The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith, 1787-1819
Smith, Sir Harry. The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith, 1787-1819. Introduction by Philip Haythornthwaite. London: Constable, 1999. 320 pages. ISBN# 0094797404. £16.99. Hardcover.
A rollicking ride! This autobiography was written, by Harry's own admission, in the same manner he lived his life --at a gallop. And it shows, but I think this is what attracted me most to it --Harry's voice comes through so clearly-- you can almost hear him speaking.
Smith was certainly not a great writer of his age in the technical sense, and he doesn't waste time describing battles in detail --Salamanca is almost completely passed over without comment. Too many others have written about them in the past, he says. But this is not to say that he doesn't describe actions and events, because he still manages to shed new perspective on issues. Smith describes, for instance, the appalling conditions in the Pyrenees campaign at the end of 1813 --and manages to provide new detail on life in general for an energetic officer in Wellington's army. His entertainment, conditions on the march and life for a married officer on campaign slip into his commentary with only occasional lapses into sentimentality.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Harry's great advantage is his lack of literary skills. He writes this book in the same way he spoke and acted --there is little polish to his style so he strides through the pages alive and unbowed by time. At first the modern reader might find his voice stilted to their ears, but does not take long to learn to enjoy. It is worth getting used to as he packs his book with hundreds of anecdotes of various army characters and snippets of army life. He is just so good humoured and his stories so energetic, but without malice, that you cannot help but enjoy him.
This reprint by Constable & Co is of the first, and best, volume of the two that were published posthumously at the turn of last century and edited by Harry's nephew. Harry wrote his notes in two chunks, the first few pages scrawled in the 1820's but finished 'at the gallop' in the 1840's. He didn't publish them then, despite the great interest in books by Peninsular veterans. He realised that many of his depictions of certain people still alive might be considered libelous so he gave his notes into the care of an aide. These were passed on to Harry's nephew G.C. Moore-Smith some forty years after Harry's death.
This first volume is a boon for Napoleonic fans --it covers Harry's military life as an officer in the 95th Regiment from his first disastrous expedition to South America when he was still a teenager through his years campaigning on the Peninsular (1808-1814), Waterloo and the occupation of France.
I know Harry Smith best for his highly romantic and impetuous marriage to a young Spanish girl, following the siege of Badajoz in 1812. Their life together, and her rapid adjustment to the harsh realities of campaigning, were fascinating enough to be the subject of at least one historical novel in the past - Georgette Heyer's book The Spanish Bride --but I think I like reading the original story in Harry and Juana's words better.
There are other truly wonderful biographies from officers of the 95th (which in 1816 was taken out of the line and renamed "The Rifle Brigade") in the Peninsular War also available in reprint including George Simmon's A British Rifleman and John Kincaid's Adventures in the Rifle Brigade. In fact Kincaid and Simmons were two of Harry's best friends during the war years and worth reading in conjunction with this book for their perspectives on similar events.
Reviewed by Anne Woodley, editor of the Regency Collection On-Line.