Last night I read The British Battalion at Oporto by Thomas Knight, in which a Somerset lad goes to fight in Holland and at Waterloo and then takes part in the expedition to Oporto, Portugal to suppress the 1820 constitutionalist revolution.
Like his contemporary, Benjamin Harris, Knight recalls bloody savagery, but also frequent episodes of joyous pillaging and gluttony. (Imagine George MacDonald Fraser without the whoring and the diplomacy.) With the exception of the Walcheren episode in Rifleman Harris’ recollections, this is a world away from the terrible suffering and abandonment by their officers recorded by Napoleon’s (Flemish) conscripts in the Peninsula War.
Here’s an excerpt:
On the 15th of September, Captain Mitchell gave me a Cruzado Nova, and ordered me to take two invalids to the hospital in the town.
Colonel Burrell and his men had just arrived, and two of them getting hold of me we drank so much aguadente, that both of us became so very tipsy that we were picked up by the police and put into the guard-house.
One of my companions was robbed by one of the Portuguese, and telling me of it, I first blackguarded the thief, and then knocked him down, and the other fellow seeing this, ran away and left me; but the officer of police forgave me, and so did Captain Shaw when I went to the barracks.
The next morning, as I was sleeping off the drink in the guard-room, I heard shots, and, jumping up, asked for my accoutrements.
“Corporal Knight, you were drunk last night, and the Serjeant sent them to the store-room.” “Curse the Serjeant,” said I, and brushed to the store, picked up belt, not cleaned for a month–all the same in a fight–perhaps never might come back to pipe-clay it, and lifted firelock and bayonet, forgetting to try if they fitted.
I found Major Shaw on the Lugar das Antas, with about eighty men, keeping back a body of about 1500, who expected to see the few English take to their heels as soon as they showed themselves on the brow of the hill; but they found they had met with customers not to be easily frightened, and who, knowing every yard of the ground, could do a deal of mischief, without much exposing themselves.
However, we were gradually getting driven in, when Major Staunton, with the Grenadiers, and a company of Caçadores, advanced to Major Shaw’s assistance, and charged the Miguelites with such fury, that they could not stand it; but he himself, to the great distress of all of us, was mortally wounded in the charge. On joining my company in the fight, my firelock flashed twice, and, mad as the devil, I smashed her in two on the ground.
Seeing a young fellow wounded in the thigh, and hopping along with the blood streaming down, I said to him, “You have no more use for your firelock, come, give her to me like a good fellow,” but he would not; so advancing for twenty yards without one, and seeing three of the enemy lying dead, I took one of theirs and primed it, but it likewise flashing, “Blest,” says I, ” if I am going to have a rap at them to-day. Dick, lend me your worm.”
I then laid down behind some stones, having no fancy to be shot while drawing the charge of a gun. On getting out the charge I primed and loaded again, and she smacked off beautifully, and never again failed me the whole day.
The enemy were rallied by their officers, but we hallooed, and driving them back, tried to get before them to make prisoners; but they were too nimble, and got into a wood, and it being now night all our men retired, with the exception of Serjeant Willougby, John Germain, and myself.
We kept firing at them for some time by the flashes of their guns; and a big yellow house on the hill, and some others, having been set on fire, and past which we had to run, they saw us plainly, and sent a lot of bullets whizzing past us, but made nothing of it.
A few days after this, wanting to get some money from my Captain (now Captain Mitchell), I found him and Captain Chinnock in his quarters opposite the barracks. The latter asked me what I wanted. “Some money, sir.” “Do you understand, ‘Right about three-quarters face.'” “Yes, sir, very well.” “Let’s see it.” “Now then, ‘Quick march.'” I stepped out, and coming to the door, was expecting the “Halt,” but he let me pass outside, and, laughing, said, “Now you are on the right side to be off.” I was vexed at being done in this way by one not my own officer, and replied, “Sir, you asked me just now to show you ‘Right about three-quarters face;’ I’ll now show you, if you please, ‘Left about three-quarters face;'” and wheeling round, and giving myself the word, marched into the house again. They both laughed at my doubling on them so, and Captain Mitchell gave me my money.
He then said, “Do you understand cooking?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, there is a piece of beef, which we wish baked with some potatoes.” I immediately set about it, but having too many potatoes in the dish, the meat was done dry before they were ready. They ordered all to be dished up, and beginning to the potatoes, they found them hard, and began to blow me up, and quiz me about being a bad cook. “The potatoes are hard, sure enough,” said I, “but better that way than none; but you didn’t give me time enough.” “Well, well,” said they, “up with the lot; shoulder the pot and march.”
Getting leave to go into Oporto one afternoon, I unfortunately got tipsy, and, measuring my length on the ground, fell asleep. On awaking in the morning the devil might have danced a hornpipe in my pockets, and the silver buckle of my Order of the Tower and Sword had gone with my money.
I attended parade, and returning to Oporto, was puzzling my head how to raise the wind for a new buckle. “Thinks I, all’s fair in war; the scamps cleaned me out, and I may as well do the same to them.” So posting off to the quay, to my great joy, discovered one of our fellows lying dead drunk. My fingers were soon in his pockets, and found enough to get me what I wanted.
Next morning I met the very chap in the street, and coming up to me, he said, “Corporal, I wish you would lend me your knife, to take a splinter out of my finger.” “Is it sore ?” said I. “Yes, very; but there is something sorer.” “What is that?”
“Why, the fact is, I got drunk in the town last night, and when I was asleep some thieving blackguard came and stole my money.” “What scamps there are here,” said I; “it was only the night before that one of them robbed me in the same way.”
“Well,” said he, “let’s keep a sharp look-out, and if I get a hold of the scoundrel that tricked me, I’ll make his bones sore for a month.”
Thinks I to myself, many thanks for your kind wishes; but pitying the poor devil, with his long face, I took him into a wine-shop, and treated him (with his own money) to a bottle of wine.
Being one day on duty, to examine all who should pass the lines, a man came along with two large bundles on his shoulder, and not liking his appearance, and seeing the sentry feel his pockets very carelessly, I searched them myself, and finding bullets in his waistcoat pocket, ordered him to open his packs. This he did very unwillingly, and we found in them—shirts, &c., two bottles of spirits, and letters for the enemy.
On seeing this I sent for the Captain of the post, a Portuguese, who could speak both languages, and he ordered the man and his bundles off to prison in town. On hearing this my gentleman became abusive; but the Captain, drawing his sword, belaboured him so, that he was glad to get away, although it were to a prison.
I think this is wonderful stuff, but since last night’s other reading was ¡Desamparados!, the Spanish translation of a roman-feuilleton by Maxime Villemer, I may stand open to accusations of dimwittedness.
- The mugger mugged
Several Chinese have whispered me grossly inaccurate versions of this story, so here’s the truth, from the mouth of a horse
- Old Congolese joke
I’ve been translating quite a lot of elderly Flemish over the past few months. Here’s an excerpt from some manuscript memoirs
- Pasty Cline and some rather tatsy buttocks
Take two adjacent consonants and a luscious little lightly-seasoned meat pie and this kind of thing is inevitable. For all I know
- Bloody Galicians
But what was Rosa Díez actually trying to say before she so expertly inserted foot into mouth?
- Enric’s story
“I was 20 when I went to the front.”