The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 2 - December 1995

(incorporating Museum Review)


by Stan Monick

* The first part of this article was published in the Military History Journal, Volume 10 No 1 (June 1995).


As stated previously, the memoirs of John Douglas must be firmly rooted in the military dimensions of the Peninsular War (1808-1816), in order to clearly define their significance for the military historian. The process involves having to furnish an external frame of reference in relation to certain military themes which strongly permeate Douglas's narrative. Such themes are: the social character of the Peninsular Army; tactics and drill; and logistics and supply. These facets strongly mould the record of Douglas's service at numerous points in the text.

The social character of the Peninsular Army

John Douglas was certainly far from typical of the rank and file which fought in Wellington's Army in the Peninsula as, to reiterate, he was a man of education and apparently a member of the substantial middle classes. The opening pages of the main body of his memoirs attest to the fact that he had served a five year apprenticeship and had friends who were prepared to finance him in the establishment of a business. [At that time he had been living in the vicinity of Belfast]. In the light of these factors, his decision to enlist in the ranks of the 1st (Royal Scots) Regiment of Foot in 1809 was truly remarkable, when one considers the social profile of the British Army at that time.

The Catholic-Irish peasantry had dominated the ranks since the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when the restrictions upon the recruitment of this sector had been abolished; whilst most of the remainder had entered the service through desperate force of circumstances. As Correlli Barnett writes:(13)
'The British Army did not reflect the balance of British society. Since the restrictions on the recruitment of Catholic peasants had been removed in the 1780s, there had been a flood of Irish peasants - to the extent that the Commander-in-Chief hesitated to send troops to Ireland in 1797 to put down the feared rebellion because whole regiments were full of Irish. Although the Irish were hardy and brave, they were also ignorant, mad for drink, violent and without self-discipline. The jails of England continued to yield their army of drunks, felons, debtors and psychopaths. There was a leavening of intelligent and "respectable" men in the ranks who had enlisted because of some single social lapse, like getting a girl with child, and of men who chose a soldier's life either for the bounty or delusions of military glory, or for some other reasons not readily apparent.'

John Stevenson, in his book, A soldier in time of war, (London, 1841) comments on p 153 on the social calibre of the British Army, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, in the following terms:
'... of those who voluntarily enlist, some few are driven by poverty.., but some have disgraced themselves in their situation or employment, many have committed misdemeanours which expose them to the penalties of the law of the land, and most are confirmed drunkards - in fact generally speaking such as have been the pests of their neighbourhoods, the annoyance of all respectable persons, the plague of magistracy, and the trouble of the parish officers.'

There was thus very little inducement for 'respectable' men to serve in the Army, to which such a social taint was attached. (Indeed, the soldier continued to be considered - in the eyes of the general public - in the light of an anti-social beast, until his appalling conditions and environment were publicized by the reportage of the Crimean War of 1854-1856.) Dislike of, and antagonism towards the standing army was a marked characteristic of social attitudes within all 'respectable' levels of society. One authority states:(14)
'Dislike of the military was not confined entirely to radical spokesmen and writers. Major Edward Macready recalled that the reception accorded to the 30th on its return from Waterloo was anything but cordial. "We were barbarously treated at Ramsgate, overcharged by an inn keeper at Margate, drenched to the skin every day, and looked crossly on by everyone but the waiters at the inns. As to the peasantry a civil word could not be extracted from them." (15) To feel unease at the approach of a redcoat was understandable. Reports of rakish and riotous behaviour by both officers and men recurred throughout this period, often circulating in the provincial and radical press.'

John Douglas was one of the minority who enlisted for 'reasons not readily apparent'. Indeed, he appears to have been actually motivated by a sincere interest in the profession of arms (and on p 33 makes reference to having previously served in the Yeomanry). The dominant impression which emerges with regard to his motive for attesting for service is a desire for adventure, for he states (on p 33), '... I confess I felt a secret pleasure in seeing strange places and in hopes of visiting others, of which I had read much about.'

With regard to the question of Douglas's remarkable degree of education for a ranker, the following figures relating to the literacy rate within the rank and file of the British Army in 1857 - more than half a century after his enlistment - are most revealing as an index of the state of affairs prevailing at the time of his attestation for service. The percentage unable to read and write was estimated at 20,5%; the percentage able to read but not write, and barely able to sign their own name, was 18,8%; the percentage able to read and write a little was 56%; and those with a 'superior degree of education' was 4,7%.(16)

No less than in the Navy of the period, the harshest possible discipline - especially exemplified by the practice of flogging - was considered to be essential to enforce obedience to the military code; the resort to which was confirmed (in the eyes of the military authorities) by the generally low social level of the recruits and their corresponding susceptibility to indiscipline, alcohol abuse, etc. This aspect of the military life of the period is clearly evoked in Douglas's memoirs. His battalion commander, Lt-Col Hay, was clearly a firm adherent to this school of thought. After sentencing a man to 800 lashes (of which 775 were delivered) Hay states (p 35):
'Now Sir, I would sooner flog you for giving insolence to a lance corporal than for striking an officer, for that is the link in the chain by which the whole army is fastened.'

It was not uncommon for officers to mete out sentences of 1 000 lashes and more. Whilst, to the contemporary reader, such practices bespeak of a fearsome cruelty, one must bear in mind that the social configuration and complexion of institutions (notable among which are the armed forces) reflect the climate of the society in which they are rooted. Until the 1830s, over 200 crimes involved the death sentence (including the theft of property in excess of one shilling); and small children could be hanged or transported for petty theft.

There was a further reason for the widespread belief in the efficacy of the lash. The tactics of the period placed an overwhelming emphasis upon automatic and unthinking obedience to pre-determined drills. With the exception of the Rifle Corps and light infantry regiments, individual enterprise and initiative formed extremely low priorities. Such a climate of control would be synonymous with the most draconian incentives to inflexible obedience. The Commander-in-Chief of the Peninsular Army, the Duke of Wellington, possessed implicit faith in the value of flogging as the main antidote to the army dissolving into a criminal mob. While there were, admittedly, senior commanders who dissented from such attitudes - Lt-Gen Sir John Moore being an obvious example - even the more humane methods which they advocated yielded to the lash in times of crisis. Brig-Gen Robert Crauford - a notorious exponent of the efficacy of flogging - prevented his units from disintegrating during the terrible retreat from Corunna by the extensive use of the cat-o-nine tails. Only in the light infantry regiments (in which Moore had been trained) and in the Rifle Corps does one observe the application of less severe discipline. [This factor probably derived from the extremely high esprit de corps which prevailed within the Rifle Regiment - or Corps of Riflemen, as it was first designated. The recruits were all volunteers from other regiments and were conscious of the extremely high standards expected of them, with regard to marksmanship, field craft, etc.]

It was not only the senior officers who possessed an implicit faith in the necessity of the lash. Their attitudes were strongly shared by the men of good character and background within the rank-and-file. Douglas may well have shared this attitude. It is, perhaps, significant that when he records the flogging of the man who received 775 lashes (cf above), he makes no comment upon the matter (although he is certainly far from inhibited in speaking his mind) and certainly does not appear to be outraged in any sense. Similarly, James Anton, who served as Quartermaster-Sergeant of the 42nd Highlanders, remarks:(17)
'Philanthropists who decry the lash ought to consider in what manner the good men - the deserving exemplary soldiers - are to be protected; if coercive measures are to be resorted to in purpose to prevent ruthless ruffians from insulting with immunity the temperate, the well-inclined and the orderly disposed, the good must be left to the mercy of the worthless.'

The dominant impression that emerges from Douglas's narrative of the Peninsular Army is that the British forces possessed what might be defined as a profound inner social cohesiveness. The relationships between the rank and file and commissioned ranks do not appear to have been characterised by any noteworthy degree of acrimony or antagonism. Indeed, one gains the distinct impression that a high degree of camaraderie existed between the commissioned and non-commissioned ranks. [To a large extent, Wellington - far from being generally regarded as a humane and approachable figure - personified this relationship. One recalls Douglas's comments on p 89 regarding the widespread esteem in which the Commander-in-Chief was held.(18) Nor should this be surprising, as those in the ranks had been socialized to automatically accept such a hierarchy, emblematic of that prevailing within the larger society in which the Army was anchored. Social distance, reinforced by a draconian discipline, certainly does not appear to have generated any major tensions between the vastly separated social echelons; a distance underpinned by the dominance of the aristocracy and gentry within the officer establishment ensured by the purchase system which strongly militated against meritocracy.

However, the probable ultimate source of this cohesiveness were the unifying bonds generated by regimental (or battalion) loyalties, which transcended socially divisive factors. The consciousness of the regimental traditions formed the pivot of the soldier's loyalties and formed the most powerful focus of the soldier's allegiance within the infantry and cavalry. It has often been remarked that there is no 'Royal Army' as there has traditionally been a Royal Navy and, latterly, a Royal Air Force. The underlying truth of this observation is that the British Army emerged on the basis of a series of separatist, almost tribalist entities, their group loyalties cemented by traditions and experiences unique to themselves. Douglas testifies to the powerful sense of loyalty generated by the battalion in which he served after only several months' most arduous service. On p 46 we read: 'The Battalion, having returned home, were quartered in Malden, Essex. I used every means in my power to join them again, but contrary to my expectations, had to join the 4th Battalion until completely recovered. That was a blow I was not prepared for, and I think at that time that transportation would have been nearly as acceptable.'

At a later point, after having rejoined the 3rd Battalion, he writes (p 46):
'I must appeal to the feelings of the soldier, after an absence of some time occasioned by sickness [to appreciate] the joy he feels at again meeting his comrades, and the hearty welcome he receives can only be surpassed by the parental home.'

Certainly, the Peninsular Army emerges from Douglas's memoirs as a force possessing powerful bonds of loyalty and a markedly strong esprit de corps. This facet is clearly exemplified by the striking example of the response to the call for volunteers to storm St Sebastian. Douglas writes (p 142):
'In the course of the evening the orders were issued and the different regiments told off for the storm, which was to take place at 10 o'clock the following day: Sunday the 31st August. Volunteers for the forlorn hope were called for, and I believe every man nearly wished to go. So many offered their services that, in order to satisfy them, lots had to be cast. Independent of the division, a great number of volunteers from other divisions of the army arrived to assist. A number of non-commissioned officers of the brigade met at sunset under some apple tree, for the purpose of bidding good-bye. The liquor went round in full bumpers, to the health of distant friends. With a few good songs and jokes we parted, with hearty wishes for each other's safety, but this was our last meeting, as nearly all were either killed or badly wounded.'

