(incorporating Museum Review)
The central motive of this article is to furnish an analysis of the central character of the work. Such an approach must encompass several themes implicit within the text. These aspects may be defined in terms of the dating of the work (relating to the essential archival foundation); the background and personality of the writer (his uniqueness as a ranker, at that point in time, being essentially noteworthy); the light which the memoirs cast uppn the Peninsular War (1808-1814), from an immediate, personalized vantage point; the eye-witness evocation of the battles in which the narrator was involved; and the literary texture of the work (with particular reference to its echoes of the 18th Century picaresque novel).
These themes are not rigidly categorized under subsections, but, rather, interwoven with the study; they may be defined in terms of the intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsic aspect relates to what might be termed the timeless dimension; ie concerned with features encapsulated within the character of the memoirist, independent of the context of his time. Such facets encompass his background (notably his social status and education) and character. The extrinsic aspects relate the writer to the military and social fabric into which his memoirs are interwoven; ie the Peninsular Campaign and the Battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Such themes are embodied in the light which the work casts upon the tactics and drill of the period, the questions of logistics and supply in the Peninsular War and the social complexion of the Peninsular Army. The concept of the extrinsic also enters into the literary mode (ie the tradition of the 18th Century picaresque novel, referred to above).
However, in the case of Douglas's memoirs the extrinsic and intrinsic facets converge. For example, the uniqueness of the work only emerges when the educated mind and social status of the writer is related to the character of the Peninsular Army (distinguished by an extremely low level of literacy and the virtually universal poor esteem in which the rank and file were held by the general public). For the military historian, the extrinsic features of the work are undoubtedly more significant and meaningful. For this reason, it is necessary to firmly anchor the memoirs in their military environment. However, it is equally important to bear in mind that the value of the work also resides in the richness and colour with which it is imbued. Vital components of such aspects include the dominant impression made upon the reader by the author's character (a theme which will be explored in detail below) and the picturesque detail with which places, incidents and characters are delineated (the legacy of the picaresque novel). These non-military themes enhance the power of the military dimension by couching the records in a literary mould and avoiding the danger of sterility implicit in a mere archival record. Thus, the work possesses a dual aspect or axis, overlaying the extrinsic-intrinsic themes commented upon above. This axis may be interpreted as the military historical and literary-humanistic. Such a duality is extremely rare in military memoirs and the editor hopes that due weight is placed upon both in the following essay.
John Douglas was born circa 1789, in Lurgan, near Belfast. His lineage was of a distinguished character. He was descended from Sir William Douglas of Drumlanrig, who was created Earl of Douglas in 1358 and confirmed in his estates of Drumlanrig by King James I of Scotland in 1412. During the fifteenth century, the Drumlanrig family was actively engaged in supporting James I and his successors. In 1628 Douglas of Drumlanrig was created a Viscount and, in 1633, Charles I elevated him to the Earldom of Queensberry. He sagely administered many important offices. The Earldom was subsequently raised to the status of a Dukedom. James, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, was instrumental in the Act of Union in 1707. On the death of Charles, 3rd Duke, the title passed to the Earls of March, and later to the Dukes of Buccleuch.
A collateral branch of the family attained a colourful, if somewhat sinister, record. James II conferred the Earldom of Morton on James Douglas of Dalkeith in 1458. He married a daughter of James I and their son, John, became 2nd Earl. James, 4th Earl, is known to history as the infamous Regent Morton. A protagonist of the Scottish Reformation, he was involved in a conspiracy which was climaxed by the murder of Rizzio, Mary Stuart's favourite, and was elected Regent in 1572. His administration proved to be unpopular and in 1581 his enemies succeeded in bringing him to trial for his part in the murder of Darnley, Mary Stuart's second husband, for which the former was executed. Sir William Douglas of Lochleven became 7th Earl of Morton on the death of the 8th Earl of Angus. On the death of Archibald, Duke of Douglas, without issue, in 1761, the titles of Marquis of Douglas and Earl of Angus passed to the 2nd Duke of Hamilton.
