The Corporal’s Stripes

September 1810–February 1811

It took from 28 September to 10 October for the Rifles to march down through the hilly Portuguese countryside to a little town called Arruda. It was a tortuous journey, attended by the usual hardships and more. Men with sore feet and empty bellies were drenched by daily downpours, one officer noting on the 8th, ‘This day’s march was about as miserable as I wish to see. Incessant rain all day. We got into a rascally hovel which we contrived to set fire to but soon put it out again.’

During the two-month withdrawal from the frontier, Wellington’s soldiers had become used to treating Portuguese property recklessly. It was their commander’s intention to fight in the style of Fabius, laying waste to the Portuguese hinterland so that the French would be unable to find food, or indeed people. Orders had been issued by the Portuguese authorities for the evacuation of all inhabitants, if necessary by force, from the path of Masséna’s army. Wellington’s rearguard daily raided abandoned houses for any food they could find, or indeed for firewood.

When they got to Arruda, the 95th took up a bivouac on a ridge overlooking the town. There they discovered one of the great secrets of the Napoleonic wars: that Wellington had ordered the construction of lines of fortifications stretching twenty-nine miles from the Atlantic coast in the west, in an arc through the hill country of the Peninsula behind Lisbon, to the River Tagus in the east. Arruda was close to the eastern end of this defence, being in a sector where there were twenty-three redoubts armed with ninety-six cannon. The whole programme, involving construction of scores of strongpoints, diversion of streams, emplacement of cannon and drilling of militia, had taken more than one year to accomplish, with a bill of £100,000 for the labour alone, and yet somehow it had remained unknown to the French.

The 95th’s task in this scheme was not to man some fort, a task that had been assigned to third-rate troops of the Portuguese militia. The Rifles would remain part of the reserve that would rush to any threatened point and also patrol no man’s land in this eastern part of the lines, so as to prevent French penetrations – be they for foraging or surprise attacks.

After such a miserable march, Captain O’Hare’s pleasure at finding Second Lieutenant George Simmons in charge of a roaring fire and a laid table can easily be imagined. Simmons had come up from Lisbon with a party of convalescents and quickly commandeered a suitable little house for the officers of his 3rd Company.

It took no time for natural scavengers such as the men of the 95th to start investigating the place in front of their position. ‘Never was a town more completely deserted than Arruda,’ one officer remarked. ‘The inhabitants, dreading the approach of the French, had taken flight to Lisbon, leaving their houses, many of which were magnificently furnished, without a human being in them. The chairs and tables were subsequently carried up to the camp.’

Few riflemen were housed; instead some tents were issued (for the first time since they had arrived in Portugal) to allow them to escape the cold and rain. The soldiers, though, wasted no time in beginning expeditions in Arruda, breaking into houses, where ‘many of them had some food in the larder, and a plentiful supply of good wines in the cellar’.

The 95th were guilty of a good deal of vandalism on these missions, since they assumed that Arruda would eventually fall into French hands. Houses were stripped, and ornate furniture was broken up for firewood. ‘This was the only instance during the war in which the light division had reason to blush for their conduct,’ one veteran later wrote.

Reunited with his messmates, Simmons heard for himself about Busaco and the skirmishes of the retreat from the frontier. He reacquainted himself with old friends and recounted his experiences in Lisbon.

Simmons was pleased to see Private Robert Fairfoot, for the rifleman, who celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday in Arruda, had become something of a friend and a personal project. During his brief campaigns, Simmons had come to learn the value of a steady soldier. He had seen the Belem Rangers, and when he and Harry Smith had been placed at the head of a party of eight hundred convalescents for the three-day march from Lisbon to the lines of Torres Vedras, a quarter of these ‘heroes’ disappeared before they reached their destination.

Fairfoot had gone absent without leave three times while in the Royal Surrey Militia, but on joining the 95th he had at last been able to show his true colours. The 2nd Royal Surreys were ruled by one Major Hudson, ‘as great a tyrant as ever disgraced the Army’. The men called him ‘Bloody Bob’ or ‘Wheel ’em again Bob’ because of his penchant for the lash and drill respectively. Fairfoot found himself buffeted between the ranks, where he had to drill all day under Hudson’s beady eye, and the post of drummer, where his duties included whipping his comrades. Fairfoot’s desertions arose from the unhappiness that follows when a man must pick morsels of his comrades’ flesh from the knots of his cat, having been forced to flog them all day for no good reason.

