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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

A Young Gentleman at War: the Letters of Captain Orlando Bridgeman 1st Foot Guards in the Peninsula and at Waterloo 1812 – 15

Bridgeman, Orlando. A Young Gentleman at War: the Letters of Captain Orlando Bridgeman 1st Foot Guards in the Peninsula and at Waterloo 1812 – 15.  Gareth Glover (editor). Godmanchester: Ken Trotman, 2008.  186 pages.  ISBN: 978-1-905074-71-6    Collector's limited edition of 50 numbered copies hand bound in quarter leather: £55.  Paperback: £22.50

Surprisingly, I have come across very few sets of memoirs or letters written by members of the 1st Foot Guards during the Napoleonic Wars.  Batty's Campaign of the Left Wing of the Allied Army, in the Western Pyrenees and South of France in the Years 1813-1814 – which is more of a campaign study than an actual memoir – and Gronow's Captain Gronow: His Reminiscences of Regency and Victorian Life: 1810 – 60 are two of the most famous.  However, other than those two, a reader would be hard put to find another set.  A Young Gentleman at War is a welcomed addition.  It consists of a series of letters written by a junior officer to his mother from April 1812 to December 1813, and then five more during the Waterloo Campaign.  These letters were quite long and rarely written at one sitting.  The writer wrote them when he had the opportunity and added to them up until the last call for posting letters were made.

Orlando Bridgeman was the third son of the 2nd Baron Bradford, who was a member of parliament and in 1815 would become the 1st Earl of Bradford.[1]  In the time honor tradition of the British upper class, the 1st son would inherit the title, the 2nd son went in the Royal Navy, while Orlando was commissioned in 1811 as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards.  A year later he found himself posted as a seventeen year old ensign with the 3rd Battalion at Cadiz.  Here he took part in the defense of the city.  However, within a few months of his arrival in the city, the French lifted the siege and departed before Bridgeman saw much action.  Poor health would plague him throughout much of his time in the Peninsula.  He was too sick to march with the battalion to capture Seville and had to stay with the rear detachment in Cadiz.  He eventually rejoined the battalion in Viseu, along the Spanish frontier, just in time to see them march to Oporto – the area was so unhealthy that Wellington was forced to send the whole brigade away to help them recover their health.  Once again Bridgeman was left behind, this time with the troops who were too sick to move to Oporto.  He did finally link up with them two months later.  The brigade stayed in Oporto until late July – having missed the battle of Vitoria – and arrived at San Sebastian in time to participate in the siege.  He was wounded in the assault on the breach and saw a comrade die at his feet.  Bridgeman missed the subsequent battles and skirmishers due to his wound and being sick.  He eventually was promoted to lieutenant and returned to England to join the 2nd Battalion.  The letters stop in late 1813, but pick up again during the Waterloo Campaign.  There he served as aide-de-camp to General Rowland Hill and was wounded at Waterloo. 

Orlando Bridgeman was well-connected and these connections had many senior officers looking after him.   His father was a prominent member of parliament and would be an earl in 1815.  It is even said that his father was one of the few people at the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Maria Herbert in 1785.[2]  When Bridgeman arrived in Cadiz, he initially did not live with his fellow junior officers, but with the battalion commander! During his time in Cadiz, he was constantly receiving invitations to dine with Sir Henry Wellesley, the British ambassador to Spain and Wellington's brother.  He eventually moved into quarters with his peers, but there was always some general officer looking after him.  He was particularly close to General Stropford, his brigade commander, and when he was wounded at San Sebastian he recuperated in the general's quarters.  In one of his letters home, Bridgeman was interrupted by the general, who penned a note in the letter to Bridgeman's parents assuring them that their son was doing well.  This pattern of patronage continued throughout the time Bridgeman spent in the Peninsula and did not end there.  Despite his battalion not participating in the campaign, Bridgeman served as an aide-de-camp to General Hill.

