I have recently been re-reading the brilliant historical memoir ‘Recollections of Rifleman Harris’. This book, which was published in 1848 is a memoir written by Harris and edited by Henry Curling, an officer with whom he was acquainted. Harris’ memoir tells the story of his soldiering, which sees him make the transition from life as a young Dorset shepherd to the army, first as a redcoat and then wearing the famous green jacket of the 95th Rifles.
Although Harris first sees action in the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen, a British expedition to prevent the Dano-Norwegian fleet from being handed over to Napoleon, he does most of his soldiering in the Peninsula War. Harris fights at la Rolica, Vimeiro, Salamanca and Sahagun before participating in the ignominious retreat to Corunna.
Harris’ memoir is a great read. It offers fantastic insight into the life on campaign of an ordinary soldier in Wellington’s Army. As a cobbler, Harris has to carry the tools of his trade with him and repair his comrades’ boots. On one notable occasion, he is required to repair an inordinate number of boots in a farmhouse that is coming under bombardment from French lines. Our hero gives up on his efforts and returns to his Company, dumping the boots before his comrades, just as they are about to join battle. The state of men’s boots (or lack thereof) is a recurrent feature of the story. On several occasions, particularly during the retreat, Harris comments on his comrades being forced to march barefoot with bleeding and sore feet. As a modern soldier, the prospect of marching unshod over rugged mountainous terrain in winter is almost beyond comprehension. Small wonder that Napoleon wrote that the greatest quality in a soldier was the ability to endure hardship.
It is during the retreat to Corunna that the reader is exposed to some of the most harrowing tales of the campaign which serve to illustrate that such hardships were faced not just by the soldiers, but also their wives and children. The privations of a forced march on scant rations lead to widespread deaths throughout the Army, with women and children often succumbing first. Indeed, the conditions faced in Spain and Portugal are such that when the Rifle Brigade is later sent to the Walcheren, families are barred from accompanying them
The standards of discipline in Wellington’s Army were strict by today’s standards as were the punishments. Early on in the book, Harris describes forming part of a firing squad charged with the execution of a serial deserter (a man who had repeatedly enlisted in different Regiments, each time absconding with the King’s shilling soon after). Following the execution, the assembled troops march past the victim in slow-time for all present to witness the results of the punishment meted out.
Another fascinating glimpse into the military code of the day is provided by the story of Brigadier General ‘Black Bob’ Crauford making the time to ensure that the punishment of errant soldiers by lashing is carried out, even while on the retreat. A strict disciplinarian, during the crossing of the Douro, Crauford rebukes several officers for allowing themselves to be carried across the river on the shoulders of their men.
Harris’ Rifle Brigade returns from Corunna having lost two thirds of its number on the campaign. Following a period of reconstitution, during which the reader is treated to vivid descriptions of life among the lower classes of Georgian England, Harris is sent on the Walcheren expedition where, like many of his comrades, he falls ill with malaria. Harris paints a most vivid and tragic picture of a military force depleted by the vicissitudes of the disease. Whilst he fails to fully regain his health and never soldiers again, Harris comments that he looks back upon his time on campaign with fond memories.
Harris’ memoir remains a unique and vital link between readers today and the battlefields of the 19th Century, where the fate of nations was decided by massed armies manoeuvring on foot and horseback. The weapons, means of manoeuvre and tactics may have changed but the challenges of moving men and materiel over extended distances across challenging terrain are enduring features of conflict that are as relevant today as they were in 1809. When I wore the Queen’s uniform, the strength of our military cultural identity is such that I always felt a strong affinity with the men who marched on Badajoz or ‘formed square’ and stood at Waterloo. When I compare Harris’ experiences with my own, I realise that latter day soldiers have an easy time of it in comparison; I wonder what he would make of our war.
Major Barry Alexander is an author and poet. His memoir, ‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’, a memoir of his time as a Nursing Officer providing medical support on the front lines in Helmand Province, 2007.
‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’ is available as a paperback and Kindle e-book: