The old hands like Edward Costello started lightening the load to be carried, just as they had done in Spain. He explained to the young lads in his mess in his thick Irish brogue, “The army in their wisdom wishes to supply youze with everything you will ever need. Well the army tinks we is some kind of jackass, what they gives you will weigh you into the ground. In this here knapsack you are to carry, two shirts, two pair of stockings, a pair of shoes wid a spare sole and heel, tree brushes, blacking powder, a soapbox and spare trousers. You are also to carry your mess tins, canteen, greatcoat, powder flasks, ball bag, mallet, belt and pouch with fifty balls in it, a sword and roifle. That lot weighs eighty bloody pounds! On the march in the midday sun it feels loike a bloody hundred and eighty! Take it from me boys, have all your kit roight at muster, but in Belgium get rid of sum. Your roifle and stuff wull save your skins but bugger clean shirts and shoes, sell them lads and buy a drink on King George!”
Tom Crawley concurred, “Aye lads he’s roight, listen to us an youze moight live to tell the tale.”
Finally it was time to go; the packet was waiting in the harbour to embark the battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Andrew Barnard watched his First Battalion parade ready for marching down the steep hill from the barracks at Dover Castle to the harbour well below. Five companies were to go to Belgium, each consisting of ninety-five men, every company allocated a Captain and two Lieutenants, they were to proceed directly to Brussels to join Lord Wellington’s forces.
He surveyed his men with pride; they were not men of great stature, many being as short as five foot two inches, with the odd six foot giant looking ungainly and out of place, peppered through the companies. But his regiment was not about tall men in red uniforms with great towering helmets and plumes to increase the illusion of height, who must stand ramrod still and fight in rigid units unthinking and mechanically. To him, soldiers of the line just stood like skittles waiting to be bowled over and were expected to stand and die without a sound. He had come through that system and saw the merits of the rigid wall of red jackets which struck awe into the enemy, but he now preferred the freedom of light infantry tactics, where every man dodged and darted to obtain cover and fire on the enemy formations. He encouraged the men to think independently and take advantage of their surroundings, to use their intelligence.
It was an imposing sight, five hundred men all in fine new uniforms, dark green with black equipment and belts, a black hat, whose only adornment was a silver hunting horn badge with 95 above it, all topped with a green tuft. This was the first uniform in the British army designed for concealment. The men were quietly proud as well; they regarded themselves as the best in the army and had proved so in Spain, they would not let Wellington down this time either.
Sir Andrew turned to Major Alexander Cameron, “Very well Major, march them off”
The order given, the battalion marched along the precipitous road winding down from the castle to the harbour. The townsfolk lined the road to see them off, they cheered, some clapped, young ladies ran into the ranks to kiss and say farewell to their sweethearts, all was gaiety. The band played ‘See the Conquering Hero come’, what a send off. Some of the wives followed, many with children, determined to follow their man and share his hardships, after all, how were they to live with their man in foreign lands? They couldn’t rely on the men sending money home regularly and the only other alternatives were going home to mother or the workhouse.
At the dockside, the men looked at the great forest of huge bare masts, ships packed in so tightly that it was said you could walk across the harbour without getting wet! The packet Wensleydale destined to transport the battalion to Belgium was waiting. The crew hurried the men and baggage aboard to catch the evening tide.
One man was missing; imminent embarkation for Belgium had not been to his liking. During the previous night at Dover barracks, the bugler, Private Thomas Foote, had deserted. The lads were singularly unimpressed; the coward had better not get caught, because no matter what punishment the Colonel ordered, it would be infinitely preferable to the punishment that would be meted out in the barrack room!
Alongside the band, who stayed on the quay stood the small cadre of staff remaining at the battalion depot, those new recruits too raw to send, the training staff, the sick and the lame. George Simmons turned to this group and approached the officer in charge. He held out his hand to shake his, but the officer grabbed the hand very firmly, pulling George towards him and embracing him warmly.
“Goodbye Joseph, I’m sorry that you can't come, but the family couldn’t bear losing us both, they at least know that you’re safe” George stammered.
“Take care big brother, I’ll follow soon enough, just make sure you leave some Frenchmen for me.” Joseph was the younger brother by some three years, but had served two years in Spain with George in the 95th. This time he was to remain to run the depot and send on drafts of replacement men as their training was completed. The Simmons’s were a military family, another brother Maud was serving in Ireland with the 34th Regiment. Perhaps they would all meet up again on campaign as they had done frequently in Spain.
George broke away and boarded swiftly, it would not do to show any emotion in front of the men.
It was a beautiful spring evening with light winds on 25 April 1815, when the Wensleydale loosed her topsails and edged slowly out of Dover harbour. What did the next few months have in store? George pondered as he watched the white cliffs slowly disappear from the stern rail.
Ten hours with a favourable wind, the Captain had said! George thought about this twenty-four hours into the voyage as he vomited over the lee side for what seemed like the fortieth time. The wind had swung easterly, blowing off the Belgian coast and the ship could make little headway despite tacking back and forth for hours. The wind had got stronger and waves higher, most of the soldiers were seasick. He had learnt to use the lee side the hard way, the sailors thought it was hilarious to watch the soldiers vomit into the wind and see them spattered with their own bile, how they laughed! Many soldiers lined the rails; some too ill to move, vomited where they lay in the hold, where the near five hundred men had sought shelter from the storm overhead. The stench was awful, men who had faced death and laughed, now lay moaning like babies imploring somebody to put them out of their misery. Finally as dawn broke on the 27 April they could see the coastline of Belgium and soon got into the lee of the land, the seas smoothed, the ship ceased lurching and the men started to recover. Many came on deck to escape the foul odour below and were surprised and overjoyed to see the church spires and houses of Belgian towns. That morning they berthed at Ostend and the men wearily climbed ashore, some kissing mother earth at the sheer joy of arriving safely on terra firmae once more.
Johnny Kincaid a tall dour Scotsman with a great flat nose that ruined his features, was out shooting woodcock with his trusty retriever Alex, when Munroe, one of the servants rushed across the moor towards him.
“Munroe out of the way I nearly bloody shot you man.”
Munroe gasped for breath.
“Sir, there is a letter from the regiment, marked ‘With Dispatch’”
Johnny took the letter and opened it eagerly, reading anxiously,
‘On route for Brussels, to join Lord Wellington, make all haste to join us. Captain Leach’
Jonathan as senior Captain had obviously been given the task of informing the men and officers away from the battalion of the turn of events. He must hurry or he might miss all the fun. He had been given permission for leave to recover from another weakening bout of Walcheren fever; like all those others that had come back from that pestilential pit, he just couldn’t shake the flux off. Every so often he would collapse with the shakes and high temperatures, it would last for weeks, it had hit him again when he returned from France. Would he ever be rid of it? Mind you, thousands had succumbed to it permanently, he was a lucky survivor but it kept on trying to get him!
“Munroe pack my campaign chest quickly, I must leave tonight.”
Johnny stood for a while pondering having to fight again; his fingers unconsciously felt the scar line across the top of his scalp. At Foz de Aronce a musket ball had entered his hat and cut a furrow across his head without damaging the skull at all. Doc had said he was lucky he hadn’t been half an inch taller! He still didn’t remember the incident at all; everyone told him that they had thought he was dead for sure, as he had fallen as if a sledgehammer had felled him. He had suffered from a severe headache for a week after, but that was all, he hoped his good luck would see him through again.
His family seat in Stirlingshire was a long way from the scene of action. How to get to Brussels quickly?
On returning to the house, Johnny discovered a notice in the ‘Edinburgh Correspondent’ that a ship was sailing from Leith to Rotterdam that evening. A messenger was despatched instantly to gain passage and he followed hard behind. The courier met him on the road, returning to confirm his passage and indicated that the ship’s master had adequate provisions, which he could partake of. This was a relief, as it would save precious time, not having to obtain victuals before sailing.
