Military Subjects:  War of 1812


 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 5: December 2006

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

BOOK REVIEW

Graves. Donald E. Fix Bayonets! A Royal Welch Fusilier at War. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2006. 490 pages.  ISBN 13: 978-1-896941-27-1. $ 39.95 CAN / U.S.

Reviewed by Lt Col K W Kiddie, MA

You could hear the audible sigh when I announced to my family that I had been asked to review a (nother) book about the Napoleonic era. At least this time it was not accompanied by the usual eyebrow raising and eye rolling that normally occurs when I use the “N” word at home. The all - pervading view being, what else could there be left to review?  Especially in a subject area that has been so extensively and exhaustively researched. Indeed 2005 had seen a plethora of Napoleonic material being published, mainly to coincide with the bi-centenaries of Austerlitz (“La plus éclatante victoire de l’Empereur”) and Trafalgar (“Nelson’s greatest triumph”), plus numerous associated studies. It would certainly take a markedly different approach to tempt the jaded Napoleonists palates’ after such a surfeit. However Donald Graves, a well- known and prolific Canadian military historian, was not one to shrink from the challenge and has produced a very unique study, which charts the career of a regular British officer (Thomas Pearson, 23rd Foot, Royal Welch Fusiliers), through the course of the French Revolutionary, Napoleonic wars and beyond.

It may, perhaps, be better to start by saying what the book is not. It is not exactly a biography, in the way most people would expect, although it does feature the (military) life of Thomas Pearson as the central silken cord of the book, around which the other stories are woven. It is neither a general history of the British Army in the period nor a specific Regimental history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, although both elements feature heavily throughout the volume. It is not only an account of the British Army in the Peninsular War, although it is a large part of the story, but also includes accounts of partially forgotten campaigns in Egypt, Denmark and the Caribbean. It is not exclusively a history of the wars against France (although this theme provides the main backdrop for the story), featuring as it does in the latter part of the book the War of 1812, fought against the Americans, largely in Canada. It is not a Canadian colonial history, although there is a strong Canadian element (Pearson before deploying to the Peninsular was stationed at Halifax and married a noted New Brunswick beauty), neither is it a British social history of the era, although the book is liberally interspersed with information and anecdotes of British life and social mores. So the question must now follow, what exactly is it?

Graves has done an exceptionally skilful job in pulling together all these disparate threads into a cogent and intelligently crafted tale. As I said earlier, the central theme of the book is the story of the service of Thomas Pearson, as close to a real life approximation of the character in the Bernard Cornwall “Sharpe” novels as is possible to be, gathering as he progresses all the other aspects of the associated themes into a unified entity. Pearson comes across as a remarkable fellow, clearly highly dedicated and militarily competent, albeit rather brusque and single minded, in an age where not all officers were so motivated. He was also fortunate (and hardy) as during the period he campaigned Europe, North Africa, the Caribbean and North America. He saw combat from the extreme winters of Canada to the burning deserts of Egypt. From the damp, flat, cultivated coastal regions of Holland and Denmark to the jungles of the Caribbean, experiencing numerous combined operations with the Navy en route. He fought against the French (and their allies), Danes and Americans, whilst he counted as allies Spanish, Portuguese, North American Mohawks and Canadian Fencibles. In the process he fought in 15 major battles and numerous minor skirmishes, and was wounded 5 times. In an era when disease and illness carried off more than those suffering battlefield wounds, it is perhaps remarkable that Pearson lasted longer than the second chapter, even more so that he survived until 1847 in the rank of Major General. That Graves should be able to tell such a lucid and fascinating story is all the more remarkable when one takes the time to examine the extensive notes and bibliography sections (nearly 30 pages), where it is clear that Pearson, himself, left very little evidence to go on. It is apparent from the text and the bibliography that Pearson, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not leave behind a journal, diaries or even an abundance of personal correspondence for the author to peruse. Whether this was by accident or design it is impossible to tell, so in order to produce an impression of “the officer Pearson”, Graves has had to do some in depth detective work, going through the writing of Pearson’s contemporaries and peers to produce a viable picture of the man. Thus much of what can be gleaned about the man is by inference and Graves has had to use the words perhaps, possibly and may rather more frequently than a biographer would have liked to, but as I said earlier this work is more than a stand alone biography.

