Peninsular War survivor and Napoleon’s jailer…

Private Thomas Swatton – 66th Regiment of Foot

This story will be one of a series of odd ones in the sense that I have no concrete evidence that the subject is a direct relation but there are a few strong indications that he really couldn’t be anything else. Firstly, my surname is unusual, there being less than 700 people sharing it in the UK, less than a 1000 in the world. Secondly, the name doesn’t come from a profession (like Smith or Cooper) or a physical characteristic (like Short or Brown) which could easily have very discrete origins for people sharing that name; rather it would seem it comes from a village name in Lincolnshire – a single root which, however remotely, we all seem to share. And thirdly, the Thomas Swatton here was born just a few miles down the road from where my own great-great-great grandfather was born… altogether, I’m convinced there must be a familial link.

So why is this Thomas Swatton of interest? Well, anyone who has read any of my articles will have picked up I am very interested in military history and it just so happens that this Thomas joined one of the more interesting regiments at just about the most interesting time in its history and he served through some of the most traumatic experiences any soldier would care to experience.

Thomas’ discharge papers somehow still exist and they reveal quite a story.

66th foot soldier

A private in the 66th Regiment light company

He enlisted in the 66th Regiment of Foot on 29th Aug 1804 at the age of nineteen. He would go on to serve in the same regiment for 20 years 270 days (the army is very specific when it comes to record keeping).

The early years of his service were spent in relatively uneventful garrison duty in southern Ireland but when the British government decided to send a land force to the continent to oppose the French armies of Napoleon, the 2nd Battalion of the 66th Regiment (2nd/66th) were assigned to the force that embarked for the Peninsular in March 1809, arriving at the mouth of the Tagus on 4th April, disembarking two days later and immediately marching north towards Oporto under the overall command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, not yet titled the Duke of Wellington.

Marshal Soult, commanding the French garrison in Oporto, had the bridges across the River Douro destroyed and mistakenly assumed his force was safe from attack across the wide, fast-flowing river. However, Wellesley pushed across the light companies of the 3rd, 28th and 66th regiments who were brigaded together in a few barges that had been cut out from the far bank. They secured a foothold in a seminary building on the French bank and the rest of the brigade followed across as quickly as they could.

The arrival of fresh troops enabled a portion of the brigade to assume the offensive, and advance against a 7-gun battery, which they carried in the face of a withering fire of grape and musketry.

oporto

Crossing the Douro

Shortly after noon, the French evacuated the lower town of Oporto, and the inhabitants rushing down to the now unguarded quays, jumped into boats and rowed across to the south bank.

Sherbrooke’s Brigade of Guards at once went over in these boats; and almost at the same time General Murray, who had crossed the river at a ferry point three miles upstream, was seen advancing down the right bank with the German Brigade and the 14th Light Dragoons.

At this the French broke and abandoned the city. In this action the French lost 500 men and 5 guns, (one of which was taken by the 66th) in the field, besides leaving 50 guns, a quantity of military stores, and all their sick at Oporto. The British casualties numbered 115 killed and wounded; the 6th alone lost 35 men, or nearly one-third of the total.

That same evening, Sir Arthur Wellesley issued the following Order : —

“G.O., Oporto, 12th May, 1809. The Commander of the Forces congratulates the troops upon the success that has attended the operations of the last four days; during which they have traversed above 80 miles of most difficult country, have carried some formidable positions, have beaten the enemy repeatedly, and have ended by forcing the passage of the Douro and defending the position so boldly taken, with a number far inferior to that by which they were attacked.

In the course of this short expedition the Commander of the Forces has had repeated opportunities of witnessing and applauding the gallantry of the officers and men.”

It had certainly been a baptism of fire for the 66th.

More was soon to come…

Two months after the crossing of the Douro at Oporto, the 66th was part of Rowland Hill’s division at the two-day battle of Talavera where the exhausted survivors witnessed the horror of many wounded troops, incapable of moving by themselves, being burned alive when the tinder-dry grassland caught fire towards the end of the battle. And their sacrifice had been for nought as the following day Wellington received intelligence that Marshal Soult was advancing with 30,000 troops to cut his lines of communication and so he was forced to retreat back to the Portuguese border.

