Wednesday, February 8

John William Waters - A Spy for Wellington


John William Waters was born in 1774 at Cefn Cribwr (Bridgend County Borough in south Wales), one of the nine children of Morgan and Grace Waters of Ty Fry. 

We know this because the details are contained in a family history “The Chesters of Chicheley” written by Richard Edmund Chester Waters and published privately in 1872. Robert was a descendant of John’s brother Edmund, and collected together such material as he was able concerning this illustrious family member much of which forms the basis of this booklet. Unfortunately his research into the family’s origins was seriously flawed, and he mistakenly claimed them to be descendants of a family named Waters originating in Cornelly. It is partly through his error that other writers who have mentioned John Waters have made incorrect statements about his background. Mr. S.G.P. Ward in his book “Wellington’s Headquarters”, for example, describes him as a grandson of Edmund Waters who was High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1754.



(...) there is no saying where Morgan’s future might have led following his return from the navy, but fate intervened in the form of a smallpox epidemic that struck the area in 1784. At Ty Fry it left total disaster in its wake, and the parish registers record the burial of Morgan on 1st July, his wife Grace nine days later, and their infant daughter Catherine on the 23rd.


Of their eight children that now survived Edmund, the eldest, was just twenty years of age, and lived in London where he was a Clerk at the Admiralty. >His elder brother Edmund supported his brother's military inclinations and put up money for him to purchase a comission as an ensign, and in 2 Aug 1797* their father's former friend, the Marquess of Bute, also used his influence to secure the new recruit a position with the First Royals.

The Marquis went further , and recommended the young officer to his own brother, General Charles Stuart, who was at the time preparing to leave with his forces to Portugal.

John, who had become lieutenant on 15 Feb. 1799, joined the 2nd battalion in Portugal and served with it in the expedition to the Helder in 1799, and in the expedition to Egypt in 1801.

[* In 1797 a 5th Battalion of the 60th was raised under Baron Francis de Rottenburg, whose treatise on Riflemen and Light Infantry formed the basis of Moore's training. This was the first British unit to be dressed in the green jacket and armed with the rifle in place of the smoothbore musket and it represented the first British attempt at developing specialised light infantry for the European battlefield.]

On 24 May 1802, the Duke of Kent began an appointment as governor of Gibraltar, with express orders by the government to restore discipline among the troops. However, the Duke's harsh discipline precipitated a mutiny** by soldiers in the Royal Fusiliers and the 25th Regiment on Christmas Eve 1802. 
The Duke of York, then the commander-in-chief of the British Army, recalled John Waters in May 1803 after receiving reports of the mutiny.

 In reward for his conduct during the mutiny at Gibraltar in 1802 the Duke of Kent obtained a company for him in the York Rangers on 24 Sept 1803. Waters remained, however, with the Royal Scots, and went with it to the West Indies. On 28 Feb. 1805 he was promoted to Captain in that regiment (The Royal Scots) to which two new battalions had been added, and soon afterwards he returned to England.


[**The Duke of Kent formally held the governorship of Gibraltar until his death, although the Duke of York forbade him to return. As a consolation for the end of his active military career, he was promoted to the rank of field marshal and appointed Ranger of Hampton Court Park on 5 September 1805. The Duke of Kent continued to serve as honorary colonel of the 1st Regiment of Foot (the Royal Scots) until his death.]

In August 1808, owing to the Duke of Kent's recommendation, Captain John Waters was made aide-de-camp to General Charles William Stewart (afterwards third Marquis of Londonderry). He went with him to Portugal, and served in Moore's campaign. Sent out to obtain intelligence of the French movements in December 1808, he bought from the Spaniards at Valdestillas (Tordesillas /La Coruña) an intercepted despatch from Berthier to Soult, which gave Moore most important information, and at once altered his plans. He was promoted Major on 16 Feb. 1809, and was attached to the Portuguese Army (with the local rank of lieutenant-colonel), but employed on intelligence duties, for which he was praised by Wellington, who wanted him definitely placed on his staff.

The most conspicuous instance of his serviceableness was at


  The passage of the Douro on 12 May 1809.

as written in britishbattles:


Following the evacuation of the British army from Corunna and the death of Sir John Moore, a small British force remained in Lisbon. On 22nd April 1809 Wellesley returned with the British army to the Portuguese capital.  Marshal Victor’s army stood at Merida in Spain near the Portuguese border at Badajoz. Marshal Soult held the northern Portuguese city of Oporto.


In May Wellesley marched north to deal with Soult.

The River Douro lay between the British army and Oporto and Soult caused all the river boats that could be found to be moved to the north bank. Expecting any attack to be in conjunction with the Royal Navy the French army was positioned along the north bank of the river to the West, or seaside, of the city.

On the morning of 12th May 1809 a British officer, Colonel John Waters was reconnoitring the river east of Oporto. Local Portuguese pointed out a boat hidden in the reeds. Using the boat Waters and the Portuguese crossed the river and brought back three barges they had found unguarded. At Wellesley’s direction a company of the 3rd Buffs crossed the river and occupied a derelict convent. Only after four journeys, by which time a battalion had been ferried over and was holding the convent, did the French realise that the British had crossed the Douro. General Foy then led the 17th Light in furious attacks on the convent. Several British batteries had been established to support the Buffs in the convent and Foy’s attack was thrown back with heavy casualties.



