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W. H. Fitchett
Copyright © W. H. Fitchett
Arcadia Press 2017
This volume is an attempt to rescue from undeserved oblivion a cluster of soldierly autobiographies; and to give to the general reader some pictures of famous battles, not as described by the historian or analysed by the philosopher, but as seen by the eyes of men who fought in them. History treats the men who do the actual fighting in war very ill. It commonly forgets all about them. If it occasionally sheds a few drops of careless ink upon them, it is without either comprehension or sympathy. From the orthodox historian’s point of view, the private soldier is a mere unconsidered pawn in the passionless chess of some cold-brained strategist. As a matter of fact a battle is an event which pulsates with the fiercest human passions — passions bred of terror and of daring; of the anguish of wounds and of the rapture of victory; of the fear and awe of human souls over whom there suddenly sweeps the mystery of death.
But under conventional literary treatment all this evaporates. To the historian a battle is as completely drained of human emotion as a chemical formula. It is evaporated into a haze of cold and cloudy generalities.
But this is certainly to miss what is, for the human imagination, the most characteristic feature of a great fight. A battle offers the spectacle of, say, a hundred thousand men lifted up suddenly and simultaneously into a mood of intense passion — heroic or diabolical — eager to kill and willing to be killed; a mood in which death and wounds count for nothing and victory for everything. This is the feature of war which stirs the common imagination of the race; which makes gentle women weep, and wise philosophers stare, and the average hot-blooded human male turn half-frenzied with excitement. What does each separate human atom feel, when caught in that whirling tornado of passion and of peril? Who shall make visible to us the actual faces in the fighting-line; or make audible the words — stern order, broken prayer, blasphemous jest — spoken amid the tumult? Who shall give us, in a word, an adequate picture of the soldier’s life in actual war-time, with its hardships, its excitements, its escapes, its exultation and despair?
If the soldier attempts to tell the tale himself he commonly fails. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he belongs to the inarticulate classes. He lacks the gift of description. He can do a great deed, but cannot describe it when it is done. If knowledge were linked in them to an adequate gift of literary expression, soldiers would be the great literary artists of the race. For who else lives through so wide and so wild a range of experience and emotion? When, as in the case of Napier, a soldier emerges with a distinct touch of literary genius, the result is an immortal book. But usually the soldier has to be content with making history; he leaves to others the tamer business of writing it, and generally himself suffers the injustice of being forgotten in the process. Literature is congested with books which describe the soldier from the outside; which tell the tale of his hardships and heroisms, his follies and vices, as they are seen by the remote and uncomprehending spectator. What the world needs is the tale of the bayonet and of “Brown Bess,” written by the hand which has actually used those weapons.
Now, the narratives which these pages offer afresh to the world are of exactly this character. They are pages of battle-literature written by the hands of soldiers. They are not attempts at history, but exercises in autobiography. So they are actual human documents, with the salt of truth, of sincerity, and of reality in every syllable. The faded leaves of these memoirs are still stained with the red wine of battle. In their words — to the imaginative and sympathetic hearer, at all events — there are still audible the shouts of charging men, the roll of musketry volleys, the wild cheer of the stormers at Ciudad Rodrigo or Badajos, the earth-shaking thunder of Waterloo. Passages from four of such autobiographies are woven into the pages of this book: Captain Kincaid’s AdventuresintheRifleBrigadeinthePeninsula, &c.; Sergeant Anton’s RecollectionsofServiceinthe42nd; the tale of RiflemanHarris in the old 95th; and Mercer’s experiences in command of a battery at Waterloo. All these books are old; three, at least, are out of print, and form the rare prizes to be picked up by the fortunate collector in second-hand bookshops. Anton’s book was published in 1841, Kincaid’s in 1830, and is endorsed “very scarce.” Captain Curling edited RiflemanHarris in 1848. Mercer’s JournaloftheWaterlooCampaign was written in 1830, and published as late as 1870. But it consists of two volumes, in which the story of the great battle is only an episode, and it has never reached any wide circle of readers. Yet Mercer’s account of Waterloo is the best personal narrative of the great fight in English literature.
All these books are thus of rare interest and value. They belong to the era of “Brown Bess,” of the Peninsula, and of Waterloo. Each writer represents a distinct type of soldiership. Kincaid was a captain in one of the most famous regiments in British history — the Rifles in Craufurd’s Light Division. Harris was a private in another battalion of the same regiment. Mercer commanded battery G — fondly described by its Captain as “the finest troop in the service” — at Waterloo. Anton was a Scottish soldier in that not least famous of Scottish regiments — the 42nd, or Royal Highlanders. They all took part in that chain of memorable victories, which stretches from Roliça to Waterloo, and they were all — though in widely different — ways fighting men of the highest quality. Kincaid led a forlorn hope at Ciudad Rodrigo. Harris was one of the unconquerable, much-enduring rear-guard in Moore’s retreat to Corunna. Anton shared in the wild fighting of the 42nd at Toulouse. Mercer fought his battery at Waterloo until, out of 200 fine horses in his troop, 140 lay dead or dying; while of the men not enough survived to man four guns; and these, as the great battle came to its end, fell, smoke-blackened and exhausted, in slumber beside their blood-splashed guns. Each writer, too, had, in an amusing degree, an intense pride in the particular body to which he belonged. The army with him counted for little, the regiment was everything.
