Early in August the Army redeployed back to the Portuguese frontier. The 95th found itself marching in stages just as harsh as those before the Battle of Talavera. But whereas the chance of meeting the enemy had motivated that earlier struggle, they were now tramping away from him as quickly as their blistered feet and aching legs could carry them. Instead of a shot at glory, they had Craufurd hovering about them, taking the names of men who fell foul of Standing Orders and promising to punish them.
The diary of one company commander read:
3rd August. The whole British Army marched at two this morning to Oropesa where we arrived at 2 p.m. This day’s march excessively severe; being twelve hours on the road; a suffocating heat, clouds of dust and not a drop of water to be got …
5th August. We finished our march this day about 2 p.m. The weather was immoderately hot and a great scarcity of water on the road. We were thirteen hours marching on the worst roads I ever travelled.
6th August. Marched at half past three this morning and did not reach our position until six in the evening. This day’s march was remarkably harassing. Numbers of men of different regts. dropped on the road from excessive fatigue and the heat of the sun.
The mountainous borderland was bare at the best of times, and it could not sustain tens of thousands of hungry soldiers. One evening during that march, with the troops bivoaucking dejectedly in clumps of trees by the roadside, Brigadier Craufurd allowed his Light Brigade soldiers to shoot some pigs rooting around the groves. Mad with hunger, they had instantly set upon the animals, shooting and clubbing them, their death squeals filling the dark forest. The men had little doubt that this herd of swine must belong to somebody and had appreciated Craufurd’s relaxation of the usual strictures against plundering civilians. But if the brigadier was normally a pedant about rules, he was also a man of volatile temper and he had been driven to distraction by the failure of the Army’s commissaries to supply his men.
On 7 August, the Rifles reached Almaraz, a dusty crossroads in the sierra where they were to spend the next two weeks. The importance of the place derived from a bridge across the Tagus, which is sufficiently broad, even this high in its course, to form a serious obstacle to movement. The river’s shape and that of the surrounding peaks made it a key point in both east–west and north–south communications. Although Almaraz had great strategic value, few people lived around the river, so the Rifles’ arrival there did little to ease the supply shortage.
In order to guard the crossing, two companies of the 95th were deployed in turn as pickets, with the remainder of the battalion camped nearby and able to support them, should the French try to rush the place. From the moment they arrived at Almaraz, it became clear to the officers that the swampy ground about the Tagus and the heavy dews made this an unhealthy place, charged with ill vapours and miasmas.
‘Here we remained a miserable fortnight,’ one young lieutenant wrote in his journal, ‘moving at sunset to a damp valley near the river (where the seeds of ague were sown in hundreds) and returning at daybreak to repose under the shelter of some cork trees which indifferently sheltered us from a scorching sun – no regular issue of rations – which never amounted to more than a handful of coarse flour, a little goat’s flesh and neither wine nor spirits.’
The main bivouac, with its precious shade, was on a low hill a few hundred yards back from the river. Officers had chosen this spot because they believed it healthier than the low-lying land. Some of the flour that the men were supplied was actually made from grain, but much of it consisted of ground dried peas. They mixed it with water, and sometimes a little straw for binding, and formed it into little dumplings they called dough boys. They boiled or grilled them on flat stones. As often as not, the dough boys gave them cramps and the flux – but they still failed to sate their hunger. The riflemen named their camp Dough Boy Hill.
Every soldier, from private to captain, had noticed a dramatic change in himself since their disembarkation a little more than a month before. The hot sun had tanned their faces and cracked their lips. Constant marching and poor diet meant their clothes had begun to hang loose on them. One officer, deploying trademark Rifles irony, wrote, ‘If any corpulent person despairs of reducing his weight by the means usually adopted, I strongly recommend a few weeks’ change of air and scene at Almaraz.’
As the 3rd Company men sat one evening looking over the river and trying to stay their hunger pangs, two countrymen who’d volunteered into the 95th from the Leicestershire Militia considered their plight.
