THE RECOLLECTIONS OF RIFLEMAN HARRIS - The book which inspired the Sharpe Novels - Benjamin Harris - ebook

The book which inspired the Sharpe Novels! Just as in the Sharpe Novels by Bernard Cornwell, the Prince’s Own 95th Rifles was a real regiment, and there was a real Rifleman Harris for it is his recollections which are published in this volume. There was indeed a soldier who joined the rifles and was soon made a sergeant.  By the end of the wars he had, unusually, risen to be a commissioned officer (see Ch. XV.). It is believed that it is this story which inspired the character of Richard Sharpe. Harris’ story starts after he had been recruited and was now, in-turn, on a recruiting drive. In this volume he recounts anecdotes about his officers; believe me all enlisted men have such stories about their officers. He also recounts occurrences of desertion and the penalties if caught, cases of treachery and accounts of camaraderie. There is even an account of how he held a perfectly rational conversation with a fellow rifleman during the heat of battle, no easy feat when you’re using a muzzle loader. All of these are retold at some point during the Sharpe Novels. Also recorded are the battles in which the part he, and the 95th, took part. Here you can read of the battles of Roliça, Vimiero, Salamanca and the retreat to Corunna. Read also of the stories of “A cobbler and the cannon ball”, “A lubberly artilleryman”, “Major Travers and his wig” and how the 95th routed  Boney's Invincibles. If a soldier survived the Peninsula War, he would have had the opportunity to augment his meagre wages by plundering what items of value the enemy left behind. In many cases this meant picking over the dead. Hence there was the opportunity to finish the war a lot wealthier than he could have imagined. The camp followers, the wives and common-law wives of the soldiers, were also allowed to pick over the dead at the end of each battle. In most cases it would mean salvaging brass buttons and belts. If they were lucky they may find an officer’s sword or pistol. Many would convert their pickings to cash, or use them to trade, for food for themselves and any children they may have with them. Harris himself was illiterate. He is thought to have been born in Portsea, Portsmouth into a family of shepherds and this was his way of life until he joined the army in 1803. After the war he worked as a cobbler, a trade he is thought to have learned whilst in the army. His recollections were recorded for him, after the war, at some stage in the middle of the 1830s by an officer who knew him, Captain Henry Curling, editor of this volume. Curling then kept the manuscript until 1848, when he succeeded in getting it published. So, we invite you to download this very interesting, first-hand account, of an enlisted man who inspired the story of Richard Sharpe and the Sharpe Novels. =============== HISTORICAL NOTE: The Prince’s Own 95th underwent a few reinventions and amalgamations during the Peninsula Wars ending the Napoleonic wars as The Rifle Brigade. They were still in existence during WWI and at the outbreak of WWII they were part of The 1st Battalion, Rifle Brigade and performed with distinguished service during both World Wars. On 1 January 1966 the regiment was amalgamated with the 1st Green Jackets (43rd and 52nd) and the King's Royal Rifle Corps to form The Royal Green Jackets. The 1st Battalion The Royal Green Jackets' final operation was in Basra, Iraq, on Operation Telic in 2006/7. Thereafter they were reorganised and amalgamated in 2007 with a few other regiments to become The Rifles. =============== KEYWORDS/TAGS: Rifleman Harris, Peninsula Wars, Napoleon, Boney, Richard Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell, Duke of Wellington

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The RecollectionsofRifleman Harris

(Of the OLD 95th.)

The Book which inspired the Sharpe Novels



"This storyThe world may read in me: my body's mark'd With Roman swords;And when a soldier was the theme, my nameWas not far off." Shakespeare.

Originally Published by

H. Hurst, London[1848]

Resurrected by

Abela Publishing, London[2018]

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris

Typographical arrangement of this edition

© Abela Publishing

This book may not be reproduced in its current format in any manner in any media, or transmitted by any means whatsoever, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, or mechanical ( including photocopy, file or video recording, internet web sites, blogs, wikis, or any other information storage and retrieval system)

except as permitted by law without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Abela Publishing


United Kingdom






Frontis: The 95th Rifles and General Craufurd: Battle of Corunna on 16th January 1809 in the Peninsular

Map of the actions leading to the Battle of Corunna.


