Recruiting for the Army of Reserve - The penalty for desertion.
My father was a shepherd, and I was a sheep-boy from my earliest youth. Indeed, as soon almost as I could run, I began helping my father to look after the sheep on the downs of Blandford, in
Dorsetshire, where I was born. Whilst I continued to tend the flocks and herds under my charge, and occasionally (in the long winter nights) to learn the art of making shoes, I grew a hardy
little chap, and was one fine day in the year 1802, drawn as a soldier for the Army of Reserve.
Thus, without troubling myself much about the change which was to take place in the hitherto quiet routine of my days, I was drafted into the 66th Regiment of Foot,
bid good-bye to my
shepherd companions, and was obliged to leave my father without an assistant to collect his flocks, just as he was beginning more than ever to require one; nay, indeed, I may say to want
tending and looking after himself, for old age and infirmity were coming on him; his hair was growing as white as the sleet of our downs, and his countenance becoming as furrowed as the
ploughed fields around. However, as I had no choice in the matter, it was quite as well that I did not grieve over my fate.
The 66th Foot was later massacred at the battle of Maiwand by the Ghazis on 27th July 1880 in the Third Afghan War; one of the few survivors being a dog called 'Bobbie'.
My father tried hard to buy me off, and would have persuaded the Serjeant of the 66th that I was of no use as a soldier, from having maimed my right hand (by breaking the fore-finger when a
child). The Serjeant, however, said I was just the sort of little chap he wanted, and off he went, carrying me (amongst a batch of recruits he had collected) away with him.
Almost the first soldiers I ever saw were those belonging to the corps in which I was now enrolled a member, and, on arriving at Winchester, we found the whole regiment there in quarters.
Whilst lying at Winchester (where we remained three months), young as I was in the profession, I was picked out, amongst others, to perform a piece of duty that, for many years afterwards,
remained deeply impressed upon my mind, and gave me the first impression of the stern duties of a soldier's life.
A private of the 70th Regiment
had deserted from that corps, and afterwards enlisted into several other regiments; indeed, I was told at the time (though I cannot answer for so great a number)
that sixteen different times he had received the bounty and then stolen off. Being, however, caught at last, he was brought to trial at Portsmouth, and sentenced by general court-martial to be
In 1802, at the time Harris was writing about, the full title of this regiment was the "70th (Surrey) Regiment of Foot" and the name of the County or City from which it where it was based was added as part of the official name. For example, between 1812 and 1825 the 70th (Surrey) Regiment of Foot became, temporarily the "70th (Glasgow Lowland) Regiment of Foot" before reverting back to its' former name. Today, it is embedded as part of "70th (Glasgow Lowland) Regiment of Foot".
received a route to Portsmouth, to be present on the occasion, and, as the execution would be a good hint to us young 'uns, there were four lads picked out of our corps to assist in
this piece of duty, myself being one of the number chosen.
In 1782 the 66th, alongwith all the regiments of foot, were given a county or city name name as part of their title as part of the then modernisation of the British armies and so became: "66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot".
Besides these men, four soldiers from three other regiments were ordered on the firing-party, making sixteen in all. The place of execution was Portsdown Hill, near Hilsea Barracks, and the
different regiments assembled must have composed a force of about fifteen thousand men, having been assembled from the Isle of Wight, from Chichester, Gosport, and other places. The sight was
very imposing, and appeared to make a deep impression on all there. As for myself, I felt that I would have given a good round sum (had I possessed it) to have been in any situation rather than
the one in which I now found myself; and when I looked into the faces of my companions, I saw, by the pallor and anxiety depicted in each countenance, the reflection of my own feelings. When
all was ready, we were moved to the front, and the culprit was brought out. He made a short speech to the parade, acknowledging the justice of his sentence, and that drinking and evil company
had brought the punishment upon him.
He behaved himself firmly and well, and did not seem at all to flinch. After being blindfolded, he was desired to kneel down behind a coffin, which was placed on the ground, and the Drum-Major
of the Hilsea depot, giving us an expressive glance, we immediately commenced loading.
This was done in the deepest silence, and, the next moment, we were primed and ready. There was then a dreadful pause for a few moments, and the Drum-Major, again looking towards us, gave the
signal before agreed upon (a flourish of his cane), and we levelled and fired. We had been previously strictly enjoined to be steady, and take good aim, and the poor fellow, pierced by several
balls, fell heavily upon his back; and as he lay, with his arms pinioned to his sides, I observed that his hands waved for a few moments, like the fins of a fish when in the agonies of
The Drum-Major also observed the movement, and, making another signal, four of our party immediately stepped up to the prostrate body, and placing the muzzles of their pieces to the head,
fired, and put him out of his misery.
The different regiments then fell back by companies, and the word being given to march past in slow time, when each company came in line with the body, the word was given to "mark time," and
then "eyes left," in order that we might all observe the terrible example. We then moved onwards, and marched from the ground to our different quarters. The 66th stopped that night about three
miles from Portsdown Hill, and in the morning we returned to Winchester.
Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.