Battle of Talavera. Reproduction from a French print.
(With kind acknowledgement to the National Army Museum, London).

A further illustration is furnished by an incident which occurs immediately prior to the launching of the attack on St Sebastian on 31 August. Douglas writes, on p 142: 'We had just entered the trenches below the convent when we met our old General Leith [being carried] up wounded, lying in a blanket. He had just joined the Division the day before, after being recovered from his wounds which he received at Salamanca. Some of the men cried out "Oh" [at] this [sight], and "There's the old General"; others "We'll have revenge for that". In a feeble voice he exclaimed, "I would not doubt you."'

A further noteworthy example of this high degree of esprit de corps occurs in Chapter 21, where Douglas records the appeal by the military authorities for those whose seven years' service had expired to renew their military engagement. The writer states on pp 124-5:
'It was really laughable to see the Drum Major, with his cap decorated with ribbons, going through all the ceremonies of recruiting as in a country fair, endeavouring to prevail on them to renew their bond for seven years or life. The greater part, for all their hardships, [signed] on again ...'

However, the aftermath of the siege of Badajoz (17 March - 6 April 1812) exemplifies a marked exception to the discipline and cohesiveness which emerges from Douglas's account of Wellington's Peninsular Army. The narrator graphically evokes the anarchy which prevailed among the British troops following the storming of the town (p 80):
'Fancy so many thousand soldiers, let loose, unrestrained by any authority, mad after such slaughter, and I might say doubly so with brandy and rum. The excesses committed were horrible, nor could it be avoided, as any officer who would recall them to a sense of their duty ran the hazard of his life. An officer of the 30th Regiment lost his life in attempting to save a young woman from violation.'

The uncontrollable undercurrent of violence and anarchy within the rank-and-file, implicit in Douglas's narrative of the events following the capture of Badajoz, contributes to our understanding of the source of the draconian discipline then prevailing.

Tactics and drill

Since the dawn of the eighteenth century, the infantry had emerged as the queen of the battlefield, proving to be the decisive arm. The most common tactical formation adopted by Wellington when confronting the French in battle was that of the line. A battalion, when fighting in this formation, positioned all its companies side by side, each company aligned in two ranks. The companies were numbered or lettered, and stood in their pre-arranged order from right to left. Soldiers were permitted a distance of 21 inches (53 cm) from one another in the ranks. Thus, a strong battalion could occupy a frontage of up to 250 yards (228 in). The lines would often advance after having been formed, but would do so at an extremely slow pace, in order to avoid breaking ranks and thus exposing itself to cavalry ripostes.

Battle of Busaco. This view of the battle depicts the British infantry making their appearance in line
to confront the French infantry as they struggled up the steep slope, to be thrown back in confusion..
(With kind acknowledgement to the National Army Museum, London).

If the line lacked cover and a light infantry screen, it could endure heavy punishment. It is important to bear in mind that, whilst the battalion remained the basic tactical unit of the line, the formation often comprised several battalions, forming a brigade; each battalion slightly distanced from one another.

Douglas records with pride the advance of the British line at Salamanca on 22 July 1812 (p 91):
'A few paces brought us to the crest of the hill when we became exposed to the fire of all the guns they could bring to bear on us. I think the advance of the British at Salamanca never was exceeded in any field. Captain Stewart of our Company, stepping out of the ranks to the front, lays hold of Captain Glover, cries 'Glover, did you ever see such a line?" I am pretty confident that in the Regiments which composed our line there was not a man six inches out of his place.'

The firing would occur whilst the front rank knelt and the second remained standing. The normal practice was for volleys to be fired by platoons, thereby producing a ripple effect. When the fire of the latter platoons commenced, the muskets of the earlier platoons would have been reloaded, thereby producing a continuous volley. [During the eighteenth century the three rank formation had been favoured by military commanders, but it was discarded during the Napoleonic Wars, as the fire in the third rank could not be brought to bear, and troops in three ranks only utilized two thirds of their fire power.]

The line was invariably adopted in the face of enemy infantry, but was also the common formation in opposition to cavalry (an unbroken front of bristling bayonets providing a terrible deterrent to horses), provided that the flanks were always secure. The flanks were obviously extremely sensitive areas of the line formation, and the artillery was directed to secure them with guns of the most powerful calibre.

It should be borne in mind that broken ground could disrupt the line formation of an entire battalion. Douglas attests to this factor in his account of the Battle of Busaco on 27 September 1810, when he states on p 50:
'The morning of the 27th September 1810 was ushered in by the pickets popping at each other, at first little notice was taken, but the fire increasing rapidly, we got under arms and marched to the support of the troops defending the centre... A small opening between the rocks admitted of a few companies wheeling into the line, while the enemy on either side of the rocks kept up a quick and destructive fire.'

Similarly, the obstacle of broken ground could prevent the line formation consisting of multiple battalions (ie as a brigade), as Douglas also remarks (pp 50-1):
'The Brigade being left in front, brought the 9th first into action, as the ground would not admit of more than one regiment, the 38th supported the 9th while we inclined to the left to form on the face of the ridge, ere we had got into line.'

Obviously, the efficacy of such a system demanded the strictest ingrained discipline. For infantrymen to break ranks in the line could prove disastrous, as the cavalry might then swoop into the breach thus created and take the troops in the flank. Similarly, a bulge which might occur when the men advanced forward of the line could expose the infantry to fire from either side, whilst they were deprived of the supporting fire of their comrades.