Soult ordered up three more battalions to drive the British back but by this time there were three British battalions in the convent and the attacks were entirely unsuccessful.

Around midday Soult sent the troops guarding the Oporto waterfront to assist Foy’s assaults, being the only reserves available and near enough to assist.

Once the guards had gone the inhabitants of Oporto rushed boats to the soutern bank and four British battalions crossed to the city. Deciding that the city had become untenable, Soult ordered a general retreat up the northeastern road towards Spain.

Wellesley had ordered Murray’s brigade with two squadrons of the 14th Light Dragoons to cross to the east of the city and cut the road the French were taking. Murray failed to cut the road but the 14th attacked the retreating French, suffering heavy casualties but capturing several hundred.




[The French had broken the bridge and removed the boats, and they had ten thousand men on the opposite bank. 'Colonel Waters, a quick, daring man, discovered a poor barber who had come over the river with a small skiff the previous night; and these two being joined by the prior of Amarante, who gallantly offered his services, crossed the water unperceived, and returned in half an hour with three large barges' (Napier, bk. vii. chap. ii.) In these barges, the first troops passed.]
To Lieut. Colonel Torrens, Military Secretary to the
Commander in Chief.
'My DEAR Torrens, 'Lisbon, 26th October, 1809.
'Lieut. Colonel Waters is proceeding to England by my leave, with Major General C. Stewart, who is going for the recovery of his health; and I cannot allow him to depart without adopting this mode of recommending him, in the strongest manner, to the Commander in Chief.
'Although attached to the Portuguese army, he has made himself extremely useful to the British army, by his knowledge of the languages of Spain and Portugal, by his intelligence and his activity. I have employed him in several important affairs, which he has always transacted in a manner satisfactory to me; and his knowledge of the language and customs of the country has induced me to send him generally with the patroles employed to ascertain the positions of the enemy, in which services he has acquitted himself most ably.
'It would be most desirable to have Colonel Waters exchanged from the Portuguese service to the line, and to send him out here again on the establishment of the Adjutant or Quarter Master General, as the regulations do not allow of his being promoted.
'I have come down here to arrange our future operations in Portugal, and I shall return to the army to-morrow.
'Believe me, &c. ; 'Lieut. Colonel Torrens.' < Wellington.
On 3 April 1811, before the action of Sabugal began, Waters was made prisoner.

From the Dispatches of the Duke of Wellington To Marshal Sir W.C. Beresford KB, 4.April 1811
 (day after the clash at Sabugal):

"...You will be concerned to hear that Waters is at last taken prisoner. He crossed the Coa alone, I believe, yesterday morning, and was looking at the enemy through a spying glass, when four hussars pounced upon him. Nobody has seen him since yesterday morning; and we have the account from prisoners, who tell the story of an Officer attached to the staff, a Lieutenant Colonel, blond, with a petit chapeau, they saw him with Regnier."
'He had crossed the Coa to reconnoitre the enemy's position, as had been frequently his practice, without having with him any escore, and he was surrounded by some hussars and taken. He had rendered very important services upon many occasions in the last two years,and his loss is sensibly felt'
(Wellington to Lord Liverpool, 9 April 1811, Despatches, vii. 433).

       He refused his parole, and was sent ot Salamanca under a guard of four gendarmes. He was better mounted than they, and having watched his opportunity, he put spurs to his horse. He was on a wide plain, with French troops before and behind him; and as he rode along their flank, some encouraged, others fired at him. Passing between two of their columns he gained a wooded hollow, and baffled his pursuers. Two days afterwards he reached the British headquarters 'where Lord Wellington, knowing his resolute, subtle character, had caused his baggage to be brought, observing that he would not be long absent' (Napier, book xii. ch. 5).

On 15 April 1811 Wellington appointed him an assistant adjutant-general, and on 30 May he was made brevet lieutenant-colonel.
He served throughout the war, being present at Talavera, Bussaco, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, the battles of the Pyrenees (during which he was wounded while talking to Wellington), the Nivelle and Nive, Orthes and Toulouse. At Badajoz and Salamanca he acted as adjutant-general and was mentioned in Wellington's Salamanca despatch.

He received the gold cross with four clasps, and was made C.B. in 1815.
He was at Waterloo, and again acted as adjutant-general after Sir Edward Barnes was wounded and signed the returns of the battle, though he was himself wounded also.
He received the Russian order of St. Anne (2nd class).

After being for a time on half-pay, he became a captain and lieutenant-colonel in the Coldstream Guards on 15 May 1817. He was promoted colonel on 19 July 1821, and was again placed on half-pay on 15 Feb. 1827. He became major-general on 22 July 1830, was made Captain of Yarmouth Castle, Isle of Wight, on 22 April 1831, and K.C.B. on 1 March 1832. He was given the colonelcy of the 81st foot on 15 June 1840, and was promoted lieutenant-general on 23 Nov. 1841.
He died at his home in Park Place, St James' , London on 21st November 1842, at the age of sixty-eight, and was buried at Kensal Green.

Sources:

A Spy for Wellington, John William Waters, by Barrie Griffiths
Napoleon Series Archive 2003 vol XX Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1960. Page 905 - 906