Since the printing of this volume was commenced, "Rifleman Harris" has removed from Richmond Street, Soho, to 4, Upper James Street, Golden Square.


To The Most Noble

The Marquess Of Londonderry,

G.C.B. And G.C.H.,

Colonel Of The Second Life Guards, &C.&C.,

This Volume,In Token Of High Admiration Of His Lordship'sChivalrous BearingDuring The Battles Of The Peninsula,Is Respectfully Dedicated,

By His Obedient Servant,The Editor.

London, March, 1848.

Editor’s Note

The following pages, describing the chequered life of a private soldier, who served during the most glorious period of our military history, speak so plainly for themselves, as scarcely to need any introductory remarks from the editor, further than the assurance of his own sincere conviction of their truth. Such works as the narratives of Rifleman Harris, from the very nature of their details, afford occasionally more graphic sketches of the actual scenes of war, in its stern realities and concomitant circumstances, than the more stately and largely-grouped pictures of the Historian.

Nor are these humble records without their moral.

Many abuses and grievances are incidentally brought to light, that can be but rarely heeded in the excitement and bustle of active service, but which, nevertheless, for the good of the soldier, may be of sufficient importance to require correction.

The main source of our military superiority over foreign nations has been almost universally ascribed to the incomparable discipline of the British army. That the well-being and judicious treatment of the private soldier is the basis of this system can (we think) scarcely be doubted. To maintain this discipline it is surely incumbent on the officers to become acquainted with the nature and peculiar characteristics of the men they have to conduct and control, both in the elation of victory and the more difficult emergencies consequent upon retreat. How this is best effected—by what potent influence this mastery is exercised—and by what sort of standard the "rough and ready" private soldier estimates, and accordingly respects and obeys his officer, will be duly shewn in the autobiography of. Rifleman Harris.

Henry Curling.March, 1848.


of Rifleman Harris of the Old 95th.


Recruiting for the Army of Reserve—The penalty for desertion—General Craufurd's cure for cowardice and treachery—Trial of General Whitelock—Irish recruits and the shillelagh—Protestant and Catholic—Danish expedition—Riflemen at home.

My father was a shepherd, and I was a sheep-boy from my earliest youth. Indeed, as soon almost as I could run, I began helping my father to look after the sheep on the downs of Blandford, in Dorsetshire, where I was born. Whilst I continued to tend the flocks and herds under my charge, and occasionally (in the long winter nights) to learn the art of making shoes, I grew a hardy little chap, and was one fine day in the year 1802, drawn as a soldier for the Army of Reserve. Thus, without troubling myself much about the change which was to take place in the hitherto quiet routine of my days, I was drafted into the 66th Regiment of Foot, bid good-bye to my shepherd companions, and was obliged to leave my father without an assistant to collect his flocks, just as he was beginning more than ever to require one; nay, indeed, I may say to want tending and looking after himself, for old age and infirmity were coming on him; his hair was growing as white as the sleet of our downs, and his countenance becoming as furrowed as the ploughed fields around. However, as I had no choice in the matter, it was quite as well that I did not grieve over my fate.

My father tried hard to buy me off, and would have persuaded the Serjeant of the 66th that I was of no use as a soldier, from having maimed my right hand (by breaking the fore-finger when a child). The Serjeant, however, said I was just the sort of little chap he wanted, and off he went, carrying me (amongst a batch of recruits he had collected) away with him.

Almost the first soldiers I ever saw were those belonging to the corps in which I was now enrolled a member, and, on arriving at Winchester, we found the whole regiment there in quarters. Whilst lying at Winchester (where we remained three months), young as I was in the profession, I was picked out, amongst others, to perform a piece of duty that, for many years afterwards, remained deeply impressed upon my mind, and gave me the first impression of the stern duties of a soldier's life. A private of the 70th Regiment had deserted from that corps, and afterwards enlisted into several other regiments; indeed, I was told at the time (though I cannot answer for so great a number) that sixteen different times he had received the bounty and then stolen off. Being, however, caught at last, he was brought to trial at Portsmouth, and sentenced by general court-martial to be shot.

