llanddarog, where the Burial Register records the interment of a couple of the same names and age [m].
Notes and Citations
[a] Parish Register 1790, page 80.
[b] G. Bowen, HM Grenadier Foot Guards Discharge Papers dated 14 February 1816
[c] The Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards; Hamilton Vol 2 Ch xxiii
[d] The Waterloo Roll Call; Charles Dalton 2nd Edn.
[e] Waterloo, the history of four days, three armies and three battles; Cornwell
[f] The Reminiscences of Captain Gronow; edited by N. Bentley
[g] G. Bowen 1 Bt Rifle Brigade Discharge Papers dated 25 August 1821
[h] 1841 Census
[j] Extracts from the Kidwelly & District Turnpike Road Order Book (Carmarthenshire Records Office item: T.T. 21)
[k] The Times Friday 30th June 1843 page 6
[l] Waterloo Medal Roll p115-116 (The Naval & Military Press Ltd 1992).
Military General Service Medal (Barossa) (Grenadier Gds Pay List)
[m] Church of St Twrog, Llanddarog. Burials Register
Click here for further reading: Llanelli and the Battle of Waterloo
Margaret Rees of Llanddarog Parish Church (Website Co-ordinator)
Alan Richards from Pontarddulias (Author and historian)