Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras.
A boy in the Peninsular War: an autobiography.
The services, adventures and experiences of
Robert Blakeney, subaltern in the 28th Regiment.

Chapter 1.

The shelling of Copenhagen on the 4th September, 1807 by British forces.
In the Gazette of July 1804 it appeared that Robert Blakeney, gentleman, was appointed to an ensigncy in the 28th Regiment of infantry. Relying on the delusive promise that zeal would meet certain reward, I immediately joined my regiment near Cork, where they lay encamped, forming part of a corps under command of Sir Eyre Coote.

On the second day after my joining, the whole of the troops marched to Kinsale, and having taken up a position on some high ground looking down on the bay, the men commenced firing ball with as much anxiety as if the whole French flotilla, filled with ruthless invaders and headed by Napoleon in person, were attempting a landing underneath. Some seagulls were seen to fall, and it was confidently reported that many others were wounded.

As soon as the fight was over, the men sat down to dine with all those proud feelings which soldiers are wont to entertain after a victory. Never shall I forget the thrilling emotion which agitated my whole frame at seeing the blood fall from the hand of one of the soldiers, wounded through the clumsy manner in which he fixed his flint.

I eyed each precious drop that fell with glowing sensations such as would blaze in the breast of a Napoleon on beholding an old dynasty diadem, or inflame the heart of a Scot in contemplating a new place in the Treasury.

I now became on the effective strength of the 1st Battalion, which I joined the next year. Both battalions of the regiment were removed to Parsonstown, and thence proceeded to the Curragh of Kildare, where twenty thousand men were encamped under the command of Lord Cathcart.

Second lieutenants were now given to all first battalion companies, so that immediately on our arrival here the three senior ensigns of the regiment, Robert Johnson, Robert Blakeney and Charles Cadell, were promoted; and thus I again joined the 2nd Battalion in camp.

On the breaking up of this encampment, the two battalions of the regiment were separated. The 1st proceeded to Mallow and thence to Monkstown, where they shortly after embarked for Germany in the expedition commanded by the above-mentioned nobleman. The 2nd Battalion, to which I now again belonged, were ordered to do garrison duty in Dublin.

In the December of this year, being ordered to proceed to Exeter on the recruiting service, I embarked on board the mercantile brig Britannia, Captain Burrows, bound from Dublin to Bristol; and a more ignorant drunken lubber never commanded a vessel.

The wind, which might be considered a fresh breeze at leaving the port, blew hard as we entered the Bristol Channel, when our ignorant master nearly ran us foul of Lundy Island, which more through good luck than able seamanship we fortunately weathered.

As we proceeded the gale became tremendous; the billows rolled in majestic, yet horrific, grandeur over our heads, sweeping everything off deck; and then the master, far from encouraging the crew and by good example inspiring them with a due sense of the duty which they had to perform, added to their terror and dispirited all by his degrading and worse than useless lamentation, calling aloud on his wife and children, then in Bristol.

An attempt was made to run the vessel into the small port of Ilfracombe, but this failed through the ignorance and terror of the master. Still impetuously driven forward, we approached the small village of Combemartin, when a loud crash was heard, caused, if I recollect right, by striking against a sandbank; and then the captain, in his usual consolatory language, cried out that all was lost and every soul on board must perish.

A gentleman passenger now came down to the cabin, and, vainly endeavouring to restrain his unwilling yet manly tears, embraced his wife and two young children, who lay helpless in one of the berths. The innocent little babes clung round his neck, beseeching him to take their mamma and them on shore.

He endeavoured to soothe their grief; but that which he considered it to be his painful duty to impart was most heartrending. He recommended them and his wife to remain tranquil in their berths, saying that it was totally useless to attempt going on deck, for all hope was lost, and that they should turn all their thoughts to Heaven alone.

The scene was excessively affecting, and acted, I confess, more powerfully on my feelings than all the dangers with which we were surrounded; for although I had lain the whole time in my berth so overpowered with sea-sickness as to be incapable of any exertion, I now started up and hurried on deck just as the brutal drunken skipper was knocked down by a blow from the tiller whilst trying to direct it.

Urged by the impulse of the moment, I seized the abandoned tiller, and moved it in the direction which I saw the late occupant attempt. At this critical moment we descried a person on horseback making signals. This gentleman, having witnessed our failure to enter Ilfracombe, and foreseeing our inevitable destruction should we be driven past Combemartin, rode at full speed along the shore, waving his hat sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another.