‘Bill, I think we shall be kept on this Dough-boy Hill till we shall all die of want,’ said the first.
‘I think so too,’ Private Green replied, before reflecting wistfully, ‘it is Lutterworth feast today. Our friends will be eating plum pudding and roast beef!’
‘Ah! They little think what we pass through and suffer.’
The Leicestershire Militia boys like Green and William Brotherwood in the 2nd Company were perhaps more alive to the misery of their situation than many others. The weavers who made up their bulk had joined up through need, having lost a good living. They were also bright men, having worked looms and been proud of their craftsmanship.
It took until 15 August for the French, following up Sir Arthur Wellesley’s withdrawal, to appear on the other side of the Tagus. They placed their own pickets, in case the British should try to surprise them, and the two sides observed one another across the waters. The Rifle company commanders were sure enough of one thing: that while neither side intended to attack the other and while life remained as miserable as it was there, night alarms and other symptoms of the presence of an enemy could safely be dispensed with. By calling out to their French opposite numbers and using sign language, they evolved a system of signals to ensure a quiet stay. As one officer wrote, ‘So far from a single shot being exchanged, our men and the French had the best possible understanding; and it frequently happened that the officers of both parties took off their hats and saluted each other across the river.’
This system was suspended several days later, when the 95th received orders to march almost a hundred miles south-east to the town of Campo Maior. With this movement, the campaigning season would effectively end, Wellesley deciding to abandon any further diversion on behalf of the Spanish and concentrate instead on solving the supply and other problems that debilitated his army while readying them for the defence of Portugal. Napoleon’s attempts to take over Spain and Portugal had triggered such widespread resistance that a quarter of a million French troops were being tied down. Britain was doing its best to exacerbate these difficulties by landing expeditionary forces in Portugal and southern Spain, at the extremes of the Iberian Peninsula furthest from the French border. In this way they hoped to stiffen local resistance while forcing Napoleon’s commanders to extend deeper and deeper into guerrilla-infested country.
The march down to Campo Maior required the riflemen to traverse some high mountains – known as the Sierra de Guadalupe – all the time under the eye of Black Bob Craufurd. Captain Jonathan Leach wrote in his diary on 27 August,
The Division paraded at six this evening when we got volleys of abuse and blasphemous language from that infernal scoundrel Brigadier Robert Craufurd, who, after flogging half a dozen men for some very frivolous offences committed on our late harassing marches, we were dismissed. Lay down to sleep at nine o’clock but not without offering hearty prayers for the discomfiture of our cursed commander.
Eight days later, the 2nd Company commander noted the flogging of a soldier from one of the other Light Brigade battalions and another ‘long harangue from General Craufurd’.
As the battalion snaked its way down one of the steep mountain tracks leading from the sierra to the river plain that was their destination, Second Lieutenant George Simmons marched towards his brigadier, just off the road and in full flow, heaping scorn and abuse upon the head of the provost marshal. Before Simmons knew it, he’d been collared by Craufurd, taken out of the line of march, and, in one of the brigadier’s squeaking furies, told to arrest the provost marshal, the man who himself was meant to be the brigade’s enforcer of military discipline. Taking some riflemen to assist, Simmons found himself escorting the provost marshal, several soldiers already under arrest in his charge as well as some baggage. As for Craufurd, he galloped off to the head of the column.
A little further down the road, as it sloped steeply downhill, two of the mules, pulling one of the carts, decided to stop. After pushing, pulling and cajoling but all to no avail, one of the riflemen detached the sling from his weapon, got astride one of the beasts, and smacked it about the rump with the leather strap. The animals stampeded down the precipitous road, throwing the rifleman clear. Simmons and the others watched dumbstruck as the cart bounced about the narrow track, gathering speed until eventually the inevitable happened and it was hurled over a precipice, dashed to pieces on rocks below. It had been carrying Brigadier Craufurd’s personal supply of wine and other delicacies.