Early in the spring of 1809, when the 2nd Royal Surreys found themselves in the south of England as volunteers for the regulars were called for, hundreds had escaped the militia. One of their privates wrote home, ‘I have taken the first opportunity and volunteered … into what regiment I cared not a straw.’ Some 127 of the Royal Surreys went into the 51st (a smart light-infantry regiment) and around 90 joined Fairfoot in the Rifles.

In the 95th, Fairfoot had learnt the difference between parade-ground drill and the life of danger and comradeship in the Rifles. He had shown himself so good a soldier at Barba del Puerco, the Coa and Busaco that he had been marked down for promotion.

The 95th prided itself on giving advancement to deserving, bright men. One of its sergeants, William Weddeburne, had argued in print that the regiment’s form of warfare meant that ‘frequent opportunities are afforded for the display of personal courage, activity, and intelligence, and, to persons possessed of such qualities, it is a certain road to distinction’. The publication of Weddeburne’s text on training light troops was in itself a mark of the unusual position an NCO could achieve in the Rifles. It was evident to any soldier, once in the 95th, that serving in small groups in outposts or patrols rather than in line regiments offered many more opportunities for the deserving soldier to show his mettle, or for a corporal to demonstrate he was fit for further promotion.

As it was, the rank of corporal was a recent introduction to the Army. The printed Monthly Returns forms sent out for the 95th’s adjutant to complete had columns marked for ‘sergeants’, ‘buglers’ and ‘rank and file’, but none for corporals. The practice of marking this rank and that of sergeant with stripes on the sleeve was only just beginning. The founders of the 95th had been so pleased with the beneficial effects of giving men these distinctions that they had established a further category – albeit unofficial – between private and corporal, that of ‘chosen man’. This was a private being prepared for promotion, who was given extra responsibilities; the officers hoped that these steps would give men something to aspire to, and redress some of the advantages the French had reaped by offering so many rewards to their troops.

The theory of promotions was one thing, but there was a more practical and urgent need for O’Hare to rebuild his company: half of it had been captured at the Coa. Lieutenant Colonel Beckwith had obliged with some transfers of riflemen from other companies, but O’Hare also had to alleviate a shortage of non-commissioned officers. His company had set sail in May 1809 with six sergeants and six corporals. He had since lost two sergeants and three corporals – dead, captured or promoted. One sergeant, Esau Jackson, who’d been given to O’Hare to alleviate matters, soon decided he had seen more than enough of the enemy, and got himself appointed to a comfy sinecure in charge of stores at Belem.

Two weeks after the battalion arrived in Arruda, Fairfoot was promoted to corporal. His pay more than doubled, to one shilling, two and a quarter pence per day. He had been in the Army long enough to know that with that money came added duties and responsibilities. Fairfoot had been an Army child, following his father about, hearing his views about what made a good corporal or a bad one.

In the 95th, a corporal’s duties were set out in some texts, like the ‘Green Book’ written by Colonel Coote Manningham, one of the regiment’s founders, and in other pamphlets such as the printed pages of Craufurd’s Standing Orders for the Light Division. Reading and writing were essential to the discharge of these duties. Evidently Robert Fairfoot conquered this challenge of literacy, whereas it may well be that his father, with more than twenty-eight years’ service as a private soldier, did not. But the 95th’s senior officers certainly believed in offering their brighter soldiers the chance to learn.

In each company, there was an orderly sergeant of the day who would be assisted by a corporal, both answering to a duty officer. On the march, their duties ranged from arresting stragglers who had not been issued with tickets by their officers entitling them to fall out, to securing the bivoauc. The posting of sentries was equally important on the march or in a place like Arruda.

