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Tag Archives: Antony Brett-James

My family and I love this show. I think it’s great for kids as a demonstration of the scientific method in action. And the crew look they’re always having a great time, especially when blowing things up.
Some of my favorites include the duct tape episodes (they even built a boat out of it) and the one where they (sadly!) proved that Captain Kirk could not have built a bamboo cannon to defeat his Gorn Opponent in the “Arena” episode. Star Trek and black powder—what’s not to love?

Here’s a period weaponry myth that I ran across in reading LIFE IN WELLINGTON’S ARMY by Antony Brett-James. I would love to see this one tested.

Biscuits appear to have arrived in one of three states: hard, jaw-breaking and alive with maggots, as Napier indicates forcibly enough, or crushed to crumbs and mouldered to dust, or sometimes good but old. One day in November 1813 each man in the 43rd Light Infantry secured a biscuit of American make: nearly an inch thick, they were so hard as to require the stamp of an iron heel or some such hammer to break them. These American biscuits were even thick enough to save a man’s life. During the march to La Petite Rhune a fortnight before Christmas 1813 the officers of that regiment ate some for breakfast at two o’clock in the morning, when Lieutenant Wyndham Madden remarked that their thickness would turn a bullet aside, at the same time stuffing one into the breast of his jacket. ‘Never was prediction more completely verified,’ wrote a brother subaltern, ‘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.’

Mythbusters has boards on where one can submit new myths. In the historical myths section, I found someone has posted something similar related to the American Civil War, so I added this Napoleonic bit to that thread. It would be fun to see this one tested!

Do any of you enjoy Mythbusters? Have any favorite episodes? Any myths, Regency related or otherwise, that you’d like to see them try to bust?


When I read Janet’s comment on Megan’s Calgon, Take Me Away post about how the English behaved when out of their familiar milieu, it reminded me of some episodes I’d read about in my favorite go-to book on army life, LIFE IN WELLINGTON’S ARMY by Antony Brett-James. For many in the British Army, the Peninsular War was their first exposure to new countries, languages and customs and all sorts of fun ensued.

(Note: The picture is from THE WHEATLEY DIARY captioned ‘There is a national peculiarity in their manner of dressing.’)

Some conscientious officers studied Portuguese and Spanish en route to the Peninsula and some hired local teachers but some never did acquire any fluency. Consider this tale:

One commissary, perplexed to know how to convey his meaning to a party of muleteers, eventually turned to some British officers standing nearby and asked if anyone could help. One officer immediately stepped forward. ‘I think, sir, that I can explain to them anything you need.’ The commissary was delighted. ‘Then, sir, be so kind as to tell them that they must be here early in the morning with their mules.’

The interpreter addressed the puzzled muleteers as follows: ‘Portuguesios, the commissario – wants the mulos – tomorrowo – presto – la, al,’ and pointed to the village of Vimeiro. ‘Oh, sir!’ cried the commissary, who was very disappointed by this ludicrous performance, ‘I feel much obliged to you, but I can go as far as that myself.’ For months after this episode the self-styled linguist bore the nickname of ‘Jack the Interpreter’.

Food could be a problem, especially since the British were not accustomed to garlic.

Major Berkeley Paget had his breath taken away near Corunna in 1808 when ‘a sausage as large as a line-of-battleship’s mainyard, cram full of garlic, a dish of macaroni poisoned with saffron, and a salad mixed with lamp-oil’ were placed on the dining table. As Paget was a guest, he felt obliged to eat it all out of politeness, and to lie through thick and thin by saying he found it delightful.

“Poisoned” with saffron? Garlicky? This meal sounds yummy to me, with the possible exception of the lamp-oil. Maybe it was actually olive oil?

And then they had to adjust to local customs and manners. Some, like Captain Pocock of the Highland Light Infantry, had the following observation on seeing the fandango danced.

‘This dance had a great effect upon us, but the Spaniards saw it without being moved, and laughed at the quick breathing and amorous looks of our men.’

Or how about this anecdote?

“Woodberry, writing in Olite during August 1813, noted another custom of Spanish women that struck an Englishman as indecent. If you had your back to a woman and she wanted to attract your attention, she would not tap you on the shoulder; instead she was likely to give you several hefty smacks on the bottom. Woodberry himself was greeted in this fashion one morning in the market place and everybody roared with laughter at his embarrassment.”

I must find a way to put that in a story! 🙂

I have been to Norway, France and Italy myself, but I had my most embarrassing culture shock moments while living in England, maybe because I expected things to be more similar. My first day at work there, I ordered zucchini and got the most blank look from the server. Finally, I pointed and she said, “Oh, courgettes.”

And then there was the first trip to a movie theatre, ordering popcorn and discovering that it was sprinkled with sugar, not salt. It’s not unpleasant but a big surprise when you’re not expecting it!

And a hint to anyone traveling to England: do NOT call those little pouches people wear on belts fanny packs! 🙂

Have you had any awkward culture shock moments? Are you like me in enjoying stories that pull characters out of their usual element?


P.S. Don’t forget to send your LOLRegencies to RISKIES@YAHOO.COM by midnight EST tonight, for the chance to win a copy of Janet’s THE RULES OF GENTILITY!

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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?


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