During the Napoleonic Wars, the British government raised regiments for home service, known as “fencibles.” These temporary units were used to protect British interests wherever the units were raised, in Great Britain or North America, and were not to be deployed for overseas duty on foreign soil. In this regard, they were similar to the members of Canada’s National Resource Mobilization Act (NRMA) during the Second World War; members served in uniform in Canada but did not serve with Canadian forces overseas. Unlike those soldiers, however, the fencibles faced a clear and present danger during the turbulent age of Napoleonic warfare that engulfed Europe as the War of 1812 was waged on the battlefields and waterways of North America.
There had been fencible units in the Atlantic provinces between 1793 and 1802; in 1803 fencible regiments were raised in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Upper and Lower Canada for defence anywhere on the continent. Despite the initiative, none of the fencible regiments ever recruited to full strength. Other fencibles had their origins in units originally raised on the British Isles, which also suffered from weak numbers. For instance, the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry was originally raised in Scotland, but suffered from massive desertion when rumours spread that they might be posted to the malaria-rich East Indies, thus requiring a recruitment drive in Upper and Lower Canada. While Scottish named and led, the regiment was filled primarily with French Canadians.
Fencibles had similar structure on paper to that of other regiments, and held similar pay, but their uniforms were naturally different to separate them from other units. Each fencible unit had a differently coloured facing on the traditional British red coats to help distinguish them amid the chaotic battlefield filled with ear-piercing artillery fire and fog of gun smoke.
Fencibles in Action in the War of 1812
Most fencible units saw action in key battles of the War of 1812, either in part or whole. The Royal Newfoundland Fencibles served at the Battle of Mackinac and the engagements on Lake Huron. The New Brunswick Fencibles contributed their services to the Battle of Sackets Harbor. The Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry saw many of its units serve in a series of battles, including Chateauguay, Lacolle Mills, and Crysler’s Farm. Units of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles served in a series of battles, and the entire regiment served at Lundy’s Lane. The tiny Michigan Fencibles, only 45 souls strong, also saw action.
All these fencible units were disbanded in 1816, or were reconfigured as part of the general armed forces of Great Britain. With some exception, given their ad hoc nature and poor fighting strength, the fencibles served well but were comparatively undistinguished as part of the British forces during the War of 1812.
Author: Jason Ridler
Did you know?
8 August 1803 - Fencible regiment formed
The Regiment of Canadian Fencibles is formed. Initially recruited in Great Britain, the regiment had soldiers from Upper and Lower Canada and served in both provinces during the War of 1812
11 September 1810 - New Brunswick regiment formed
The New Brunswick Regiment of Fencible Infantry, formed in 1803, is made a Regiment of the Line and numbered as the 104th Regiment of Foot.
- 9 May 1812 - The Royal Newfoundland Fencibles are ordered to form 5 companies for naval service on the Great Lakes.
11 September 1812 - Lieutenant Governor J.F.W. DesBarres
Prince Edward Island's Lieutenant Governor J.F.W. DesBarres asks permission from the Colonial Office to raise a fencible corps of 500 men for the defence of the colony. He is refused.
22-23 November 1812 - Raid on French Mills
A night attack by a Canadian force captures an American raiding party (on St Regis) at French Mills, NY, on the Salmon River.
- January 1813 - Fencibles capture Houlton, District of Maine
16 February 1813 - The 104th Regiment start to march
Six companies (nearly 600 men) of the 104th Regiment (formerly the New Brunswick Fencibles) begin their epic winter march from Fredericton, New Brunswick to the Canadas.
27 May 1813 - Royal Newfoundland Fencibles fight at Fort George
More than 100 men of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles take part in the Battle of Fort George.
- 29 May 1813 - Men of the 104th Regiment (formerly the New Brunswick Fencibles) fight at the Battle of Sackets Harbour
10 September 1813 - Newfoundland Fencibles suffer losses in the Battle of Lake Erie
Men of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles suffer 28% of British casualties in the Battle of Lake Erie. The British defeat leads to urgent calls for reinforcements from Halifax.
16 November 1813 - Soldier of the New Brunswick Fencibles declines bribe to desert
Major General Thomas Saumarez, President of the Council and Administrator of New Brunswick, reports that an American citizen has tried to bribe a soldier of the New Brunswick Fencibles into deserting. The incident occurs along the Upper St. John River as the soldier is returning from Quebec with a bag of mail.
- July 1814 - Nova Scotia Fencibles arrive at Quebec