Historical Notes: Life for a chamberpot: a fair exchange?

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The Independent Culture
INCREASING NUMBERS of Britons are visiting the Iberian peninsula, to trek across sun-scorched farmland and squint knowingly at hilltops and ridge lines in search of the line of sight available to a gunner nearly 200 years ago.

The battlefields they have come to see are those across which Wellington's redcoats marched, fought and died in one of the British army's longest campaigns, crossing and recrossing from Lisbon to southern France and covering almost every province of the Spanish lands between. The campaign, which lasted over six years, was the British army's major contribution in the war against Napoleonic France since, in his final battle at Waterloo in 1815, Wellington commanded less than half the numbers of British troops he had deployed at Vitoria in northern Spain two years earlier. This contribution to the Portuguese and Spanish wars of independence was, perhaps, the largest deployment of British troops until the second Boer War at the cusp of the 19th century.

This long war deeply affected the British army as a social organism. For one thing, there are few regiments in today's much-reduced and amalgamated army without at least one Peninsular War battle honour emblazoned on their colours and standards or appointments.

Some battle honours are unique, such as the 15th Hussars' "Sahagun", gained just hours before the commencement of the legendary retreat to La Coruna, or the Border Regiment's "Arroyo dos Molinos" which was given not only for gallantry but because of the coincidental combat between the British 34th Foot and French 34e Ligne Regiments, at which the latter's colours were taken and for which General Rowland Hill was knighted. Are these "intangibles" a fair exchange for all those lives? In fact, our troops' performance in later conflicts bears testament to the value of the superior morale that regimental traditions promote. As long as politicians insist on wars, armies will be raised to fight them; our future as our past could rely on the effects of snob "intangibles".

Some trophies are, however, more prosaic. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British army included a large number of Highland regiments, although only a minority were entitled to wear the kilt. All of them had gained a reputation for ferocity and valour in action and sobriety and responsibility in quarters. When billeted in English towns, these men did much to dispel the lingering fears of Jacobitism and much to foster the English fascination with things Scottish. The battle of Vimeiro in August 1808 was to be merely the first battle at which a desperately wounded Highland piper played his regiment into action.

From across the Irish Sea, large numbers of Irishmen enlisted not only in purely Irish regiments but in English and Scottish as well. Wellington's published despatches resonate with their courts martial whilst period memoirs, such as Grattan's Adventures with the Connaught Rangers, describe both their flaws and their bravery, for there were none braver than the Irish when the heat of battle was fiercest.

More bizarre perhaps, in the field of tradition-making, was the capture of King Joseph's chamberpot at Vitoria by the 14th Light Dragoons. Not only did it gain them the nickname of the "Emperor's Chambermaids" but it also provided them with a drinking utensil for mess nights.

Twentieth-century wars have their village war memorials but it is in these "intangibles" and traditions that the Peninsular heroes are honoured.

Richard Partridge and Michael Oliver are co-authors of `Battle Studies in the Peninsula' (Constable, pounds 25)