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Just before 6 a.m. the head of the battalion entered Dover. There were many people watching from upstairs windows as the green phalanx wound its way down to the port. Of course they drew onlookers; the battalion's buglers had seen to that by shattering the twilight stillness as they arrived. A good blast on the horns was usually used to announce them and to tell ignorant civilians that, having heard a strange cacophony, their eyes were about to register something quite unusual too: the first regiment of British riflemen.
At the head of the column rode several officers resplendent in their dark-green uniforms, with a pelisse, that fashionable braided jacket beloved of hussars and other cavalry dandies, thrown over one shoulder. On their crowns, tall caps with a bugle badge and a tuft of green. Behind them about 1,100 troops tramped along, the thumping cadence of their marching echoing through narrow streets.
They had already been going for four hours when they filed into Dover, having quit their barracks a little further down the coast after the briefest of nights. Many of them were bursting with anticipation, for they were embarking on foreign service. In a letter that he posted that morning, 25 May 1809, Second Lieutenant George Simmons wrote home to Yorkshire, 'This, my dear parents, is the happiest moment of my life; and I hope, if I come where there is an opportunity of showing courage, your son will not disgrace the name of a British soldier.'
Simmons, with all the patriotic fervour of the military virgin, marched behind his captain, Peter O'Hare, a grizzled veteran who had fought in a dozen battles around the world. Putting the newest officer under one of the oldest; that, of course, was the commanding officer's intent.
The whole battalion had been formed on the same principle. It had returned from campaigning against the French in Spain just three months earlier, but it had been remade. Such were the exigencies of the service. Of the ten captains at the head of their companies that 25 May, only O'Hare and one other had filled the same positions in January.
Dead men's shoes had been filled and many experienced officers and soldiers marched out of the 1st Battalion in order to give a backbone of experience to the newly formed 3rd, who were staying behind while they were trained to some sort of acceptable standard. In the pell-mell of regimental reorganisation, the 1st Battalion had not been able to refuse its quota of new men.
Private Robert Fairfoot marched in the ranks of O'Hare's company down to Dover docks. He was tall, a well-made man of twenty-six years, but he was Johnny Raw in the eyes of the old riflemen. Granted, Fairfoot had done his time in the militia - there was no way they'd have let him into the 1st Battalion at all without some knowledge of the soldier's way of life - but he'd never heard a shot fired in anger. Fairfoot had been in the 95th for less than four weeks. One of the old hands commented contemptuously that when the orders to embark that morning had been received, 'the men who had joined us from the militia had scarcely learned the rifle drill'.
Each of the ten companies in that battalion contained its sprinkling of Johnny Raws and its quota of veterans. They had not been blended yet. Months would be required to get those men messing happily together. The extra recruits had been drafted from the militia because Britain's generals had been roused from their usual indifference in professional matters by the regiment's performance in several foreign expeditions. Just a few weeks before its 1st or senior battalion embarked at Dover, the 95th had been rewarded by being allowed to form a 3rd Battalion. There was a buzz of excitement about this new form of warfare - of green-jacketed men using the rifle - but its apostles knew that there was much still to be proved. The Rifles had generally been employed in brief little campaigns against second-rate troops. They had only faced Napoleon's legions fleetingly the previous summer and in the early part of 1809. So just as the likes of Simmons and Fairfoot were setting out to prove themselves, the entire battalion and its tactics would now be on trial. By the end of the campaign, the 1st Battalion of the 95th would be held up by some as one of the finest war bands in all history.
There was fighting in store for Simmons and the others all right: there would be five years of it before the survivors would see the white cliffs of Old England again. Of course, they had no way of knowing that as they caught sight of the ships at anchor. In fact, they did not even know where they were going. One rifleman would say with great conviction that the battalion was headed back to Spain or Portugal, but another, with equal fervour and a 'damn yer eyes', would assert they were going to help the Austrians, whose legions were locked in a new battle with Napoleon. The British government had been locked in a sporadic global competition with the French since their revolution, and as the Emperor Napoleon's armies triumphed on the Continent, ministers in London wanted to use the small expeditionary army they could scrape together to make mischief for their Gallic enemies. They had selected the 95th's destination as the most profitable place to do that.
