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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Seven Years Campaigning in the Peninsula and the Netherlands, 1808 – 1815

Henegan, Richard D. Seven Years Campaigning in the Peninsula and the Netherlands, 1808 – 1815. Brimscombe: Nonsuch Publishing, 2005.  2 Volumes (Volume 1: 190 pages. Volume 2: 186 pages).  ISBN: Volume 1: 1845880390.  Volume 2: 1845880404.   Each volume: £10.

I started reading British memoirs about twenty years ago when I bought a copy of John Kincaid's Adventures in the Rifle Brigade in the Peninsula, France , and the Netherlands from 1809-1815.  I was hooked and have acquired about 150 different British memoirs, diaries, and books of letters.  Some are quite well done, while others are not.  What sets Kincaid's apart from many of the others that I have since acquired, is his ability to tell a story.   It's like sitting in a bar and listening to an old soldier tell of his adventures.  The more the beer flows, the better the story gets.  Although at times there is much exaggeration of the dangers the soldier faced and even the role he may have played in the events he describes, within the story is a kernel of truth.   Marbot's and Schaummann's memoirs both fall in this category – fun reads, but the reader needs to be a bit discerning about believing everything the writer states.

When I first bought Richard Henegan's Seven Years Campaigning in the Peninsula and the Netherlands : 1808 – 1815 last year, I had put off reading it until recently.  I had not heard much about these memoirs and I figured they were a dry set – to be read when I had finished everything else.   I could not have been more wrong!  Henegan can spin a yarn that will engross the reader in the same manner as a Kincaid or Marbot.   The memoirs were first published in 1846 and supposedly are based on notebooks that he kept over the seven years.  Sir Charles Oman gives a caution about them when he wrote ". . . Blakeney is more valuable than Hennegan's highly romantic Seven Years Campaigning, published only in 1847, when thirty winters had blurred reminiscence, and allowed of the accretion of much second-hand and doubtful material round the original story."[1]  However, despite Oman's skepticism, they contain much of value.

According to the cover of the book, Henegan was a "Military Commissary in the Field Train, a corps attached to the Royal Artillery, in which he advanced to the position of Ordnance Commissary for the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, making him responsible for all ammunition and stores."  Being a bit baffled by this, I turned to S.G.P. Ward's Wellington's Headquarters, to determine exactly what each of those jobs entailed.   Unfortunately, Ward did not go into very much detail.[2]  Charles James' Military Dictionary, clears it up a bit:

"Commissary's Department, under the colonel-commandant of the field train, consists of commissaries, assistant commissaries, clerks, and conductors of stores, as well as artificers of different trades, upon the civil establishment of the Ordnance. This system differs from the rules of the service for most of the continental powers in Europe, it being with them a military establishment, and placed upon a footing with the officers of the army at large, under the superintendence of a colonel-commandant, colonel-en-second, comptrollers, &c. &c. The duties of this department are of great importance; the whole service of the artillery in the field depending upon their exertions for the good arrangement made in the equipment of the ordnance, the proportioning the ammunition and stores for all services, as well as the forming all depôts of ammunition, not only for the artillery, but also for the whole army. The commissaries and their assistants are detached, in common with the regiment of artillery, on all services. It is consequently of the greatest importance that experienced persons should be selected for these employments, it being a work of time for them to be fully instructed and made acquainted with the artillery service. On this account young men should be early brought into the department, so as to be trained up regularly from one situation to another, until they become complete masters of their profession.

"There are at present employed in this department, in different parts of the world, five commissaries, 13 assistant commissaries, 74 clerks of stores, and 130 conductors of stores. As the duties of this department are so intimately connected with that of the service of the artillery, it is much to be lamented that they are not formed into a military establishment."[3]

Richard Henegan was a civilian and, although he did not have military rank and could not command, he would have been considered a fairly senior civilian on the staff in 1813.   His memoirs reflect the viewpoint of someone who was used to working and socializing with the upper levels of the military.  Sometimes the individuals he writes about are portrayed in flattering light and sometimes they are not.