A clue to the approximate date of the writer's death [ie John Douglas of the Royal Scots] is furnished by the awards which he received for his military service (and which are contained within the medal collection of the SA National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg); these being the Waterloo Medal (1815) and the Military General Service Medal 1793-1814 (the latter bearing the clasps: Busaco, Fuentes D'Onor, Salamanca, Vittoria, San Sebastian, Nivelle and Nive). The Military General Service Medal was authorized in 1847 and issued in 1848, 34 years after the last battle that it commemorates. Thus, Douglas was obviously still alive in 1848 and his death probably occurred at some point in the succeeding decade.
Douglas's Tale of the Peninsula may be defined as a monograph in form. It consists of a bound manuscript, written in fine and completely legible copperplate handwriting, numbering 172 pages. The first 30 pages consist of a most scrupulously researched history of his regiment, The Royal Scots. The body of the book is divided into the following sections: Siege of Flushing; Battle of Busaco; Battle of Fuentes D'Onor; Battle of Salamanca; Retreat from Burgos; Battle of Vittoria; Siege of San Sebastian; Battle of Quatre Bras; and Battle of Waterloo.
However, these divisions do not represent the full scope of the work and do not form an accurate guide to its contents. Thus, the first section, entitled 'The Siege of Flushing', includes a substantial body of material relating to the author's enlistment and training, whilst that section which bears the title 'The Battle of Busaco' includes a lengthy description of the author's initial arrival in Portugal, his impressions of the Portuguese, the battle of Busaco, and the subsequent retreat to the lines of Torres Vedras.
The narrative ends with the disbandment of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Scots, in April 1817. Douglas, however, does not appear to have left the regiment but, with the rank of sergeant (which he evidently acquired subsequent to Waterloo, as the rank inscribed on his medals is that of corporal), continued his service in one of the two senior battalions.
The medals of John Douglas: Left: Military General Service
Medal 1793-1814 (obverse) Right: Waterloo Medal (reverse).
The immediacy and vigour which characterizes much of the narrative suggest that either the text is based on original diarised records of the events soon after they had occurred or, alternatively, that Douglas possessed remarkable powers of recall. The actual form of the manuscript is certainly not that of a diary, with its segmented entries, but, rather, that of a documentary novel, being structured on the basis of episodes, as opposed to time. There is no statement of the date when the work was compiled. However, in his account of the history of the regiment, Douglas meticulously lists the battles and campaigns in which the Royal Scots and its predecessors had been involved since 1421, ending with an action near Melloon (1826) during the Burmese War of 1824-1826. Moreover, the Battle Honours cited by Douglas end with Ava. (The succeeding Battle Honour earned by the regiment is Alma in 1854). The work can, therefore, definitely be dated at a point prior to the Crimean War. The major action in which the regiment (more specifically, the 2nd Battalion) was next involved, following the Burmese War, occurred in Canada, during which tour of duty it was engaged in suppressing a series of rebellions which erupted in the vicinity of Montreal, during 1837. The battalion assaulted the towns of St Charles and St Eustache. It is highly probable that a meticulous researcher such as Douglas would have added these Canadian actions to his list had his work been compiled after these engagements. Thus, the manuscript can be dated, in all probability, to the late 1820s or early 1830s and definitely ascribed to the period between 1826 and 1854.
A highly educated ranker
The memoirs of Pte (later Sgt) John Douglas represent a remarkable addition to the literature of the Napoleonic Wars in several important and highly unique respects. The first unique facet resides in the social character of the writer. In an age when the rank-and-file of the British Army consisted, in the main, of the ignorant and degenerate, Pte Douglas was a well read, educated and highly literate man, to which the fluid and lucid style of his book, written in fine copperplate handwriting, clearly bears witness. The highly literate character of Douglas's memoirs is immediately apparent in the very first page of his manuscript, prefacing his scrupulously researched history of the Royal Scots:
'In endeavouring to trace through the remote pages of history the origin of a body so ancient and so renowned as this regiment, a more difficult task has devolved upon the compiler than he anticipated. In doing so, he has spared neither pains nor inquiry; and by the most careful researches into such historical works as were most likely to elucidate the subject, he has done his utmost to arrive, as nearly as possible, at the truth. But after having made these researches, still some doubt must necessarily remain (from conflicting testimonies of historians) as to the real origins of this celebrated body, which for so many ages maintained so exalted a name under the titles of 'Le Garde Ecossoise" or "Gendarme Escoisse' in the military annals of all Europe.
