Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

Rifle men in action. A British rifle man: the journals and correspondence of Major George Simmons, Rifle brigade.
A British rifle man.
The journals and correspondence of
Major George Simmons, Rifle brigade,
during the Peninsular war and
the campaign of Waterloo.

Edited, with introduction, by Lieut.Colonel Willoughby Verner,
Late Rifle Brigade - Author of
"Sketches in the Soudan," Etc.
With three maps.
London A. & C. Black, Soho Square. 1899.

Introduction. (Part 1)

Royal South Lincolnshire Militia soldier. George Simmons, the writer of the following letters George Simmons, the writer of the following letters and journals, was born on 2nd May 1785. His parents resided at Beverley, in Yorkshire. The family consisted of nine sons and three daughters.

Since some of their names constantly recur in Simmons's letters, a brief account of them will be useful.

Maud, the second son, obtained a commission in the 34th Foot in 1809. The third, Joseph, after beginning life as an attorney's clerk, joined his eldest brother's corps, the 95th Rifles, as a Volunteer in 1812, and shortly afterwards was granted a commission in it. All three brothers served in the Peninsular War. The fourth brother, John, appears to have been a source of some trouble to his parents, and eventually ran away from home and entered the Mercantile Marine. His career at sea was a brief one. His ship was very soon attacked and captured by a French privateer, and he was killed in the engagement.

The daughters, especially the second, Ann, "My dear Ann" of many a letter, were the object of constant solicitude to George, and of much good advice and many anxious forebodings.

These details of the family are rendered necessary by the fact that for some cause or other the eldest brother appears to have constituted himself as the adviser and protector, and to some extent the supporter, of his parents. His father seems to have been in extremely straitened circumstances, and to have lacked the capability of looking after his family.

George was evidently a very steady young fellow, and, realising that his father was unable to fight the battle of life, he set to work and studied medicine with a view to being able to support his parents. In 1805, when Napoleon's threatened invasion had caused all the manhood of England to enrol themselves for the defence of the country, George was given a commission as Assistant-Surgeon in the Royal South Lincolnshire Militia, commanded by Colonel Waldo-Sibthorp, M.P. In this corps he served for nearly four years, and during that time gained the friendship of his Colonel, who subsequently assisted him in various ways.

The Lincoln Militia were quartered in Hythe Barracks in the spring of 1809, as were both Battalions of the 95th Rifles. The latter were in a very shattered condition, having only recently returned from the disastrous campaign of Coruña.

In order to fill up their depleted ranks, volunteers were called for from the Militia, and every Militia officer who could induce a hundred men to join the service was granted a commission.

No difficulty, however, was experienced in obtaining recruits for "The Rifles," as they were styled. Although a very "young" regiment, having been raised only nine years previously, the peculiar nature of their arm - the rifle - and their exceptionally active employment, coupled with the fact that they had ab-eady made their name at Copenhagen under Lord Nelson, at Monte Video, and only recently at Roliça, Vimeiro, and Corufia, caused many more to volunteer for service in their ranks than could be taken.

In the words of Sir William Cope, the historian of the Rifle Brigade: -
The regiment had already became so famous and popular, that not only were the deficiencies filled up in a very short time, but more than a thousand volunteers presented themselves beyond the numbers required. It was therefore resolved by the Authorities to add a 3rd Battalion to the regiment.
George Simmons, partly for reasons already given, but no doubt also owing to strong military instincts and a true British desire to "fight the French," easily induced a number of his Militiamen to volunteer for the Rifles, and thereby became entitled to a second-lieutenant's commission himself - there were no "ensigns" in the Rifles in those days.

It was at this juncture that his friend and benefactor, Colonel Sibthorp, unwilling to lose his Assistant-Surgeon, and doubting the wisdom of his going out to Portugal amid the circumstances, made use of influence at the Horse Guards to cause the issue of the commission to be delayed, trusting that, with time for reflection, George might be induced to abandon his project.

Our history opens with a letter from George in May 1809 to his parents at Beverley, announcing that he is about to embark at Dover for Portugal with the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, and recounting Colonel Sibthorp's well-meant but inopportune efforts to retain his services in the Militia.

It will be seen that one of his chief reasons for quitting the Militia and joining the Army was "the interests of his family," to whom he hoped to be of use; he wished "to assist the boys to go to school."

There is something very touching, albeit at the same time painfully incongruous, in worthy George Simmons's unceasing efforts thus to assist his family with small remittances from his hardly-won pay as a subaltern. To us soldiers of the end of the century the idea of a young man seeking a commission with a view to supporting his parents and assisting in the education of his brothers and sisters is so supremely absurd that at first one is inclined to look upon George as a well-meaning visionary.

Facts, however, disprove the suspicion. Readers of these letters will learn how throughout the six campaigns in the Peninsula between 1809 and 1814, and also during and after the Waterloo campaign, Lieutenant Simmons, although thrice very severely wounded and put to much expense, managed constantly to remit a portion of his pay, and no inconsiderable portion of good advice as well, to his parents, who were sadly in need of both.

The letters in this volume are truthful accounts, written from many a bivouac and battlefield in Portugal, Spain, France, and Belgium, of the daily experiences of a young British officer taking his part in the great wars which were the main cause of Napoleon's downfall. Only now and then, where George Simmons has alluded to family matters of an entirely private nature, has it been considered desirable to excise the latter.

But his views, correct or the reverse, of the military situation of the moment, his opinions of his chiefs and contemporaries, his anxieties about the welfare of his parents, brothers, and sisters, and his unceasing efforts to aid them, all forming as they do an integral part of his daily work, thoughts, and aspirations, have been left absolutely untouched.

To readers unacquainted with military matters it may be explained that these letters and journals claim to possess additional interest, since they are written by an officer who happened to belong to a regiment which saw more fighting in the Peninsula than any other in the British Army.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 21st November, 2011.
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