Kincaid says, with entire frankness, if anybody who had not the good fortune to belong to the “Rifles” expects to be named in his book, he was “most confoundedly mistaken.” “Neither,” he adds, “will I mention any regiment but my own, if I can possibly avoid it. For there is none other that I like so much, and none else so much deserves it. For we were the light regiment of the Light Division, and fired the first and last shot in almost every battle, siege, and skirmish, in which the army was engaged during the war.” Kincaid admits that the 43rd and 52nd — the other regiments that formed the immortal Light Division — deserved to be remembered, too; but the most flattering compliment he can pay them is to say, “wherever we were, they were.” “Whenever it came to a pinch,” he adds, “we had only to look behind to see a line” — consisting of these two regiments — “in which we might place a degree of confidence almost equal to our hopes in heaven. There never was such a corps of riflemen with such supporters!”
Harris, again, cherishes the comforting persuasion that his particular battalion could outmarch, outshoot, outlaugh, outdare — perhaps even outdrink — any other in the British army. “We were,” he says, “always at the front in an advance, and at the rear in a retreat.” He praises the army as a whole, but it is only for the sake of erecting a pedestal on which some new monument to the glory of the “Rifles” can be placed. He recalls the memory of the British army as it approached Salamanca. “The men,” he says, “seemed invincible. Nothing, I thought, could have beaten them.” Yet the cream of it all was the “Rifles”! Harris’s working creed, in brief, consists of three articles: (l) that the finest army in the world was that which Wellington led; (2) that the finest regiment in that army was the 95th; and (3) that the best battalion in the regiment was that his major commanded! “We had some of as desperate fellows in the Rifles as had ever toiled under the burning sun of an enemy’s country in any age. There never were such a set of devil-may-care fellows so completely up to their business as the 95th. They were in the mess before the others began, and were the last to leave off. It was their business to be so… There was, perhaps, as intelligent and talented a set of men amongst us as ever carried a weapon in any country. They seemed at times to need but a glance at what was going on to know all about its ‘why and wherefore.’”
Sergeant Anton, again, has all a good Scotchman’s austere pride in the superiority of a Scotch regiment over any other that ever carried muskets. He has nothing but an imperfectly disguised pity for those unfortunate people who have the bad taste to be born south of the Tweed. Any Scotch regiment, he visibly holds, is necessarily better than any possible regiment not brought up on porridge. And if amongst the Scottish regiments there was any quite equal to the Royal Highlanders, Sergeant Anton, at least, would like to know the name of that surprising body. In the same fashion Captain Mercer, the one educated man in this cluster of soldier-scribes, plainly cherishes a hearty belief that battery G has the finest horses, the best equipment, the smartest men, and the most perfect discipline, not merely in the British army, but in any army known to history! Pride in the regiment to which the soldier happens to belong is a fine element of military strength. Under modern short-service conditions it grows faint; but amongst Wellington’s veterans it had almost the fervours of a religion.
It may be added that these writers are curiously distinct, and look at war through very diverse eyes. Kincaid represents a type of officer in which the British army of all days is rich; and whose qualities explain some of the failures, and most of the triumphs of that army. He was gallant in every drop of his blood; cool, hardy, athletic, a fit leader of the fighting line. He had been reared in luxury, accustomed to feed daintily every day, to lie softly every night; he was full of the pride of his caste; yet in the actual business of fighting, Kincaid, like all officers of the type to which he belonged, could outmarch the privates in the ranks. He fared as hardly as they, shared their scanty rations, lay like them on the wet soil, endured in every way as much, and grumbled less. He was not only first in the charge, but last in the retreat, and took it all — hunger, wet, cold, perils — with smiling face, as part of the day’s work. Harris, who views his officers through a private’s eyes, is never weary of dwelling on their hardihood, as well as their pluck. “The gentlemen,” he says, “bear it best.” “It is usually found,” he adds, “that those whose birth and station might reasonably have made them fastidious under hardship and toil, bear their miseries without a murmur; while those whose previous life might have better prepared them for the toil of war, are the first to cry out and complain of their hard fate.”
Kincaid belongs to this fine type of officer; but he had all the limitations of his type. He knew nothing of the scientific side of his profession. He fought by the light of nature, and looked on a battle as a game of football. He was a true product of the English public schools; gay, plucky, hardy, reckless. He lived under the empire of great feelings — of patriotism, honour, &c. — but tortures would not make him use great words to describe them. A shy and proud self-disparagement is the note of Kincaid’s type. They are almost more afraid of being detected in doing a fine thing than others are of being proved guilty of doing a base thing. Kincaid himself describes how Ciudad Rodrigo was carried, but omits to mention the circumstance that he volunteered for the forlorn hope, and led it. The tone of his book is that of the officers’ mess, bright, off-hand, jesting at peril, making light of hardships. He tells the tale of heroic deeds — his own or others’ — with the severest economy of admiring adjectives. The only adjectives, indeed, Kincaid admits are those of a comminatory sort.
Harris is a fair sample of the unconquerable British private of the Peninsular age, with all the virtues, and all the limitations of his class. He is stocky in body, stubborn in temper, untaught and primitive in nature. He seems to have had no education. His horizon is singularly limited. He sees little beyond the files to right and left of him. The major who commands the battalion is the biggest figure in his world. His endurance is wonderful. Laden like a donkey, with ill-fitting boots and half-filled stomach, he can splash along the muddy Spanish roads, under the falling rain, or sweat beneath the Spanish midsummer heats, from gray dawn to gathering dusk. He will toil on, indeed, with dogged courage until his brain reels, his eyes grow blind, and the over-wrought muscles can no longer stir the leaden feet. Harris is loyal to his comrades; cherishes an undoubting confidence in his officers; believes that, man for man, any British regiment can beat twice its numbers of any other nation; while his own particular regiment, the 95th, will cheerfully take in hand four times that ratio of foes. Harris has no hate for a Frenchman; he respects and likes him indeed, but he always expects to thrash him, and having shot his French foe he is quite prepared to explore his pockets in search of booty.