The first part of the book deals with Pearson’s and the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ stories running in parallel. In this section, their twin fortunes are described, covering the almost forgotten campaign in The Helder (1799, Holland), not an altogether auspicious beginning, and then the rather more successful venture in Egypt (1801) against the army Napoleon had abandoned there. Under the skilful guidance of General Abercrombie, the British Army began to learn the lessons required to beat the French and to become a seasoned fighting force. Other areas of operations are covered including the siege of Copenhagen (1807), and the Martinique campaign (1809), which illustrates the growing competence of the British Army and the successful cooperation with the Navy on combined operations. There is also interesting descriptions of garrison life in the colonies, notably in Halifax and various personalities appear. Sir John Moore, being but one example, was with the army at The Helder and in Egypt. He was largely instrumental in the formation of British Rifle Regiments and Light Infantry tactics, which Pearson in the latter portion of the book seems to be especially associated with. Throughout there are numerous vignettes of military life one of the most amusing being how the Royal Welch Fusiliers obtained their mark of distinction, the “Flash”. The incident occurred in Halifax in the spring of 1809, when the regiment was ordered to cut its queues (a rather more elaborate form of pigtail). This order was complied with under great protest especially from the regimental wives, who took an inordinate pride in the manner of dressing their husbands’ hair. Apparently the wives “cursed and muttered”, but were silenced by a single stony stare from the then Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ellis, who had the power to dismiss the wives from the regiment (If only I had the same power over one!).  However as a sign of protest, the officers fashioned the ribbons with which they had tied their queues into the “Flash” that they then wore of the backs of their uniforms and still do to this day.

The central portion of the book then deals with Pearson and the Fusiliers in the Peninsular campaign. There are many insights into the way of life on campaign and as in the previous section there are numerous anecdotes and a cast of colourful characters. However, the centrepiece is the description of the run up to, the battle of Albuhera (May 1811) and its aftermath. Graves produces a highly readable narrative, and succeeds in portraying the details of one of the bloodiest engagements fought by the British Army (with its Spanish and Portuguese allies) in the Peninsular campaign. He obviously has availed himself of all the most recent research and in his narrative he manages to describe all aspects of this complex engagement in a simple, easily understood form. Most military enthusiasts will be only too aware of the famous prose written by William Napier and his description of the attack by the Fusilier Brigade at the culmination of the battle, exemplified by the immortal lines “and then was seen with what strength and majesty the British soldier fights…Nothing could stop that astonishing infantry”. Graves, rather sensibly, does not include the Napier account in his narrative, but neatly includes it as a separate Annex, coupled with a discussion over the later controversy as to Marshal Beresford’s conduct of the battle. The net result was a British victory but at a terrible cost, for when the battle was over there were over 14000 dead and wounded from both sides left on the bloody field. Pearson played an important role, in that he was selected to command the combined light companies on the flank of the allied army, which again indicates his professional competence. At the end of the battle, due to the fact he was the most senior officer still standing, Pearson became the temporary Fusilier Brigade commander. Graves has done a first rate job in his description of the battle, being both comprehensive and lucid.