'In framing the record of "The Royal Regiment" everything like conjecture has been studiously avoided, as far as possible, and care taken to state nothing in it which cannot be borne out by facts, or from authoritative sources of information. With regard to the more ancient portion of its history, it has been compiled from the best sources of information that could be obtained; and in selecting a course to steer through the contradictory statements of the various authors who have been consulted, that which seems to bear the most evident marks of authenticity has been adopted.'
[It should be borne in mind that Douglas's history of the Royal Scots Regiment is, in all probability, one of the first endeavours in the field of regimental history.]
Douglas's introductory history of his regiment evinces a high degree of scrupulous research and meticulous scholarship, as stated above.
Two aspects of Douglas's study merit attention in this respect. The first is his detailed references to the long and hallowed tradition of the role of the Scots in medieval European history (p 14). The second point relates to the lineage of the regiment, justifying its position as the 1st Regiment of Foot. Within this context, the writer cites (on p 21) a military authority, Grose's Military Antiquities (1801), who affirms that the Royal Scots were the sole regiment within the British Army until 1683, the remaining corps consisting entirely of independent companies:
"'Among other unconstitutional innovations made by the ill-advised James 2nd that of dismissing the Protestand Officers from the Army, and introducing the Irish Papists... was the most impolitic, and lost him the affection and support of his troops which toward the latter end of his reign, were increased to 25 000 men in England and 8 700 in Ireland. These, all except the Royal Regiment, consisted of independent companies, or troops, till April 1683, when they were regimented by Charles 2nd and formed into three regiments of horse and eight of foot."'
The education of the writer is manifested in several further respects. Firstly, one observes his fluent style, which encompasses a fine grasp of topographical detail, vividly illustrated in Douglas's graphic description of the beach head of the island of Walcheren (p 36):
'The appearance of the shore was one continual sand hill, and from the deck of the vessel it appeared to the naked eye as if infantry were drawn up, but this proved to be large beams of timber driven in to break off the surf. This with matting of straw fastened on the beach with pins of wood is the principal security, preventing the sand from being washed away; for a breach in the banks would be the destruction of the island, as I dare say the flat surface.., is 20 feet below the level of the sea.'
Badge of the Royal Scots
Indeed, Douglas possessed a talent for descriptive writing which would certainly do justice to a modern war correspondent. His description of the disembarkation on Walcheren is particularly noteworthy in this respect (p 37):
'I think the landing at Flushing was one of the grandest sights imaginable. The Ocean as far as the eye could reach seemed to be covered with Men of Wars, Frigates, Brigs, Sloops, etc, while the boats with the troops kept their line as correct as possible; the large vessels as it were in the background, while the Brigs, Schooners, gunboats, etc lay close in shore with their ~gun] ports open ready to fire to cover the landing. The troops had orders as soon as the boat touched the ground to take their ammunition under the left arm, firelock in the right hand, jump and wade ashore, form line and prime and load.'
