Personal observations of small campaigns of the Napoleonic age
The long period of the French Revolution, the Consulate and Napoleon’s First Empire was notable not as a departure from almost perpetual hostility with the British, but because upon the conclusion of hostilities in 1815 the two nations never again went to war against each other. Military first-hand accounts from this era abound, though predictably most concern the theatres of war that engaged most soldiers of both sides, the Peninsular War and the Waterloo Campaign. Unusually the author of this engaging book of diary entries, whilst a serving soldier throughout this period, saw no action in those campaigns. Dyott’s first action took him to the West Indies to take part in the suppression of a mulatto and Negro revolt provoked by the French. He next joined Abercromby on the expedition to defeat Napoleon’s troops in Egypt, and subsequently upon the expedition to the island of Walcheren which became an infamous military debacle exacerbated by the pestilential conditions which killed scores of British troops. Dyott provides students of the Napoleonic period with unique, detailed and telling insights into ‘side-show’ campaigns—rarely covered in depth by others—from the perspective of an officer of the British Army. He was a prolific diarist who wrote many volumes about his affairs up to the mid 1840s, and his substantial writing about his time as a soldier, part of the whole, has possibly been overlooked for this very reason. This unique Leonaur edition confines itself to William Dyott’s military career on active service.
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We had proceeded about half a mile, when Brigadier-General Campbell, who was in front, finding the night coming on very fast, and knowing how much the troops had suffered from being under arms almost twenty-four hours, the 9th regiment in particular, as that corps and the 25th under my command had marched, I should write run, three miles as fast as it was possible for them, and had only halted an hour, and that on account of a most tremendous shower of rain, when it was ordered forward (the 9th on the storming party, the 25th being left to guard the hill where the huts, etc., were), Brigadier Campbell, as I mentioned before, proposed to defer the attack on Post Royal till next morning.
The column therefore returned to Madam Hooks, where the 10th had been left, about seven o’clock, and I do suppose no troops ever were more completely fatigued; for myself, I am very certain after I had once lain down, if we had been attacked I should have been cut to pieces, as it was impossible I could move. I was very far past eating. I had in the course of the day taken a copious share of drink, as I am very certain that in my whole life altogether I had never drank so much grog as during the last four-and-twenty hours. Sleep made me a new man.
The next day, the 24th, threw up a work for our guns and mortars to bear on Post Royal. I should have mentioned that at the attack of yesterday, it was the first time I had heard the sound of great guns on service; the music of the six and nine pound shot was at times rather too close to be pleasant. During the night of the 24th our battery was completed and in the morning of the 25th opened a fire on Post Royal. The regiments stationed at the battery were the 3rd, 8th, and 63rd, which had landed under command of Lieut.-Colonel Dawson of the 8th, early in the morning at Hook’s Bay, and moved forward immediately. The 9th regiment had been at the battery since the 23rd, and the 25th regiment remained on the hill we drove the enemy from the first day. The reserve, consisting of the 17th dragoons, the 10th and 29th and 88th regiments and black corps under my command, remained at Madam Hooks. Our stores that had been landed, etc., also were there.
On the morning of the 25th General Nicholls, who had remained at Madam Hooks since the 23rd, left it about nine o’clock to go to the battery where my guns were. I went up with him to see what was going on. We had a most perfect view of the enemy at Post Royal, the distance not being more than a thousand yards. They did not fire so much at our battery as was expected, though their shot had done some execution, and our people exposed themselves more than was necessary.
General Nicholls called the commanding officers of the regiments together to consult on the best method of attacking and storming the hill. We were assembled in a most conspicuous place for the enemy to have taken a shot at us. It was under our own battery and in a wide red road in full view from their work. I shall never forget Dawson, in the most profound part of the council of war, bursting out laughing with, ‘By God, now’s their time! one round of grape carries off the general and all his council, and defeats the mighty battle.’ The plan of attack was determined notwithstanding, but I believe Dawson’s remark hastened our consultation.
On our return to the battery we perceived a considerable detachment of the enemy endeavouring to get possession of some high ground on the left of our work, as if with an intention of attacking that flank. The 88th regiment and black corps under the command of Major Houstone, which had been brought up from Hooks, were ordered to attack them. Just as they began to engage, which was at about half a mile distance from the battery, an alarm was given of a fire having broken out at my post at Madam Hooks. This post consisted of the remains of a large sugar-house and a number of negro huts, the latter of which, by the soldiers having made fires to cook, by some accident had taken fire, and as they were built of dry wood and thatched with sugar-cane, they blazed away most furiously. This alarm made me ride off as fast as I could to Madam Hooks. After securing the stores, provisions, etc. etc., I was intending to return to see what was going forward at the battery, but in consequence of the two men-of-war (the Mermaid and Favourite) who had convoyed the three regiments from Barbadoes and also an Indiaman, in which a part of them had been embarked, beginning a heavy fire, I was obliged to turn my attention towards them.
The flames from the huts and the heavy fire from the ships alarmed the general much. He told me he really concluded the enemy had attacked us in force and had set fire to the works. The firing from the shipping turned out to be in consequence of two French schooners with troops trying to get into the next bay to land their men as a reinforcement to Post Royal. General Nicholls, on seeing the flames from Hooks, hearing the fire from the ships and observing the reinforcement in the schooners, determined to lose no time in storming the post. The storming party consisted of the light infantry of the 3rd regiment, 100 strong; 100 of the 29th regiment and the 63rd regiment; Colonel Dawson, as senior field officer, had the command.
I forgot to remark that the party on the left under the command of Major Houstone had met with much greater resistance than was expected, and the 8th regiment was therefore sent to their support, which had the desired effect; though I believe the enemy retreated towards Post Royal more on account of their seeing our people moving to the attack than in consequence of any defeat they dreaded from us on the left.
Colonel Dawson had not advanced more than two hundred yards down the hill from our battery when he received a wound from a musket ball through the neck, and was obliged to fall back. The column suffered severely going down the hill, as it was exposed to the enemy’s fire from their work, and also the enemy themselves, who were drawn out under cover of their guns on the hillside of Post Royal and firing small arms at our people as they advanced. After the column had got to the bottom of the hill (that is, between the two—one on which our battery was and Post Royal), they halted a short time as they got under a part of Post Royal Hill that was so steep they were secured from the enemy’s fire; unfortunately the guide they had did not when they advanced conduct them the proper path; the consequence was the light infantry of the 3rd regiment suffered most severely; all the officers were killed or wounded, and between twenty and thirty men knocked down; and as the enemy appeared determined to dispute every inch, it was some time dubious how the affair would end; but British valour, perseverance, and resolution, as it does on all occasions, triumphed at last.
As the column ascended the hill the 17th dragoons were ordered forward to get round to the opposite side, which had the effect desired, as they made dreadful slaughter with their swords on the enemy that were endeavouring to make their escape down the opposite side of the hill from where they were attacked. The post was carried about two o’clock.
Our loss consisted of Major Edwards and two subalterns of the 3rd regiment killed and about fifteen or twenty men, and three officers and forty men wounded. No troops could behave better than ours did in general; and I was told the enemy never were known to make so good a stand. The day was intensely hot, and as the army was under arms for eight hours and some of them for twelve, everybody was rejoiced when the affair was over.
The unfortunate officers and men that were wounded in the action were brought on negroes’ shoulders on litters to my post at Hooks Bay, and all put together in a long building. The sight of them (many having been most dreadfully wounded) was shocking. The first officer brought was my friend Dawson, having been shot through the neck by a musket ball as he went down the hill from our battery.