Sunday, February 6, 2022

Spiritless generals!

It is 150 years since the death of the soldier William Swabey. Having served in the British army, he spent twenty years farming and politicking in the Canadian colony of Prince Edward Island. However, he is largely remembered today because of the diary he kept during the Peninsular War. Arthur Ponsonby, the early 20th century expert in diaries, rates it as a good example of a soldier’s diary with ‘rather humorous comments’.

Swabey was born in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1789. He married Mary Ann Hobson in 1820 and together they had 11 children. For 18 years he served in the British Army, rising to the rank of captain and fighting in the Peninsular War (between France and the allied powers of Spain, Portugal and UK for control of the Iberian Peninsula) and at Waterloo. Following his retirement from the army in 1840, Swabey and his family emigrated to Prince Edward Island colony in Canada, where he leased land and took up farming.

In November 1841, Swabey was appointed to the Legislative Council as a Tory, but he then switched his allegiances to become a leading spokesman for the Reform Party. In 1851, Swabey joined the Executive Council of George Coles’ Liberal government, and served in various posts until the Liberals were defeated in 1859. He also served for the best part of two decades on the Board of Education. In 1861 Swabey left Prince Edward Island to return to England. He died on 6 February 1872. The most comprehensive biography of Swabey online can be found at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Swabey’s diaries, which only cover the period of the Peninsular War, were edited by F. A. Whinyates and published in 1895 as Diary of Campaigns in the Peninsula for the years 1811, 12 and 13. Despite being out of copyright, there do not appear to be any copies of the book freely available to read online (at Internet Archive for example). A portion of Swabey’s diaries - from July to October 1807 - was also published in Journal of the Royal United Service Institution in 1916. A description of Swabey’s diary and some extracts are available in English Diaries by Arthur Ponsonby (Methuen, 1923) which can be downloaded from Internet Archive. Ponsonby says Swabey’s is ‘a good example of a soldier’s diary, which in addition to technical military details contains descriptions of scenery and places and some rather humorous comments.’

Here are a few (undated) extracts from Swabey’s diary quoted by Ponsonby.

‘I found this day as well as many of late so little worthy of being remembered that I begin to think of curtailing my plan of journal altogether and am the more tempted to do so from the habits that necessity imposes on us.’

‘The first ceremony was that the whole dinner with the two servants and myself went bodily to leeward on the floor. I kept fast hold of a chicken by the leg and we fell to without knives and forks. I think I have not laughed so much since I left Christchurch.’

‘Rather troubled with a headache which was not deserved by idleness.’

‘I am apt to be desponding when too quiet and unemployed.’

‘There is such a complete vacancy and want of employment in our time that I cannot congratulate myself of a night on having done anything either useful or entertaining.’

‘I feel myself so constantly engaged in the daily pursuits of infantry officers in England viz: watching fishes swim under the bridge, throwing stones at pigs, etc. I am ashamed of it but have nothing else to do.

‘The beds had counterpanes of satin with lace borders and fringe ornaments but oh comfort where are you gone?’

‘Confound all dilatory and spiritless generals!’

Ponsonby adds: ‘The military engagements are fully described, and in many places there are additional notes inserted by [Swabey] at a later date. He is much more concerned in giving a full account of the victory at Vittoria than in relating the incident of his being wounded in the knee. Afterwards, however, he chafes a good deal at being incapacitated, and finally he is invalided home. [. . .] Swabey returned afterwards to active service, fought in the battle of Toulouse and also at Waterloo.’

And here is one dated extract from an article on the Napoleon Series website.

7 August 1912
‘I woke this morning with the most violent and insupportable pain in my head I ever felt, which having endured for some hours, at last turned into a fit of the ague, which I was extremely glad to change for the apprehensions that an alarming fever occasions. Mr. Peach of the 9th Dragoons who attended me, made me immediately get into water during the hot fit, and repeat this operation several times. The getting into water in a fever makes one shudder almost as much as if told to get into a furnace. One of the worst of my complaints was the total want of money, so that I could not even get fruit and wine, that were particularly recommended. When the fit left me after 3 hours, I began to feel a wish to be quietly reposing in some cool spot in England, and it brought to my remembrance every tender recollection and regret. Sickness is at any time bad, but under all my circumstances and with the probability of the army’s moving in which case I could not have stirred, it put me in mind of French prisons, Bayonne and all its horrors.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 February 2022.

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