Reviews: Books

The Diary of William Gavin, Ensign and Quartermaster of the 71st Highland Regiment, 1806-1815

Glover, Gareth (ed.)  The Diary of William Gavin, Ensign and Quartermaster of the 71st Highland Regiment, 1806-1815. Godmanchester, UK: Ken Trotman, 2013. 143 pages.  Paperback.  ISBN# 9781907417337.  £15

The subtitle of the book is too long to include in the citation!  It is: “Being his daily notes of his Campaigns in South Africa, South America, Portugal, Spain, Southern France, and Flanders, under Sir David Baird, Sir William Beresford, Sir John Moore, and the Duke of Wellington.”

Until now there have only been 2 sets of memoirs written by individuals who served in the 71st Foot.  The most famous is Joseph Sinclair’s A Soldier of the Seventy-First: The Journal of a Soldier of the Highland Light Infantry 1806 – 1815, which has been reprinted many times since it was published in 1831.  The other, Vicissitudes in the life of a Scottish Soldier, was written by an anonymous soldier and published in 1827.  As far as I know, it was never reprinted.

William Gavin’s diary was first published as a serial in “The Highland Light Infantry Chronicle” in 1920 and 1921.  This publication is long out of print, but fortunately Gareth Glover was able to obtain a copy of the issues with the diary in them.  Like the two other authors of 71st Foot Memoirs, William Gavin started his career as a private, but by 1806 had been promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant.  By the time he retired in 1816 he had been commissioned as an ensign and served as the quartermaster for both the 71st Foot and the 4th Dragoons.  The Diary of William Gavin does not state when he first enlisted, however in the 11 years that are covered by the diary, he served on three continents and fought in four different theaters of war, to include the South Africa Expedition of 1806; the River Plate Expedition of 1806-1807; the initial stages of the Peninsular War, including the Retreat to Corunna; the Walcheran Expedition of 1809; back to the Peninsula in 1810, but was forced to return to England due to poor health; he would return to the Peninsula in 1813 and would serve there until 1814; and finally in the Waterloo Campaign.

The Diary of William Gavin is unusual because it is really a combination of a diary and a set of memoirs.  Some of the entries are terse, such as the one for 4 September 1808:

“Arrived in a plain near Belem; saw the tricolor flag hoisted at the castle.”[1]

While other entries are quite extensive, especially the battle descriptions.  His account of the final hours of his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Cadogan, at the battle of Vitoria in 1813, is quite intimate and includes how they propped him up so he could watch how the battle was progressing before he died.  Ensign Gavin personally carried the news to Sir Rowland Hill.[2]

At the battle of Saint Pierre d’Irrube on 13 December he was a witness to the cowardice of his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Peacocke, who lost his nerve and ordered the battalion to retreat.  Fortunately for the British, his second in command refused to obey the order.  Colonel Peacocke, “. . . in the heat of the action he went about a mile to the rear in pretence of getting ammunition, which was scarce with the men.”[3]  Ensign Gavin found his commander behind the lines of another division

“. . . licking away at the muleteers of another division. On my informing him of his mistake, he replied he did not give a damn; he would take the first he met.”[4]

At this point, the Duke of Wellington rode up, along with Sir Rowland Hill. 

About a third of the diary covers his time in South Africa and South America, where he was taken prisoner, when the British surrendered after the aborted assault on Buenos Aires.  His story as a prisoner-of-war and how they were treated by the locals is quite interesting.  They eventually were sent into the interior of Argentina and while he spent most of his time seeing that the men were fed, many of the officers spent their time plotting their own escape.  Several actually made it to British held Montevideo.

Since the author was responsible for obtaining supplies for the battalion, much of the diary covers his efforts at obtaining them.  There are numerous anecdotes covering his adventures and misadventures.  He even admits to plundering a French farmhouse after Waterloo during the advance on Paris![5]

One of the things that makes his tale fascinating is his relationship with the officers of his battalion.  The Diary belies the myth of the gulf between officers and NCOs in the British Army.  He was quite close to several officers when he was a sergeant, including his battalion commander, Colonel Cadogan, who “. . . obtained leave for me to go to England the only request he ever asked Lord Wellington, though his sister was married to his Lordship’s brother. . .” [6] 

The Diary of William Gavinis entertaining and is one of the few that were written by a quartermaster.[7] It will be of great interest to not only those who study the Peninsular War, but will be a gold mine of information for those researching the expedition to the River Plate in 1806 and 1807. It will be £15 well spent!

Notes:

[1] Page 51

[2] Pages 95 - 101

[3] Page 110

[4] Ibid

[5] Pages 134 - 135

[6] Page 83

[7] The only other one I know of is William Surtees’ Twenty-five Years in the Rifle Brigade.

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2014

 

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