This week, quite by chance, I discovered a local bookseller with an amazing historical list. It’s particularly strong on military history and I’m afraid I succumbed, buying quite a few books. What temptation was there!
One of the books I bought was the Diary of Edmund Wheatley, an Ensign in the 5th Line Battalion of the King’s German Legion, who served in the latter part of the Peninsular War (1813-1814) and at Waterloo. It was written on the spot, rather than years later, unlike some other first-hand accounts.
Here’s a fascinating extract from 14th April 1814 (complete with Wheatley’s spellings). Napoleon had already abdicated, but the French commander at the siege of Bayonne refused to surrender and launched an assault on the allied troops.
"Our Battalion now drew up in a small garden. The French were around us and it was impossible to distinguish Friends from foes. The French had seized the Windmill in our rere and we began to fear for our Camp and baggage. The batteries played increasingly, and the wounded lay very numerous around. It was impossible to send them to the rere as no hospital had been appointed. By the flashes of light I saw something wrapped in a boat cloak on the other side of the hedge.
Impelled by curiosity as well as humanity, I broke through and on turning it up I washed away the blood and gore from the features with the skirt of the wrapper and discovered the countenance of Lieutenant Köhler of my Regiment. My promotion instantly suggested itself and thoughts of my own danger. I walked up to Captain Bacmeister and, bowing, said in the midst of the shot, ‘Allow me to introduce Lieutenant E. Wheatley to your notice.’ And I actually received his congratulation. Can there be any thirst for glory when actions like these take place on the fields of havock? Ambition’s made of sterner stuff. Interest is the impulse in these our modern wars."
In Wheatley’s defence, he was not that well off. He had been gazetted Ensign without purchase, and no doubt the increase in pay from a promotion would have meant a great deal to his prospects.
And it’s all grist to the writer’s mill. So I shall continue to allow myself to be tempted.