The Gentleman Volunteer

June–September 1811

A few weeks after Fuentes d’Onoro, Thomas Sarsfield appeared at the quarters of the 95th. He was an Irishman in his late twenties who had already seen something of the world and encountered various disappointments. Sarsfield was thickset, big across the shoulders, and not particularly tall – all qualities that gave him a rather ungentlemanly appearance.

The spring campaign’s losses had caused the 95th to look for more men. Whereas the rank and file could only come out as drafts or in whole additional companies posted from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, there were few obstacles in the way of a determined young gentleman who travelled out on the Lisbon packet, presenting himself in Portugal. The 95th had actually sought such applications, one officer writing home that May: ‘I hope to see a great number of volunteers come out soon … I hope many will fancy a green jacket, as our ranks are very thin, having lost a number of brave soldiers.’

Sarsfield was one of several young hopefuls who answered the Rifles’ call in the summer of 1811. Before taking the decision to travel to Iberia, another of those volunteers, Thomas Mitchell, considered the simplest expedient and the cheapest, which was to write to the Commander in Chief at Horse Guards in London and ask for a commission. He had drafted the following appeal:

Your memorialist, a native of Scotland, aged 19, is a son of respectable parentage, now dead, and has received a liberal and classical education, qualifying him to fulfill the duties of a Gentleman and a Soldier. That your memorialist desires to enter into the service of his Country in the Army, but has not the immediate means of purchasing a commission nor other expectation of success than through the well known liberality of Your Excellency.

Any person who sent such a letter, bereft of interest, was entering a lottery in which his own life could be sold very cheap. For the recipients of the Commander in Chief’s patronage could end up in any regiment, but would most likely be posted to one where the officers were all selling out or dead, due to a posting in some disease-ridden Caribbean graveyard. Mitchell wisely decided not to send the letter. Instead he made his way out to Portugal so that he – not the Commander in Chief – might choose his regiment. Like Sarsfield, Mitchell had heard about the daring 95th and was keen to join it. The only disadvantage to making one’s way out like this lay in the lowly status that such recruits were granted, that of ‘gentleman volunteer’.

This, then, was what the Scot and the Irishman became, early in the summer of 1811. One officer of the 95th summed up their situation pithily:

A volunteer – be it known to all who know it not – is generally a young man with some pretensions to gentility – and while, with some, those pretensions are so admirably disguised as to be scarcely visible to the naked eye, in others they are conspicuous; but, in either case, they are persons who, being without the necessary influence to obtain a commission at home, get a letter of introduction to the commander of forces in the field.

Mitchell had the very good fortune to discover a distant family connection in the form of Sir Archibald Campbell, an officer commanding a Portuguese brigade in Wellington’s Army. Campbell wrote the necessary letter of introduction, which got him admitted to the general’s presence, where a short interview usually took place before the young man was dispatched to his regiment. Occasionally, when the candidate failed to impress, he would be told there was no vacancy and packed off home.

John FitzMaurice was yet another of the same species. He had come out a few months before his countryman, Sarsfield, having obtained the necessary letter of introduction from a judge of the Irish circuit. In this way the web of low-level patronage was extended both by the writer of the letter, who earned the gratitude of the young man’s family, and by Wellington himself, to whom the author became indebted. In the case of FitzMaurice, his appearance at Headquarters resulted in an invitation to Wellington’s dining table.

‘Well, what regiment would you like to be attached to?’ asked the general.

‘The Green Jackets,’ was FitzMaurice’s reply.

‘Why, the uniform isn’t very smart!’

FitzMaurice would not be deterred. ‘I believe, my Lord, they see a good deal of the enemy.’

Wellington looked across and answered, ‘By God they do, and you shall join them.’

Whereas FitzMaurice’s induction into the 95th went smoothly, Sarsfield’s, alas, would turn into a disaster. Upon their arrival in the regiment, volunteers entered a curious world in which they were neither fish nor fowl. ‘While they are treated as gentlemen out of the field, they receive the pay, and do the duty of private soldiers in it,’ one officer explained. So FitzMaurice and Sarsfield would have to take their place in the skirmish line in battle, or on sentry when in camp, but would have to retain the manners necessary to get along in the officers’ company mess to which they had been attached.

