Impressions of the Chatham barracks, early 1840s

Source: Camp and Barrack-room; or, The British Army as it is, by a late Staff Sergeant of the 13th Light Infantry [John Mercier McMullen]. London: Chapman and Hall, 1846, pp. 5-29.

Transcriber's notes:

  • This book was written by a new recruit to the 13th Regiment. The first three chapters and the beginning of the fourth describe the enlistment process, the voyage from Dublin to the depôt barracks at Chatham, and a description of his time in those barracks until the new recruits of the 13th embarked for India. The author touched upon such subjects as the vice and ruffianism of most new recruits, the poor quality of the food rations, the use of flogging as punishment, the ill treatment of new soldiers by the non-commissioned officers, and the habit of the men getting into drunken and disorderly conduct the night before they were shipped out.
  • Some contemporary essays and articles contain language and characterizations which may have been in common use at the time the articles or stories were written, but which are no longer acceptable. These articles do not reflect the opinions of the transcriber or web site owner.

  In consequence of a mercantile friend, whose affairs were inextricably interwoven with mine, sustaining several heavy and unforeseen losses in trade, it became necessary that I should seek for other means of support, besides those arising from my position as his junior partner.

  This necessity, however, it was confidently expected by us, would only continue to exist for two or three years at furthest; when, by prudent and economical management, the liabilities of the firm must be discharged; and it was arranged, that I should then resume my original position in partnership.

  Although I could have made choice of a situation as clerk in the counting-houses of several of my acquaintance, I would not accept it. I had always been desirous of travelling, and now resolved to gratify the propensity. With this object in view, I determined on entering some regiment on foreign service, which should be likely to return in two or three years; when I intended to purchase my discharge, if my partner's affairs had again become prosperous. Should the contrary, however, be the case, I thought my better plan would be, to remain still in the army, and get promoted if possible: the service of Her Majesty being then, in my estimation, fully as honourable as that of a mercantile company, or of an individual.

  Many may think this a very strange course of procedure, and such indeed it was; still, as I was destitute of means to gratify my inclination to travel, and disliked a sailor's life, I had no other resource.

  Having come to the resolution of entering the army, my next subject for consideration was, whether I should be a dragoon or a foot soldier. I had certainly a taste for the cavalry, from having lived a long time in the country, and become fond of riding; but the vicious kickings and plungings of a sable charger, while being cleaned in a stable at Portobello barracks, whither I went to have a peep at the scarlet jackets, brought about a total change of inclination; as I saw that however pleasant equestrian exercise may be, tending troop horses is not the most delectable employment in the world. The next morning, as I sauntered along in the direction of the Royal Barracks, I met a soldier with the recruiting ribbons pendant from his shako, and stopped to question him as to the corps he was enlisting for.

  He named several, eyeing me narrowly the while, as if calculating from my outer man what he would make by me in the shape of bye-fees, smart-money, &c.; but disliking his scrutiny, and tedious manner of eulogizing the different corps as he proceeded, I demanded somewhat abruptly if he had a gazette with him, receiving an answer in the negative. He informed me, however, that if I would accompany him to Beggars Bush barracks, his sergeant could supply me with one. Thither we accordingly went; on arrival there, the gazette was duly produced; and, running my eye down the column which gave information as to stations of regiments, it rested on the 13th Light Infantry, then so noised abroad for its services in Afghanistan, and defeat of the terrible Akbar Khan.

  The length of its stay in India, I ascertained, could not be more, in the usual course of things, than two years; a circumstance which tallied exactly with my views; and being told the corps was a good one, I at once resolved to join it. A shilling was placed in my hand, and I was a soldier——one of the gallant 13th! the illustrious heroes of Ghuznee, Julgah, and Jugdulluk, and many other well fought fields. What paynim metamorphosis ever was effected quicker!

  Next day I was attested at a police office (being approved of by a surgeon in the interim); and subsequently received permission to dispose of myself as I pleased, until required to proceed to England. One condition only being imposed, that I should appear at the barracks at ten o'clock each day.