Simmons found Craufurd that evening in a commandeered house at the end of their march:
He had a party at dinner, and was expecting his light cart every moment with its contents in the best possible order. When I related the sad catastrophe he became nearly furious, and directed me to march up the prisoners to their various regiments, to obtain drummers, and in front of each regiment to flog the culprits – in fact, to become a provost marshal for the occasion.
The young subaltern, the most junior officer in the 95th, found himself the instrument of his brigadier’s fury. ‘I was highly indignant at such usage,’ Simmons wrote in his journal, ‘having exerted myself zealously to serve him.’ Noting that Black Bob ‘never forgave me’, Simmons resolved not to obey his brigadier’s order. Instead he went off to locate his own commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Beckwith.
In Beckwith, Craufurd found his match and the 95th its idol. As someone opposed to flogging on principle, Beckwith simply went outside and verbally admonished the men under arrest, soldiers who had been caught by Craufurd straggling behind the line of march. The colonel then told Simmons to go to his company and that he would be answerable to Craufurd.
Once the brigade had arrived in Campo Maior, a battle of wills between Craufurd and Beckwith made itself apparent almost every day. Both men were determined to train their soldiers to a peak of professional efficiency and both were apostles of a new creed, one in which light infantry should become the pattern for the whole Army. Everything else about them, however, contrasted: Beckwith was a model of self-control, whereas Craufurd often became apoplectic with rage; Beckwith only raised his voice when it was necessary to make himself heard above gunfire, then it was described as being ‘like thunder’, whereas Craufurd did so frequently and squeakily; being more than six foot tall, Beckwith towered over his diminutive brigadier; Beckwith believed soldiers were best motivated either by positive encouragement or by shaming them in the eyes of their messmates, Craufurd believed in coercion.
Beckwith took a dim view of Craufurd, but he was sufficiently sensitive to the needs of military subordination to express his true feelings only to his equals. One evening the commanding officer of the 95th was standing in the Campo Maior camp talking to Lieutenant Colonel Barclay of the 52nd Light Infantry, another of Craufurd’s battalions, when a gift arrived from the brigadier. He had sent Barclay a bottle of cherry brandy, and the colonel wasted no time easing its cork and pouring himself a glass.
Not a little disgusted, Beckwith asked him, ‘What, Barclay, do you drink anything from such a fellow as that?’ Barclay emptied the glass and replied, ‘Don’t I, indeed? Here’s damnation to him!’ There was a roar of complicit laughter.
At the age of thirty-seven, Beckwith was reaching the peak of his powers. He was a veteran of half a dozen campaigns and had been on intimate terms both with the founders of his regiment and with Sir John Moore, the general who had commanded the Light Brigade several years before in Shorncliffe, making it the crack corps it was. Moore, who had been killed at Corunna early in 1809, was a keen advocate both of new tactics and of a more humane attitude towards the rank and file.
Not only was Beckwith a natural leader, he also understood soldiers’ mentality perfectly. All commanders were concerned, for example, by men falling out of the line of march. They would say they were going to answer nature’s call, shake a stone out of their shoe or whatever else, but sometimes they were going to rob civilians. This problem drove Wellesley to distraction during the 1809 campaign, because hundreds of soldiers were doing it and he feared violent reactions from the populace.
While Craufurd frequently applied the lash to stragglers, the 95th had developed its own approach. As they fell out, riflemen were told to hand their weapon and haversack to their marching comrades. One 95th officer described why it worked so admirably: ‘first, the soldier was enabled, not being encumbered with either knapsack or musket, more speedily to overtake the column on its march; and secondly, if he loitered unnecessarily on the way to rejoin his comrades, who were doubly burdened with his arms and pack, he would be certain to incur their displeasure.’ The rifleman who left his weapon with his mates might receive verbal or physical abuse from them if he held back too long, and he would also have lost his instrument for threatening the locals.
