Castel Sarrazin

April–June 1814

Almost a month had passed since Simmons’s wounding at Tarbes when he reached Toulouse. He was still limping heavily, but was fit, in his own view, to rejoin the regiment. There he was able to gaze upon the city’s defences, shattered that April in the battle that marked the final chapter in the Peninsular War. The fight, with its thousands killed and maimed, was doubly futile, since a messenger carrying news of Napoleon’s abdication reached Marshal Soult just too late to stop it happening. Toulouse was another of those large set pieces in which the 95th’s role had not been great.

Simmons pressed on until 20 May, when he reached a town called Castel Sarrazin. There he ‘found the officers living in the gayest manner possible. The people extremely kind to us.’ Those who had spent years living in rude bivouacs, not knowing whether each day would be their last, found an idyll in Sarrazin. They walked along the banks of the Garonne, escorted the prettiest French girls to dances, lay reading in the long grass and supped fine feasts à la fourchette.

The local women were grateful for such chivalrous companions – their own stock of men had been depleted by the long wars, the wine was sublime and the delicacies were cheap. For the soldiers, though, there was an irony in their situation: it was part of the perverse logic of war that whenever they found themselves somewhere truly delightful, they were deep in arrears of pay, in this case nine months. Nevertheless, they somehow contrived to scrape a few pennies together and benefited from much local hospitality.

The change in the lives of these hardened men was so complete that some were quite disorientated by it. Captain Harry Smith described their feelings eloquently:

The feeling of no war, no picquets, no alerts, no apprehension of being turned out, was so novel after six years perpetual and vigilant war, it is impossible to describe the sensation. Still, it was one of momentary anxiety, seeing around us the promptitude, the watchfulness, the readiness with which we could move and be in a state of defence or attack. It was so novel that at first it was positively painful – at least, I can answer for myself in this feeling.

Quite a few of the young men fell hopelessly in love in Sarrazin. It took no more than a nervous introduction, a chaperoned walk by the river and some exchange of pleasantries for their hearts, starved for so long of female company, to soar to the heights of passion. John Kincaid tells us, ‘in returning from a ride, I overtook my love and her sister, strolling by the river’s side, and, instantly dismounting, I joined in their walk … when I looked round, I found her mounted astride on my horse! and with such a pair of legs too!’

The girls being of good family, and their suitors chivalrous gentlemen, few if any of these passions were consummated. But there were towns from Toulouse to Bordeaux with whores enough for those who could not contain themselves amid so much beauty. Leach was convinced that even among the peasantry of the French Basque region, ‘I never remember in any country having seen more handsome women collected together … their complexions were strikingly and almost universally beautiful.’

The Rifles officers escorted their new-found belles to dances and fêtes champêtres, thankful for the recent issue of clothing that had at least stopped them looking like scarecrows. But French ladies, like their warrior husbands, were unused to the dark-green uniforms of the 95th, leading to many misunderstandings and much teasing by officers of other regiments. One subaltern of the 43rd noted gleefully that his friend in the 95th ‘was most confoundedly annoyed when the officers of the Rifle corps were taken for Portuguese, which was very often. Then again, the foreigners could not understand their not wearing epaulettes, and they were under the painful necessity of telling the people of every town they went to that they were really officers.’

The other ranks were also able to amuse themselves during these weeks. Costello, who by this time was a corporal, went with another NCO across the River Tarn one evening to join in a feast at the sergeants’ mess of a French infantry regiment. The two riflemen walked along lines of their former foes, saluting them before being summoned inside to sit at tables groaning with local produce. Toasts were raised, and ‘we did not forget to do justice to the acknowledged merits of John Bull in all matters of this nature, and much good feeling and conviviality followed, with encomiums and compliments being passed on the English.’ Only one of their hosts tried to sour the atmosphere with a choice remark about the visitors’ fighting qualities, and he was thrown down some stairs by his fellow sous-officiers for his trouble. Costello discovered a bond with some of the French soldiers, their shared freemasonry helping to cement good feeling.

Napoleon’s defeated legions were not so polite everywhere. The French civilians generally welcomed the British, but following one visit to a dance in Moissac, across the Tarn, Simmons noted, ‘The French officers were jealous of the civility shown to us by the people, and requested we would not visit the town any more.’ Leach went to watch a review of some of the French regiments and was delighted to spot Marshals Suchet and Soult. The first seemed garrulous; as for the junior officers, they were ‘for the most part lively and animated, without the smallest appearance of despondency or disappointment at the late change, or the loss of their imperial master. Marshal Soult alone appeared sullen and dejected.’

As the Rifles battalions waited to discover what would happen to them, Lieutenant Gairdner once more faced the anxiety of being ordered to fight in his native America, where a nasty conflict of raids and inconclusive but bloody engagements continued. Although serving with the 1st Battalion, Gairdner was technically on the strength of the 3rd and it was they who were eventually ordered, along with thousands of Wellington’s men, to embark for America. Thankfully, Colonel Barnard was able to retain him with the 1st Battalion, for otherwise he would have felt bound to resign. Gairdner’s feelings were further complicated by his infatuation with a local girl in Sarrazin.

On 30 May, when the 1st/95th finally received its order to embark for England, Gairdner was wrenched away from his sweetheart along with all the other Light Division officers who had enjoyed the Elysian fields on the banks of the Garonne. Gairdner wrote in his journal, ‘The thought of leaving Castel Sarrazin perhaps never to see it more gives me greater pain than I could have thought possible.’ His company commander would later write, ‘Great regret was expressed when the order arrived which obliged us to leave our new French acquaintances; some of the fair females of whom had ruined the peace of mind (pro tempore) of many of our gallant gay Lotharios.’

The farewells were to prove particularly difficult for those men of the regiment who had acquired Spanish and Portuguese wives. It became clear, with the orders to return to Shorncliffe, that these women would not be allowed to travel back with them. Some tried to make arrangements for their guapas to follow on later, others bade them goodbye. In six cases, though, the riflemen chose to desert rather than leave their lovers behind. One of the Scottish Cummings brothers, Joseph, a bugler in the 2nd Company, was among those who disappeared as the dread day approached.

This moment came on 11 June 1814, as the Light Division was marching across southern France for embarkation at Bordeaux. The 95th, 43rd and 52nd lined the streets, presenting arms, as the Cacadores, men of the 17th Portuguese Regiment, and wives and followers who had been their companions through thick and thin passed between them. The twenty-one Spaniards who soldiered on in the 1st/95th’s ranks, including Lazarro Blanco, who had been in Leach’s company since June 1812, were also discharged on this day. British soldiers gave three lusty cheers to their comrades, many of whom marched away in tears. The young boys who had looked after the milk goats and mules for company messes were given the animals as presents. Some of the followers, evidently feeling cheated, stole before they went.

It was only after their departure that some of Costello’s mates told him that Blanco, then marching to his home in Spain, was the man who had killed the French farmer in Plaisance two months before. Not only had he got away with murder, but the role of his British or Irish accomplices in the company was to remain a secret for ever, for the reports had made it clear that Blanco did not commit the crime on his own. Another mystery was solved, however, as the battalion prepared to embark: William MacFarlane, a soldier who had deserted the regiment in October 1811, decamped from the French Army and was returned to his old battalion. Three of the five men who deserted during the same period, including Joseph Almond, had been executed. But MacFarlane, who had served Napoleon for as many years as Almond had weeks, escaped with his life.

As for the financial rewards for all those years of bitter fighting, many of the men felt hard done by. Marching into Bordeaux on 14 June, most had nothing more than the coloured clothes they stood up in. It was true that some, like Costello, had secreted away some treasure from Vitoria or some other place of plunder. The great majority had not, though, and all their pay had been spent maintaining a supply of rum and tobacco during countless freezing wet nights on the Beira frontier.

The only medals carried by the rank and file of the 95th were the odd Légions d’honneur taken from Frenchmen during their campaigns. This they resented bitterly. For many of the riflemen even a distinction like the little badge bearing the letters ‘V. S.’ inside a laurel would have been something. These were run up by the 52nd’s tailor for men who had survived Badajoz and Rodrigo, the initials standing for ‘Valiant Stormer’. For some reason the 43rd and 95th did not get even these distinctions.

In trying to reward these veterans, the hands of Wellington and other officers were tied by the Horse Guards’ bureaucracy. Napoleon had proved far better at establishing a scheme of payments and marks of distinction for outstanding soldiers. The Peninsular Army did manage to copy one such French measure: the appointment of deserving men to guard the regimental colours. The British rank of colour sergeant had been introduced to reward distinguished NCOs with an extra nine pennies a day. Robert Fairfoot was an early recipient of this bounty, having been appointed colour sergeant in September 1813.