Colonel Manningham had decreed:

The non-commissioned officer will make the most minute inspection of the men about to be placed as [sentries], and must see both that their arms are in good order, and that the powder in the pan is not wet. The inspection being made, the non-commissioned officer will conduct the sentries to the officer who will also examine them himself; when this is done the non-commissioned officer will march them to their several stations, taking care that the most intelligent men are posted in those stations which require the most circumspection.

The Light Division Standing Orders, as one might expect from Craufurd, took the business of posting sentries to extremes. There were to be outlying and inlying pickets – to prevent the brigade being surprised by the enemy – then there was to be a regimental camp guard (mainly to hinder the riflemen’s mischief) and a company guard of one corporal and four privates. If Fairfoot was part of the outlying or inlying picket, camp guard or company guard then the night promised to be one of close attention to duty and little sleep. Given the numbers of different tasks, these could be assigned to NCOs every other day, at a time when their company was light of corporals, and it is clear that a man who was unable to abandon the hard-drinking ways of the private soldier would soon come unstuck – if discovered drunk on duty he would usually be relieved of his stripes. This is what had happened to Sergeant Plunket at Campo Maior a year before, and to many others in the 95th since they had landed. Fairfoot, though, applied himself conscientiously, for he had turned some kind of corner in his life, leaving behind the misery of his militia days. His stripes were never taken from him.

For those who had been broken to the ranks, however, resurrection was possible. If there was ever a moment when Joseph Almond, the Cheshire man who had been busted from corporal in 1808, could have redeemed himself, then Arruda was a propitious one, because of the shortage of NCOs. But while bright enough, and no skulker on the battlefield, Almond’s company commander had taken against him, and it proved impossible to regain his former station. He may well have fallen foul of the notion many officers had, that a man in his late thirties who had not learnt to moderate his drinking was, in the words used on discharge papers, ‘worn out’, ‘a bad soldier’ or ‘dissolute’.

For the illiterate private, there was almost no advancement possible. If, however, he had a good ear, such a man could be appointed as one of the company’s two buglers. While at Arruda, William Green was made up to this post by O’Hare, enjoying the better pay. The bugler’s bargain, however, was not always a happy one for he, playing that part carried out by the drummers in a line regiment, was responsible for laying the lash onto unfortunate members of his company.

The 95th’s stay in Arruda proved pleasant enough, for they drank plenty of plundered wine, lived under canvas and ate well. Four weeks after their arrival, they awoke to discover that the French pickets posted in front of them had disappeared.

Masséna had realised that his men would starve in front of Torres Vedras and that to assault the fortifications was to invite a bloodbath. Every day French troops had to wander further and further away in their foraging expeditions, and with these ever-widening patrols, the number being lost to Portuguese partisans or desertion increased. The Army of Portugal, as Masséna’s three corps had been designated, was melting away. Its horses were dying too, or becoming so emaciated that French generals began doubting their ability to draw all the cannon and supply caissons they had brought with them back to Spain, should the order come to quit Portugal. The marshal resolved to pull back to Santarem, a city in a fertile region several marches away from Lisbon and nearer to his sources of supply across the Spanish frontier. There he intended to winter, while awaiting further instructions from Paris.

Craufurd’s division was set rapidly on the Army of Portugal’s tail, its commander scenting the chance for further distinction. On the second day after they left Arruda, Craufurd spotted a French brigade moving across a plain towards some high ground at a place called Cartaxo. He drew up his division, but before giving any orders for an assault, he berated them for their behaviour on the march there. The text of this harangue has survived, and a quotation will give a flavour of the man in action:

If I ever have any occasion to observe any man of the Brigade pick his road and go round a pool of water instead of marching through it I am fully determined to bring the officer commanding the Company to which that man belongs to a Court Martial. Should the court acquit the officer it shall not deter me from repeating the same ceremony on any other officer again and again … I will insist on every soldier marching through water and I will flog any man attempting to avoid it.

Jonathan Leach, always one of Craufurd’s harshest critics, commented sarcastically that it was ‘a speech well calculated no doubt to make men and officers adore their leader and follow him enthusiastically up the French heights’. As Craufurd deployed his brigades ready to attack the superior French force to their front, Wellington appeared on horseback, ‘in time enough to save us from total annihilation’. Seeing that Craufurd had drawn his battalions up in line, with just a single squadron of cavalry in support, Wellington asked him, ‘Are you aware, General, that the whole of Junot’s corps is close to the advanced body you now see, amounting to, at least, 23,000 men, a large portion of which is cavalry?’ The attack was instantly called off, with many men reflecting bitterly on how close their brigadier had again come to destroying them.

