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Forlorn hope.

(The Sharpe Companion, Mark Adkin, Harper Collins Publishers 1998. Reproduced with permission of the publishers).

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, defines "forlorn hope" as "a desperate enterprise" and gives its origin as the Dutch phrase "verloren hoop"--a lost troop. The phrase was well known to veterans of the Peninsular Wars!

The "Forlorn Hope", usually referred to as "The Hope", always led the assault on a fortress and was a party of about 25-30 soldiers led by a subaltern and a couple of sergeants, to draw the enemy fire. They were the first into the breach and, usually, the first to die. It was a post of the utmost honour and there was seldom a lack of volunteers. If the officer survived, he was virtually sure of promotion: the sergeants could normally expect battlefield commissions: the soldiers got nothing. One of those who volunteered at the siege of Cuidad Rodrigo and again at Badajoz was Edward Costello of the 95th. He described the selection procedure: 'On the eve of the storming of a fortress, the breaches etc being all ready, captains of companies, on their private parages, give the men to understand that such and such a place is to be taken by storm. Every man then who wishes to volunteer to head the stormers (the Forlorn Hope was in front of the stormers) steps forward to the front and his name is immediately taken down by the officer'. The attacking columns on the two breaches at Cuidad Rodrigo were composed according to the tactical teaching of the time. First, engineers and a covering party; next 'The Hope', followed by the stormers and then the bulk of the attacking battalions, one after the other.

In the 95th, at San Sebastian in July 1813, only two volunteers were needed for "The Hope" from each company, but many more stepped forward. Lots were drawn to find the 'lucky' men--Ptes Royston and Ryan. They were offered 20 pounds to exchange places but refused. At about this time survivors of 'The Hope' from Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz were recognised in the 52nd Regiment by a badge of laurel with the letters VC (Valiant Stormer) underneath. This was worn on the right arm but it was a commanding officer's award, not given outside this regiment. The French were more generous. Such volunteers, 'enfants perdu' (lost children) were usually commissioned and received the Legion of Honour, which obliged their comrades to salute them.

Private Burke of the 95th survived 'The Hope" at Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian only to be mortally wounded at Quatre Bras in the Waterloo campaign.
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Date:Dec 1, 2003
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