Although FitzMaurice was bereft of good Army connections and therefore ended up as a volunteer, he was from a family of gentry and thus benefited from a sound education and the occasional remittance of cash from home. This made him a convivial enough member of the 3rd Company mess which he joined. More importantly, FitzMaurice had the very good fortune to arrive at the 95th just before its serial fights of that March. The eyes of officers were always upon a volunteer in action, for no question was more important than whether he had pluck or would sneak off at the first whiff of powder. During a skirmish at Freixadas, near the end of March, FitzMaurice had been in such a frenzy of firing that he broke his ramrod while reloading and gashed his hand on it. He continued to fight on, for the wound was a superficial one, but in the process his blood was liberally spread about. Lieutenant Colonel Beckwith, coming away from the engagement, was heard to say, ‘That young devil FitzMaurice is covered with blood from head to foot but is fighting like blazes.’ The volunteer wisely kept the lightness of his wound to himself and was commissioned shortly afterwards as a second lieutenant. Thomas Mitchell was also fortunate enough to arrive in time for some of that spring’s combats.

By the time Sarsfield presented himself, FitzMaurice was already the veteran of half a dozen engagements and an established member of the regiment. It was Sarsfield’s bad luck that, following Fuentes d’Onoro, the regiment was taxed by some very long stages (down to Badajoz and back, following an aborted siege of the place), which meant its old hands were vexed by the petty routines of marching, the ill health of the Guadiana plain and the constant presence of Craufurd, but had gone months without a good fight in which to let off steam. Under these conditions, a certain type of 95th man was bound to make mischief.

It became the norm for the veterans to test out the newcomers with some nonsense. When John Kincaid had appeared in the battalion, he had been sent off to catch a pack mule that one of his brother officers swore had broken loose. After careering about the fields for some time in pursuit of the animal, Kincaid brought it back, only to discover that it belonged to someone else entirely, who then reported it as a theft. The new man’s reaction to this prank could ensure either his acceptance or a repetition of the teasing.

‘Our first and most uncharitable aim was to discover the weak points of every fresh arrival, and to attack him through them,’ Kincaid wrote later. ‘If he had redeeming qualities, he, of course, came out scathless, but, if not, he was dealt with unmercifully. Poor Tommy [Sarsfield] had none such – he was weak on all sides, and therefore went to the wall.’ Kincaid was a leading figure in these proceedings, but others, including Jonathan Leach, when bored, also grew enthusiastic for this form of sport.

Sarsfield, like George Simmons, had a brother in the 34th, but unlike Maud Simmons, Tommy Sarsfield’s brother had been killed at Albuera. This might well have ensured a sympathetic reception in the 95th, particularly when added to the fact that Sarsfield had served some time at sea.

The riflemen discovered, though, that any report of the enemy was likely to get this new volunteer overexcited, running about and bellowing the alarm in naval terminology. Since they were actually several miles from their foe, this fun was too good to miss.

Kincaid devised an elaborate charade to show Sarsfield up while amusing one and all. His confederate in all this was William Brotherwood, the Leicestershire soldier in Leach’s company known for his wicked sense of humour. Brotherwood was by this time an acting corporal. Sarsfield would be taken out from Atalaya, the Spanish village where they were bivouacked, to a small hill nearby, where pickets were posted to keep a lookout over the rolling groves of oak that cover this part of the country. Brotherwood’s job in this, with several riflemen in tow, was to act the part of the French. The corporal and his men took their fun very seriously, firing their rifles towards Sarsfield and whoever was there with him, so that the Irishman panicked, running back to Atalaya, hallooing and generally sounding the alarm.

On one occasion, Brotherwood picked up Sarsfield’s hat, which had fallen off during his escape, made a hole in it with his penknife and presented it to him on his return to the bivouac. Sarsfield seized hold of the trophy and rewarded Brotherwood with a silver dollar. That evening, the old soldier and his messmates were able to laugh at the volunteer’s stupidity while drinking away the proceeds.

There was no let-up for Sarsfield when messing with his fellow officers in the evening. One recorded that he had ‘the usual sinister cast of the eye worn by common Irish country countenances’. Sarsfield’s naval reminiscences, which he presumably calculated might have bought him some credit in the eyes of these grizzled veterans, simply excited their contempt.

This torture could not go on indefinitely without even Sarsfield realising that he was being made a fool of. ‘His original good natured simplicity gave way to experience,’ wrote one rifleman, ‘and he gently informed his tormentors that he kept a clean brace of pistols about him, at any time at their service.’ Since neither Kincaid nor the others wished to fight a duel, the bullying at last ended, and Sarsfield, due to the shortage of officers, prevailed, gaining his commission in the regiment. Although the elaborate charades at his expense stopped, the young Irish second lieutenant was never really accepted by officers or men – the old lags like Brotherwood and Kincaid agreeing that he was the type of excitable knave who should be banished from the Rifles.