As the tail of the column arrived on the dockside, a gaggle of dozens of women and small children brought up the rear. There was no set drill about the embarkation of wives for a foreign expedition. Sometimes there would be a quota of five or six per company. Sometimes, with a quartermaster's nod and wink, it would be more than that. But the commanding officer had issued strict orders this time: no women.
There had been wives on the last expedition, and not a few of them had ended up being left in Spain. Some had dropped dead from exhaustion trying to keep up on long marches through winter snows. Others had fallen behind to be violated by half a dozen French dragoons before having their throats cut. And there were a few who fell behind and might be alive or dead, nobody knew. So the colonel had been most adamant on this point: there would be no women with the regiment, and, as for those services like sewing repairs or fetching provisions, the men would fend for themselves.
As embarkation started, so did the wailing and oaths of women who saw that the dread moment of leave-taking had arrived. 'It was such a parting scene that I never wish to witness it again,' one of the soldiers later wrote. 'The women clung round the necks of their husbands, so that the officers had much ado to part them. There was such a ringing of hands, tearing of hair and crying that I was glad to jump on the boat, thankful that I had no wife to bewail my loss.'
The men, loaded down with anything up to eighty pounds of fighting kit, clambered gingerly into the rowing boats that awaited them at the base of the quay. The tars then heaved away on the oars, pulling their human cargo one mile out into the middle of the harbour where a squadron of transports lay at anchor.
Among the married soldiers, there were some last lingering looks at the waving figures on the quay. Then, putting a brave face on their misery, the wives sent up three cheers for the 95th, and many bystanders joined in. The women's cries were all the more poignant, one officer wrote, for 'knowing well that numbers must never return to their native land'. Not to be outdone, the soldiers returned their own huzzas before the stiff breeze carried away their shouts.
O'Hare's 3rd Company, including Simmons and Fairfoot, went aboard the Fortune, one of three transports needed to carry the battalion. The masters of Fortune, Malabar and Laurel wasted little time. The tide and wind were with them. They slipped their cables and stood out to sea.
The confidence with which the squadron had set off soon ebbed away. The wind had rounded on them, frustrating any progress down the Channel, and the entire group of ships found itself, by 5 June, close in to Cowes with heavy squalls pushing the transports about their anchorage. There they were to remain for six days.
For some of the men, like Private Joseph Almond, these unforeseen checks hardly excited surprise. Three years before, he'd been one of a small number in the present party who'd set sail from Portsmouth. Their journey had taken six months: six months of confinement on a ship, eating hard tack and suffering the company of poxy tars. They had disembarked in South America emaciated and short of puff, having to fight a hard and ultimately futile battle against the Spaniards.
While they remained confined afloat, four hundred riflemen and any number of matelots on board each little transport, the chances of rows and altercations multiplied. Almond, a big Cheshire man in his mid-thirties, was one of those unfortunates who had twice had corporal's stripes but lost them again through misdemeanours. Perhaps he might get them back in this new campaign.
Those who officered the 95th knew that even the brighter soldiers like Almond - and you needed some reading and writing to make corporal - had to be kept away from drink as far as possible. For the chances of fighting, mutinous language or even general insolence multiplied with each slug of liquor. So while some of the young officers took the opportunity to go ashore and strut like peacocks in front of the fair Isle of Wight girls, the same indulgence could not be granted to the rank and file.
Allowing the men off would also have carried some risk of desertion. Generally, fighting corps like the 95th did not suffer from it much. But you never knew when some militia hero might repent his decision to sign on to the regulars and steal away with his ten guineas' bounty. Private Fairfoot knew a fair bit about desertion: he had decamped three times from the Royal Surreys. He'd always been caught: twice they had busted him back from drummer to private and locked him up. Desertion was rarely a capital offence in England - it was too common for one thing, they'd have ended up executing dozens of Fairfoot's mates for it. Now, on board the Fortune, Fairfoot had changed his colours from the red coat of the Royal Surrey Militia to the green jacket of the 95th. Volunteering into this new regiment had also given him one more chance to make a proper soldier of himself, for if he was caught deserting on service it would be a capital offence.
