My passion for military history manifests itself in the psychology of soldiers, why they fight, and why they are often willing to die. I’m half way through reading a book by John Lewis Stempel titled ‘The Autobiography of the British Soldier: From Agincourt to Basra, In His Own Words’. It is a compilation of some 200 first-hand accounts in the form of memoirs, letters, diaries, combat records and emails covering most of the significant wars and battles with British involvement over the last 600 years. The book aims to bring the British soldier to life as a single entity, revealing his characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, but above all his mentality. So far it’s been an enlightening read and I was particularly struck by one incredibly well written account which I would like to share. I think it really encapsulates the psyche, bravery, camaraderie and the ‘soldierly code’ of the typical British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars, as well as those past and present.
By the summer of 1807, after a series of stunning victories over Russia, Prussia and Austria, Napoleon Bonaparte was master of mainland Europe. That was except for the Iberian Peninsula, where Portugal refused to submit to the French Emperor’s demands of enforcing a blockade of British ports, and Spain was dragging its heels in the matter. As a result Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother Joseph on the throne, prompting the British to send an expeditionary force which landed in Portugal in August 1808. Throughout the next four years of bloody fighting fortunes swung from side to side, until in January 1812 the British, under General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, were on the offensive and laying siege to the fortress city of Ciudad Rodrigo, a strategically important position on the Portuguese – Spanish border. Among the besiegers was a young Lieutenant of the 88th, the Connaught Rangers, by the name of William Grattan.
The British had been pounding the fortress walls for 10 days and had managed to force two breaches. The day of the assault was to be the 19th of January, and it was on this day that William Grattan found himself in camp with his regiment, awaiting orders to find out whether or not they would take part in the storming.
‘We were in this state of suspense when our attention was attracted by the sound of music…it would be impossible for me to convey an adequate idea of our feelings when we beheld the 43rd Regiment, proceeded by their band, going to storm the left breech; they were in the highest spirits…there was a cast of determined severity thrown over their countenances that expressed in legible characters that they knew the sort of service they were about to perform, and had made up their minds to the issue…there was an indescribable something about them that at one and the same moment impressed the lookers-on with admiration and awe.’
In passing the 88th, officers and men of the assaulting Regiment would step out of the line of march for an instant as he recognised a friend, and:
‘press his hand – many for the last time; yet, notwithstanding this animating scene, there was no shouting or huzzaing, no boisterous brovadoing, no unbecoming language; in short, everyone seemed to be impressed with the seriousness of the affair entrusted to his charge, and any interchange of words was to this effect: “Well, lads, mind what you’re about tonight”; or, “We’ll meet in the town by and by”.’
Grattan and his Regiment watched the 43rd march by and stood gazing as its rear platoon disappeared from sight. The music grew fainter until it stopped altogether. The silence was broken when one of the men, feeling slightly deflated, asked to no one in particular ‘And are we to be left behind?’. Moments later the 88th; the Devil’s Own, received their orders.
‘”Stand to your arms!”…the order was promptly obeyed, and a breathless silence prevailed when our commanding officer, in a few words, announced to us that Lord Wellington had directed our Division to carry the grand breech. The soldiers listened to the communication with silent earnestness, and immediately began to disencumber themselves of their knapsacks…’
The storming of a breech during the Napoleonic era was not to be taken lightly. For starters, the attacking force would have to approach the walls under a storm of fire from muskets and cannon loaded with hundreds of pieces of shrapnel; effectively a giant shotgun. Still under intense fire, they would have to negotiate obstacles such at ditches, barbed fences, and mines. Those that reached the breech would often find not simply a gap in the wall, but a steep sided pile of rubble. Ascending this whilst under withering fire from above, the flanks and in front was practically suicidal. The ‘forlorn hope’ led the attack. And they were just that; forlorn. It was death or promotion for the officer leading, but the former was by far the more common. If the breech was taken, follow up units would press into the town and engage in a ferocious battle for its control, often hand to hand as we will see. To be aware of this ’business’ and to feel despair at the prospect of being left out demonstrates in no uncertain terms the bravery and acute sense of duty these men possessed. Anyway, back to William and his account.
‘It was by this time half past six o’clock, the evening was piercingly cold, and the frost was crisp on the grass; there was a keenness in the air that braced our nerves at least as high as concert pitch. We stood quietly to our arms, and told our companies off by files, sections and sub-divisions, the sergeants called over the rolls – not a man was absent.’
Major Thompson commanded the battalion of which William Grattan was a part. He conveyed the commanding General’s wishes that a Subaltern of the 88th Regiment was to lead the Forlorn hope of the grand breech. Survival would mean a promotion to command a company for the man who volunteered.
‘Major Thompson, having called his officers together, briefly told them the wishes of their general; he was about to proceed, when Lieutenant William Mackie immediately stepped forward, and dropping his sword said, “Major Thompson, I am ready for that service.” For once in his life poor old Thompson was affected – Mackie was his own townsman, they had fought together for many years, and when he took hold of his hand and pronounced the words, “God bless you, my boy” his eyes filled, his lip quivered, and there was a faltering in his voice which was evidently perceptible to himself, for he instantly resumed his former composure, drew himself up, and gave the word, “Gentlemen, fall in.”
Thompson’s emotion is vividly perceptible even to those reading these few words. He knew that he was more than likely ordering his friend and comrade to his death. Moments later General Picton, commanding the 3rd (fighting) Division pulled up.
‘Long harangues are not necessary to British soldiers, and on this occasion, but few words were made use of. Picton said something animating to the different Regiments as he passed them…his mode of speaking was indeed very impressive. The address to each was nearly the same, but that delivered by him to the 88th was so characteristic of the general, and so applicable to the men he spoke to, that I shall give it word for word, it was this;
“Rangers of Connaught! It is not my intention to expend any powder this evening. We’ll do this business with the cold iron!”
I before said the soldiers were silent – so they were, but the man who could be silent after such an address…had better have stayed at home. It may be asked what did they do? Why, what would they do, or would anyone do, but give the loudest hurrah he was able.’
Reading this account in full left me with a profound sense of admiration for men like Lieutenant William Grattan. They’re sense of duty was matched only by their comradeship. It also provides a very human insight into war during the 18th century; they were not just a number or a figure depicted in a grand painting, but a person with feelings and emotions, who felt fear, joy and everything in between just like us.
Keep an eye out for the second part of this post which will pick up Grattan’s account of the assault. PART TWO