Reviews: Biographical Books

Reminiscences of a Veteran

Bunbury, Thomas. Reminiscences of a Veteran. Uckfield, UK: Naval and Military Press in association with the National Army Museum, 2009.  3 volumes. ISBN# 9781845747589 Paperback. £30 ($50)

One of the rarest British memoirs of the Napoleonic Wars is the three-volume set compiled by Thomas Bunbury.  Fortunately they were reprinted in 2009 in a joint effort by the Naval and Military Press and the National Army Museum.  He was born in 1791 and commissioned in the 3rd Foot in 1807 at the age of 16.  He arrived in Portugal in November 1808 too late to join the expeditionary force under Sir John Moore and thus missed the Corunna Campaign.  However over the next seven years he would have a storied career that if wasn’t so well documented, would defy belief.  Among other things he would serve as the Adjutant of the 1st Battalion of Detachments in 1809, transfer to the Portuguese Army and be promoted to captain in the 20th Portuguese Regiment at the age of 18, serve as a brigade major for a year, command a company in the 5th Caçadores, command the 6th Caçadores at Toulouse, and would end the war serving as a major in the 3rd and then the 4th Caçadores.  He would fight at Oporto, Talavera, the sieges of Cadiz and Tarifa, Barrossa (where he was mentioned in despatches), Nivelle, Nive (where he was severely wounded), Bayonne, and Toulouse. In his spare time, he was also one of the famed Exploring Officers, who would scout deep into French occupied Spain.  When the Peninsular War ended in April 1814, he was the ripe age of 22!

What is unique about this book is Thomas Bunbury wrote very candidly.   Unlike many memoirs, where names of fellow officers were not mentioned if what was told was negative, Reminiscences of a Veteran pulls no punches.  For example he writes of his commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Muter, of the 3rd Foot, at the battle of Talavera:

“Lieut.-Colonel Muter, who commanded the Buffs, was considered a very clever officer.  He had, however, acquired the character of being a little deficient in courtesy to his superiors, and was in consequence rather disliked by them.  Perceiving the importance of a hill to the left of our encampment, he moved the regiment as quickly as possible, and was hurrying the men, imperfectly formed in open column of companies, rear rank in front, in order to occupy the position.  The General commanding the brigade[1] had not arrived, but his aide-de-camp was unfortunately near at hand, and he insisted on the colonel halting, and forming his regiment by a counter-march in ‘a proper manner.´ Muter used sometimes to swear a little, and on this occasion he was sparing in his abuse of the aide-de-camp, Captain Pechell.[2]  In the midst of this hubbub, the General arrived, and was greatly astonished at our losing so much valuable time on things so secondary.  Captain Pechell then observed to the General, ‘You know, Sir, Colonel Muter will never do anything he is told,’ and this piece of effrontery was followed by the General saying, ‘Muter, when this is over, I shall prefer charges against you; you shall answer for your conduct.’”[3]

Thomas Bunbury also included some humorous observations of officers.  During his time at Tarifa, the garrison was commanded by Major Henry King, of the 82nd Foot.  “He was better known to the Spaniards as the Commandante Cojo, from having lost a leg.”[4] The previous commander of the garrison was Lieutenant Colonel John Frederick Brown, of the 29th Foot.  “He was styled Il Commandante Loco (mad), from his pranks with the Tarifaneans.  The women here dressed in the Moorish costume, and when in the streets cover their heads and faces with the mantilla, so that nothing can be seen but one eye peeping through it.  Brown always rode with a crook at the end of his stick, and on his approach, the ladies always uncovered, throwing back the mantilla, which had concealed their faces. This mark of exclusive favour he had acquired from having always drawn back the veil himself, and the ladies to prevent their mantillas being damaged by the Colonel’s crook, ceded the point, instead of longer refusing to raise the veil.”[5]

On 27 October 1809, Thomas Bunbury transferred to the Portuguese Army and received an appointment as a captain in the 20th Portuguese Line Regiment.  He goes into great detail on how he was integrated into the regiment and the training he received, before he was given command of a company.  The regiment was sent to Cadiz to augment the garrison there.  In 1811, he was appointed the brigade major to Colonel John Byne Skerrett’s Brigade. Captain Bunbury did not think much of him, saying he was “fidgety, nervous, and vacillating, and in consequence, I always endeavoured to keep out of his way as much as possible.”[6] Yet he found Skerrett  “brave to rashness; but I should have doubted it had I not so frequently witnessed proofs of his cool intrepidity and contempt of danger.  At the head of troops he was the most undecided, timid, and vacillating creature I ever met with.”[7]

