The Veteran, or 40 Years’ Service in the British Army
Gareth Glover ed
Helion & Company, 2018
Reviewed by Neil Smith
The hits keep coming from Helion & Company’s From Reason to Revolution series of books. Number 13 is the fascinating memoir of Paymaster John Harley of the 47th Foot, diligently edited by Gareth Glover. If you are expecting the standard fare of battles and derring-do in the Napoleonic Wars, however, think again; this is told from the ‘scum of the earth’ side of Wellington’s famous description of the men under his command, and it is something of a riot.
John Harley was born in Ireland in 1769 and after a seemingly dreary upbringing, and equally tedious civilian life, became a Lieutenant in the Irish Tarbet Fencibles at 29 years-old. He then took a commission as Quartermaster of the 54th Foot in 1800 and joined in the Egypt Expedition shortly thereafter. A rapid series of Quartermaster appointments followed until Harley ended up with the 47th Foot in 1803. After a brief sojourn in Ireland, his Regiment was packed off to India where they remained until 1828, but Harley stayed with the 2nd Battalion, serving in the Peninsular War before going on half-pay when the Battalion was disbanded in October 1814. He lived in Liverpool until his death in 1843.
Harley was a bit of a rogue with a natural storyteller’s keen eye for scurrilous and scandalous behaviour. His tales span Harley’s almost farcical first commission through his adventures in an England preparing for war and on into battle, first in Egypt, fighting the French, then Gibraltar, fighting each other in an infamous mutiny. Harley recounts more adventures back in Ireland and England, including the flogging of a black soldier – a punishment that Harley detested – and a duel in Gibraltar. Indeed, Harley’s biography is stitched together with great stories about singular characters in some quite unusual situations, with everything fact-checked by Mr Glover. Among the upstanding soldiers with whom Harley served were deserters, thieves, drunkards and gamblers, starry-eyed lovers, and even a few murderers. Women of all descriptions abound in Harley’s stories from ladies to harlots, naïve daughters to flinty camp-followers, and he tells comical tales featuring dogs, camels, ducks, and even a pickled centipede!
The Veteran is laugh out loud funny, a memoir to be read and enjoyed. It is also a valuable social and military history, adding depth to our understanding of the Georgian era and in particular the Napoleonic Wars from the British perspective. Wargamers will not find too much to keep them busy here, but there are interesting accounts of various actions that are worth throwing on the table. Highly recommended.