Among the officers, many had spent rather more than they earned in the Peninsula. One subaltern of the 43rd calculated his net loss at £70, a sum made good in bills dispatched by his parents. For the likes of George Simmons, sending £40 or £50 each year in the other direction, only the most careful husbandry of his resources prevented him from ending his campaign in debt. Simmons and many of the other officers had profited from the fortunes of war, too, having unburdened a good many dead or captured French of medals, trinkets, horses and cash. The wheel of fortune had turned quite a few times during those long years, of course, and most of the old campaigners had also lost horses and mules during their marches, bearing the expense out of their own pockets.

For the real veterans, the group who had sailed out in May 1809, the moment was coming to cash in the pay arrears. Pay parades had been cancelled or deferred so often that many had received considerably less than their due during the five years they had been away. The money owing – hundreds of pounds for a subaltern – would be payable when they got home. There was also the blood money due to many of them for their wounds. Simmons had been seriously wounded twice, Costello twice and Sergeant Fairfoot five times, most severely at Badajoz.

How many, though, had soldiered through like them? The battalion, along with the 2nd Rifles, was carried home on a huge three-decker battleship, the Ville de Paris, arriving off Portsmouth on 22 July 1814. They came back as they had left, to three cheers – not from their loved ones, for they had no idea when the battalion would dock or where, but from the yardarms and tops of the Ville de Paris, a tribute from the tars to the toughest soldiers of Wellington’s army.

Of the forty-seven officers who sailed with the battalion in May 1809, only six were still serving with the Peninsular Army at the end of the campaigns in southern France. Of these, Captain Harry Smith was away on the staff (and sailed at the last minute for America) and his brother Lieutenant Tom Smith was serving in the 2nd Battalion. That left four 1st Battalion officers – Lieutenant Colonel Dugald Gilmour, Major Jonathan Leach, Captain Willie Johnston and Lieutenant George Simmons – of whom two had been back in Britain for leave during the years of fighting. So just two officers returning in July 1814 – Leach and Simmons – had served with the battalion all the way through from May 1809, and even they had both had periods of sick leave in Portugal.

What became, then, of the forty-five officers who were no longer with the 1st Battalion? Fourteen of them had fallen in battle or died of wounds received there, with two more perishing of sickness. Eighteen had been wounded at some stage. These and the other unscathed officers had all gone home at some point during the long conflict. Leach was doubly exceptional in both being there at the end and having escaped wounding in his many fights.

The picture among the disembarking rankers was a little different, because almost none of them had had the option of taking leave in England during the long wars. The 1st Battalion had 1,095 NCOs and soldiers at the time it sailed in May 1809, but the vagaries of Army record-keeping do not allow every single man’s fate to be precisely determined. The fact that the Army itself did not know the exact numbers is clear from a note on the monthly returns for March 1814. The acting paymaster had listed twenty-one men as having died on 1 March, a day on which the battalion had no combat losses. That this was a book-keeping exercise becomes clear with the symbol beside each name, one which was explained at the bottom of the ledger with the words, ‘those for whom no satisfactory account could be given’. This squaring of the regimental books was a writing off of men last seen in hospitals or disappearing from camp at night; in short, those whose fate was unknown. When multiplied by all the corps in the Peninsular Army, the 95th’s twenty-one lost soldiers became an extraordinary 1,837. Wellington’s Adjutant General, reporting this vast writing-off of lives to Horse Guards in London, opined that ‘it is to be presumed that nearly the whole of these men have died in hospitals’. Given the skill of some soldiers at sloping off after they were discharged from hospital, it is difficult to share his confidence, and it is likely that a significant minority of these men deserted. To return to the riflemen, though, it is possible – leaving aside these twenty-one – to determine pretty much what happened to the rest of the original battalion.

Of the 1,095 who originally went out, about 180 were sent home during the course of the war, with something like 125 of them invalided by a medical board for being too injured or broken down to continue and the others sent home ‘to recruit’ as the battalion dissolved four of its companies in the field. The 1st/95th had lost seventy-nine prisoners of war and at least twenty-three men had deserted. It is likely that a good few of the men written off on 1 March 1814 had also deserted, which is why the ‘at least twenty-three’ lost to the battalion in this way was probably more like thirty. The largest portion of the original group, 421, were those who had died in Iberia – about two-thirds in battle and the remainder through sickness. All of this meant that only about a third of those who had sailed with the battalion – roughly 350 – also returned with it.