After engaging the French again at Bussaco, Wellington then withdrew his forces into the prepared defences of Torres Vedras and it wasn’t until May 1811 that the 66th was involved in another major action, at Albuera, where they were all but annihilated.

The 66th had been assigned to the command of Marshal Beresford, leading a combined British, Portuguese and Spanish force besieging the city of Badajoz. When the French Marshal Soult marched up from Seville, with his Army of Andalusia, to relieve the garrison in Badajoz, Beresford broke off the siege to meet them in battle around the village of Albuera.

The main French attack fell on the Spanish brigades on the flank. In response, Beresford brought up Stewart’s 2nd Division to support the Spanish on their right. The leading brigade, Colborne’s, climbed the hill in the face of a blinding hail storm and went into action as each battalion reached the crest, only to be caught still deployed in line by the French light cavalry, the lancers of the Polish Vistula Legion and a regiment of hussars.

albuera

Massacre at Albuera

Three battalions of Colborne’s brigade, including 2nd / 66th Foot were virtually annihilated in just a few minutes as the French cavalry broke through them.

At this point in the battle, Soult failed to act to secure the victory by vigorous use of his overwhelming strength in cavalry and Beresford was given the opportunity to reform his line. The brigades of the 4th Division were brought up to relieve the Spanish and held the French back under a storm of artillery fire and musketry. In a twenty-minute exchange of fire these battalions were reduced to ruin but they held their ground.

When the Fusilier Brigade ascended the ridge and attacked the French with the Portuguese battalions of the 4th Division and Abercromby’s Brigade, Soult realised he had lost the initiative, abandoned his attack and withdrew.

After the battle, Wellington acknowledged that another such “victory” would ruin his army and Marshal Soult wrote: “There is no beating these troops… I had turned their right, pierced their centre and everywhere victory was mine – but they did not know how to run!”

And what of Thomas’ unit? The 66th had 16 officers and 310 men killed, wounded, and missing in the devastating attack by French cavalry. The battalion went into action 400 strong, and the following day only 53 bayonets mustered at parade.

If Thomas was one of the wounded we will never know but we know he survived to fight on, and much more fighting was yet to come.

Following the massacre at Albuera the 66th Foot struggled to replace its losses from its depot back in England and opinion was divided on what to do with seriously under-strength battalions as Sir Charles Oman wrote in his history of the war:

“What was to be done if a Peninsular battalion had got very low in numbers …and had few or no recruits at its British depot ready to be sent out?   This was the case in December 1812 with twelve good old battalions of the Peninsular Army.  The Duke of York maintained that since they all showed under 350 effectives…they must come home at once.  But Wellington had other views.  He held that a well-tried battalion acclimatised to Peninsular service was such a precious thing…that it would be best to combine the wasted units in pairs as ‘Provisional battalions’ of 600 to 700 bayonets.”

Thus was the situation with the 2nd / 66th Foot in June 1813 as Wellington faced up to Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in northern Spain. They were combined with the 2nd / 31st Foot to create the 1st Provisional Battalion.

vitoria

Vitoria

Vitoria was to be the largest battle of Wellington’s career to date, he having 80,000 troops at his disposal which he used to devastating effect, completely routing the French and capturing all but one of their 150 guns. The aftermath of the battle was notorious for the looting which took place of Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train full of the loot he has brought out of Madrid when he abandoned the capital. There being no evidence of any great wealth coming into the family I’m guessing that Thomas missed out on any rich pickings!

However, the victory at Vitoria opened the way for Wellington to cross the Pyrenees and invade France which he duly did.

As part of Wellington’s victorious army, the 66th pursued the French Army into France and fought at the Battle of the Pyrenees in July 1813, the Battle of Nivelle in November 1813 and the Battle of Nive in December 1813 as well as the Battle of Orthez in February 1814 and finally the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814, the last battle fought by the British before Napoleon abdicated.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba in the spring of 1815 and the 100 days campaign began which culminated in his final defeat at Waterloo, the 66th Foot played no part.

However, their experience of Napoleon was not quite over.

napoleonIn 1816 the 2nd / 66th sailed for St Helena to guard Napoleon, who had been sent there in exile following his defeat at Waterloo. For five long years the regiment was posted there guarding the emperor. In the well-known engraving of Napoleon staring forlornly out to sea there is a sentry standing guard in the background… just maybe that would be Thomas!

