The Life of an Officer on Campaign – Guest post by Caroline Miley

We are thrilled to welcome Australian author, Caroline Miley to our blog. Caroline is an art historian and author of literary historical novels set in the late Georgian era. Her debut novel, The Competition,(e-book version) won a Varuna Fellowship and a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and was selected by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, for it 250th Anniversary celebrations.

Her latest novel, Artist on Campaign, (also e-book version) was inspired by wondering what would happen if a rake of an artist was obliged to put up with the British Army, and vice versa, so I’ll hand over to Caroline to tell you more.

“I had had no idea until this commission started how much time officers spent sitting down within doors with a pen in their hand”, the hero of Artist on Campaign says, as he consults the Town Major in Lisbon as to where he might find General Cradock.

I, too, had visualised officers as spending their life either on duty, largely on horseback, galloping from post to post or inspecting troops and ordering them about, or in their time off, gadding about town, drinking, carousing or making up to young ladies in drawing-rooms or at balls. But that was only half the story, especially when on campaign. Many officers did spend a great deal of time writing.

Being the army, as much time as possible was committed to writing, including daily and general orders and instructions. A staff officer such as the Adjutant-General or Quartermaster-General would in fact spend most of their life behind a desk, but even field officers had to write a great deal. Some even had their saddle bow built up into a tablet so they could write in the saddle. Much of the correspondence was on the dullest possible subjects, although giving insights into the exigencies of life:

“Gunner Farquhar has received no subsistence since the 31st March last year so that there is 15 months due to him viz., from 1st April 1809 to 30 June 1810… do me the favour to cause enquiry to be made of Mr Bell, Paymaster…”(1)

Many wrote up the day’s activities every night, and diaries, letters and memoirs as well as official documents. Some, such as Alexander Dickson, made extremely detailed accounts of architecture and the surroundings (2). Augustus Schaumann, a German Commissary, left one of the most vivid and evocative accounts in On the Road with Wellington (3), which includes something that many writers left out, i.e. their love affairs. And their leisure time is depicted in the amusing sketches and lampoons of army life by Thomas Rowlandson and his contemporaries.

Life on campaign hardly involved any fighting at all. During the Peninsular campaign of 1809, for instance, which lasted roughly from the 22nd of April when General Wellesley arrived in Lisbon to take command, up to the 3rd of September when the army arrived at Badajoz to recuperate, the British Army spent a half day re-capturing the city of Porto from the French.

The battle of Talavera de la Reina took three days, an unusually long and correspondingly bloody affair. So during a period of about four and a half months, only four days were spent in actual fighting. The remainder was spent on the march, with a few weeks in towns awaiting orders or assembling the troops.

An officer on campaign carried an enormous quantity of baggage and got an allowance for a bat horse to carry it and a servant from the ranks to look after him. During Sir John Moore’s campaign of 1808, he ordered that soldier-servants had to be returned to active duty, causing a great deal of grumbling from the officers. They certainly needed servants! They baggage included quantities of demountable furniture sturdily made of mahogany or oak with brass corners, sometimes sewn up in protective canvas. Then there were the contents of those chests – changes of clothes and their uniforms and hats, which occupied their own japanned tin boxes. And their writing-desks, shaving gear and other ‘necessaries’, cutlery, crockery, silver-mounted toilet sets, and edibles to eke out the army ration beef and biscuit. A servant’s work comprised that of valet, butler, cook, groom, laundryman and commissary – everything needed to keep their master clean, presentable, fed and comfortable.

Unlike soldiers, officers did not often bring their wives. Many, like Sir John Moore, considered that marriage was not suitable for a career military man. Those who were married, such as Wellington, mostly left their wives at home. If they did accompany them, they found the ladies a suitable residence among the English merchant community in safely-garrisoned Lisbon and settled them there for the duration, visiting when duty – or inclination – allowed.

In their spare time, officers sallied out into whatever town they were in. They attended balls, receptions and tertulias – dull affairs where the men and women stood about separately in corners and lemonade and cakes were served – given by the local people, drank a colossal quantity, and energetically prosecuted love affairs with local ladies.

Something that fascinated English officers in Portugal especially was the numerous convents full of nuns, who as staunch Protestants they pitied. Visiting nuns and making love to the younger and prettier through the grilles in the convents was a popular pastime, and some even persuaded the ladies to run away with them. This was so common that scholarly papers have been written about the numerous accounts of relations with nuns in British officers’ memoirs (4)

Drinking was endemic and a sign of manliness; a novice like Johnny Newcome had to learn to take his liquor. When the Duke of Wellington decided to commit himself to military life, he cut his consumption of alcohol in half – to only four bottles a day! Men drank port or brandy; claret was regarded as a drink for women. Drunkenness was only an issue if it prevented you from doing your work, for both officers or men, but extreme dissolution was frowned on as ungentlemanly.

On Sundays Divine Service would be held, probably in the open air, and the officers and men and their wives would assemble to hear it. At this period the service would be Matins, as the Sacrament was celebrated less frequently. Outdoor spare time pursuits were hunting in the neighbourhood, using dogs they had brought with them, and getting up horse races, as officers were proud of their horses and aimed for the fastest and showiest animals they could get, while betting was a favourite recreation. Being in a foreign country gave the more artistically inclined numerous opportunities to inspect the art, architecture and sights of the place, and collect trinkets and souvenirs. Some of the wealthier bought art works and antiquities and sent them home to add to their collections.

It may be surprising, in view of all the drinking, wenching and galloping about the country, but many officers were great readers. Popular books were Portuguese and Spanish grammars and dictionaries, books on the arts of war like A treatise containing the elementary part of fortification by John Muller (5) or The Officer’s Manual in the Field (6), and for light reading many chose Don Quixote (7), which they hoped would give them some insight into Spanish life and customs. Novels were not much favoured, but John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (8), the prime pornographic work of the era, would have found a place in many officers’ libraries, together with a selection of erotic engravings to while away the more solitary hours, far from home.

The life of an officer on campaign was an odd miscellany. Courage and daring, sheer hard work, gentlemanly conduct and extreme physical hardship consorted with balls, dancing, gaiety, extravagant uniforms, love affairs, adventure and the tedium of life garrisoning a small town – and, in all this, a great deal of sitting at a desk with a pen in one’s hand.

Both of Caroline’s books are available via Amazon in either paperback or as e-books.

Notes

1) The Dickson Manuscripts Major-General Alexander Dickson (Royal Artillery) Ken Trotman Ltd, Cambridge, 1987, Vol 2 p. 225

2) Ibid.

3) On the Road with Wellington Augustus Schaumann Greenhill Books, London, 1999

4) Eg The Historical Journal Vol. 58 Issue 3 September 2015 pp. 733-756

“Habits of Seduction: Accounts of Portuguese Nuns in British Officers’ Peninsular War Memoirs Jeanne Hurl-Eamon Published online by Cambridge University Press;

The British Soldier in the Peninsular War: Encounters with Spain and Portugal 1808-1814 Gavin Daly Palgrave Macmillan London 2013 p. 165

5) A treatise containing the elementary part of fortification, regular and irregular John Muller J Nourse London 1756

6) The Officer’s Manual in the Field or a Series Of Military Plans Representing the Principal Operations of a Campaign T. Bensley London 1798

7) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 1615

8) Fanny Hill: or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure John Cleland London 1749

Featured Image

Soldiers of a campaign. Yale Center for British Art

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