LETTERS FROM THE
The Freer Family Correspondence
NORMAN SCARFE, M.A.
Lecturer in History, University College, Leicester
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LEICESTER
This paper is reprinted from the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society,
vol. xxix (1953), by kind permission of the Society.
[Note: In order to simplify the text format and make conversion
of these letters onto the Web I have taken the liberty of moving all numbered
footnotes from the bottom of the pages to ENDNOTES at the end of
the letters. In most cases the footnotes have little meaning without having
the sources available that the footnotes refer to. I have attempted to
leave the page setup as close to the original as possible within the limits
of web page translating, and have also left the letter’s original spelling
and the page numbering as received. Hope you find these fascinating letters
informative and an opportunity to better understand those times. I know
I did. If anyone out there in cyberspace finds themselves related to this
Freer Family I certainly would like to here from you. The more input we
receive the more opportunity we have of unraveling the Freer Legacy.
A special thanks to Andy Freer for sending these letters into the web site
coordinator so others could have access to them. - Stan Freer]
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
THE FREER FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE
Proudly among this country's great works of historical writing stands the History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France by Sir William Napier. Napier himself fought throughout the campaign, an eyewitness who, like Caesar and Clarendon, knew from his own experience much of the history he was recording. His book originated in a passionate determination that the memory of Sir John Moore should be delivered from unjust aspersions. Justice and truth were the motives that impelled Napier to write of the exploits of Wellington's army, "abounding with signal examples of heroic courage and devoted zeal. They should be neither disfigured nor forgotten." Therefore he paused in the noble progress of his narrative, and, afflicted by the remembrance of one November night, turned to mention Edward Freer and his brothers the principal subjects of this essay-in words that are truly neither disfiguring nor forgettable.
By November 1813 the worst of the war was over, and Soult had been driven back across the Pyrenees. At the battle of the Nivelle he was dislodged from a mountain position that he had been fortifying for three months. Napier, having described the battle, went on to make the following observation:
In the report
of the battle Lord Wellington from some oversight did but scant and tardy
justice to the light division...
In fine, being less than one-sixth of the whole force employed against Clauzel, they defeated one-third of that general's corps. Many brave men they lost, and of two who fell in this battle I will speak.
The first, low in rank for he was but a lieutenant, rich in honour for he bore many scars, was young of days. He was only nineteen. But he had seen more combats and sieges than he could count years. So slight in person, and of such surpassing and delicate beauty that the Spaniards often thought him a girt disguised in man's clothing, he was yet so vigorous, so active, so brave, that the most daring and experienced veterans watched his looks on the field of battle, and implicitly following where he led, would like children obey his slightest sign in the most difficult situations. His education was incomplete, yet were his natural powers so happy, the keenest and best intellects shrunk from an encounter of wit, and every thought and aspiration was proud and noble, indicating future greatness if destiny had so willed it. Such was Edward Freer of the forty-third, one of three brothers who, covered with wounds, have all died in the service, Assailed the night before the battle with that strange anticipation of coming death so often felt by military men, he was pierced with three
P. 4 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
balls at the first storming
of the Rhune rocks, and the sternest soldiers of the regiment wept even
in the middle of
the fight when they heard of his fate.1
Edward was the third son of a small, provincial doctor,
whose progeny was his proudest achievement. At the moment when Edward fell
dead among the Rhune rocks his elder brother William (promoted Captain
a day or two later) was fighting in the same regiment. John, the eldest
(just twenty-four) was a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, stationed at
Gibraltar. There was a younger brother Thomas, named after their father,
destined, too, for the medical profession, and at present away with him
in Ireland where he was practising as an army surgeon. The remaining hildren,
in order of seniority, were Martha, -Richard, Anne and Daniel. The last
two were born at Knipton, in Leicestershire, right under the hill that
holds Belvoir Castle aloft. The family had moved there from Meriden, near
Coventry, sometime between December 1800 and November 1800, remaining there
till the end of the war2 when it removed to Oakham. It
was at Knipton that Mrs. Martha Freer waited for the news from the Peninsula-with
patience and resignation, for she had the consolations of religion. The
letters she received, together with those received by her husband and her
eldest son--both on active service--have been preserved by the family.
They are part of a larger collection of letters and papers recently presented
to the Leicester Museums. 3
P. 5 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
The nature of this family is immediately revealed in two letters posted from Knipton to Gibraltar, in the same year- 1813- to John, the eldest boy. The first is written jointly by Anne and her mother on 20 April. The second was written after the news of Ned's death had reached his mother. Let Anne begin: she is eleven.
My dearest brother, How happy I shall feel to see you again, the pleasure will be so great that I cannot express it I do not think I should know you we have been visiting about. We have been at Mr. Harbidges of Pillerton 4 and all about how much more pleasant it would have been to all partys if you had been with us but we cannot have every-thing we wish for if we had we should not be- satisfied today is Martha's birthday she is 15 years old how the time goes like butter in the sun it gives me great pleasure to hear that you will come home soon I have one thing to tell you that will give you great pleasure, that is that Mama has engaged a lady to come has governess to us we are to learn French and music how I wish Mania could afourd to buy us a new piana and when you come home you teach us to draw how pleasant it will be, we can often kick up a little dance Mama says I must not write any more but when we send you shirts I will tell you everything. When you write again answer mine.
Your affectionate sister
A. Freer. 5
Her mother takes over:
My dear John, It gave me infinite pleasure at receiving your letter. Although I do not write often, my dear children are always present in my thoughts. Indeed, my sons, mine has been a life of great anxiety, but I bless my God for having given me such good children. That compensates for everything. And I must say I feel proud in being the mother of such sons. I flattered myself that your dear father and Tom would have returned to their native land this month, but I am fearful that is not the case. I rejoice to hear you are so comfortable in your cottage. You outdo me, for I cannot keep hens much nor raise chickens. Your father as given up the farm so I have only the home close. I keep 2 cows and my donkey. I am sure it will be to our advantage-but alas he as arrears with the Duke. But my concerns that teazed me when you was at [home?] I have entirely settled. So I must now try to do what I can on that score. If I could but get my head above warter I must say I should be happy. But sweet hope cheers me. Now my dear sons are nearly educated it is time to think of your dear sisters. Dear little Anne as written to you. It is all her own inditing so you have it as it is. She is as handsome as an angel and I think there is not her equal. Your sister Martha is at Peter Hall. She is grown quite a woman and tall and well made but does not boast of beauty. But that loss is made up by
P. 6 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
good humour and pleasing manners which she has abundance of. Anne as
told you that I had engaged a person to be with me. She comes at Midsummer.
I hope the girls improve equal to my wishes. I care not what I do so that
I can advantage my dear children. I have begun to provide some shirts for
you and will send them as soon as finished. Since you left England poor
Clays have felt the deepest distress in their affairs. He has been obliged
to give up his trade and his good and dear sons seek abroad what they could
not obtain at home. Dear Richard stayed with his father till he found all,
his exertions would avail nothing. He had a kind friend who got him a situation
abroad, but what and where I do not know. Charles is likewise gone but
not with his brother. Poor Edmund was provided for and left his friends
but was obliged to return: his health was bad. He as resigned all care
of the world for a better about a month since...
I have not heard from W. or Edward for some time, but hope they are well. Be assured that a letter is always received with joy.
I almost forgot to tell you that Daniel is well and goes to school to Mr. Walker who says he is a good boy. Adieu my dear son and believe me your affectionate mother M. Freer. 6
There is nothing to indicate that she ever heard from Edward again. On 29 December 1813 she wrote to John:
What comfort to my afflicted
heart to know that the dear boy had fulfilled his duty and was prepared
to stand before his maker with an unblemished character and with what pleasure
do I look forward to be received into the bright mansion of peace. Indeed
my dear son I never saw pass a more gloomy summer nor one so full of anxiety.
In the first place our dear Richard was dangerously ill of a rheumatic
fever and his life was despaired of. For many days he lost the use of his
limbs but the Lord of Hosts was pleased to restore him to his friends.
Indeed your aunt Clay was the kindest friend to my poor boy. She visited
him and when he was able she got him removed to her and nursed him as one
of her own. She has had a very great trial. She as lost Edmund, a fine
promising youth But he is gone to a better world-but she is left to suffer,
for Clay as been unfortunate in trade and reduced to almost nothing. I
do not know what he will do for he is quite unfit to work for his bread.
I pray God to bless them and enable him to do something to support them.
Richard and Charles are gone abroad. You my dear son would think I had
Forgot you. But that was not the case. I could not find the means to get
your shirts till lately, and that was by the bounty of my dear William
who sent me a draft. I have not sent what I could wish, but what there
is will not prove unacceptable: 6 shirts, 6 pocket-handkerchiefs etc. I
live in hopes that it will not be long before I see you. Wrn. said that
he should come home soon but his ardour for the service I am afraid will
not let him. I pray God to preserve you all and grant us a happy meeting.
I do entreat of you my dear boy to write to your father for he feels hurt
at not bearing from you, and as suffered much on your acct respecting the
fever which I pray may
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 7
entirely left. 7 There is another report that Lord Wellington
as advanced and that there as been
another engagement, and we expected accounts last night but the paper did not come. I pray God
guard poor Wm. and all my dear children and believe me your affectionate mother, M. Freer.
they stand: the Freer family, the influences that moulded heroes. "His
education was incomplete,"
wrote Napier, "yet were his natural. powers so happy..." As to their formal education we have only one piece of
evidence, a note from John, when he himself was eleven. It is written (unlike poor Anne's) in a charming copper-
plate hand and headed:
Coventry, Dec. 11th 1800,
I do myself the pleasure
to inform you, that we are to break up the 18th instant when I shall be
paying. you my respects at Meriden. My brothers unite with me in duty to you.
I am, dear Mamma,
Your dutiful son,
Mr. Mrs, and the Miss Weekses desire their compliments. 8
However "incomplete", this
schooling. was something f or which the boys were grateful. "Frequently,
my dear Mother," wrote William, from the "heights in front of the position
of the enemy Santarem", on 10 December 1810, "do I think of what privations
you have undergone for our sakes and through your exertions have three
of us been set up in the world. ... I have often heard you mention that
your property is to be divided among your children", he went on. "The shares
that would fall to the lot of Edward and myself we give up to our sisters.
This is what my Brother John proposed and I trust that all my dear brothers
as they advance in life will follow his example and give our dear parents
the satisfaction of knowing their daughters are not deserted ......."9
Edward adds: "It is needless for me to say anything more than
that my sentiments are congenial with my brother William's, believe me
my prayers are joined with my brother's for all." 10 It
may be seen that what Napier called Edward's "natural powers" offered no
resistance to the maternal precepts on religion, and indeed the boy's own
death was accepted most religiously by the others. William wrote to John
that "the Will of Divine Providence has taken him from us", but lie added:
"Oh my dear fellow! How will my poor mother bear the shock."', She consoled
herself in the only way she knew: belief in some sort of reunion after
Death, and thankfulness that Edward had done his duty, had done as she
exhorted him to do in letters of which the following is an example:
P. 8 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
Knipton ? 16, 1809.