The difference between Beckwith’s and Craufurd’s approaches manifested themselves almost as soon as the brigade made its bivouac in Campo Maior and the brigadier announced his programme of daily training.
Craufurd instituted a march, four miles to the nearby River Caya, where the men would bathe, before marching the four-mile return leg. The brigadier ordered that each man dress in full kit for this drill, carrying his weapon, a shako on his head, woollen regimental coat, leather stock around his neck, crossbelts, etc. ‘Every corps did harness and march forth to the river in that form except our own,’ wrote an officer of the 95th. ‘Colonel Beckwith on the contrary always ordered our men on these occasions, to take … foraging caps and a stick.’
Beckwith shared his commander’s belief that it was necessary to maintain his battalion’s marching powers while in cantonments, and indeed to keep them clean, but he did not intend to vex them with petty regulations. On the contrary, he wanted officers and men to enjoy themselves. The riflemen were carrying sticks so that they could go beating in the grasslands around the Caya, while their officers murdered the duck, snipe, plovers and bustards that teemed there for sport and, of course, for the pot.
Another of Craufurd’s preoccupations during that September of 1809 was shooting practice. Very few commanders in the British Army (and none in the French) paid any real attention to marksmanship. What need was there for it, if you only intended to open fire at fifty yards, as Sherbrooke had done at Talavera, and if the men had no clue about aiming? Craufurd understood though that his light troops would often be posted ahead of the army, observing the enemy in small groups, where they might have to defend themselves against superior numbers.
During the 1775–83 war against the American rebels, British generals had learned many valuable lessons: that sharpshooters could stop a battalion functioning properly by picking off its officers; that using cover was sometimes the key to defending yourself; that by allowing the soldier to choose his moment of firing, rather than doing it by rote commands, he might stand a better chance of picking his own target; and that by placing your men with a bigger distance between them, perhaps two feet apart instead of shoulder to shoulder, you made it easier to choose a target without being distracted by your neighbour’s firing.
Craufurd felt the Army was guilty of forgetting many valuable lessons of the American war. Its veterans were too old to be involved in fighting Napoleon, and it lacked the professional journals or institutions needed to propagate this kind of knowledge. There had been attempts to foster professional study and debate during the early 1800s, with imprints like Egerton’s Military Library publishing many books on the latest theories and practice, but too many officers, alas, were more interested in drinking and playing cards than in earnest professional debate. Even if some understood the need for training in marksmanship there was another problem: the Army failed to furnish its garrisons with sufficient ammunition to make target practice possible. As soon as his brigade reached Campo Maior, Craufurd set about trying to secure a vast stock of cartridges that had reportedly been written off as spoiled during the recent campaign. Some weeks after arriving at Campo Maior, a letter from Headquarters announced success: ‘His Lordship [Sir Arthur Wellesley had lately received a peerage and taken the title Wellington] approves of your expending, for practice, as much ammunition as you may think proper, reporting from time to time to this office the quantity expended.’
Shooting was one of those areas where the officers of the 95th had very particular views. Many of the battalion’s subalterns and even captains carried a rifle, whereas other officers, including in the red-coated battalions of the Light Brigade, considered that somewhat uncouth, for they regarded the sword as the only weapon truly becoming of a gentleman. Rifle officers justified their shooting prowess, and reconciled it with the gentility of rank, by portraying themselves as fellows who were simply bringing their love of sport to the battlefield.
In the hands of a private soldier, the rifle presented an interesting social conundrum and one less easily explained away as sport. The regulations for riflemen which were central to the 95th’s training made it clear: ‘As soon as the rifleman has fixed upon his object, he fires without waiting for any command.’ Not only was the common rifleman made an arbiter of life and death, but the 95th was explicitly founded to emulate those sharpshooters of the previous century’s American war who, ‘posted behind thickets, and scattered wide in the country, frequently picked off the officer, and galled and annoyed the King’s troops in their march’.