The 66th received a route to Portsmouth, to be present on the occasion, and, as the execution would be a good hint to us young 'uns, there were four lads picked out of our corps to assist in this piece of duty, myself being one of the number chosen.

Besides these men, four soldiers from three other regiments were ordered on the firing-party, making sixteen in all. The place of execution was Portsdown Hill, near Hilsea Barracks, and the different regiments assembled must have composed a force of about fifteen thousand men, having been assembled from the Isle of Wight, from Chichester, Gosport, and other places. The sight was very imposing, and appeared to make a deep impression on all there. As for myself, I felt that I would have given a good round sum (had I possessed it) to have been in any situation rather than the one in which I now found myself; and when I looked into the faces of my companions, I saw, by the pallor and anxiety depicted in each countenance, the reflection of my own feelings. When all was ready, we were moved to the front, and the culprit was brought out. He made a short speech to the parade, acknowledging the justice of his sentence, and that drinking and evil company had brought the punishment upon him.

He behaved himself firmly and well, and did not seem at all to flinch. After being blindfolded, he was desired to kneel down behind a coffin, which was placed on the ground, and the Drum-Major of the Hilsea depôt, giving us an expressive glance, we immediately commenced loading.

This was done in the deepest silence, and, the next moment, we were primed and ready. There was then a dreadful pause for a few moments, and the Drum-Major, again looking towards us, gave the signal before agreed upon (a flourish of his cane), and we levelled and fired. We had been previously strictly enjoined to be steady, and take good aim, and the poor fellow, pierced by several balls, fell heavily upon his back; and as he lay, with his arms pinioned to his sides, I observed that his hands waved for a few moments, like the fins of a fish when in the agonies of death. The Drum-Major also observed the movement, and, making another signal, four of our party immediately stepped up to the prostrate body, and placing the muzzles of their pieces to the head, fired, and put him out of his misery. The different regiments then fell back by companies, and the word being given to march past in slow time, when each company came in line with the body, the word was given to "mark time," and then "eyes left," in order that we might all observe the terrible example. We then moved onwards, and marched from the ground to our different quarters. The 66th stopped that night about three miles from Portsdown Hill, and in the morning we returned to Winchester. The officer in command that day, I remember, was General Whitelock, who was afterwards brought to court-martial himself. This was the first time of our seeing that officer. The next meeting was at Buenos Ayres, and during the confusion of that day one of us received an order from the fiery Craufurd to shoot the traitor dead if he could see him in the battle, many others of the Rifles receiving the same order from that fine and chivalrous officer.

The unfortunate issue of the Buenos Ayres affair is matter of history, and I have nothing to say about it; but I well remember the impression it made upon us all at the time, and that Sir John Moore was present at Whitelock's court-martial; General Craufurd, and I think General Auchmuty, Captain Eleder of the Rifles, Captain Dickson, and one of our privates, being witnesses. We were at Hythe at the time, and I recollect our officers going off to appear against Whitelock.

So enraged was Craufurd against him, that I heard say he strove hard to have him shot. Whitelock's father I also heard was at his son's trial, and cried like an infant during the proceedings. Whitelock's sword was broken over his head I was told; and for months afterwards, when our men took their glass, they used to give as a toast "Success to grey hairs, but bad luck to White-locks." Indeed that toast was drunk in all the public-houses around for many a-day.

Everything was new to me, I remember, and I was filled with astonishment at the bustling contrast I was so suddenly called into from the tranquil and quiet of my former life.

Whilst in Winchester, we got a route for Ireland, and embarking at Portsmouth, crossed over and landed at Cork. There we remained nine weeks; and being a smart figure and very active, I was put into the light company of the 66th, and, together with the light corps of other regiments, we were formed into light battalions, and sent off to Dublin. Whilst in Dublin, I one day saw a corps of the 95th Rifles, and fell so in love with their smart, dashing, and devil-may-care appearance, that nothing would serve me till I was a Rifleman myself; so, on arriving at Cashel one day, and falling in with a recruiting-party of that regiment, I volunteered into the 2nd battalion. This recruiting-party were all Irishmen, and had been sent over from England to collect (amongst others) men from the Irish Militia, and were just about to return to England. I think they were as reckless and devil-may-care a set of men as ever I beheld, either before or since.

