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Never Surpassed: Ensign Leeke and the 52nd Light Infantry: the Peninsular War and Personal Experiences of the Waterloo Campaign, 1808-18

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Never Surpassed: Ensign Leeke and the 52nd Light Infantry: the Peninsular War and Personal Experiences of the Waterloo Campaign, 1808-18
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Author(s): William Leeke, edited by John H. Lewis
Date Published: 2021/12
Page Count: 364
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-915234-35-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-915234-34-6

A new single volume edition of the military writings of ‘Ensign’ Leeke of the 52nd

Seventeen year old William Leeke marched to war for the first time in 1815 with the 52nd Light Infantry as a ‘gentleman volunteer’ thanks to his family’s connections with the regiment’s colonel, the highly regarded John Colborne. His place in the regiment quickly formalised, Leeke became an ensign tasked with carrying the regimental colour into the Battle of Waterloo. In later life Leeke wrote a substantial two-volume work which included his own experiences at Waterloo, a lengthy and controversial dissertation on the defeat of the French Imperial Guard in the closing phases of the battle and a history of the 52nd during the Peninsular War. As was common in the nineteenth century his writings were discursive and contained much material that did not concern the wars against Napoleonic France or any other military topic. Nor was his writing on military matters presented in a coherent chronological manner, which made Leek’s interesting opinions and accounts, in their original form, difficult to access for modern readers. This unique Leonaur single volume edition of Leeke’s military writings remedies these issues for the first time. His personal account of the Campaign of 1815 also includes the march to Paris after Waterloo and his experiences as a young officer with the Army of Occupation until the 52nd returned to Britain in 1818. With illustrations and maps.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Exactly at twelve o’clock, by Chalmers’s watch, the battle was begun by a cannon shot fired from the French position at the Duke of Wellington, who, with a numerous assemblage of general and other staff officers, had taken post about a third of a mile in our front on the high ground in rear of the north-eastern corner of the enclosure of Hougomont, from whence he could see the greater part of the French position. Such an assemblage was sure to attract the attention of the enemy, and unnecessarily to bring on itself the opening cannonade. It was said the duke told some of the generals they were “rather too thick upon the ground.”
Whilst we were in reserve above the village of Merbe Braine, the regiment suffered several casualties from the shot and shell which passed over the British position in our front. I think the first occurred to Major Chalmers. The regiment was lying down; I was forced to remain with the colour in rear of the centre subdivision of the right wing, but several of the officers were standing in a group round Chalmers’s horse when a ricochet shot came lobbing in amongst them, but fortunately did no other injury than that of breaking the horse’s leg; Chalmers drew a pistol from his holster and put the animal out of his misery.
Most of our casualties at this time were occasioned by shell bursting over us, but we saw many cannon-shot ploughing up the ground near us: I had been already regarding several of them with great respect, when my colour-sergeant, Rhodes, who took great care of me and shewed me much kindness all the day, said, pointing to a shot passing through the standing corn, on the right of the column, “There, Mr. Leeke, is a cannon-shot, if you never saw one before. Sir!” Sergeant Houseley, (see Appendix No. 4), whilst standing in rear of the column, narrowly escaped having a round shot through him, by stooping just as he saw it in a line with him at some little distance; this was quite allowable when his comrades were lying down at their ease.
One of my narrow escapes occurred whilst we were lying here in reserve; I had my head against my colour-sergeant’s knapsack, and was trying, but in vain, to get some sleep, when all at once there was a great rattle against the mess-tins, which, fitting one within the other, were strapped to the back of every man’s knapsack; a piece of shell about the size and about as thick as the half of the palm of one’s hand, had struck, and lodged in the inner tin; we both sat up, and he extracted the inner tin and the piece of shell, saying, as he pitched them both away, “If that had hit either you or me on the head. Sir, I think it would have settled our business for us.”
On our leaving this ground I looked back and saw we had left two poor fellows in 52nd uniform lying dead under a tree, and could scarcely refrain from shedding tears at the melancholy sight; one of them was the assistant sergeant-major, a man greatly respected in the regiment. We lost, whilst in reserve, these two men killed, and I think about ten or twelve men wounded, who were taken to Merbe Braine.

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