Johnny arrived at Leith docks in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at six o’clock in the evening and was shown the berth of the Swallow by an old lame seaman for sixpence.
On boarding he was met by the master, one Thomas Bryce, a rough and ready seaman, made comical by his attempts to speak in a refined accent. “Welcome Mr Kincaid, we will sail within the hour, James here will show you to your berth” indicating a black sailor standing to his left.
“Thank you Mr Bryce, how long may we expect for the passage?”
“With a fair wind we should reach Rotterdam in three days, but the wind doesn’t look fair tonight.”
Ten days later, the coast of Holland was just in sight! The weather had been awful and winds contrary throughout. But the worst of it, was that the ‘adequate rations’, had consisted of half a lamb and a few cabbages, to be consumed with five gallons of whisky! Johnny had forced some of this repulsive slop down his throat each day, washing it down with the whisky to kill the foul taste. Luckily he was a good sailor and was never seasick; he was just bored of the monotonous swaying of the ship, the regular commands of the master for tacking or calling for a depth being the only changes in routine.
Suddenly there was a horrendous grinding noise from below followed by the sounds of splintering wood, a solid jolt brought the ship’s movement to a sudden halt and Johnny was hurled bodily from his bunk to the floor, hurting his shoulder slightly in the fall.
“What the devil was that?” he shouted
“Nothing to be a feared of Sir, we just run aground” came the nonchalant reply of Mr Bryce.
“Are we sinking?” enquired Johnny.
“Not to fret Sir, we does this pretty regular, ships have been known to be lost on these sand banks, but we didn’t hit too ‘ard we can float off at high tide.”
Johnny was not reassured especially when Mr Bryce had a flaming row with the Dutch Pilot who came out to get them into Den Haag safely; he wanted double pay because the ship could be holed and sinking. Mr Bryce obviously lost the argument as the pilot stayed onboard and guided the ship into a local harbour for repairs. Mr Bryce retired below, he sat in his cabin pouring whiskies at a rate of knots, the repair fees would be more than the profit from this trip.
Once the ship berthed alongside, Johnny left immediately while the master was comatose drunk and hired a small boat that engaged to get him up river to Rotterdam in six hours. Previous promises should have made him wary, but no. They set off immediately and the journey lasted over twenty-four hours. There was no food in the open boat and mid morning hunger pangs took over from all other considerations. Johnny forced the boatman to land and enter a nearby house to beg for a morsel. He returned after what seemed an age with some coffee, the only sustenance they could spare. He gladly received this small offering but eventually forced the boatman alongside at an inn, where he gained a full meal. The innkeeper took pity upon Johnny; he advised him to seek an alternative method of reaching Rotterdam and saw him on his way to Brussels via Antwerp on the post chaise. The journey took two days, Johnny hated being constantly jostled by the rough roads in a poorly sprung post coach, but this was a huge improvement over the slow travel he had endured at sea. On arrival in the fair City of Brussels, he fought his way through the throngs as he sought his battalion’s billets.
The battalion had transferred immediately from the packet at Ostend into small coastal craft called Schuyts, large open boats with a single mast carrying lateen sails. They formed a leisurely procession up the wide canal to Bruges, each boat pulled by a team of horses, which walked along the bank. Sergeant Robert Fairfoot, lounged at the rear of his barge enjoying the spring sunshine and listening to the lads joking time away. Fairfoot was a tall man, strongly built and well respected by both officers and men, he looked after the boys and they looked after him, it was a brotherhood. He surveyed the faces of the men in the barge, his eyes set on Edward Costello, ‘Ned’ to all his friends, he had a portly but muscular frame, he was intelligent, quick and rich! He looked on Ned kindly, as he had saved Robert from a court martial and the ‘cat’ back in 1813, without looking for favours in return. Robert still remembered that awful day with a chill, despite the warm sunshine he was basking in. He had just been made paymaster for his company and promptly lost thirty-one pounds, how could he get out of this mess? The army would never believe he’d just lost it. Ned had just walked up having heard through the battalion telegraph, and offered him the money to cover the loss. He had just found a bag in the French baggage after the wonderful victory of Vitoria, opening it he had discovered one thousand gold coins, more than he could earn in two lifetimes! Robert had kept a general lookout for Ned ever since and would watch his back this time round again. He was also very useful as Ned was an ex cobbler, issue boots wore out fast on long marches!
