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Napeleonic Day


DID YOU KNOW?

 

Duel Personalities

A bit like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair settling their differences with pistols - in 1809 government ministers Lord Castlereagh and George Canning fought a duel over a disagreement. They met on Putney Heath, shots were fired. Neither was badly hurt. 

Frozen Green Fingers

When Napoleon set off for Russia in 1812 he had an enormous army at his back, with soldiers drawn from all over Europe. The fighting troops were accompanied by an appropriately massive corps of necessary non-combatants, such as farriers, masons, carpenters, clerks, tailors, cooks, doctors etc.

A far-sighted fellow, he also took his gardeners with him. But, if he was planning to improve Moscow's horticultural knowledge, his unlucky plantsmen never got their chance to show off their skills at jardinage - and, besides, the weather wasn't quite right for delicate blooms...

Mad About The Boy

Sir William Erskine features in the fouth book "The Hardest Fight", not entirely covering himself in glory.

Wellington seldom got to choose his generals. He often said of them, "I only hope that when the enemy reads the list of their names he trembles as I do!"

Erskine was especially interesting. He was short-sighted to the point of near-blindness. When Wellington heard he was coming he wrote to Horse Guards, "I had generally understood him to be a madman."

Came the reply:

"No doubt he is sometimes a little mad, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow - though he looked a little wild as he embarked..."

Horsey Tale

Dragoons got their name from the muskets they originally carried which puffed out smoke like a dragon when they were fired.

Queue For The Barbers

Until just before the beginning of the Peninsular War soldiers used to wear their hair long, tied back in a pig-tail caled a queue and whitened with powder. This wasn't awfully popular with the men - especially as mice found they liked to snack on the powder while they were asleep.

Hair was cut short and the powder done away with - but the soldiers still had to whiten their belts with the hated pipeclay.

Doing A Runner

Fans of cowboy films will recall the expression "let's vamoose!" - but it has its origins in the Peninsular War. The British soldiers formed a poor opinion of their Spanish counterparts in the regular army, believing them over-keen to remove themselves from the battlefield at the sight of the enemy. The Spanish "Vamos!" (let's go!) soon became "vamoose" to redcoat wags. 

Got No Sole

When the soldiers of Sir John Moore’s army got back to England many of them were in a very poor state of health. Some of these scarecrow-like individuals were seen landing at Falmouth by no less a figure than  one of the great engineers of the age, Marc Brunel, brilliant inventor and father of the ultimately more famous Isembard Kingdom Brunel. He was appalled in particular at the poor quality of the men’s shoes and instantly set about designing a vastly improved model, later adopted by the army.

The Irish Question

Lord Wellington was born in Ireland and many of his fiercest troops came from that country. Scotland and Wales also supplied large numbers of troops to the "English" army. But there was also a celtic connection in other forces: for a while the fighting in Catalonia (not a part of the Peninsula where the British saw much action) was conducted between a French general called Macdonald and a Spanish general called O'Donnell. To make matters simple the Spanish had a general called Carlos de Espana - but he was French.

Sack the Bard

The love affair between the English and sherry goes back a long way. Chaucer was a fan and when Shakespeare shows Falstaff’s fondness for “sack” he is, in fact, describing sherry. Drake stole lots of the stuff and made the Cadiz folk happy because the English got a taste for it!

Marriage A Lottery

The Napoleonic Wars weren't just about men fighting. Women (and children) marched with the armies and shared the perils and discomforts of war. They were offered a half-ration. But only a certain number of women were allowed to join their men when the regiments went overseas. For a company of a hundred soldiers, only six wives might travel. They drew lots marked "to go" or "not to go". The draw was done on the quayside, so disappointed men might not be able to run.  But who were the lucky ones?

A Whitewash at the centre of Government

Why is the White House in Washington that colour? Because its remaining walls had to be painted after the British burned most of it in 1814. See Ties of Blood: 8 ("The Dawn's Early Light") for the full story.


Carrying Baggage

The soldiers in Wellington's marched with around seventy or eighty pounds of arms and equipment. That is something like the hold baggage allowance for TWO PEOPLE on an average budget flight today. Two heavily packed suitcases, dressed in heavy, scratchy, woollen clothes - all in the heat of a Spanish or Portuguese summer...

Quantiy versus Quality

The India Pattern "Brown Bess" musket didn't have a sight. The idea was to fire volleys at close range, doing damage with the sheer weight of flying metal. At more than a hundred yards the effect was questionnable - at less than that the concentrated fire was lethal. The relatively new rifles were accurate and had longer range, but were much slower to load. 

Getting Youtr Teeth Into It

Dentistry in this period was poor. But soldiers wouldn't be recruited without at least some gnashers - they had to tear the cartridge with their teeth in order to load the musket. There was a fondness for transplanting the teeth of corpses into living mouths. False teeth were known, for the rich, hippopotamus ivory being a favourite...

A Short Life But...

Life expectancy for a working man (including, say, a soldier or sailor) was thirty five to forty years. The menopause wasn't really a problem for women - they didn't live long enough.

 

© Peter Youds 2008