Book review: Napoleonic Lives by Carole Divall

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Tracing family history has become one of our favourite hobbies as the past becomes ever more accessible through record offices and the internet.

Aware of this growing phenomenon, publishers Pen & Sword have produced a fascinating How Your Ancestors Lived series of books which help to get the lowdown on everything from tracing secret service, northern and military family members to discovering your pauper and criminal forebears.

A specialist in the history of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815, Carole Divall’s contribution to the series provides colourful case studies of the officers and men who served their country during this revolutionary period.

There is a soldier who saw action as a marine in the Mediterranean fleet, a Gordon Highlander who was taken prisoner, riflemen who served at Walcheren, in the Peninsula, and at Waterloo, artillerymen who played a crucial role in battles and sieges, and some remarkable women who were among the many who went to war with their men.

Divall also reveals how she researched their stories, identifying and explaining the key sources and how to use them, and providing invaluable information on major museums and archives.

The Napoleonic Wars convulsed the whole of Europe and gave rise to key events for Britain and the history of the continent as a whole. This makes them an intriguing field of study for historical and family history research.

A war which dragged on for over 20 years inevitably involved whole families like the Fanes of Fulbeck in Lincolnshire. Three brothers lined up with Wellington’s combined British-Portuguese-Spanish army when they took on the French at Vitoria in Spain’s Basque country in June 1813.

A war of such magnitude also caused heavy casualties and it is estimated that there were between 2,500,000 and 3,500,000 military deaths, most of them off the battlefield, while total casualties including civilians could have been as high as six million.

The effects on Britain and its army were also dramatic. In 1793 our army numbered about 40,000 men but by 1813, this had grown to 250,000 in a population of no more than nine million.

Wellington famously remarked that his army was ‘the scum of the earth,’ though he did add, ‘it is really wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.’

There were, of course, exceptions, men known to their commanding officers as ‘the king’s hard bargains.’ Finding themselves in an alien outpost with only alcohol to distract them from the tedium of a military life with long spells of inaction, soldiers like Richard Key from Westborough in Lincolnshire became hopelessly insubordinate.

Key, known as ‘one of the hardest cases,’ had many more lashes than hot dinners for offences including rioting in the barracks, striking a corporal, ‘maltreating a native woman,’ theft and ‘divesting himself of his clothes’ while drunk.

Perhaps he may have fared better if he had taken a wife such as the notorious Mrs Biddy Skiddy to keep him in order. Biddy, described as ‘a squat little Irishwoman, and broad as a big turtle,’ frequently ignored army commands when she accompanied her husband Daniel of the 34th Foot regiment.

Motivated by her duty to attend to her husband’s comfort and welfare, the devoted Biddy carried her husband on her back for ‘half a league’ when he fell exhausted on the roadside and risked being murdered by ‘them [French] vagabonds’ during the retreat to Portugal in 1812.

With more records than ever available on the men of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars and their families, Divall’s book is the perfect guide to locating and understanding these sources and getting the most out of them.

She gives a vivid insight into what soldiers’ lives were like during the period and shows how much of their experience can be recovered from the records. Contemporary military records, correspondence, diaries and memoirs are all used to reconstruct in detail the amazing stories of individuals who took part in the wars.

Napoleonic Lives is essential reading and reference for anyone who wants to find out about this 200-year-old conflict, and those keen to understand the role an ancestor played in Wellington’s famous army.

(Pen & Sword, paperback, £12.99)

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