By contrast, General Sir David Dundas, the author of the Rules and Regulations for the Army as a whole, an officer who had reached the summit of his profession in 1809 as the Commander in Chief, had spelt out that one of the purposes of his tract was ‘to enable the Commanding Officer … to be capable of restraining the bad effects of such ideas of independent and individual exertions as are visonary and hurtful’, and instead to foster ‘regulated obedience’. Dundas used his rules to impose a uniform system of drill on the British Army in the 1790s, one which was based on the Prussian school of Frederick the Great. Although most British officers recognised his achievement in imposing some kind of standardisation, by the early 1800s quite a few regarded Dundas and his regulations as a dead hand, holding the Army in a vice of formal, inflexible movements, slowing the evolution of light-infantry or rifle tactics.
Dundas thought any large-scale skirmishing a ‘great danger’, something that might have ‘fatal consequences’. But many younger officers derided him as ‘Old Pivot’, a reference to his insistence on a slow system of manoeuvre practised by the Prussians in which companies of men turned on fixed points known as pivots. General Sir John Moore, for example, fumed about Dundas’s ‘damned eighteen manoeuvres’ and their stultifying effect. Moore had already set about subverting Dundas’s rules and regulations with new tactics introduced at Shorncliffe. The Guadiana plain contained representatives of both sides of the schism, between those who wanted all infantry to ‘ape grenadiers’ and others who wanted to free light troops from strict regulation. Craufurd, another admirer of Frederick the Great, was doing Dundas’s bidding. Beckwith believed that freeing the soldier’s spirit was essential. The great irony of it all was that Dundas, by a quirk of the Army’s patronage system, had ended up a few months earlier as the titular head or Colonel of the 95th Regiment. He thus skimmed a lucrative side income from the administration of the very regiment whose tactics in Spain would undermine some of his most cherished ideas.
This tension between giving the rifleman power to kill on his own initiative and instilling complete obedience in the ordinary infantryman was resolved by generals and military theorists in two main ways. One was to stress the limited roles of the light-infantry soldier, and particularly riflemen, in combat. The other was to insist that this type of fighter was born rather than made. It was infinitely less threatening to social order to believe that the rifle soldier was found among the natural hunters of mountain, forest and frontier.
At first, during the American wars, British generals had subscribed to the notion that only the born huntsman could make an effective rifle soldier, so they had hired German auxiliaries and enlisted loyalist frontiersmen. Even in 1798, when Britain had formed its first battalion armed with rifles, the 5th or Rifle Battalion of the 60th Regiment, it employed mercenaries – mainly Swiss and German – under a lieutenant colonel formerly of the Austrian service. The Austrians themselves chose to arm their Tyrolean montagnards with rifles. Even the French, whose swarms of voltiguers or tirailleurs operating free from the usual formations had become a hallmark of their revolutionary armies, had come to see the light infantry as a service which naturally suited inhabitants of their country’s mountainous extremities.
British apostles of the rifle claimed that this new weapon would allow the nation to indulge once more in the passion for sport and marksmanship that had distinguished the English yeoman with his longbow centuries earlier. One officer of the 95th wrote in 1808, ‘The rifle, in its present excellence, assumes the place of the bow, and the time is arrived when arms are again committed to the hands of Englishmen; the plains of Egypt and Calabria have witnessed deeds worthy of Cressy and Agincourt!’
Notions of national character had become a powerful influence on military debates at this time, so it should not be surprising that officers of the 95th Rifles used history to assert that the Englishman should face no obstruction in becoming as fine a marksman as the Swiss or German. To many military men, only those whom modern life had made too soft should be disqualified from service in light troops. One experienced practitioner wrote, ‘No printers, bookbinders, taylors, shoemakers or weavers should be enlisted, as from their business they contract habits of effeminacy, and are unable to support the fatigues of war.’