The square was the other most common tactical formation adopted in Wellington's Army, Waterloo being, of course, the outstanding example. The square was formed of four-deep lines of infantry, each series of lines being positioned at right angles to one another. The four-rank depth in square - as opposed to the two-rank formation in line - was intended to cushion the shock of a cavalry assault and furnish replacements for casualties incurred in the forward lines. The square represented the classical formation for 'all round' defence against cavalry and could be formed from either column or line. Douglas comments on the infantry's dependence upon the square to provide protection against cavalry attacks and, further, remarks on the conversion from square to line, and vice versa. In recounting the Battle of Quatre Bras on 16 June 1815, he states (p 161):
'Their cavalry being numerous, whereas we had none, we were obliged to form square against cavalry and, after sending them to the four winds, form line against infantry. Thus for want of cavalry we were kept forming squares between 2 and 3 o'clock in the afternoon until near dark. When in square they piled us tight with round [shot] and line with grape [shot] so that the [regiment] was prematurely cut down by an invisible hand as between the two fires and the trampling of the men and horses it was laid low in a short time. In one charge of the Cuirassiers we were so short taken, not being aware of the advance of the cavalry, that the 28th Regiment and we had to form one square with Picton in the centre. On came the lancers full charge at one face but the murderous fire they received swept them off their saddles in great style. Thus they persevered in breaking the square, making a trial at each face until very few of them were left to carry the intelligence to their comrades on the defeat of the cavalry.'

Douglas attests, in the above quoted extract, to the square's major tactical defect - its extreme vulnerability to concentrated artillery fire. Thus, at Quatre Bras, the square formed by the 33rd Regiment was subjected to fire, at point blank range, by two French batteries, resulting in casualties of approximately ten officers and 100 men. The regiment was compelled to fall back rapidly, after which it was reformed.

Logistics and supply

The problems of logistics and supply in the Peninsular War loom large in Douglas's memoirs. His ability to incisively illustrate the fundamental factors inhibiting the mobility of the British Army in the Peninsula is vividly illustrated in the following extract (pp 62-3):
'The pursuit commenced at all points. But this proved to be one of the hungriest marches we encountered during the war. Nor will it appear strange how this could happen when rightly understood. Say the troops marched four or five leagues each day at least, while the Commissariat mules with their provisions were not able to make three or three [and a half]. Thus every day we were getting further away from our own rations, without the smallest hope of relief on our front.'

Such problems, of course, were magnified with regard to the French forces, in direct proportion to their far greater size. [Such logistical inhibiting factors did not, of course, cease with the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, they were to plague the campaigns of the British Army throughout the nineteenth century; being shaping influences in the Abyssinian Expedition of 1867-8, the Zulu War of 1879, the Egyptian and Sudanese Campaigns of 1882-9, and several others. Even the advent of the railways did not alleviate the situation, as the beast of burden remained crucial to the movement of Victorian armies after the railheads had reached their terminus, as the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 was to prove.] Douglas's observations, cited above, reinforce the impressions of a soldier who could detach himself from his immediate experiences and involvement, and analyze objectively the central factors moulding the military scenario.

Within this context of logistics and supply, a marked contrast between the British and French approaches to the provisioning of their armies emerges in the course of Douglas's text. Wellington's Peninsular Army appears to have adopted far less rapacious and ruthless methods of obtaining supplies. The narrator is emphatic on this point. He states, in the course of relating the retreat from Burgos (pp 105-6):
'As to the soldiers plundering the inhabitants, I give it my most decided contradiction. For be it remembered the Spaniards do not live in that settled way in which the British do, but in villages for... greater security. And these were too well looked after to be plundered, [we] not being allowed to enter them but march past and find the best beds you could on wet earth.'

Where the Commissariat was found wanting, food was purchased from the local population (often at considerable cost to the soldier). Within this context, Douglas writes (p 69):
'We fell back on a village called Nuve De Uver, being on the frontiers of Spain. Our women used to make excursions into it with their donkeys and bring fine bread but so dear that a dollar and a half for a 3 lb loaf was considered a prize, and I do assure you the Paymaster was in no more (or perhaps not in so great) a hurry as the Commissary, so that for several months we could not obtain a sous in this respect. Men just coming into the country were worse off than the old [hands], as every man had to, or must consider himself in debt until six months in credit.'

[It should, however, be added that Douglas and his comrades certainly did not hesitate to scavenge desperately needed provisions when the opportunity presented itself, as will become apparent below. As he states on p 106: 'I certainly say where we could obtain a little wine or grub we would not scruple in making it our own and even at this remote period it would require sound judgement to convince me by doing so of having broken the Eighth Commandment, for it is said necessity has no law.']

It is noteworthy that Douglas testifies to the ruthless attitude towards looting on the part of the British military authorities (eg the hanging of the two Germans caught in a wine cellar, as related by Douglas on p 56). In this respect, Wellington may well have been an early practitioner of the 'hearts and minds' policy, to employ modern parlance; ie attempting to secure the co-operation of the local population by psychological means. In view of the important role played by the indigenous population in pinning down the French forces in policing and garrisoning duties, the sympathetic attitude of the Portuguese and Spanish must have been a factor of no small importance.


