19th Century, People

De Watteville’s Regiment

Belt plate of de Watteville's Regiment with the battle honour

Belt plate of de Watteville’s Regiment with the battle honour “Maida.” Image courtesy of the Niagara Falls Museums. (click image to go to source)

Occasionally I tend to obsess over the Kingston garrison. This time the object of my fascination is de Watteville’s Regiment, a very interesting bunch of people that refutes the popular image of Upper Canada as being settled exclusively by ex-Americans and (generally speaking) other Anglo-Saxons. But let’s start at the beginning – who was de Watteville and why is his regiment worth talking about?

Louis de Watteville, sometimes referred to by his germanicized name Abraham Ludwig Karl von Wattenwyl, was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1776. During the Napoleonic Wars, he first fought with the Swiss army, then with a Swiss corps of the Austrian army which was subsequently taken over by Great Britain upon Austria’s peace with France in 1801. The re-organization of the corps was named de Watteville’s Regiment, actually after Louis’ uncle Frédéric, its colonel – but Louis was made lieutenant-colonel and spent the next dozen years fighting in the Mediterranean. In 1812 he was made colonel of the regiment.

As de Watteville’s biography states,

Although it [the regiment] was a Swiss unit in the service of Britain, it was largely made up of Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and Russians, with a handful of Greeks and Frenchmen. Roughly a fifth of its strength, including nearly all the officers, was Swiss.

In 1813, the entire party consisted of 41 officers, 1414 men, 8 servants, 45 wives, and 38 children, who after spending two years in Cádiz, Spain, were ordered to proceed to Canada where the Americans were making a nuisance of themselves. (That must have been a rough transition in terms of climate, and basically everything else. Luckily they arrived in Canada in June. Still, from Cádiz to Kingston…) Upon arriving in town on 29 June 1813, de Watteville met and befriended Sir George Prevost, who on top of being commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America and governor general, was also part Swiss! Early that July, de Watteville became commandant of the Kingston garrison, and was promoted to major-general, which meant he had to give up personal command of the regiment.

He then spent a pretty boring summer in Kingston, waiting for instructions and falling ill at one point. However, that fall he learned he was posted to command troops in the Montreal district, and he left town, leaving his regiment behind. I’ve tried to find information on them at this point, but there is apparently only one extant edition of the Kingston Gazette available for the years 1813-1814. So, moving ahead – in October 1814 de Watteville (who had been off fighting in the meantime) learned his wife and children had arrived in Quebec from Switzerland to be with him. A few months later, he learned the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, meaning the War of 1812 was over.

De Watteville actually stayed in Upper Canada after the war, first commanding troops at Fort George, and then in July 1815 moving back to Kingston with his family (maybe he liked it here?). He was appointed commander-in-chief of the troops in Upper Canada, but decided to retire instead. He left Kingston a year later and returned to Switzerland.

What had his regiment been doing all this time? (August 12, 2015 update: A fellow Twitterer has informed me the regiment fought in the Battle of Fort Oswego [1814] and the Siege of Fort Erie [1814]. They must have arrived in Kingston in 1813, left for a time to fight, and then returned to Kingston as a garrison after the war. Yay for social media.) I can find only two newspaper clippings about them either during or after the war. The first is rather sad:

27 April 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

27 April 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

The second, however, is interesting because it shows what happened to some of those mercenary Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Russians, Greeks, Frenchmen, and Swiss after they were disbanded:

1 June 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

1 June 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

They populated the Upper Canada countryside! Well, some of them did anyway – I believe it was common for discharged soldiers at this time, especially those not English-born, to give up and go home due to lack of farming experience and the language barrier. But a few must have remained, and though they were a minority in Upper Canada, they would have provided some interesting multicultural neighbours. This 1814 muster roll shows the great variety in ethnicities in de Watteville’s Regiment: being Italian, I’m particularly interested in the Italian-sounding names: Gartano Lucente, Gioanni Piereni, Carlo Persetti, Placido Dellaqua, Anton Ricci. Many, however, look as if they might have been Frenchified, e.g. Jean Glocowitz or François Wischnofsky.

I think it’s important to remember history like this – even though this is a small example – because it shows how easy it is for Canadian history to be whitewashed and declared boring or conventional. But as I have explored before (here and here and here), Canada was home to diverse sets of people even in its early days, and it’s a lot of fun to discover them in your own neighbourhood.

Sources

I mostly used the Dictionary of Canadian Biography page on Louis de Watteville for this post. There are also some interesting Wikipedia pages on de Watteville and the regiment.

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