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.


To His Wife the editor dedicates these memoirs of her mother's father, for whose acquaintance he is glad to own yet one more debt of gratitude to her.
Julian Sturgis.

Robert Blakeney.

Zante - the island of Zakynthos in Ionia, to which Robert Blake retired when he left the army. Othello, confessing that he cannot grace his cause with studied eloquence, pleads that at the tender age of seven years he gave himself to the grim labours of the tented field. Compared with this dark heroic babe, young Blakeney, joining the 28th Regiment as a boy of fifteen, must seem a hardy veteran.

Yet he too pleads, as excuse for lack of style in the Memoirs which he left behind him, that soldiering and fighting began so early in his life as to leave scant time for acquisition of the literary airs and graces. And in the same apologetic vein he says that he wrote his Memoirs in an island where were no libraries and no books of reference in which he might verify the dates and facts of his plain unvarnished tale.

It may be that to some more literary penman the idea of writing memoirs in the Island of Zante, one of those Grecian isles which toward sunset show form so delicate and colour so exquisite that one would think them rather the kingdom of Oberon than the haunt of a retired warrior of the Peninsula - to sit at ease in that enchanted air and summon from the past the gallant deeds of heroes and the kind looks of friends - may seem no despicable recompense for the sad want of all the books of reference.

With groaning shelves and ponderous catalogues in easy reach, conscience makes cowards of us poor followers of literature; we are chilled in mid career, and our happy freedom of statement is checked by intrusive doubt of the date of this battle or of the name of that general.

Even the irresponsible purveyor of fiction must tramp the street or fly on the handy bicjxle, to make sure that he has not plunged his hero into the midst of a revolution two years before it took place, or shown his tender heroine in tears over the song of an eminent composer ere yet the moving song- writer was breeched.

How deep was the regret which the author of these Memoirs felt for the premature end of his lessons and for the want of invaluable books of reference, I am unable to say; but I have ventured to suppress his brief preface of apology because frankly I claim for him not pardon nor tolerance, but gratitude and even affection.

As in that island of dreams he recalled his stirring boyhood, his friendships formed and joyous under the shadow of death, his zeal and admiration for the great leaders under whom he served, his personal adventures and historic battles, his marches, bivouacs and careless jests, his pen became again like the pen of a boy who describes his house football match or the exploits of the favourite hero of the school.

Like a boy too, he had his more important moments - his fine attempts at elo- quence, grandiloquence; he became literary, self-conscious, innocently pompous, like a boy. The pen in his hand grew great as he proclaimed the valour of the brave, the pageant of plumed troops, the pomp of glorious war.

And indeed the pen, grown mightier than the sword, executed at times cuts and flourishes so intricate that the modest editor has had to bring it to the scabbard, or, in his own language of the ink-pot, to contribute once or twice the necessary fullstop. But these tempestuous passages, these patches which aim at the purple, are few; and it should be said at once that they are never concerned with the author's own exploits.

It is the noble character of Sir John Moore that starts the rhapsody, or General Graham, or Paget, or Hill, or the great Wellington himself; and, above all, it is the indomitable valour of the British soldier - of the British soldier who is so often Irish.

There may be some who think that Captain Blakeney should have apologised for being Irish; and indeed, though I protest against any shadow of apology, the Irish nature of our author, whose ancestors came out of Norfolk, may be mentioned as an explanation of the frank and flowing statement of his hopes and fears, his joys and sorrows, his moving accidents and hairbreadth escapes.

Our Anglo-Saxon ideal of the young soldier becomes more and more the youth who is a hero and won't mention it. He is a most engaging person too. Ask him of the deed which filled the daily papers and the mouths of men, and he blushes, mutters, and escapes to his club.

If you bring all your power of persuasion to bear upon him in his most yielding hour, you may draw from him some such statement as this: " Well, I cut the Johnny down and I brought the Tommy off. It was all rot, and there was nothing in it; any chap would have done it." That is fine. Perhaps it is the fine flower of a race more eminent in action than in art.

But if we care for memoirs, let us be thankful for the Frenchman or the Irishman who will do his deeds of daring and not be ashamed to describe them for our profit and our pleasure. Nor is it fair to infer that there is more vanity in the one than in the other.

In the case of Blakeney, at least, I shall be disappointed indeed if any reader suspect him of braggadocio. When he relates his own adventures, his own acts in battle, his language is simple, direct, vivid; iie states plain facts.

