Little is known of William Inglis’ early life. He was born in Edinburgh in Scotland in 1764 and joined the army in 1779 as an ensign, the lowest officer rank. In 1781 he travelled across the Atlantic to join the 57th Regiment of Foot at the height of the American War of Independence (1776-83). Following the British defeat, Inglis withdrew to Nova Scotia with his regiment, where he would serve for the next 10 years.
Promotions and new campaigns followed, with Inglis serving in Britain, the Low Countries, and the Caribbean. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1802, and took command of his battalion of the 57th. He was praised for the morale and ability of his men, though he referred to them as ‘fighting villains'. In 1809 he and his soldiers sailed to Portugal with Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army for service in the Peninsular War.
On 16 April 1811, William Inglis and the 57th were part of a mixed force of Spanish, Portuguese and British soldiers. They were under the command of a British commander, Field Marshal Sir William Beresford.
During the battle the British suffered a massive flanking attack by the French. Muskets and cannon were fired at the British from short range, and the 57th Regiment suffered particularly severely. Inglis himself was wounded early in the battle. Canister shot fired from a French cannon struck him near the neck and lodged in his back.
‘Die hard, 57th! Die hard!’
Lieutenant-Colonel William Inglis at Albuhera, 16 April 1811
But despite his severe wound, Inglis refused to be carried from the field to the safety of the rear, and turned down medical attention. He remained with the regiment, lying below their Colours behind the ranks, and encouraging his men with the words, ‘Die hard, 57th! Die hard!’ Despite mounting casualties, the 57th held their ground. A British counter-attack eventually drove the French away, and the battle ended in an indecisive draw.
In part, this was due to the leadership of Inglis, who had encouraged them throughout. His leadership and example, and his men’s bravery, meant that the 57th Regiment were nicknamed the ‘Die Hards’, a name that stuck with the regiment despite future amalgamations.
‘Nothing could exceed the conduct and gallantry of Colonel Inglis at the head of his regiment.’
Field Marshal Sir William Beresford, allied commander at the Battle of Albuhera, 1811
Inglis was so badly wounded that he had to return to Britain to recover. It would be two years before he returned to the Peninsula and took command again, but in May 1813 he was promoted to brigadier-general and then major-general.
In the Battle of the Pyrenees in July and August 1813, Inglis once again led his men from the front, storming a French position and having a horse shot from under him. In 1813 Inglis was wounded in the foot at the Battle of Nivelle, but was still able to lead men into battle at Orthez on 27 February 1814 where another horse was shot from under him.
The end of the Peninsular War saw the end of Inglis’ active military career and he retired shortly after. Throughout he had shown tremendous leadership, putting himself in harms way to encourage his men, sharing the dangers of combat with them.
Inglis was awarded the Army Gold Medal for his service at Albuhera, as well as the Army Gold Cross for the Peninsular War and the Army Gold Medal for the Pyrenees.
Inglis also received civilian acclaim; his leadership at Albuhera had been covered in the newspapers, and after the war he was voted thanks by both Houses of Parliament and made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath after his return to Britain
Inglis’ son, also called William, also joined the 57th and served with them in the Crimea. In 1881 he became a general.