Assisted by one of the passengers - I think a Mr. Bunbury (all the sailors were now drunk) - I moved the tiller in conformity with the signals made by the gentleman on shore, and in a short time we succeeded in guiding the vessel through a very intricate and narrow passage between rocks and banks, and finally ran her aground on a shoal of sand.

The storm still continuing to blow furiously, the vessel beat violently from side to side against the sandbanks; but some men having contrived to come off from the village, to which we were now close, and fastening ropes to the mast, bound her fast down on one side, when the whole crew got safe to land. We subsequently learned that eight vessels were that morning wrecked in the Bristol Channel.

It must be allowed that much credit was due to the fishermen of Combemartin for the alacrity they showed in giving us their assistance; but it must also be confessed that while we remained for a few hours in the village they appeared to be the rudest and most uncouth people I ever met with in Great Britain.

Every man in the village claimed to be the first who came to assist us, and as such demanded a suitable reward. Much of our luggage disappeared in being removed from the vessel to the shore, and was heard of no more.

The greater part of my own goods, through my own ignorance of voyaging and the carelessness and inattention of the master being left exposed on deck, was washed away during the storm; but what money I possessed was luckily hoarded up in my trousers pocket; and in truth my trousers were the only part of my dress had on during the whole time I was on deck assuming the functions of pilot and captain, the skipper being in a state of torpidity from fright and drunkenness.

As soon as we could procure means of transport, which took some hours, we proceeded to Ilfracombe; for Combemartin was incapable of affording accommodation for so large a party.

Credit was given to me for having saved the crew, but I took none to myself. It was the first time I had ever been on board of any vessel larger than an open fishing-boat, and I was consequently as ignorant of steering a ship as of training an elephant.

Any part I took, therefore, was perfectly mechanical, and the inventive and true merit was solely due to the gentleman on shore, by whose directions I was guided. Being subservient to the will of another, I could have as little claim to credit for judgment or plan, principle or reflection, as could a wine-wagged billy-punchSee the Box with Green text below. or a tail-voter in the House.

"wine-wagged billy-punch" This may be the 19th century equivalent of a half-drunk blow-hard

Next morning I proceeded to Exeter, but previous to my departure my attention was called to two Dublin ladies, fellow passengers, who, being bound direct for Bristol, were not prepared to meet the expenses of a land journey thither. They appeared much distressed in mind, and declared they would rather die than leave any part of their luggage in pledge.

I lent them a few guineas out of my own small stock, upon which they took my address, promising to remit the money as soon as they arrived at Bristol; but, gaining experience as I advanced, I found that I should have taken their address, for I never after heard of or from them.

After having remained some months in Devonshire on the recruiting service, I was ordered to join the 1st Battalion of the regiment, then quartered at Colchester, after their return from the fruitless expedition into Germany. We did not long remain here.

On July 24th of the next year the regiment marched from Colchester to Harwich, and there embarked to join a second expedition, commanded by Lord Cathcart. So profoundly was our destination kept secret, and so ignorant were we all of the object in view, that we could not even conjecture whither we were going, until on August 8th we arrived in the Sound, and anchored late that night close under Elsinore Castle, during the loudest storm of thunder, accompanied by the most brilliant lightning, I ever witnessed.

At intervals the immense fleet, consisting of men-of-war, transports and merchantmen, the islands of Zealand, the extent of the Sound, together with the opposite Swedish coast, as if suddenly emerged from darkest chaos, instantly became more visible than if lighted by the noonday sun in all his splendour.

These astonishing elemental crashes and dazzling shows were as suddenly succeeded by deathlike silence and darkness so impenetrable that not an individual could be distinguished even by those who stood nearest on deck.

Yet, although the ground of the night was perfectly dark, still, guided by the vivid flashes with which it was relieved, every vessel of this apparently unwieldy fleet fell into her proper berth, and, duly measuring the appropriate length of cable, swung securely to her anchor; and, strange to say, not a single casualty took place through the whole.

The scene altogether was excessively grand, and truly presented what in hackneyed poetic phrase is termed sublime. The jarring elements seemed to portend evil to the descendants of Odin, nor were there wanting some with evil eye who foreboded something rotten in the state of Denmark.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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