When Napoleon died in 1821 the whole regiment formally paraded past his coffin as a mark of respect. Finally, it was grenadiers of the 20th and 66th Regiments who bore the emperor’s body to the grave.

At last, the 66th could return home.

The final few years of Thomas’ service were uneventful and after almost 21 years of service he was honourably discharged, described as being “worn out from service in the Peninsular and St. Helena”. I think the poor bugger had done enough.

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Satirist with a secret…

“The Plumb-pudding in danger” by James Gillray is probably the most well-known political cartoon of the Napoleonic period, with British Prime Minister William Pitt sitting  opposite Napoleon Bonaparte, both of them slicing up the globe in a bid to gain a larger portion.

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But Gillray was not the only satirical cartoonist plying his trade during the period and I recently came across George Cruikshank. Though probably not as well known as Gillray, he had a most remarkable life, living to an age  when photography had been invented and, in later years, leading a double life!

cruikshank

George Cruikshank

George was born into a family of political caricaturists. His father Isaac, and his elder brother Robert were cartoonists and the younger sister Eliza was also a dab hand with a pen or brush.

By the age of about seven George was sketching competently. At ten he was supplying simple designs to wood engravers for children’s games and books. His father taught him the fundamentals of etching into copperplates and by thirteen George was executing the titles of his father’s caricatures, and also putting in backgrounds, furnishings and dialogue.

By the age of twenty he was a a famous cartoonist in his own right providing material for rival radical publications The Scourge and The Meteor. This cartoon is typical of Cruikshank towards the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Cruikshank_-_Little_Boney_gone_to_Pot

Little Boney Gone to Pot

Here Napoleon is sitting on a chamber pot ( “Imperial Throne ” ) on the island of Elba. He is in a forlorn condition, suffering from the itch, with large excrescences growing on his toes. He is all alone in his island prison, and tempted by a fiend, who offers him a pistol—“If you have one spark of courage left,” it says, “take this.” “Perhaps I may,” replies Napoleon, “if you’ll take the flint out.”

By his side is a pot of brimstone, numerous medicine bottles, and “a treatise on the itch, by Dr. Scratch.” One of the imperial boots, mounted on a carriage, forms a dummy cannon. His back leans against a tree, to which is nailed the “Imperial Crow,” while from the branches hang a ragged pair of breeches and stockings. The whole effect is to symbolize the Emperor’s decline of power.

After the war George created his best-remembered work as an illustrator for Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist by his ‘on-off’ friend, Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz was published in February 1836 with Cruikshank’s 16 etchings, which were praised by Dickens in the introduction.

In 1827, George  married Mary Ann Walker. They were childless, with Mary Ann suffering from ill health, possibly tuberculosis, until her death in 1849. Two years after her death, in March 1851, he married Eliza Widdison. Throughout this period he supported his younger sister and his mother, his father having died of alcohol poisoning in 1811.

On the surface, the bohemian lifestyle of Cruikshank’s youth gave way to sobriety, and the friendship between Cruikshank and Dickens soured when Cruikshank became a fanatical teetotaler in opposition to Dickens’s views of moderation. Though all was not what it seemed in Cruikshank’s private life. He seduced one of the young housemaids, Adelaide Attree, and set her up in her own house virtually round the corner from the house he shared with his wife. He fathered 11 children with his mistress and his maintenance of two households was not fully revealed until after his death in 1878 at the ripe old age of 85.

Punch magazine, which I assume did not know of George’s double life, said in its obituary: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”

Really?

Remembrance of times past…

Those of us lucky enough to have grown up in “peace time” since the Second World War are very familiar with the sight of hundreds, even thousands, of veterans of the armed forces parading on Remembrance Sunday past the cenotaph in Whitehall. They wear their medals with pride and they march past with fixed expressions that mask myriads of memories, good and bad.

But this is nothing new.