For the British private in the Peninsula was by no means an angel in a red coat. His vices, like his virtues, were of a primitive sort. He drank, he swore, and alas, he plundered. If the valour which raged at the great breach of Badajos, or swept up the slope of rugged stones at San Sebastian, was of almost incredible fire, so the brutality which plundered and ravished and slew after the city was carried, was of almost incredible fierceness. Harris had no education or almost none; yet he learned to write, and write well. His style, it is true, is that of the uneducated man. He is most sensitive to things that touch himself. He is conscious of the weight of his knapsack, of the blisters on his feet, of the hunger in his stomach, and he drags all these emotions into his tale. Yet Harris had, somehow, by gift of nature, an unusual literary faculty. He sees, and he makes you see. It is true the area of his vision is narrow. It is almost filled up, as we have said, by his right- and left-hand files. It never goes beyond the battalion. But on that narrow canvas he paints with the minuteness and fidelity of a Dutch artist.
Sergeant-major Anton is really an economical and domestically inclined Scotchman, whom chance has thrust into the ranks of the Royal Highlanders; and who, finding himself a soldier, devotes himself to the business with that hard-headed and unsentimental thoroughness which makes the Lowland Scot about the most formidable fighting man the world knows. For Anton is a Lowlander; heavy-footed, heavy-bodied, dour, with nothing of a Highlander’s excitability or clan-sentiment. A story is current of how, in storming a kopje in South Africa, a Highland soldier dislodged a Boer, and, with threatening bayonet, brought him to a stand against a wall of rock. As he lingered for the final and fatal lunge, another eager Scot called out “Oot o’ the way, Jock, and gie me room tae get a poke at him.” “Na, na, Tarn,” shouted his frugal and practically-minded comrade, “awa’ wi’ ye and find a Boer tae yersel’.”
There is a touch of this severely practical spirit in Anton, and in this, no doubt, he reflects his regiment. Given a French battery to be stormed, here are men who, with bent heads, wooden faces, and steady bayonets, will push on into the very flame of the guns, and each man will do his separate part with a conscientious thoroughness that no foe can withstand. The story of the fight on the hillside at Toulouse illustrates this stern quality in Scottish soldiership. But the domestic side of Anton’s nature is always visible. He was one of the few married men in his regiment, and he is never wearied of describing what snug nests he built for his mate and himself in the intervals betwixt marching and fighting, or when the troops had gone into winter quarters. The value of Anton’s book, indeed, lies largely in the light it sheds on the fortunes and sufferings of the hardy women, sharp of tongue and strong of body, who marched in the rear of Wellington’s troops; and who, to their honour be it recorded, were usually faithful wives to the rough soldiers whose fortunes they shared. Anton, it is amusing to note, is the only one of the group who makes deliberate — and, it may be added, singularly unhappy — attempts at fine writing. He indulges in frequent apostrophes to the reader, to posterity, to his native country, and to the universe at large. In his many-jointed sentences linger echoes of ancient sermons; far-off flavours of the Shorter Catechism are discoverable in them. Anton, however, can be simple and direct when he has an actual tale of fighting to tell. He forgets his simplicity only when he moralises over the battlefield the next day.
Mercer is much the ablest and most accomplished writer of the four. He belonged to the scientific branch of the army, the artillery, and he had studied his art with the thoroughness of a scholar. That Mercer was a cool and gallant soldier of the finest type cannot be doubted. He has, indeed, a fine military record, and rose to the rank of general, and held command of the 9th Brigade of Royal Artillery. But Mercer was a many-sided man in a quite curious degree. He was a scholar; a lover of books; a country gentleman, with a country gentleman’s delight in horse-flesh and crops. He was, moreover, an artist, with a Ruskinesque, not to say a Turneresque, sense of colour and form. A fine landscape was for him a feast, only rivalled by the joy of a good book. He lingers on the very edge of Quatre Bras, while the thunder of cannon shakes the air, and while his own guns are floundering up a steep hill path, to note and describe the far-stretching landscape, the glow of the evening sky, the Salvator-like trees, the sparkle of glassy pools, &c. Mercer is so good an artillery officer that he sees every buckle in the harness of his horses, and every button on the uniforms of his men; and yet he is sensitive to every tint and change in the landscape through which his guns are galloping.
On the morning after Waterloo, his face still black with its smoke, and his ears stunned with its roar, he picks his way across the turf, thick with the bodies of the slain, into the garden of Hougoumont. The bodies of the dead lie there, too; but Mercer is almost intoxicated with the cool verdure of the trees, with the chant of a stray nightingale, and even with “the exuberant vegetation of turnips and cabbages,” as well as with the scent of flowers! It is this combination of keen artistic sensibility with the finest type of courage — courage which, if gentle in form, was yet of the ice-brook’s temper — which makes Mercer interesting. Here was a man who might have fished with Izaak Walton, or discussed hymns with Cowper, or philosophy with Coleridge; yet this pensive, gentle, artistic, bookish man fought G Battery at Waterloo till two-thirds of his troop were killed, and has written the best account of the great battle, from the human and personal side, to be found in English literature.
Here, then, are four human documents, of genuine historic value, as well as of keen personal interest. They have their defects. There is no perspective in their pages. To Rifleman Harris, for example, the state of his boots is of as much importance, and is described with as much detail, as the issue of the battle. These memoirs will not give the reader the battle as a whole; still less the campaign; least of all will they give the politics behind the campaign. But a magic is in them, the magic of reality and of personal experience. They seem to put the reader in the actual battle-line, to fill his nostrils with the scent of gunpowder, to make his eyes tingle with the pungency of ancient battle-smoke.
