Thomas Swatton – a tale of drink and the lash…

This story will be another of a series of odd ones following on from that about Thomas Swatton of the 66th Foot. This is a tale of yet another Thomas Swatton ( a name seemingly as common as muck in our family) who joined the army and, like the former Thomas, I have no concrete evidence that he is a direct relation but reiterating how unusual the surname is and that he was born in the same region (around Hampshire/Wiltshire) as all the others, again I’m convinced there must be a familial link.
This tale, however, will be rather more depressing than Thomas of the 66th.
The Thomas Swatton of this tale was born in 1834 in Ogbourn, Wiltshire and at the age of just 16 or 17 he enlisted in the 38th Regiment of Foot in October 1851. The regiment had just returned from a three-year tour of duty in North America, landing back at Portsmouth in August of that year. The next couple of years, Thomas’ introduction to the army, saw it based in the UK but things would change with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854.

38th foot light company 1855

1854 – Members of 38th Light company parading for Lieutenant-General Sir John Campbell

The strength of the Regiment on embarkation from England was 32 officers and 910 men and they sailed on two steam ships, the Megara and Melbourne, bound first for Gallipoli where they disembarked in the middle of May. In June they moved to Scutari (now in the outskirts of Istanbul) and then to Varna (now a city in Bulgaria), then still part of the Ottoman Empire.
For the following 10 weeks the 38th were to be involved in the loading and unloading of ships at Varna docks – a somewhat unglamorous start to the expedition to the East. Finally on the 14th September the 38th landed in the Crimea some twenty-eight miles march from Sebastopol – and the capture of Sebastopol was to be the main war aim of the Allies.
On the 19th September the whole Allied force of some 60,000 men began their advance on Sebastopol when, only some 12 miles from the city, the first major action of the war involving the British was to be fought near the Alma River the following day. The 38th would play little part in the battle, their commanding officer later complaining loudly about the delays that had prevented his regiment from being engaged.

38th veteran

38th Regiment veteran from the Crimea

In November, however, under foggy conditions the Russians made a huge sortie and launched a surprise attack on the British. This would become known as the battle of Inkerman. The superior firepower of the British, including the bulk of the 38th, inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians who, nevertheless, continued to pour men into the fight. But when the French arrived, attacking the Russian flank, they were forced to withdraw.

After this, the British troops were faced with the grim siege of Sebastopol dragging on through the Russian winter. The logistical support for the army failed utterly and the troops had no warm winter clothes, inadequate shelter and meagre rations. On top of this the army was ravaged by cholera and typhus.

A substantial number of men of the 38th were to lose their lives to disease. In fact far more men died of disease than in the actual fighting and the number of British troops quickly whittled away. Indeed numbers decreased so much that the British could not spare any for a major offensive against the Russians and it wasn’t until 18th June 1855 the men of the 38th were to find themselves in another major attack. Lord Raglan, with typical hubris, had chosen the anniversary of Waterloo to claim his final victory at Sebastopol so confident was he that the allies would carry the city. As part of the British assault on the Great Redan, the 38th were to fight a diversionary action to the left of the fort. The brigade of which the 38th was part captured the cemetery and went on to occupy some of the suburbs of Sebastopol but the main French attack on the fort got pinned down so Raglan ordered the British troops to attack the Redan directly. The result was a massacre.

But what of our Thomas Swatton?

After coming through the appalling winter of 54/55 and being promoted in the spring to corporal, he was promoted again, to sergeant, after the failed attack on the Great Redan in July.

floggingBut something finally broke Sergeant Thomas Swatton and in November he was disciplined, probably for drunkenness as that was by far the most common offense. His service record states that he was imprisoned for a month. Most likely this was on a prison ship in Balaklava harbour. He was broken back to the ranks and given 50 lashes…

What made flogging so powerful was the very thing objected to by reformers: it was a punishment designed to humiliate and degrade. As the government explained in 1834, ‘The object of the punishment was, to strike terror into others by the example.

To achieve that end, the army created a flogging ritual. To make the punishment even more degrading, the man wielding the cat was not a proper soldier: cavalrymen were whipped by the regimental farrier, while infantrymen were scourged by drummers. On the day of the flogging, the corps formed a square around a triangle of halberds to which the man was tied. All ranks were compelled to watch the punishment to the end but fainting was common and insensible spectators had to be carried to the rear. The image above shows a man in the foreground, who has been overcome and fainted. To see the flesh torn from a man’s back must have been a gruesome sight. But the gory horror of the flogging itself does not explain why ‘shame’ is a term that both advocates and critics of flogging used time and again. Why was it shameful, a disgrace, to be flogged?

slaveUndoubtedly, it was the flogging of slaves that associated the punishment with the utmost degradation in the British mind. Many soldiers must have had scars similar to this slave’s, particularly before the number of lashes was restricted.