Being joined by a Serjeant of the 92nd Highlanders, and a Highland Piper of the same regiment (also a pair of real rollicking blades), I thought we should all have gone mad together. We started on our journey, one beautiful morning, in tip-top spirits, from the Royal Oak, at Cashel; the whole lot of us (early as it was) being three sheets in the wind. When we paraded before the door of the Royal Oak, the landlord and landlady of the inn, who were quite as lively, came reeling forth, with two decanters of whiskey, which they thrust into the fists of the Sergeants, making them a present of decanters and all, to carry along with them, and refresh themselves on the march. The Piper then struck up, the Sergeants flourished their decanters, and the whole route commenced a terrific yell. We then all began to dance, and danced through the town, every now and then stopping for another pull at the whiskey decanters. Thus we kept it up till we had danced, drank, shouted, and piped thirteen Irish miles, from Cashel to Clonmel. Such a day, I think, I never spent, as I enjoyed with these fellows; and on arriving at Clonmel, we were as glorious as any soldiers in all Christendom need wish to be. In about ten days after this, our Sergeants had collected together a good batch of recruits, and we started for England. Some few days before we embarked (as if we had not been bothered enough already with the unruly Paddies), we were nearly pestered to death with a detachment of old Irish women, who came from different parts (on hearing of their sons having enlisted), in order to endeavour to get them away from us. Following us down to the water's edge, they hung to their offspring, and, dragging them away, sent forth such dismal howls and moans that it was quite distracting to hear them. The Lieutenant commanding the party, ordered me (being the only Englishman present) to endeavour to keep them back. It was, however, as much as I could do to preserve myself from being torn to pieces by them, and I was glad to escape out of their hands.

At length we got our lads safe on board, and set sail for England.

No sooner were we out at sea, however, than our troubles began afresh with these hot-headed Paddies; for, having now nothing else to do, they got up a dreadful quarrel amongst themselves, and a religious row immediately took place, the Catholics reviling the Protestants to such a degree that a general fight ensued. The poor Protestants (being few in number) soon got the worst of it, and as fast as we made matters up among them, they broke out afresh and began the riot again.

From Pill, where we landed, we marched to Bristol, and thence to Bath. Whilst in Bath, our Irish recruits roamed about the town, staring at and admiring everything they saw, as if they had just been taken wild in the woods. They all carried immense shillelaghs in their fists, which they would not quit for a moment. Indeed they seemed to think their very lives depended on possession of these bludgeons, being ready enough to make use of them on the slightest occasion.

From Bath we marched to Andover, and when we came upon Salisbury Plain, our Irish friends got up a fresh row. At first they appeared uncommonly pleased with the scene, and, dispersing over the soft carpet of the Downs, commenced a series of Irish jigs, till at length as one of the Catholics was setting to his partner (a Protestant), he gave a whoop and a leap into the air, and at the same time (as if he couldn't bear the partnership of a heretic any longer), dealt him a tremendous blow with his shillelagh, and stretched him upon the sod. This was quite enough, and the bludgeons immediately began playing away at a tremendous rate.

The poor Protestants were again quickly disposed of, and then arose a cry of Huzza for the Wicklow boys, Huzza for the Connaught boys, Huzza for Munster, and Huzza for Ulster! They then recommenced the fight as if they were determined to make an end of their soldiering altogether upon Salisbury Plains. We had, I remember, four officers with us, and they did their best to pacify their pugnacious recruits. One thrust himself amongst them, but was instantly knocked down for his pains, so that he was glad enough to escape. After they had completely tired themselves, they began to slacken in their endeavours, and apparently to feel the effect of the blows they dealt each other, and at length suffering themselves to be pacified, the officers got them into Andover.