The following day, the Light Division stopped just outside Santarem. There was a causeway leading to a bridge across the River Maior ahead of them, and it became clear that the French were prepared to defend it, having wheeled guns up to a position where they could bring a withering flank fire on anyone attempting the crossing. The river thus became the new demarcation line between the forces, for the Light Division was to stop in this area for several weeks, through the worst of the winter weather, while Masséna made up his mind whether to go forward or back.

Craufurd had been making representations to Horse Guards for some time about the need for more troops, and while in Arruda, a further two companies of the 95th (one each from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions) had been made over to him. They had found themselves unable to march to the division’s standards, one officer noting, ‘The company with which I had just arrived were much distressed to keep pace with the old campaigners – they made a tolerable scramble for a day or two, but by the time they arrived at the lines the greater part had been obliged to be mounted.’

The men of the 1st Battalion had already assumed the air of veterans. Their clothes were rain-washed and ingrained with dirt to the point where they had gone black or brown. Their bodies were lean and sinewy, faces tanned like leather. The spare shirts, brushes and the like which had been hauled up to Talavera had since been jettisoned from their packs as dead weight. This difference between what they had left behind and what they had become loomed increasingly large in the minds of those men who had sailed out in May 1809.

Simmons, who had delighted in the veteran’s reputation he had earned in the battalion, found himself reluctantly recognising that his ardour to return to service had oustripped his body’s powers to heal itself. He had come down with dysentery – that and his leg wound meant he could not keep up on the marches. He wrote to his parents, ‘Only a little while back I could run miles, always the first to go through or over anything; judge how my feelings must be hurt at so serious a difference.’

On surgeons’ advice, Simmons returned to Lisbon, a check which he knew would damage his finances. Lieutenant Harry Smith too discovered that his return to action had been premature. Although his ample means bought him a mount, he was in acute pain from the ball lodged in his heel, and resolved to go back to hospital to have it removed.

Those who stayed took over farm buildings and made themselves as comfortable as they could. In one case, only a sheet draped across a barn divided the company officers from their men. This provided the subalterns with a golden opportunity to eavesdrop, since they generally steered clear of their men during the hours of darkness, for all sorts of unfortunate incidents might befall an officer who charted too close a course to them when they were drinking. ‘The early part of their evenings was generally spent in witticisms and tales,’ one lieutenant recalled. ‘In conclusion, by way of a lullaby, some long-winded fellow commenced one of those everlasting ditties in which soldiers and sailors delight so much. They are all to the same tune, and the subject (if one may judge by the tenor of the first ninety-eight verses!) was battle, murder, or sudden death.’

Captain O’Hare knew well enough that the peace of his company was best ensured by keeping close tabs on its consumption of alcohol. His suspicions being aroused one morning by the number of soldiers who still seemed inebriated, he discovered and smashed a still they had set up in one of the outhouses. On another occasion, he was woken at night by the drunken ramblings of Private Tom Crawley, one of Costello’s friends, and decided the man was boozing too much, even by his own rather liberal standards. Crawley’s gin ration was stopped – under normal circumstances each soldier had his blackjack filled with the early-evening meal, no mean ration since these cups held half a pint. ‘Had sentence of death been pronounced, it could not have sounded more harsh,’ Costello recalled of the moment the quartermaster refused Crawley his grog, explaining it was ‘by order of Captain O’Hare’.

Corporal Fairfoot showed himself a reliable helper for O’Hare. He managed that difficult trick of retaining the good opinion of his former messmates, while discharging his new responsibilities fairly. Although an Englishman by parentage and outlook, having lived most of his life in Hampshire, Fairfoot well understood the Irish rankers who made up the company’s toughest fighters and hardest drinkers. He had been born in Dublin and spent his childhood there, while his father’s regiment was stationed in Ireland, and appreciated all of the complexities of that place.