The former shoemaker Costello and weaver Brotherwood would doubtless have objected loudly to such notions – for in their shooting or marching they intended to show they could be just as good a William Tell as any Swiss of the 60th. Costello, Fairfoot and the other new militia drafts sharpened their rifle skills, firing at marks on the grasslands around Campo Maior, thus unwittingly demonstrating the conviction of those who had founded the 95th that riflemen were not born but made. They were taught not just how to fire at man-sized target boards – ‘if it were smaller the unpractised recruit would be apt to miss so often as to despair of hitting it’ – but also more advanced techniques.
The rifle placed in their hands was a superbly designed weapon, both robust and practical. Ezekiel Baker, its inventor, had demonstrated his invention’s superiority in competitive trials organised by the Board of Ordnance. Not only had the Baker rifle shown its accuracy, but it had also managed to overcome the prejudice against such weapons by being robust enough for field service, simple to reload, and less likely to foul after a few dozen shots than the designs it had vanquished. Baker’s gun had sights along its barrel that allowed easy adjustment of long-range shots (so that you lifted the muzzle a little higher at ranges of, say, three hundred yards, to compensate for the droop in the shot at those distances). The more experienced riflemen had trained in techniques for shooting at running enemy soldiers with specially constructed moving targets on their ranges in England. In the field, they also learnt – for their officers did nothing to discourage the rank and file from shooting at birds, rabbits and other prey – how to lead a fast-moving target, so as to compensate for the gap between the shot being fired and it finding its target.
Many of the riflemen who had served in other regiments marvelled at the superiority of the 95th’s techniques and instruction, one such commenting: ‘Eight out of ten soldiers in our regular regiments will aim in the same manner at an object at the distance of three hundred yards, as at one only fifty. It must hence be evident that the greater part of those shots are lost or expended in vain; indeed the calculation has been made, that only one shot out of two hundred fired from muskets in the field takes effect, while one out of twenty from rifles is the average.’ In this way, the Green Jackets hoped to more than compensate for the rifle’s rate of fire, which with perhaps one shot per minute was two or three times slower than a smooth-bore musket.
Men like Beckwith believed that new qualities of initiative were required from the soldiers who wielded the rifle, and these were not best fostered by corporal punishment or drilling him until he became an automaton. One of the 95th’s founders had written in 1806, ‘Ambition and the love of distinction are the ruling passions of soldiers, prompting them to encounter every hardship.’ In fostering that ambition, the regiment believed in teaching its soldiers to read and write – an essential qualification for promotion, but a step considered highly suspect by many of the Army’s more reactionary generals, including Wellington himself.
The 95th’s raw material, though, was not much different from that of any other regiment, despite the wish of some officers to develop a more selective recruitment system. Its founders had tried, in the early days, to recruit among the tougher men on the country’s Celtic fringes. As a result the regiment had, for a while, been almost equally divided between English, Scots and Irish. The admission of hundreds of militia volunteers (mainly from Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Surrey) early in 1809 had changed the 95th’s character, bringing in more English, many of them former tradesmen. When setting out from Dover earlier that year, its composition had been roughly six Englishmen to two Scots and two Irish.
In the ranks of the 95th, there were soldiers with all the vices Lord Wellington associated with British or Irish recruits. Many officers felt the Irish were particularly prone to thieving. They almost all plundered, of course, especially when the failures of supply drove them mad with hunger. They also loved to drink, and it was liquor that gave Beckwith a particularly difficult problem of command while his battalion was in Campo Maior.
Tom Plunket, the Irish crack shot so admired on the passage out by Ned Costello, had by this stage been promoted from corporal to sergeant, and got blind drunk one day after training had finished. When his messmates tried to restrain his increasingly outrageous behaviour, Plunket became violent, grabbed his rifle and barricaded himself into a small hut. There was no choice but to send for an officer. Plunket, however, swore blind he would shoot the first person sent to arrest him. The stand-off continued until his passions cooled and some officers were able to persuade him to come out.