A second revealing aspect of the author's educated approach is his ability to adopt an overall and broad perspective of the action in which he is engaged. Thus, in recording his experiences at Salamanca (22 July 1812), he writes (p 89):
'The British placed the most unbounded confidence in the skill, courage and coolness of Wellington, and I firmly believe they thought he could not err, and not now, but always... considered themselves sure of victory when led by him. And where troops are possessed of this belief in a commander, there is no reluctance in obeying, but join the fight with an enthusiasm not to be overcome. The French on the other hand, were as confident of Marmont, who had so often led them to victory, but here their opponents were British, which made a material difference, when compared with Turks or even the boasted Austrians, and to strike the decisive blow alone was his greatest ambition, as well as his greatest error, by not waiting a few days for reinforcements which he knew were at hand, and in all probability would have turned the scale in his favour.' [editor's italics]
Douglas's remarks within this context furnish an informed commentary on the manner in which a commander's egotism may destroy his better judgement. With regard to this aspect of informed insight and judgement underlying and interwoven with the reportage of events, one should note the author's views concerning the Earl of Chatham's conduct (or rather misconduct) of the ill-starred Walcheren Expedition of 1809 (pp 44-45):
'But the Earl of Chatham's schemes were far from being well laid, and how could he expect success, not by lying in bed to 10 or 11 o'clock in the day, when he should have been up and doing. There is no doubt he might have filled some other situation with honour, but he was far from being competent to such an undertaking. Had he had the slightest knowledge of warfare he would have acted very differently. Instead of drawing the French into Flushing he would have pushed on and taken possession of the different roads leading into the garrison, and by so doing would have prevented those in the interior from reinforcing it, and oblige them to surrender. It is more than likely thus circumstanced that Flushing would not have stood one day's siege. But it was a mismanaged job altogether and, as is generally the case when failure takes place, blame is attached to every subordinate while the responsible person, being of rank, must by all means be exonerated.'
Within this context, it is noteworthy that Douglas's informed interest in the overall military-political configuration of his times is sometimes extremely subtle and devious in its presentation. The slight reference to Lord Cochrane, in the course of description of the siege of Flushing (July-August 1809) is a case in point. Douglas states briefly (p 41) 'Lord Cochrane's frigate lay off the harbour...'
This statement embodies a sly allusion to the widely discussed political scandal centred on Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860). Cochrane began his career in the Navy at the age of approximately eighteen years and, in 1801, when he held the post of commander of the Speedy, distinguished himself in the service. Some years later he was elected a Member of Parliament and, in that capacity, endeavoured to reform the Admiralty. At the Battle of Aix Roads, in April 1809, Cochrane, commanding the Imperieuse, had failed to execute the destruction of the French naval forces on 12 April. The real fault has been levied against Admiral Lord Gambier, with considerable justice, on the grounds that he had been over-cautious and failed to support Cochrane (who was publicly acclaimed for his actions and created a Knight of the Order of the Bath, despite the fact that he held the comparatively junior rank of post-Captain). Cochrane, from his seat in Parliament, communicated to the First Lord of the Admiralty that he would oppose any vote of thanks to Admiral Gambier. The latter duly demanded a court martial. The trial spanned the period 26 July to 9 August 1809, at the end of which Gambier was triumphantly acquitted.
The reference to Lord Cochrane's ship, the Imperieuse, in Douglas's memoirs, is probably a sly allusion to the case, which was being enacted during the course of the Walcheren Expedition. The ship was then under the command of an acting captain. Cochrane had, in actual fact, requested leave to rejoin the Imperieuse, but permission was twice refused. The reference to the controversy generated by Gambier's court martial reveals that Douglas had a close and informed interest in political affairs.
The third manifestation of a high degree of literacy and wide reading is the series of literary and historical allusions contained at several points in Douglas's book. For example, in relating the fall of Flushing, he writes (on p 42):
'Thus Flushing fell, and to this day it is my firm belief [that] had it been garrisoned by British troops the power of France [could] not subdue it in less time than Edward the 3rd reduced Calais.'
[Edward III reduced Calais during the period 4 September 1346 to 4 August 1347].