It may be added that these books give pictures of such battle landscapes as will never be witnessed again. They belong to the period when war had much more of the picturesque and human element than it has today. “Brown Bess” was short of range, and the fighting-lines came so near to each other that each man could see his foeman’s face, and hear his shout or oath. War appealed to every sense. It filled the eyes. It registered itself in drifting continents of smoke. It deafened the ear with blast of cannon and ring of steel. It adorned itself in all the colours of the rainbow. The uniforms of Napoleon’s troops, as they were drawn up on the slopes of La Belle Alliance, were a sort of debauch of colour. Houssaye gives a catalogue of the regiments — infantry of the line in blue coats, white breeches, and gaiters; heavy cavalry with glittering cuirasses and pennoned lances; chasseurs in green and purple and yellow; hussars with dolmans and shakos of all tints — sky-blue, scarlet, green, and red; dragoons with white shoulder-belts and turban-helmets of tigerskin, surmounted by a gleaming cone of brass; lancers in green, with silken cords on their helmets; carabineers, giants of six feet, clad in white, with breastplates of gold and lofty helmets with red plumes; grenadiers in blue, faced with scarlet, yellow epaulettes, and high bearskin caps; the red lancers — red-breeched, red-capped, with floating white plumes half a yard long; the Young Guard; the Old Guard, with bearskin helmets, blue trousers and coats; the artillery of the Guard, with bearskin helmets, &c.
Such a host, looked at from the picturesque point of view, was a sort of human rainbow, with a many-coloured gleam of metal — gold and silver, steel and brass — added. And colour counts at least in attracting recruits. Harris joined the 95th because his eyes were dazzled with the “smartness” of its uniform. Lord Roberts has told the world how he joined the Bengal Horse Artillery purely because he found their white buckskin breeches, and the leopard skin and red plumes on the men’s helmets, irresistible! Napoleon, it will be remembered, turned the spectacular aspect of his army to martial use. On the morning of Waterloo he brought his troops over the slope of the hill in eleven stately columns; he spread them out like a mighty glittering fan in the sight of the coolly watching British. To foes of more sensitive imagination the spectacle of that vast and iris-tinted host might well have chilled their courage. But the British — whether to their credit or their discredit may be disputed — keep their imagination and their courage in separate compartments. They are not liable to be discouraged, still less put to rout, by the most magnificent display of what may be called the millinery of war.
But that aspect of war has faded, never to revive. Khaki kills the picturesque. Battle has grown grey, remote, invisible. It consists of trenches miles long, in which crouch unseen riflemen, shooting at moving specks of grey, distant thousands of yards; or in guns perched on hills five miles apart bellowing to each other across the intervening valleys. It is not merely that in a battle of today a soldier cannot see the features of the man he kills; he probably does not see him at all. The Highlanders at the Modder marched, panted, thirsted, killed, and were killed, for eight hours, and never saw a Boer! The soldier today sees neither the pinpricks of flame nor the whiff of grey smoke which tell that somebody is shooting at him. For these are days of smokeless powder and long-range rifles. The man shot at only learns that circumstance as he catches the air-scurry of the passing bullet, and the atmosphere about him grows full of what one half-terrified war correspondent calls “little whimpering air-devils.”
The interest of these books is that they bring back to us living pictures, as seen through living human eyes, of the great battles of a century ago — battles which have grown obsolete in fashion, but which changed the currents of the world’s history, and of whose gain we are the heirs today.
It is curious, in a sense even amusing, to note how diversely their famous commander impressed these four soldiers, each occupied in recording for the benefit of posterity what he saw. Anton apparently never sees Wellington. The human horizon for the Scottish sergeant is filled with the colonel of his regiment. Harris gravely records how he saw the great Duke take his hat off on the field of Vimiero; for the rest, he held the ordinary view of the rank and file of the Peninsula that the Duke’s long nose on a battlefield was worth 10,000 men. Kincaid says he was so anxious to see the Duke when he joined the army that, as he puts it, “I never should have forgiven the Frenchman that killed me before I effected it.” He was soon gratified, but seems quite unable to give any description of the great soldier. He contemplated him with the sort of frightened awe with which the youngest boy at Eton would look at “the head” arrayed in his official robes; a vision to be contemplated from a safe distance, without the least desire for a nearer and personal acquaintance.
Mercer came closer to the great Duke, and regards him with a cooler and therefore a severer judgment. Mercer had boundless confidence in Wellington as a battle-leader, but not the least affection for him as a man, and it is plain he had no special reasons for affection. Wellington had many fine moral qualities, but anxious consideration for other people, or even calm justice in his dealings with them, is not to be included in their catalogue. The famous general order he issued after the retreat from Burgos is an example of the undiscriminating harshness with which Wellington could treat an entire army. And that element of harshness — of swift, impatient, relentless discipline that could not stay to discriminate, to weigh evidence, or even to hear it — was one great defect of Wellington as a general. About his soldiers he had as little human feeling as a good chess-player has about his pawns. Mercer never came into intercourse with the Duke but with disaster to himself, a disaster edged with injustice.
When his troop was in France, Mercer says he ran an equal risk of falling under the Duke’s displeasure for systematically plundering the farmers, or for not plundering them! If a commander of a battery allowed his horses to look in worse condition than those of another battery he was relentlessly punished. “The quick eye of the Duke would see the difference. He asked no questions, attended to no justification, but condemned the unfortunate captain as unworthy of the command he held, and perhaps sent him from the army.” But the official amount of forage supplied was quite insufficient for the purpose of keeping the horses in high condition. Other troops supplemented the supply by “borrowing” from the farmers, and there was no resource but to imitate them, or to risk professional ruin by presenting at parade horses inferior in look to those of other troops nourished on mere felony. Wellington forgave neither the unlicensed “borrowing” of the officers nor the want of condition in their horses. Yet one fault or the other was inevitable.