When he recalls the exploits of others - of veteran generals, of boys like himself, of private soldiers and especially of his own beloved 28th Regiment, then he cries out a little gloriously perhaps, but with a frankness, a generosity, an honest ardour of admiration which surely may win pardon from the most severe of critics.

In truth it is a gallant and charming young soldier who calls to us from the beginning of the century which is now so near its close. He has waited long for friendly recognition from any but the generals who saw him fight and the young comrades who drank with him at mess and marched with him to battle.

The young comrades, like the old generals, have marched the common road; and it is to a generation who knew not the author that these Memoirs modestly, but with a certain confidence, make their appeal.

The ardent boy joined his regiment in 1804, at the age of fifteen; and in the next ten years he had had fighting enough to content most men for a lifetime.

It is the record of these years which has lain so long in dust, and which I now offer to the reader; and I would ask him to bear in mind, as he reads, the looks and nature of the young soldier whose fortunes he will follow.

He was of middle height and lightly made, but active healthy and handsome. He was eager for friendship and for fight, quick and confident in action, observing with keen accurate eyes, and so clever at languages that he picked them up on the march and conversed with the natives of Spain and Portugal and France with equal audacity and success.

Perhaps more than all one finds in him that natural gaiety of heart which neither danger nor fatigue could dull, neither the want of wealth and honours nor sight of the appalling horrors of war.

His young eyes beheld some deeds done at Badajoz of which the mere description has seemed to me too horrible for print. It will be held by the most bloodthirsty of readers that enough remains.

We are all most warlike now - even the peaceful guardians of the public purse and gentle editors who would not hurt a fly; and perhaps it is no bad thing to recall the horrors of a captured town, lest we take all war to be but glory and gaiety and something to read about in the papers.

Modern governments offer to the people the alarums and excursions of little wars, as the masters of ancient Rome amused their citizens with the grim combats of the circus; and we read the daily papers in the same spirit in which the Roman crowd followed the fights of favourite gladiators or the young Britons of to-day make holiday in looking on at football matches instead of playing on more modest fields themselves.

War is a bad thing at the best. Even our hero, for all his gladness and prowess, was disappointed in the end; nor have many men that abounding gift of gaiety which carried him, one may be sure, through the peaceful years of later Jife, happy in spite of a recurring sense of injury.

If he was neither rich nor famous, he could sing, like the traveller with the empty pockets, in the presence of the robber or of the War Office. And he found pleasure too in the preparation of these Memoirs; one feels it as one reads. He is in an amiable mood.

He expresses the hope that he will hurt the feelings of no man, and all his pages are proof of his sincerity. Except for one or two Spanish generals, whom he cannot endure for the empty pomp and pride which marred the simple valour of their men, he has abundant admiration for friend and foe.

He would have you know too, that when he treats of movements and of battles already described, he makes no claim to draw them better. He puts down what he saw with his own eyes, what he heard with his own ears, - that is the value of his work.

To me at least he seems to give the very air of the battlefield. He is in the midst of the fight; he makes ns see it from inside, breathe the smoke, and hear the hoarse word of command answered by the groan of the wounded.

It may be of interest to some to know that this young soldier was of the Blakeney family of Abbert in County Galway, where they were granted lands in the time of Queen Elizabeth. They came thither out of Norfolk, where, I am told, there is a Blakeney Harbour, which was called after them.

The Robert Blakeney of these Memoirs was born in Galway in 1789, joined the army in 1804, and left it in 1828.

Not long before his resignation he married Maria Giulia Balbi, the last of her ancient family whose name is in the Libro d'Oro of Venice; for between her birth and that of her brother the Venetian Republic had come to an end.

The little Maria was brought by her parents to Corfu. In that most lovely island of the world she grew to womanhood, and there she loved and married Robert Blakeney, whose fighting days were done.

Successive Lords High Commissioners were Blakeney's friends, and found him work to do.

Under Lord Nugent he was Inspector of Police in Corfu; under Sir Howard Douglas he was Inspector of Health in the Island of Zante; and later, under Lord Seaton, he became Resident of the Island of Paxo. This office he held for twentj^-one years, until he died in 1868 in his seventieth year.

So there came to him, when he was still young, a life of peace passed in a land of dreams. But the thoughts of the old soldier turned often to the more misty island of his birth, and to that famous peninsula made sacred to his memory by the blood of gallant comrades.

His heart grew warm again as he summoned from the past the battles, sieges, fortunes of his adventurous boyhood, the happy days of youth, of friendship and of war.

Julian Sturgis.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 10th February, 2013.
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