My dearest Edward,
I was very happy to hear by your letter that you was comfortable and happy with the Regiment.121 hope my dear boy that you will be prudent and careful for I can assure you that it is entirely out of our power to help and assist in any degree-do avoid that part of the regiment which is gay and giddy-always remember that by a strict and steady conduct you will gain the respect of your superior officers -1 know that--if you [?pay) attention to yourself and do all you can to inform your mind. Be sure that you make yourself perfectly acquainted with the history of England and do not forget your grammer and above all things remember your duty to your maker for if you forget him he certainly will you. Be regular in what you under take and you will be able to perform many things only let me observe to you that if you will pattern from your uncle Daniel, you will not fail: there are many who will tell you to mind only the present day and enjoy while you can-but what is to become of the future for their depends your happiness. I wish you would write to me once a month and give me an account of how you spend your time and how you nurse your money. It will give me great pleasure and by that means you will know how you are going on-and above all do not run in debt for then your mind will be unfit for the situations you are 'in your two brothers always did as I wish and then it made us both happy. I will my dear Edward do all I can for you and when you want anything do let me know-your sisters will always be happy to make your shirts-I have sent you your new ones-two pairs of sheets --one pillow case, two table cloths, two towels, the sheets are brown but in washing they will soon be white they are our own spinning you will like them the better for that--Thomas wishes to be gone I suppose you will have seen his name in the paper--Dan says that he will take care of the donkey-he is a saucy dag and a word for everyone. He wants to see you. Martha and Ann are grown much they go to school with Richard on fine days-we have got a very good master my farm goes well-last night I had a cow calved-I have reared ten cade lambs 13 this summer--plow’d six acres of land, sown oats-shall mow five acres so there is plenty cut out, my house is going to be repaired back part is to be raised and I do not know what do write and let me know if you [?get] -the things safe. All join in love to you ?Sall says I must not forget her. God bless you, your affectionate mother
Martha Freer. 14
We have already seen that by April 1813 Mrs. Freer had lost her farm and been reduced to the home close. Apart from these letters, which I have quoted in extenso because they provide in themselves the most com-
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 9
prehensive picture left to us of the home background of her soldier
sons, we can form a fairly accurate image of their financial circumstances
by consulting the wills of both sides of the family.
Their paternal grandfather, the surgeon's father, John Freer (1722 -1806), was born at Hambleton, near Oakham, and after being educated at Oakharn School and intended for the church he had preferred to go to Coventry and join Mr. Hall, a large farmer and grazier.15 Two or thrice years later he returned to settle in Oakham and set up as farmer and maltster. His will describes him as gentleman and catalogues fairly extensive property and considerable wealth. 16 But the bulk of the real property, once his wife had been provided for, went to his eldest son, William, while the rest of the estate (shares in the Oakharn canal, etc.) was divided up among a number of grandchildren-mainly children of his daughters. So that Thomas, the surgeon, though he owed his father his training as a surgeon, saw very little else of his father's wealth. Only his younger daughter Anne benefited, in a second codicil added 30 October 1802 before she was a year old. Her grandfather left her two messuages in the Market Place at Oakham, with the proviso "if" his personal property covered his debts and funeral expenses. It seems reasonable to deduce that this was the property to which the family removed at the end of the war. Certainly the surgeon, when he died, left no real property-merely his household goods to the two girls. 17 A further indication of his pre dicament is a rough sketch, undated, of a promissory note in his own hand acknowledging the loan of £300 from his sons John, William and Thomas., 18 It is clear that as a father he was amiable, but weak and incompetent: traits that may be seen in his portrait.
So much for the Freer side. Their mother made a more substantial contribution. Martha's father, Daniel. Gardner, a weaver and ironmonger of Bayley Lane, in the heart of Coventry, left £300 each to her and her young brother Daniel (who played an important part in the military careers of her sons). 19 The will of her widowed mother, Elizabeth Gardner, 20 refers to "a considerable sum of money" employed in the ironmongery trade jointly carried on by herself and Mr. Thomas Perkins "in Coventry and in other places". This money was to be left in the business until her youngest son, Daniel, was twenty-one, when it was to be divided equally between her children: Anne Wells, William Gardner, Martha Freer, Letitia, Elizabeth and Daniel (the shares of Martha and Anne not to be in any way liable to the debts, control or engagements of their husbands, Thomas Freer and Edward Wells). 21
P. 10 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
With these means Surgeon Thomas Freer and his wife Martha helped to provide commissions for their three eldest sons. The nature of the boys' debt to their uncle Daniel, Martha's young brother. is revealed in the earliest of the series of war-times letters. These are well worth study by anyone interested in the history of the Peninsular War: many of them were written from one brother to another - one junior officer to another - and they are consequently replete with military information and commentary at that particular level. William and Edward were in the 43rd - Napier's regiment. Their letters confirm in almost every detail the historian's account. There are few episodes in which Napier's narrative can be amplified from these letters with any major point: the principal additions concern personal contributions to the victories at Talavera and Sabugal. In deed the great value of the corresondence is in the way it recreates for us the lives of this Midland Family - simple, evangelical, heroic - in the England that beat Napoleon.
The first letter is dated 11 February 1807 at Hythe Barracks. It is a joint letter from William and his uncle Daniel Gardner to William's father, at Knipton, announcing William's promotion to Lieutenant "after many disappointments in having so many put over me". John was expecting to get his commission in May and Edward was "an ensign in the Leicester but I can't tell where he is for I have not heard from him since I left Knipton. I should suppose he is at school in or somewhere about Ipswich. We have been continually changing our Quarters but have not yet been out of Kent. I must say I should like to move out of this county, for I wish much to see other places." William’s wish was fulfilled. His uncle, meanwhile, explained that "no young person more deserved" his lieutenancy than William, and that
it was not at all owing to
want of recommendation from Colonel Stewart, but to superior interest out
of the Corps,
that the two last Lts. obtained their appointment When I called to express my obligation to the Colonel yesterday
he assured me he stated in the recommendatory letter that Will had conducted the command of a Company in a
more satisfactory manner than many old subalterns and that if he continued to regulate his conduct in the way he
has it would be highly gratifying to render him every assistance. I have procured him the payment of a Company,
he may [be] expected to derive nearly I/- per diem additional pay from it, but the enormous debt, VIZ. 44 Pound,
has rather inconvenienced me to advance, but John Wells assists Me. 22 William is everything I can wish and his
assiduity in all his studies astonishes me-he is now mounting additional Guards and in a fortnight will be considered
as entirely dismissed Drill of every description.
Gardner joined the 43rd (now
the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry) as an ensign in December
1800, and got his captaincy in February 1804, six months after the Regiment,
then under Lt.-Col. R.
P. 11 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
Stewart, had been made Light Infantry, and before they moved to Shorncliffe
in June 1804. As they watched the Channel all through 1805, in a mood not
unlike our own in 1940, the units of the brigade were trained in battle
drills and manoeuvres that very soon established them as models to the
army. Gardner was given one of the two companies in the 2nd. battalion
of the 43rd that was raised in 1804, and in 1805 a Regimental School was
started under his auspices. He must have been back with the 1st battalion
by 1807, for in that year the battalion took part in the Copenhagen expedition
and our next letter is written to Surgeon Freer, "'The Leicester Militia,
Colchester", by Gardner from Roerup in the Danish island of Zealand, 10
September, two days after the fall of Copenhagen.
All intelligent Englishmen regretted the need for this action, but Napoleon had subordinated Russia and Prussia, and Canning was clear that he would swiftly apply pressure to Denmark and Portugal to complete the exclusion of British shipping from the remaining ports of Europe. The Danes would not preserve their neutrality by their own strength. We had to prevent their fleet from falling into French hands, and quickly while there was summer sailing in the Baltic. 23 The general regret is sincerely echoed in this letter.24 "Believe me, my dear Brother, it requires all the assurance we (I mean my friend Genl. Stewart,25 Col. Gifford, Capt. Wells and myself and without doubt every British officer here) can muster to look the poor Danes in the face." He goes on to explain a military misnomer whereby his brigade was termed "Reserve instead, of Advance Corps": "The principal duties of the Reserve Corps are to land first, to be employed on detachments, inform the advance in moving forward and the Rearguard in retiring-our corps amounts to 4,000 or thereabouts and certainly the finest men ever assembled and capable of any enterprise." There follows an account of the action, familiar enough, and the outcome:
whole fleet falls to us without any reserve and we are to quit the island
in 6 weeks-we can get estimates
the value of the capture at 3 million-if so-a tolerable share of Prize-Money.26 -1 have enjoyed good health and found
my situation exactly what I expected viz.-the most desirable one a young man can wish. I shall if possible on my arrival
in England obtain six weeks leave and spend sometime with you. . . . I hope before we leave it, will be possible to see
the Town [Copenhagen]-Zealand is more like England than any country my friends here ever saw.... The only house we
have visited belongs to the Count of Holstein who is attending his duty at Copenhagen. His Countess remains---She is a
very pretty figure and extremely affable. Her home is somewhat like an English nobleman's so far as regards the
State Rooms, but those usually inhabited by the Family are extremely mean and badly furnished and I am told all
family residences are the same. I have had an opportunity of visiting the Dock yards and inspecting one of the finest
vessels. The quantity of stores
P. 12 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
is immense and if report
tells the truth, this capture will enable us to bid defiance to Russia
and all the other
sources from which we draw maritime stores, for several years....
William was not on the expedition: at least that seems to be the significance of the absence from this letter of any reference to him. He had presumably been transferred to the 2nd battalion, in which he was certainly serving in August 1808. He had managed to get into a scrape before 1807 was out, one that does not extremely surprise us in view of his, financial circumstances. The details we do not know. All we do know is contained in another letter from Gardner to Freer, 13 December 1807, which further reveals the family ties and both the ability and the amiability of Gardner:
My dear Freer,
Your account of my sisters distress respecting William's imprudences has grieved me much as I fear it will be difficult for her to recover the shock, but for him the way is easy to regain the esteem of his true friends and the affection. of his relation. Before I left the Regiment I had planned with Mr. Wells the most probable way of inducing him to reflect on his situation and to appropriate at least three hours everyday to his own improvement besides the performance of his duty as an officer. I fear you have in a certain degree misinterpreted my letter. You say "he must not be lost for his first imprudence". Surely I expressed that he had been cleared of I believe every incumbrance that his spirit might not be broken and that he might be enabled to appear Respectable in Dress etc. If I did not give this idea I can only say it was my intention. Believe me, I often call to mind the extravagance and inadvertance (to say the least) which has marked my younger days and I never can consider the subject without recollecting with gratitude the kindness of both you and Martha especially when I needed the assistance of my Friends- I should indeed be culpable if I ever forgot how you with my other Relatives atronized and supported me, when had you rigidly performed your friendship you would have shunned. and forgotten a young man who in the eyes of the world had entirely debased his character-You (I believe alone) attributed my situation to the real cause-the brutal behaviour of the man with whom I was placed. I certainly merited the severest censure, but I hope the result has proved that the conciliatory system towards me did more than an attempt to force me to return to trade. Acting upon this principle you may be assured that William has only to manifest a disposition to be steady and assiduous and he has entirely recovered my good esteem. With respect to my suffering inconvenience I must candidly avow I do feet myself confoundedly cramped in my purse and am fearful I shall be unable to discharge some of the Bills of my Tradesmen especially as I cannot help expending much more here than at my Regt. and have the burthen of a house at Hythe.. Fortunately my three months trip to Zealand gave me about 100£ clear of every expense which happened to come into play on William's account. With this sum which I paid previous to leaving Hythe I am apprehensive when Wells has closed his [William's] affairs, that a further
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 13
may be made. If so, I must ask your aid. Therefore prepare, but I hope
it will not be required.
I believe I did not tell you that as there was no vacancy on the Staff in England, I was ordered to join,
but accompanied by the handsomest letter saying His Royal Highness would not fail to bear in
recollection the very favourable testimony of my capacity for the Staff the first opportunity-although
I never expect anything from Head Quarters direct yet this letter will be of great service as Gen.
Stewart. has told me that he will not be employed out of England without having me, and that if he is
on the. Staff at home, he will immediately apply and if I can point out any vacancy, he will request me
to be nominated as a personal favour. He is now upon leave of absence but it is generally thought that
when the Brevet comes out which is expected the 1st Jany he will be employed. He had twice refused
the situation in Garrisons abroad as he wishes for active employ. Write to me as often as you can spare
time and be assured that I shall ever be
Your affectionate Friend
D. Gardner .27
Napoleon was taking advantage of the misgovernment of Spain to establish
his armed power in that country, and endeavouring in the Spanish what our
action had thwarted in the Danish peninsula. By 11 August 1808, Wellesley
was ashore with a British force in Portugal and was preparing for the first
famous engagement in all the long series of Peninsular battles of which
some outlandish name is preserved in marble upon the walls of half the
parish churches of England. Vimiero was fought perilously near the coast
just north of Lisbon on 21 August. It was a brief, fierce fight, won by
Wellesley though he was superseded in the moment of victory by Sir Harry
Burrard. It was the turn of the 2nd battalion of the 43rd to taste blood,
and. we know from the official history of that regiment that they went
into action in the "white duck trowsers and light marching order" in which
they had just landed 28 and were involved in desperate
close fighting in a vineyard, "the enemy pitching into the young battalion
like mad" until the 43rd, "rallying in one mass, went furiously down the
head of the column and ... drove it back in confusion". From the same source
we know that here, in his first action, William Freer was first wounded.