Monsieur Verlinde of the 2nd Lancers 1815

Monsieur Verlinde of the 2nd Lancers, 1815

Grenadier Burg 24th Regiment of the Guard 1815

Grenadier Burg, 24th Regiment of the Guard, 1815

Back in May 1858, less than twenty years after the first complete practical photographic process was announced at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, French veterans of the Napoleonic wars were photographed after their annual reunion in the Place Vendome on the anniversary of the death of Napoleon.

It was customary for the old soldiers to turn out in the uniforms they had worn with pride and distinction all those years before.

Monsieur Mauban 8th Dragoon Regiment 1815

Monsieur Mauban, 8th Dragoon Regiment, 1815

They were in their sixties, seventies or even eighties, their waistlines had expanded in some cases and perhaps some clever tailoring had been required to enable them to dress still as they had as young men. But there was no alteration required to dress how they held themselves.

Though a little frail, blurring here and there telling its own story of how some found it a bit difficult to stand stock still for the lengthy exposures, nevertheless the pride of these men shines through.

moret and delignon

I am particularly taken with the image of Sergeant Taria of the Emperor’s Guard; as an old man he looked formidable. How much more so would he have been in his prime.

Sergeant Taria Grenadiere de la Garde 1809-1815

Sergeant Taria, Grenadiere de la Garde, 1809-1815

Serving from 1809-15 his experiences would have encompassed Aspern-Assling and Wagram, the horrors of the Russian campaign, the defensive campaigns of 1813-14 with France’s enemies pressing in from all sides, and finally the Hundred Days and that fateful, awful day of Waterloo when allied and French casualties were close on 50,000. I can’t imagine what his eyes must have seen.

All photographs are copyright of the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection.

Carry On Napoleon…

The more I read about the household of Napoleon, it seems to me more like the cast of a “Carry On” film rather than the inner circle of one of the most important figures in history. Drunken coachman, melancholic tailor, antagonistic chef, exotic bodyguard, gossiping valet. I can’t help but think of their parts being played by Messrs. James, Connor, Williams, Bresslaw and Hawtrey.

But they say fact is often stranger than fiction and the retinue of Napoleon seems to bear this out.

sid james

Drunk driver

Let’s start with Cesar, the coachman. He was a notorious drunk and it is something of a mystery why Napoleon put up with him. Perhaps because the great man always seemed to be in such a hurry Cesar’s manic driving somehow fitted the bill.

Yet it was just such driving, Cesar’s recklessness, that saved the life of Napoleon on Christmas Eve 1800. Josephine had persuaded him to attend a concert that evening and he set off in his carriage, driven as usual by Cesar, who was most decidedly full of the Christmas spirit. Josephine, her two daughters Caroline and Hortense, with Napoleon’s ADC Jean Rapp, followed in a second carriage a couple of minutes behind.

On the Rue St. Nicaise, plotters had set a bomb in a cart by the side of the road, held there at their behest by an unwitting girl. As the Consul’s escort trotted past the bomb’s fuse was ignited. Any other coachman, seeing the road partially blocked by the cart would have slowed to edge past the obstacle but not Cesar. Without a care in the world he raced the carriage past the cart that held the bomb. When it detonated Napoleon was safely round the corner in the Rue de la Loi. The bomb took out most of the block, bringing down the frontages of buildings on both sides of the street and killing nine innocent civilians. Nearly thirty more were injured. In the second carriage Hortense received a gash to her arm from flying glass and Caroline, who was eight months pregnant was badly shocked. It was the closest any assassination attempt came to succeeding.

kenneth connor

Down-trodden tailor

Moving on, I would guess that Napoleon, for his evening at the concert, would not have dressed up. His simple taste in clothes was the bane of his tailor’s life. Bastide, the tailor, was the make-do-and-mend flunky. Napoleon was frugal and spent as little as possible on his wardrobe, preferring simple uniforms and clothes that were comfortable and practical… and would last for an eternity. It was Bastide’s job to keep them serviceable. Even when Napoleon did splash out on something elaborate, such as his coronation robes, poor Bastide never got a look in. Those jobs were always farmed out to someone famous. So the lot of the great man’s tailor was not a happy one.