Scarcely had we been a couple of hours there, and obtained some refreshment, ere these incorrigible blackguards again commenced quarrelling, and, collecting together in the streets, created so serious a disturbance that the officers, getting together a body of constables, seized some of the most violent and succeeded in thrusting them into the town jail; upon this their companions again collected, and endeavoured to break open the prison gates.

Baffled in this attempt, they rushed through the streets knocking down every body they met. The drums now commenced beating up for a volunteer corps of the town, which, quickly mustering, drew up in the street before the jail, and immediately were ordered to load with ball.

This somewhat pacified the rioters, and our officers persuading them to listen to a promise of pardon for the past, peace was at length restored amongst them.

The next day we marched for Ashford, in Kent, where I joined the 95th Rifles, and about six months after my joining, four companies of the second battalion were ordered on the expedition to Denmark. We embarked at Deal, and sailing for the hostile shores, landed on a little place called, I think, Scarlet Island, somewhere between Elsineur and Copenhagen.

The expedition consisted of about 30,000 men, and at the moment of our getting on shore, the whole force set up one simultaneous and tremendous cheer, a sound I cannot describe, it seemed so inspiring. This, indeed, was the first time of my hearing the style in which our men give tongue when they get near the enemy, though afterwards my ears became pretty well accustomed to such sounds.

As soon as we got on shore, the Rifles were pushed forward as the advance, in chain order, through some thick woods of fir, and when we had cleared these woods and approached Copenhagen, sentries were posted on the roads and openings leading towards the town, in order to intercept all comers, and prevent all supplies. Such posts we occupied for about three days and nights, whilst the town was being fired on by our shipping. I rather think this was the first time of Congreve rockets being brought into play, and as they rushed through the air in the dark, they appeared like so many fiery serpents, creating, I should think, terrible dismay among the besieged.

As the main army came up, we advanced and got as near under the walls of the place as we could without being endangered by the fire from our own shipping. We now received orders ourselves to commence firing, and the rattling of the guns I shall not easily forget.

I felt so much exhilarated that I could hardly keep back, and was checked by the Commander of the company (Capt. Leech), who called to me by name to keep my place. About this time, my front-rank man, a tall fellow named Jack Johnson, shewed a disposition as though the firing had on him an effect the reverse of what it had on many others of the company, for he seemed inclined to hang back, and once or twice turned round in my face. I was a rear-rank man, and porting my piece, in the excitement of the moment I swore that if he did not keep his ground, I would shoot him dead on the spot; so that he found it would be quite as dangerous for him to return as to go on.

I feel sorry to record the want of courage of this man, but I do so with the less pain as it gives me the opportunity of saying that during many years' arduous service, it is the only instance I remember of a British soldier endeavouring to hold back when his comrades were going forward.

Indeed, Johnson was never again held in estimation amongst the Rifle corps; for the story got wind that I had threatened to shoot him for cowardice in the field, and Lieut. Cox mentioned to the Colonel, that he had overheard my doing so; and such was the contempt the man was held in by the Rifles, that he was soon afterwards removed from amongst us to a veteran battalion.

Whilst in Denmark we led a tolerably active life, the Rifles being continually on the alert—ordered hither to-day, and countermanded the next. Occasionally, too, when wanted in a hurry, we were placed in carts, and rattled over the face of the country, in company with the dragoons of the German Legion; so that, if we had not so much fighting as afterwards in the Peninsular, we had plenty of work to keep us from idleness.

Occasionally, also, we had some pleasant adventures among the blue-eyed Danish lasses, for the Rifles were always terrible fellows in that way.

One night, I remember, a party of us had possession of a gentleman's house, in which his family were residing. The family consisted of the owner of the mansion, his wife, and five very handsome daughters, besides their servants.

The first night of our occupation of the premises the party was treated with the utmost civility, and everything was set before us as if we had been their equals; for although it was not very pleasant to have a company of foreign soldiers in the house, it was doubtless thought best to do everything possible to conciliate such guests. Accordingly, on this night, a large party of the green-jackets unceremoniously sat down to tea with the family.

