Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Beckwith, Thomas Sydney

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BECKWITH, Sir THOMAS SYDNEY (1772–1831), who with Craufurd shares the honour of being one of the finest leaders of light troops ever known, was the third son of Major-general John Beckwith, who commanded the 20th regiment at Minden, and four of whose sons became distinguished general officers. He was appointed lieutenant in the 71st regiment in 1791, and at once proceeded to join it in India. He found Lieutenant-colonel Baird in command of the regiment, and under him learned both how to lead and how to organise a regiment. With the 71st he was present at the siege of Seringapatam in 1792, at the capture of Pondicherry by Colonel Baird in 1793, and during the operations in Ceylon in 1795. He was promoted captain in 1794, and returned to England with the head-quarters of his regiment in 1798. He had established his reputation as a good officer in India, and when in 1800 he volunteered for a company in Manningham's new rifle corps his services were accepted. Colonel Manningham had proposed to the Horse Guards to be allowed to raise a regiment of light troops to be specially organised for outpost duties, after the manner of the French voltigeurs. His offer was accepted, and volunteers were called for from every regiment. Beckwith had in the 71st made the acquaintance of William Stewart, the lieutenant-colonel of the new rifle corps, and obtained a captaincy under his friend. He soon got his company into such good order that it was told off to accompany the expedition to Copenhagen in 1801, where its adjutant was killed. he was promoted major in Manningham's rifles, now called the 95th, in 1802, and formed one of the officers whom Sir John Moore trained at Shorncliffe. He became lieutenant-colonel in 1803, and under Moore's supervision got his regiment into model order. He was admired by his officers and adored by his men, whose health and amusement were always his first consideration. In 1806 he served in Lord Cathcart's abortive expedition to Hanover, and in 1807 his regiment formed part of the division which, under their future commander, then Sir Arthur Wellesley, won the battle of Kioge in Denmark, when it was thanked in the general's despatch. In July 1808 he accompanied General Acland to Portugal, and was present at the battle of Vimeiro. After the arrival of Sir John Moore, and on his taking the command of the troops in Portuga1, the 95th was brigaded with the 43rd and 52nd under the command of General Anstruther, and formed part of the reserve under General Edward Paget. The conduct of this brigade, and more especially of the 95th regiment under Beckwith, has been described by Napier; it closed the retreat, and was daily engaged with the French, but though suffering the most terrible privations it never broke line, or in any way relaxed its discipline. The regiment particularly distinguished itself at Cacabelos, where it faced round and with the help of the 10th hussars fought successfully the whole advanced guard of the French army. The 95th and Beckwith crowned their services at Corunna, when they were the last troops to leave the city, and managed to take with them 7 French officers and 156 men, whom they had made prisoners on the previous day. In 1809 the 95th was again brigaded with the 43rd and 52nd, and sent to the Peninsula. Craufurd was leading them up to the main army, when he heard that a great battle had been fought, and that General Wellesley was killed. Nothing daunted he pressed forward, and after a forced march of twenty-five hours reached Talavera on the evening of the battle. When Lord Wellington retired from Spain, and cantoned his army on the Coa, the light brigade was stationed far in front to watch the French movements. In their advanced position there were frequent conflicts, all described by Napier, in which the 95th and Beckwith proved their efficiency. At the skirmish of Barba del Puerco and the battle of Busaco the light brigade won the especial praise of Lord Wellington, and when in 1811 it was increased by three Portuguese regiments to a division, Beckwith received the command of one of the brigades. The division led the pursuit of Masséna, was warmly engaged at Pombal, Redinha, and Foz d'Aronce, and defeated a whole corps d'armée though with great loss, at Sabugal. In this engagement Beckwith particularly distinguished himself, was wounded in the forehead, and had his horse shot under him. The perfect discipline and valour of his men were again proved, and the disgraceful blunders of Sir W. Erskine, who had temporarily succeeded Craufurd, were remedied by the men's gallantry. At Fuentes d'Onor the light division was not engaged, and shortly afterwards Beckwith was obliged to return to England from ill-health, and to hand over his perfect regiment and brigade to Colonel Barnard. He had inspired his men with such confidence 'that they would follow him through fire and water when the day of trial came' (Cope, History of the Rifle Brigade, p. 53). On his health being restored he was knighted, in 1812, as proxy for his brother George, made a knight of the Tower and Sword of Portugal in 1813, and in 1812 appointed assistant quartermaster-general in Canada. In that capacity he commanded an expedition to the coast of the United States, which took Littlehampton and Ocrakoke, and had Charles Napier under him as brigadier. In 1814 he was promoted major-general, and made one of the first K.C.B's. He saw no more active service, but in 1827 was made colonel commandant of his old corps, the rifle brigade, which he had done so much to organise. In 1829 he was appointed commander-in-chief at Bombay, in 1830 he became lieutenant-general, and in January 1831 he died at Mahableshwur of fever. The light division was the greatest creation of Sir John Moore; its services appear in every page of the history of the Peninsular war, and Sydney Beckwith was the practical creator of one of its most distinguished regiments. 'He was,' according to Kincaid, 'one of the ablest outpost generals, and few officers knew so well how to make the most of a small force.'

[Cope's History of the Rifle Brigade, 1877; Surtees, Twenty-five Years in the Rifle Brigade, 1833; Leach's Sketch of the Field Services of the Rifle Brigade from its Formation to the Battle of Waterloo, 1838; Kincaid's Adventures in the Rifle Brigade in the Peninsula, France, and the Netherlands, 1830; Mrs. Fitzmaurice's Recollections of a Rifleman's Wife at Home and Abroad, 1851; Costello's Adventures of a Soldier, 1852.]

H. M. S.