kenneth williams

Supercilious chef

Also often unhappy, but more prepared to make a fight of it, was Napoleon’s chef, Dinan. Formerly the chef of the one of the Bourbon dukes, he considered his culinary inventions to be works of art. But Napoleon’s view of food was purely functional. He considered food as fuel and little more. His tastes were simple and he wolfed down his food. Meals were sprints, over and done with in twenty minutes. But Dinan was stubborn too and persisted in producing his multiple courses, rich sauces and lavish desserts. He also took it upon himself to make executive decisions about the Emperor’s menu… big mistake. When he substituted a strong garlic sausage that was a particular favourite of Napoleon’s because he thought it was too vulgar that was a decision too far and Napoleon let rip at his chef. In the ensuing argument Dinan threatened to resign but compromise was finally reached. The maestro agreed to give the Emperor more of the food he preferred while Napoleon agreed to the multiple courses though he tended to leave more than he ate.

charles hawtrey

Self-important valet

Witness and chronicler of all of his was Constant, Napoleon’s valet. His memoirs read like a gossip’s charter but he was faithful to Napoleon for many years. Though I can’t help but think he must have been the sort who imagined their own status was somehow a reflection of their master’s import.

bernard bresslaw

Intimidating bodyguard

And finally their was Roustam Raza, the massive bodyguard. Armenian by birth, he was a slave in the service of the Sheik of Cairo when he was presented to Napoleon as a gift. From that time the giant bodyguard was never more than a few feet from his master. Always attired in traditional Mamluk dress – plumed turban, baggy trousers, embroidered jacket and massive curved scimitar. When they travelled by coach Roustam sat beside Cesar driving the carriage (worse luck for him). At night he slept outside Napoleon’s bedroom, lying across the door like some devoted guard dog.

He accompanied his master on all his great campaigns, including Russia where he found the cold intolerable. In the final months of the empire with Napoleon falling back on Paris he fought bravely in numerous engagements.

Although he finally broke with Napoleon when the Emperor was exiled to Elba, a decision which Napoleon found more hurtful than many of the betrayals he experienced at that time, he was on hand when in 1840 his old master’s body was returned from St. Helena for re-interment in Paris.

Napoleon was rubbish…

…at billiards!

He had no liking for the game and even less aptitude. He preferred to use the green baize table for laying out his maps; much better than spreading them around him on the floor. Yet even the Emperor who had no liking for the game, in exile on St Helena, had a billiards room in his house, Longwood (below).

Billiard-Room-Longwood-021

Not necessarily ironically but perhaps comically, his two wives, Josephine de Beauharnais and then Marie Louise of Austria, were much more enthusiastic players and I can only imagine the Emperor’s fits of temper as he was beaten for the umpteenth time by one wife or another.

By the time of Napoleon, the game had already had a long history. It is thought its original form was played in France since the 1340s and Louis XI certainly owned a billiard table in the 1470s. It is thought the name derives from the term “billart”, one of the sticks originally used to shove the balls across the table.

Josephine had a billiards room in her chateau of Malmaison and often had a game before breakfast but, more often, played late at night, as recounted in the memoirs of Louis Constant, Napoleon’s valet:

“She loved to sit up late, when almost everybody else had retired, to play a game of billiards… It happened on one occasion that, having dismissed everyone else, and not yet being sleepy, she asked if I knew how to play billiards, and upon my replying in the affirmative, requested me with charming grace to play with her; and I had often afterwards the honour of doing so.”

Apparently Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, was a whizz around the table. It seems poor Napoleon was surrounded by women who could thrash him at the popular salon game.

But there was another element to the game which made it a rather appealing spectator sport, for some. Ladies’ fashion of the time was for flattering dresses in gauzy material and low, scooped necklines.

Louis-Léopold_Boilly_-_Game_of_Billiards_-_WGA02350

Boilly’s painting, here, has a distinctly erotic element to it. And it’s not just my lurid imagination running away with me. In the always-frank memoirs of Captain Coignet, serving in the Imperial Guard, he comments on a similarly pleasurable pastime regarding the billiards prowess and style of the Empress Marie Louise:

“Marie Louise was a first-rate billiard-player. She beat all the men; but she was not afraid to stretch herself out across the billiard-table, as the men did, when she wanted to make a stroke, with me always on the watch to see what I could.”

When he adds, “She was frequently applauded” I find I’m not at all surprised.