Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Three fine horses

Pen and Sword Books has just published the beautifully written and eloquent diary of Charles Crowe, a lieutenant serving in the British Army during the Peninsular Wars. It says the diary is a ‘masterpiece of journalism’ and one of the ‘great military memoirs’. Much of the diary is already freely available online thanks to Crowe’s distant descendant, JJ Heath-Caldwell, who tracked down the second of the two original diaries, and has made the texts available on his website.

Not much is known about Crowe, other than what he writes about in his diary. He was born in 1785 and joined the British Army in 1810, first with the West Suffolk Militia. After moving between regiments several times, he joined the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot (an Irish regiment) as a lieutenant in 1813. He married in 1818; and later suffered ill health, so that he was stationed in Ireland for the latter part of his military career, before returning to England on half pay.

Crowe’s two journals essentially cover the last years, and Wellington’s final campaign, of the Peninsular War between France and the allied powers including Britain. They have now been edited by Gareth Glover, a former Royal Navy Officer, and published by Pen and Sword Books as An Eloquent Soldier - The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812–14. The Pen and Sword Books website says the book was published in October 2010 (but, nevertheless, still asks for pre-orders!), while Amazon considers 1 February 2011 as the publication date.

The publisher’s blurb explains that Crowe did not actually write up his journal until 1842-3, but because he was such a good writer, he was able to embellish the basic journal, describing his thoughts, actions and words ‘in beautiful detail’ and turning the record of his short army career into ‘a masterpiece of journalism’. Crowe does not pull his punches, the blurb adds, ‘he censures officers both junior and senior; he talks openly of the ravages of war, and the pillaging, raping and looting; the horrors of war, describing the deaths and horrific wounds of many in lurid detail, the cowardice and stupidity; and he also describes the mundane in detail nothing is passed over.’ His journal ‘will stand proudly deservedly in the pantheon of great military memoirs’.

More information about Crowe and the book is available thanks to a website maintained by Gareth Glover, the book’s editor. In particular, he explains in some detail how the book was only brought to print through the ‘diligence and sheer tenacity’ of JJ Heath-Caldwell, a distant relative of Crowe. And Heath-Caldwell, himself, also has a website on which can be found the full texts of the two journals.

Here is an example of Crowe’s beautiful diary language and story-telling, taken from the transcripts on Heath-Caldwell’s website.

16 November 1812
‘Vander and I agreed to reverence the day, and a parade for Divine Service had been ordered. I was to have officiated as Chaplain, but the rain was too heavy to allow any but the sailors working the ship to remain on deck. The Master dined with us. When he left our cabin he foresaw a storm, and gave orders accordingly. Late in the evening the Hatchways were closed, and covered over with tarred purlings and a most awful night ensued. The wind blew great guns, and the sea ran mountains high. Our ship pitched and tossed and reeled most furiously.

Sleep was out of question, especially after midnight, when the table broke from the lashings to the floor, and set at liberty all our trunks stowed beneath, which drove slap bang from side to side as the vessel rolled. Thus Cobbold and myself in the lower berths were alternately in dread of unwelcome intruders. I succeeded in catching hold of and securing my own trunk, and was leaning forward to reach Vander’s when Dr Rice, anxious about his case of instruments, dropped from the berth above, and caught my head between his thighs. At this very juncture, the ship lurched suddenly to narboard, so that the Doctor, being rather short, could but just reach the floor, and by clinging to his own berth, save himself from falling backward.

Thus I remained in a pillory without the possibility of withdrawing my head, to the great amusement of our opposite companions. Pinching and thumping availed me not, for the Doctor could not budge a jot, until the ship righted on its way to falling to starboard, which made the Doctor scramble up to save his legs from the trunks, and thus set me free. All of us now could join the hearty laugh, and joke the Doctor’s nimbleness in saving his shanks. Our glee was however, cut short, for as the ship was rising on a lofty wave and appeared to stand on end, a cross wave struck our stern, made every plank and timber quiver, smashed our dead lights, or storm window shutters, to atoms, and shipped much water.

Cobbold and I had now to change our operations, and were obliged as the vessel rolled to either side, to hold up our bed clothes to prevent the water washing into our berths, and were thus employed until the water by degrees found its way under the cabin door to the ship's waste. All this was bad enough, but in the hold, where men and horses were so closely stowed, the scene was horrible! Three fine horses were suffocated, and falling against those next to them, threw them down, and they by their plunging injured others. When the storm mitigated in the morning, so as to allow the hatchways to be partly opened and fresh air admitted some men fainted.

As soon as practicable the dead horses were drawn out of the hold and thrown overboard. But it was a very difficult undertaking to set the other poor fallen and frightened animals again on their legs, during the continued rolling of the vessel. Other ships also threw their dead horses, the most crowded had, consequently, more casualties. There were very many detachments of Dragoons embarked in the fleet, particularly of the Oxford Blues, who lost a very many of their fine black horses. The sea presented a melancholy scene, covered with floating carcases as far as we could see. Our rigging stood well, but some vessels were greatly shattered, and some two or three were obliged to run before the gale, and returned to Plymouth.

Our convoy scudded about in all directions to collect their scattered charge. We maintained our central position. About 3pm Vander descried a suspicious square rigged ship close in shore hugging the wind under easy sail, for we had crossed the bight of the Bay of Biscay, and could discern the Spanish coast. Our Master pronounced the stranger to be an American Man-of-War. This unwelcome intelligence induced us to go down and muster our men between decks, as well as we could, and make them look to, and prepare their arms and ammunition, in case of an attack during the night.

When we returned on deck our Commodore had the signal flying “Look to the strange sail at Windward.” And away went the Brig of War, our Columbine, dashing and splashing in most gallant style through the lofty billows which seemed all to combine to oppose her progress. We watched her with a lively interest, as long as the daylight lasted, then returned to our cabins, and having made as good a meal as the rolling of the vessel would allow, we laid down, sword in hand, prepared for any alarm. Having however, to make up for lost sleep the night before, we soon forgot our cares and anxieties until the morning.’

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