In 1846, less than 10 years before Thomas’ experience, the case of the death of Trooper John White of the 9th Hussars brought flogging to the public’s attention. Following a post-mortem the jury brought in the verdict that Private White had died “from the mortal effects of a severe and cruel flogging of 150 lashes”.

The reporting of this case and many similar and often fatal lashings, in barracks, penal colonies and aboard ships caused the public to react. A petition demanding the end of flogging was presented to the House of Lords on 14th August 1846 obliging the government to devote a whole day’s debate to the subject of military floggings. As a concession, following the advice of the Duke of Wellington, the War Office altered its regulations, making fifty lashes the maximum punishment, soothing public opinion somewhat.

As for Thomas, after his experiences of the gruelling winter of 54/55, the death from cholera of many of his comrades and the actions at Inkerman and the Great Redan and the grinding attrition of the trenches around Sebastopol, we would these days probably put his lapse down to post-traumatic stress but it seems that after this first disciplinary episode his performance as a soldier fell apart, the consequence for him being grimly predictable.

The regiment embarked for England on the 26th of June 1856 after the peace treaty ending the Crimean War was signed in Paris. Landing back in England, Thomas Swatton, absconded and was listed as a deserter. For whatever reason, whether he was captured or returned voluntarily I don’t know, but the following month, with the regiment having moved to Ireland he was court martialled.

He was sentenced to receive 50 lashes once more and imprisoned for 84 days with hard labour.

Almost exactly a year later, the 38th embarked for India, the jewel of Empire that was in the midst of the horrific Mutiny.

Landing at Calcutta in November 1857, the 38th Foot marched on Cawnpore which had witnessed appalling atrocities perpetrated by the mutineers during the summer, and matched by the subsequent dreadful reprisals meted out by the British and East India Company troops. In December the city was threatened again by a mutineer force but they were defeated at the Second Battle of Cawnpore in which the 38th took part.

With the regiment billeted in Cawnpore, less than a month later Thomas was in trouble again, court martialled for being “Drunk on march. Violence towards a superior officer.” Found guilty he was sentenced to 42 days imprisonment with hard labour and yet another set of 50 lashes.

Just over a week after Thomas was released from this spell in confinement, his regiment marched with the force under the overall command of Sir Colin Campbell to recapture Lucknow that had be abandoned to the mutineers the previous November. The attack on the city began on 3rd March and by the 21st the city was declared clear of rebels.

As the majority of rebels escaped the city, the next months over the following summer and monsoon season were spent clearing the rebels from the surrounding countryside. As a result, the army suffered heavy casualties from heatstroke and other diseases.

The 38th used Lucknow as its base and Thomas once again managed to get himself into trouble. In July he was court martialled for the final time and, being found guilty of being drunk on duty, the sentence was the by now inevitable 50 lashes, bringing his total to 200 lashes in two and a half years.

Quite how long this sequence of behaviour could have gone on I don’t know but it wasn’t to be as in 1859, when the regiment was stationed at the Bareilly Cantonment, Thomas was badly injured. He was in the hospital hut there when the roof collapsed injuring his back which was assessed as being severe enough for him to be declared medically unfit for further service.

He was discharged from the service on 10 July 1860 and I’m afraid that’s where the trail ends; I can’t find any records that definitively relate to him after that… I’ll keep looking.

War fever…

Rickettsia prowazekii

Rickettsia prowazeki bacteria

It isn’t some jingoistic call to arms that I refer to but rather a dispassionate, indiscriminate killer. More terrifying, more sinister and certainly more effective in its kill rate than any cannon shot or sabre, it is Rickettsia prowazeki, the organism that causes typhus, and because of its prevalence on campaign, the disease the common soldier simply called “war fever”.

It isn’t known with any kind of accuracy how many soldiers and civilians were killed in the Napoleonic Wars. A ball-park consensus typically estimates between 2.5 and 3.5 million combatants and perhaps another 1.5 to 2.5 million non-combatants died during the course of the wars. But what is clear is that, in tune with all wars up until the 20th century, the battle casualties were dwarfed by those caused by disease.