 It was a few months later during a relatively minor action of the brigade, at Aldea de Ponte, that Pearson received a serious leg wound that saw him evacuated from Spain. This then sets the scene for the next major section of the book, during which Pearson and the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ stories diverge, but marks a return to the Canadian and light infantry themes. Pearson was convalescing from his wound when the call came from his old commander in Canada, Sir George Prevost, who knew him from their days in Halifax and the Martinique campaign, to serve together. Given his Canadian connections, he readily accepted the appointment of inspecting officer of militia. As luck would have it, Pearson arrived in Canada just after the Americans declared war, and soon was responsible for the conduct and training of the militia plus the defence of part of the St Lawrence River, based at Prescott. Again there are numerous anecdotes which help convey a general feel for the man, who clearly did not suffer fools gladly and expected nothing but the highest standards from those under his command whether regular, militia or fencible units. He was innovative in approach in that he set up a highly effective intelligence gathering service on his front and planned an audacious assault against the American base at Ogdensburg. Again, a bit like his fictional counterpart “Sharpe”, Pearson seems to have been in more than his fair share of action. He commanded the advance guard at the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm (November 1813), which put paid to the American plans on the St Lawrence. He was present at the attack against the American base at Oswego, a combined operation where the British attempted to get ahead in the so-called “Battle of the Carpenters”, which was the see-saw struggle for naval supremacy on Lake Ontario. Later in the war he was on the Niagara front and saw action at the Battle of Chippawa (July 1814), where the American army finally matched the British regulars and later that month at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, the bloodiest battle on Canadian soil, a viciously fought contest which continued after dark with neither side wishing to admit defeat. In both of these battles Pearson commanded the light infantry elements on the flanks of the British force. In each case he acquitted himself well in difficult circumstances and must take some of the credit for the selection of the excellent defensive position at Lundy’s Lane. His active involvement in the war ended when he received his fifth wound at the abortive siege of Fort Erie. It is in this section of the book that you can really appreciate Graves’ handling of the historical materiel. He is an acknowledged expert on the War of 1812 and has written separate volumes on the battles mentioned above. It is to his great credit that he manages the detail without becoming enmeshed in it, still continuing the thread of Pearson’s career using the backdrop of the war to great effect. It is clear he is a master of his subject combining many interesting social aspects of the conflict and an impressive gazetteer of associated players in the drama.

The final part of the work charts the years from1815 to, when Pearson dies in, 1847. Much of that time he was the Colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and so, in a rather neat manner, the stories which diverged now come back together at the end of the narrative. Again there is very little actually written by Pearson himself for which to get a feel for the man, however much is conveyed by the farewell letter written by Pearson to the regiment on his promotion to Major General. He departs from his beloved Fusiliers after 17 years in command with the words: “ The most painful moment in my life has arrived when I am obliged to take final leave of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in which distinguished corps I have served Twenty –seven years…” The emotional pain in this farewell is no less tangible than his physical pain having been wounded on five occasions, and that really says it all about the man.

Graves has done a magnificent job in melding together all the various themes and issues covered in this book. In addition he is well supported by his choice of illustrations, some of which are well known but others, particularly those to do with the war of 1812, may be new to those on the European side of the Atlantic. I was particularly impressed with the inclusion of many portraits of the personalities involved in the story, especially the less well-known characters in the Spanish, Portuguese and American armies, which must have taken considerable research effort to find. What is also exceptionally pleasing is the number and quality of the maps and diagrams that accompany the text. It is one of my pet hates to find all the maps clustered together at the front or back section of a book, which then requires endless page flicking or a loss of understanding of the narrative. I am delighted to say they are all very clear, informative and appropriately placed within the body of the text.

The question posed at the start was, what exactly is it? Well, it is an excellent book, which is indeed a different approach to a well-known subject area. Because it covers such a wide canvas and includes so many useful facts about the era in general and the British Army in particular, I would humbly suggest that this would be a welcome addition any Napoleonic enthusiast’s collection, and I unreservedly recommend it. Graves has managed to juggle all of the various aspects of the story and has produced a highly detailed work, which has been researched in considerable depth and has formed a genuinely interesting perspective on his subject. One can only live in hope that one day a small package may be found in a dusty attic or desk drawer in New Brunswick, or perhaps somewhere in the UK, containing a diary or journal written by Pearson himself, which would give Graves the fine excuse for a sequel.

 



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