The Plunkett Shot
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Thomas Plunkett is one of the most famous Private soldiers of the 95th Rifles, along with Rifleman Harris, who had his story memorialised (the real Harris was illiterate, not the TV favourite from Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe which has catapulted the 95th rifles to near stardom). Plunkett achieved notoriety for his skill with the rifle during the retreat from Corunna.
Born sometime in 1783 in Newtown, Wexford, Thomas Plunkett worked as a labourer for some time, before enlisting in the newly formed 95th Rifles in Dublin on the 10th May 1805. In 1805 the 95th Rifles had just become a numbered regimental, evolving from the Rifle Corps (formerly the Experimental Rifle Corps), making Plunkett one of the early volunteers.
It is worth noting here, that the spelling of Plunkett is sometimes given as “Plunket” there are also variations of the spelling of his Christian name, but for ease, I’ll refer to him as Plunkett, except in the first hand sources where it is spelt as recorded.
Plunkett was first stationed at Canterbury, until a transfer of new recruits and trained Riflemen took place to even the strength between the 1st and 2nd battalions (eventually the 95th would raise three battalions, all of which would see service in the Peninsular and fight at Waterloo).
During Plunkett’s initial training, he earnt the 3rd class shot honour, the highest category of marksmanship within the 95th Rifles, entitling him to wear a green cockade in his shako and parade with the best shots.
In 1806 the battalion embarked on the Buenos Aires expedition, an ill-fated campaign in which Plunkett underwent his first baptism of fire.
It was during the fighting in Buenos Airies that Thomas Plunkett proved his deadly accuracy. Plunkett spotted a Spanish officer directing the attack and shot him in the thigh at long-range, receiving the plaudits of his company for doing so (although it is possible the officer was holding a white flag at this time, so Plunkett did not receive an open reward or official praise). It is also claimed that Plunkett shot up to 20 Spanish soldiers from a position shared with another rifleman called Fisher from the roof of the Santo Domingo Convent in the city, and through that exploit became well known as one of the few men in the two battalions of the 95th who could shoot a rifle “with unerring accuracy at an extended distance of over 200 yards”.
[95th Rifles during the retreat to Corunna. National Army Museum]
The Famous Shot
On the 3rd January 1809 the British Expeditionary force to the Iberian Peninsula was under the Command of Sir John Moore. Following Sir Arthur Wellesley successes at Rolica and Vimerio, the British commander was recalled to explain his part in the Treaty of Cintra (an article for another time, but the subsequent commanders who replaced Wellesley gave far too lenient terms to the French Army). Sir John Moore had advanced the Army into Spain, around Salamanca and then north expecting or at least hoping to link with Spanish allies, but found himself beset by a much larger series of French Corps and the advance of Napoleon himself. The dictator of France brought with him a much larger army and swept the Spanish aside, with a force that would decimate Sir John Moore’s British.
Deciding the evacuate the expeditionary army to the coast, in the hope that the Royal Navy would pick them up in port, Sir John split his army across a series of roads at Christmas 1808, with the majority marching north-westerly to Corunna.
It was on this fateful march, through the harsh Spanish winter that Plunkett again came to the fore of The 95th Rifles legend. The 95th was to forming the rear-guard just outside the village of Cacabellos. The 1/95th held two companies of the enemy side of the village, facing the advancing French through the snow. Within minutes French cavalry appeared causing the Rifle piquets to withdraw to their lines. The two companies of Riflemen hastily formed line across the main road, just allowing Sir John Moore and his staff to escape through their line. Several well-aimed volleys stalled the French attack in their tracks, but once they regrouped they pressed home a charge. The Rifles were forced to fall back across the bridge into the village when the French Cavalry fell on their rear, killing and capturing about 40 Riflemen. On the far bank of the river the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment formed over the road, who were supported by a battery of six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery, with the 52nd Light Infantry coming up to cover the other flank. The French having been halted from crossing the bridge withdrew and awaited reinforcements. The commander of this force of French cavalry was a young General called Auguste-Marie-Francois Colbert. Mounted on a grey horse and at just 31 he was already a hero of Jena and a favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte. He knew that if he could break through the British line before dark, he could fall upon in the retreating British units beyond.
[The Rearguard. Royal Green Jacket Museum]
By mid-afternoon, the French Infantry were fording the river on either side of the British positions, using weight of numbers, they pressed home onto the rear-guard the British fell back. Colbert led a charge personally and gained control of the bridge. The 28th, 52nd and 95th all reformed on a crest of a ridge just beyond the bridge, meanwhile Colbert regrouped his cavalry and supporting infantry for another push onto the British rear-guard. Colbert on his grey mount, with his distinctive General’s uniform, made him stand out to the 95th marksmen, but especially Plunkett. Dashing forward of the British line into open ground before throwing himself onto his back, (using the orthodox firing position, which was taught as a stead platform for the firer to use, it is now synonymous with his name) he took aim and shot Colbert at a great range. Colbert’s aide or Trumpeter raced to his general’s side, Plunkett proved that his first shot wasn’t luck, but rather skill, as he calmly reloaded and shot the second man as well before leaping back to his feet and returning to the British line to the cheers of his comrades who then started peppered the pursuing cavalry with shots from their rifles in turn. Plunkett only paused to pick up the purse thrown to him by General Paget in appreciation of his deed. The French disheartened with their loss of their leader withdrew back over the bridge and the British were able to extract the rear-guard successfully.