  After promising to do so, I returned to my lodgings; and sending for a Jew of my acquaintance, sold him my watch, and the better part of my clothes; and thus with the money I had previously by me, I found myself in possession of a tolerably large sum for a recruit. On the exit of the accommodating Hebrew, I sat down to ruminate over my altered fortunes and future prospects. The latter certainly were not of a nature to be envied: still, I felt cheered by the reflection that I was young and healthy, with the world before me for an inheritance; and as regrets were equally idle and unavailing, I determined on being as much of a Diogenes as possible.

  My stay in Dublin, after my enlistment, was but for a few days; and despite my philosophical resolutions to the contrary, I felt unusually sad on bidding some old and valued friends adieu, the evening prior to my departure.

  The reflection too, that I could no longer have intercourse with them on terms of equality as hitherto, was productive of additional pain. I had sunk from their level in society; betaken me to what is considered the last resource of the unfortunate and the profligate; and an insuperable bar was placed between our future associating, according to the conventional usages of the world.

  The rain fell in torrents, and the day was excessively raw and cold for the season, as the City of Limerick steam-packet, bound for London, stood out of Dublin harbour. I was in consequence unable to keep the deck, to watch the spires of the beautiful capital of my native country, receding in the distance.

  Under even the most agreeable circumstances, the quitting home and fatherland, for a long period, is painful in the extreme. It is at such a time that those latent feelings of attachment, of whose very existence we had hitherto been almost unconscious, assert their full power over our hearts. Situated as I was, those feelings came with tenfold strength. The life of a soldier is not the most reputable one in the opinion of the world; and although I had thought otherwise, I could not avoid in that hour of regret having my sentiments biassed by those of others, however prejudiced.

  When off Kingston the day brightened up a little; and although a soaking rain still continued to fall, I went on deck to have a last look at the shores of the bay, associated as they were in my mind with many a pleasant jaunt and happy hour. The wind had by this time freshened to a stiff gale, blowing right inshore; and the huge waves were breaking with sullen roar on the dark cliffs of Howth and Dalky, whose scathed crests loomed heavily through the thin fog, which now partially hid objects from the eye. But my stay upon deck was short; the roughness of the sea soon caused nausea, and I was under the necessity of again going below, and turning into a berth, for the use of which I had paid the difference between a deck and a second-cabin passage. The other recruits, poor fellows! were but miserably accommodated; their only shelter being a shed on the upper deck, which admitted the rain almost as fast as it descended, so that the straw provided for them to lie upon soon became wet. In consequence of this, after the first night, they were obliged to get under a tarpaulin, spread at the lee side of the funnel, from beneath which they crawled every morning chilled and comfortless, and looking as wretched as it is possible to conceive. One of them in particular I sincerely pitied, and regretted that I could not get him a berth such as my own. He was a slight, delicately formed youth, and had evidently been tenderly reared. His father, as I afterwards learned, had been a captain in the army; but a considerable time had elapsed since his death; and as his mother, from some untoward circumstance, never got the pension usually given to the widows of deceased officers, after various turns of fortune he found himself under the necessity of entering her majesty's service as a common sentinel.

  After a boisterous and unpleasant run of three days, we made the English Channel, and stood into Plymouth harbour to take in coals, our supply of fuel having been exhausted from the delay caused by a head wind. A few hours sufficed for this purpose, and we again stood out to sea; and as it was now a fair wind, sail was made, and point and headland were passed in rapid succession, as we went along at eleven knots an hour.

  As evening approached the breeze lulled, and the sea went down; the giant waves gradually dwindling away into tiny ridges, whose crest of hoar sparkled brightly in the sun, which now appeared from behind a mass of impervious cloud that had hitherto obscured it.

  Our fourth night at sea was passed at anchor in the Downs. On the ensuing morning we made the Thames, and it was with no small degree of interest I gazed for the first time on the yellow waters of this noble stream, the great highway of the Babylon of our own times. Since then I have sailed on the sacred Ganges, and traversed the classic Indus, and neither of these rivers awoke a corresponding feeling in my mind.

  As the steamer ascended the river it began to rain rather heavily, and I had to go below; but on nearing Gravesend, the day again brightened up, and when off the town, the vessel lay to in order to permit of our landing. So, getting into a boat which came alongside, in a little time I was once more on terra firma. At the landing-place some half dozen omnibuses were drawn up awaiting passengers, and three of their drivers pounced simultaneously on my trunk, each tugging with all his might to bear it away, heedless of its owner, whom they expected as a matter of course to follow it. I looked on passively for a few minutes, thinking that a row must ensue, which in the sister island would have been the infallible result of a similar scene; but these worthies pulled and wrangled like lawyers at the bar with the most laudable good humour, until at length, seeing there was no sign of a shindy, I interfered in behalf of one of them, who accordingly bore off the bone of contention to his vehicle.

  Having procured some edibles and a glass of ale by way of ballast, feeling somewhat lightheaded and unsteady from the rolling of the steamers, I mounted the omnibus, and started for Chatham; the old staff-sergeant in charge of the party having given his consent to my proceeding in this way, on condition that I should wait at a public-house in Rochester until he joined me with the other recruits. The drive to me was exhilarating in the extreme, after the discomforts of a steamer; and I felt, notwithstanding the corally depths and azure hue of the sea, that it is far pleasanter to look on hill and dell, and tree and flower, than on its mountain waves and boundless expanse. Large drops of rain glittered tremblingly on spray and leaf like matin dew, and I fancied, as the vehicle rolled rapidly along, that a May-day breeze was never more fragrant, or nature more beautiful, than then. The road wound through a pretty and picturesque district, clad in the rich garb of early summer, where the land laid down under crops, displayed the height of agricultural perfection; taste and neatness being everywhere visible, while not a single perch of ground was lying waste. As I recollected the contrast to this state of things in my own country, the result of negligence or a pernicious adherence to old customs, I could not help sighing; but I trust that a better spirit has already gone abroad through Ireland, and that the practical farmer is daily becoming a more enlightened man.

  Arrived at Rochester, I remained at a public-house, agreeably to the instructions of the old staff-sergeant, until he came up with the other recruits, when we proceeded together to the barracks, and being there duly handed over by him to the proper authorities, were marched to the Receiving-house. The number of recruits already there was upwards of two hundred, the larger part of whom were in no way distinguished for orderly conduct, while many of them had vice and ruffianism stamped indelibly on their faces.

  It was, however, only natural to expect that characters of this description should be met with in a place where the very offscourings of several of the principal cities of the United Kingdom were congregated. Rogues and scoundrels were jumbled together en masse; and these, despite their relationship, agreed in no one respect, save in fleecing their more simple companions, by means of cards, pitch and toss, &c., to the utmost extent of their knavish abilities, and in utter contempt of Her Majesty's regulations touching gambling. They likewise indulged without restraint in the use of the most foul and abominable language, and I certainly felt considerable pain of mind as I asked myself, are these to be my future companions? Hard fare I little cared for, and it mattered not to me how rough my bed might be; privations of this nature are inseparable from a soldier's lot; but the prospect of mingling for any lengthened period with some of the individuals I saw in the Receiving-house, was, I must acknowledge, excessively disheartening. I was not then aware what a surprising alteration for the better in many respects, subjection to a strict and uniform discipline would effect in them in a little time.

  All recruits on their first arrival at Chatham, are sent to the Receiving-house; hence its name; and are obliged to remain there until they pass the garrison doctor, and are finally approved of by the lieutenant-colonel of the provisional battalion; when they receive their uniforms, and are sent to their several depôts. The sleeping accommodations in this place were any thing but of the best; no one being allowed sheets, because they are said to be retentive of a certain contagious disease, of a most disagreeable though not very dangerous character: and as to the beds, they were, as one of my companions facetiously expressed it, like the continent of Asia, thickly peopled with black, brown, and white inhabitants. The origin and perpetuation of this nuisance, may in part be ascribed to the uncleanly habits of some prior to enlistment.

  Into this den of living abominations was I thrust with my companions; and half an hour might have subsequently elapsed, when a huge Yorkshire fellow made his appearance, who had been installed as hair-cutter, or rather hair-shearer to the establishment; and who, ex officio, was armed with an enormous pair of scissors, which reminded me of the implement used by farmers for clipping hedges. As I chanced at the time to be next at hand, this worthy of the staff at once commenced operations on my head; constructing his parallels and approaches towards its vertex with such accuracy and expedition, that in a few moments I was in a similar situation to one most coveted in the halcyon days of boyhood, when I might pommel my school-fellows without mercy, and be in no danger of having my hair pulled by an antagonist; a punishment, by-the-by, I dreaded as much as ever blacky did a kick in the shin. This close hair-cutting system, it is said, has been adopted in order that recruits may, like barbers' shops, be known by their bare poles, should they desert, or attempt to quit the barracks before being clothed in uniform.

  As night approached, I began, in Yankee parlance, to calculate where I should stow myself away during the hours sacred to repose; for, fatigued as I was after a first voyage, to lie in any of the beds was a thing out of the question altogether. After due consideration of the matter, I was fain to betake me to the boards by way of a resting-place; and even thus would soon have been wrapt in the arms of the god of dreams, but for the other denizens of the attic, among whom a row extraordinary arose, owing to there not being a sufficiency of bed-clothes for the whole, and a system of monopoly having been adopted in consequence, by the stronger recruits.

  This conduct was not quietly submitted to by the others; and blankets and quilts were pulled about in a way highly detrimental to government property; the crisis meantime approaching when black eyes and bloody noses might in due course be expected. But while the fray was still in embryo, the entrance of the superintending corporal, the sole monarch of the place, put an end to all further squabbling: and as we chanced to have got into a wrong room, he ordered us all to decamp forthwith. Fortunately for me, a sergeant of my corps now appeared, and directed us of the 13th to follow him to the quarters of our depôt; the Receiving-house being, it seemed, too full to admit of our stay. My new quarters I found to be a very heaven, compared with the place I had left. Clean sheets were given to me, and a soldier of the room in which I was located, good-naturedly making down my bed, I trundled into it; and being heartily tired, was soon wrapt in sleep.

  The sun streamed broad and bright through a window at the head of my cot when I awoke on the ensuing morning, greatly refreshed by a night of unbroken slumber; and, after I had breakfasted upon tommy* and insipid coffee, the latter being served up in tin dishes, I fell in with a number of other recruits, and was marched to the hospital, to be inspected by the principal surgeon. This is a most trying ordeal to such as may have any symptoms of a cutaneous disease. As a necessary measure, they are at once incarcerated in a ward specially appropriated for persons having disorders of this description; and where a residence, for any period, however short, is by no means agreeable. But it was not my bad fortune to be consigned to this ward, or to make the acquaintance of its guardian angel, generally known by the sobriquet of Jack Skilly, a title given in consequence of his being the dispenser of skilly** to patients affected with diseases of the skin. What his original appellation was, I cannot say; and I am confident it would be necessary to refer to the muster-roll of his depôt, for accurate information on this head, so completely had the nick-name superseded the use of the name given him by his sponsors.

* This is the soldier's term generally for brown bread: that issued at Chatham was of the very worst description, and often so badly baked, that it would stick to a wall like paste.
** The military name for gruel.

  A few days after my arrival at Chatham I was attacked with fever, and became in consequence an inmate of the general hospital of the garrison, where I sadly missed the presence of those beloved relatives who had hitherto tended me in sickness; and I felt, it is indeed in the hour of affliction that the heart turns to home with the fondest regret, when we contrast the carelessness and indifference of strangers, with the assiduous kindness and fond attentions of a mother or a sister. Youth and a good constitution, however, proving my friends, in the course of a week I became convalescent; and was then permitted to leave my cot, and supplied with a suit of hospital clothes; no patient in military hospitals being allowed to wear his own, which are usually placed in a store on admission.

  Having no books, I now amused myself in promenading the small space in front of the hospital, or by looking out of its upper windows, which commanded an extensive prospect over a rich tract of country, where the Medway now expands itself into a miniature lake, and now winds along its sinuous course till it dwindles into a thread of silver at Sheerness, where it is lost in the ocean. It was certainly very pleasant in the calm summer evenings of June, to gaze out upon this scene; and to watch the tiny craft which shot here and there over the glassy surface of the river, their snowy sails but half filled by the soft breathings of the vesper breeze, on which the pennant of the guard ship floated boldly out against the clear blue sky.

  Still one soon tires of even natural scenery, however beautiful; and as I could not walk all day long to keep away ennui, I was fain to pay an occasional visit to Jack Skilly's ward, the occupants of which afforded abundant matter for observation.

  An elevation similar to a guard bed ran round this ward; on which, as there were neither beds or cots, slept the patients, whose only covering was a single blanket to each, thick with medicinal grease and dirt. Their principal amusement was pitch and toss, which was constantly going forward; quarrels as a matter of course frequently arose; and when these happened, off came the blankets, and the combatants pommelled each other in puris naturalibus, their fellow-patients crowding around like so many sooty dwellers in a Tartarus, and encouraging them to battle it out manfully. At meal times a general row frequently occurred, owing to some being desirous to secure the largest messes; and so desperate would the struggle occasionally become, that even Jack himself, though presiding genius of the place, dared not venture among them; his plan then being, to open the door sufficiently to allow of his thrusting in a mess, and closing it to as quickly as possible again.

  I likewise contrived to while away an odd hour now and then, by conversation with the patients of my own ward; one of whom was an old veteran, who had seen considerable service in the East; and many were the stories he told me of his adventures there, and the dangers he had encountered in the Burmese country, and at Bhurtpore. This soldier likewise amused me in another way. He had a great antipathy to the orderly of the ward, who was also an old soldier and a Scotchman, because this person would not consent to bring him tobacco, the use of which is prohibited in hospitals. At first he used to do so, until he was reflected on by the other for being a feather-bed soldier, i.e. one who has not seen hard service; Sandy bitterly retorting at the time, "that he had never harrowed half as much as himself had pleugh'd" and thus a quarrel originated, which had widened considerably at the period of my admission. Nothing would annoy the Scotchman more than a story the other would tell, about his being cupped in the head's antipodes, for scheming in hospital, by a surgeon called cup-the-beggar, from his constant use of these words. This, told with the most imperturbable coolness, would render the irascible northern furious; and he would return abuse in his native dialect, with such rapidity of utterance as to be unintelligible to his hearers.

  At the expiration of the second week from my admission, I was discharged from hospital; and as my clothing meanwhile had been prepared, I returned to my barrackroom in undress uniform; so that I was now to all intents and purposes a soldier. On the ensuing morning I was sent to drill, with the club or awkward squad; our instructor being a corporal lately returned from India, who was as cross as possible at having been ordered to teach us; considering that more forward recruits should have been placed under his care. Owing to this circumstance, nothing we did pleased him; and apart from having no taste for club winding, I was glad to make my escape in a few days out of his squad, and to get into one more advanced. As I was attentive, I soon became a sort of favourite with my new instructor, who placed me on the right flank of his division, which was the post of honour: and, indeed, owing to the kindness of this man, and his never using abusive language like others, my time during drill passed tolerably pleasantly, and I became somewhat reconciled to my new mode of life.

  Probably some reader may wish to know the daily routine of my duties and amusements at this period. I rose at five o'clock in the morning, and made up my bed; which occupied at the least a quarter of an hour, and was rather a troublesome job. I then made my toilet, and at six turned out for drill, from which we were dismissed at a quarter to eight, when we breakfasted. From ten till twelve we were again at drill; had dinner at one, in the shape of potatoes and meat, both usually of the most wretched quality; and at two fell in for another drill, which terminated at four; after which hour my time was at my own disposal until tattoo, provided I was not ordered on piquet. During this period of leisure, I generally amused myself by strolling in the vicinity of the garrison (no soldier being permitted to go to a greater distance than one mile) or by reading; the owner of a circulating library in Rochester having consented to trust me with his volumes on my depositing a small sum in his hands. There was no garrison library then; which must be a matter of surprise to every one who knows of what benefit such institutions are to the soldier; who, having thus the means of amusement and instruction within his reach, is in many instances altogether prevented from going to the beer-shop to pass his leisure time.

  In this way, my first month at drill passed quickly by; its monotony wholly unrelieved except by one disagreeable occurrence, a man flogged. The sensations of pain and disgust I then experienced, will never be obliterated from my memory; nor was I singular in this respect, for many of the younger soldiers, and even some of the officers, fainted in the ranks, and had to be borne to the rear. The soldier flogged belonged to the 68th regiment, then quartered at Brompton; he had undergone a similar punishment a month before; and while his sentence was being read on that occasion, he pulled off his shako and jacket in sheer desperation, flung them on the ground, and declared he would soldier no more. After the execution of his sentence, on going to the hospital, he was placed in the prisoners' ward; and when he had recovered, was again tried for injuring his clothing, and mutinous conduct; and was sentenced a second time to receive 150 lashes. It is usual to get over a flogging affair as quickly as possible; but on this occasion the commandant, I was told, in order to protract the execution of the sentence, and thus increase the sufferings of the wretched man, ordered him to be flogged in slow time. This was certainly a refinement of cruelty quite worthy of a general officer, whose name will long be remembered by those who served in his brigade during a campaign in Afghanistan, as having carried discipline to such an excess that the spirits of his men all but sank beneath his iron rule.

  The soldier was cut at the first lash, the blood trickling over the blue wheals on his back from the former flogging; nevertheless, he bore five other strokes of the cat without a murmur; but as the seventh descended upon his back, he exclaimed in tones of deepest agony, which still ring in my ears, "Oh God!!! Colonel, forgive me, I will never do it again." I looked at the general to discover if a ray of pity marked his features; cold, stern and impassive, there was no sign of pity there;——eight counted the drum-major, and again the instrument of punishment descended upon the lacerated shoulders of the man, who soon after fainted, and underwent the remainder of his punishment in this happy state of insensibility.

  At different periods since, I have seen many men undergoing corporal punishment; and habit has enabled me to look on scenes of this description now with indifference. Perhaps, too, my repugnance to flogging has been diminished, in some degree, by the feeling that it is partly a necessary evil in our army, consequent on the matériel of which it is principally composed; at the same time I feel confident that the power of punishment in this way might be exercised much more judiciously, and with greater benefit to the service, than it is at present. [See Note**, at bottom of page.]

  During my stay at Chatham desertion was of frequent occurrence, and I understood to a greater extent than had ever been previously the case. This evil had its origin in a complication of causes, the major one being the manner in which recruits were treated on their joining, when not only was the bounty given them absorbed by the purchase of necessaries, but likewise the larger portion, and in many instances the entire, of the subsequent month's pay. Thus for two, or perhaps three months, the recruit would only receive two, at the most, threepence per diem; and young lads having good appetites, this trifling sum would be expended in procuring something by way of an evening meal, their ration meals only embracing a breakfast and dinner. Having accordingly no money to spend in amusement, and imagining they must continue to be similarly situated while in the service, young soldiers become quickly disgusted with it; and, when destitute of principle, desertion on the first opportunity followed almost as a matter of course.

  There was also another cause tending to the same object,——the harshness with which recruits were treated, in numberless instances, by non-commissioned officers, who tyrannized over them with the greatest impunity. These having sufficient art to veil their true character from their superiors, whose favour they propitiated by officiousness and servility, adopted out of very wantonness a system of domineering towards new-comers, sheltering themselves in the ignorance of the latter as to military laws and usages. I have frequently heard it stated since by every class of soldiers, and my own experience leads me to be of the same opinion, that the generality of the non-commissioned staff at Chatham are morally the lowest and most contemptible of their grade in the service. It is a fact, of the truth of which I have myself been often a witness, that some of them are perfect adepts in every species of fraud,* and the larger part are of the most depraved habits otherwise——the necessary result of laxity of principle, and protracted stay in a vicious neighbourhood; for they would move heaven and earth were it possible, sooner than join their regiments (whose colours they had mostly never seen) on foreign stations.

* On my joining, I was made to pay for clothing, which I should have got gratis: at the time of my discharge I compelled the sergeant who paid the depôt then, and who is now pay and colour sergeant with the regiment, to refund the money he cheated me out of, by threatening to claim it before the board about to assemble for the purpose of recording my services, conduct, and cause of discharge. Others were treated in the same way who enlisted with me; but those died or volunteered in India, or were ignorant of what they were entitled to: at all events no claim but mine was ever made.

  It is indeed a curious circumstance, that under the very eye of the home authorities, the young soldier is perhaps worse treated than in any other part of the British dominions, both as regards his clothing and his food: even his scanty surplus pay, is frequently the object of the most scandalous peculation. He being altogether ignorant of what he is entitled to, and therefore obnoxious to every extortion, is plundered by those military blacklegs——those Majors Monsoon of the present period——with the greatest ease, and the least possible compunction. Aware of what must be the answer, they listen with indifference to the commandant, as he asks the recruit, when about to embark for India, whether he has any complaints to make. The reply to this question has been almost invariably in the negative. Indeed, few recruits, were they even aware of their being cheated, possess the ability and information requisite to make a report of a superior with any prospect of success; and otherwise, they become subject to trial by court-martial for making frivolous complaints.

  One mode of depriving the recruit of his pay, is to give him an old shattered musket, easily injured; thus there are ten chances to one, that some part of it gets broken, while it is in his possession; and he has in consequence a round sum to pay on delivering it into the store, when leaving the garrison. I have known this to be the case with many persons, some of whom had to pay ten shillings for stocking an old musket in use for the past forty years, and the intrinsic value of which might be ascertained, by weighing the barrel, and calculating its worth at two-pence per pound. Whether such were ever stocked, is a question the armourer alone can decide; but in any case, he and the pay sergeants quietly arranged it all their own way.

  Another method of deriving revenue from the occupants of Chatham barracks, is by barrack damages; and the sum realised from time to time, in this way, must be enormous.

  I was twice quartered in this garrison; the first time for six weeks, when the detachment with which I proceeded to India were charged tenpence per man; and the second time for four days, for which we were mulcted fourpence each. How injury to this amount could be done by us to our quarters, in so short a space, God and the quartermaster only know. There are usually about twenty depôts at Chatham, from each of which, at an average, one hundred men are annually sent to India; and estimating the barrack damages, charged to each man during the term of his stay, at one-shilling and sixpence, which I am certain is under the mark, we have a sum of 300l.,——a large sum indeed, to be deducted yearly from the shilling, the hard-earned shilling, of a few hundred soldiers.

  Although my stay at Chatham was even unusually short, I was heartily glad when I received permission to accompany a draft ordered to India; a favour accorded me only on a special application to the officer commanding the depôt. This gentleman was curiously desirous of knowing why I was so anxious to join my regiment; but as it would not have been quite prudent to make him au fait of my motives, I held my peace.

  He was indeed the last man in the garrison I should have made my confident, had even our relative positions admitted of such familiarity; for he was an officer never beloved by those under his charge, and many of the recruits would actually tremble before him on parade, so much did they dread him. He used frequently to visit the barracks; and woe then to the unlucky wight who had a fold wrong in his bedding, a knapsack-strap out of its place, or his chin-strap fastened above the number on his forage cap; three days taps* being his ordinary punishment for offences of this character. Yet I have seen this officer, who was so strict a disciplinarian as regarded trivial matters, at a subsequent period, when he had become first major of his corps, unable to put the regiment through the manual and platoon exercise: while on another occasion, when an inspecting-general was on the ground, he could not find where the points were, when directed to dress them by his colonel.

* Taps, in military parlance, mean that one answers his name every half-hour or hour to the sergeant of the guard, from reveille to sundown. In battalion corps, warning is given by beat of drum; in light infantry corps, a bugle sounds a peculiar call.

  There are many such in the service; men who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel; and consequently, our armies will never be destitute of a Braddock or an Elphinstone; in spite of our having a Marlborough in one age, and a Wellington in another, to remodel and mould them anew. England wants a 'polytechnique' school. She requires that merit, not money, should elevate men in her military service; and were this desideratum achieved, her troops would be indeed invincible. In the existing state of things, many creep in time of peace to the command of corps, by purchase or seniority, who are about as fit to lead a regiment as a peasant from the ploughtail is to turn courtier; their inability being never ascertained, until some capital faux pas is committed in front of an enemy, which sullies our national honour.

  July 9——In the afternoon of this day, such of the depôt as had been selected to proceed out to their regiment, were inspected by the commandant; who told us, nothing could exceed our soldier-like appearance; a compliment which I was given to understand had been paid to nearly every draft of recruits which had left the garrison since the commencement of his command.

  The inspection over, we deposited our knapsacks in a store, in order that there should be no making away of necessaries, in the interim of our marching out.

  As evening wore away, disliking to remain in my barrack-room, where I expected all would be riot and confusion, I strolled through Chatham till night, when I returned; and a scene awaited me which exceeded any thing of the kind I could have imagined. Many of the men, aware that in consequence of their being on the eve of embarkation they could not be punished for minor offences, had got drunk, and quarrelling and noise were the order of the night. The authority of the non-commissioned officers was insufficient to secure order; and one sergeant* left the barracks altogether, dreading some bodily harm; as he knew that he was generally disliked, owing to his own mean and tyrannous conduct.

* The very language of this man teemed with pollution, and his expressions were sufficient to poison the mind of any young person. I have frequently come into contact with ruffians of the lowest grade; but he exceeded the veriest ruffian of them all; and only that he has been discharged, I would not hesitate a moment to make his name public.

  About midnight, a report was made to the captain commanding the depot [sic], of the disorderly conduct of the men; and that officer came in person to put a stop to their irregularities.

  On his entering with this laudable intention, one of the rooms whence the greatest noise proceeded, a large tin dish, the repository for the plates and pots of the men of the apartment, was launched at his head in the dark.

  Fortunately for himself, the captain was in no way remarkable for his size, and so the missile passed over his head without hitting him; otherwise, it must have put him effectually hors-de-combat, and caused his name to be placed foremost on the list of casualties for the ensuing month. As it was, he thought fit to make a speedy retreat, leaving the men to get quiet when they pleased.

  Next morning, after a hurried breakfast at five o'clock, we fell in on the parade-ground, and were marched off to the store to get our knapsacks.

  In another half-hour all were ready for starting; and the order, right form four deep, quick march, being given, our little column, as it defiled in front of the several squads now at drill, commenced cheering loudly. "Ah!" remarked an old soldier, as we passed through the gate, "You shouldn't cheer till ye were comin' back: there wont [sic] be so many of you then, I warrant, and they'll not be in a cheering humour."

  After we had got beyond the works, the garrison, or as it was termed by us, the pongo-band, struck up a lively march, and we proceeded quietly onwards at a smart pace, till beneath Fort Pitt, when "Patrick's Day" was played, and a loud and prolonged cheer made the welkin ring again. This burst of national enthusiasm over (for the greater part of us were Irish), we marched along in silence. Arrived at Gravesend, we got into a lumberboat, and were towed alongside of the Gloriana, a fine new vessel of more than one thousand tons burden, chartered for our conveyance to Calcutta. ...

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** Note: In 1836, Parliament published a report of the findings of a Commission whose mandate had been to inquire "into the several modes of Punishment now authorized and in use for the maintenance of discipline and the prevention of crime in our Land Forces." See pp. 119ff. for the testimony of Colonel Sir Leonard Greenwell, in command of the depôt at Chatham.
   Source: House of Commons, United Kingdom. Reports from Commissioners: Fifteen Volumes. (1.) Army, Military Punishments—Report from Commissioners for inquiring into the System of Military Punishments in the Army; with Appendices. Session, 4 February – 20 August 1836. Vol. XXII. London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1836.

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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