The family correspondence is almost completely deficient for that year, 1808. All we have is a letter from Daniel Gardner to his sister Martha, dated 30 July and written at anchor off the Isle of Wight. He had been promoted Brigade Major to General Stewart, as promised, and he had caught sight of William in Dover a fortnight earlier, as the 43rd marched to embark at Ramsgate. "He seemed quite elated at the prospect of being employed", and "he had conducted himself exceedingly well.30 That is all until December, when we find Gardner expressing his approval of William's conduct most convincingly by bequeathing, in a codicil to his will) a half of whatever share was due to him out of the Copenhagen prize-money. 31
P. 14 LETTERS
FROM. THE PENINSULA
Gardner made his codicil in Lisbon in December., possibly on receipt
of orders to join Sir John Moore's forces advancing into Leon to the assistance
of Spain on that nightmare expedition which ended in the bay at Corunna-the
Dunkirk of the Peninsula. Again it is at least on bare record that William
was present at the battle, honourable and melancholy, of Corunna.32
That was in January 1808. In April Wellesley was back in Lisbon. Soult, the Duke of Dalmatia, was driven north out of Portugal, and by June Wellesley was meditating action against Victor, the Duke of Belluno., and advancing east up the Tagus against Madrid. On 27 June he marched into Spain and on 5 July, Brigade- Major Gardner, a day behind Wellesley's headquarters in the column, wrote from Zarza la Mayor to explain the situation to William. William, back with the 1st battalion, the 43rd, had come ashore well up the Tagus on the day that Gardner was writing, so that he missed Lisbon, where Gardner expected him to land.
Zarza Maior, July 5 1809.
My dear William,
I hope very soon to shake you by the hand and my friend Wells also. Tell him I have received both his and
your letters from England and replied to the former. The news here to-day is that the French are waiting for us
at Talavera-del Reyna, that Joseph Bonaparte has joined Victor at that place with 4,000 men from Madrid
-- That the French Army at Talavera is consequently about 45,000, that NE, Soult and Kellerman are each
moving their Divisions to form a junction. Our combined army when assembled and united will be English
about 24,000 Spaniards upwards of 48,000 effective. Thus we may expect much fighting in a short time.
I should imagine that your Officers are ill provided with Animals to carry Baggage etc., and I would recommend
to lose no opportunity of securing any they may meet with without being too nice as to the price, as not a mule
can be provided here-indeed nothing but bread and onions can be had. We have had no wine for 3 days, except
a little which an officer gave us as he passed, even for the little we occasionally have found we have sent two
leagues for. I lament I could not hear when you arrived at Lisbon, as I wished to have given to you some portable
cooking utensils which I had made when I expected to have joined you last year ... Provide yourself with everything
you can at Abrante and Castel Branco as nothing can possibly be had after. Bring plenty of tea and chocolate soap
and sugar. I am devillish busy, we march at 3 o'clock to-morrow morning towards Coria-Adieu God bless you.
remembrances to Wells, Colonel Gifford, Procter, Mclachlan, Pitts, Booth
etc. etc. Tell Pitts that an
Adjutant ought to have the columns in an embarkation return cast up and filled-but that in the one the Q.M. Genl.
has received from Lisbon there are three columns omitted to be cast up-a pretty mistake for a love-sick Adjutant.
Shake him by the hand for me. 33
P. 15 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
"My friend Wells" here is
Captain Joseph Wells, whose career in the Peninsula was very distinguished,
but he was not with die Regiment as Gardner expected: he came out only
in May 1810. On the other hand, Paymaster John Wells in London supplies
the next letter, assuring Gardner that his account is in order, displaying
the humanity that suffuses the whole correspondence, and ending up with
a more perceptive thought than that which governed the government: " I
wish your excellent General had a much larger force but you will do material
service to the general cause with what you have I am sure. God bless you".
35 Confidence well- placed: Wellesley proceeded along
the north bank of the Tagus till he reached the, Alberche tributary and,
sensing the imminent conflict, occupied a strong position in line
with Talavera. He had 20,000 troops, mainly British, and his fantastical
colleague, the quixotic and perfectly unreliable Cuesta, boasted some 34,000
Spaniards: altogether 44,000 infantry, nearly 1000 cavalry and 100 guns
confronted a French force numerically rather smaller but made up of veterans.
The battle of Talavera was fought out on 27 and 28 July. It was touch and
go, and the key to the British victory was the possession of a hill on
the left, It was retained, by the courage of many and the foresight of
some: Wellesley himself, General Hill (appropriately) and, as we learn
from William, Brigade-Major Gardner, who was killed in this battle.
The 43rd, 52nd and 95th, under Brigadier Robert Craufurd, caught up with the army on the day after the battle. They were greatly disgusted at missing it, after an epic march of 43 English miles in 22 hours! William's next letter 36 was begun in the Franciscan monastery at Coria, before reaching Talavera: he had been "mostly quartered in the woods"'. Coria cathedral was (very fine" and the scenery of the Tagus valley "really delightful": "our army is advancing-it is a great pity that we cannot get up with them, for three thousand light troops are no mean thing The letter is resumed 10 August at Las Casas del Puerto on the other side of the Tagus and half-way back again from Talavera, for by now, as William notes, Cuesta's Spaniards had demonstrated their worthlessness as troops, Cuesta had been superseded, the very existence of Wellington's army was in peril. At once he announces Gardner's death- "the loss of so valuable a friend and so dear a relation. He fell while gloriously fighting for his King and Country, and it is attributed to him the victory of that day for General Stuart's Brigade held a position that kept 14,000 French in employ during this whole action, in endeavouring to gain which they would have done, had not my uncle ordered of his own accord the 29th Regt. up to the hill on which the Brigade was formed which forced the enemy to abandon the attempt".
Napier, describing this event, omits the vital contribution of Gardner to the arrival of that regiment upon the hill.37
P. 16 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
the beginning of September William was stationed more safely back. in Portugal
at Castello de Vide, and ready to move to Portalegre about ten miles away.
Here he received a friendly letter from General Stewart concerning the
personal effects, horses., etc., that Gardner had left him.38And
here he had a bad attack of the ague (presumably what became famous as
"Guadiana fever").39 "I never thought I should have knocked
up, although I am nothing but skin and bone: yet I'll stand it out to the
last. I'm in a billett the people of which keep me in continual laughter
for their drollness: they pay me every attention that lies in the power
of Portuguese." William was lucky: he mentioned the loss of a Lieutenant
and an Ensign, "and it is likewise reported that Major Proctor and Capt.
McLachlan arc dead there was never a more Gentleman- like figure than poor
McLachlan, and his loss is generally regretted through the whole regiment".
At this moment Gardner's place was taken in the correspondence by the arrival in Portugal of William"s younger brother Edward with the 2nd battalion of the 43rd. He had been with them at Walcheren and already (he was just sixteen) displayed that contempt for danger which distinguished his brief life. 40 In the same letter to John, William referred to their arrival and made fun of Edward's size: "Ned I trust will come off safe: in fact there is not much danger, for he is a difficult mark. I hope he will conduct himself with propriety; and he will do, for he is very much liked."
In England the failure of the Walcheren expedition finally demolished the Duke of Portland's government. Wellington was able to feel more sure of support from the new government of Spencer Perceval, in which his brother was foreign secretary, and addressed himself to the great task of defending Portugal. He began by moving his troops out of the Guadiana fever-belt to the barren but healthy north-eastern frontier. He had about 25,000 British troops, made up to a force of not more than 80,000 by other nationals, mainly Portuguese. There were, including the occupation forces, 37,000 French soldiers on the far side of the frontier.
Craufurd’s division was based on Pinhel, near Almeida. At least it was here that his Light Brigade was removed from the 3rd Division, which he had temporarily commanded, and became a. separate Organisation, as we may read in William's letter of 25 February 1810, addressed to John -at the Artillery H.Q. at Woolwich, and re-directed from there to Gibraltar. 41 It is a highly frivolous letter, suggesting that the change of air has wrought a recovery:
In June or July I intend making my visits [he means to his various friends
at home], for we hear by
this morning's Post from Pinhel that we are immediately to withdraw ourselves to take up a position having
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 17
our right at Villa
Franca [only 15 miles up river from Lisbon I ] and our left at Torres Vedras,
of the French intending to enter Portugal. . . . We had last Monday a wedding in our house, and about 10 at
night we persuaded the fair couple and their friends to come to our Room and Dance a Fandango, which
they condescended to do. And for clod-hoppers I assure you they danced with considerable taste, but the
exertions they made to be applauded. Some of them now and then opened the wind-passages and left in the
room (which was small and full we having that day a large party to Dinner) perfumes agreeable to none but
themselves. I, unfortunately, touched with the juice of the grape, became somewhat amorous with the fair Bride,
which the Groom observing and who played the guitar, by which they danced continually, played out of time.
That February the, French
threatened the two important Spanish citadels-bastions of "Free Spain"
in front of the Portuguese border -Badajoz to the south on the Guadiana,
and Ciudad Rodrigo to the north, on the Agueda, a southern tributary of
the Douro, near Almeida. Parallel and close to the Agueda ran the ravine
of the Coa. Wellington at once leapt his light division across the Coa
and right up to the Agueda, on the far bank of which Ciudad Rodrigo had
begun its own gallant defence against the vast besieging forces of Ney.
The French object was to provoke Wellington into a chivalrous but hopeless
battle to relieve Rodrigo: the English object was the defence of Portugal
and above all the maintenance of the fight, the avoidance of catastrophe,
so that if necessary they were prepared to withdraw along their own lines
of communication back as far as the northern lip of the Tagus at Lisbon,
where the famous impregnable lines of Torres Vedras were being prepared-the.
subject of William's sly reference in his latest letter. The Light Division
was specifically ordered by Wellington on no account to accept a battle
beyond the Coa, an order that Craufurd, dashing to the point of unwisdom,
could not obey.
At first came a number of spirited skirmishes, in which the Division demonstrated the superb results of its training. One of these skirmishes is referred to in a letter from William to John of 4 April,42 though his main news is of his excursion into Pesquiera with another officer and a small party to procure the Division's wine from the Oporto Wine Company: a ticklish assignment, the miscarriage of which would doubtless have blighted his career. He has had £25 compensation for loss of baggage in. Spain: Ned has had £10 of it, and the remainder is offered to John to settle any trifling bills in England. The next letter, written to John from near Freixedas, behind the Coa, is dated 24 August. It opens with an account of the skirmishing throughout the month of June-obviously based on his diary-- and leads up to the combat of the Coa on 24 July.
That "bitter fight" has been depicted for all time by Napier, himself shot through the left thigh towards the end of the action: how the French broke over the edge of he ravine, "their guns, ranged along the summit, played hotly with grape, and their hussars galloping over the glacis of Almeida, poured down the road sabring everything in their way": how "the British regiments, with singular intelligence and discipline extricated themselves from their perilous situation, falling back slowly, and yet and
P. 18 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
stopping fighting wherever opportunity offered": and finally how, as the last troops of the 52nd crowded back across the bridge, Major M'Leod of the 43rd, "a very young man but with a natural genius for war", covered them by turning his horse about, taking off his cap and leading a sudden astonishing charge against the gathering enemy. William's account is wonderfully prosaic, compared with Napler's:
the morning 24th after a dreadful stormy night the French again advanced,
Our cavalry retired upon
the Infantry who were posted nigh the road leading to the Bridge over the Coa. The 43rd and 95th covered
the Division and had a very smart skirmishing with the enemy retiring to the Bridge and after crossing formed.
upon the side of the hill in the most covered spots. The firing was kept up on both sides after crossing the
rivers for more than 3 hours during the greater part of that time drenched with rain. Our Artillery was very
well served and did much damage to the enemy-they had six pieces but so badly served that the few shots
they were allowed to fire had no effect. We dismounted one of their guns and two others which were taking
up ground which would have annoyed us. Part of our troops were so teased with shells that they made a
retrograde movement. Our loss was very great particularly in officers. 1 Col. 1 Capt. and 1 Lieut. killed
besides 11 officers wounded and about 120 men. The 95th lost in the same proportion. On the whole we
lost about 320 men. Never did Troops fight under greater disadvantages: in the first place we were thrown
back from the high ground and placed in a position commanded on all sides, and at the very moment our
Cavalry were filing off for the Road, our left wing were ordered up under a very heavy fire instead of
occupying the, ground previous to cavalry going to the Rear and when we retreated such little care was
taken of our Flanks but a few Dragoons came upon our left took an officer and a few Rifles Prisoners
fortunately a wall divided them from me or I might have shared the same fate. It was rather curious that
the officers joining from England came up during the affair. Poor Col. Hall bad only taken command of
his Battn. that very morning having arrived the day before with Capt. Hall who was also wounded. I had
two shots hit me one on the sole of my shoe the other went through the sleeve of my Jacket and gave me a smart rap. 43
William added that Edward
was one of those who came up to the front "just in time to see us exchange
and that "I never saw anyone so much improved for the better in so short a space of time"
In the course of September the army withdrew in good order. On the way back they repulsed the French with great vigour at Busaco, an action at which both Edward and William were -present. They took up the prepared position in the area of Torres Vedras, by Lisbon, and it was there, "on the heights in front of the position of the enemy, Santarem", that William and Edward wrote home in December to assure their mother that they often thought of the privations she had undergone for them and that they wished to follow John's example and make over their share of the inheritance to their sisters. 44
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
By March 1811 it was the
enemy's turn to withdraw across Portugal. Wellington's scorched-earth policy
had made their positions in western Portugal untenable: it was the turning
point in the Peninsular War. Pursuing the French to the frontier, Wellington
never allowed them a moment's rest (except for three days when, through
no fault of his, the troops were without food). They were fought at Redinha,
Miranda do Corvo, the Puerta da Murcella, Cazal Novo., Foz d'Arronce and
Sabugal, back again on the Coa river. At Redinha some of the regimental
officers thought that a chance was missed of destroying Ney completely:
in Napier's words, "Lord Wellington paid him too much respect". 45
No one can say that of the battle of Sabugal.
The British advance is described in detail in a letter from William to his father, written 8 April from Albergaria across the frontier in Spain a few days after Sabugal. 46 Since they were fighting in the same regiment it is not very surprising that William's details tally substantially with Napier's, though unaccountably William makes no reference to the fog which at Cazal Novo and Foz d'Arronce on 14 and 15 March provided the key to the action. He is equally oblivious of the weather in his account of Sabugal, fought on the slopes beside the Coa at a height of nearly 3,000 feet above sea-level in cloud and miserable rain: but when his brigade commander was giving out his orders, under the enemy's fire, the officers sat with their backs to a stone wall and the driving rain, and the commander laughingly said: "Gentlemen, you have an extraordinary taste, to prefer shot to rain". 47 From other sources we find William was one of the half-dozen heroes of the day.
We will begin with Wellington's despatch: "I consider the action that was fought by the Light Division, by Colonel Beckwith's brigade principally, with the whole of the [French] second, corps, to be one of the mostglorious that British troops were ever engaged in. The 43rd Regiment under Major Patrickson, particularly distinguished themselves".48 Wellington was not one to exaggerate. A bullet had lodged against Napier's spine at Cazal Novo: he was unable to fight at Sabugal and we note a few inaccuracies in his description of that battle, yet he makes it abundantly clear that within the 43rd Regiment it was Lieutenant Hopkins' company brigade commander, the gallant Beckwith, visited him, complimented him and told him to carry on, and was followed by a less that particularly distinguished themselves. 49 Hopkins himself has given an account of the action: he singles out his two subalterns, "William Freer and Henry Oglander, both most excellent officers".50
As the 43rd advanced to the support of the 52nd, a slight lift of the rain curtain showed Hopkins, whose company was on the extreme right of the line, that a strong French detachment was cutting across to his right rear to turn the British position. On his own initiative he at once moved to the right and occupied a hill confronting the enemy force. Here he repelled two charges. The brigade commander, the gallant Beckwith, visited him, complimented him and told him to carry, on and was followed by a less
P. 20 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
gallant cavalry officer, Elly. Then the enemy formed in greater strength, advancing with a drummer beating the pas de charge and their commanding officer well to the fore. "William Freer asked permission to go forward and personally engage him; this I of course refused as his presence with the company was more important. The French bravely stood our fire, and their two guns were brought to bear on us. I ordered a charge which was done with great spirit, driving the enemy to some distance." They captured one of the enemy howitzers, and as this exploit was the subject of an unseemly claim on behalf: of the 52nd, though not until a quarter of a century had passed, 51 William's testimony is valuable:
The 2nd Brigade, which had mistaken the road came up at this crisis, and
the Ist /52nd coming on the
right, the whole again charged, the 43rd taking possession of their hill and an howitzer while the 52nd cleared
the hollow on the right. At this time their cavalry charged. The 43rd retired to a wall a few paces from the: gun,
and, the 52nd forming to the right,. the cavalry were almost- all killed. Two companies of the 43rd, one of the
52nd, then charged up the hill on which the howitzer was, and received the fire: of their columns close behind it.
This seems to settle the howitzer dispute.
proceeded: "At this time General Picton's division came up on the left
and gave them a volley, when the whole retired towards Alfiate. Unfortunately
we had no cavalry to support us: if we had, their defeat would have been
He added: "At the latter end of this affair I received a slight wound above the left hip, but nothing of consequence, the ball
only grazing and lodging in my shire,. This looks circumstantial, but we wonder if he was sparing his father, for Hopkins wrote: "I directed William Freer to wheel the company into sections .... He was struck down by a shot in his face but persevered in marching". William concluded, in a postscript: "Hopkins desires to be remembered to you. I am in the same company with him, he having the command of Wells's, who is on duty at Lisbon. The 3rd was a good day for him. Our company standing so firmly on the right was noticed by our brigadier who I believe intends (or as done) 52 reporting their conduct to Lord Wellington. A packet as arrived this morning with papers to the 13th ult. None for me." His father replied to this on 10 June: "I much wonder that the stand Hopkins and you made was not noticed by Colonel Beckwith, for to me it appears amazing you was not literally eat up". 53
William repeated the whole
long story of the advance from Santarem to Sabugal for John's benefit a
fortnight later and in lighter language.54He gave a pleasant
account of the three-days' "inactivity" through famine: "All this kind
of work agrees very well with John Bull on a full stomach, but after
being without bread for three days and in a good deal of fire during that
time and then to get a sound ducking during the night caused a
LETTERS FROM. THE PENINSULA P. 21
few wry faces. However, a halt the following day and double allowance of bread made them once more fit for anything". After his second account of Sabugal he added: "Lord Wellington, who saw the whole business, was in raptures at our conduct but fright for our fate". And he put a question to John that he had also put to his father:
do you think, my dear fellow, of my entering the Portuguese service with
Rank as Captain,
promotion and pay going on the same in the British? After the examples of their excellent conduct at
Cadiz and the continuous proofs of it that I have myself witnessed in this country I think it will be good
spec-. It is impossible to imagine the striking differences between the villages we are now in and those
of unfortunate Portugal, which have been invariably destroyed and numbers burnt, the former not touched
during the retreat and positive orders for the French soldiers to pay for all they got (with Portuguese money).
That was written from Fuentes d'Onoro where
the great French attack was delivered early in May and repulsed- their
last design against Portugal. The Light Division took an important part
in the famous battle, and William gives an account of it in a fragment
of diary, written in his impersonal way.55
This is how he described the celebrated action of the Horse Artillery:
We had not been long in this position before we observed the enemy forming columns in the wood
opposite to that occupied by the sharpshooters, and on our right . . . . their: cavalry collected in great force
although played pon by some guns of Bull, Horse Artillery. The object of the latter formation was to take the
guns, which they attempted by moving rapidly forward, following the cavalry to time, and. had passed the guns
and continued the charge against our horse, who falling back between the Lt. Division and Genl. Houston gave
part of the latter Brigade an opportunity of giving them a volley, which had the effect of breaking them and
causing them to retire in a confused manner .... The Royals behaved uncommonly well and made a severe example
of a regiment of Horse Grenadiers. The Guns when passed by, by the enemy, succeeded in escaping by charging
through them and joining the cavalry. The Division after these events formed squares of Regiments and shortly after,
the whole retired.
At the same time operations were begun in the southern sector, on the Guadiana, Beresford laying the first sombre siege to Badajoz, and because of totally inadequate engineering equipment-raising it after horrible waste of life. Albuera followed, and all the while the Light Division kicked its heels in the north. "Our division is completely out of its element being in the rear", wrote William to John in 24 June, from a camp halfway between Portalegre and Campo Mayor. 56 But he was feeling cheerful: "The siege of Badajoz being raised and the army falling back, the croakers begin to say affairs look ill. For my part, I like the general appearance, for whilst Soult has strained every nerve to collect a force which has obliged the raising of the siege, yet by so doing he has in great measure left open the interior....
P. 22 LETTERS
FROM THE PENINSULA
The papers talk a good deal of Lord Paget, as if he intends to offer
his services under Lord Wellington:
everyone here is quite delighted at the idea." The brevets had been awarded to those who distinguished
themselves in Portugal: Patrickson, the C.O. of the 43rd, had one, and the other had gone to Napier, because
Wells, though senior to Napier, was on duty in Lisbon during the advance. William was disgruntled: the merits
of senior officers "ought not to be overlooked because they are absent on duty ".
He then turned to think of his family. And he indulged in a daydream wherein "the exertion making in England
to send out every man she can" resulted in opening up the road to Gibraltar so that John "might make a
pleasant tour to the army by purchasing a small hack and carrying a couple of shirts, and stop a fortnight with
us Postscript: "I shall not make the least excuse for Edward and shall tell you candidly it is sheer idleness that
prevents his writing. The same complaint is made by my father; and Charles Clay, who by his letters to him
wishes to keep up a correspondence, 57 no doubt makes the same complaints."
On 10 August Edward made amends with a most gallant effort, the degree of gallantry commensurate with
the uncertainty of the spelling and composition of the sentences: "You will think me long in not writing to you
before, and well. you may when I consider I have not written to you since I have been in the country. I hope
you will forgive me, and I promise to be more punctual in future. We have had a good deal of marching since
my brother last wrote to you", and so on.
I went over to Elvas and spent a day there it is a very strong place,. Fort Lalippe on the left flank
of the town is well worth seeing it is one of the strongest works I ever saw but as for Elvas it is nothing
but a very bad town... During the marches we were joined by 16 officers and 360 men from the 2nd Batt,
which made us one of the finest batts. in the country upwards of a thousand strong in the field. 58 ... The
Spanish people were glad to see us, making great complaints of the treatment they received from the French.
We are well provisioned with every sort of provision and in general rather healthy considering the time of year
which is very unhealthy in this part of the country. Remember me to Loyd, 59 and if it is in your power to pay him
any attention do as he behaved particularly well to me which doing will oblige your affectionate brother E. G. Freer.60
William completed the letter. There is another daydream-this
time of when "we all meet round a cheerful fire at
Knipton". He was fearful that the thought of his father's going to Ireland would fret his mother: "I
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
really think he ought now to give over the army and think of making
some comfortable settlement and that
with what my mother possesses would make them above what at present he can possibly devise".61
They were still in the same area. There is a long account of the temporary withdrawal forced on them in
September by Marmont, so that he could get supplies to Ciudad Rodrigo, and of the neat way in which some
of the "resistance" forces made off with 200 head of the newly-supplied cattle which in turn served as
effective bait to the governor of the city and some of his staff who were taken. "The Leicester are once more
in Ireland and my father with them. He has been long enough in that service, and leaving England ought to
cause his bringing to issue. whether he may expect anything from the Duke (of Rutland, presumably). At any
rate I think he should remain no longer in the Militia but retire to his family and enter into business". For
himself William had "given up all thought of entering the Portuguese service", evidently discouraged by his
C.O., whose anxiety not to lose him seems very reasonable. He had been acting adjutant in the absence of
Pitts, and the colonel had promised him the adjutancy if Pitt got his company. However, many people thought
the Sergeant-Major of the second Battalion was "by his long services in that, capacity entitled to promotion ...
and Murphy (Adjt. of the 2nd Bn.) to join the 1st". Edward had gone on detachment for a few weeks at
Coimbra: "he stands it out famously but is. too idle". William seems to have been an admirable brother, and
A postscript added that the Lisbon Gazette had reported the outbreak of actual hostilities between Russia
and France: "I trust with truth-it will make a change with us". It was some months premature, but certainly the
massing in France of 200,000 troops for the Russian War had its effect on the outcome in the Peninsula, just
as the activities of Wellington in the Peninsula contributed to the result in eastern Europe. In his next letter to
Gibraltar 07 December, from Fuente Guinaldo) William was chafing: 62
I have not heard from you. I cannot say how long.. . . We have had very little to do since my last.... the war
in this country does not appear likely to terminate if we can at all judge by the staff, who have their foxhounds and
hunting twice or three times a week. We have another amusement having collected a company of Strolling Players
out of the Regt. and Right Wing 95th. We have erected a theatre in the ruins of a chapel. The scenery and dresses
are excellent, and among the company several excellent performers. The last. performance was honoured by officers
from all parts of the army: Lord Wellington was to have been there but something occurred to put it off. [We hear
more of these military theatricals later on.] I cannot tell what makes my father so long without writing.
It is more than three months: in fact, since they started for Ireland I have not had a single word.
That was just before Christmas. He wrote again
at the end of January. 1812, the year of the fatal march to
Moscow, had begun with a bang in Spain. We had invested Ciudad Rodrigo, to William's great satisfaction,
P. 24 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
and it had swiftly fallen. His detailed account 63
adds nothing to the well known story. Edward was among the
volunteers for the "Forlorn Hope", the storming of the small breach. He was not chosen: of the three
subalterns picked from the 43rd, one was killed.
"With respect to England", William went on, "I heard
both from my Father and Mother a short time ago, the
latter was well and intended spending Xmas at the Vace's in Coventry. My Father means to put Tom in the 43rd
next volunteering. I shall kick against that, for too many brothers do not agree well in a regiment: I do not mean to
say that that is the case with Edward and myself. I shall propose my Father placing him in the 95th Then at last on
18 February Edward got a letter off to his mother, apologising for not writing oftener, "but, as William has, it is one
or the same thing, and .... I do not forget to offer my prayers to the Almighty for the preservation of Parents so dear
to me"'. Then, light heartedly, "we expect soon to move to Badajoz, which I trust will soon share the same fate as
Ciudad Rodrigo, which I have no doubt will if taken in hand. . . . I have nearly exhausted my little stock of news, but
I hope soon to hear from you giving me a long account of your tour in Warwickshire. Make Martha and Ann join you
in your letter and give both Brothers and sisters ten thousand kisses from William and myself."
Badajoz did share the fate of Ciudad Rodrigo between
17 March and 6 April. The next letter is a joint one from
Edward and William to their father at Dublin. It is headed Badajoz, 14 April 1812 and Edward for once begins:
You will, by this time have heard that William and myself are wounded as
Major Duffy wrote to Major
Wells Brother to inform you of the circumstance. I should have wrote also but did not know of the Post going so
soon as it did. William has lost his right arm but is getting on famously and intends writing you a few lines with
his left. I am wounded through the testicles but it has not done my parts any material damage, so that I am in
hopes of a speedy recovery, we have been here these last four Days but expect soon to be removed to Elvas.
The Division marched on the 12th April for the North, where it is supposed Marmont is carrying operations
against Ciudad Rodrigo, several other Divisions have also marched that road by forced marches. We have
had extreme hard work during the Siege having had six hours work in the trenches every Day at our first
commencement we had incessant rain for about five or six days which annoyed us very much, but which our
Soldiers bore with their usual fortitude. I was one who had the Honour of breaking Ground. The enemy
didt.[sic] find us out till the next morning. Our Regt. have suffered most severely in the storm, having lost
Eighteen Officers killed or wounded and three hundred and forty men, amongst the former our Colonel was
killed, a young man loved by the whole Regt. whose
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 25
loss will be much felt in the Regt. 64 The attack
began at ten oClock on the night of the 7th ins. We were up
on the Breach for near an hour and half exposed to a most tremendous fire of musketry, hand grenades,
shells, fire Balls and large stones which they threw down upon us from the Ramparts, and it was not till the
fifth and third Divisions had escaladed in other parts, that we could enter. Nearly every Regt. have suffered in
the same proportion with our own. Major Wells his wounded and here with us, we are ten in one House but
have every accommodation we can wish for. We are attended once a day by the surgeon, who dresses our
wounds. Our time passes very slow but we get over it as well as we can with the assistance of Books but
which we find rather scarce, having nearly finished - our stock. Capel makes one of us, he is wounded in the arm
I hope to see Thomas appointed to some Regt. this Volunteering. I intend writing to my Mother by the same Packet
with this. 21st April. We have been waiting an opportunity to forward this till now. We are both much recovered.
Remember me to all Friends and believe me your ever dutiful Son, Edwd. G. Freer.
There follows a strange handwriting, shaky and with the letters slanting backwards.
My dear Father,
I hope the supposed neglect which you must of course impute to us will
not hurt your feelings-the cause
of you not hearing from us at the time the Dispatches were sent off was owing to their not giving us time at the
Hospital to have letters [torn]. Major Duffy however wrote to Wells in London to announce it to you. Thank
God we are both doing as well as the nature of our Wounds can possibly admit of. My right arm was
amputated having had a Musquet Shot which shattered it above the Elbow. I also had a slug in my backside
which worked out the other night: from this place I have no pain. It is healing up. I have also a bruise on the
knee from a stone with which they saluted us in the breach. A short time will bring me completely round, be
assured we will. not fail giving you an account of how we get on from time to time and with prayer for safety
my dear Father
Your affectionate Son
W. Freer. 65
The storming of Badajoz is
one of the most desperate and terrible fights in history.. We have an independent
account of Edward's conduct, written at the time of his death.66 "At Badajoz, having gained the summit of a
high wall, and his companions being. all killed or wounded, unable alone
P. 26 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
to descend amongst the French, yet unwilling to retreat, he was observed
by the combatants on both sides
(from the flashes of the guns) standing most gallantly, and contemptuously picking stones from the wall and
throwing them at the enemy till at length, having received three shots, he fell and was carried to a. tent and
laid by the side of his brother who was also wounded at the Breach."
The news of their wounds brought John at once to Lisbon to see them, 67 brought a very moving letter
to their mother from their father's admirable sister, 68 and even stirred their father into presenting a memorial
to the Duke of York on behalf of his sons. 69 This is their "aunt Clay's" letter to their mother:
My dear Mrs. Freer,
Perhaps ere this you have heard of the great and surprising victory we
have gained in Portugal.
I congratulate you with a Mothers sympathy that your brave sons are alive and doing well. Charles
has just seen the last dispatch from Lord Wellington which expresses the laurels that the wounded in
such a cause must be ever crowned with, and he confidently reports they are all going on well. What
distinguished honour must you and my dear Brother feel in the animating accounts you will receive of
the Glory your sweet children have attained ....
Believe me I am your truly sympathizing friend
Saturday evng 5 o.'clock-I have this moment received most comfortable intelligence
from my eldest
son, which is, he has just been with Mr. Wells who has received a letter from Capt. Duffy of the 43rd, his
brother Major Wells, tho severely, is not dangerously wounded-that your Brave Son William. as shewn such
Patience and Magniminity as is not in the power of words to express and is doing extremely well-Dear Edward
is slightly wounded. Capt. D saw them both after the Battle and says they fought nobly and both were,
bright examples of patience and Resignation. we all unite in begging to hear of you by return of post. May
God Almighty bless you and support you is my ardent prayer.
A few days later Mrs. Clay wrote again: 70
I could not tell you all: but now you express yourself so truly Christian,
so resigned to the Will of God, that
I will reveal to you the exact account as if you heard it. The day Mr. Clay and my son Charles heard of the battle
our hearts failed us, for my Emma, who was tenderly attached to Edward, had. expressed that, from some ideas,
she had many fears for her cousins. They had for some time been present to her imaginations in sleep, and
she anticipated this to me a few days before the distressing news. Charles therefore went eagerly to search
the Gazette, and found how fatally the beloved
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 27
had suffered. How to let you know in the tenderest and most prudent manner
was our anxious
thoughts .... and my husband. went to Mr. Wells who had a letter from Capt. Duffy of the 43rd saying
.... that dear Wm. Freer had borne the amputation of his arm with such courage and fortitude as
words could not express. Your dear Edward was wounded in the abdomen, severely but he adds that
you must take notice that severely is not dangerously and he -Capt. Duffy-says I have seen them since
the wounds have been dressed and they are going on as well as possible"... . If He takes them to
Himself, you will be sure to meet in a blissful eternity. It was not many minutes before dear Edward
left me that he spoke with filial gratitude of the early religious truths you had taught him., -and spoke with
rapture of the pious conduct of Major Gardner.
A month later, 22 May, William
had just left for Lisbon on his way home on sick-leave when Edward, at
Estremoz on the Badajoz-Lisbon road, heard that John had arrived in Lisbon and proposed to come and see them.
Edward at once sent off a note to suggest a meeting at Montemor, half-way, or, failing that, at Lisbon, 71 "I am well
mounted and shall be able to arrive in three or four days. I have now a week's leave and shall not scruple to take
another .... the Commanding Officer of the Regt. would not say anything, he is a particular Friend of mine: were they
[the Regt.] near this I would get leave without difficulty. I am determined to see you if it is possible". Edward's "particular Friend", Macleod's successor, was Napier.
John arrived at Lisbon in
time to see William set sail, and then went to meet Edward. Afterwards
to him: "Your affection in coming to Lisbon when we were wounded will never be erased from my heart",72 He himself proceeded to Knipton, where he "had the happiness of finding all well. Oh! such work at the meeting-who should have
the first kiss .... 73 He wants to know "what difference you discern in the peasantry of Spain and, Portugal, I say peasantry
for I do not conceive the upper class of either nation to be worth thinking of, and as for their spirit they have none but that
Edward, with the slighter
wounds, went back into action with his regiment. Marmont was watching Portugal
north, and on 12 June the British army was up there again, crossing the Agueda with the Light Division at the head of the
centre column. After a long march they arrived at Rueda, north-east of Salamanca and not far from Valladolid. On 3
August Edward sat down and described the actions of July to John: 74
.. . the enemy being reinforced by Bonet, which made them stronger than
ourselves, they crossed the Douro on
15 July. We retreated as they advanced on 18th ... their infantry were marching on a parallel with us for more than a league endeavouring to bring us to action, but they did not succeed ... we continued our
P. 28 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
till 21st, when we arrived within a league of Salamanca. We all expected
we should leave that town,
but were greatly surprised on 22nd to hear we were to attack them. They had crossed the river Tormes, and
we did the same. They took up a tolerably strong position and a brisk cannonade commenced early in the
morning and continued the whole day till 3 o'clock, when the 3rd and 5th. Divisions began the attack. They
took several heights from the enemy in good stride. At 6 o'clock a general attack took place.
