The Ramblin’ Soldier

I was listening to the sound track to Sharpe’s Rifles while driving to and from Day Job, and musing on the Napoleonic Wars and the men who fought in them. I’d also assigned some readings on South America in the period between 1800-1830. One of those excerpts mentions in passing the role of the English (and other) mercenaries in the wars of liberation against Spain.

People got around! For whatever reason, veterans of the wars against Napoleon turn up all over Latin America, in India, probably in Africa, in the US and Canada and elsewhere . . . wherever there was work, adventure, the prospect of money, or just because. I suspect the same is true today, perhaps on a lesser scale because (one hopes) Western military service no longer ends with a pat on the back, a small payment, and being turned out to make one’s own way without any support or training for the civilian world.

One hopes.

I can easily imagine a still young (years-wise) man who has been fighting in Europe (and perhaps elsewhere) for 5-10-15 years or even more looking around London or wherever he was discharged. He has little if any savings, probably, no training in a trade, a lot more experience of the world than many of his age, and his family might not be willing to take him in again. If the Army won’t take him back (see Kipling for an account of men lying to get back in), but someone says, “Hey, you want to see a warm place with the possibility of loot and a steady pay-check? And to use your skills?” he might just jump at the chance. Or he might be reluctant, but not see much of an alternative. Or he might decide that not “going home” has a lot of appeal, especially if he left home for a reason.

And perhaps he discovers that he’s good at this soldiering, or some other aspect of military life, and warmer climates suite his taste. OK, climbing the Andes wasn’t fun, but that’s what he’d signed up for. Or he’s got an itchy foot, and hears stories about lost cities of gold, and what the hell. (See “The Man who Would Be King.”)

I can easily imagine that young man, perhaps no longer so young, returning to England, or elsewhere, with some funds and a store of stories. He marries, settles down, and every so often retreats within himself as he remembers absent friends and exotic places. Or he finds a bride in a distant land and becomes “that one Smith boy, the one who went overseas and never came back.” Or his bones lie beside a trail, known only to G-d and a few comrades, and perhaps the local villagers who tend the grave.

It was a big world, with lots of room for young men with military skills. (MomRed has a piece of jewelry that Dad found in the American Midwest an estate sale. It was originally from Somewhere Interesting, but the story behind it? No one knows. A wandering young man once probably did, but not his descendants or heirs.)


12 thoughts on “The Ramblin’ Soldier

  1. See also “Quern Victoria’s Little Wars”, author escapes me now. A lot of official and unofficial Wars cropped up, many not remembered. These begin on the later side of your window.

      • Thanks, Peter. I have the book, but it’s boxed up at the present. The origins of “Fuzzy Wuzzy” are explained in the book, including why NOT to mention it to the Highlanders.

        Like Sergeant Smith you note below, a lot of regular men developed a taste for soldiering, found they were good at it, and seemed to make a right turn, quickstep march into fields of legend. I worked with a gentlemen who had been a LRRP in Vietnam; after chuckling at the latest “sniper” hoo-rah story around 2004, he recounted a couple of his tales, edited, about how you confirm a kill. Would not have believed those except for the change in his eyes. I’d never seen a -shift- from 1000m to 3m stare before.

  2. Oh, yes. I’m reminded of the late Sergeant Frederick Smith. He enlisted in a British infantry regiment in 1852, and was sent to the Crimea in 1854. He was wounded in action, sent back to England, and discharged from the Army. Finding no jobs available, he spent his discharge bounty on a ticket to India and enlisted as an NCO instructor in an East India Company regiment – just in time for the Indian Mutiny in 1857. He saw action there in more than one major battle, rising to the rank of Sergeant. After the Mutiny, the EIC’s “private army” was incorporated into British government forces, and Smith went with them as a Corporal (probably carefully concealing his earlier discharge from the British Army to avoid bureaucratic complications).

    Smith served for several years, becoming a Sergeant again. He’d accumulated a bit of loot during the Mutiny, and carefully stashed it away against future need. He decided that he wanted to settle down on a place of his own. He therefore took his discharge, bought a ticket to South Africa, and purchased a farm in Natal province. He farmed it successfully for several years, married, and began a family. He also joined a local militia outfit, probably for social rather than military reasons, retaining his rank of Sergeant. When the Anglo-Zulu War began in 1879, he was called up for duty. He sent his wife and children off to Durban, while he and his comrades marched northwards. He was present at the battle of Ulundi, which saw the final defeat of the Zulus. He was injured by a Zulu assegai during that fight, and took several weeks to recuperate. After he’d recovered, he sold his farm near Pietermaritzburg and bought another, larger one near Estcourt, taking his family with him.

    Smith died during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), reportedly because he stood up to a raiding Boer commando that wanted to loot his farm. He shot at them, and they shot back, to his terminal detriment. He was buried in a small private graveyard near Estcourt, where I came across his grave many years later. His descendants still live in the area. The older ones remember being brought up on stories of his military experiences, although most of the younger ones weren’t aware of them (or weren’t interested).

    Smith fought in the Crimean War, Indian Mutiny, Anglo-Zulu War and Second Anglo-Boer War, spanning almost fifty years across three continents. He never had a pension – he had to provide for himself every time he left the service (with a little help from some fortuitous loot in India). He must have been quite a character.

  3. I had a character like that, in one of the Lone Star Glory stories: an older man, who had served in the East India Company Army, the British Army, and then the American. Serving three flags, as he put it – because he had never really trained for anything else, never felt really at home outside of the barracks and parade ground, and because he was really, really good at soldiering – and his skills were highly prized.

  4. You’ve just described 2/3 of Kipling’s poetry.

    I will arise an’ get ‘ence —
    I will trek South and make sure
    If it’s only my fancy or not
    That the sunshine of England is pale,
    And the breezes of England are stale,
    An’ there’s something’ gone small with the lot.
    For I know of a sun an’ a wind,
    An’ some plains and a mountain be’ind,
    An’ some graves by a barb-wire fence,
    An’ a Dutchman I’ve fought ‘oo might give
    Me a job where I ever inclined
    To look in an’ offsaddle an’ live
    Where there’s neither a road nor a tree —
    But only my Maker an’ me,
    And I think it will kill me or cure,
    So I think I will go there an’ see.

  5. Many a Scott or Irish veteran of Crimea, but having no love for England, came to North America, and donned either Blue or Gray during the Civil War. Many of those that survived ended up fighting in the Indian Wars.

  6. Still happens to a limited extent today… Australia for example, will accept former military from other countries and put them back in uniform. Three guys I knew, one US, one Brit, and one Canadian have done that and promoted.

  7. In reading personal historical accounts of the exploration and settlement of the American west and of earlier eras of exploration how willing many men were to just up and go. Not just single guys either.

    “Hear ye, hear ye, we are getting up an expedition (or invasion) to sail halfway across the world with too many people jammed in a leaky sailboat with a surgeon who drinks too much and a captain in love with the lash in uncharted waters eating worm-riddled stale biscuits to explore and colonize and fight a land full of hostile natives/obstreperous colonists who are remarkably good at cutting your throat in the dead of night, and if the sea monsters and the storms and the diseases and starvation and dehydration and wild animals and the sun and the insects and the locals don’t torture you to death, you might survive long enough to come back with a tiny share of booty just sufficient to drink your brains out with bad whiskey until you die of syphilis or whatever else you caught abroad. Now who’s in?”

    “Oh yeah, me, sign me up!”

    Makes me think day-to-day life was grim and dreary enough that launching into the unknown or a war with high odds of getting miserably killed still l looked like a great idea..

    • Oh yes indeed. As others have pointed out elsewhere, if life in the rural countryside as a farm worker was so great, why did people keep flocking to the “grim Satanic mills” of Manchester and London by the tens of thousands, knowing the conditions and working hours?

      And who knew? There was always that story about that one uncle who went off to fight in 1806 against Louis XIV and came back with enough loot to make himself (by village standards) stinking rich, with a good looking wife on his arm.

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