The Duke, it seems, “had no love for the artillery,” and all his harshness was expended on that branch of the service. “The Duke of Wellington’s ideas of discipline,” says Mercer, “are rigid; his modes of administering them are summary, and he is frequently led into acts of the grossest injustice.” Thus the owner of a building where some of Mercer’s men were quartered — a thorough rogue — complained to the Duke that the lead piping of his house had been plundered and sold by the guilty British gunners. Wellington made no inquiry, took no evidence. A staff officer rode to Mercer’s quarters one day with a copy of this complaint, on the margin of which was written in the Duke’s own handwriting: “Colonel Scovell will find out whose troop this is, and they shall pay double.” This was the first intimation the unfortunate Mercer had received of the charge against him. The Frenchman pretended to estimate his loss at 7000 francs, and Mercer was advised, in high quarters, to pay this sum in order to escape the Duke’s wrath. Mercer appealed to Sir George Wood, who told him his only chance lay in evading payment as long as he could; then the Duke might be caught in a more amiable mood. The actual thief — one of the French villagers — was discovered and convicted; but this circumstance, Mercer records, “has not in the least altered my position with the Duke of Wellington; for none dare tell him the story; and even Sir Edward Barnes, who kindly attempted it, met with a most ungracious rebuff!”
The French scoundrel, meanwhile, was dunning Mercer to get his 7000 francs. The situation remained thus for weeks, till the audacious Frenchman ventured on a second interview with the Duke. The Duke had dismounted, as it happened, in a very ill humour, at the door of his hotel, and the Frenchman pursued him up the grand staircase with his complaint. The Duke turned roughly upon him, “What the devil do you want, sir?” The Frenchman presented his bill with a flourish, whereupon the Duke exclaimed to his aide-de-camp, “Pooh! kick the rascal downstairs!” The Frenchman and his bill thus vanished from the scene; but Mercer’s comment is “that I eventually escaped paying a heavy sum for depredations committed by others is due, not to the Duke’s sense of justice, but only to the irritability of his temper.”
On another occasion Sir Augustus Fraser, meeting him, said, “Mercer, you are released from arrest.” Mercer stared: but on inquiry, discovered that he had been officially under arrest for a fortnight without knowing it. At a review, just before passing the saluting point, a horse in the rear division of his battery got its leg over the trace. The limber gunners leaped smartly off, put things straight, and jumped to their places again; but the division, with their 18-pounders, had to trot to regain place, and were just pulling up when they reached the saluting point. The precise and rhythmical order of the troop was a little disturbed, and Wellington, in a burst of wrath, put Sir Augustus Fraser himself, who was in command of all the artillery, the major in command of the brigade, and Mercer, the captain of the guilty troop, under arrest, where — happily all unconscious — they remained for a fortnight. Later Mercer wished to apply for leave of absence, but Sir George Wood declined to present the request, as he said, “‘It would not be prudent just now to remind the Duke of me in any way.’ Rather hard and unjust this,” is Mercer’s comment.
Mercer, however, tells one story, which shows that the Duke of Wellington was capable of sly satire at the expense of the French. An English officer walking on the boulevard was rudely pushed into the gutter by a French gentleman, whom the Englishman promptly knocked down. The Frenchman, it turned out, was a marshal. He complained to the Duke, but could not identify the officer who had knocked him down. The Duke thereupon issued a general order, desiring that “British officers would, in future, abstain from beating marshals of France.”
Kincaid, the author of AdventuresintheRifleBrigade, was born at Dalheath, near Falkirk, in 1787. He held a lieutenant’s commission in the North York Militia, but in 1809, when only twenty-two years old, joined, as a volunteer, the second battalion of the famous 95th — the “Rifles” in the immortal Light Division. His first military service was of an unhappy sort. He took part in the Walcheren expedition, and, in spite of a cheerful temper and a good constitution, fell a victim to the swamp-bred agues and fevers which destroyed that ill-led and ill-fated expedition. He emerged from his first campaign with shattered health and no glory. In 1811 his battalion was ordered to the Peninsula, and with it Kincaid marched and fought from the lines of Torres Vedras to Waterloo. In the hard fighting of those stern days the Rifles played a brilliant part. Kincaid kept guard in the great hill-defences of Torres Vedras, joined in the pursuit of Massena, when that general fell suddenly back, shared in the fury of the breaches at Ciudad Rodrigo, and in the yet wilder assault on the great breach at Badajos, and took part in all the great battles of those years from Fuentes to Vittoria. He survived the stubborn and bloody combats in the Pyrenees, fought at Toulouse, Quatre Bras, and on the famous ridge at Waterloo. His battalion stood almost in the centre of Wellington’s battle-line on that fierce day, and the most desperate fighting of the day eddied round it.
Kincaid was thus a gallant soldier, in a gallant regiment, and played a part in great events. But his promotion was slow; he only received his captain’s commission in 1826. He was more fortunate, indeed, after he left the army than while he served in it. He was given a place in the Yeomen of the Guard in 1844, was knighted in 1852, and died in 1862, aged seventy-five.
Kincaid’s AdventuresintheRifleBrigade is a book of great merits and of great faults. It is brisk, stirring, and picturesque, and paints with great vividness the life of a subaltern in a fighting regiment and during fighting times. But the book lacks order. Dates are dropped into it, or are left out of it, with the most airy caprice. It has no intelligible relationship to history. It never gives the reader a glimpse of the history-making events which serve as a background to the marching and the fighting of the Rifles. Kincaid, in a word, races through his campaigns as a youth might race across the hills in a harrier-chase; or, rather, as a boy with a lively sense of humour, might saunter through a fair — without a plan, except to get all the fun he can, and stopping, now to laugh at a clown, now to stare at a mimic tragedy, now to exchange a jest with some other boy. His choice of incident is determined absolutely by the “fun” they include — the flavour of humour, or the gleam of the picturesque, which he can discover in them. He makes no pretension, that is, to connected and adequate narrative. But his record of adventures is always amusing, often vivid, and sometimes has a certain thrilling quality which, after the lapse of so many years, still keeps its power.
