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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

The Letters of Lt. Colonel Sir John Cameron, 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment of Foot, 1808-14

Cameron, John. The Letters of Lt. Colonel Sir John Cameron, 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment of Foot, 1808-14. Edited by Gareth Glover, Godmanchester: Ken Trotman, 2013. 105 pages. ISBN# 9781907417450. Hardover. £16.50

The title of this book is a bit of misnomer.  Although it includes letters written by Colonel Cameron, it also includes his diary written during the Vitoria Campaign of 1813, which saw the French expelled from most of Spain.  John Cameron initially commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Foot during the early days of the Peninsular War, including commanding it at Vimerio in August 1808.  In October 1808, he assumed command of the 1st Battalion and would be its commander throughout the Peninsular War, the Walcheren Expedition in 1809, and in Canada in 1814 and 1815.  The battalion arrived in Belgium in August 1815, too late for the Waterloo Campaign.

Several things about The Letters make the book important.  Despite its long service in the Peninsular War, there are few published memoirs from soldiers of the 9th Foot.  I know of only three other sets.[1] Yet, what really makes the book stand out is it was written by a battalion commander and virtually the whole book is about how it performed under his command.  Most accounts of the period include heavy doses of the writer’s social life and garrison activities.  The Letters confines itself to the battalion’s campaigns and battles.

There are four areas that stand out in the book.  The first is Colonel Cameron’s account of the battle of Busaco.  The 9th Foot was the lead battalion of Barne’s Brigade[2] and were not present at the opening of the battle.  He tells of confusion of trying to find where they were supposed to be, trying to deploy in the midst of fleeing troops, and how they counter-attacked the French right when the enemy was about to gain the crest of the hill. He also provides a piece of gossip about General Stafford Lightburne, who commanded the 2nd Brigade of General Picton’s 3rd Division.  Colonel Cameron states that Lightburne was drunk during the battle and Picton could not trust him to command the brigade in battle.[3]  Whether there was truth in this gossip is unknown, however Lightburne was removed from command by the end of the month.

Colonel Cameron’s account of Salamanca is also interesting.  He had just received permission to return to England due to poor health and was on the road back to Portugal when he heard the sound of artillery.  He rushed back to his battalion and led them during the battle.  He tells how his command had to pass through the village of Arapiles and reform in the face of enemy cavalry; how they advanced under fire, and how they ended up getting intermingled with battalions of the 6th Division.  This kind of description of the confusion of trying to maneuver on the battlefield is a rarity in memoirs!

Included in The Letters is Colonel Cameron’s campaign journal of 1813.  In it he describes the daily movements of his battalion, including: the route it took, the length of the day’s march, the villages it stopped in during the night, the quality of the roads, and a brief description of any actions the battalion participated in that day.  The avid reader will be able to track the battalion’s route from its cantonments in Portugal to the French border.

Over 30% of the book is devoted to correspondence between Colonel Cameron and Colin Campbell (Lord Clyde), who served as a lieutenant in the Light Company of the 1st Battalion 9th Foot and commanded the storming party during the first assault on San Sebastian in July 1813.  The two officers discuss in detail the role of the battalion in the assault on the convent of San Bartolomeo on 17 July 1813 and the failed assault on San Sebastian on 25 July. These letters appear to have been written to refute an article in the United Services Journal by a Major Mackie, which they believe was totally wrong.  They go into great detail of what the battalion did during the assault on the convent, what the Light Company did, the actions of various officers, and the causes of the failure of the assault.  The two officers also discuss the actions of the battalion during the failed assault on 25 July, attributing much of it being caused by the loss of the 1st Foot’s commander and the Royal Engineer who was supposed to guide the troops early in the action. Interestingly, Sir Charles Oman describes the efforts of the 9th Foot in less than a page.[4]  These letters are so engrossing they are worth the cost of the book in themselves!

Because The Letters are a collection of Colonel Cameron’s papers, his writing style comes across disjointed.  As would be expected, his diary entries are terse and generally written in the third person.  His letters however vary.  Sometimes they are written in the first person, other times, the second person, and often the third person.  This can be confusing when the author refers to himself as Colonel Cameron, for it made me initially think that someone else wrote the letter.  I asked Gareth Glover, the editor, about this. He assured me that the handwriting in all of the papers was the same.  He also said that he thought John Cameron might have been planning to have them published in the United Services Journal.

Once again Gareth Glover has resurrected a superb primary source.  It is rare to find one that goes into so much detail on battalion operations.  John Cameron writes of what he saw and how his battalion performed. . . and does not pull any punches.   It is a story of confusion, gallantry, more confusion, and junior officers taking initiative.   Although not as extensive as The Dickson Manuscripts[5]John Cameron’s Letters does for the British infantry what Alexander Dickson does for the British artillery of the Peninsular War.  It is a valuable tool for those interested in the internal functioning of a British infantry battalion on campaign.


[1] These are:  William Dent’s A Young Surgeon in Wellington’s Army: the Letters of William Dent.  William Gomm’s  Letters and Journals of Field-Marshal Sir William Maynard Gomm from 1799 to Waterloo 1815. James Hale’s The Journal of James Hale: Late Serjeant in the ninth Regiment of Foot

[2] Barnes’ Brigade was part of General Leith’s 5th Division.

[3] Page 94

[4] Oman, Charles.  A History of the Peninsular War. Vol. VI. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.  Pages 572, 580, 581

[5] Dickson, Alexander. The Dickson Manuscripts: Being Diaries, Letters, Maps, Account Books, with Various Other Papers of the Late Major-General Sir Alexander Dickson. Leslie, John H. (ed.). 5 vols.; Cambridge: Ken Trotman; 1987. 

Reviewed by: Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2014