Five beautiful girls in a drawing-room were rather awkward companions for a set of rough and ready Riflemen, unscrupulous and bold, and I cannot say I felt easy. All went on very comfortably for some time; our fellows drank their tea very genteelly, whilst one young lady presided at the urn to serve it out, and the others sat on each side of their father and mother, chatting to us, and endeavouring to make themselves as agreeable as they could.

By and bye, however, some of our men expressed themselves dissatisfied with tea and toast, and demanded something stronger; and liquors were accordingly served to them. This was followed by more familiarity, and, the ice once broken, all respect for the host and hostess was quickly lost. I had feared this would prove the case, and on seeing several of the men commence pulling the young ladies about, kissing them, and proceeding to other acts of rudeness, I saw that matters would quickly get worse, unless I interfered. Jumping up, therefore, I endeavoured to restore order, and upbraided them with the blackguardism of their behaviour after the kindness with which we had been used.

This remonstrance had some effect; and when I added that I would immediately go in quest of an officer, and report the first man I saw ill use the ladies, I at length succeeded in extricating them from their persecutors.

The father and mother were extremely grateful to me for my interference, and I kept careful guard over the family whilst we remained in that house, which luckily was not long.

Soon after this the expedition returned to England, and I came, with others of the Rifles, in a Danish man-of-war (the Princess Caroline), and landed at Deal, from whence we had started.

From Deal we marched to Hythe, and there we lay until the year 1808, and in that year four companies of the second battalion, to which I belonged, were ordered to Portugal.

In that year I first saw the French.


Embarkation for Portugal—Aldermanic fare—Lord Hill over his wine, and in the field—Use of a dead Rifleman—Wounded wine-butts.

I wish I could picture the splendid sight of the shipping in the Downs, at the time we embarked with about 20,000 men. Those were times which the soldiers of our own more peaceable days have little conception of.

At Cork, where our ships cast anchor, we lay for something like six weeks, during which time the expedition was not disembarked, with the exception of our four companies of Rifles, who were every day landed for the purpose of drill. On such occasions our merry bugles sounded over the country, and we were skirmished about in very lively fashion, always being embarked again at night.

At the expiration of the time I have mentioned, our sails were given to the wind, and amidst the cheers of our comrades, we sailed majestically out of the Cove of Cork for the hostile shore, where we arrived safely, and disembarked at Mondego Bay.

The Rifles were the first out of the vessels, for we were, indeed, always in the front in advance, and in rear in the retreat. Like the Kentish men of old, we claimed the post of honour in the field.

Being immediately pushed forwards up the country in advance of the main body, many of us, in this hot climate, very soon began to find out the misery of the frightful load we were condemned to march and fight under, with a burning sun above our heads, and our feet sinking every step into the hot sand.

The weight I myself toiled under was tremendous, and I often wonder at the strength I possessed at this period, which enabled me to endure it; for, indeed, I am convinced that many of our infantry sank and died under the weight of their knapsacks alone. For my own part, being a handicraft, I marched under a weight sufficient to impede the free motions of a donkey; for besides my well-filled kit, there was the great-coat rolled on its top, my blanket and camp kettle, my haversack, stuffed full of leather for repairing the men's shoes, together with a hammer and other tools (the lapstone I took the liberty of flinging to the devil), ship-biscuit and beef for three days. I also carried my canteen filled with water, my hatchet and rifle, and eighty rounds of ball cartridge in my pouch; this last, except the beef and biscuit, being the best thing I owned, and which I always gave the enemy the benefit of, when opportunity offered.

Altogether the quantity of things I had on my shoulders was enough and more than enough for my wants, sufficient, indeed, to sink a little fellow of five feet seven inches into the earth. Nay, so awkwardly was the load our men bore in those days, placed upon their backs, that the free motion of the body was impeded, the head held down from the pile at the back of the neck, and the soldier half beaten before he came to the scratch.

We marched till it was nearly dark, and then halted for the night. I myself was immediately posted sentinel between two hedges, and in a short time General Fane came up, and himself cautioned me to be alert.

"Remember, sentinel," he said, "that we are now near an active enemy; therefore be careful here, and mind what you are about."