Reviews: Books

The Exploits of Ensign Bakewell – With the Inniskillings in the Peninsula, 1810-11; and in Paris, 1815

Robertson, Ian, ed. The Exploits of Ensign Bakewell – With the Inniskillings in the Peninsula, 1810-11: and in Paris, 1815. Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2012. xxviii, 196 pages. 27 black and white illustrations on16 pages of plates. £19.99. ISBN 9781848326989.

Coincidences seem to occur quite often during my career in unearthing unpublished archival material. Having published recently the journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings[1] which plugged a gap in the history of a regiment with such a great renown during the Napoleonic wars, but with surprisingly few memoirs published; I was then surprised to hear from Ian Robertson regarding his re-discovery of a jacket intended for the publication of another diary from the Inniskillings, which had been given to him forty years ago; but the book had never come to fruition.

I am pleased that Ian took on the challenge of chasing back and rediscovering the original transcript of the diaries of Ensign Bakewell of Castle Donington in the vaults of the Inniskillings museum and preparing it again for print, which this time has happily come to publication. This further confirms my suspicion that despite the plethora of new material published over the last decade, that there is still much quality material yet to be discovered. Having recently worked on Crowe, who’s descriptive powers of the mundane are exceptional, I did begin to read this book with a grave feeling of impending disappointment; surely Bakewell could not be as interesting a writer? I need not have feared, for within a few pages I was hooked and thoroughly enjoyed his diaries and learnt much that was new to me.

Robert Bakewell joined the 27th Foot in Portugal whilst the regiment rested in winter quarters behind the Lines of Torres Vedras and therefore witnessed at first hand, the wanton destruction by the retreating French and the regular clashes as Wellington’s army drove Massena’s starving troops back into Spain. He then went south with the regiment to partake in the first siege of Badajoz and was a distant witness to the bloody encounter at Albuera, being on duty at Elvas at the time. Soon after Bakewell fell ill himself of malaria he was sent home to recover, but injured himself badly in a fall, which seems to have caused him far greater distress than the original illness. In England, he stupidly presented himself for medical inspection when already in possession of a leave of absence and was summarily ordered to return to his regiment! Bakewell felt too unwell to comply and resigned his commission as a lieutenant at the end of 1812.

But his military career was not at an end; his health recovered, he applied to rejoin the regiment in February 1815, why is not clear as Napoleon had not fled Elba at that time. He was sent to Belgium only just too late to fight during the Waterloo campaign, but joined the regiment on the subsequent march to Paris and proceeded there with them. After detailing his exploits in Paris, he commanded a detachment of time served soldiers on their march home via Ostend where his diary effectively ends although he did not go on half pay until 1817.

The diaries were clearly written with immediacy, containing a profusion of exact timings of events, something Ian has thankfully edited out to a level that does not impinge so heavily on the narrative. These original notes were, as often happened, written up and expanded in leisure at a later date, this certainly does not detract from the immediacy of the content. I have a suspicion however, that Robert Bakewell wrote them up for his own amusement and that it was not intended that even his family would see them, as it at times describes activities, not generally publically admitted to by Victorian gentlemen. It is however unfortunate that Ian was unable to check the transcript against the original, as in a number of areas simple words would appear to have been mis-transcribed which occasionally look odd in the text. I cite the word ‘if’ which often appears, where ‘of’ is often clearly more appropriate, but this is a minor blemish and certainly does not alter the context or enjoyment of the text.

I always say that every memoir brings something new to our understanding of the times and actions in which these soldiers participated. Bakewell proves this to be correct on numerous occasions, as although bereft of much description of the fighting, he supplies a huge amount of material on what was then the mundane, but which is to both modern military and social historians a real treasure trove, a rare and important glimpse into their real world. Some of these are a sheer delight.

I particularly noted the regular midnight potcheen delivery to the barracks for the officers mess, at a time when the garrison in Ireland was actually part of the drive to abolish such illegal stills! An interesting aside regarding the execution of Private Mulligan for desertion mentions the use of ‘bolt’ in the muskets rather than ball, which apparently left the body dreadfully lacerated.

Amusing the troops during the long winter was a challenge, but I have never previously read of a newspaper being produced weekly (has anyone seen a copy of one?) and interminable football matches on a pitch one mile long! The final match, consisting of teams of forty aside played for two whole days (12 hours a day) before a draw was declared as no one had scored!

Bakewell also had a sense of social justice and questions why the ordinary soldier was stopped 6d per day for his provisions, whilst the officers were only stopped 3d per day, despite their higher pay rates. Billets were as we already know, not always wonderful, but being woken to find a rat actually gnawing at his leg does seem excessively bad. He also indicates, as did Crowe, that at least in this regiment, the subaltern officers got stuck in with their men; as he describes standing in a river with his men whilst repairing a bridge - no standing on the bank simply barking out orders here. Officers did however enjoy the privilege of a coffin when buried, although the Spanish did not know how to construct them and a prototype collapsed, depositing the poor corpse on the ground!

Bakewell also describes the horrors of war. He witnessed the burial of numerous bodies after Albuera in a huge pit up to 600 yards long and 5 yards wide.

Bakewell’s diary of Paris is generally one long series of daytime cultural activities and rather more sordid late night activities; for Bakewell is happy to record his numerous conquests with the young ladies of Paris who can only be described as of rather easy virtue! His eager participation in such activities however stand strangely against his moral outrage at the populace ‘amusing themselves [in a way] marked by a degree of lewdness and immorality’. He was describing people dancing the waltz!!

As can be seen, Robert Bakewell’s diaries are a joy and we should all be grateful to Ian Robertson for rediscovering them and editing them so masterfully. Ian has provided a number of interesting footnotes and has woven the original disjointed and over fussy text into a little masterpiece, which shines a real light on the life of a subaltern at this time. I do not hesitate to thoroughly recommend it.

Reviewed by Gareth Glover

Notes:

[1] An Eloquent Soldier, published in 2011.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2012

 

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