Douglas's wide reading in history is further exemplified in his account of a picket being startled by the cries of a soldier being surprised by an aggressive wolf, an incident which occurs in Chapter 10. The writer compares the rapid response of the picket to the siege of Cremona on 2 February 1702 (p 76), an Italian town which repulsed a surprise attack by the German forces commanded by Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Irish Brigade, a unit within the French Army, was instrumental in the extirpation of the Imperial troops.(3) Douglas's deeply inquiring historical mind is most clearly defined in the following extract from Chapter 34, in which the narrator ponders upon the contrasts between Marlborough and Wellington, whilst visiting the town of Bouchain (p 169):
'This town being the last exploit of the great Marlborough(4), I could not restrain my curiosity to look at and turn over in my mind the hero, who in the days of Anne had perhaps trod the spot in which I stood, and in all probability would have marched to Paris had he been supported as his great deeds and genius deserved, but what will not the tongue of slander accomplish? Was... Wellington free from its fangs? No. But independent of the enemy in the field the more to be dreaded, subtle enemy in secret was not able to subdue his (I might also say) more than human fortitude and perserverance, as he conquered both at home and abroad. Not so with brave Marlborough. Though able in the Cabinet as in the field, yet he found the current of a nation's whims buoyed up to such an extent by the prevailing faction of the day that it was more easy for him to face the lines of Schellenburg(5), or Malplaquet(6), than to bring them to a sense of his wrongs.'
With reference to the literary allusions evident in the work, in the section concerning the retreat following the Battle of Busaco (Chapter 5) the author makes reference to 'Sweet Auburn' (p 57), an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith's poem, 'The deserted village', published in 1770.
The author's interests also extended to matters of art. This is manifested in Chapter 26, in which he relates his experiences whilst in hospital. The grotesque and vivid pen portrait which he paints is counterpointed with the work of the well known contemporary illustrator, George Cruikshank (1792-1878) (p 147):
'To a disinterested looker-on the sight (even to Cruikshanks [sic]) would have been well worth employing his pencil. Those who were wounded in the head could move above pretty well, and those in the arms, while others who had got it in the limbs or thighs were obliged to shuffle along on their breech trunk as well as they could, to form a crucible.'
George Cruikshank was a famous caricaturist and artist, whose finest work illustrates the grotesque and terrible. He was an illustrator of the most well known novelists of the Victorian period; viz Dickens' Oliver Twist, Sketches by 'Boz', Thackeray's The legend of the Rhine, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, the Brothers Grimm (German popular stories (1823-1826) and Fairy Tales (1827)), Cervantes' Don Quixote (1833) and Scott's Waverley Novels.
[Incidentally, the reference to Cruikshank confirms the dating of the work as being the late 1820s or early 1830s (cf above), this being the period in which Cruikshank attained the height of his popularity.]
Eye-witness accounts of crucial battles
The second most noteworthy aspect of the work is that Douglas was writing of military engagements which were seminal events in the Napoleonic Wars; viz the battles fought in the Iberian Peninsula and Waterloo. His narrative thus exemplifies personal witness to, and participation in, campaigns that were instrumental in the destruction of the Napoleonic empire. The record of such immediate, personalized responses to major historical events are of the greatest value to the historian. As an illustration, one may quote the following extract from Douglas's manuscript, relating to the Battle of Vittoria on 21 June 1813 (p 130):
'One wing cleared the houses and gardens on the right and then lined the bank of the river keeping up a heavy fire on the advancing supports. The light company(7) entered a house at the end of the bridge, from the windows of which a very destructive fire was kept up; while as many as could pushed across and formed as they arrived close to an old chapel. We that had crossed had taken up a very favourable position and were picking them down in good [style]. Here there appeared to be some want. Had the regiments which entered the village been pushed across the bridge at the same time we crossed and established a firm footing, the right wing of the French Army would have been separated from the left, and thus situated the wreck of the French would have been nearly as bad as Waterloo. The enemy seemed to know the value of this spot and poured down on the few that got over and obliged us to retrace our steps.'
[It is noteworthy that the lines commencing, 'Here there appeared to be some want ...' reinforces the impression of critical judgement, remarked upon above.]
