Right now I’m deep in researching the details of my army brat hero’s background and one of my absolute favorite references is Life in Wellington’s Army by Antony Brett-James. It’s just full of the sort of detail that is missed in most history books, much of it gathered from journals and letters of soldiers and officers.
Life in Wellington’s army was no picnic. Read on if you are not too faint of heart…or stomach.
Consider this letter from Charles Napier to his mother: “We are on biscuits full of maggots, and though not a bad soldier, hang me if I can relish maggots.”
Or the story of biscuits (of American make) that were so hard and thick that Lieutenant Wyndham Madden of the 43rd Light Infantry suggested they could turn a bullet aside as he put one in his jacket. “Never was prediction more completely verified,” a fellow officer wrote, “for early in the day the biscuit was shattered to pieces, turning the direction of the bullet from as gallant and true a heart as ever beat under a British uniform.”
(The illustration is “Half Rations” from The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcombe by Rowlandson.)
As for living conditions, when they were not billeted in some village or other, the men often had to sleep in the open. Sometimes they used makeshift tents. In 1813 tents were made general issue but were only a marginal improvement. With twenty soldiers to one tent, it meant, according to Sergeant Cooper, that “none could turn without general consent, and the word ‘turn’ given.” Moreover, in the wintry conditions in the Pyrenees, “mountain gusts and drenching rain tore the wooden pegs out of the mud and left the soldiers to flounder in horrible, enveloping wet folds of canvas.” Brrrr!
(Sketch from The Wheatley Diary.)
I was raised doing all sorts of camping, spending weeks with my family hiking in the Adirondacks or canoeing in the Canadian wilderness. At least we had modern, reasonably waterproof tents. And of course, no maggot-ridden biscuits–although I learned to love Spam while camping. I don’t know how it is—I’ve since tried it at home and found it disgusting!—but frying it over an open fire makes it crispy, salty and delicious beyond words.
Much as I cherish the memory of those family camping trips, now I am married to a man whose idea of roughing it is staying at Day’s Inn rather than Marriott. I still like to hike and canoe, but now our “camping” involves something more like this. Even I have to admit there’s something to be said for modern plumbing!
So how about you? What have been your experiences in “roughing it”? Did you enjoy it? Or would you rather just read about it?