The foregoing discussion has been primarily concerned with the value of Douglas's memoirs as an important contribution to the literature of the Peninsular War. However, a further important dimension implicit in the work is the character of the writer. Three major facets emerge in this respect.


The first may be defined in terms of the nineteenth century concept of 'sensibility', the approximate counterpart of the modem trait defined as 'sensitivity'. In one important respect Douglas's approach to soldiering is far from characteristic of the rank-and-file and is symptomatic of a background which, in the nineteenth century, would have been categorized as 'genteel'. His observations are interwoven with a profound sensitivity to the suffering incurred by the civilian population. Thus, on pp 54-5 we read:
'To this day when I look back on the retreat from Busaco, I still pity the unfortunate inhabitants plundered by both friends and enemies, but it is not possible for those unaccustomed to such sights to form the most distant idea of the distress of the inhabitants... If you could picture to yourselves a family hastily packing up the most valuable of their substance on one or more bullock carts, bidding no doubt a farewell to the spot of their birth; a spot in all probability, if they survived and returned, the naked walls alone pointed out the spot where joy and gladness reigned.'

The suffering of the civilian population is also referred to in poignant terms on p 59, within the context of the retreat to the lines of Torres Vedras:
'These poor creatures, their little all in front of them and their little all diminishing daily, nay hourly. Yet clinging like the shipwrecked mariner to the last spar, they wandered on, cared for by none, plundered by all, till at length they sat down penniless to perhaps a rigid winter in rear of the British batteries. Hear this statement, ye sons of Britain, and wonder. 'Tis easy for me to tell you this fact, and as easy for you to read it, and for a moment be inclined to pity the unhappy sufferers. But how thankful ought the inhabitants of these favoured Isles be to the Author of all mercies, who has preserved them from the desolating hand of war.'

This characteristic is strongly implicit in Douglas's observations whilst returning to England along the Gaberone River en route to Pollyhack, whence the troops were to embark for England. He states (p 153):
'Often have I, whilst smoking my pipe on deck, cast a glance over the beautiful expanse, and turning over in [my] mind the outward beauty, pictured to myself that though so fair to look upon, no doubt many of the white-washed walls contained the venerable remains of sorrowing parents over the earthly loss of a dear child, fallen perhaps in battle, over whose remains the page of history alone can tell the fatal spot on which he fell, in defence of his country, never to return to these happy, or more properly speaking beautiful abodes, though now the olive branch weaved throughout the land.'

The heavily sentimental syntax in which the above observations are couched are potentially, perhaps, a source of derision; but Douglas's style must be viewed within the context of his age, and should not detract from the genuineness of the feelings which are encapsulated in the above extracts.


Douglas's sensitivity is allied with a powerful spirit of independence, which introduces the second major aspect of the writer's character to emerge from his memoirs. There are several striking illustrations of this trait. Firstly, one may cite the incident which occurs immediately before the battle of Fuentes D'Onor on 5 May 1811 (and which also testifies to Douglas's considerable physical prowess). The narrator states on pp 71-2:
'The bridge leading over the Coa [River] here was covered with our nine-pounder, close to which I and a man of the name of Teal [were] posted. He had been Corporal and on the march from Torres Vedras had affronted me, but it was out of my power to resent it at the time. Teal got reduced [in rank], and now being on equal footing with him, and not in the best of humours from hunger, I thought of his behaviour. I says, "Teal do you remember the march from Torres Vedras?" 'I do... what of that?" "Why then if you're a man stand up and box me." Folding his arms, and staring at me, he says, "... You beat all the men I ever saw pointing with your finger. There's the bloody French coming down the hill and you want me to go and box." It certainly was a rather ticklish place for boxing, as the balls were whizzing round the trees, at no measured time.'

The second marked illustration of Douglas's fiercely independent character is contained within the following extract (p 56):
'We pushed on towards Rymeo, a beautiful village outside of which we halted. Our wood and water parties were despatched in quest of those indispensables to commence cooking. I had my comrade's canteen with my own full of water, with something in the haversack, when five subaltern officers sitting on the trunk of a felled pine asked me for one of the canteens. "No gentlemen", was the reply, "You have servants of your own, and this is little enough for my comrades and I. They looked at each other, and I confess I felt the injustice of my refusal, but did not amend my conduct by returning and offering them a beverage.'(19)

The writer's independent spirit is further manifested, with dangerous repercussions, in the voyage to Ireland, in 1814 (pp 156-7):
'The storm continued to increase. Our Captain, to shun the... rocks, stood out to sea. When [he was] about to nail down the hatches, I sprung out on deck without shoe or stocking, drenched to the skin, while our Foremost and bowspruit were carried away.'