During these cold, wet, winter days many of the soldiers considered tobacco to be an even more vital comfort than alcohol. The rank and file used clay pipes, which helped them keep their wits about them while on long hours of sentry duty. Officers preferred cigars, consuming them voraciously. Most considered them an essential tool, whether starting one of those hard marching days at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., or spending time on some rain-swept hillside observing the enemy. ‘If a man in England … fancies that he really knows the comfort of tobacco in that shape he is very much mistaken,’ Jonathan Leach later wrote. ‘He must rise, wet to the skin and numb with cold, from the lee side of a tree or hedge where he has been shivering all night under a flood of rain, then let him light his cigar and the warmth which it imparts is incredible.’

These few comforts saw the 95th through the dying days of 1810. On Christmas Day, the officers raced their horses on the flats beside the River Maior. They were tolerably well supplied, because of their proximity to Lisbon, but nobody would have claimed that theirs was a particularly interesting duty.

During the weeks in Arruda and months outside Santarem, the officers tried to relieve the tedious routine of rounds, pickets and commands. Books were in short supply since it was most difficult for a subaltern of Rifles, slogging along on his two feet, often soaked through, to carry some little library with him. A small supply of reading matter was however available, precious volumes carried on captains’ baggage mules and passed around freely. There were some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and romantic stuff like Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse.

Since only a few of the 95th’s officers had the education to read novels in French, they sought translations, particularly of plots that were set in Iberia. Lesage’s Gil Blas of Santillane, both as a novel translated by Tobias Smollett and as a subsequent play written in English, was a great favourite. Its setting in Salamanca and romantic twists and turns amused them greatly. They also liked to identify with the young hero’s picaresque adventures as he made his way in the world, starting penniless but eventually arriving at a position of great power and influence. Don Quixote was another favourite, neatly satirising the notions of chivalry by which many officers tried to live. References to this novel were so widespread that it was quite common, even among the illiterate rank and file, to refer to broken-down old horses as Rosinante (the Don’s steed) and to the objects of their romantic fantasies as Dulcinea.

Some even conceived the idea of acting out the texts they had available: having heard from some French deserters in Arruda that their officers were putting on little skits and plays, the Light Division men decided to do the same. Shakespeare became the basis for the early dramatic fumblings of several subalterns.

Craufurd soon became bored with all this. He also missed his wife and children deeply, frequently succumbing to what he called the ‘blue devils’. He wrote to them of his ‘miserable position’, and his inability to serve their interests while living in this state. He resolved to ask Wellington’s leave for a trip home.

The rules of seniority – under which commands were doled out on the basis of time served in rank – had already been violated by Craufurd’s appointment. His substantive rank was only colonel: a brigade was properly a major general’s post and a division one for a lieutenant general. Wellington had rebuffed Craufurd’s legion critics, particularly after the Coa, and worked the military secretarial system judiciously to keep him in position. After receiving several requests for permission to visit home, the general at last wrote to Craufurd, ‘I would beg you to reflect whether, considering the situation in which you stand in the Army, it is desirable that you should go home upon leave. Adverting to the number of General Officers senior to you in the Army, it has not been easy to keep you in your command.’

Such language from the aloof and conservative Wellington was highly unusual. Craufurd’s response to Wellington’s ‘begging’ was typical: he wrote back expressing the hope that other officers might be satisfied, ‘without reducing me to the painful alternative which I have at present to contemplate.’ In short, he was ready to resign. Many in the Army, including senior figures at Horse Guards as well as harassed company commanders, would have been only too pleased if the offer had been accepted – but the secret of Craufurd’s hold over Wellington was precisely that the Commander of Forces was a little in awe of this man of such prickly independence and powerful personality.

Early in February, having got his way, Craufurd left Portugal. His timing was as bad in his leave arrangements at it had been on the Coa the previous July, for the Light Division was about to enter a period of frenetic marching and fighting. The Light Brigade and then Division had lived in his dark shadow for the best part of two years and their initial reaction to his departure was relief. Captain Leach noted gleefully in his journal: ‘Brigadier General Craufurd has sailed for England. God be praised we have got rid of the Vagabond.’

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