Autobiography of a cavalryman in the Scots Greys

Archive Collection
  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 1439
  • Dates of Creation
      n.d. [c.1825?]
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      English
  • Physical Description
      22.5 x 17 cm. 1 volume, 603 pages. Binding: quarter leather; boards. Condition: back board detached; repairs to binding and some pages.
  • Location
      Collection available at John Rylands Library, Deansgate.
  • Direct Link

Scope and Content

The diary spans the years c.1799 to 1825, from when the writer first left home, to his leaving military service in 1825. It offers considerable potential to researchers, as it provides a detailed description of a soldier's life during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, both at home in Britain and on campaign, and includes a lengthy and graphic description of the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and its aftermath.

The autobiographical account is handwritten, compiled at an unspecified date, presumably after the writer left the army. The latter section includes copies of general orders issued to the cavalry, commencing on 19 June 1815. The narrative is interspersed with recollections of other people the author meets during his career, most significantly that of his friend, Wentworth, the head of a gypsy band, which occupies almost 100 pages of text. The whole is written in a literary style and the author makes frequent use of dialogue, often in dialect, and of poetry. The binding has been repaired, affecting some pages at the front and end of the book, where a page is now out of order: pp. 601-2 should follow p. 2.

The writer begins his narrative as he makes his way home to his native Scotland after leaving his regiment in Norwich. The journal is written as a recollection of the author's life from the age of about fourteen, when he left home, presumably around the late 1790s/1800, and covers his early working years, enlistment and service with the Scots Greys until his leaving the army in July 1825.

The early part of the journal (pp. 1-39) deals with the writer's early recollections and his peripatetic years working in Scotland, until his enlistment in the regiment of the Scots Greys (p. 40) around the summer of 1803 or 1804. There follows a description of his training at Canterbury, his consequent period of illness, and of his initial duty on the south coast of England, around Ramsgate and Whitstable (pp. 40-82). It then chronicles aspects of his daily military life as the regiment moves around the country (pp. 83-95) to Ipswich (1805), York and Beverley (1806) before departing for Scotland in January 1807 (p. 192).

From pp. 95-187 the writer's narrative is interrupted by a long digression as he relates the recollections of the life of his friend, Wentworth, the head of a band of gypsies, whom he encountered in Essex en route to Ipswich, but who was originally a member of a family in the south of England. Described are numerous episodes from Wentworth's lengthy and colourful life; his involvement in the attempted murder of his brother, his subsequent flight to America with Eliza, his brother's wife, and the ensuing shipwreck on the coast of North America in December 1745, in which his beloved Eliza is drowned; Wentworth's temporary refuge with Indians, before his attempt to return home; the capture of his ship by the French, his subsequent imprisonment and eventual enlistment in the British army. There is a description of fighting during the Seven Years' War, including a detailed account of the Battle of Minden in 1759, plus other battles. The recital concludes with his eventual return to England in 1763 with a wooden leg, to find his parents dead and the family house sold; attaching himself to a band of gypsies, he remains with them as they travel the country.

The main narrative resumes on p. 187. The regiment leaves for Ireland during the late summer (p. 207), where they are engaged in Derry pursuing smugglers and illegal whisky distillers, later spending a year in Dublin (pp. 246-55). On returning to England in June 1810, he describes travelling around various towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire (including Rochdale, Bury and Halifax) before returning to Manchester to deal with Luddite disturbances in May 1812. The regiment's activities from then until the departure for Belgium on 15 April 1815, which include escorting deserters to the Isle of Wight, occupy pp. 246-255.

The next part of the journal (pp. 255-84) covers the departure for Belgium and the preparations for battle after landing at Ostend on 20/21 June. The writer describes the route taking them from Bruges to Ghent and Denderhoutem, the long marches, the search for rations, being billeted upon Flemish families, and encountering soldiers wounded from the battle on arrival at Quatre Bras (p. 281).

There follows a detailed and graphic description of the battle of Waterloo (pp. 285-368) and its aftermath (pp. 370-479). There are references to various generals and individuals in his troop and regiment; he describes the death of Major General Sir William Ponsonby (p. 340), who was killed by a musket ball in front of the right squadron of the Greys, that of the latter's Brigade Major, Major T. Reignolds, and of Colonel Hamilton. The narrator refers to the capture of the Imperial standard by fellow Grey, Sergeant Charles Ewart (p. 339), the long-awaited arrival of the Prussian forces under Field Marshal Blücher (p. 364), and the devolving of his own regiment's command in the latter stages of the battle to Captain Cheney, who had already had four horses shot from under him (p. 370). The estimated remainder of the corps at this point was three officers, two sergeants and 16 privates.

On the evening following the battle the writer is one of a party conducting prisoners to Brussels, and pp. 370-4 contain a description of the scenes there: of the hospitals, the prisoners, starving horses and of the different nationalities intermingled in the city. On p. 374 he returns to the battlefield to search for the dead and wounded, and thence begins a recital of the scenes resulting from the previous day's carnage: the bodies of men and horses, the horrific injuries, the plunderers, mud and general devastation. Pages 377-382 describe the scene as they reach the village of Waterloo, which, in his words 'exhibited a deathlike scene'. 'Hard, indeed, must the heart have been, which was capable of remaining unmoved in this place!' (p. 382). Similar scenes are recounted at Mont-Saint-Jean as they near the battlefield; they bury Lieutenant Carruthers at La Haye Sainte (p. 394). A further seven officers from the Greys are buried on the field, along with others of the regiment, including Jamie, the author's old servant friend from Glasgow (p. 402).