Kincaid’s tale is best served by re-grouping its incidents under distinct heads. In his earlier chapters, for example, he gives curiously interesting sketches of what may be called the non-fighting side of a soldier’s life — the marches, the bivouacs; the gossip of the camp fires; the hardships of muddy roads, of rain-filled skies, or of dust and heat and thirst, of non-existent rations, and of sleepless nights which the soldier has to endure. So the reader gets a glimpse the orthodox historians quite fail to give of the hardy, resourceful, much-enduring British soldier of the Peninsula. Kincaid may be left to tell all this in his own words, though with generous condensation.
Kincaid dismisses, as not worth remembering or recording, all the tame days of his life before he became a soldier on active service, and plunges abruptly into his tale:
“I joined the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade (then the 95th), at Hythe Barracks, in the spring of 1809, and, in a month after, we proceeded to form a part of the expedition to Holland, under the Earl of Chatham.
“With the usual quixotic feelings of a youngster, I remember how desirous I was, on the march to Deal, to impress the minds of the natives with a suitable notion of the magnitude of my importance, by carrying a donkey-load of pistols in my belt, and screwing my naturally placid countenance up to a pitch of ferocity beyond what it was calculated to bear.
“We embarked in the Downs, on board the Hussar frigate, and afterwards removed to the Namur, a seventy-four, in which we were conveyed to our destination. We landed on the island of South Beeveland, where we remained about three weeks, playing at soldiers, smoking mynheer’s long clay pipes, and drinking his vrow’s butter-milk, for which I paid liberally with my precious blood to their infernal mosquitoes; not to mention that I had all the extra valour shaken out of me by a horrible ague, which commenced a campaign on my carcass, and compelled me to retire upon Scotland, for the aid of my native air, by virtue of which it was ultimately routed.
“I shall not carry my first chapter beyond my first campaign, as I am anxious that my reader should not expend more than his first breath upon an event which cost too many their last.
“I rejoined the battalion, at Hythe, in the spring of 1810, and, finding that the company to which I belonged had embarked to join the first battalion in the Peninsula, and that they were waiting at Spithead for a fair wind, I immediately applied, and obtained permission, to join them. We anchored in the Tagus in September; no thanks to the ship, for she was a leaky one, and wishing foul winds to the skipper, for he was a bad one.
“To look at Lisbon from the Tagus, there are few cities in the universe that can promise so much, and none, I hope, that can keep it so badly. I only got on shore one day for a few hours, and as I never again had an opportunity of correcting the impression, I have no objection to its being considered an uncharitable one; but I wandered for a time amid the abominations of its streets and squares, in the vain hope that I had got involved among a congregation of stables and outhouses; but I was at length compelled to admit it as the miserable apology for the fair city that I had seen from the harbour.
“It pleased the great disposer of naval events to remove us to another and a better ship, and to send us off for Figuera next day with a foul wind. Sailing at the rate of one mile in two hours, we reached Figuera’s Bay at the end of eight days, and were welcomed by about a hundred hideous-looking Portuguese women, whose joy was so excessive that they waded up to their arm-pits through a heavy surf, and insisted on carrying us on shore on their backs! I never clearly ascertained whether they had been actuated by the purity of love or gold.”
Kincaid joined Wellington’s forces at what might well have seemed a very gloomy juncture. The British army was in full retreat. The star of Massena shone in the ascendant. Talavera and Busaco had been fought, and fought apparently in vain. Spain was abandoned, Portugal invaded. Wellington seemed to be retreating to his ships. The secret of the great lines of Torres Vedras, which were to finally arrest Massena’s advance, and save not only Portugal, but the Peninsula — perhaps Europe — had been so well kept that even Wellington’s own forces were in ignorance of their existence. Yet Kincaid shows an easy and careless unconsciousness of the disquieting aspect the campaign wore. It was enough for him that he marched and fought with his regiment, and shared all its fortunes. He scarcely looks beyond the files of his own company, and has no doubt whatever that the French will be satisfactorily thrashed in the end!
“We proceeded next morning to join the army; and as our route lay through the city of Coimbra we came to the magnanimous resolution of providing ourselves with all manner of comforts and equipments for the campaign on our arrival there; but when we entered it at the end of the second day, our disappointment was quite eclipsed by astonishment at finding ourselves the only living things in the city, which ought to have been furnished with twenty thousand souls.
“Lord Wellington was then in the course of his retreat from the frontiers of Spain to the lines of Torres Vedras, and had compelled the inhabitants on the line of march to abandon their homes, and to destroy or carry away everything that could be of service to the enemy. It was a measure that ultimately saved their country, though ruinous and distressing to those concerned, and on no class of individuals did it bear harder, for the moment, than our own little detachment, a company of rosy-cheeked, chubbed youths, who, after three months’ feeding on ship’s dumplings, were thus thrust, at a moment of extreme activity, in the face of an advancing foe, supported by a pound of raw beef, drawn every day fresh from the bullock, and a mouldy biscuit.
