Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Medals of Peninsular War colonel hailed as the greatest soldier go on sale

A rare group of medals awarded to a British hero of the Napoleonic Wars who had two horses killed under him and took 300-400 prisoners after a single bayonet charge is coming up for auction. 

Portrait of John Cameron. Photo: Noonans

John Cameron joined the army in 1787, aged 15, and led infantry in Portugal, Spain and southern France during the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns to oust occupying French forces from the Iberian Peninsular.

Having served at battles including Corunna, Salamanca and Vittoria, he was made one of the first Knights Commander of the Order of the Bath, in January 1815, with the citation reading: “In consideration of his eminent service and we can honestly assert there was not a better soldier in any army.”

The breast star of Cameron’s KCB and three other medals are estimated at £70,000-£90,000 in a sale of medals and military at Noonans in Mayfair on June 29. 

Oliver Pepys, associate director of Noonans, said that Cameron’s well-documented bravery would drive a lot of interest in the sale. As a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander in the 9th Foot, Cameron rose from his sickbed in September 1810 to lead his men at the Battle of Bussaco when French forces attempted and failed to dislodge Anglo-Portuguese troops occupying a long ridge.

Medals of Sir John Cameron KCB. Photo: Noonans

He recalled in a letter (published in a collection edited by Gavin Glover): “Our advance was a little impeded by the retreat of a considerable body of Portuguese crossing our front and flying to the rear. I rode among them and requested them to clear my front which they understood and shouted ‘Viva los Ingleses’, ‘Valora Portuguesas’. Having received directions from General Leith to wheel up, we formed line, advanced to the charge and drove the enemy from the sierra at the point of the bayonet. When we had gained the ridge I perceived a strong column of the enemy within 50 yards and charging them, they faced about and retired preserving their formation, down the hill under a heavy fire of musquetry which I opened upon them as far as they retreated. The 9th pursued them some distance down the sierra inflicting a heavy loss of killed and wounded. The face of the sierra was covered with them. In the charge my horse was killed under me.”

Cameron was Mentioned in Despatches for his gallantry in the charge. 

At the siege of San Sebastien, in September 1813, Cameron was wounded and knocked from the breach into the ditch during the final assault, when the 9th lost two-thirds of its officers. 

The enemy’s line was in an instant broken, the men running to right and left, throwing away their arms and packs, and in fact in complete deroute

John Cameron, 9th Foot

In December 1813, after French troops had been pursued out of Spain and Portugal, Cameron and his regiment fought in the Battle of the Nive, in southern France, for three successive days. It was on the second day, while surrounded by superior numbers of French, that Cameron took hundreds of prisoners after resolving to show them some cold steel.

He remembered: “I saw a good sized battalion of the enemy regularly formed in line, about my own strength in point of numbers. I then determined on attacking them with the bayonet . . . When within a very few yards of them, we hurried our pace at the charge, but instead of standing the shock, the enemy’s line was in an instant broken, the men running to right and left, throwing away their arms and packs, and in fact in complete deroute . . . The greater part were made prisoners.”

Reverses of Sir John Cameron’s medals

The following day Cameron was seeking to occupy the French village of Anglet when another horse was shot from under him as he surprised a force of 25,000 enemy soldiers in the settlement. As he put it: “They detached a considerable body of men to drive us away and I was glad to escape, pursued for about 200 yards, when I halted under the fire of some Portuguese troops which Sir John Hope had brought to cover our retreat.”

The other medals in the lot, which is being offered for sale by Cameron’s descendants, are his Army Gold Cross 1806-14 for Vimeiro, Corunna, Salamanca and San Sebastian, with clasps for Bussaco, Vittoria and Nive; his Field Officer’s Small Gold Medal with a clasp for Salamanca, and a knight’s breast badge of Portugal’s Military Order of the Tower and Sword. 

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