Steps

E.S. Turner

  • An Ensign in the Peninsular War: The Letters of John Aitchison edited by W.F.K Thompson
    Joseph, 349 pp, £15.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 7181 1828 6

As the Duke of Wellington was stung to complain, the British officers in the Peninsular War were ‘the most indefatigable writers of letters that exist in the world’. Even at this late hour their correspondence is still being discovered and published. In 1979 appeared the spirited letters of George Hennell, a young volunteer who presented himself to General Picton at the siege of Badajoz and was commissioned within six weeks into the 43rd Light Infantry.[*] Now we have the high-minded and contentious letters of an ensign in the Guards, John Aitchison, who soldiered on after the war to become General Sir John Aitchison GCB, with a baton in his reach when he died at 87.

Ensign Aitchison, while as eager as the next man for honour and renown, was one of those know-it-alls whose passion for paper and ink exasperated Wellington. It is hard to distinguish him from the ‘croakers’, or bellyachers, censured in the Duke’s dispatches (‘As soon as an accident happens, every man who can write, and who has a friend who can read, sits down to write his account of what he does not know, and his comments on what he does not understand’). The Duke could restrain officers from writing to the newspapers, but it would have been ungentlemanly to censor their private correspondence. Thus they were free to express criticism of his generalship to friends and relatives, who were equally free to pass on the worst indiscretions to editors and politicians, all this being rendered possible by the efficiency of the British Navy. To those familiar with the letter-writing restrictions of total war it all seems remarkably relaxed. Small wonder that Wellington, conducting his five-year game of blind-man’s-buff with the French, kept his plans in his head.

Who, then, was this critical young ensign? He was the third son of William Aitchison, who had an estate at Musselburgh, East Lothian. Only with reluctance did he agree to enter the Army and allow his father to purchase an ensign’s commission in the Third Regiment of Guards, later the Scots Guards. At 19, he served in the siege of Copenhagen and two years later sailed with his battalion to Portugal.

Though he held a career at arms to be a respectable one, he was to describe it, in a malarial moment, as ‘the worst profession a young man can follow’. As subalterns go, he was unnaturally serious-minded; he had what used to be called an old head on young shoulders; and he admitted to having an ‘unconquerable superciliously reserved disposition’. The editor of his letters describes him as ‘a rather private man’. His courage was not in doubt, since he was given the King’s Colour to carry at Talavera, where he was wounded. In 1813, when appointed military commandant of a depot of sick and wounded at Passages, he did his duties conscientiously but lost little time in getting himself restored to active service, as honour demanded.

It cannot have been easy to remain ‘a rather private man’ in the Peninsula. The writings of John Kincaid, Harry Smith and numerous others have left a picture of happy-go-lucky sparks living for ‘a good battle with bags of promotion’ and in the intervals engaging in horseplay, making mad wagers, teasing the nuns at the convent grilles, wrecking the stage performances in Lisbon, and generally demonstrating what fine fellows they were. Aitchison never describes his messmates or their relaxations and he is not a man for anecdote. In a letter from Madrid he mentions that he is to dine with the Duke, but if his family were hoping for a description of this occasion they were disappointed. One imagines that they would have liked to hear what it was like to carry a standard in battle, or to know more about the Spanish lady to whom he gave a lift under fire, or about the wounded soldier he decided to carry on his ‘private mules’ rather than leave him dying at the roadside with the others: but on these matters Aitchison keeps a tight lip, just as he does on the daily details of man-management.

As a letter-writer, his chief concern is to explain the conduct, or misconduct, of the war to his father. It may be that the Guards had better opportunities of knowing what was afoot through being stationed near headquarters, but how an ensign barely of age contrives to get hold of so much information about the dispositions, strengths, handicaps and intentions of the warring forces is a considerable mystery. In justice, it must be said that his grasp of events does him much credit, a fact of which he seems not unaware, for he does not like his front-line reports to be queried. Sometimes the tone is more like that of a father writing to a son than a son to a father: ‘you have fallen into a misconception and do not argue as from a fact,’ and ‘I must once more caution you against giving credit to reports from Lisbon.’ (George Simmons of the Rifle Brigade used to lecture his father even more stiffly: boys grew up quickly in the Peninsula.) Aitchison père gets the idea that his son is being passed over for promotion and the resulting explanations shed a peculiar light on the traffic in commissions even in the midst of a long attritional war. The son’s progress up the list of ensigns has been slow, but now there are only two above him; of these, one is promoted when a lieutenant resigns and the other when a captain sells out. Another captain has obtained leave to sell, so Aitchison’s promotion looks hopeful. However, a complication arises when another lieutenant tries to exchange into a Line regiment, pick up a company and then exchange in again. Aitchison can get his ‘step’ from this deal, which will cost him at least £200, but the lieutenant is asking the ‘exorbitant’ sum of £400. Not only is it exorbitant, it is illegal; and, as Aitchison tells his father (who will have to find the money), ‘it will not do ... to let it be known publicly what sum I must pay for my step. Whatever is given beyond the regulations is only communicated to the parties concerned.’

