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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Thomas Plunket - The Sharpshooting Irishman of the Napoleonic Peninsula War in 1809


As Thomas Plunket fired his dynamic shot most believed he reclined in this manner.

Some say November 1808 and other reports say early January 1809. Well, it was during the Peninsula War and Britain was retreating before the French forces of Napoleon’s army. Sir John Moore was head of the British army at this time before Sir Arthur Wellesley (AKA Duke of Wellington) took over. This was a dire time for Britain and the French were almost routeing many parts of the rapidly retreating British as they made towards a port called A Coruna in Spain.

One body of the British army had maintained discipline and these particular men were of a special rifle brigade of sharpshooters called the 95th Rifles. They wore a green uniform and stood apart from the scarlet jackets of other British foot soldiers.  These men carried special Baker rifles that differed from the muskets of the rest of the British army. They were often at the rear guard of the failing forces, trying to buy time for the retreating army. The sharpshooters of the green-jacketed 95th rifles would target the advancing French, trying to halt the enemy advance as best as possible.

The last of Sir John Moore’s British Army, led by Henry Paget (Lord Paget) arrived at a bridge outside a small Spanish village called Cacabelos. These men were the stragglers making for A Coruna. Also by the bridge was a group of the sharp shooter green jackets of 95th rifles. There had been rioting and confusion at Cacabelos and as the order was being restored to guide British soldiers over the bridge, reports were brought before Henry Paget of advancing French Chasseurs – dreaded cavalry units of the French Napoleonic army.

These mounted French forces were led by Brigadier General Auguste Francois – Marie de Colbert – Chabanais – a thirty-one-year-old veteran of many battles, including Egypt, Marengo, Austerlitz and many other campaigns. By all accounts, he was a charismatic heroic young officer that made his way up through the ranks from the start of the French revolutionary wars. On this particular day, he came upon this staggered formation of the retreating British soldiers and managed to capture fifty of them. He saw more British soldiers making for the Bridge and decided to press home his advantage. However, he noted the British positions of defence and decided to form his cavalry in formation for the proper attack.

 As Colbert led his mount forward, a shot rang out well beyond the normal range of 200 to 300 meters. The gallant French cavalry officer was struck in the head by the projectile and he fell back upon his mount and slid down onto the snow layered ground. His fellow cavalrymen looked on in shock and bewilderment. All believed General Marie de Colbert to be out of range and in an area of relative safety. 

All the British soldiers would have assumed so too. All except one 95th rifleman of the British forces. The shot was fired by an Irishman of the 95th called Thomas Plunket. The sharp shooter hit Colbert from beyond the normal range of expected accuracy. As the Irishman began to withdraw and reload his Baker rifle he stopped once more and fired a second shot. He killed another officer riding to aid the already stricken Brigadier General of the French Chasseurs. In one fatal moment, the enigmatic young French officer was no more. The sharp shooter of the British army had dealt a vicious blow to the French cavalry as a minor battle ensued. Around 200 men on either side were killed before the French halted and the British withdrew in the enveloping darkness.

Thomas Plunket's shot was a mind blowing distance of the time.

Some say Thomas Plunket’s shot was around 600m though many rightly challenge that. However, most believe it was in excess of 300m and the Irish sharpshooter performed this task twice killing two high-ranking officers of the French cavalry. This was witnessed by Henry Paget and Sir John Moore from a hilltop overlooking the action. Again, this account is questioned. It seems distance and reality might have been twisted when the story was recounted sometime later. Some accounts say Thomas Plunket advanced to meet the enemy before laying upon his back and steadying the rifle with his foot. This advance could have cut the distance down from some of the exaggerated accounts. However, the undeniable fact is, that Thomas Plunket shot and killed two officers of the French Chasseurs.

Thomas Plunket went through the entire Peninsula War and saw the final victory in that theatre of the campaign under the Duke of Wellington. He would later take part in the Hundred Days War when Napoleon returned from exile on the island of Elba. During the Battle of Waterloo, Thomas Plunket was wounded, but he still survived. He recovered from a wound to the head and was discharged from the army. He was awarded 6d a day pension but re-enlisted back into the army where an officer who knew him, got his pension awarded to one shilling a day and rank of corporal. No one knew exactly the year Thomas Plunket was born in Ireland. It is possible he may not have known this either. He died in Colchester, England in 1851 and is remembered in history for his exceptionally long range shot that killed Brigadier General Auguste Francois – Marie de Colbert- Chabanais of the French Chasseurs.


1. Frenchempire.net http://www.frenchempire.net/biographies/colbert3/
2. Napoleon-series.org http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/biographies/c_plunkett.html







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