A "Battalion of Detachments" was an administrative convenience.

In the British Army, administration of all kinds was done at the Regiment/Battalion level. The Regiment handled recruiting and other manpower issues. The Battalion handled supplies, pay, equipment, ammunition etc. In other words the Regiment recruited the soldier and then handed him over to a battalion which looked after his physical needs. A soldier who was separated from his battalion had a dire supply problem.

When Wellesley returned to the Peninsular there were about 1600 of such "separated" soldiers. These were men who had been detached to other duties (such as garrison work), sick, or had straggled or otherwise become cut off during Moore's campaign. Few of the regiments who went with Moore returned immediately with Wellesley, so these men had no commissary or adjutant to look after them. They had been grouped into two "Battalions of Detachments" by Sir John Cradock, who had been left in command at Lisbon, to ensure that they were supplied and otherwise looked after.

Wellesley had no intention of letting any of these detachments return to England: firstly because he didn't have a lot of men anyway; and secondly because they were already acclimatised, and the new regiments from England were going to take a couple of months before they settled down.

By late 1809, a number of Moore's veteran regiments had returned (along with a number of new battalions) and their lost sheep had returned to the fold. Detachments from sister battalions were probably drafted into the returning (or newly arrived) battalion, and Wellington probably arranged transfers into battalions depleted at Talavera for the rest. By November both Battalions of detachments had been disbanded.

Later in the War, when some battalions had been reduced to half numbers, Wellington won a hard fought battle to form pairs of them into "Provisional Battalions" rather than return them to England. In his writings he estimates that a new battalion from England took two months to acclimatise and harden up. He rotated them in via Lisbon and Cadiz, i.e. new battalions relieved the now acclimatised garrison battalions, who would then march to join Wellington's army. Because of this time lapse he was reluctant to let even a depleted battalion leave, preferring to partner it with another depleted battalion until drafts from their home battalions could be rotated up.

The Sharpe Edge

By making the South Essex a "battalion of detachments" Wellington not only expunged the disgraced name/number, he also gave himself the opportunity to temporarily draft in groups of experienced soldiers (like Sharpe's riflemen) to steady the demoralised battalion. This is why Sharpe's group were able to stay riflemen of the 2/95 while serving as part of the "South Essex" (initially, at least). Sharpe was given field promotions to the South Essex (Captain and Major) but regimentally he was still a Lieutenant of the 95th. Later when the South Essex was chronically depleted there was the threat of being part of a "Provisional" with no certainty of drafts.

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