Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

Infantry Musket and Bayonet as used in the Peninsular War.
The subaltern; or, Sketches of the Peninsular War
during the campaigns of 1813-1814 by an EyeWitness.

The Subaltern.See the Box with Green text below.
Chapter 1. (Part 1).

Gun Brig.
It is now something more than eleven years ago since the regiment of infantry, in which I bore a commission, began to muster one fine May morning, on the parade ground at Hythe. An order had reached us two days before, to prepare for immediate service in the Peninsula; and on the morning to which I allude, we were to commence our march for that purpose. The port of embarkation was Dover, a port only twelve miles distant from our cantonments, where a couple of transports, with a gun brig as convoy, were waiting to receive us.

The spelling and punctuation in this account is very variable and left 'As Is' but long paragraphs have been separated into groups of smaller ones to make it easier to read. Additionally, Ordinal Numbers (such as, 23rd and 2nd) which, in the original, have the letter before the "d" omitted have been treated in the modern manner - so 3d has become 3rd.

The short space of time which intervened between the arrival of the rout, and the eventful day which saw its directions carried into effect, was spent by myself, and by my brother officers, in making the best of preparations which circumstances would permit for a campaign.

Sundry little pieces of furniture, by the help of which we had contrived to render our barrack-rooms somewhat habitable, were sold for one tenth part of their value; a selection was made from our respective wardrobes, of such articles of apparel, as, being in a state of tolerable preservation, promised to continue for the longest time serviceable; canteens were hastily fitted up, and stored with tea, sugar, and other luxuries; cloaks were purchased by those who possessed them not before, and put in a state of repair by those who did; in a word, every thing was done which could be done by men similarly situated, not even forgetting the payment of debts, or the inditing of farewell letters in due form to absent friends and relations.

Perhaps the reader may be curious to know with what stock of necessaries the generality of British officers were wont, in the stirring times of War, to be contented. I will tell him how much I myself packed up in two small portmanteaus, so formed as to be an equal balance to each other, when slung across the back of a mule; and as my kit was not remarkable, either for its bulk or its scantiness, he will not greatly err, if he esteem it a sort of medium for those of my comrades.

Some typical cravats of the period - essential wear for a gentleman. In one of those portmanteaus, then, I deposited a regimental jacket, with all its appendages of wings, lace, &c.;This is the abbreviation, then in common usage, for 'Etcetera'. two pair of grey trowsers, sundry waistcoats, white-coloured flannel, do.This is the abbreviation, then in common usage, for Ditto. a few changes of flannel drawers; half a dozen pairs of worsted stockings, and as many of cotton.

In the other were placed six shirts, two or three cravats, a dressing-case competently filled, one undress pelisse, three pairs of boots, two pairs of shoes, with night-caps, pocket-handkerchiefs, &c. &c. in proportion.

Thus, whilst I was not encumbered by any useless quantity of apparel, I carried with me quite enough to load a mule, and to ensure myself against the danger of falling short, for at least a couple of years to come; and after providing these and all other necessary articles, I retained five-and-twenty pounds in my pocket.

This sum, indeed, when converted into bullion, dwindled down to L.17, 18s.; for in those days we purchased dollars at the rate of six shillings a-piece, and doubloons at five pounds; but even L.17, 18s. was no bad reserve for a subaltern officer in a marching regiment;. at least I was contented with it, and that was enough.

It will readily be imagined that I was a great deal too busy, both in body and mind, to devote to sleep many of the hours of the night which preceded the day of our intend departure.

My bodily labours, indeed, which had consist ed chiefly in packing my baggage, and bidding adieu to the few civilians with whom I had formed an acquaintance, came to a close two hours before midnight; but my body was no sooner at rest, than my mind began to bestir itself. " So," said I, "to-morrow I commence my military career in real earnest.

Well, and has not this been my most ardent desire from the first moment that I saw my name in the Gazette ! Had it not been the most prominent petition in my daily prayers, for nearly a twelvemonth past, not to be kept idling away my youth in the various country-towns in England, but to be sent, as speedily as possible, where I might have an opportunity of acquiring a practical knowledge of the profession which I had embraced! The case is even so."

And without meaning to proclaim myself a fire-eater, I will venture to say, that no individual in the corps experienced greater satisfaction than I did at the prospect before me. But there were other thoughts which obtruded themselves upon me that night, and they savoured a good deal of the melancholy.

I thought of home - of my father, my mother, and my sisters. I thought of the glorious mountains, and the fertile plains, of my native country, and could not help asking myself the question, whether it was probable that I should ever behold them again.

The chances were, that I should not; and as my home had always been to me a scene of the purest and most perfect happiness, as I loved my relatives tenderly, and knew that I was tenderly beloved by them in return, it was impossible for me not to experience a pang of extreme bitterness at the idea, that in all human probability I should see their faces no more.

On the other hand, curiosity, if I may call it by so favourable a term, was on full stretch respecting the future.

Now at length I was about to learn what war really was; how hostile armies met, and battles were decided; and the resolutions which I consequently formed as to my own proceedings, the eagerness with which I longed for an opportunity to distinguish myself, and the restlessness of my imagination, which persisted in drawing the most ridiculous pictures of events which never were, and never could be realized, created altogether such a fever in my brain, as rendered abortive every attempt to sleep.


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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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