Robert Fairfoot’s eyes next rested on a quiet, very thoughtful figure sat in the corner, keeping out of the general conversation. Thomas Maher was his name; he’d been captured at Barba del Puerco back in 1811 and had spent nearly four years in a French prisoner of war camp at Verdun. He’d had very severe treatment and had come back with a dark brooding depressive mood about him; everyone knew that this sultriness could explode into uncontrollable rage without warning at any time.
Johnny Castles was next to him, the great tub of lard! Mind you he had moved like a whippet back at Arcangues when he and a few others had been forced to rush back from their forward post where they had been enjoying their gin ration too much, as the froggies advanced. He surely ran faster than a cheetah that day and had never touched a drop of grog since!
Finally there was Thomas Grindley; he had disappeared one night at Arcangues when on sentry duty. The following morning he was returned by the French, completely drunk! Throughout the last war the two warring sides had not fought when in camp. Opposing sentries regularly warned each other of imminent attacks so they could move out of the way, a few useless deaths were to be avoided. Lord Wellington forbade fraternisation with the enemy but it still happened. The lads had food, the French usually had brandy, and so both sides regularly shared their goods across the front line. Grindley’s escapade was hushed up and to be fair to the French, they had not attempted to take advantage of the situation.
These men were a bunch of rogues, but they were his rogues and they couldn’t half fight.
George Simmons sat beside Robert; he meditated on the huge number of Irishmen in the regiment, bloody boggies everywhere! He had to give them their due though, although they never stopped drinking and cursing and brawling at every opportunity, they certainly could fight in battle and he was glad they were on his side. He still couldn’t help wishing they used more surnames, in this battalion of five hundred men there were; four Kitchen’s, three John Connor’s, there were even three John Murphy’s in the same company, it was bloody confusing! There was a strong contingent of Welshmen as well, there was Moses Blythero and John Davis from North Wales, Sergeant Thomas Morgan from a small town called Cardiff and Thomas Edwards from Swansea, both on the great post road to Milford Haven. Scotsmen abounded as well, indeed many of the officers were Scottish, and indeed barely more than a quarter of the battalion were English.
It started to grow dark as the barges neared the medieval town of Bruges. The boatmen stopped for the night and the men climbed out onto the towpath and quays beside the low artisan’s houses intermingled with the towering medieval warehouses and town houses of the rich, with their steep stepped gables. They soon lit fires to cook up their rations of beef and brew their tea. The next morning they continued down a branch canal to the city of Ghent, where they parted with the barges, they would have to walk the rest of the way to Brussels.
They were to stay ten days in Ghent, but they would be busy, Lord Wellington was coming to review the regiment and God help them if he wasn’t happy with what he saw. There was however a little time to look around the beautiful Flemish city, some admiring the tall medieval buildings, more admiring the local ladies and fine beers.
The Officers and men were billeted on the local population, each house usually being allocated two men. Officers got the billets with the rich merchants and enjoyed a very good living. The men received their rations, which they gave to the householders to cook; often they would trade some of their rations for the families to use as their meal in exchange for more grog.
On the 30th April, the officers assembled and proceeded to the monstrously gothic façade of the fourteenth century great Stadhuis to be introduced to Louis XVIII, the deposed King of France, no less. The recently displaced King, wanted to meet the gallant British Riflemen and wish them good fortune in their efforts to restore him to his throne. They had heard stories of his overbearing ways, his fat gouty features and his inability to comprehend the needs of his people. This was said to be the main reason why Napoleon had been welcomed back so overwhelmingly. This made sense, as they had seen in Southern France in 1814 that the French were then heartily sick of war and ‘Boney’ and they could think of no other reason why these people had welcomed Napoleon back so enthusiastically within a year. However, Louis in fact, was charm itself, personable, interested in each of them and they were well pleased with him. Discussing everything afterwards they agreed that it must have been his government that was uncaring and if only Louis would show himself more to the people, maybe Napoleon wouldn’t have come back so easily.
