The Customs of the Army – Life in Wellington’s Peninsular Army

With four of the Peninsular War Saga published on Kindle and in paperback, I thought it was time to update this post on life in Wellington’s Peninsular Army.

Leaving O’Reilly and Carter to line up the men and march them to the

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

barracks, Paul rode on ahead. He was surprised to hear signs of activity on his approach. Perhaps after all their new lieutenants were managing drills already. If that were true, it was a good sign. Touching his heel to Rufus’ flank he cantered further ahead of his company and rode in through the arched gate of the barracks, noticing that the painted sign was hanging down. He would set somebody to righting it tomorrow.
Abruptly Paul reined in, staring at the open square. The battalion was lined up around three sides, around three or four hundred men, he would guess. In the centre was a triangular wooden frame, and a man was tied to it. A corporal, sweating in the heat of the late morning sun, was wielding a lash and as it fell, the victim gave a scream of pain. His back was a bloody mess. Around a hundred, Paul estimated, as he swung down from the saddle.
The back rank of men noticed his arrival, and Paul motioned to the nearest man to take his horse. The infantryman did so with hesitation. Paul still wore the coat he had ridden in, with no insignia and there was no sign that he was anything other than a civilian. He walked forward. The two officers of the battalion were standing at the front of their men. They were young, probably no more than twenty-one or two, and both wore sparkling new uniforms, their hats cocked at exactly the right angle. There the resemblance ended. One was watching the flogging with an expression of apparent approval. He was tall and dark with a thin handsome face and hazel coloured eyes. The other lieutenant was shorter and slighter with soft brown hair and a pair of fine grey eyes, which watched in apparent horror. His face was white and he did not look well.
It was the dark man who saw him first. Paul walked past him towards the whipping post. The corporal paused in his work, looking unsurely at Paul and then over at the lieutenant.
“I think that’s probably enough for today, Corporal,” Paul said quietly. “Take him down. Carefully, now.”
“Who the devil are you, sir?” the dark lieutenant demanded. He had a clear baritone. “This man’s punishment is not yet finished!”
“I was going to ask you the same question,” Paul said turning to him. “Who is in command here?”
“I am. Lieutenant Lionel Manson, 112th foot. Don’t know who the devil you are, but you’ve no place coming in here interfering with discipline, sir! If you’ve a message, it can wait until we’re done!”
“You are done, Mr Manson. Cut him down, Corporal – don’t make me ask again, I’ve had a long ride.” Paul unbuttoned his great coat. He beckoned to a thin, white-faced private in the front row, who ran forward looking terrified. “What’s your name, lad?”
“T…t…terry, sir.”
“Well, Private Terry, will you take this to the officers quarters for me, please?” Paul said, taking off his coat and handing it to the boy with a pleasant smile. He turned to find that both officers had sprung to attention and were saluting. “Ah, that’s better.”
The corporal called out two names, and the men ran to help lift their comrade down, just as the rest of the light company marched through the gate. Paul walked over to the man and inspected his damaged back. “How many, Corporal?”
“A hundred ordered, sir. Ninety given.”
“What offence?”
“Don’t know, sir.”
Paul nodded. “Take him to the infirmary if you’ve one set up yet. If not, lay him on his bunk, face down, and give him some rum. I’ll get somebody to look at him presently.”
“Yes, sir.”
Paul turned to the two officers. Michael O’Reilly had dismounted and was coming forward. “Have you introduced yourself, sir?”
“I’ve not had time,” Paul said. “It’s busy in the 112th I can tell you, Mr O’Reilly.”
The Irishman surveyed the two lieutenants genially. “Lieutenant O’Reilly, 110th light company. You’ll be under the command of this officer for the foreseeable future, gentlemen – Colonel Paul van Daan who commands the 110th, and now your battalion. We’ve a bit of work to do, I can see, but for the time being lets get our men settled and see what arrangements you’ve already made and then we can have a bit of a chat. I didn’t catch your names.”
“I’ve met Lieutenant Manson here,” Paul said, indicating the dark lieutenant. “And this gentleman…?”
“Lieutenant William Grey, sir.”
“Welcome to Portugal, Lieutenant Grey. I’ll see my quarters and get settled in but you can both meet me in my office in – shall we say half an hour?”
“Yes, sir,” Manson said. “But…will you not want time to wash and change and…”
“Yes,” Paul said gently. “Which will take me approximately half an hour. Carry on.”

(From An Irregular Regiment, Book Two of the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

For the ordinary soldiers of Lord Wellington’s army, life was hard.

The British Army drew many of its raw recruits from the lowest classes of Britain. Since army life was known to be harsh and poorly paid it attracted mainly those for whom civilian life was worse. The Duke of Wellington’s famous quote describes them as “the scum of the earth” and claimed that many of the men “enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – some for drink”.  But there were other reasons.

In Scotland for example, many men enlisted due to the collapse of the weaving trade and came from skilled artisan or even middle-class households.  Ireland, the source of many of Wellington’s recruits, sent men to the army in times of desperate hunger or in flight from failed rebellion.  And on a regular basis, local courts would offer thieves, pickpockets and other criminals the choice between enlisting or prison.  Knowing the conditions in local prisons, such men often chose the army.  Some would try to desert as soon as possible but many stayed.  Often, conditions in the army, although appalling, were better than at home.