Marmont, Duke of Ragusa,
had given Wellington his first opportunity of the whole campaign to launch
a general attack. What so "greatly surprised" Edward on the 22nd is explained
by the unfailing Napier: "'At 3 o'clock, a report reached him (Wellington)
that the French left was in motion and pointing towards the Ciudad Rodrigo
road; then starting up he repaired to the high ground, and observed their
movements for some time, with a stern contentment, for their left wing
was entirely separated from the centre. The fault was flagrant, and he
fixed it with a stroke of a thunderbolt. A few orders issued from his lips
like the incantations of a wizard." 75 Edward simply
says: "The enemy before 8 o'clock were beat from every part of their position
with great loss", which he proceeds to enumerate-Marmont's right arm, Bonet
wounded, 17 guns, 2 eagles, 4 standards and 6,000 men taken. But he was
marked out for a soldier, not a soldier author like his C.O., to whose
account of the battle of Salamanca we turn. Neither of them saw fit to
mention the ball given by Lord Wellington at Almedo on 28 July,
t o which all officers were invited. Edward ends: "On 30th we arrived within a league and a half of Valladolid. I visited that city. The people were very glad to see the English. It is a fine city, well supplied with everything."
Within a fortnight they had marched
south-east over the mountains and into the plain of Madrid. The Light Division
bivouacked in the park of the Escurial, and on 12 August Wellington entered
the capital at the head of his army. From Madrid, Edward wrote to John
in Gibraltar on 19 August 76 and to William, coming to the end of his leave
at Knipton, on 4 October.77 Edward was having the time of his life, making
up (like the rest of the army) for the long months of sleeping among the
woods and the rocks, of eating in the open, of living cheek by jowl with
the men of the regiment. "This city, I know not how to describe it .. .
is well supplied with Taverns and every convenience possible. I like it
full as well as London. It is not very large. The palace is magnificent:
it will be useless my attempting to describe it." Already, 19 August, he
had been to a ball given by the inhabitants to the British officers: "'it
was a most delightful one, attended by the first families. The finest Women
I ever saw: such good people I never met: we danced till 6 o'clock,
when we had the honor of taking the delightful creatures home." Again,
"the people illuminated for several nights after we arrived . . . . they
love us I am certain. Happy shall we be if we can but keep it [meaning,
I think, the capital] .... I have made great progress in the language.
I like it extremely and as I have such inducements I have no doubt I shall
make a tolerable hand in a short time."
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 29
The October letter contains
the inevitable account of the ritual. of a bull-fight, and the, comment:
Spanish Ladies attend these cruel sights and delight in them, We have had a great number of excellent
Balls." He introduces a fellow subaltern, Samuel Hobkirk:78 "He is very gay here. He gave a Ball and Supper
which at least cost him 300 Doll: everything that's good he gave. The people who performed at Guinaldo are
going to perform here in the Public Theatre. Havelock performs Leonora, the part that Hob performed." He
ends up: "You will find us going on in the old way as when you left us, as happy as Kings. . . . There is a
famous Stag-hunting here, and Fox hunting too. Tell my dear Mother what pleasure her few lines gave me.
With my kindest love to my Father, Mother, Brothers and Sisters, believe: me dear Will yours affectionately."
We have only one more letter of Edward's: it is therefore good to read in the first of the two Madrid letters: "I
was never so happy in my life."
Edward's doubt about our
ability to keep Madrid was fully justified. The French forces converged
south-east and north-cast: and Wellington, his communications threatened, fell back once more to the
Portuguese frontier, via Salamanca. It was a severe. retreat-in some ways as hard as, though shorter than,
that to Corunna. But once behind the Agueda they were on familiar and fairly safe ground, and the 43rd spent
the winter of 1812 in Gallegos in much the same way as they had spent the previous one in Guinaldo. In the
days before E.N.S.A. entertainers, the Light Division made good use of its own theatrical talent. In Napier it
had its own playwright. In a letter to his wife from Gallegos,79 he enclosed a squib written by himself, for
performance there, and containing amusing references to the Madrid performance mentioned by Edward.
The seer (a sort of Prologue) is addressing Tony Lumpkin:
I have watch'd your rehearsal,
my skill is not shamm’d And I know from Madrid that
your play will be damn-d. . Say, went the black 8O actor exultingly on, While his thunder
was rolling, his false lightning shone? Ah no! he spoke low, and advanced in a funk;
Leonora was tipsy, and Isabel drunk. Retire, then, fat Lumpkin, retire from this fun, Return
to thy quarters, and stick to thy gun. 81 I see all the future, and strong is the light, And hot
and long marches come thick on my sight.... Proud Wellington prances, we march at his bid)
And bad plays shall be acted again in Madrid.
At least one of their play-bills has been preserved-that for the entertainment
on Saturday evening, 6 March
1813, in the "Light Division Theatre, Gallegos". Two pieces were performed that night: the parts all enacted by
officers of the Division. In the second, a farce entitled Raising the Wind,
LIGHT DIVISION THEATRE
On Saturday Evening, the 6th of March, 1813
WILL BE PERFORMED
Lt. Hennel, 43rd Regt.
Snacks, Lt. Pattenson, 43rd Regt.
Mr. Franks, Lt. Pemberton, 95th Rattle, Lt. Havelock, 43rd Regt.
Clown, Lt. Hopewood, 95th Regt.
Servant, Lt. Hamilton, 95th Regt.
Lt. Lord C. Spencer, 95th Regt
Dolly, Lt. Hble. C. Gore, 43rd Regt
Margery, Lt. Grubbe, 43rd Regt
TO WHICH WILL BE ADDED THE FARCE OF
RAISING THE WIND
Lt. Pattenson, 43rd Regt.,
Fainwou'd, Lt. Hopewood, 95th Regt.,
Diddler, Capt. Cator, Royal Artillery,
Sam, Lt. Hennel, 43rd Regt.,
Richard, Lt. Considine, 43rd Regt.,
Waiter, Lt. Hamilton, 95th Regt.
Lt. Ed. Freer, 43rd Regt.
Miss Durable, Capt. Hobkirk, 43rd Regt
NO ADMITTANCE BEHIND THE SCENES
[Printed at Freneda]
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 31
Miss Durable was played by Hobkirk, recently elevated to a captaincy,
and Peggy, the heroine, by Edward.
There is no reference to this in the Freer letters that survive.
Now Napoleon had retreated
from Moscow, and had to withdraw Soult and 20,000 men from the Peninsula.
That left 70,000 French, roughly double the force of the reliable allied infantry: British and Portuguese. In the
middle of May active operations began, and in five weeks the French under King Joseph and Marshal
Jourdain had been driven back to the Pyrenees. William, back from Knipton, embarked on a number of very
long letters to John: they were written out of, and sometimes as, a campaign diary as he went forward. 82 Poor
William's writing with his left hand is often nearly illegible, and on some of the sheets he has adopted the
crossing method, writing across the sheet vertically as well as horizontally to economise in paper. He
apologises to John "that the confined station of a Platoon Officer will not admit of him to speak generally". 83
For our part we wish he could have spoken with more particularity. But it was his nature to leave himself out of
the picture, and to try to follow the general campaign. He had just passed his twenty-second birthday (no
reference to it: of course), and already he had all the seriousness and responsibility of middle age. It is
The stages in the headlong
advance arc made clear in the letters: Salamanca, Aldea Nueva de
Figueroa, Palencia, not far from Burgos ("one of those unpleasant days when we form columns-move
on-halt-see a little skirmishing-expect to be employed-are disappointed, and to crown all .... encamped on a
ploughed field, and had no baggage till after dark"), Puente Arefias over the upper Ebro, Vitoria, "turned from
Bayonne, they made a precipitate retreat towards Pamplona, we at their rear". "Don't you think one month
has done enough to astonish Europe?" No rest: a lunge south on Tapalla against a corps that gave them the
slip: "crossed the river Aragon at Caseda on the 28th [June] completely done up". Back to Pamplona and on
to San Sebastian 10 July: "We are now in the midst of the Pyrenees: is it not glorious! " "Orders are out for our
conduct in France .... it is Bonaparte and not the French nation we fight against .... Austria it seems is inclined
to reform, and wishes the Confederation of the Rhine dissolved. Should she come in our scale, the affairs
There are two snatches of
family affairs, "It is a most extraordinary thing I have not heard from
father since out, although I have written to him several times and on a subject which required immediate
answer. I tell you what: I am fearful his finances are confused with the Duke for this reason. He has given up
the farm that we ought never to have taken, and by which he had lost. Nor do I believe he ever paid the rent
when he has resided there .... It is to be lamented that in his old age his dependence is so precarious .... " And
then, on 15 July: "I had yesterday a letter of the 18th ult.[sic] from my father. They are at Liverpool- nothing
P. 32 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
When Napoleon heard that
Wellington had crossed the Ebro he at once ordered Soult to the Pyrenees,
and he arrived at St. Jean Pied de Port alone. He collected from the army beaten at Vitoria a force of about
70,000 men, but the allied troops continued to inflict heavy punishment in what are called the Battles of the
Pyrenees. The 43rd were right forward in the mountains about Vera, and they contributed a distinguished
detachment to the storming of San Sebastian.
On 7 October the 43rd were
involved in the "passage of the Bidassoa". William related how "Ned was
among them [the skirmishers] and picked. up a fine artillery mule belonging to the mountain guns taken by the
2nd Brigade". Edward himself described the episode in the joint letter he and William wrote to their father at
Liverpool on 17 October. Edward began:
Camp near Vera.
My dear Father,. . You will
before this have heard of an attack made on the right of the Enemy's position
in which our Division have been partakers, and I am happy to say we succeeded even beyond our
expectations. This position which was the only part of the Pyrenees occupied by the Enemy is of immense
strength, both by Nature, and Art, as the French had been fortifying it for two months past and which from
its being so steep and high would have been difficult of access, was taken from the Enemy with a very small
loss on our side, as you will see by the Gazette. When we moved out to attack we expected to lose one half
of the Regt. which we should have done had the Enemy behaved as they ought. My company was out skirmishing,
in front of the Regt. and as we advance they quitted their work, and would not wait to give the Battn. an opportunity
of charging them. The Column halted when we had gained possession of the heights, but we, the skirmishers,
followed them a league into: France, not allowing them time to form once, after we got them into confusion.
T he Spaniards behaved remarkably well in this attack, and every hope is entertained of their further good
behaviour. I should have written after the action, but we expected to have attacked them, the next day, but I
think now we shall wait till Pamplona falls, and then we shall not go far, as winter is fast advancing. The
possession of this ground will be of great importance has it secures us an excellent position in case the
Enemy should ever be strong enough to attack. We took four pieces of Artillery and many prisoners. France
reminds me much of old England, it is fertile and well cultivated. I never saw the Army in such good health
and spirits as they are at this time, and very anxious to advance. Bayonne is in sight about five leagues
distant. I should like much to winter in France has would afford a good opportunity of learning French. We
both continue in good health, indeed I consider my[self] quite a Spaniard, no country could have agreed
better with me, I have never been ill once since I left England, and I have always been comfortable and happy.
With prayers for your safety believe me my dear Father your ever affectionate dutiful son, Edward G. Freer.84
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 33
Like so many of his fellows
in the British army at that moment William remarked on the improvement
Spanish and decline of the French soldier, and then did his duty with typical conscientiousness by Edward, "A
few remarks from you to Edward on the subject of his Letters would be of the greatest service. He is an
excellent Lad, is everything a Brother would wish. He does not avoid study. Spanish he is very well
acquainted with, and if we go into French villages will soon know French, A few remarks of his English will
make him consider the necessity of attending to it".
William's letter to John,
concluded 6 November, says: "On the 4th the weather changed after about
weeks of the most dreadful I ever experienced. Every moment we expect to advance: to-morrow is mentioned.
