Who on earth is Tom Plunkett, I hear you ask ;0)
Tom was, in fact, a real-life dashing figure from the Regency period. When Juliet, Georgia and I visited Winchester and Chawton recently, one of the points on our whistle stop tour was Winchester Cathedral. There was one item in that beautiful building I was really keen to see – the roll of fame memorial to the Rifle Brigade. The memorial lists those riflemen who have particularly distinguished themselves in battle since the formation of the regiment.
The roll call starts with the name of the Regiment’s founder, Major General Coote Manningham. In 1800, Coote Manningham, along with Lieutenant Colonel William Stewart, used what they had learnt while leading light infantry to train an Experimental Corps of Riflemen. The philosophy was to train the Rifle Corps for a different type of warfare – one which allowed for small groups of skirmishers (equipped with the new, formidable Baker rifle as opposed to the standard issue musket) to operate ahead of the main infantry and harass the enemy with aimed shots. Their uniform was also notably different. Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red coats of the infantry regiments; pantaloons, rather than wool breeches, and black accoutrements rather than white. All, of course, designed to allow riflemen to make the best use of natural cover and the forerunner of modern day camouflage dress. Riflemen were also encouraged to think for themselves and use their initiative which was another departure from the accepted military conventions of the time.
The Rifle Corps was renamed the 95th Rifles in 1803. The 95th went on to gain fame in the Penisula campaign and beyond, and were dubbed ‘the rascals in green’ by the French. In 1816, the 95th Rifles became the Rifle Brigade.
Famous names from the Peninsula/Waterloo campaigns can be found on the memorial in Winchester Cathedral, including Captain Sir John Kincaid and General Sir Harry Smith (who appeared in Georgette Heyer’s A Spanish Bride). And here’s where we come to the legendary Tom Plunkett, who has the added distinction of being the ONLY private rank soldier to be listed on the memorial from that period.
Tom was a real-life ‘Sharpe’, a remarkable man and reputedly the finest marksman among the crack shots in the Rifles. His disciplinary record was hardly exemplary – he was not averse to arguing with officers if he felt the occasion warranted it! – but he was proud, witty, brave and esteemed by his peers. All contemporary accounts agree he was ‘bold, fit, and athletic’ man, in the ‘prime of manhood; with a clear grey eye, and handsome countenance’. He first gained fame for his marksmanship during an attack on Buenos Aires in 1807, but his name went down in the history of the Regiment for an amazing feat performed two years later during retreat from Corunna. Tom raced ahead of the line and, lying on his back, he rested his rifle on his crossed feet with the butt under his shoulder, he fired at and hit a French General at an astonishing range, probably between 200 and 400 yards. He went on to fight throughout the Peninsula War and at Waterloo, where he was wounded.
Tom married a lady who had been disfigured when caught in the explosion of an ammunition wagon at Quatre Bras, and, while his life after discharge from the army was difficult and he died an inauspicious death in 1851, the bravery and skill of the remarkable Tom Plunkett lives on, his name one among the hundred or so brave men from the Rifle Brigade commemorated on the roll of fame in Winchester Cathedral.