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The Caithness soldier who went to war in Spain


The night of September 18th/19th, 1812, was one of wind, rain and general unpleasantness for the soldiers of the 42nd regiment of the British Army camped around the fortified town of Burgos, in northern Spain. The 42nd -- better known as the Black Watch -- had been in Iberia since September 1810 as part of the army commanded by Viscount Wellington. This army had one purpose: to drive the French out of Spain and Portugal, and restore to those countries the previous ruling regimes which had been rudely overthrown by the ambition of one man -- Napoleon Bonaparte.

The so-called Peninsular War had begun in 1807 with the French invasion of Portugal. In March of the following year, Napoleon made war on Spain, capturing Madrid and placing his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. The Spanish people, not surprisingly, objected to the imposition of a foreign king, over them and began a bloody insurrection, distinguished for its barbarity on both sides. Anyone who has seen Goya's series of etchings entitled "The Disasters of War" will be familiar with the kind of atrocities committed during the Peninsular War.

The British, who were themselves at war with Napoleon, sent an army to the peninsula in August 1808. This army was under the command of Arthur Wellesley, better known as Viscount Wellington.

The Black Watch arrived in Portugal, from Ireland, on July 4, 1810, having sailed from Cork 14 days earlier. Their first encampment was on the Guadiana River, where they remained all summer, losing many men in a fever epidemic.

On September 27, the Black Watch took part in the defensive action at Busaco, when 65,000 French troops attacked an army of 50,000 British and Portuguese under Wellington, who were engaged in a retreat to fortified lines at Torres Vedras, just north of Lisbon. Despite five attempts at disrupting the Allied army's orderly retreat, the French were driven off with the loss of 4500 men, and by October 10 the Black Watch, along with the rest of Wellington's forces, were safely in winter quarters at Torres Vedras.

Wellington spent the winter of 1810/11 perfecting lightning raids on the French, who, lacking food and warm clothing, suffered losses of some 20,000 men to the hit-and-run tactics of the British and their Portuguese allies. In March, the French decided to abandon Portugal and concentrate their forces in Spain. The British passed the latter half of 1811 in inconclusive operations designed to wrest control of the frontier passes between Portugal and Spain from the French.

In January 1812, Wellington's forces went on the offensive, focusing their energies on capturing the various fortified strongpoints which barred the way to Madrid. The Black Watch were involved in much of this fighting. Fuentes d'Onor, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz; these were three of the sieges in which the Black Watch played their part.

At Badajoz, where the British casualties were particularly heavy, the victorious Allies took a fearful vengeance on their French enemies, the town being given up to a three-day orgy of drunken looting, rape and murder. Exactly what role the Black Watch took in this riot is not recorded, but it is perhaps significant that they received no battle honour for Badajoz.

On July 22, 1812, Wellington defeated the French in an open battle near the famous old town of Salamanca, the Allies losing some 50OO men as against French casualties of 15,000. The way to Madrid was now clear, and Wellington's victorious troops, including the Black Watch, entered the Spanish capital on August 12 to find that the unpopular King Joseph Bonaparte had fled the city.

With hindsight, it is clear that Wellington should have set up winter quarters around Madrid in order to rest his much-depleted forces, but for some reason he decided to press on into northern Spain in pursuit of the French. On September 18, an ill-equipped siege train consisting of only three siege guns, next to no sappers and a motley ensemble of weary troops began the siege of Burgos.

Conscious of the paucity of his forces, Wellington decided to mount an immediate night attack on the strongly fortified position known as Monte Saint Michael. The Black Watch were ordered to supply troops for the storming party which was known as "the Forlorn Hope", an indication of the limited life expectancy of those selected to serve in it.

Under cover of darkness, the Black Watch placed their scaling ladders against the high walls of Monte Saint Michael. Surprise was an essential element in Wellington's plans, and surprise there was -- but it was the British who found themselves on the receiving end. The French troops were waiting in force on the ramparts of Monte Saint Michael and any member of the Black Watch who succeeded in reaching the top of a scaling ladder was instantly bayonetted.

Badly shaken, the "Forlorn Hope" fell back on their trenches where they tried to persuade their Portuguese allies to assist them in another attempt at storming the fortifications, but without success, the Portuguese declining to participate in what they clearly regarded as suicide.

All seemed lost until the 79th (Cameron) Highlanders came to the assistance of the Black Watch. A fresh attack commenced and, after a fierce and desperate fight, the Scottish soldiers succeeded in capturing the fort of Monte Saint Michael.

The casualty figures of the "Forlorn Hope" at Monte Saint Michael amounted to 32 men killed and 150 wounded. Among those who returned unscathed from the battle was John Harper, a private soldier in the Black Watch, 27 years old and a native of Wick. He had fought in every Peninsular War action that the Black Watch had been involved in.

John Harper, a family man with one daughter, was working as a labourer when an Army recruiting party, under the command of a Lieutenant Gunn of the Black Watch, arrived in Thurso on June 11, 1807. Lieutenant Gunn had come north to sign up men for service in the Napoleonic Wars, which had been raging since 1803.

Every Scottish county was required to produce a set number of recruits for Army service, many of whom were selected by ballot. Every man who signed up for a lifetime in the Army received a bounty of 11 guineas, a considerable sum of money in those impoverished times, and a great temptation to a labourer earning a shilling a week.