Under a draconian disciplinary regime, it is quite clear that Plunket could have ended up charged with mutiny, being marched in front of a general court martial. Such bodies tried the most serious offences, including capital ones, and had Plunket been convicted he might well have ended up on a rope. Beckwith’s dilemma was all the more disturbing, given that just a few months before he had singled out Plunket for shooting the French general and called him a ‘pattern for the whole battalion’.
Many of the older soldiers knew that back in 1805 Beckwith had proved his aversion to flogging in the most remarkable way. When a party of drunken Irish recruits to the battalion had chanced upon two women near the camp, abusing them verbally and physically, Beckwith had soon discovered the culprits and paraded the battalion. The regiment had learned with shock that the ladies, who had been treated in the most indecent manner, were none other than the colonel’s wife and one of her maids. Beckwith told his men that he would have flogged them had it been anyone else, but since the injury had been done to his own wife he did not wish the punishment to have the appearance of personal vengeance.
Although Beckwith and the other founders of the 95th considered flogging both degrading and pointless, they did not rule it out under all circumstances. His predecessor as commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, for example, had campaigned publicly for the abolition of corporal punishment, ‘except in cases of infamy’. Such was Plunket’s case, for the battalion could not be allowed to see such an example of riot go unpunished.
Plunket’s company commander and Beckwith evidently resolved to settle the matter within the battalion. Officers of the 95th were sensitive to cases which might damage the regiment’s good name going before a general court martial, because such proceedings would inevitably come to the notice of Lord Wellington and, since they were published, of newspapers back in England. Plunket’s punishment – the loss of his sergeant’s stripes and three hundred lashes – was instead decided instanter by a rapid regimental court martial.
‘When the sentence became known, sorrow was felt for him throughout the regiment, by the officers almost as much as the men,’ according to Private Costello, who had worshipped Plunket since joining O’Hare’s company. The battalion was paraded to witness the punishment. Plunket was stripped to the waist, tied to a tree and two buglers stepped forward with their cats. After Beckwith refused a last appeal, the first bugler swung his whip onto the prisoner’s back.
After a few strokes, the colonel suspected that Plunket’s popularity was making the bugler lay it on a little light. ‘Do your duty fairly, sir!’ he shouted at the bugler, who completed the first ration of twenty-five lashes. But Beckwith could not stand the whole procedure, and after thirty-five had been administered, he ordered that Plunket be taken down. Beckwith spoke to the bloodied prisoner in a clear, loud voice, for the benefit of the whole battalion: ‘You see now, sir, how very easy it is to commit a blackguard’s crime, but how difficult to take his punishment.’
The training at Campo Maior reached a peak on 23 September. A little after dawn, the 95th was joined by the other two battalions under Craufurd’s command (the 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry) for a brigade field day. This was an opportunity for the brigadier to watch how quickly his men responded to his commands to change formation while moving across country. The more swiftly and precisely these evolutions were carried out, the greater the brigade’s chance of prevailing on the battlefield.
The tactics taught to the 43rd and 52nd by Moore back in England, and drilled by Craufurd under that blazing Iberian sun, were a hybrid of orthodox and Rifle ones. They helped the battalions to change formation more quickly, to extend many companies in skirmish order (not just one, as was more usual in normal infantry battalions), and they encouraged a new type of shooting which gave the redcoats the added destructive power that the 95th had achieved through aimed fire, while retaining the devastating short-range potential of the volley. The Light Brigade system pioneered by the 52nd instructed men: ‘On the word “Present!”… each man slowly and independently levelling at the particular object his eye has fixed upon, and as soon as he has covered it, fires of his own accord.’
