The Cutcliffes were a well-to-do North Devon family, probably descended from the fifteenth century Thomas Cutliff of Hartland. They acquired the estate of Damage Barton, near Ilfracombe in about 1505, and later Lee Manor at Lee Bay, and, amongst other properties, eventually acquired Weach Barton in Westleigh, near Bideford.
Two of John’s ancestors were of note: his grandfather, Charles Cutcliffe, was one of the first pupils of Bideford Grammar School, under the tutelage of Rev. Zachariah Mudge, and went on to become a solicitor in Bideford, but, after his father’s death, decided to take up the life of a country squire; and Charles Newall Cutcliffe, who was also a Bideford solicitor and one of the founding partners of North Devon’s first bank, which opened in 1791, under the name of ‘Cutcliffe, Roche, Gribble and Co’, but more commonly known as ‘The Old Bank’.
John, however, chose the Army for his career. He was born at Alverdiscott, near Bideford, in 1778, but resided in his early years at the family estate at Westleigh.
He had a distinguished military career.
He entered the Army in 1800, as a Cornet in the 23rd Light Dragoons. In 1801, he was made a Lieutenant, and in the same year took part in the Egyptian Campaign, which successfully cut off Napoleon’s troops in Egypt. In 1804, he was made a Captain, and from 1809 onwards, he served in Portugal and Spain in the Peninsular War, and was present at the Battle of Talevera, near Madrid. This battle was both bloody and inconclusive. The 23rd suffered serious casualties: 207 killed, wounded and missing, and 105 captured, giving them a 70% casualty rate. He was promoted to Major in 1813, and he accompanied his regiment in the campaign on the eastern coast of Spain, before taking part in the operations in the Netherlands.
Here, he was present at the Battle of Quatre Bras on the 16 June 1815, the action at Genappe on the 17 June, and then on the 18 June, he commanded the 23rd Light Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo.
According to one source, he was seriously wounded early on in the day, and on the recommendation of the Duke of Wellington, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. A few days later, he was awarded the Turkish Order of the Crescent for his services in Egypt, and on the 22 June was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.
The most interesting aspect of his story, however, is how he came to be in command of his regiment, the 23rd, at the Battle of Waterloo.
This was originally the post of the Earl of Portarlington. However, he decided to go into nearby Brussels on the eve of the battle for some entertainment, but on his way back, found himself caught up in the traffic of troops and supplies moving towards the battlefield, on the one hand, and civilians evacuating the scene to avoid the fighting, on the other. Heavy rain fell that night, only compounding the situation, and the whole area became a quagmire.
The Earl made it back in time to take part in the battle, joining the 18th Hussars, with whom he fought valiantly, but he was unable to rejoin his own regiment, so his second-in command, John Cutcliffe, had to take his place.
The Earl was ashamed of what had happened, but in spite of a letter of support and encouragement and the gift of a snuff box from John Cutcliffe and his fellow officers in the 23rd, the Earl drank and drugged himself to an early death soon afterwards, having been reduced to living in a hovel in London.
At the end of the war, regiments were either reduced in size or disbanded, and the 23rd Light Dragoons was one of the first to be disbanded, perhaps because of the stigma attached to this incident.
In the meantime, John had married, in April 1808, the Honorable Charlotte Talbot, daughter of Baroness Talbot de Malahide, but died without issue in 1822 at Westleigh, where he is now buried.
The Battle of Waterloo ensured that no single power would dominate continental Europe militarily for many years to come, and led to a century of relative peace in Europe. This month ,of course, marks the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, one of the most significant in British history.