We are full of confidence. Rely on hearing of me should it please Providence that I escape....." 85
This was the first time William
employed such a pathetic conditional clause: it is clear that he was apprehensive
of the great assault upon the peak of La Rhune. The end of the battle is described by another subaltern: 86
We looked from our vantage ground over an extent of about twenty miles
occupied by two gallant armies,
of which the Light Division composed the centre of the British. To the right the pass of Mayar and St. Jean de
Pied de Port; to the left St. Jean de Luz, and from each extremity could be distinctly traced, by the flashes of fire
and rising smoke, the advance of our troops and the gradual retreat of the French, offering an obstinate resistance
at every favourable spot. But the British were not to be denied...
While looking around, William Freer came up and enquired. anxiously for
his brother Edward, Seeing
that something was amiss he turned round, saying, "I see how it is", and started off to the rear, where his first
fears were too soon confirmed: his brother having been shot through the head, Both brothers were fine
courageous fellows, much liked in the regiment; each had been wounded, the elder had lost an arm at
Badajoz. The younger frequently told me he bad a presentiment he would be killed in the attack of La Petite
Rhune. He happened also to be in the last company that went into action that day, when his presentiment
was fulfilled, to the great sorrow of all his brother officers and the entire regiment.
Napier's tribute to Edward
has been quoted. His own biographer refers to the manner of Napier's discovering
Edward's extraordinary presentiment: "The night before the battle of the Nivelle, Major Napier was stretched on the
ground under a large cloak, when young Freer came to him and crept under the cover of his cloak, sobbing as if his
heart would break. In his endeavours to soothe and comfort the boy, Napier learnt from him that be was firmly
persuaded he should lose his life in the approaching battle, and his distress was caused by thinking of his mother and
sisters in England".87 To his wife Napier wrote: "Of two boys that
P. 34 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
I have brought up in my Company for four years, who have been in every
action with me, and who were my
constant companions, that I looked upon as my younger brothers, one is killed, , .." 88
William wrote to John on 21 November. 89 He had been prevented from writing sooner by "rain continual,
and duty in, an intricate country before the enemy keeping us constantly stirring". The shock of Ned’s death had
been almost too much for him, "After carrying the entrenchments, during a short halt I was abruptly told of my
brother's death. I borrowed my company officer's horse and hurried to the spot where he lay with his servant
wounded by his side. The wound he received was instantaneous death (in his right side). He never spoke. I could
remain but a few minutes with him-gave directions for. his burial to be in perfect Regimentals and forced myself from
him to rejoin my Corps which was again advancing."
The war in the spring of
1814 had many features in common with that of the spring of 1945. "A week's
weather as given the country quite a different aspect", 90 William was already writing on 29 December; but
Napoleon persisted in the struggle. Preserved among the letters is William's campaign diary for the period
December, 1813-April 1814. But his letters betray that his thoughts were turning hoi-ne, full though some of
them are of military activities. We have no word of his promotion to Captain on 1 December 1813. 91 His letter
to his mother from Arrauntz on the Nive, below Ustaritz, 5 February 1814, begins:
Yesterday I had the extreme satisfaction of receiving a letter from my
Father of the 13th 13th. giving me
an account of the Belvoir Festivities-they must have been conducted with the greatest ability attended with enormous
expense, but that the Noble Host could afford. I dare say Daniel thinks himself of no little importance since his
conversation with the Duke of York. So I find Thomas has been at Knipton. I am glad of it for both your sakes
I could have wished his stay to have been longer but patriotism calls him forth to give the final blow for the
deliverance of Europe. Oh I what a happy day will that be (when returned to England) to see collected at your
fireside your family enjoying those blessings which the exertions of so many years have at last led us so
speedily to expect. 'Tis true our losses have been great but Memory will revere them. I find my dear Mother it
will be longer than that I mentioned in my last before I can quit this country owing to some Captains expected
out, not having arrived. On their joining I should be at liberty to proceed to England. I wish you to request
Martha to write to me, anxious as I am to hear from Knipton I can't but think she is a little neglectful of her
promise. She perhaps may say the same of me but I consider writing to you equally entitled to an
acknowledgement from her. I think ano' Letter could reach me before I leave France. We have had such
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 35
dreadful weather here that
the roads are scarcely passable, we may expect the whole of this month
and probably the next. As I take it for granted that my dear Mother will answer this I anticipate a full account
of circumstances that happened at Belvoir during the gaities that attended the young Marquises christening.
Dear Anne must not forget to give me a few lines in fact I must insist upon it being a complete family letter.
You see I'm become quite positive of late. I hope master Daniel. has more gallantry about him than when I left
him. I will give him the French style of addressing Ladies on My return. By my Father not mentioning Richard I
conclude the dear lad is quite recovered. It can't be long before he leaves school. He'll be the scholar of the
family, what shall you make of him? Do you recollect my learning the A..B.C.
Kindest love to all with remembrances etc.
I remain your ever affectionate Son
W. Freer. 92
The Belvoir Festivities were
also attended by the poet Crabbe, though it may be surmised that he derived
excitement from the conversation of the Duke of York than Master Daniel. 93 Three weeks later William was
writing to John, from Ustaritz on the lower Nive, 23 February:
The country we are in now assumes quite a different appearance, and were
it not for the language I could
fancy myself in England. [They were at the rear, being issued with new clothing.] Anxious as you may naturally
suppose us to join our division we are obliged to halt .... until relieved by another Regiment. I have one consolation.
I have a charming quarter, and in it a beautiful woman with whom I jabber my bad French and for want of other
subjects talk of the war, of the Bourbons (whom they all desire to see on the throne), but this is a tender point, for
should Buonaparte again raise his head his satellites would not fail to remind him of the manner he was used in
when fortune frowned upon him. The people know that the Duke d'Angouleme is with our Head Qrs. and make
inquiries why he does not show himself openly, as then the sentiments of the people would be known.
Ist March. We started, marched till. dark, but unable to come up with the army. I heard very heavy firing
which proved to be the opposition in passing the Gave de Pau. From all accounts the Ground was obstinately
contested by the enemy, and that the charge was never received by them in a more cool and intrepid manner than
in this affair, but that after being put to the flight the confusion became general.
No sign of the leave he promised his mother: it was not granted; there
was still need of him, though he put it that "I have
made up my determination of going through the campaign".
In France, the Commander-in-Chief displayed a wise caution in moving his forces towards Toulouse, the scene of
the last battle. "12 March. Soult it appears is anxious not to go more into the interior if
P. 36 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
possible, and is now moving towards Pau (a curious direction). I don't
think a battle can be far distant. As yet
the 43rd have nothing but marching -being in the rear when the affair at Orthes took place, for our clothing".
The remainder of his space he devoted to family affairs:
saw Thomas' name in the Provisional Battn. I sincerely hope it will not
prevent your future plans being realised
[their father was hoping to make a surgeon of Thomas]. Should Peace be made, you will (perhaps) see me walking about
on half- pay, but that has not given me a moment of uneasiness-as I feel I should soon be able to get on full again.94
With respect to our lamented Edward's accounts, it is not in my power to transmit, the Balance to you as it may be
two months before they will be settled. Fifty guineas will be the outside, all debts being paid. I had the other day a
letter from Charles Clay, Madrass, .. saying he had [not] got any appointment nor did he expect he should be able
for a long time to succeed. He had been offered an Ensign's commission in some British Regiment there but would
not accept of it. That at any rate shows, his case is not a desperate one. In the event of the Provisional Battalion coming
out to this country do not fail letting me know, and above all things remind him how necessary to have ready money
on landing, for the purchase of an animal for baggage-which ought to be small and compact (the baggage). I am
fearful my dear Mother will consider my conduct very strange-after saying so very positively I should return.
There is one more letter from France. Appropriately, it is from William to John. The 43rd were scarcely employed at Toulouse, which the British entered on 12 April. They were advancing south-west on Villefranche when the French opened peace negotiations. The Light Division retraced their steps to Montech. There they spent six idyllic weeks.
May 21st 1814.
My dear John,
for your kind congratulations on my promotion-would the opportunity had
arrived that I might make
you a like return. I am fearful you must console yourself some time longer with remembering that the corps
you belong to is the most respectable in the Army, although a poor consolation in lieu of Rank, yet fortune
having placed us in different spheres your philosophy will bear you up, and carry you on. After fagging for near
six years the prospect of half pay begins to stare me in the face. What can I do who have from my infancy
thought of nothing but Soldiers? I could never exist idle and as for a profession I have none nor could I ever
be brought up to follow one. To return upon full pay would require at least a thousand pounds-a sum rather
too considerable ever for me to think of giving. Perhaps I may have some chance with Frederick if I can
muster sufficient impudence to teaze him three or four times a month. I think I have some claim to his
attention for there are very few Soldiers in this Army that have been so constantly employed, in my
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 37
own Regiment not one, and their show has been pretty considerable -those
mentioned and a friend to assist to draw up a Memorial I trust may cause H.R.H. to consider my case., and
save me dying of ennui. I trust the time will not be too long ere I have the happiness of shaking you by the
hand. Your affection in coming to Lisbon when we were wounded will. never be erased from my heart. Oh I
what pleasure it would give me to see you in. France. When I wrote to you from Toulouse I could not give you
a full description of the French reception-merely the occurrences of the-happy period of the Bourbons re-
assuming their rights. Entering into our Cantonments of ease amidst people almost distracted with delight
could not fail to be gratifying to us-to be complimented-to be called the deliverers of France and even of
Europe, by the most respectable of Frenchmen were circumstances that will always be remembered with pride.
We are now in daily expectation of marching-but arc yet in doubt for what port of embarkation. We learn
the Prince Regent wishing the Hussar Brigade and the Light Division to march by Paris there are some
difficulties started by Lord W- I hope most ardently they may be overruled. To have British Infantry at Paris will
gratify the pride of the Prince and fulfil the desires of the troops mentioned to march there. We have continual
Parties of Pleasure and Balls in abundance. Marshal Perigin's family reside in this place and make the society
charming. She has two daughters grown UP., one married to Genl. Baron La Nuice, [sic] t’other a beautiful girl
of sixteen I was in love with her for a fortnight but finding her indifferent I mustered sufficient courage to recall
my heart, and once more find myself comfortable. Talking upon that subject I think it not at all improbable but I
shall make a fool of myself on my return to England-I find I am very touchy. Once I considered myself a
middling correspondent as far as regularity goes, but of late I am become entitle to any other apelation than
that. To your goodness I therefore trust. But is it not strange that the communication from Gibraltar to
England is so uncertain, for every letter I receive from thence complains of the length of period they have
been without hearing from you. Mrs. Jordan continues to favor me with Epistles and talks a great deal
of the young Ladies in her environs and to whom they are likely to be matched. I heard from Martha a few
days ago-she mentions. John Freer as being again married and of her having received a letter from the Bride.
Does not that seem as if the little fat Gentleman wishes again to know his Brothers. Who is he? A poor
attempt to live beyond his income makes him think himself a superior being- I can never think of my poor
Father's case without regret-the recollection of so many years mispent, alone is sufficient to sour his
temper. In my opinion he can never become a professional man-Military Manners have taken too great a hold
of his system ever to enable him to attend to the drudgery that would be required of him. Thomas if properly
brought up might obviate that but alas he has arrived at an age which I think cannot be proper to make a
medical man of him-besides the studies he ought to pursue will be more expensive than my Father will put-. Tom is
P. 38 LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA
a good Lad and it would grieve
me much to see him I a sphere in which he could not pass with credit to
himself. I long much to see, you-we would talk at length upon family affairs. I could wish more than I fear will
ever be realised-but we must not repine- In the meantime be assured of the sincere affection of your Brother
William Freer. 95
Then up to Bordeaux, the
review by their great Chief-now Duke of Wellington-and out into the sparkling
of the Garonne in July. What gay and sorrowful thoughts must have tumbled into William's mind as he was rowed out
to the Queen Charlotte or the Dublin, and. as they dropped anchor nine days later in Plymouth Sound !
The family correspondence,
deposited in the Leicester Museum, goes on beyond the war and forward.
the Victorian age. It. is not within the scope of this essay to examine it, but merely to sketch the subsequent
lives of the main characters in these letters.