Volume One opens with Henegan arriving in Portugal in 1808 and taking charge of an ox train of ammunition – of over 2.5 million musket cartridges and an unspecified amount of artillery shells.  He spends most of the campaign wandering around northern Portugal and Spain trying to link up with the British forces, while trying to avoid being captured by the French.  He narrowly escapes Oporto, when Marshal Soult's forces arrive and barely has time to evacuate the train to Lisbon.  His description of the panic of the civilians on the bridge across the Duoro River is quite moving.

Henegan makes it to Lisbon and soon returns to England , where the following year he participates in the ill-fated expedition to Walcheren.   There he was in charge of moving the massive amounts of engineering equipment and supplies, artillery ammunition, and small arms ammunition.  He writes vividly of the confusion of the disembarking of the stores from the ships.   This expedition was not one of great battles, but of sieges and waiting.   Henegan had a keen eye for detail and often noted the foibles of the senior officers:

"Colonel C ----[4] commanding the 85th regiment, engaged a servant from the ranks on the day after landing, and being a humorous, though very drunken dog, he entered into a serious contract with the man, that he was only to get drunk on the days that he, himself, was not so.  The soldier agreed to the arrangement, and entered into Colonel C ---'s service, where he remained three months.  At the end of that time, he one morning entered his master's room and rendered his resignation."

"Why do you wish to leave me, John," inquired the Colonel, "I am very well satisfied with you?"

"I am sorry that I can't say the same, Sir," answered John bluntly, "but when I entered your service, you engaged that I might get drunk whenever you were not so; and hang me, if in three months I have had my turn once."[5]

Henegen returns to Spain in 1810, where he becomes the Military Commissary for the Field Trains at Cadiz.  There he is actively involved in the defense of the city and even goes wandering behind the French lines with Spanish guerrillas.  He devotes several chapters to them and the operations he observed, including an ambush of a French convoy.  After catching the "Black Vomit" [yellow fever] [6] he returns briefly to England to regain his health and is then re-assigned as the Ordnance Commissary under Wellington.  As Ordnance Commissary, he is responsible for ensuring that all the ammunition and materiel is in the right place at the right time.  He is present at Vittoria in 1813 and is given the duty of collecting and inventorying the captured French ordnance, wagons, and carriages.  Much to his chagrin;

"Colonel Burton of the Welch Fuzileers, had been appointed Commandant of Vittoria, and by the help of the working parties, with which he supplied me, I had completed the task of parking the guns and ammunition captured from the French.  When this was done, I received orders to transfer them over to the Spanish Governor of Vittoria, and to join the artillery battering train at Passages, where preparations were being made for the siege of San Sebastian.  During the period of collecting together the war material at Vittoria, upwards of one hundred and sixty private carriages were brought into the park.  Some of them were fitted up in the most costly manner, with velvet and silk linings, and as they were only incumbrances in the park and totally useless to the army, I made them over to Colonel Burton, suggesting that they might perhaps be advantageously distributed among those inhabitants of Vittoria, who had suffered from the depradations of the French.   He gladly acceded to the proposal, and it was not until after the fall of San Sebastian, that I had heard of the large treasures in money and jewels that had been found within the linings, and other parts of the carriages I had so unwittingly disposed of."[7]

One of the more interesting passages is about two brothers in the 95th Rifles at the battle of Vera.

"In the 95th regiment, there were two brothers, the eldest was a Captain; the youngest a Lieutenant in the same battalion, and such was the avidity for promotion, that although an excellent fellow, he would have seen all the officers in his regiment spitted like larks, if such a process would have given a 'a step', as he used to term it, either to himself or to his brother 'Joe.' At every fresh casualty that occurred – there were many, for the gallant 95th was always in action – the Captain would exultingly exclaim, if the deceased was a superior officer to himself 'poor fellow! He was a good fellow, but, it is a step for me.' If junior to himself, his fraternal affection found an equal pleasure in saying 'poor fellow! he was a good fellow, but, it is a step for Joe,' and so frequently were these expressions used, that they became play-words in the regiment.

"During the heat of the combat at the bridge of Vera, a ball struck the Captain to the earth, but as re related the story himself, not very long after, it is unnecessary to add, that promotion had not yet done with him.