In his memoirs, Thomas Bunbury addresses some of the thornier issues of serving with the Portuguese.  He tells the story of Richard Bushe, a captain in the British 7th Foot, but a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Portuguese Infantry Regiment.  He was given command of the fortifications at La Ysla during the defense of Cadiz.  Part of his command was the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Foot Guards, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Horatio Townshend.  He resented serving under Lieutenant Colonel Bushe, because he was senior to him in the British Army.  He protested to General Graham, the commander of the British forces in Cadiz, who forwarded the issue to the Duke of York for resolution. His decision was “Our allies always take precedence according to their rank and the seniority of the services respectively.  Lieutenant-Colonel Bushe being an Englishman did not affect the question, and it was immaterial whether he held the rank of Major or no rank at all in the British service.  He was a Lieutenant-Colonel of longer standing in the army of our allies and must take precedence accordingly.”[8]

Additionally, Thomas Bunbury writes on how the British officers interacted with their Portuguese counter-parts. Sometimes it went well and other times there was considerable resentment of them being passed over for promotion and a British officer was given the rank or position.  He is quite open about the problems he had when he took command of the 6th Caçadores in the spring of 1814. Part of it stemmed from the fact that he was replacing a very senior captain, who was quite popular, while he was so young.

Only Volume One covers the Napoleonic Wars.  The subsequent volumes cover his time in New South Wales, India, and New Zealand.  He died in 1861 in London.  Thomas Bunbury began writing his memoirs in 1845 while he was serving in India.  There might be some question on the accuracy of his memory, but many of the events he describes can be substantiated by other accounts.  They are well written in a very informal style.  The reader will be left with intimate details of life of a British company officer serving in the Portuguese Army, along with portraits of numerous British officers who are rarely mentioned outside of orders-of-battle. Of the more than 200 British memoirs in my library, this may well be my favorite. I cannot recommend it enough!

I would be remiss if I did not mention Ron McGuigan and Howie Muir, who once again dropped what they were doing to help me winnow out some of the information I used in this reviewed.  Thanks!

Reviewed by Bob Burnham. 5/12

Bibliography

Bunbury, Thomas. Reminiscences of a Veteran. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press in association with the National Army Museum, 2009.  Challis, Lionel S. “Peninsula Roll Call.” 1949. The Napoleon Series. 23 May 2012.

General Orders. Spain and France. January 7th to December 28th, 1813. Vol. V. London: Printed by Authority, T. Egerton, 1814.

James, Charles.  A Collection of the Charges, Opinions, and Sentences of General Courts Martial: as Published by Authority; from the Year 1795 to the Present Time. London: T. Egerton, 1820. 

Notes:

[1] Major General Christopher Tilson Chowne

[2] Thomas Bunbury misspelled his name.  It was Captain Charles John Peshall, of the 88th Foot.  Thomas Bunbury was not a bad judge of character, for Captain Peshall was court-martialed in December 1812 and found guilty of not supplying money, as ordered, to his men for the purchase of vegetables, but was found not guilty of misappropriating the money for his own use.  He was suspended from rank and pay for 3 months, beginning 25 March 1813. (General Orders Pages 121-123). In  September 1813.  He was found guilty “For being absent from his regiment, without leave, from the 24th June, 1813 (the day upon which his suspension by the sentence of a General Court Martial terminated,) until the 28th of the following July, during the whole of which period his corps was employed on most arduous and active service in the presence of the the enemy, this latter circumstance, of which Captain Peshall could not have been ignorant at the time, and the probability of which he must have known before the termination of his suspension, rendering his absence, without leave, at such a period, doubly culpable, and, coupled with his conduct on some former occasions, raising, at least, a suspicion that it was intentional.” (James pages 573-4).  Captain Peshall was sentence to be dismissed from the Army, but instead was allowed to sell his lieutenancy, which he had purchased.

[3] Bunbury; Vol. I, Pages 39-40

[4] Ibid, Page 95

[5] Ibid, Pages 95-96

[6] Ibid, Pages 114-115

[7] Ibid, Page 116

[8] Ibid, Pages 69-70

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2012

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