Two further graphic illustrations of Douglas's power to vividly detail the scenario of battles in which he was engaged may be cited. First, one encounters his horrendous pen portrait of the siege of St Sebastian in 1813, which occurs in Chapter 25. On page 139, he recounts an abortive attack on the citadel of 26 August:
.... the storm of the garrison was to take place on the night of the 25th, but waiting for the tide to be sufficiently low to conduct the men to reach the beach, it was daylight as the men moved out of the trenches; and having to keep close to the wall to be clear of the sea as possible; beams of timber, shells, hand grenades and every missile that could annoy or destroy life were hurled from the ramparts on the heads of the men; to shun which, if they kept further out in the tide, showers of grape(8) and musketry swept them away by half-com- panies(9). Those who assembled on to the beach found it wide and large enough at bottom but at the top there was not sufficient room for one file at the curtain and from thence to the street was at least 20 feet. This with a house which was on fire close to the breach, and through which our poor fellows were forcing their way, when a shell from our ten-gun battery at the passage side struck the gable and buried nearly a company in the burning ruins ...
Douglas writes of the events of 31 August thus (p 143):
'... within a few yards of the top of the breach the scene before me was truly awful. Here you might observe a leg fastened between the ruins of a wall, legs and arms sticking up, some their clothes in flames; numbers not dead, but so jammed as not to be able to extricate themselves, and of course had to remain exposed to the fire of the enemy, which was so thick that you would think it impossible for anything to escape.'
After retreating to a trench, having been wounded in the
right leg by grapeshot, and his makeshift crutch - his
musket - shot away, Douglas encountered the following
scene, worthy of the brush of Goya (p 143):
'It was literally filled or rather crammed with the dead and dying. 'Twas lamentable to see the poor fellows here. One was making the best of his way minus an arm; another his face so disfigured and covered with blood as to leave no trace of the features of a human being; others creeping along with the leg dangling to a piece of skin; and worse than all some endeavouring to keep in the bowels.'
Second, one may quote an extract from the author's
vivid account of Salamanca, 22 July 1812 (pp 92-93):
'Their [ie the French] first line we fairly ran over and [saw] our men jumping over huge grenadiers(10), who lay exhausted through heat and fatigue, unhurt, in the hope of escaping. We left them uninjured, but they did not behave honourably, for as soon as they found us at a little distance they resumed the posture of the enemy and commenced to fire on our rear; but nearly the whole of them paid the price of their treachery with their lives.' 'The first line of the enemy being broken and falling back in confusion ... the 2nd [line] lined the side of a deep trench cut by the torrents of water which [roll] down the hills near the village of Arapiles, and so deep and broad that it took a good spring to leap over it. Here the 2nd line kept up a heavy fire of musketry, which checked our centre for a few minutes, while our poor fellows fell fast. To remain long in this way was too much to be borne. The cheer was raised for the charge, a general bound was made at the chasm and over we went like so many beagles, while the enemy gave way in confusion. The cavalry now came in for their share and cut them down in great number.'
The above quoted passage exemplifies the value of autobiographical records, in two major respects. Firstly, it projects a vividness and immediacy which can only be generated by intense personal involvement. Secondly, it furnishes the details which can only be provided by eye-witness accounts and are invariably omitted in depersonalized despatches and other records of this type. This second major asset implicit in personal memoirs is embodied in the account of the French in the first line apparently succumbing, and then firing at the rear of the British force. (The passage is further evidence of Douglas' ability to evoke topographical detail, commented upon above with regard to his description of the beach at Walcheren.)
Tempo and atmosphere
Douglas's memoirs are also extremely illuminating with regard to the Peninsular War in so far as they dramatically capture the environment and atmosphere (the tempo) of the campaign. Three notable aspects emerge in this context.