Most soldiers at the time signed on for life in exchange for a “bounty” of £23 17s 6d, a lot of which was absorbed by the cost of outfitting “necessities” but a system of ‘limited service’ (seven years for infantry, ten for cavalry and artillery) was introduced in 1806 to attract recruits. Soldiers began, from 1800 onward, to receive a daily beer money allowance in addition to their regular wages; the practice was started on the orders of the Duke of York. Additionally, corporal punishment was removed for a large number of petty offences (while it was still retained for serious derelictions of duty) and the Shorncliffe System for light infantry was established in 1803, teaching skirmishing, self-reliance and initiative. Unlike other armies of the time, the British did not use conscription to bolster army numbers, with enlistment remaining voluntary.

The risk of death or permanent injury was huge.  During the Peninsular Campaign, the army lost almost 25,000 men from disease while fewer than 9,000 were killed in action; however more than 30,000 were wounded in action and most battalions were permanently short of officers and men. Seriously under-strength battalions might be dissolved, merged with other remnants into “Provisional battalions” or temporarily drafted into other regiments.

 Officers ranged in background as well.  Although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this referred to an officer’s character and honourable conduct rather than his social standing. The system of sale of commissions officially governed the selection and promotion of officers, but the system was considerably relaxed during the wars. One in twenty (5%) of the officers from regular battalions had been raised from the ranks, and less than 20% of first commissions were by purchase.  The Duke of York oversaw a reform of the sale of commissions, making it necessary for officers to serve two full years before either promotion or purchase to captain and six years before becoming a major.  These changes however, applied more to regiments in barracks than to those on campaign.  In the Peninsular War, promotion was often fast as officers were killed in action or wounded and it was possible for a man who remained in the field to move up the ranks very quickly.

Only a few officers were from the nobility; in 1809, only 140 officers were peers or peers’ sons.   Many more officers came through the Militia and a small number had been gentlemen volunteers, who trained and fought as private soldiers but messed with the officers and remained as such until vacancies without purchase for commissions became available.  Promotion was mainly by seniority; less than 20% of line promotions were by purchase.   Promotion by merit alone did occur, but was less common, although this was very much down to the regimental commanders who could refuse to allow a promotion if they preferred another candidate.  This would have enabled Paul van Daan a good deal of freedom, once he was in command, to choose his own officers and select the candidates he wanted for promotion.  Officers who were disgruntled over his choices would have been free to apply to a transfer to another regiment.

In the 110th and it’s associated battalions, therefore, the mix of officers and men, their backgrounds and promotions and length of service is very typical.  Their commanding officer is very young for his rank, a consequence of plenty of money and a good background combined with a lot of talent and the friendship of the commander-in-chief.  The 110th is not a fashionable regiment and does not attract the aristocracy.  Most of Paul’s young officers are from the middle classes or county families and a lot of them live on their pay.  This works well for them in the 110th since Paul’s regiment is well organised and the mess bills are very reasonable.  In some regiments, particularly the cavalry, a man might buy a commission and then be unable to keep up with the expensive lifestyle of the regiment, where most of the officers came from wealthy families.  Some of Paul’s young officers can afford to purchase commissions and promotions, but for those who can not he is fierce in his willingness to fight with Horse Guards, Wellington and anybody else to make sure that the best men get the commissions they deserve.

The biggest difference in the 110th is in the conditions of the ordinary infantryman.  From the first, Paul van Daan takes a very different view of life in the army, probably stemming from his two years below decks in the Royal Navy as a boy.  He is on very good terms with his enlisted men and NCOs while at the same time having very high expectations of them.  He refuses to use flogging, and rarely gets the provost marshals – the policemen of Wellington’s army – involved with matters of discipline except in very serious cases such as rape and murder.

The 110th have tents for all their men as early as 1809 while the rest of Wellington’s army had to wait until 1813 before tents were issued to all of them.  By then Wellington had improved his supply lines and the commissariat was working better as well, but it was undoubtedly true in the earlier years of his campaigns that enlisted men and their wives and children often slept in the open in all weathers or under tents fashioned from their blankets, and when supplies failed which they did from time to time, they starved.

It was extraordinary how many men did have wives or girlfriends, often local women they met during campaigns.  Lord Wellington and many other senior officers preferred men not to have wives with them but the practice was tolerated largely because it was difficult to stop such liaisons springing up.  Theoretically only a few men in each company was allowed to take a wife on campaign with them but many women stowed away.  The women were invaluable doing laundry and mending, helping with the nursing and cooking and it would have been hard for the army to manage without them.  They too were subject to army discipline and could be flogged or punished.

It was a hard and dangerous life.  Into this world as an eighteen year old bride, Anne Carlyon arrived in 1809, just before Wellesley marched to drive the French out of Oporto.  Officers wives did come to Portugal and stayed in Lisbon or joined their men during winter quarters if the location was fairly safe.    But Anne was different from the start, choosing to make the army her home.  She rode and marched with the men, worked with the surgeons digging out shot and stitching sabre cuts and discovered a whole new side to herself that she would never have known if she had stayed at home.

She also fell in love.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

The Peninsular War saga is a new series about the men and women of Wellington’s army and about the battles and the politics of the fight against Napoleon.  It is the story of a wealthy and privileged young man who rose to command one of the finest regiments in the army and of the extraordinary young woman who shared his life.

It is also the story of an army and it’s customs and of the ordinary men who fought and died with their officers.  And what Wellington actually said about them was that they were “the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them into the fine fellows they are.” 

The books are available on Amazon, both in kindle and in paperback.

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