Friday, January 15, 2010

Snow, but nothing like the real thing

Here in Hereford, we’ve had snow since before Christmas but not a huge amount—about 6-8 inches, I suppose, 15-20 cms. We British aren’t very good at dealing with bad weather, especially snow and ice, nowadays. So I thought I’d go back and look at how the army in the Peninsular War coped.

This is an extract from Schaumann’s diary in which he’s part of the retreat to Corunna.

Schaumann is with the rearguard in Astorga and has been desperately trying to secure food for the soldiers and forage for the horses.

“Eleven o’clock had just struck, when suddenly one of the hussars in my billet, springing up as if electrified, cried, “Get up, get up! The trumpets are blowing!” and ran out into the kitchen, followed by us all. All you could hear in the streets was the ominous clatter of horses’ hoofs, and cries of command, and the sound of general flight. In a great hurry I wanted to bridle my horse which had remained saddled the whole night, but forgetting to tighten his girth, which I had loosened to let him feed more easily, I fell, saddle and all, on to the floor at his feet. Fortunately the beast stood stock still.”

Poor Schaumann. By the time he saddles up and flees, he’s alone and almost rides into the advancing French, saved only by meeting some of the 18th Hussars.

“Our rearguard remained in Astorga until four in the morning. It was pitch dark, and the road taken by the army ran to the right across the mountains. Together with various detachments of troops, I rode forward the whole night, and in the mountains we came upon glaciers or roads which were so deep in snow and ice that the horses could not stand and we were obliged to dismount.

“I passed by a number of glowing bivouac fires which, flaring up now and then, illuminated the wild, desolate, wintry scene, the expressive stillness of which was gruesomely broken by the retreating army. The sausage I had had for supper made me feel dreadfully thirsty; and my horse, too, badly wanted a drink. But there was no water; everything was frozen hard. Both of us therefore ate the snow. I slept while walking, for the road was too steep and slippery to ride, and it was too cold to sit in the saddle.

“At last the day broke and we found ourselves in the mountains that join Galicia and Asturias to Leon. The road was incredibly bad, and we sank knee-deep in mud and snow. Not far from Manzanal, three to five leguas from Astorga, we reached at dawn the serpentine road which from this point follows along the mountains. It is a noble piece of work, broad, frequently cut through the rock, and marked by milestones after the manner of a great highway, and leads from here to Corunna, a distance of 160 miles without a break.”

And by comparison with the hardships they suffered, a few inches of snow on UK roads is a mere nothing, I’d say.



Jan Jones said...

Wonderful stuff, Joanna, but "springing up as if electrified"? I'm astonished.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, isn't it, Jan? However, to be fair, that's an English translation of the German original which wasn't translated until the 1920s, so it may reflect modern ways of speaking. As I don't have access to the German orginal, I can't say.

However, the earliest uses of "electify" in the OED date from mid 18th so maybe it is OK after all.

Whichever it is, I do find Schaumann a really interesting source. He's remarkably unsophisticated and doesn't mind making a fool of himself in print, as in the example of falling off his horse. Quite endearing, really.


Jane Holland said...

This is marvellous, Joanna. Really impressive and detailed. And yes, the saddle anecdote is very human and unexpectedly comic, given the circumstances.

How does one go about getting access to the rest of his diary entries? I take it they were published in English early last century, from your comment - but are perhaps not still in print?

Cheers, Jane

Louise Allen said...

It is a great extract - thanks for quoting it. Schaumann is definitely on the "must read" list. Presumably he was aware of the "medical" uses of electricity - like the Celestial Bed at Schomberg House in Pall Mall where electricity was used to er... spice-up failing marriages. And even though Frankinstein wasn't pubished until 1818 the knowledge of the stimulating effects must have been common knowledge for some time before that.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Interesting early use of the word 'electrified'.

Schaumann's a great find.

Melinda Hammond said...

Thank you, Joanna, those poor soldiers went through hell. It reminded me that in January last year I followed the retreat, arriving in Corunna in time for the 200th anniversary celebrations. The winding mountain road is just as Schaumann describes it - and it was snowing, too, and for a while we thought we might hae to abandon our coach and walk!