Sunday, April 17, 2011

Acts of wanton cruelty

William Dyott, a soldier who served all over the world for the British army and faithfully kept a diary, was born exactly a quarter of a millennium ago today. He’s not well remembered - does not even have a Wikipedia entry for the moment! - but the published diary is available online and provides some extraordinary colourful descriptions of his experiences abroad, such as when he was sent to the West Indies to deal with a revolt by slaves.

Dyott was born in Staffordshire on 17 April 1761 into a well-off family, and was schooled privately before attending a military college near London. He joined the army in 1781, and served in Ireland, Nova Scotia (where he became friends with Prince William, later William IV), West Indies (to help quell a negro uprising influenced by French revolutionists) and Egypt. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant-colonel in 1795, a major-general in 1808, and a lieutenant-general in 1813, although by then he was no longer on active service. During his service he also travelled to Spain and The Netherlands, where he took part in the disastrous Walcheren Expedition.

For a short while, in 1804, Dyott took up duties as an aide-de-campe to George III, accompanying members of the royal family to the theatre, and playing cards with the queen and her daughters. He married Eleanor Thompson in 1806, and they had two sons and a daughter. However, she eloped with another man in 1814. A year earlier, he had inherited the family estates near Lichfield, and thenceforward became much concerned with agricultural policies. He was a local Justice of the Peace, and a neighbour/friend of Robert Peel. He died in 1847. There is a short biography of Dyott at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (which requires a log in). Otherwise, though, more details are available online in the introduction to his diary.

From the age of 20 until the year before he died, Dyott kept a diary filling 16 volumes. This was edited by Reginald W Jeffery and published in two volumes by Archibald Constable in 1907 as Dyott’s Diary, 1781-1845: a selection from the journal of William Dyott, sometime general in the British army and aide-de-camp to His Majesty King George III. The full texts are available at Internet Archive.

Here are two extracts from Dyott’s time in the West Indies.

16 March 1796
‘Employed in burying the dead, and sending away the wounded by sea to St George’s. I never beheld such a sight as Post Royal Hill, etc. The number of dead bodies and the smell was dreadful. The side of the hill on which the enemy endeavoured to make their retreat was extremely steep and thickly covered with wood, and the only method of discovering the killed was from the smell. It was near a fortnight after the action that many bodies were found. Nine days after the post was taken a mulatto man was discovered in the woods that had been wounded in three places two shots through his thigh. The only thing he had tasted was water, but to the astonishment of everybody he recovered.

The negroes and people of colour can certainly suffer and endure far greater torture than white people. I have seen two or three instances of this kind that astonished me. One in particular at Hooks Bay. Two negroes were taken prisoners the day we got possession of the post, and in order to secure them they were forced into a sort of arched place something like what I have seen under steps made use of to tie up a dog. There was just room for the poor devils to creep in on their hands and knees and to lie down. After they had got in, two soldiers of the 29th regiment put the muzzles of their firelocks to the doorplace and fired at them. I ran to see what the firing was, but before I got to the place they had fired a second round. On reaching the spot I made a negro draw out these miserable victims of enraged brutality. One of them was mangled in a horrid manner. The other was shot through the hip, the body, and one thigh, and notwithstanding all, he was able to sit up and to answer a number of questions that were asked him respecting the enemy. The poor wretch held his hand on the wound in his thigh, as if that only was the place he suffered from. The thigh bone must have been shattered to pieces, as his leg and foot were turned under him. The miserable being was not suffered to continue long in his wretchedness, as one of his own colour came up and blew his brains out sans ceremonie. This account does no credit to the discipline of the army. I own I was most completely ashamed of the whole proceeding, and said all I could to the General of the necessity of making an example to put a stop to these acts of wanton cruelty, being certain that nothing leads to anarchy and confusion in an army so soon as suffering a soldier in any instance to trespass the bounds of strict regularity, or to permit him to be guilty of an act of cruelty or injustice.

During the night of the 26th the enemy set fire to their works on Pilot Hill and evacuated the post. This post was situated about two miles from Post Royal on the coast. There was a most unfortunate accident happened in Hooks Bay on the 26th. The Ponsburne East Indiaman, that had brought part of the reinforcement from Barbadoes, drove from her anchors and went to pieces in a very short time. All the hands were saved, but every article of stores, ammunition, etc., was lost. It was an awful sight seeing the power of the element dashing to atoms in the space of two hours so stately a production of man’s art. This with the loss of a schooner drove on shore made it necessary to retain the post at Madam Hooks longer than was intended to my very great annoy, as a great quantity of provisions, etc. etc., were drifted on shore, which it was thought proper to destroy to prevent it falling into the enemy’s hands.’

14 May 1796
‘A vessel with Spanish colours came close in with the land, as if she intended going into Hooks Bay. On the supposition of her having a reinforcement for the brigands on board from the island of Trinidad, a party was sent to oppose their landing, but the vessel did not run into the bay. My tent was, I believe, infested with every species of reptile the island produces: a scorpion, lizard, tarantula, land-crab, and centipede had been caught by my black boy, and the mice were innumerable. I was prevented bathing in consequence of what is called in the West Indies the prickly heat. It is an eruption that breaks out all over the body, and from the violent itching and prickly sensation it has got the above appellation. All new-comers to the West Indies are subject to it, and when it is out it is considered as a sign of health. Bathing, I was told, was liable to drive it in. Nothing can equal the extreme unpleasant sensation, and people sometimes scratch themselves to that degree as to occasion sores. About this time our part of the army was suffering in a most shameful manner for the want of numerable articles in which it stood much in need. Neither wine or medicine for the sick, and not a comfort of any one kind for the good duty soldier; salt pork, without either peas or rice, for a considerable time, and for three days nothing but hard, dry, bad biscuit for the whole army, officers and men. Two days without (the soldiers’ grand comfort) grog.’

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