The narrative is interspersed with the battle recollections of another of the Greys, one Peter Wetherspoon (who eventually died), which are related on pp. 334-338, continuing on pp. 404-14. Other named members of the regiment who died were Alexander MacKay [Mackie?] and Duncan Forbes.

Pages 421-503 deals with the leaving of Waterloo, the march towards Paris and subsequent occupation of French towns before heading for the coast prior to returning to England. From p. 429 are found copies of general orders issued to the cavalry, commencing on 19 June. On leaving Waterloo, the regiment deal with a threatened, but abortive stand by the French; on 24 June the writer reports that Louis XVIII passed their camp. He describes visiting the sights of Paris, and a review of the army on 24 July by the Emperor of Austria, the Duke of Wellington and other dignitaries. The author describes their occupation in various towns, notably Rouen and Harfleur in October and November 1815. On 11 January 1816 the regiment sets sail for England, landing at Dover and Ramsgate on the 13th and 14th of the month (p. 503).

The latter part of the journal (pp. 504-18) outlines the regiment's activities on the return to England; after remaining in their barracks at Canterbury until April 1817, the regiment headed for Scotland (Edinburgh and Dumfries) before departing for Ireland in July 1818, moving south to Dublin (1819), Limerick (p. 509) and Waterford (1821). The regiment returned to England on 7 May 1821, were ordered to attend the coronation of King George IV in July 1821, and to attend the king on his visit to Edinburgh between 15 and 29 August 1822, the first visit of a reigning British monarch to Scotland for 171 years. The preparations leading up to the visit and the events of 15 August are described in great detail, along with the rest of the itinerary (pp. 519-600).

The volume's research value lies in its description of a soldier's life during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. It also furnishes a detailed, first-hand account of the regiment's movements in the lead-up to Waterloo, the battle itself and its aftermath. The first part of the diary contains two descriptions of cottage interiors, which may be of interest to social historians.

Administrative / Biographical History

The author of the journal records neither his name, nor his exact birthplace, but he states that he was born in Perthshire; events in the journal suggest that this was probably around the mid 1780s. Although he does not state his name, his initials, W. C., are recorded on p. 402, where he is recognised by a dying comrade in the aftermath of Waterloo. Assuming that he had no other Christian name, his identity may be that of William Clarke, the only sergeant in the Scots Greys with these initials to appear in the Waterloo roll call, and from whom a letter survives in Hampshire Archives (ref. 38/M49/1/56/19).

Whilst he was still young, the family removed from Perthshire to Alva House near the Ochil Hills in Clackmannanshire. About the age of fourteen, the writer left home to work for a farmer, John Brown, at Howfaulds, near Dunfermline, where he stayed for six months. He then spent an unspecified period travelling around Scotland, working in various locations, including a spell as an assistant gardener on the estate of Hector Macdonald Buchanan of Ross on the banks of Loch Lomond, a time which he recalls as a particularly happy one. It was whilst subsequently working as a gardener at an estate in Ayr that he decided to enlist in the army, in the regiment of the Scots Greys or 2nd Royal Northern British Regiment of Dragoons [now the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards]; he does not specify his date of enlisting, but from his subsequent movements, this would appear to be 1803 or 1804. [From the regiment's movements, it appears as though this is 1803, but his reference to the unfinished grounds at the newly built Castlehill House at Ayr suggests a date of 1804; Castlehill House was rebuilt in 1804 by its merchant owner, Patrick Ballantine.]

The writer then leaves for training and initial duty in the south of England, subsequently travelling with the regiment up the eastern side of the country, finally arriving in Edinburgh in 1807, where he is promoted to the rank of corporal. He pays visits to his family, who are now resident at Lanrick Castle, Doune. The author gets married in November 1809, whilst the regiment is stationed in Dublin, but he does not give any details regarding his wife or her family.

Returning to England, he is promoted to the rank of sergeant in October 1812, and appointed to a troop based at Coventry. He departs for Belgium with the regiment in April 1815. After fighting in the battle of Waterloo, he is one of a group conducting prisoners to Brussels, later returning to the field to look for wounded and dead comrades. His regiment remains in France until January 1816, occupying towns along the way.

In his subsequent service, he revisits Scotland and Ireland, before the regiment is summoned to attend the coronation of King George IV and the latter's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. After further spells of duty in Scotland and England, he finally leaves the military life at Norwich in July 1825. He returns to his native Scotland, but his activities thereafter are unknown.

Conditions Governing Access

The manuscript is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The diary was purchased from the family in 2014 via the antiquarian bookseller, Roger Treglown of Macclesfield.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the manuscript can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the manuscript. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The journal has been passed down through a family now resident in Cheshire.

Bibliography

Dalton, Charles, The Waterloo roll call. With biographical notes and anecdotes (1904).

Glover, Gareth, The Waterloo Archive, Vol 1: British Sources (2010).

Geographical Names