Second paragraph of third chapter:
Officers and men were so fully occupied making good their new billet, that few of them were aware of our arrival, and we waited some little time before the Adjutant came to us, who, to my surprise and delight, proved to be my very particular friend Lieutenant Close* who left us eighteen months before at Danbury Barracks, near Chelmsford. He gave me a most cordial welcome, delivered my animals and baggage to his own batman, and when I enquired for my billet, told me to wait until he had apportioned off the men of our detachment to the different companies. This duty performed, Close gave me another hearty shake of the hand, and taking my arm, said, ‘Come my old boy, I will show you your billet, you are my prisoner. I told the quarter master’s sergeant I should take you into my billet, for, being now Adjutant I am entitled to a good house by myself but we two can be, I think, very snug and comfortable, and talk about our long walks near Danbury. This town is so small that chief of the officers are doubled up, and the juniors are three and four in one house. I am sure you will be glad to get away from that rattle Hambly.’
* Lieutenant Edward Charles Close 48th Foot.
This is the first of two posts I’m doing this year for Remembrance Day. Both are published diaries of officers in Irish regiments of the British Army, from a century apart. My interest in both cases is not so much in the conflict itself but that both diarists served in close company with relatives of mine.
I feel somewhat ambiguous towards the military in general and the British army in particular. Back in 2010 I read through all ten volumes of the Bloody Sunday report, which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in state violence and subsequent cover-ups. At the same time, for many of my male Irish ancestors, joining up was a means of assuring income in a precarious economic situation. There’s a significant Irish component to the heritage of the British army, in both directions.
The earlier of the two diaries I’m looking at today and tomorrow concerns my great-great-great-uncle Thomas Whyte, who for very many years was nothing more to me than a sad little line in the family records, one of my great-great-grandfather Nicholas Charles Whyte’s seven brothers, most of whom died during the Napoleonic wars. A few more details came to light with more research. Thomas was born in 1778, and was a captain in the 3rd Battalion of the 27th Regiment of Foot, known as the Inniskillings because they were originally raised in Enniskillen. But I don’t have much more; in particular, I have no idea what he was doing before 1812..
You may have forgotten about the Peninsular War. In the quarter century of European fighting that culminated in 1815, for most British and Irish people the battles that stick in the memory are Waterloo and Trafalgar. But this was an intercontinental conflict, with action in India, Egypt, the Caribbean and North America. Within Europe, Spain was particularly badly hit, with different governments and their sponsors battling it out over seven long years; proportionate to population, it was twice as bloody as the Spanish Civil War 130 years later. Here’s an animation of the day-by-day progress of the sides in the war to illustrate how complex it was.
Charles Crowe, the diarist whose memories I’m looking at, was born in 1785 in Suffolk, and joined the local militia in 1810, transferring to the regular army in 1811 and setting sail for the war in Spain in 1812, which is when the diary starts. In January 1813 he got transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the Inniskillings; Crowe as a Lieutenant was immediately put in command of one the companies of the battalion.
I was really reading his diary for the mentions of my great-great-great-uncle, and there are about a dozen. When Crowe joins the 3rd Battalion, Whyte is the second in command and welcomes him to the team. It becomes apparent that since the commanding officer, Colonel John Maclean, is a Scot, Whyte has an important informal role as the most senior Irishman in a largely Irish battalion, and Crowe records him as intervening twice to defuse disciplinary issues before they escalate.
In July 1813 the French appear to have been beaten, and are clinging to Pamplona in the northeast of Spain. The British army masses for a showdown with the French forces led by Soult marching in from the North. As the 3rd Battalion prepares for battle, Crowe has dinner with Colonel Maclean and “our worthy little Captain Whyte”, which is literally the only indication we have of Thomas Whyte’s physical appearance.
On 19 July the Inniskillings are near the French border, and Whyte rides up to the pass to take “a peep at France”. A few days later the French come pouring in and Wellington orders his troops to fall back to the valley of Sorauren, north of Pamplona, to make a stand. As the battle starts on 28 July 1813, the Inniskillings find themselves in an exposed defensive position taking very heavy losses and with little support.