Bridgeman wrote with a keen eye for detail.  His letters are filled with the activities that one would expect from a rich junior officer.  Even though he was writing to his mother, he does not gloss over details that may upset her.  He talks about his illnesses, his wounds, and the deaths of his friends.  Unfortunately there is no record of how his mother felt when she read some of his accounts.  He left rich descriptions of the people he met – military and civilians, the country he traveled through, and the events he witnessed.   Several areas of his letters stand out.  The first deals with the monotony of life in Cadiz, while it was under siege, although he did write about what it was like to be on the receiving end of what appeared to be random bombardments by the French.  His descriptions of marching on campaign are also classic.  However his best writing is found in the letter that describes the grand ball the Guards Brigade held in Oporto on 9 June 1813.  The ball cost 2,400 dollars (one dollar = 4 shillings 6 pence.)[3] and was paid for by subscription, with each of the 52 officers in the brigade paying 45 dollars (£10).  A staggering £500!  This multi-page letter tells of who was there, what they wore, how the officers lined up to meet and present the guests, the decorations of the different rooms, the food served, the toasts drunk, and the dances danced. 

Bridgeman did see action, most notably at the siege of San Sebastian.  He was part of the assault on the main breech and how he happen to be there is very interesting.  He did not volunteer for assignment.  He and his friend, William Burrard, were the battalion duty officers the day a tasking came down to provide 100 soldiers, a field officer, a captain, and two subalterns.  Two days later, Bridgeman was in the thick of things.  His letter, written seven days after the siege, is very long (five printed pages) and extremely graphic.  He tells of the fierce firing and how his men were running out of ammunition and had to take it from the dead and wounded.  He was quite honest about the action – he thought that the French fire was so intense, that his men were beginning give way, when relief in the form of a Portuguese brigade came up on their right.  He does not spare his mother in the letter – writing about not only his own wound, but also the mortal wound of Burrard and his final words with his friend.  It is not a pretty picture.

To get a true feel for the lifestyle that Orlando Bridgeman details in A Young Gentleman at War, it should be read alongside of George Simmons' A British Rifleman: Journals and Correspondence during the Peninsular War and the Campaign of Wellington.  Simmons was a poor officer who not only had to live on his army pay, but somehow managed to send much of it home to support his numerous younger siblings.  His letters and journal tells how difficult it was.  Bridgeman by contrast, complained to his parents that he had trouble living on not only his pay of £106 a year, but his allowance of £200 that his parents gave him!  (Although Simmons was a lieutenant, his pay was 2 pence a day less than Bridgeman's, but because Bridgeman was in a Guard's Regiment, he was paid more.[4])  Simmons had to share a mule with another officer to carry their baggage.  Bridgeman had three mules to carry his! And when in the fall of 1813, due to a shortage of forage, Wellington ordered all officers to give up their excess animals and comply with regulations, Bridgeman was quite put out.  He complained in great detail to his mother about how unfair it was and why it was so essential that he should be allowed to keep three mules!

Gareth Glover has done another superb job of editing.  Bridgeman used many abbreviations for the different people he encountered and constantly name dropped to his parents.  Mr. Glover was able to identify the vast majority of these people and provide a bit of background information on them in the footnotes.  He also constantly checked Bridgeman's statements in his letters against Hamilton's Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards.  In most cases they supported each other.  Mr. Glover did note any differences in the two and tried to reconcile them.  In an interesting side note, the cover for A Young Gentleman at War is illustrated with a painting by Mark Churm called "Assault on the Breach of San Sebastian."  The center figure in the picture is Orlando Bridgeman calling to a surgeon to help his dying friend.

Without a doubt, Orlando Bridgeman was the fair hair child of the brigade.  In some ways, with his lavish and often pretentious lifestyle, and his occasional temper tantrums, he is the archetypical British nobleman of many novels - more concerned about his own interests than those of his men; yet when the chips are down, he does his duty.   Despite all of this Bridgeman comes across as a very likeable individual.  At last count, I had over 180 volumes of British memoirs.  A Young Gentleman at War is among my favorites.  It is well worth the money!

Reviewed by Robert Burnham.


[1] Millar, Stephen. The British Peerage in 1818. The Napoleon Series. August 2006

[2] Thornber, Craig.  Weston Park.

[3] Burnham, Robert. The British Regimental Mess in the Peninsula War. The Napoleon Series. 1996.

[4] See The Napoleon Series' Statistical Abstract of the Napoleonic Wars: Great Britain's Army: Pay for pay charts of the various regiments.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2008