A highly amusing expression of this trait in Douglas's character is evident in Chapter 27. He was entrusted with the task of keeping British soldiers and sailors off the streets of St Andro, following his recuperation after being wounded at St Sebastian. One of those thus taken into custody was the extremely inebriated Master-at-Arms (the rank which is the approximate ancestor of the modern Chief Petty Officer) of the Kangaroo. The only available lodgement proved to be the guardhouse. At this the Warrant Officer vociferously protested (pp 151-2):
'"Was that fit usage for a British officer and a British sailor?", making use of language very unbecoming a gentleman, and kicking up such a row that no person or guard could sleep, even if the rats (with which the place was swarming) were so inclined. At length, my small stock of patience being totally exhausted, I gave him to understand that if he did not keep a [more civil] tongue in his head, I would gag him, and if that had not the desired effect I would stuff him into the black hole along with three men under sentence of death... and there let the rats eat him. All threatening was of no avail. He still kept on till at last into the condemned cell he was popped, but no stomach pump could have brought him so quickly to his senses. In about [half] an hour he begged and entreated to be liberated from among the midnight marauders, promising himself most faithfully to conduct himself well for the remainder of the night. Being liberated I gave him a blanket to take a nap, but no; so pulling out some money he wanted a refreshment in the shape of more liquor, but in this he was foiled. In a little time he began to reason with me on the impropriety of making him a prisoner. "No", said I, " you are no prisoner, but an intruder on our hospitality, and as soon as you have good daylight you may go where you please, and now let me tell you, I would serve your Admiral in the same way if I found him in the streets after hours, circumstanced as you were."'

Clearly, Douglas would not be deflected from his duties by the privileges of rank, and this characteristic is underscored by the epilogue to the episode (pp 152-3):
'The Provost, calling me aside, says 'I'm afraid you have brought yourself into trouble. Did you not know he was an officer?" "Yes, but your orders specified every British subject, and had I left him in the streets, and he to have been murdered, you would not have come forward and say that officers were exempt." This closed his mouth. Not so with Mr Officer, who threatened to report me to his commander. "Stop, my friend", cried I, 'As soon as I get relieved and rubbed up a little [ie smartened his appearance] you may expect to see me on board the Kangaroo, and I shall inform the Admiral of the whole affair." This was an attack he was not prepared to repel, and it was not even dreamt of. Calling the Provost, he begged of him to use his influence to prevent my making the report, as he was quite certain, if I had done so, he would be dismissed [from] the service. So turning the thing over in my mind as a bit of a spree [ie considering it to be comical] I promised not to make my report, on which, through the Provost, he begged me to [accept] a guinea for my trouble and the loan of my blanket. Thus I left him to finish his cruise.'

The amusing contest with the Master-at-Arms (and defence of his actions in the face of the Provost's interpretation of the affair) generates an inescapable impression of fearlessness, on Douglas's part, in the face of authority. One is justified in speculating that his 'superior' social background (relative to that of his comrades in the rank-and-file) underpinned this sense of confidence and independence. They were to prove critical to his well-being whilst he was in hospital and were expressed in his defiance of the surgeon (pp 149-150):
'The swelling having subsided, the doctors were for making an exchange of limbs, that is taking off the bad one and presenting me with a timber one instead, but I refused my consent, saying "If I am to go the limb shall go with me." This so displeased the General Doctor [ie the senior surgeon] that he did not pay me a visit for two days afterwards, and then observing the change for the better he says, 'Well my man, you'll save your limb yet!"

Religious faith

The third distinguishing feature of Douglas's character is a strong religious faith, clearly exemplified in the following reflections occasioned by his record of the Battle of Salamanca (pp 89-90):
'I cannot say, as I have heard some say, that they were no more concerned going into action than a common field day [ie a peacetime exercise]; but I am fully persuaded that the man possessed of a belief that there is a God... will have a kind of terror for which he cannot account, owing to the reflection that the next moment he may be numbered with the dead. For it's an awful thing to fall (particularly unprepared) into the hands of the living God. I am far, very far, from thinking, or wish it to be understood, that it is cowardice. No, but [show] me the man who knows he has an immortal soul, and advancing under the destructive fire of the enemy, but will in his inmost soul offer up the prayer of the publican. To bear me out in this, let twenty, thirty, nay as many thousands as ever mixed in battle, be advancing to the deadly strife and not one word can be heard in all that number, but [move] as silent as the grave. I now ask the reason for this awful silence. The answer is: each man is employed as he ought to be with his maker. But when the fire is opened all is forgotten save king and country.'


The fabric and structure of Douglas's work is powerfully influenced by the traditions of the eighteenth century picaresque novel (exemplified by such authors as Henry Fielding, Voltaire, Laurence Sterne and Daniel Defoe). The essence of this literary genre was the novel which did not aspire to any degree of profundity, the central motivating force being the desire to entertain. Its main characteristic was a highly variegated scenario, a constantly fluctuating background; accompanied by the detailed evocation of places and personalities (often humorous). Works such as Candide, A Sentimental Journey, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Moll Flanders immediately spring to mind within such a context.

These motifs are clearly discernible in Douglas's work, which captures a vivid portrayal of the physical, social and human scenario of the Iberian Peninsula. One encounters this characteristic at an early point in the text, in the author's extremely unflattering impression of Lisbon, which he first encountered upon disembarking there on 30 March 1810 (p 48):
'The appearance of the City from the River [ie the Tagus] is delightful, but... it is the filthiest city I believe in existence, as all sorts of nuisance gets leave to remain in the streets, such as dead cats, dogs, and filth of every description until the rain comes which is their only scavenger and sweeps all into the Tagus. The scent which the frying of fish sends forth from pans over charcoal fires at the different doors is not very agreeable to the stranger's nasal organ, while the lazy being stretched on stone benches, wrapped in shapeless cloaks, enjoying the heat, may be seen, suddenly raised into the heat of revenge upon their tormentors [ie rats], who are not so light of foot as those of the black breed.'