I left my men to watch the path and hastened up to report the circumstance to Captain Whyte and stated that I could no longer defend the left of his position, for my company was annihilated. He thanked, and requested me to go and inform the colonel that he must have support instantly. I scrambled up the steep as quickly as possible and found the colonel anxiously watching all our proceedings. I briefly told my tale, he quietly replied, ‘Thank you, my good fellow. Thank you! I have seen what you have been doing. Go and tell Captain Whyte to do the best he can, for I cannot send him any assistance. Lord Wellington has ordered me not to part with another man, but that should the enemy appear on our ground, I am to give them a volley and charge with my three remaining companies.’
‘Oh! Ho!’ thought I, ‘This is very cheering intelligence truly! But we must fight it out!’ … Poor Whyte was not pleased with the result of my embassy, we were talking with Captain Butler about it and what we could do when an aide de camp galloped up with order for us to retire. Each of us most willingly went to muster as many of our men as we could. I could find only eight of the fifty three I had brought into the field!
…Poor Captain Whyte, proud of being second in command of the regiment had advanced on horseback, perchance, but for this circumstance the worthy fellow might have escaped. He was shot through the head as we retired!
I guess the point that Grove is making is that on horseback, Thomas Whyte was more vulnerable (and clearly an officer and therefore a more obvious target for French snipers); if he had swallowed his pride and walked, he might have lived. Grove mourns
the loss of Captain Whyte, the good officer, the brave soldier, the perfect gentleman, the warmhearted friend! No one was ever more beloved by all classes.
The battle continued for another two days and the British eventually won, so they would have recaptured the spot where Whyte was killed while retreating. There is no record of his place of burial – in fact I don’t know of any physical memorial to him anywhere – but it was probably on the battlefield.
As it turned out this was the last French offensive of the Peninsular War, and for the rest of the diary Grove plays his part in the invasion of France while increasingly suffering from poor health, which he attributes to aggravated sunstroke, though Glover thinks it was brucellosis contracted from infected milk. After Napoleon’s first surrender, the 3rd Battalion of the Inniskillings was merged with the 1st and sent to America, where they lost the Battle of Plattsburgh, but Grove was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, which had suffered very heavy losses at the Battle of Ordal in Catalonia in September 1813 and went to Ireland to help with recruitment to replenish their ranks. This meant that he missed the Battle of Waterloo, where the 1st Battalion (which now included the survivors of the 3rd Battalion), just back from America, lost two-thirds of their remaining men in the fighting around the farm of La Sainte Haye. If Thomas Whyte had not been killed two years earlier, he would probably have been killed at Waterloo.
After the war, Grove went home to Suffolk and seems to have lived a quiet life, marrying without children and eventually dying at 70 in 1855. Gareth Glover has done a great job of editing and explaining the two volumes of his memoirs, one held by the family and the other originally by the regimental museum in Enniskillen. He was also good enough to clear up a query by email, more than a decade after the book was published.
Fortunately for Glover (and us), Grove was a good writer and gives us some lovely descriptions of the landscape and vivid portrayals of the Portuguese, Spanish and French people who he encounters. He shows (and depicts his fellow soldiers as showing) a fannish devotion to Lord Wellington – not yet the Duke, a title he got in 1814. Every word he exchanges with the big boss is carefully noted and recorded.
I was also struck by how many women were involved with the army. Quite recently I read the memoir of Mother Ross, a genderqueer soldier from a century earlier who served under Marlborough as both a woman and a man; it’s clear from Grove that Wellington’s forces (and presumably the other side as well) depended on women as well as men, and some of the rank and file (especially what we would now call NCOs) travelled with their wives. One night in March 1814, seven of the soldiers’ wives were billeted together in the same house; and that evening, two of them gave birth.
Readers who are more interested in the Napoleonic Wars than me will get more out of this than I did, but I got what I wanted. You can get it here.