The tale of an innocent Dorset boy who quickly became a man in the horrors of the Napoleonic war is vividly described by Roger Guttridge.
When Benjamin Harris of Stalbridge exchanged the gentle pace of life as a shepherd boy for military service, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for.
After tending sheep since infancy, the 22-year-old met an army recruiting team in Blandford in 1803, and was seduced into ‘taking the King’s shilling’.
Army records reveal that Harris was paid £11 (approximately £900 today) for signing up, which must have seemed a fortune to someone whose weekly wage would have been a few shillings.
He spent the next 11 years as a private, mostly in the 95th Rifles, surviving battles and other tribulations that claimed the lives of many comrades. Although illiterate, Harris later dictated a vivid account of the Peninsular War, which was first published in 1848 and reprinted in 1995, with notes and additions, by Dorset writer Eileen Hathaway (see image below). Benjamin, son of shepherd Robert Harris and his wife Elizabeth, was a ‘sheep-boy’ from an early age.
‘As soon almost as I could run, I began helping to look after the sheep on the downs of Blandford in Dorsetshire where I was born,’ he says.
‘Tending the flocks and herds under my charge and occasionally, in the long winter nights, learning the art of making shoes, I grew a hardy little chap.’
His hardiness would come in handy in later years.
‘One fine day, in 1803, I was drawn as a soldier for the Army of Reserve.
‘Without troubling myself much about the change which was to take place in the hitherto quiet routine of my days, I was drafted into the 66th Regiment of Foot and bid goodbye to my shepherd companions.’
Benjamin’s decision meant leaving his ageing father ‘without an assistant to collect his flocks just as he was
beginning more than ever to require one’. A shocked Robert Harris did his best to remedy his son’s impulsiveness.
‘He tried hard to buy me off, and to persuade the sergeant that I was of no use as a soldier, having maimed
my right hand by breaking a forefinger when a child,’ says Benjamin.
‘But the sergeant said I was just the sort of little chap he wanted, and off he went, carrying me, and a batch of other recruits, away with him.’
Witnessing an execution
One of Benjamin’s first military experiences was to witness the execution of a soldier who had joined up 16 times to claim the bounty and deserted every time.
In 1808 Harris was involved in the first skirmishes of the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon in Portugal.
‘I often look back with wonder at the light-hearted style, the jollity and reckless indifference with which men, destined in so short a time to fall, hurried onwards to the field of strife,’ he says.
Among those whose deaths he witnessed was Joseph Cockayne, shot in the head while swigging water.
In those days many women followed their men to the battlefields.
‘After the battle, when the roll was called, some of the females came along the line to inquire of the survivors whether they knew anything about their husbands,’ Harris recalled.
Mrs Cockayne refused to believe Joseph was dead and insisted on being taken to the spot.
‘I made my way over the ground we had fought on. She followed, sobbing,’ says Harris in a particularly moving section.
When they reached her husband’s body, Mrs Cockayne ‘embraced a stiffened corpse, then rose and contemplated his disfigured face for some minutes’.
‘She took a prayer book from her pocket, and with hands clasped and tears streaming down her cheeks, she knelt down and repeated the service for the dead over the body.’
‘Widow refused my offer!’
Harris later offered to marry the ‘handsome woman’ but she said she’d never think of marrying another soldier. Some horrors described by Harris are almost too awful to contemplate.
After the Battle of Vimeiro, a churchyard became an open-air hospital where surgeons, ‘their hands and arms covered with blood, looked like butchers in the shambles’.
‘As I passed, I saw at least 20 legs lying on the ground, many clothed in the long black gaiters then worn by the infantry of the line,’ Harris adds.
During a winter retreat to Corunna and Vigo, a heavily pregnant Irishwoman and her husband fell by the wayside in the snow and were not expected to be seen again. But a little later the couple were hurrying to catch up, complete with their newborn baby.
Between them they carried the baby to the end of the retreat and sailed for England.
by Roger Guttridge