His humorous and picturesque evocation of the scenario which accompanied the 'recruitment' of Portuguese (in Chapter 5) clearly echoes the literary tradition referred to above (p 54):
'You must not expect to hear of a Sergeant conduct a party of men voluntarily enlisted as soldiers; but fancy for a moment a Gendarme, or move to the understanding of the generality of the British, a mounted policeman, with a rope fastened to the saddle and tail of the horse, and at a distance of two yards a man secured. In this manner have I seen as many as twenty or thirty on the string, moving on to the receiving depot, which was generally some old convent, where they were kept not on the best of fare, until they consented to volunteer.'

A striking embodiment of the picaresque tradition occurs in Chapter 26, detailing the writer's adventures at St Andro, where he recuperated from the wound that he had sustained at the siege of St Sebastian, The episode concerns the tension between the townspeople and the British garrison (p 150):
'Bull fights are a principal amusement in Spain, and here in the main street we were entertained with an exhibition of this sort, but the unfortunate man who engaged the bull got tossed into the air with his entrails round the animal's horns. The Spaniards at this got enraged, and commenced an attack on the poor maimed British [ie the wounded], and among others struck an officer. Word soon came to the depot, and [there] was a show of cripples of every description turned out that was fit to carry a firelock mustered in the square. [They] formed line, primed and loaded, while the Kangaroo sloop of war, which was guard ship, slipped her cable and ran alongside the square, [gun] ports open and guns run out ready for action. These preparations had a powerful effect on these midnight assassins, who retired before a few wounded British and took shelter in the castle.'

A prominent feature of the picaresque novel was the device of the journey, and the episodic adventures that it generated. Douglas recurrently utilizes this motif. A striking example occurs in Chapter 20, in which the author relates his adventures whilst escorting several waggon loads of sick and wounded on the road to Celiricio, following the engagement at Palencia. Douglas writes (pp 120-122):
'With our crazy overloaded waggons we made our way but slowly. It was now after sunset and a league and a half to march ere we were to get lodgings. One of the sick wished to walk a little and was indulged, I having to keep him company, but we got to the rear and lost sight of the main body. An old shepherd driving his flock to the fold, my sick man seized a fine lamb and clap't it under his greatcoat.'

'We turned to the right, which led to a village, but no soldiers were there. 'Twas now dark.., We were directed to a river at the end of the village where we might cross. It certainly might have been passable in daylight, but in the dark it required a steady head. The bridge consisted of large planks, or rather one plank about a foot broad. After looking in vain for a [proper] bridge, we found that cross we must, or remain there all night. We made the attempt. I slung Brown Bess(20) on my shoulder and for the greater security sat down on the planks, moving or creeping as well as I could until I gained the opposite side; [after which] my companion crossed in a similar way, that is rode the plank. But the worst of it was, he being weak in rising up, staggered a little and I endeavoured to prevent his falling in. My shoulder strap gave way and in went my firelock, in endeavouring to recover which we were both near being drowned, but ultimately recovered her. Here we were in a nice mess.

The British square at Waterloo.
(With kind acknowledgement to the National Army Museum, London).

To the road we went, but after wandering about for some time we gave over the idea of finding our companions that night. So down with the knapsack, out with the blanket and [we] lay down in [the] shelter of a stone fence to have a nap. But being so wet, and the night so cold, with the rain which beat in [on] our faces, prevented anything in the shape of repose. Up we started again, and had not proceeded half a mile when fortune threw a pizzano [rustic] on our way. I made inquiry concerning the sick and had the consolation of hearing they were entering the next village. Being ignorant of the road, I asked the old chap to act as guide, which he steadily refused. Fixing the bayonet I gave him his choice, either to show the road or get skewered. So, scratching his head, he led the way, and strange to say the waggons entered one end of the village while we entered the other.'

The above quoted passage reveals a novelettish skill by capturing both the humorous and dramatic elements of the narrative; the former illustrated by the deft seizure and concealment of the lamb by Douglas's companion; and the latter by the writer's aggressive and threatening behaviour towards the peasant. The narrative is characterized by continual movement in the depiction of events (eg the misadventure resulting from the crossing of the plank bridge.)

A further humorous episode, centring upon the misadventures encountered on the road, occurs in Chapter 16, relating the author's experiences in the course of the retreat from Burgos, when he was forced to escort three drunken comrades who had been left in the rear of the division's route. Douglas writes (pp 102-3):
'A little after dawn we reached a village, which we were convinced the Division had passed through. as it was mid-leg in mud. All was silent as the grave. By this time my precious charge began to come round a little, and seeing a light in a house we demanded admittance, but [were] refused, until we threatened to fire [into the house], on which the door opened and a pizzano stood at the side of an oven hard at work. He begged to be excused from sharing with us; a request which we could not conscientiously comply with, so seized a 4 lb (1,8 kg) crusher [ie hammer] and left him in no doubt pretty well satisfied in getting off so [easily]. On leaving the village we unfortunately took to the main road, and so missed the Division. In the course of two hours we reached another village, and entered another house in search of some refreshment, but met with a stout denial... Anything in the shape of provisions had been carefully concealed. However, on looking up a chimney we found one of the finest chovieces [a type of sausage] I ever saw... [We quickly cooked this] and [it]... made an excellent meal, but,... being highly seasoned... rendered drink very desirable. Accordingly, a search commenced and succeeded in discovering a cask concealed in the cellar, from which [we slaked our thirst].'

