Military history

JAMES BODELL

A Soldier’s View of Empire

James Bodell had enlisted in the 59th Regiment at the age of sixteen, giving his age as seventeen. In 1849, when the regiment (later the 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment) was stationed in Ireland, it was ordered for foreign service. Such an order was dreaded by a regiment on a home station, for the army refused to allow wives who were not ‘on the strength’ to accompany their husbands, even though the men might be away for many years and despite the absence of any official provision for the families left behind. Only a proportion of non-commissioned officers and a very few soldiers were allowed wives ‘on the strength’. The remainder, when a regiment left for imperial duty, in this case in Hong Kong, had to fend for themselves.

Parting was therefore heartbreaking. It was, however, the common lot of ordinary soldiers and their womenfolk in all long-service armies of the period. The soldier, once enlisted, surrendered almost all his civil rights and became little better than a chattel of the state. Bodell, a man of unusual spirit as well as intelligence, deeply resented the deprivations and, within the limits allowed by military law, was adamant in sticking up for his rights. His manner impressed his superior officers, who came to respect him enough not to trifle with him. After a successful military career, Bodell settled in New Zealand, where he became mayor of the town in which he took up residence. His is a rare voice from the ranks of an army which, ruled by the lash, conquered and garrisoned an enormous empire for Victorian Britain.

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At last the Six Companies for foreign Service got the route for Cork, and off we went, the Band playing us out of Fermoy. Going through Watergrasshill a house on the Road Side wanted to charge us half Penny each for a drink of Water but the men took the bucket and got several buckets of water, and paid nothing. It certainly looked one time as if some damage would be done. This trying to extort vexed the men. Only for the officers I believe they would have wrecked the house. All the Women and Children rode on the Baggage Waggons. I was surprised at seeing so many Women on the Carts belonging to the Regt. On our arrival in Cork as usual like many others, I was off to look for lodgings. Winny [his wife] had procured these as she learnt by Fermoy the last in the field have to put up with the worst rooms. Here we stopped about three Weeks, when it was read out in Regimental Orders we should embark on Steamer, by Companies, lying at the quay in Cork to be conveyed on board HM Troopship Apollo at anchor in the Cove of Cork. Many were the inquiries about our destination, but no one knew. Some said the West Indies etc. The last night in Cork and the next day, I shall never forget. One good thing all Women left behind had their Passage paid home, whether in Ireland, England or Scotland, and our Colour Sergt. was good enough to put Winny[’s] name down. I was up all night, Winny would not leave me, and on parading next morning in column of Companies, and the Speech of our Colonel, about going on Foreign Service and if we met an enemy of our Country, that we should show ourselves as British Soldiers. Our Colonel was a fine specimen of a Soldier, six feet two inches in his Vamps, and stout broad shouldered in proportion weighing I should say 15 to 16 stone. I thought he looked grand that morning with the Waterloo Medal on his Breast. (He proved otherwise.) At last off we went the Band playing The Girl I Left Behind Me.

When we arrived at the quay, and as we were told off in Companies to go on board of the Steamer, I shall never forget that day. I could not keep Winny off my neck. I was so bothered I forgot to unfix my bayonet. The Colonel was standing one Side of the gangway, and through Winny clinging to me, my bayonet went straight to the Colonel’s Chest. He let [out] a roar (and he could roar) which brought me to my senses, and Winny was gently requested to return to the Shore. This was the last time I touched Whinny. After getting on Board, we stopped at the quay about 20 minutes, and the sight was something awful. Women and children screaming, young Girls fainting, others half mad in a frenzied Condition. I assure you Women with 3, 4 & 6 children each was left behind. Poor things it was a sad Sight to see them. Some of them expected shortly to bring another into the World. This was the 8th day of June 1849. At last off we went, and on getting on Board we were shown our living or I should say sleeping Place. 500 of us was told off for the lower deck and no Ventilation but the Hatches and round Scuttle holes, and one hammock for two men. All our Meals we had to take on upper deck with the Sky or clouds for a ceiling. We remained at anchor till June the 12th, even now we did not know our destination. The four days we lay at anchor was even worse than leaving the quay in Cork. All day long boats crowded with Women and Children, Winny amongst them, pulling around the Ship. Those four days were really miserable ones. At last we commenced our Voyage. I forgot to mention several men deserted and one man shot himself in Cork Barracks before they would leave their Wives and families.

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