"For a long time he lay unconscious of the war that waged around, nor recovered his senses until all was over, and a sergeant and some men had approached to remove the bodies of their comrades from the ground.  Although faint and unable to stir from the effects of his wounds, he was still able to remember that the sergeant advanced to the spot where he lay, and pointing with commiseration to his apparently dead body said 'Ah Jack, there lies our poor Captain!' The soldier apostrophized, quickly retorted with a laugh: 'Poor fellow! he was good fellow; but it is a step for Joe!'"

Although this passage seems a bit callous, there were two brothers serving as officers in the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles at the time.  They were George and Joseph Simmons.  They were from a very large family (9 brothers and 3 sisters) and George was always sending money home to support the family.  He also was very open about promoting the career of his brother, who joined the battalion as a volunteer and was commissioned in 1812.  Both were at the battle of Vera.[8]

Henegan joins Wellington's army for Waterloo and may have distinction of being the last member of Wellington's army to be captured during the Napoleonic Wars!  While assisting the Prussians in their sieges of the French border fortresses after Waterloo, he was captured by a French patrol.[9]

Henegan can be very frustrating to the serious researcher.  He includes much information that could only have been learned by an eyewitness.  However, often key elements of the information can not be verified.  Some example include:

At the collection of ordnance and carriages after Vittoria, he mentions a Colonel Burton of the Welsh Fusiliers.  Yet according to the Army Lists for 1813, there was no officer, of any rank, in the Welsh Fusiliers at that time.  However, there was a Major Burton in the 7th Fusiliers.[10]

Regarding the incident with the Simmons brothers at Vera.  George Simmons was only a lieutenant and did not command his company.  Furthermore, he was not wounded during the battle.[11]  He was seriously wounded at Waterloo, but his brother was not present.  So Henegan gets the flavor of the Simmons brothers' character right, but not all pieces of the story – such as in which battle the incident occurred, whether George was wounded, and if he commanded the company.

Problems also arise with his account of the siege of San Sebastian.  Henegan goes into great detail about the sailors who manned one of the batteries and the lieutenant who led them.  He even gives the reason why he had so much first hand knowledge of their activities.  He claims that they were billeted in the cellars of the house where he was lodged.[12]  Much of the information appears to be factual, however I can not place him at San Sebastian.  Henegan mentions Colonel Alexander Dickson many times in his memoirs, yet in the Dickson Manuscripts I could only find a couple of listings for letters from Henegan to Dickson – but not the actual letters.  Furthermore, Dickson's account of the siege lists all the officers involved with the artillery and he even praises the efforts of a Mr. John Butcher, Assistant Commissary, Ordnance Department, of the Battering Train.[13]  I could not find any mention of Henegan in either Dickson or in Jones' Journal of Sieges.[14]  Was he there?  Most likely.  But I can not place him there.

The problems identified above can be attributed to Henegan writing the memoirs 30 years later.  Despite them and other discrepancies, I recommend this set of memoirs to anyone interested in the Peninsular War.  The chapters are short – usually 5 or 6 pages and they are a fun read.  Just be careful about taking them too literally!


Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2008



[1] Oman, Charles.  Wellington's Army: 1809 – 1814. London: Greenhill, 1993. P. 25

[2] Ward, S.G.P. Wellington's Headquarters: a Study of the Administrative Problems in the Peninsula 1809 – 1814. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.

[3] James, Charles. A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, in French and English: in hich are Explained the Principle Terms, with Appropriate Illustrations, of All the Sciences, that are, more or less, Necessary for an Officer and Engineer. London: T. Egerton, 1810.  vol. I, under the entry for "Artillery".

[4] Most likely Lieutenant Colonel Henry Cuyler.  "Army List" June 1809.

[5] Henegan, Vol. I, Pp 84 – 85.


[7] Henegan, Vol II, P. 15.

[8] Simons, George. A British Rifle Man: Journals and Correspondence during the Peninsular War and the Campaign of Wellington. London: Greenhill, 1986. Pp. 317 - 9

[9] Henegan, Vol. II Pp. 180 - 6

[10] Army List: May 1813

[11] Simmons; Pp. 317-9

[12] Henegan, Vol. II, Pp. 26 - 29

[13] 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.). Cambridge: Ken Trotman, 1987.  Vol. 5, Page 1006.

[14] Jones, John. Journal of Sieges Carried on by the Army under the Duke of Wellington in Spain . Cambridge: Ken Trotman, 1998.  Vol. 2