For new soldiers like Simmons, Fairfoot and Costello, running about the dusty scrub was hard, thirsty work, particularly as the day became ferociously hot. At least, though, they were learning the tactics of their chosen corps, something that was new to them. For the old hands such as O’Hare, Almond and Brotherwood, these field days could be tiresome in the extreme: they had done it a hundred times before and were only likely to catch Craufurd’s notice if they fouled up. They knew the difference, too, between the textbook evolutions of the training ground and the real business of staying alive once the balls were flying.
As week after week of intense training went on, the Light Brigade found its preparations for war being sapped by a sinister disease. The plain where they had bivouacked belonged to the Guadiana River, and the Caya, where they bathed, was one of its tributaries. The Guadiana marked Portugal’s frontier and Wellington had chosen to keep his army there because it would allow him to re-enter Spain on another raid in support of the Spanish armies. However, the flatlands around this great river were known to be ‘proverbially unhealthy’.
Privates Robert Fairfoot and Ned Costello and Second Lieutenant George Simmons all came down with Guadiana fever. Simmons, who had once been destined for a medical career himself, believed he had been stricken with ‘the typhus’, but the army’s surgeons had their own diagnosis of intermittent fever. Once a man was stricken with this malady, he could be laid out for weeks, each apparent improvement of his condition giving way to some recurrent bout of sweats and delirium.
The number of cases built up quickly and the regimental hospital, manned by the 95th’s surgeon and his two mates, soon proved inadequate for the care of more than a few dozen patients, so the feverish riflemen were transported to a general hospital established in a convent in the nearby garrison of Elvas. One patient noted, ‘My case was really pitiable, my appetite and hearing gone; feet and legs like ice; three blisters on my back and feet untreated and undressed; my shirt sticking in the wounds caused by the blisters … a little sympathy would have soothed, but sympathy there was none.’ Private Costello, finding himself in the convent, recorded, ‘I fortunately recovered after an illness of nearly six weeks, thanks to my good constitution, but none to the brute of an orderly, who, during a delirium of the fever beat me once most furiously with a broom stick.’
The surgeons were at a loss for a specific cause of the outbreak. Since the fever had evidently arisen because of the sickly miasmas that pervaded the Guadiana plain, they kept fires burning in the wards, so the smoke might keep out these noxious vapours. One of O’Hare’s riflemen, dragooned into acting as an orderly, recorded another treatment for the raging fever: ‘We were ordered to sit up with the sick in our turns, and about midnight to take each one out of bed (they all lay without shirts), lead them to a flight of steps, and pour two buckets of cold water on each. They were so deranged they knew nothing about it.’
Private Brotherwood, a fellow of iron constitution in his mid-twenties, was one of the minority not to succumb to Guadiana fever at all. Simmons, of similar age, managed to beat off the fever after three bouts of it. By mid-October he was on the mend. But by the time orders came through for an imminent march to northern Portugal, Guadiana fever had carried off thousands of Wellington’s soldiers. Dozens died in the 95th, with O’Hare’s company, for example, losing twelve soldiers.
Three of the eight Royal Surrey Militia men who had joined O’Hare’s company with Fairfoot were among that dozen carried off by the fever. Fairfoot himself remained dangerously ill when the battalion joined the rest of the Light Brigade heading towards northern Portugal on 16 December. Costello was also too sick to march, languishing in the convent that the army had turned into a general hospital.
Before it had even crossed swords in earnest with the French, the 95th had lost a company’s worth of men. Many of those who had sought the glories of a military career found themselves interred in unmarked graves in the dusty soil of Alemtejo. In Guildford or Dublin, mothers received an official notification of death, often with a promissory note for a few shillings of back pay, a last reminder of a rifleman son they would never see again.
The 95th would have many days on the road before it reached its destination on the northern Portuguese frontier of the Baixa Beira. The weather was turning, with increasingly heavy rains. Snows dusted the peaks of the sierras. At least the cooler temperatures made the marching easier, as did the knowledge that they were quitting that damnable Guadiana plain – and heading, perhaps, for the trial with the French for which so many of them yearned.