Firstly, one discerns the graphic eye-witness impressions
of the devastation wreaked upon the countryside and
inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, reminiscent
of the depredations visited upon Europe during the Thirty
Years' War of 1618-1648. Thus, on p63, we read:
'... the enemy left behind them a complete wilderness, and not content with depriving the unfortunate inhabitants of everything destroyable, but committed the most wanton barbarities on the defenceless inhabitants, as would be a disgrace to the original natives of New Zealand(11), nor is it fit to be related either in public or private... We reached Rymeo, a fine village when we passed through it on the retreat from Busaco. It was now a miserable den with very few surviving inhabitants. From thence to Lana, which was one of the finest inland towns I had met with in Portugal, and in whose streets the wine ran in streams. 'Twas now nearly enveloped in flames, while the few inhabitants that remained were left lying in their plundered houses, through wounds, sickness or hunger, being unable to escape the devouring elements perished in the flames. Before we entered the town, to the right of the road was a fine olive grove.., now nearly all destroyed, having been an encampment for cavalry. Close to them lay a lad about 12 years old, who appears to have just expired. But such a sight as he presented will never leave my mind. The few rags he had on and every part of him appeared to be one moving mass of vermin.'
The sufferings of the British forces and their allies, in
the frequently pitiless terrain of the Iberian Peninsula, is
no less graphically evoked (pp 116-117):
'[On] the 2nd day's march from Salamanca, a woman a little to the right of the column had sunk under her hardships and expired, but her infant was still alive, and a little further on her left a Portuguese soldier, worn with hunger and fatigue, had also sunk in the mud and was totally unable to extricate himself. Though not more than 50 yards off, no assistance could be given as the means of conveyance was [on] our front as far as Cuidad Rodrigo. Our adjutant made an attempt to rescue him, by riding up and taking hold of his hand, but to no purpose. There he was left, and most likely it was his grave, as the enemy were close at hand, who,.., be well assured, would not give themselves [more] trouble with him than we, but expend a ball upon him rather than a biscuit.'
Secondly, one observes an attitude of stoicism couched
in a grim humour, clearly evinced in the writer's narrative
of the period spent in hospital following his being
wounded at the siege of St Sebastian. Some of the
passages which exemplify this aspect are decidedly not
for the squeamish, as in the case of the following extract
'The weather being uncommonly warm, and the numbers of wounded so great... we could not get [the wounds] dressed as often as necessary; so that out of some of the wounds great long tailed maggots would be tumbling about the floor, and these wounds were considered the most unwholesome, as these customers lived on the corrupted flesh which, if left alone, would have turned to mortification. Still, it must be admitted [they] were none the most desirable companions.'
Thirdly, a note of incongruous farce often intervenes
into the stress of combat, as illustrated in the following
passage relating to a minor action at Palencia (p 108):
'A Sergeant of our company of the name of Thornton [who] had 3 or 4 days crop of a beard, had seized on the opportunity to reap [ie to shave], and had just concluded his favourite lilt of "Tom Toldrum knows that his uncle is well, etc", with his face in the suds, while the razor was rasping away over the cheek... when the round shot(12) mentioned struck the column. Tom jumps up and says "There I am", throwing the implements into knapsack, bundles it up and off he goes. But the sight of Tom half-shaved, and half-suds, was truly laughable. Nor did he get the remainder shorn for two days afterwards.'
A second notable instance of this trait occurs in the
author's narration of the siege of Burgos (pp 101-102):
'[We were] moving on, expecting to be engaged. One of our old privies [latrines] [had] been closed up with earth, so that unless you were aware of the spot you would have been deceived. This was the case with a man of our Company named Ralph Moore. Poor Ralph, I suppose, was more intent on watching the enemy than where he set his foot... The slight covering gave way, in he floundered, and not without some difficulty got extricated, but the sight of Ralph and the perfume which he caused will never leave my memory. Of course he was no use in the ranks, and as to his arms and accoutrements they were completely spoiled, and even had this not been the case [nobody] could have stood the stench. Accordingly he fell out to get washed and join us as best he could. Ralph was a true bred cockney, and used to say "I'd rather be hung in London than die a natural death in Portugal."'