One reasonably accurate example to support this comes from the British Army medical services who recorded the deaths of patients in their hospitals in the Peninsula  between 1812 and 1814. Deaths due to wounds were 2,699 whereas deaths due to diseases of various kinds amounted to 13,124.

But perhaps the most pronounced example of the devastating effect of disease on Napoleonic campaigns came in Russia in 1812. Almost since the immediate aftermath of the epic failure of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, the principal blame for the disaster was laid at the door of the weather – “General Frost”. It is true that the winter of 1812 was the harshest for many years but what also seems true is that the campaign was utterly doomed from shortly after it was launched in the early summer.

On 22nd June Napoleon reviewed his massive army gathered on the west bank of the River Nieman and the next day, with great fanfare, they began to cross and launch their offensive into Russian territory. As per usual policy Napoleon’s forces lived off the land during campaign. Unhindered by a cumbersome baggage train this allowed his armies to deploy more flexibly but would only work if the territory they advanced over could support their needs. Inevitably this meant depredations on the local civilian population but this had proved sustainable in central and western Europe. However, Poland and western Russia was another matter. Utter poverty was endemic in these regions and from the start food was in short supply.

And with poverty comes squalor, with squalor comes vermin and with vermin comes disease.

Memoirs by the French soldiers and their allies related the filthy conditions of the villages in Poland and include descriptions of local inhabitants being infested with lice. Within days of crossing the Niemen, soldiers began to develop high fevers and pink rashes on their bodies. Typhus had broken out in the Grande Armée.

Typhus is a particularly dreadful disease spread by human body lice and, of course, where better than the conditions of a military campaign with thousands of sweaty, dirty bodies in close proximity for the disease to reach epidemic proportions.

A louse becomes infected with typhus by taking a blood meal from a fever-ridden human. Once in the louse’s gut, the rickettsiae bacteria reproduce in such enormous numbers that they cause cells in the insect’s gut to rupture. Humans become infected by rubbing or scratching the lice faeces, infected with the rickettsiae bacteria, into their skin or into their mucous membranes.  Once infected, humans experience a high fever that continues for approximately two weeks. Simultaneous symptoms may include severe headaches, bronchial disturbances, and mental confusion. After approximately six days, red eruptions appear on the torso, hands, feet, and face. Mortality is incredibly high under epidemic conditions, nearing 100%.

Just a month into the campaign, Napoleon had lost 80,000 soldiers to typhus and dysentery. Fierce actions were conducted at Smolensk and Valutino but Napoleon failed to secure the battle of annihilation he was intending and the Russians continued to retreat following their customary tactic of giving up space for time. By the end of August Napoleon had lost over 100,000 of his central army and the rate of loss was accelerating as the epidemic grew.

Though Napoleon had the best military medical staff in the world at that time they were powerless to fight a disease they did not understand.  The Russians stood and fought again at Borodino on 7th September. It was a bloody confrontation; the French suffered 30,000 casualties and the Russians lost 50,000 soldiers. However, the Russian army was not destroyed; it retreated again, leaving Moscow open to the French.

When Napoleon entered Moscow one week later he had little more than 100,000 tired, sick men left from his central army group. It was a devastated shell of the army that had crossed the Nieman just three months earlier.

The French would stay in Moscow for just a month. The Russians deliberately set fires that burned three quarters of the city. Though it offered some shelter, there was no food in Moscow, and typhus raged. The Russians refused Napoleon’s overtures to surrender and on 19th October, 95,000 French soldiers began the long retreat back towards the Nieman.


By the time the first snows fell on 3rd November, the army was already in a desperate state and as the temperature fell like a stone it merely speeded its disintegration. By the time the remnants of the army re-crossed the Nieman in the middle of December there were just 25,000 men left of Napoleon’s original central army group of over 400,000.

On the 20th December, Napoleon reported to the French Senate, “My army has had some losses but this was due to the premature rigours of the season.” Thus he cemented in everyone’s mind the effect of the winter weather on the campaign. In reality his army was destroyed before the first snow fell.

It has been estimated that over 200,000 of them died solely from disease.

Reassuringly however, Napoleon concluded his 29th Bulletin of the Grande Armée, which he published in Paris at the end of the campaign, with the curious sentence: “His Majesty’s health has never been better.”

I bet the relatives of the almost half million casualties of the campaign were so relieved.