RETURN TO ENGLAND (1818)-HARRY SMITH REJOINS HIS REGIMENT – SHORNCLIFFE – GOSPORT – DISCHARGE OF THE PENINSULAR VETERANS.
ON reaching Calais I could not avoid calling to memory the British possession of that celebrated fortress, for so many years the bone of contention and strife. All was bustle and embarcation. We embarked in a small vessel [31 Oct.?], and the wind obliged us to go to Ramsgate. The London Custom House had provided for baggage to be examined at Ramsgate as well as at Dover, and nothing could be more liberal and gentlemanlike than the Custom House officers (of course acting under instructions). My wife had an immense box of French dresses which, being all extended on account of the large flounces then worn, required great room. While I was passing my baggage, one of the officers said, “And that large box-what does it contain ?” I said, “My wife’s dresses.” “I have not the least doubt of it, sir, as you say so, sir; but I declare I never saw such a box of ladies’ dresses in my life before.” Then came her guitar. “What is this?” “Oh, hand it along, it’s naught but a fiddle.”
The celebrated Cavalry officer, Sir John Elley, a very tall, bony, and manly figure of a man, with grim~visaged war depicted in his countenance, with whiskers, moustaches, etc. like a French Pioneer, came over to Dover during the time of our occupation of France. He was walking on the path, with his celebrated sword belted under his surtout. As the hooking up of the sword gave the coat-flap the appearance of having something large concealed under it, a lower order of Custom officer ran after him, rudely calling, “I say, you officer, you! stop, stop, I say! What’s that under your coat?” Sir John turned round, and drawing his weapon of defence in many a bloody fight, to the astonishment of the John Bulls, roared out through his moustache in a voice of thunder, “That which I will run through your d–d guts, if you are impertinent to me!”
My Regiment was at Shorncliffe, and thither I and my wife proceeded, parting with many friends of the Guards, some of whom she has never seen since. I was given an entirely new Company, that is, one composed of recruits. I interceded with Colonel Norcott, however, to give me a few of my dear old comrades into each squad, and with their help and example I soon inspired the rest with the feelings of soldiers. There was a pack of hounds too in the neighbourhood, and though it is a stiff~ bad country, fox-hunting is fox-hunting in shape, and I had two noble hunters, Lochinvar and a celebrated mare, besides the “Brass Mare” for my wife. My whole income at the moment was my pay, I 2S. 6d. a day. One day, after a capital run with the hounds, Mr. Deedes asked me to dine with him, and I had a post-chaise to go in to dinner, which cost me 17S. Thus
“How happy’s the soldier who lives on his pay, And spends half-a-crown out of sixpence a day!”
My Battalion was ordered to Gosport, and soon after at Shorncliffe, which had been the depot of the Regiment during the whole war, not a Rifleman was left. I marched [about Dec. 24-28J in command of the Headquarters Division, all our old soldiers. Neither they nor I could help remarking the country as a difficult one to make war in. You would hear the men, “I say, Bill, look at that wood on the hill there and those hedgerows before it. I think we could keep that ourselves against half Soult’s Army. Ah, I had rather keep it than attack it! But, Lord, the war’s all over now.
When I first joined at Shorncliffe we heard of nothing but “the French are coming over.” We have been in among them, I take it, since. They never could have got to London through such a stiff country. We would have destroyed the roads and cut down the trees to make those d~d things they used to do – abbatis 1; besides, where would be the use of all their capering cavalry, etc.?
During this march, when the men were billeted in the inns and scattered over the country, I could not divest myself of the feeling of insecurity I had acquired after so many years’ precautionary habits; and although I repeated to myself a hundred times daily, “You are in England,” the thought would arise, “You are in the power of your enemy.” Before dismissing the men, I always told them the hour I should march in the morning, and men who were billeted either ahead or on the sides of the road were to join their Companies as I arrived. During the whole march I never had a man absent or irregular. Such a band of practised and educated soldiers may never again traverse England.
My wife posted from Shorncliffe into Sussex – to Beauport, Sir John Lambert’s temporary seat, where the kind family insisted on her staying until I came to fetch her to Gosport, which I did soon after. On arrival at Gosport we were led to believe we should be a year or two there, and we began to (what is called) make ourselves comfortable.
We had a great number of guards and sentries literally over nothing. One night, however, on visiting the different guards and counting them, I found every man present. I asked, “What! no man on sentry?” “Oh no, sir; the 86th, whom we relieved, say they always bring in all sentries at night.” “Why, this is a new way – new to us. “Certainly,” the sergeants said.
The following day I and two or three officers went to inspect every sentry’s post. We found some with orders “to see that no one took that gun away” (a 32-pounder dismounted), one “to see as them goats did not leave the rampart.” He was one of our soldiers, and I said, “Confound you, did you take such an order from a storekeeper?” He said, “Why, I hardly look on it as a horder, only civil-like of me; and you know, sir, goats were worth looking after at Dough Boy Hill” (near Almaraz, so called from our having nothing to eat for three weeks but dough and goats’ flesh, and very little of either).2 I represented all this to Lord Howard of Effingham, who very readily entertained the report, and sentries were all taken off, where not required. Colonel Norcott soon after joined.
While we were here 300 of our oldest and best soldiers were discharged. Every one came to say farewell to my wife; and there was a touching parting between officers and soldiers, now about to be dispersed through Great Britain, after so many years’ association under such eventful circumstances. There was not one who could not relate some act of mutual kindness and reciprocity of feeling in connexion with the many memorable events in which they had taken part. I and many of the officers marched several miles on the road with these noble fellows. In the Barrack Square they had prayed me to give them the word of command to march off. “Sure,” says an Irishman, “it’s the last after the thousand your honour has given us.” I did so; but when the moment arrived to part every man’s tears were chasing each other down his bronzed and veteran cheeks. They grasped their officers’ hands,-” God bless your honour!” then such a shout and cheer. Such feelings in times of peace are not, cannot be acquired. My faithful old West was of the party; but he parted from me and his mistress in our house. Poor faithful, noble fellow, as gallant as a lion, he had been with me from Vimiera and Corujia until I8I9.
The 18th June, the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo which we had spent in England, was such a day throughout the Regiment, with dinners for the soldiers, non-commissioned officers, wives and children. Among the officers there was such a jubilee of mirth, mingled with grief for our lost comrades, as must be conceived, for never was there a Regiment in which harmony and unanimity were more perfect.
Footnote 1 – Few good riders haggle at a ditch, but an abattis of trees, with their trunks towards their friends, and their branches spread out towards the foe, is a less manageable Obstacle.” ~H. Haveloek, in his account of his brother W. H. (Buist’s Annuals of India 1848).