John paid for being in "the most respectable corps in the army "the Royal Regiment of Artillery-by having to
wait until 1837 for his captaincy. He married in 1823.96 In 1856 he became a Major-General, and in 1866 a Lieut.-
General. He -retired on full pay in March next year and died, at Kenilworth, in June.97 It is from this branch of the
family that the correspondence has come into the Leicester archives. William's fine career was. ended by a growth
on the aorta, as early as 1836. 98 He had served thirty years of his forty-five. He was placed on half-pay of the
Regiment on 28 January 1817, and again on 11 December 1817. In 1825 he was a Major, "unattached" until next
year when he was appointed to the 10th Foot. He was promoted Lieut.-Colonel in 1833 and died in command of the
10th on Corfu three years later. 99 Thomas: evidently came out of the Regiment at the end of the war. He established
himself successfully as an apothecary in Leicester and died at the age of thirty-eight as the result of a fall from a gig
in Charles Street.100 It was Daniel, the youngest, who followed his brothers in a career in the 43rd. In 1825 he was
with them at Gibraltar, and his agility there has secured him a mention in his Regiment's records. "Returning from a
shooting exercise with some of his brother officers, be was laughingly challenged as they neared the saluting battery
of twenty-one guns on iron carriages, to jump one. To the astonishment of the spectators, he instantly jumped over
the whole twenty-one, one by one, and turning back repeated the exploit without flagging."101 He was with an
expedition that went the following year to Portugal.
LETTERS FROM THE PENINSULA P. 39
William did not "make a fool
of himself" in the way that he had feared in that last. letter to
John.. Nor did the
two sisters marry. Anne', "handsome as an angel", and Martha, whose lack of beauty was "'made up by good
humour and pleasing manners", died aged forty and fifty-seven respectively, occupying after their parents the
home in Oakham Market Square to which the family removed from the scenes of childhood at Knipton.
On the north wall of Oakham. parish church may be seen three monuments one above the other. There is
nothing about them to attract attention.. By November 1858 they had been moved away from the chancel to
the west end of the church and stripped of ornament "by a committee at the recommendation of Mr. Scott,
architect".102 The uppermost still bears its inscription to "Lt.Colonel William Gardner Freer, K.H., who died at
Corfu commanding H.B.M. Tenth Regiment of Infantry on the 2nd August 1836, aged 45 years. He served in
the 43rd (or Monmouthshire) 103 Light Infantry (one of the Regiments of. the Light Division of the Army) in all
the campaigns of the Peninsular War from 1808 to 1814. He was present during that eventful period in the
battles and sieges of Vimiera-Corunna-Busaco-Fuentes d'Onor--Cuidad Rodrigo-Badajos-Vittoria-
Nivelle-Nive-Toulouse-and. lost his right arm at the storming of Badajos. This tribute to the memory of a
distinguished soldier and sincere friend is erected by his brother officers, by whom a monument has been
placed over his remains which were interred at Corfu." On the middle tablet, Thomas and his two sisters are
commemorated. The lowest one is movingly uncommunicative, considering all that this correspondence
has revealed. It says: "Sacred to the memory of Martha, wife of Thomas Freer, M.D., who died 25 November
1827, aged 57:also Edward Gardner Freer, Lt. 43rd Light Infantry 3rd son of the above) who fell in action in
the Pyrenees 10 November 1813, aged 20: also Thomas Freer, M.D., died 22 May 1835, aged 79". It is all the
tribute Edward would have wished, to be remembered along with his dear parents. But in truth his memory will
live as long as Napier is read.
1 Napier, History of the Peninsular War, vi (1840), 360/I. It will be shown that Edward was twenty, and not nineteen; and that it, was two brothers and a young uncle, not three brothers, who, "covered with wounds, have all, died in the service". These corrections detract nothing at all from the value of Napier’s tribute, written many years after Edward’s death, doubtless from memory. Mr. C. T. Atkinson has helped me to avoid a number of mistakes, and I am deeply grateful to him for reading my proofs with such care. He reminds me that Napier was concerned primarily with "justice and truth" for Sir John Moore and for the army, and that politically he was a partisan Whig. It is, of course, to his passionate justification of the army that his book owes its inextinguishable vitality: dispassionately it would never have been written, though that is the attitude in which we have to try and read it.
2 The churchwardens' books record the rates due from (but apparently not paid by) Thos. Freer, esquire, down to the year 1815-16. I owe this note to the kindness of the present rector, the Rev. J. E. H. Wood.
3 They are in three boxes numbered 16D52, a prefix that I have omitted, for brevity, frommy references to these documents. The letters are in files or bundles within the boxes, and in this paper I have been mainly concerned with file z, commonly the first figure in my references. The second figure refers to the number of the letter or document. File I contains nearly an the family correspondence written during the Napoleonic War. The contents of the remaining files concern the affairs of the family from the end of the war to the end of the century. For the historian of the Artillery there are interesting notes and sketches of gun-drill and exercises in 1838: 16D52/4. The collection was presented by Mrs. H. V. Currie of Guildford. I wish to take this opportunity of thanking her for her interest in my. paper. I want also to thank her niece, Mrs. Noel Jones, for her hospitality, and her generosity in lending me the two miniatures for reproduction. I am very grateful to Mrs. Woodcock, the City Archivist, for unfailing help with the files in the Muniment Room in the Leicester Museum, and. to the Research Board of the University College of Leicester for a grant in aid of the publication of this paper.
4 Mrs. Freer's mother's family.
5 2/I. Here I have left the spelling and punctuation in its original condition, to show the reader
what it was like. Later on, with some deliberate exceptions I have tidied up.
7 An epidemic had broken out in Gibraltar.
8 2/ Ia. Pinned to this note is a lock of fine flaxen hair, presumably John's, and still shining.
12 He joined as Ensign 4 April 1809, and was promoted Lieutenant 12 April 1810. See Sir R. G. A. Levinge, Historical Records of the Forty-third Regiment (1868), 311. Cf. also Major W. J. Freer's article, "Medals and Campaigns of the 43rd Foot" (Trans. Leics. Arch. Soc., x. 357-81), the military details of which are based on Levinge.
13 Cade lambs are those taken early from their dam and hand-fed: a Midland term.
16 Dated 12 NOV. 1800, proved 26 May 1806: 7/3.
17 Dated 4 March 1834, proved 3 May 1836: 7/5.
19 From copy of attested copy of will made 19 June 1786.
20 Proved 2o Feb. 1793: 7/2.
21 We shall find Daniel on intimate terms with Paymaster John Wells and Captain Joseph Wells, both of the 43rd Regiment, and it looks as if they were related to his sister's husband. Bayley Lane was devastated totally in the late German visitations. The Register of Indentures of Apprentices in the Coventry City Archives contains the names of only six apprentices to the business during the decade before Elizabeth's death in 1793-including her eldest son, William: it was no great commercial concern.
22 Appointed Paymaster of the 2nd battalion of the 43rd, 23 Nov. 1804, from Lieutenant in the Regiment. Present at Vimiero. Resigned July 1809.
23 See A. N. Ryan, 'The Causes of the British Attack upon Copenhagen in 1807",
English Historical Review, 1xviii (1953), 37-55.
25 Col. Stewart had been promoted to command the Brigade.
26 Nearly one million went to the troops in prize-money. Napoleon expressed his
surprise that the English did not appropriate the hardy Danish sailors as well as their Armada.
28 LEVINGE, op. cit., 103.
29 ibid., 311.
32 Levinge, loc. cit.
34 See Levinge, 344.
37 Napier describes how the hill-top was gained by the French late on the first evening, and General Hill, thinking they were stragglers, from his own ranks, rode among them with his own Brigade-Major, who was killed: "Hill's horse was wounded by a grenadier, who roughly seized the bridle also, but the general, spurring hard, broke the man's hold, and galloping down met the 29th regiment, which he led up with such a fierce charge, the French could not sustain the shock."
40 1/46, a copy of his obituary taken from the Coventry Mercury of the second week of December 1813.
41 1/16. He served as Lieutenant NO. 7 Coy. of the 10th Battn. Royal Artillery. The 10th Battalion was formed at Woolwich in 1808, and No. 7 COY. served on Gibraltar April 1810-April 1817- See Duncan, History of the Royal Artillery, ii. 186. 1 am grateful to Brigadier W. E. Duncan, M.V.0., D.S.O., M.C., for this reference
42 1 /'7
45 This point was not missed by William: he made it in his letter to John, 21 April, 1/23. But
cf. Oman, History of the Peninsular War, iv. 143.
47 Told by Major Sir J. P. Hopkins, K.H., quoted in Levinge, op. cit., 146.
48 Wellington, Dispatches, vii (1837), 432.
49 Napier, iii. 489-go. so Levinge, 146.
50 Levinge, 146.
51 Levinge, 152.
52 William had his mother's disregard for h's.
55 r/21. it covers the period 13 April-13 June 1811.
57 Writing to his mother the following February, Edward, possibly in self defence, said: "If you see any of the Clasy family will you ask them if Charles received my second letter as I have wrote two and received but one. Let them know how much I wish I to correspond with him and shall expect to hear from him soon ..." I/30.
58 There is a stirring account by one of these reinforcements of their first sight of the far-famed Light Division, printed in Levinge, op. cit., 155.
59 The other officers in John's Coy. were Fead, Marlow and Hill. I have not traced a Lloyd.
63 I/29. The "next volunteering" referred to is the annual call on the Militia to volunteer for the Line: men who were finishing their Militia service got a good bounty to transfer to the Line.
64 Charles M'Leod or Macleod, whom we saw fighting at the Coa. Wellington wrote in his Dispatch: "In Lieut-Colonel Macleod of the 43rd Regiment, who was killed in the breach, His Majesty has sustained the loss of an officer who was an ornament to his profession, and was capable of rendering the most important services to the country". (Dispatches, ix. 44.) He was buried amidst springing corn on the slope of the hill opposite the regiment's camp. He was twenty-seven.
66 I/46. Extract from Coventry Mercury, December 1813.
69 I/32a. In it he refers to his own service of thirty years.
75 Napier, op. cit., v. 167.
78 Hobkirk was taken prisoner at Arcangues 29 NOV. 1813: he was reputed to spend near œ1000 a year on dress. Dining at Soult's on the evening of his capture he was mistaken by a guest for a field-marshal "from the richness of his dress". (Levinge, op. cit., 205, 206.)
796 Jan. 1813, printed in H. A. Bruce (ed.), Life of General Sir William Napier, (1864), I. 125-7.
80 Napier's note to his wife: "Our best performer acted the part of Zanga in the 'Revenge' at Madrid".
81 Lumpkin was played by an Artillery officer.
82 Part of the diary survives on foolscap (25 December 1813-12 April 1814): 1/48. Within it is a smaller pocket-book in which 'William has entered Memorias y occurrencias escritos par G. Freer from 5 September to 4 November 1813. On 7 September he lapsed into English.
86 Lieut. L. H. Maclean of the 43rd, quoted by Levinge, op. cit., 199.
87 Bruce, op. cit., i. 137
88 ibid., 158.
91 Levinge, op. cit., 310.
92 I/ 151.
93 Crabbe, Life of George Crabbe (World's Classics ed.), 203-4
94 See below, P. 38
97 Kane's List, No. 1372.
98 7/6/ 1 : a post-morterm discovered "an enormous aneurism weighing upwards of two pounds".
99 Levinge, op. cit., 311.
100 2/39 and 18/4.
101 Levinge, op. Cit., 229.
102 18/4. For the treatment of the monuments at the restoration of Oakham church, see Rutland Magazine, I (1903-4), 79-8o,
103The 43rd Regiment of Foot received the title "The
Monmouthshire Regiment" in America in 1782 They were united with the 52nd,
under the title "The Oxfordshire Light Infantry", in 1881, and after the
Boer War amalgamated into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
To Peninsular War Map
To Freer Family Research Directory