George Simmons drew his own lessons from the affair, for he was concerned at what might happen to his brother Joseph, who was talking freely about coming out to the 34th or 95th, and had also, briefly, run away to sea. Lieutenant Simmons wrote home: ‘Some forward young fellows give themselves great airs and get themselves offended, which will never happen if a young man conducts himself as a gentleman and does not give way to chattering and nonsense.’ The desire to impress could be the undoing of a man: Simmons instructed his parents that when Joseph did eventually sail out, he should, ‘not be showing his agility in climbing about the ship or using sea phrases, as such proceedings would make the officers have a bad opinion of him.’ In short, the saga of the 95th’s volunteers demonstrated that the only way to proceed was to measure language and behaviour carefully, be alive to teasing, and wait for some opportunity to prove your mettle in battle, for nothing else would gain the veterans’ respect.

Passing muster with those who had been fighting for two years was a challenge that would also afflict those already serving in the regiment who had gained rank but never been near gunfire. There were many such officers in the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, some of whom had merrily spent the last two years’ campaigning in Shorncliffe, the clifftop camp relinquished by the 1st Battalion on 25 May 1809. ‘General Murray who commands the garrison … is very fond of shew and parade,’ Second Lieutenant James Gairdner wrote to his father, after experiencing numerous field days that summer near the garrison. Gairdner had been born in America and his family had considerable property in Atlanta. It had been intimated to him that he would be sent on service as soon as possible, and he took his preparation seriously, if at times misguidedly, writing home at one point, ‘I am learning dancing every day for it would never do for an officer not to be able to dance. I have been learning drawing, in which I think I have greatly improved.’ It was not until early 1812 that he made his debut in the field, and the battalion’s hardened officers would get the measure of the callow Gairdner.

The regiment’s life during the late summer of 1811 consisted of much marching and countermarching along the frontier. Shortly after Fuentes d’Onoro, the French garrison left behind Allied lines in Almeida had broken out at the dead of night, its commander succeeding in getting most of his men through the British lines and back to French ones. This gave one and all another chance to excoriate General Erskine, widely held responsible for the fiasco, one officer commenting bitterly that Erskine was, ‘the laughing stock of the whole army, and particularly of the Light Division’.

Craufurd, back in the saddle as the division’s commander, was a man who needed activity and the scent of battle if he was to keep the blue devils at bay and stop himself becoming a bully to his subordinates. His promotion to major general, early in June, did nothing to mollify him. During the marches of June, July and August, he reverted to type, punishing his men for any deviation from Standing Orders, issuing more of them to cover various contingencies, and generally keeping an iron grip on his command.

Some of the newcomers were utterly shocked by what they saw. Ensign William Hay joined the 52nd that summer only to witness the following ‘act of diabolical tyranny’ during one march. The division was moving through a ford, with Craufurd watching from his horse not far away. ‘The general, from his position on the bridge, observed two or three of the 95th take some water in their hands to cool their parched mouths,’ wrote Hay. ‘Instantly the halt was sounded, the brigade ordered to retrace their steps, the whole division formed into hollow square, and these unfortunate men paraded, stripped, and flogged. Such scenes, alas! were of almost daily occurrence, and disgusted me beyond measure.’ Hay took the earliest opportunity to transfer to another regiment.

With Craufurd back to his usual form, his many enemies among the regimental officers were soon seething against him. ‘Order upon orders of the most damnable nature were issued … by General Craufurd, the whole evidently compiled for no other reason than that of annoying the officers of his Division,’ wrote Leach in his journal at the end of July, exclaiming, ‘Oh! That such a scoundrel should have it in his power to exercise his tyrannical disposition for years with impunity.’

Thus far, Craufurd had been shielded from his enemies at Horse Guards by Wellington. In the late summer and early autumn of 1811, though, their relationship, hitherto professionally correct, began to break down. Matters took a turn for the worse when the French, after weeks of manoeuvre, finally succeeded in catching Picton’s division unsupported on the border and attacked it on 25 September at El Bodon.

Wellington immediately sent orders to several nearby divisions to concentrate in support of Picton, as his 3rd Division performed a fighting withdrawal under heavy enemy pressure. Craufurd chose to spend the night where he was, marching towards the main army early the following day. By the time the Light Division appeared, Picton had won laurels for his performance in steering his troops out of a tight situation, the danger having passed.

Seeing Craufurd approaching on horseback, Wellington called out, ‘I am glad to see you safe, Craufurd.’ Black Bob replied, ‘Oh! I was in no danger, I assure you,’ which drew the response from Wellington, ‘But I was, from your conduct.’ Craufurd turned and cantered off, but not before saying to one of his aides in a stage whisper, ‘He is damned crusty today.’

As the weather chilled and leaves fell, the armies prepared to go into winter quarters once more. Craufurd and Wellington were set to clash again on matters of supply and the troops’ sufferings, as they took up cantonments in the barren border highlands. These hardships were to be intense, sufficiently harsh to raise a spectre that had so far barely troubled the Light Division: desertion to the enemy.

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