On 7th of May, the fatal day had arrived, Review day. Everyone was up and preparing the final touches to their kit at dawn. The order was given to form up at eight o’clock; the battalion marched on to the square dominated by its Stadhuis and merchant’s houses, where Lord Wellington, ‘The Duke’, was due to inspect them. At precisely nine, a small group of officers on horseback entered the square and Lieutenant Colonel Barnard rode over to report his battalion ready for inspection. There he was, Wellington with his bloody great hooked nose! You could spot that nose a mile off! The old hands knew him well from Spain where he always seemed to be everywhere at once. He was always a good omen to them, he was not a wasteful General with his most important asset, them! He made sure they were fed and didn’t get them killed for little reason, like some other rash Generals. He was still happy to attack when he could win such as Salamanca; that was some victory that was. With him around, they were confident that everything would be all right and of course what was even better, he always won! The raw recruits stared at him in awe; so this was the great man! They wouldn’t forget this day or that nose ever! But, it had taken a while to work out who he was; all the other officers were wearing their best crimson jackets, covered with gold and silver braid and numerous decorations on their chests. Wellington was dressed in a simple grey frock coat and a plain cocked hat, no great finery for him, unless he had to see the King! He rode down the lines with hawk eyes scanning every detail; suddenly he stopped and looked straight at Sergeant Fairfoot.
“Show me your rifle Sergeant”
Robert stepped forward and handed the rifle to him.
He scanned the weapon thoroughly, checking for any sign of dirt or rust, indicating neglect. He returned it.
“Excellent, Barnard your men are in excellent condition, can they still fight like they used to in Spain?”
“I am certain of it, my Lord, we will not let you down.” beamed Barnard.
“I’m certain of it” was Wellington’s confident reply. With that, Wellington turned his horse and rode rapidly away, his Aide de Camp’s had to ride hard to catch up.
Some of the officers that had arrived with Wellington remained and now moved in front of the battalion with Sir Andrew. Sir Andrew Barnard bellowed.
“Well done men. We are to be attached to the Fifth division in this army under the command of Sir Thomas Picton, who is presently on route. We will form part of the Eighth brigade within that division, commanded by Major General Sir James Kempt” indicating the officer beside him.
“Major Cameron, march the men off and issue a double ration of spirits”
The men smiled and let out a loud hurrah, but it was tinged with foreboding, as they would have to face ‘bloody’ Picton, the hardest bastard in the army, a foul mouthed Welshman, bad tempered and strict as hell! But, he knew his business well and he would look after them.
Two days later the order to march to Brussels came, all were assembled, and they set off, marching in the early morning light and arriving at their stage for that day around midday. Instantly, rations were served, men collected wood for fires and tents were erected in perfect lines. Each company had thirty men in each of three tents, the men lying in a circle from the centre pole; officers had personal tents. Evening was given over to relaxation or repairing kit; there was no threat of immediate war and little guard duty.
After three such uneventful marches, they finally arrived at the fine city of Brussels on the 12th May. Their division was lucky to be one of those actually stationed in Brussels and everyone was keen to get good comfortable billets. The men were billeted around the City, no more than a mile from the bustling centre. Most of the men were country folk and the sights of the City drew them like bees to a honey pot. They marvelled at the stark contrasts between the great tree lined avenues cutting a wide path as they crossed the City and the twisted narrow streets overhung by tall houses that meandered confusingly immediately they left the avenues. They marvelled at the hidden treasures such as the Grande Place, with all its gaudy gold work on the grand medieval merchant houses, which they stumbled upon without warning whilst wandering through these back streets. The disparity between this and the large formal parks, wide streets and grand frontages of the new palaces jarred the senses, making Brussels a City of two styles. However, the locals welcomed the soldiers warmly into their homes and life was good.