It was not until almost three weeks had passed since leaving Dover that the convoy got properly under way. Happily for the commanding officer and his company commanders like O'Hare, nobody had been left behind through desertion or serious infractions of discipline.
As it sailed towards the open Atlantic, the convoy had swelled. Transports carrying two other battalions had joined them, as had Nymph, a frigate carrying the brigadier general who was commanding the whole enterprise. The veterans knew him well: Black Bob, a fierce flogger who taught them to fear their master. Old sweats could have pointed out their brigadier as he strolled on the frigate's deck or dined near the big windows of its captain's cabin. The brigadier was one of the few officers who knew the squadron's destination. Fierce reputation or not, he had been given a real plum of a job in command of this crack brigade, made up of some of the most highly trained troops in the Army.
Even among these three battalions, the Rifles were unique. Their green uniforms marked them out, as did their blackened leather cross-belts (for the other two battalions hung equipment whitened with pipe clay over their red coats). Their weapons were different too, the barrels grooved or rifled to spin the ball, giving greater accuracy and allowing them to attempt aimed fire at long range.
Just as many of the men in the 95th were yearning to prove themselves, so their commanding officer knew the present expedition would allow a chance to demonstrate a new sort of soldiering; a different approach to training, discipline, tactics and fighting. The higher reaches of the Army were notoriously conservative, and many generals, while they could appreciate the value of a sprinkling of sharpshooters here and there, could see no value in deploying an entire regiment of riflemen en masse for they must soon be driven from the field by formed infantry or cavalry. 'A very amusing plaything': that was how one of the Army's most experienced generals had ridiculed the Rifles.
As the ships passed the Needles, the foam frothing against their bows, gulls and all variety of seabirds dived and wheeled about them. And this is when some of the 95th's veterans showed their true colours. Officers and men alike drew their rifles and started shooting the creatures. What on earth did the sea officers make of the crackle of gunfire that built into a cacophony? Every now and then a cheer would go up as one of the Green Jackets found his mark and some unfortunate gull plopped into the brine.
'The order of the day was to bombard the sea-fowl which swarm at this season on the rocks. Rifles and fowling pieces were brought into full play on this occasion,' one of the company commanders wrote. It was no mean feat to drill a bird at any sort of distance; add to that the rapid movements of both ship and prey. For a seaman this was a barbaric thing to do, unless you'd been driven mad by hunger. But for the riflemen killing was sport, the best there was, and as soon as they got to wherever they were going, they intended to show how good they were at hunting men too.
Tom Plunket, in 3rd Company, along with Fairfoot, had bagged a rare prize during the last campaign: he had potted a French general. The commanding officer had singled Tom out in front of the paraded regiment after that, and told them all, 'Here, men, stands a pattern for the battalion!' And Tom's deadly shot wasn't repaid just in lip service: he'd been given a purse of money and a corporal's stripes too.
Private Edward Costello, twenty years old, another new man in the company, studied his corporal with something akin to worship. During the long period of waiting, Tom had kept them all laughing by joking, telling stories and dancing hornpipes on top of a barrel. He had the kind of celebrity that Costello, a squat little Irishman from Queen's County, valued: the corporal was a good soldier, but a hilarious character too, as ready with a deadly quip as he was with his rifle.
Among the rank and file, few things were prized more than courage and the facility for capers or laughter. Private William Brotherwood was another wag. He was the veteran of a couple of campaigns, a wry Leicester boy with a wicked way with words. At the Battle of Vimiero he'd run out of balls for his rifle. So with a torrent of abuse, he'd loaded his razor and fired that at the French.
Excerpted from WELLINGTON'S RIFLES by Mark Urban Copyright © 2004 by Mark Urban. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 3, 2007
Mark Urban did a great job making this book a fun/fast read. Accomplishing this while packing in the enormous amount of factual data required in a work of this sort is a rare ability indeed. Kudos to Urban from 'across the pond'.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2010
No text was provided for this review.