There is some contention over the distance, with some reports going as far as 800 yards, which is a vast range, even for modern weapons, that would usually be fitted with a scope. As it was the 95th all practiced to shoot to 200 yards and awarded class badges to the best shots, of which Plunkett was in the top tier. Even the most sceptical say the range was 100 yards. However, Colbert and his aide must have thought themselves well out of the range of any muskets (which have an effective range of just 80 yards) and General Paget was particularly impressed with Plunkett’s shooting to reward him. Most agree it is around 200-300 yards, which Plunkett may have lessened slightly with his dash forward. A well respected historian of the 95th and Battlefield guide who knows the area and history very well (1) states it cannot be less than 200 yards, and though many sources are mixed, this seems to be the minimum distance agreed upon and I see no reason not to think it was 200 to 300 yards distance from Plunkett to Colbert, a considerable distance for the Baker rifles against a fast-moving target to hit, twice.
After being made up to corporal, Plunkett was eventually promoted to serjeant (note the traditional Rifles spelling with a “j” rather than a “g” which is more common) and was still enjoying his fame within the battalion. That was, until he got incredibly drunk in September 1809 in eastern Portugal, after a day’s training. He got so drunk that his men and peers had to restrain him, in the altercation he barricaded himself inside a small hut. It was clear that this had spiraled out of a situation the men were comfortable in dealing with, so an officer was sent for, unfortunately Plunkett had threatened to shoot the first man to come through the hut’s door, which was now a threat towards the life of an officer a serious offence.
Plunkett was talked out of the hut peacefully but now stood on a serious charge. Even at Regimental level, he faced capital punishment. Taking into account his previous service, he was demoted back to private and sentenced with 300 lashes, despite the Lieutenant Colonel Beckwith, the Commanding Officer, had an apparent aversion to corporal punishment.
The sentence was to be carried out by two buglers, in front of the entire battalion on parade; Plunkett was “stripped to the waist, tied to a tree and two buglers stepped forward with their cats [whips]. After Beckwith refused a last appeal the first bugler swung his whip onto the prisoner’s back. After a few strokes, the colonel suggested that Plunket’s popularity was making the bugler lay it on a little light. ‘Do your duty fairly sir!’ he shouted at the bugler who completed the first ration of twenty-five lashes. But Beckwith could not stand the whole procedure, and after thirty-five had been administered, he ordered that Plunket be taken down. Beckwith spoke in a loud, clear voice, for the benefit of the whole battalion: ‘You see now, sir, how very easy it is to commit a blackguard’s crime, but how difficult to take his punishment.’ (Costello in Urban. P.36)
The Rifleman continued his service, transferring to a different battalion, where it seems in 1813 he was again promoted to corporal, but by 1815 he was a private again (no reason is given, but it creates a pattern).
At the Waterloo Campaign 95th Rifles Officer and diarist Edward Costello states that he met Plunkett, observing:
“His usual luck forsook him at Waterloo, where a ball struck the peak of his cap and tore his forehead across, leaving a very ugly scar.”
Later Costello observes he saw Plunkett under the hands of a surgeon.
[The Orthodox position demonstrated in instructions for the Experimental Corps of Riflemen, which became the 95th Rifles]
In a slightly odd turn of events, Thomas Plunkett marries in 1815, to a brave woman who had followed the 95th camp through the campaign (possibly formerly married to a deceased soldier), but Mrs Plunkett has been so disfigured by an accident she is described as being without a face. An ammunition wagon at Quatre-Bras had exploded very near to her, disfiguring her so much that the government awarded her a shilling a day invalid pension. Plunkett, for his service at Waterloo, the Peninsular, including the wounds he received was invalided out of the Army with a sixpence a day pension, eventually reenlisting with either the 31st or 41st Regiment of the line.
Whilst serving in a red coat, he met the now General Sir Sidney Beckwith, who recalled their time in the Peninsular together. Plunkett was invited to join General Beckwith at the officer’s mess for a glass of wine. After what was surely a jolly reunion, Beckwith ensured that Plunkett was again promoted to corporal and pensioned a full shilling a day.
Plunkett’s eventual fate was a sad one. Sighted many years later in central London he was selling matches on the street. He had failed to make a go of farming a parcel of land in Canada, along with four years pay as a pension. Upon returning to England with his wife his alcoholic tendencies caught up with him again until sometime after 1836 he fell dead in a road passing through Colchester (records are rather confusing and vague at this time and there is a potential mix up with Chichester, though a memorial fund was raised, there is no sign of this stone or plaque).
[A version of the "Plunkett Position" demonstrated by the author]
1) Rob Yuill, in conversation based on https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Light-Division-in-the-Peninsular-War-18081811-Hardback/p/17330
George Caldwell 2009; Thomas Plunkett - of the 95th Rifles, Hero, Villain, Fact or Fiction.
Mark Urban 2003; Rifles, Six years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters