An essential British Army memoir from a regimental officer
Historian Mockler-Ferryman has taken the letters and papers of Sam Rice of H.M 51st regiment of foot and combined them with his own narrative of the life and times of a regimental officer of the British infantry during the Napoleonic epoch. Rice's career was an interesting one, though not untypical for his time. He remained a regimental officer within the same regiment for all of his career and this enables the reader to follow Rice and the West Yorks. through many campaigns of interest to students of the age of Napoleon. Rice saw action in Corsica, Ceylon and in the early stages of the war in Spain to the battle and evacuation at Corunna. Return to the Iberian peninsula brought him to Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca and the campaigns to the close of the war and the Emperors abdication. Rice was fated to meet the French once more on the slopes before Waterloo. Mockler-Ferryman brings vital context and added detail to the activities of Rice, his regiment and their role in great events. Recommended.
Next day the guns reopened fire on St Christoval, and on the 9th June a second assault was ordered. Ensign Dyas again led the Forlorn Hope, and Major M‘Geechy, of the 11th, the Stormers. The ladders carried were much longer than those used on the previous occasion, yet they did not prove long enough; for the defenders had removed the debris from the foot of the breach and thus rendered the place safe from escalade. Shot and shell now rained on the baffled assailants, but, nothing daunted, they reared their ladders and pressed up them, in the attempt to reach the rampart—only, however, to be bayoneted at the top, or to be hurled backwards into the ditch as the defenders pushed the ladders away. The disaster was complete. M‘Geechy was killed, and ere the troops could extricate themselves from the ditch hundreds had fallen. Of the 51st alone there fell in these two desperate assaults one officer killed and three officers wounded, twenty-six men killed and seventy wounded; but Dyas, the hero of two Forlorn Hopes, escaped unharmed, and was personally complimented by Wellington for his gallantry.<br>
Major Sam Rice, who had taken an active part in these assaults, wrote, in his usual laconic way, from Camp before Badajoz, 16th June 1811:—<br>
The siege of this place, which began under such favourable auspices, I am sorry to say, is not likely to terminate yet awhile, and, if at all, only by starvation, for it is most ably defended, beyond, I believe, the calculations of the scientifics. We opened fire from our batteries on the 2nd June, and proceeded to batter and destroy, but without much effect, for the guns and all apparatus are withdrawn within these last three days. The cause is said to be that Marshal Soult is again coming forward with a determination to dispute the point, and afford relief to the garrison; but before this a general action must be fought, and a bloody one it will be, for on this depends the fate of Badajoz and of the frontier—at any rate for a time. The place still continues invested, but all expect to move directly to the army in front. We have been most cruelly harassed day and night, and totally uncovered, as well as exposed to a most scorching sun. Our Regiment has suffered much in two unsuccessful attempts to storm a fort—100 men killed and wounded, and several officers. I have escaped wonderfully, though never under a hotter fire in all my life. I am writing from the bare ground, on which I have taken up my abode this last month entirely. Mainwaring is sick; I command the Regiment, reduced already to 300—so much for honour and glory!<br>
Almost immediately after this letter was written, Wellington, learning that Marmont had come down and united with Soult, raised the siege, and withdrew his force rapidly, a few miles, to the Cay a river, and on the 19th June the French armies entered Badajoz. The combination against Wellington was now weighty. Soult and Marmont could put sixty thousand men into the field, whereas the Allies on the Caya could not muster half that number. But the French marshals failed to discover this weakness, and Wellington found the ground about the Caya so favourable that he was able to present a bold front and deceive his opponents as to his actual strength, which, even after Spencer joined him with the force left in the neighbourhood of Almeida, stood at no more than twenty-eight thousand fighting men. Unwilling to risk a battle without knowing the actual strength of their adversary, Soult and Marmont made no attempt to advance, but shortly after-wards retired and separated, to commence a new plan of campaign.<br>
The following letter from Major Rice gives his views on the situation about this time:—<br>
Campo Mayor, 19th July 1811.<br>
Since my last we have been tolerably quiet; scarce even alarms, which have their advantages in keeping the body and soul in that activity so essential to the military character. It seems now pretty well ascertained that the French army is broken up for the present. Soult, with a corps, reoccupies Seville. Marmont, with the remaining force, Plasencia and its neighbourhood. By an intercepted letter from Marmont, and which is said to be authentic, he complains much of the disorganisation of his army, and want of resources of every kind, and particularly money, without which he can anticipate no future good. I suppose the gentlemen soldiers begin to grumble—pay or plunder is the cry. For my part, I’ve heard so much of armies being annihilated, want of pay, food, and clothing, &c., &c., and cowed at even the sight of British troops, all which statements have proved so incorrect by pretty fair experience, that I now give ear to nothing that is said, how-ever apparently good the authority.<br>
Whatever may be their motives, one thing is pretty certain and known to both parties—that no active war-fare can be carried on at this season of the year in the Alentejo without mutual destruction. The campaign may probably open again early in the autumn. On what point the attack is likely to be made, I as little care as I am able to form an opinion, but wherever it is, they will certainly get cursedly licked. So much for presumption! The whole of our army, which has been bivouacking in this vicinity, is now nearly in motion, standing by divisions along the frontier, to Castello Branco and beyond.<br>
We march tomorrow for Nissa (or Niza), a town this side the Tagus, and near one of the principal fords, Villa Velha. The weather is most dreadfully hot. Crowded, and stenched out by all sorts of agreeables—dead animals, &c.—our situation is not the most delectable one. Withal, bad fare, and every article exorbitantly dear. Mainaring has got a staff appointment, and an officer from half-pay has been brought in. What satisfaction is there in serving if it has not its reward! I am fairly sick of the business. I have had nothing but losses of late. A valuable horse broke from me while at Badajoz, swam the Guadiana, and I believe is now in the French lines. Poor Harry’s pistol, which I had in my sash the night of the storm (St Christoval), dropped out, and I lost also my poor dear Mary’s snuff-box, which I considered almost as my guardian angel, it having been my companion in every affair.<br>
The latter part of this letter helps to throw light on Sam Rice’s character, and it is evident from it that he was a man who bore no ill-will to anyone. He mentions casually that “an officer from half-pay has been brought in,” and he immediately dismisses the subject with, “I am fairly sick of the business,” and never refers to it again. Yet he, the senior major of the 51st, had been passed over for the command of the regiment, and Lieut.-Colonel Mitchell, who had had no previous connection with the regiment, had been brought in over his head. Under such circumstances an ordinary man might have been excused if he had given vent to his feelings by filling two or three sheets of paper with abuse of every one in authority. Major Rice was the victim of circumstances; by no fault of his own he had lost the command of his regiment; but he was above all things loyal, and he refused to give away his commanding officer, Colonel Mainwaring. He says nothing whatever of any trouble.<br>
On the 16th June he writes, “Mainwaring is sick; I command the Regiment”; and on the 19th July, “Mainwaring has got a staff appointment.” It would have been easy for him to have told the whole story, and thus excused himself, as certainly nine out of ten people would have done. He, however, chose the better part, and left unsaid anything that might have detracted from the conduct of his commanding officer, and anything that might have been seized upon by gossip-mongers as affecting the good name of the Regiment.<br>
In later years Sir John Colborne related what took place in the following words:—<br>
Colonel Mainwaring, of the 51st, was placed in a position [Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro] in which he thought he was sure to be surrounded by the French. So he called his officers and said, ‘we are sure of being taken or killed; therefore well burn the colours.’ Accordingly, they brought the colours and burnt them with all funeral pomp, and buried the ashes, or kept them, I believe. It so happened that the French never came near them. Lord Wellington was exceedingly angry when he heard of it, as he knew well enough where he had placed the regiment. So he ordered Mainwaring under arrest and tried him by court-martial. An old colonel, who undertook his defence, said, ‘I believe it was something to do with religious principles.’ ‘Oh,’ said Lord Wellington, ‘if it was a matter of religious principles, I have nothing more to do with it. You may take him out of arrest; but send him to Lisbon.’ So he went to Lisbon, and was never allowed to command his regiment again; he was sent home.