[The economy and vividness with which the personality of Ralph Moore is outlined is characteristic of Douglas' skill in sketching the characters of those with whom he came into contact. Two further examples which may be cited in this respect are the drunken naval Warrant Officer with whom the author clashes at a later point in his narrative (cf below) and the incisively etched portrait of the grim and sardonic battalion commander, Lt Col Hay, who frequently recurs in the body of the work.]
[Centre figure: Dragoon, 1st Regiment (Royals) (From Goddard & Booth, Military Costumes of Europe, 1812)]
The abundant humour evident in the text is not of a
uniform character. The two illustrations cited above contain
distinct overtones of farce. However, a more subtle,
ironic temper is implicit in the following passage, relating
to the period when the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Scots
were based at Westcapelle (in the Netherlands) in the
closing stages of the Walcheren Expedition of 1809 (on p 45):
'A button off the greatcoat with the eye smoothed down passed for a shilling... Major Gordon sent his servant one morning for change of a guinea; he returned in a little time, but what must have been the Major's surprise, when out of 21 shillings, 17 turned out to be soldiers' buttons. He immediately conjectured how this type of coin came into circulation, and ordered a parade with loose greatcoats. For every large button missing he charged 1/- and for every small one 6d. Nor could they grumble, as they had only to refund the money they had received.'
The South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, is privileged to hold both Douglas' medal group and his diary.
1. Brander, AM, The Royal Scots (Leo Cooper, London, 1976), Famous
Regiments series; ed by Sir Brian Horrocks, pp 33, 34, 37.
2. The primary source of the information contained in this section is a letter written by Mrs A W Douglas, great-granddaughter of the writer of the memoirs, to the South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg, dated April 1986.
3. Monick, S, Shamrock and Springbok: The Irish impact on South African Military History, 1689-1914 (South African Irish Regimental Association, Johannesburg, 1989), p 6. The above-quoted source cites the following reference: Voltaire, I F M A de, The age of Louis XIV; trans by M A Pollack (Dent & Sons, London, 1961), p 189.
4. Marlborough laid siege to the city, which capitulated to his forces, after extremely heavy British losses, on 3/4 September 1711.
5. Marlborough launched an audacious surprise attack on the fortified Schellanburg Hill on 2 July 1704. The hill overlooked the fortress of Donauworth, the latter of which he captured without siege.
6. Battle of Malplaquet (11 September 1709).
7. A light company fulfilled the functions of a light infantry battalion on a company scale, ie repelling enemy skirmishers and sharpshooters (who formed an important component of the French armies and preceded the main columnar attack), probing for enemy weaknesses, scouting and sniping.
8. The term 'grape shot' was often used in reference to case (or cannister) shot, more specifically, heavy case shot. Case, or cannister, shot was fired by cannons and howitzers, and consisted of a tin case containing a number of loose bullets, of a size to fit the bore. The case compacted the bullets together during its passage up the bore. When it emerged from the muzzle, the bullets were released to continue their deadly passage over the immediate frontage of the gun position. It was purely a close range projectile, the lethal range of the bullets limited to a maximum of 500 yards, and was thus primarily intended for repelling the last stages of an assault, which appears to have been the French objective in the situation which Douglas is here describing.
9. A typical battalion of the period consisted of ten companies. Each company possessed a nominal strength of 100, but might number no more than 60. The battalion formed the wartime tactical unit and was normally commanded by a lieutenant-colonel.
10. The prime purpose of the grenadier was the delivery of primitive, hand-held bombs - the ancestor of the modern grenade - and the emergence of this type of soldier, who presages the modern elite shock assault troops exemplified by commandos, is symptomatic of the development of fortress warfare in Europe.
11. ie the Maoris. This reference furnishes further evidence of Douglas' wide reading and broad general knowledge.
12. Round shot was fired by ordinary cannon (as opposed to howitzers) and consisted of cannon balls; ie solid cast iron spheres, the weight of which (eg 3 pounds, 6 pounds) defined the size and classification of the cannon whence they were fired.
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