At this remove, the manoeuvrings are not easy to follow, but the niceties of the trade and the illegalities permissible among gentlemen were well understood by the participants. In other regiments young men were being commissioned, like George Hennell, without purchase, or were being promoted without purchase from the ranks or from the Militia: yet the basic system which allowed officers to treat the Army as a private trading corporation was not to be upset by a mere brush with Napoleon. As Sir John Fortescue, the Army historian, said, ‘it was a system which, being utterly illogical, iniquitous and indefensible, commended itself heartily to the British people.’

At first, like most young officers, Aitchison has only scorn for his Iberian allies, with their ‘contemptible’ nobility content to leave the fighting to boys and peasants. He snorts at the sight of recruits escorted through the streets ‘chained to each other like French conscripts’: a spectacle not so different, perhaps, from that of British citizens being press-ganged into the Navy. He finds it most unreasonable that the Spanish, like the Danes, are unwilling to hand over their fleet or to allow the French ships in their ports to be seized. And what ‘foolish delicacy’, he thinks, to impair the success of an operation by declining to bombard a Portuguese town. Like others, Aitchison has to concede that the Portuguese fight brilliantly when properly officered – that is, by the British. The Spanish are too proud to be thus stiffened and their officers are ‘miserable beyond conception’.

Stiff and supercilious though he may be, Aitchison kindles to the sight of his ‘common men’ holding fast under fire, breaking ranks only to drag corpses away, returning and keeping steady, not even knowing where the fire is coming from. A more intellectual thrill is the sight of the British and French armies manoeuvring for advantage before Salamanca. ‘For the space of three hours there was the most beautiful movement perhaps ever witnessed of two armies of 40,000 men each trying to arrive at a certain point first.’ The later stages of this spectacle are illuminated vividly by lightning. Then ‘the sun rose sublimely and with it the carnage began but did not terminate with the setting. Even her sister luminary, the moon, hardly closed the feats of this memorable day.’

The war has its full measure of retreats, all part of the elaborate game. Among the troops a ‘retrograde movement’ creates ‘a sensation which it may be possible to conceive but not to describe’. Aitchison is bitter when the Duke, hampered by a lack of proper assault apparatus, fails to storm Burgos. The blame for his ‘impolitic, if not wantonly reprehensible’ actions, says Aitchison, must be laid on his self-sufficiency. ‘The most noble minds and greatest heroes are liable to over-rate their own talents or by being intoxicated with success to commit themselves from inconsideration.’ However, when the Duke pulls himself together, the subaltern is ready with warm words of praise. No compliments come the way of Aitchison’s fellow Scot, Sir Thomas Graham (Lord Lynedoch), who is convicted of ‘imbecility and indecision’, culminating in a sort of hyperactivity on the battlefield.

In between battles, the letter-writer turns his countryman’s eye on the agricultural scene, such as it is. Compared with Scotland, the land is barbarically neglected and unmanured: ‘everything is left to nature.’ Later, the scorched earth policy spurs the idle peasants to more worthy exertions. When Aitchison tries to persuade the Portuguese to eat new-fangled turnips, they simply devour the green tops.

For an army trying to live off the land, the problems are unending. The ensign describes one notably bad day in the annals of nutrition: ‘the meat was killed in a high state of fever from being drove, it was cooked before it was cold and eaten without salt and the consequence, as was to be expected in a hot climate, was fatal.’

Aitchison spent the year 1811 in Britain. It was a time, as the editor reminds us, when the country suffered such familiar woes as inflation, severe unemployment, a three-day week in Lancashire, bankruptcies and social unrest (in the following year an unhinged businessman assassinated the prime minister). But for the rest of the war he served in the Peninsula, at length achieving captain’s rank. He was not called on to fight at Waterloo and we leave him performing the duties of recruiting officer in Edinburgh, a post for which he would seem to have been overqualified.

At least he had persuaded himself to remain with the Colours. Perhaps it was not such a difficult choice, for the British Army now enjoyed enormous prestige. In the long years of peace he rose steadily and from 1845 to 1851 held high commands in India. Determined not to marry while actively employed, he finally did so at 68, fathering three children, one of them a son who preserved his diaries and correspondence.

In setting the scene for the letters, Brigadier Thompson, a former military correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, writes in effect a complete history of the war, brisk and incisive, with political background. Sometimes this makes for repetition, as when the letters appear as pendants to the narrative. The lay reader will be tempted to skip much of Aitchison’s military detail and shy from the battle maps. Military historians can never have too many eye-witness accounts and they will dutifully quarry this plump volume. They may well decide that the real oddity of the book is the writer himself. Did he, one wonders, remain as stiff and censorious in bemedalled old age as when he was a subaltern? And was he as apprehensive of disaster as Queen Victoria when, in 1871, the purchase system was abolished?

[*] A Gentleman Volunteer, edited by Michael Glover (Heinemann).