Having formed the men up on the quayside, Barnard led his battalion to Hilsea Barracks. Many officers took immediate leave. One captain who disappeared off to the capital recorded, ‘Here we enjoyed the luxuries of London life for a short time, having three years’ pay to receive – one for arrears and two for wounds received.’ The men took a sort of communal holiday, marching up the coast to Hythe and Sandgate, ‘for seabathing’. Those who had been wounded received in many cases not just the official blood money but also extra grants of anything up to £50 from the Patriotic Fund, set up by citizens grateful to the men who had vanquished the Corsican ogre.

George Simmons, who had sailed home on another ship, made his way immediately to London, where he settled down on the morning of his arrival at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House to drink a pot of the fine stuff, have a smoke and peruse the newspapers. Whether the people looked upon the weathered Green Jacket like a ‘dancing bear’, he did not record. He was able to use some of his back pay to buy some plain clothes and return home to Yorkshire to see his beloved family.

Very few of those who had gone to war in 1809 had left behind wives. The figure may have been as low as one man in twenty among the NCOs and privates. There were, though, a few awkward homecomings to be negotiated. In one case, Ned Costello accompanied a sergeant who went in search of his wife and daughter in Portsmouth. Finding the house at last, they saw several children and another man, clearly her new spouse, in residence: ‘My poor friend looked perplexed, his features alternating between doubt and fear.’ The woman began sobbing and there was a general expectation that murder might be committed. Costello’s comrade, however, had lived through enough to take this reverse phlegmatically. The sergeant told his wife’s new husband that ‘it is no use our skirmishing about’, then extracted a sixpence from him to seal the bargain; he placed a golden guinea in the hands of the daughter he had not seen for five years, turned, and left, retiring to a nearby public house with Costello to drown his sorrows.

Among many of those who had rediscovered their wives in happier circumstances, there was a strong desire to resume some sort of quiet domesticity. Riflemen who had lived for years with hungry bellies and no roof over their heads at last found normality. A few – fifteen or so – decided that they did not intend to take their chances on another campaign and deserted in England during the later part of 1814 and early 1815.

Some, like Sergeant Robert Fairfoot, who had sailed as unmarried men, were struck by the providential nature of their survival, and wanted to settle down and raise families. He did not intend to be backwards about it: so it was that Fairfoot married Catherine Campbell, a slip of a girl of sixteen, on 2 October 1814. That it had been a rapid courtship is self-evident. There is every reason, though, to suppose that the couple were happily in love. He was a handsome man, despite his scars, and one in receipt of a good deal of pay, evidently well qualified to keep Catherine in some comfort.

The battalion wintered, then, with its members rediscovering the pleasures of peace. Lieutenant John Kincaid disappeared to Scotland for hunting and fishing. James Gairdner planned to take several months’ leave to visit America in the summer of 1815, and the battalion was left in the hands of its veterans, with the likes of Jonathan Layton and George Simmons overseeing the companies.

All calculations were upset, however, in April 1815, when news reached the battalion of Napoleon’s escape from exile in Elba. Lieutenant Colonel Barnard received orders to prepare the 1st/95th for imminent embarkation. It had been tricky enough leading them through the final year of their campaign in Spain and France – the desertion, looting and sickness had shown that a significant number of soldiers had endured enough campaigning, and wanted only to escape the regiment on terms as advantageous to themselves as possible. Although the Rifles had received hundreds of new recruits since returning the previous summer, Barnard saw fit to use just six out of ten companies, one already on the continent would fall in with another five that he would bring across the Channel. His aim was to concentrate the best men in the small battalion that he was taking on service, and to sprinkle them with a leavening of recruits. In this way, as in the battalion that sailed six years before, the veterans would aim to impress the new men and vice versa. There was a difference, though: many of the old soldiers who embarked in 1815 considered that their survival through so many years of war was little short of miraculous, and were unsettled at being wrenched out of peaceful southern England. For this reason, the campaign that lay ahead would be the 95th’s ultimate test.

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