The two passages quoted above vividly illustrate the author's essentially pragmatic attitude towards the procuring of provisions. The third amusing adventure occasioned by travel occurs at a late point in the memoirs, following the Battle of Waterloo (in Chapter 33). In this episode, Douglas and a comrade are pursued after a drunken encounter with a distinguished personage. Douglas recounts the incident in his inimitable style (pp 167-8):
'One night a Sergeant of the 95th and I... adjourned into a grand cafe to regale ourselves, as well as to take shelter from a heavy shower coming on. Not willing to intrude without recompense [ie recompensing the owner of the cafe] we drank pretty freely. At length to the road we went, as wet inside as out [ie drunk], when outside the bafflers, some ladies and gentlemen were sauntering about... One of the gents made inquiry where we were going, it being after hours... A person wearing a coloured coat, making himself so officious in soldiers concerns, rather irritated us [and] to his astonishment received for answer 'Ask our A-." Upon this he sung out most lustily for the Guard, a number of which turned out. But you may rest assured, there was not much dirt stuck to our heels. The men pursued, but not with the intention of capturing us, so after about half-a-mile of a run we halted. All's right, having escaped the fangs of our pursuers. We jogged on, and down came the rain again, which the large trees on each side of the road kept off for a time, when up drives a carriage. We demanded admittance, but [were] stoutly refused, as it contained an old French gentleman. Seizing the reins, I then put one foot on the spoke of the wheel to ascend, when the driver gives the animals the whip. My leg got entangled in the wheel, and away I went, quick as steam... On the road I lay unable to move. My comrade dragged me [into] shelter and started to look for the orderly book, which was lost in the scuffle, but could not be found. In a little time I recovered and resumed our march towards the camp, wet and dirty minus the orderly book. The night proved very wet and early in the morning a pizzano offered the book for sale to a comrade Sergeant, who paid him with threatening him with the General, but it was swelled three times to ordinary size with the wet. Perhaps you are curious to know who the Gent was who sung out for the guard, and I dare say will be a little surprised to hear of no less a personage than Lord Castlereagh.'


The memoirs of John Douglas correspond to the modern concept of a documentary novel, being powerfully moulded by the impress of the eighteenth century picaresque novel. In this respect, the text is characterized by a highly unique combination of both the humanistic and strictly historical. Epochal events in military history are couched within the context of an important tradition within English literature. The panoramic scope of the Peninsular War which Douglas so graphically evokes is interwoven with his highly individualized style of narrative. Thus, the reader is absorbed into a drama enacted upon both a collective scale (ie the movement and clash of armies) and also on a deeply personal level. With regard to this latter aspect, Douglas is both honest and emphatic in stating the immediate, personalized parameters of his work (p 31):
'It must not be supposed that I intend to enter into a lengthened detail of the operations of the different Divisions, Brigades, etc which composed the British Army of the Peninsula, but simply relate what I have been an eye witness to.'

The balance which the author strikes between these two facets of the conflict in the Iberian Peninsular, the personal and the collective, renders Douglas's Tale of the Peninsula a highly unique contribution to the literature of the Napoleonic Wars. The deeply personal impress of the work powerfully enhances the reader's empathy towards the scenario and events so vividly and dramatically captured by Douglas's pen. The uniqueness of the work is greatly enhanced by the isolated social position which the writer occupied, as a ranker in Wellington's army.


13. Barnett, Correlli, Britain and her Army 1509-1970 (Penguin, Harmondsworth (Middlesex), 1984), p 241.
14. Spiers, Edward M, The Army and society 1815-1914 (Longman, London, New York, 1980), p 73.
15. Extract from the Journals of Major Edward Macready. United Service Magazine, Part III, September 1852, p 68.

16. Figures quoted by Skelley, A R The Victorian army at home (McGill-Queen's University Press, London: Croom Helm; Montreal, 1977) p 87.
17. Cited by Glover, R Peninsular Preparation: the reform of the British Army 1795-1809 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1963), p 178; quoted by Barnett, Britain and her Army 1509-1970, p 242.
18. See S Monick, 'The Memoirs of Sergeant John Douglas, Late of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Royal Scots (Part One)' in Military History Journal, Vol lO No 1, (June l995),p 11.
19. There is an historically revealing postscript to this incident, Douglas writes (p 56):
'It is a fact that in 19 cases out of 20 the subaltern soldiers were, in respect of food, worse off than the private soldier, as their rank prohibited them from partaking in, or looking for a little grub if it could be found; not that a good fellow, as he was termed, whose eyes were not always open, would be forgotten if any roughness was in the way.'
The episode related by Douglas casts an interesting light on several aspects of Wellington's Peninsular army. First, it reveals that discipline was considerably laxer in the field, as a private soldier could refuse, with impunity, the requests of officers. Second, it illustrates the plight of junior officers, who did not have the liberty of scavenging for provisions possessed by the rank-and-file. Third, the phrase beginning, 'not that a good fellow...' implies that junior officers, who were liked by their men, would be allowed to share in the latter's 'acquisitions' of food.
20. 'Brown Bess' was the popular term employed by the British soldier for his flintlock musket.

Map showing Rietfontein camp in relation to Silkaatsnek
and the arc of probability on the left flank where
Pilkington may have been found.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /