With the 45th at Badajoz, Salamanca, and Vittoria
Hundreds of memoirs and diaries written by soldiers who served under Wellington have been published over the years. Officers wrote most of them. Enlisted soldiers wrote only a small percent of those published— for good reasons. Most enlisted soldiers were illiterate and did not leave a written record of their service. Those whose works made it into print, such as the two 95th Riflemen, Harris and Costello, have left us with classics of military literature. Although it would be easy to place With the 45th at Badajoz, Salamanca, and Vittoria on the same level of those two, it would not do the work justice. It is the greatest enlisted memoir to come out of the Peninsula War.
The author, William Brown, was born in 1788 and served with the 1st Battalion, 45th Foot throughout much of the Peninsula War. During that time, he saw considerable action. Yet much of the book covers life on campaign and in garrison. He writes with a style that is similar to Baron Marbot – full of detail and adventure. He spins a great yarn and has a knack for putting the reader right into the thick of things. Brown grabs your attention in the first two lines and never lets up! The book opens with a curious camp life incident. Idle soldiers often get themselves into trouble. Brown and his friends, one of whom was a glutton, were sitting outside their quarters in Portugal, when,
“. . . the quarter master sergeant joined us, who after some conversation, inquired at David, ‘If ever he got a blowout now?’ Not so often as I could wish,’ was his reply. ‘Well, David,’ said the sergeant, pointing to a quantity of bread that lay on the floor of an old barn, which was used as a provision store, ‘how many of these loaves could you eat if you had your will of them?’ The loaves were three pound weight each, and David eyeing them very eagerly, said, ‘It is not long since I got my breakfast, still I think I could yam a few of the.’ ‘Well,’ said the sergeant, ‘I will give you a quart of wine to each loaf, to wash it down; so begin, and let us see what you can do.’ Upon this David commenced the game, which proved dear to him, although most excellent sport to the bystanders. In rather more than an hour he finished four loaves, and swallowed as many quarts of wine, which, with his breakfast amounted to thirteen pounds and a half of bread, four quarts of, and one of chocolate, all swallowed in the course of two hours. When he had done, he sat and stared as if his eyes would have started out of their sockets, and was totally unable to rise. The bread he had eaten being made of rye, and newly baken, swelled him to such a degree, that he was in great danger of bursting, and made him groan both long and loud. Some spoke of rolling him, which was immediately commenced on a green in front of the barn, but he roared so loud and hideously, calling upon God, and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, alternately, to assist and save him, it was dropped. His belly was then rubbed with grease and oil, but not producing the desired effect; he was carried to the hospital, where he lay several days before recovering.”
Brown goes on to describe a wide variety of events that he participated in over the next five years. They include:
- The battle of Bussaco and the subsequence looting of Leiria by the British soldiers during the retreat to the Lines of Torres Vedas;
- What it was like to be a enlisted servant to an officer;
- The siege and assault on Ciudad Rodrigo;
- The assault on the castle at Badajoz and the horrors of the moat below the walls;
- The rape and pillage of Badajoz;
- Surviving several months in what passed for military hospitals;
- Being ridden down by French cavalry, when his regiment was caught out of square at Salamanca;
- The hardships of the retreat back to the Portuguese border in 1812, during which he narrowly escaped pursuing French cavalry;
- Being court-martialed and sentenced to being flogged for leaving his unit to visit his girlfriend;
- The battle of Vittoria and the plundering of the French baggage train, where he found over 500 dollars and 80 doubloons, a sum he equated to £549.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Unfortunately it is only 44 pages long and when you finish it, you will be thirsting for more. With the 45th at Badajoz, Salamanca, and Vittoria can be ordered directly through the Napoleonic Archive 34 North Lodge Terrace, Darlington, County Durham, DL3 6LY, Great Britain, UK. Tel: (01325) 359041
Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2004
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