“The difficulties we encountered were nothing out of the usual course of old campaigners; but, untrained and unprovided as I was, I still looked back upon the twelve or fourteen days following the battle of Busaco as the most trying I have ever experienced, for we were on our legs from daylight until dark, in daily contact with the enemy; and, to satisfy the stomach of an ostrich, I had, as already stated, only a pound of beef, a pound of biscuit, and one glass of rum. A brother-officer was kind enough to strap my boat-cloak and portmanteau on the mule carrying his heavy baggage, which, on account of the proximity of the foe, was never permitted to be within a day’s march of us, so that, in addition to my simple uniform, my only covering every night was the canopy of heaven, from whence the dews descended so refreshingly that I generally awoke, at the end of an hour, chilled, and wet to the skin; and I could only purchase an equal length of additional repose by jumping up and running about until I acquired a sleeping quantity of warmth. Nothing in life can be more ridiculous than seeing a lean, lank fellow start from a profound sleep at midnight, and begin lashing away at the Highland fling as if St. Andrew himself had been playing the bagpipes; but it was a measure that I very often had recourse to, as the cleverest method of producing heat. In short, though the prudent general may preach the propriety of light baggage in the enemy’s presence, I will ever maintain that there is marvellous small personal comfort in travelling so fast and so lightly as I did.
“The Portuguese farmers will tell you that the beauty of their climate consists in their crops receiving from the nightly dews the refreshing influence of a summer’s shower, and that they ripen in the daily sun. But they are a sordid set of rascals! Whereas I speak with the enlightened views of a man of war, and say, that it is poor consolation to me, after having been deprived of my needful repose, and kept all night in a fever, dancing wet and cold, to be told that I shall be warm enough in the morning? It is like frying a person after he has been boiled; and I insisted upon it, that if their sun had been milder and their dews lighter I should have found it much more pleasant.
“Having now brought myself regularly into the field, under the renowned Wellington, should this narrative, by any accident, fall into the hands of others who served there, and who may be unreasonable enough to expect their names to be mentioned in it, let me tell them that they are most confoundedly mistaken! Every man may write a book for himself, if he likes; but this is mine; and, as I borrow no man’s story, neither will I give any man a particle of credit for his deed, as I have got so little for my own that I have none to spare. Neither will I mention any regiment but my own, if I can possibly avoid it, for there is none other that I like so much, and none else so much deserves it; for we were the light regiment of the Light Division, and fired the first and last shot in almost every battle, siege, and skirmish in which the army was engaged during the war.
“In stating the foregoing resolution, however, with regard to regiments, I beg to be understood as identifying our old and gallant associates, the 43rd and 52nd, as a part of ourselves, for they bore their share in everything, and I love them as I hope to do my better half (when I come to be divided); wherever we were, they were; and although the nature of our arm generally gave us more employment in the way of skirmishing, yet, whenever it came to a pinch, independent of a suitable mixture of them among us, we had only to look behind to see a line, in which we might place a degree of confidence, almost equal to our hopes in heaven; nor were we ever disappointed. There never was a corps of riflemen in the hands of such supporters!”
On October 12, Wellington entered the lines of Torres Vedras, and Massena found his advance barred by frowning lines of trenched and gun-crowned hills, the screen behind which his great antagonist had vanished. During the last few days of the retreat and pursuit the pace of events quickened; the British rear-guard was sharply pressed, and Kincaid, for once grows consecutive and orderly in his narrative:
“October 1, 1810. — We stood to our arms at daylight this morning, on a hill in front of Coimbra; and, as the enemy soon after came on in force, we retired before them through the city. The civil authorities, in making their own hurried escape, had totally forgotten that they had left a jail full of rogues unprovided for, and who, as we were passing near them, made the most hideous screaming for relief. Our quarter-master-general very humanely took some men, who broke open the doors, and the whole of them were soon seen howling along the bridge into the wide world, in the most delightful delirium, with the French dragoons at their heels.
“We retired the same night through Condacia, where the commissariat were destroying quantities of stores that they were unable to carry off. They handed out shoes and shirts to any one that would take them, and the streets were literally running ankle deep with rum, in which the soldiers were dipping their cups and helping themselves as they marched along. The commissariat, some years afterwards, called for a return of the men who had received shirts and shoes on this occasion, with a view of making us pay for them, but we very briefly replied that the one-half were dead, and the other half would be d—d before they would pay anything.
“We retired this day to Leria, and, at the entrance of the city, saw an English and a Portuguese soldier dangling by the bough of a tree — the first summary example I had ever seen of martial law.
“We halted one night near the convent of Batalha, one of the finest buildings in Portugal. It has, I believe, been clearly established, that a living man in ever so bad health is better than two dead ones; but it appears that the latter will vary in value according to circumstances, for we found here, in very high preservation, the body of King John of Portugal, who founded the edifice in commemoration of some victory, God knows how long ago; and though he would have been reckoned a highly valuable antique, within a glass case, in an apothecary’s hall in England, yet he was held so cheap in his own house, that the very finger which most probably pointed the way to the victory alluded to, is now in the baggage of the Rifle Brigade. Reader, point not thy finger at me, for I am not the man.
“Retired on the morning of a very wet, stormy day to Allenquer, a small town on the top of a mountain, surrounded by still higher ones; and, as the enemy had not shown themselves the evening before, we took possession of the houses, with a tolerable prospect of being permitted the unusual treat of eating a dinner under cover. But by the time that the pound of beef was parboiled, and while an officer of dragoons was in the act of reporting that he had just patrolled six leagues to the front, without seeing any signs of an enemy, we saw the indefatigable rascals, on the mountains opposite our windows, just beginning to wind round us, with a mixture of cavalry and infantry; the wind blowing so strong that the long tail of each particular horse stuck as stiffly out in the face of the one behind, as if the whole had been strung upon a cable and dragged by the leaders. We turned out a few companies, and kept them in check while the division was getting under arms, spilt the soup as usual, and, transferring the smoking solids to the haversack, for future mastication, we continued our retreat.
“Our long retreat ended at midnight, on our arrival at the handsome little town of Arruda, which was destined to be the piquet post of our division, in front of the fortified lines. The quartering of our division, whether by night or by day, was an affair of about five minutes. The quarter-master-general preceded the troops, accompanied by the brigade-majors and the quartermasters of regiments; and after marking off certain houses for his general and staff, he split the remainder of the town between the majors of brigades; they, in their turn, provided for their generals and staff, and then made a wholesale division of streets among the quarter-masters of regiments, who, after providing for their commanding officers and staff, retailed the remaining houses, in equal proportions, among the companies; so that, by the time that the regiment arrived, there was nothing to be done beyond the quarter-master’s simply telling each captain, ‘Here’s a certain number of houses for you.’
“Like all other places on the line of march, we found Arruda totally deserted; and its inhabitants had fled in such a hurry, that the keys of their house doors were the only things they carried away, so that when we got admission through our usual key — transmitting a rifle-ball through the keyhole: it opens every lock — we were not a little gratified to find that the houses were not only regularly furnished, but most of them had some food in the larder, and a plentiful supply of good wines in the cellar; and, in short, that they only required a few lodgers capable of appreciating the good things which the gods had provided; and the deuce is in it if we were not the very folks who could!
“Those who wish a description of the lines of Torres Vedras, must part. I know nothing, excepting that I was told that one end of them rested on the Tagus, and the other somewhere on the sea; and I saw, with my own eyes, a variety of redoubts and fieldworks on the various hills which stand between. This, however, I do know, that we have since kicked the French out of more formidable-looking and stronger places; and, with all due deference be it spoken, I think that the Prince of Essling ought to have tried his luck against them, as he could only have been beaten by fighting, as he afterwards was without it! And if he thinks that he would have lost as many men by trying, as he did by not trying, he must allow me to differ in opinion with him.
“In very warm or very wet weather it was customary to put us under cover in the town during the day, but we were always moved back to our bivouac on the heights during the night; and it was rather amusing to observe the different notions of individual comfort, in the selection of furniture, which officers transferred from their town house to their no house on the heights. A sofa, or a mattress, one would have thought most likely to be put in requisition; but it was not unusual to see a full-length looking-glass preferred to either.
“We certainly lived in clover while we remained here; everything we saw was our own, seeing no one there who had a more legitimate claim; and every field was a vineyard. Ultimately it was considered too much trouble to pluck the grapes, as there were a number of poor native thieves in the habit of coming from the rear every day to steal some, so that a soldier had nothing to do but to watch one until he was marching off with his basket full, when he would very deliberately place his back against that of the Portuguese, and relieve him of his load, without wasting any words about the bargain. The poor wretch would follow the soldier to the camp, in the hope of having his basket returned, as it generally was, when emptied.”
Massena held on to his position in front of the great lines he dared not attack till November 12, then he fell back to Santarem, whence he could still keep Wellington blockaded. He held this position till March 1811, nearly five months in all — months of cold, rain, and hunger — a miracle of stubborn and sullen endurance. Kincaid, acting on his usual principle that all time not occupied in actively doing something is to be counted as nonexistent, passes over the tale of these months in a dozen lines. His narrative only becomes full again when Wellington sallies out of his hilly stronghold and presses in pursuit of Massena. We then have graphic pictures of the hardships of a soldier’s life:
“Massena, conceiving any attack upon our lines to be hopeless, as his troops were rapidly mouldering away with sickness and want, at length began to withdraw them nearer to the source of his supplies. He abandoned his position, opposite to us, on the night of November 9, leaving some stuffed-straw gentlemen occupying their usual posts. Some of them were cavalry, some infantry, and they seemed such respectable representatives of their spectral predecessors, that, in the haze of the following morning, we thought that they had been joined by some well-fed ones from the rear; and it was late in the day before we discovered the mistake, and advanced in pursuit.
“It was late ere we halted for the night, on the side of the road, near to Allenquer, and I got under cover in a small house, which looked as if it had been honoured as the headquarters of the tailor-general of the French army, for the floor was strewed with variegated threads, various complexioned buttons, with particles and remnants of cabbage; and, if it could not boast of the flesh and fowl of Noah’s ark, there was an abundance of the creeping things which it were to be wished that that commander had not left behind.
“On our arrival at Valle, on November 12, we found the enemy behind the Rio Maior, occupying the heights of Santarem, and exchanged some shots with their advanced posts. In the course of the night we experienced one of those tremendous thunderstorms which used to precede the Wellington victories, and which induced us to expect a general action on the following day. I had disposed myself to sleep in a beautiful green hollow way, and, before I had time even to dream of the effects of their heavy rains, I found myself floating most majestically towards the river, in a fair way of becoming food for the fishes. I ever after gave those inviting looking spots a wide berth, as I found that they were regular watercourses.
“Next morning our division crossed the river, and commenced a false attack on the enemy’s left, with a view of making them show their force; and it was to have been turned into a real attack, if their position was found to be occupied by a rear-guard only; but, after keeping up a smart skirmishing fire the great part of the day, Lord Wellington was satisfied that their whole army was present; we were consequently withdrawn.
“This affair terminated the campaign of 1810. Our division took possession of the village of Valle and its adjacents, and the rest of the army was placed in cantonments, under whatever cover the neighbouring country afforded.”
Here are some of Kincaid’s pictures of a British army in winter quarters, with one fierce campaign behind it, and another, almost sterner still in character, before it:
“Our battalion was stationed in some empty farm-houses, near the end of the bridge of Santarem, which was nearly half a mile long; and our sentries and those of the enemy were within pistol-shot of each other on the bridge.
“I do not mean to insinuate that a country is never so much at peace as when at open war; but I do say that a soldier can nowhere sleep so soundly, nor is he anywhere so secure from surprise, as when within musket-shot of his enemy.