Along with John Harper, the following Caithness men were recruited by Lieutenant Gunn: John Mackenzie, Sinclair Sutherland, George Cunningham, Donald Peacock and Angus Gordon. These potential soldiers were attested at Wick on July 7 and, if deemed fit for service, were then marched to Fort George for basic training, before sailing to Ireland where the Black Watch was posted.

Army life in the early 1800s was somewhat different to today's regime. Discipline was harsh, punishments draconian -- conditions hardly designed to bring out the humanitarian instincts in men whose whole lives had been spent in the kind of servitude which breeds resentment, and a desire for violent retaliation. Warfare merely served to enhance these brutal instincts and it required powerful personalities, like Napoleon or Wellington, to forge a disciplined fighting force out of such an uncouth mob.

During the Peninsular War, for example, Wellington's soldiers, having no access to fresh uniforms, went about in rags, the Highlandars often turning worn-out kilts into improvised trousers. Bad roads and nonexistent transport meant that every journey was a foot-slog; shoes rapidly wore out, men marched barefoot over flint roads.

In the absence of stores, a ready alternative offered itself: after every skirmish or battle the dead and wounded were stripped to the skin of uniforms, weapons, shoes, watches, purses; even false ivory teeth were removed. Any wounded man who resisted this pillage was unceremoniously done to death.

Commanders saw nothing wrong in any of this; pragmatic men, they cared only that each man able to march and bear arms should have 60 rounds of ammunition and rations for three days. How these essentials were come by was a matter of indifference to Wellington and his like. We can easily imagine that the John Harper of 1812 was a much more worldly-wise individual than the labourer who had, affixed his mark to Lieutenant Gunn's recruitment form some five years earlier.

Following the capture of fort Monte Saint Michael, Wellington's troops continued their siege of Burgos. Five attacks in as many weeks, none of them successful, when news came that the French Army was marching back on Madrid to threaten Wellington's rear. The British commander had no option but to raise the siege of Burgos and retreat, in terrible weather, to Ciudad Rodrigo.

Wellington's army lost 7000 men during this bitter retreat. The French, however, without supplies and unable to live off a country universally hostile to them, fared no better and by November their forces dispersed to spend the winter as best they could.

The summer of 1813 marked the great change in Wellington's fortunes. Following the decisive battle of Vittorio in June, a battle in which the Black Watch did not participate, being on supply line duty at the time, the French armies retreated back across the border into their homeland. The British Army gave chase and, in a series of fierce and bloody encounters at Sorauren, Nivelle, Nive (where "the roads ran with blood"), Bayonne and Orthes, was everywhere victorious. By March 17, 1814, Wellington had seized Bordeaux and was turning his attentions on Toulouse.

The fortress of Toulouse was deemed impregnable by the French but nevertheless, on April 10, Wellington decided to attack it on three of its four sides. The first two attacks were abysmal failures, 10,000 Spanish troops being utterly routed by a much inferior force of French defenders. The third assault, in which the Black Watch took a leading part, had more success. Their task was to capture two formidable redoubts which guarded a hill known as Mont Raveon.

Possession of this hill was absolutely essential if the British were to have any hope of taking Toulouse. However, noticing their enemy's preparations to attack them, the French pre-empted the British by bringing up two divisions and marching on the British lines.

The French attack was met by the Black Watch and their fellow Highlanders, the 79th Camerons, who stood shoulder to shoulder, in lines four deep, pouring volley after volley into the advancing French troops. Battle-hardened veterans though they were, the French could not maintain their progress in the face of such devastating musketry. They began an orderly retreat to their two fortified redoubts, closely followed by the Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders.

Now began the most bitter struggle that the Black Watch were ever involved in. Hand-to-hand struggles with bayonets, clubbing blows from musket butts, gaping wounds inflicted with clasp knives, the conflict was cruel in the extreme, no quarter being given or asked. At last, the British found themselves in possession of the French redoubts, but so exhausted that they were unable to withstand the threat of an attempt by fresh French troops to retake their strongpoints.

The Highlanders began to retreat to their original lines, the French in pursuit, flushed with success at recapturing their redoubts. Once more the accurate musketry of the Black Watch and Camerons shattered the advancing French columns, who again retreated, but this time not to the safety of their fortifications. Due to one of those errors by which great events are often decided, the French mistook the movement of a regiment of Wellington's Portuguese allies for a trap and promptly abandoned their precious redoubts to the British, whose ultimate victory at Toulouse was now virtually assured.

Six hundred soldiers of the Black Watch began the assault on Mont Raveon on that April morning fewer than 150 survived the day unscathed. John Harper was among those wounded, in his case severely in one of his legs.

The wound must have been serious as he was still in France three months after the Black Watch had returned to Ireland.

Given this lengthy period of convalescence, it is a wonder John Harper survived his injuries, for in those days battlefield surgery was primitive to say the least and surgeons were duty-bound to. attend to officers and NCOs before private soldiers. Anaesthetic was unknown, hygiene nonexistent, nursing staff unheard of. No wonder then that so many soldiers died of gangrene, amputation shock, loss of blood or fever as a result of treatment for wounds.

In August 1814, John Harper rejoined his regiment in Ireland He was, however, unfit to accompany the Black Watch to Belgium in May 1815 and was therefore denied a role in the great battle of Waterloo.

The Black Watch remained in France until December 1815 before returning to Edinburgh, where John Harper joined up with them once more to resume normal service duties. In April 1817, the Black Watch were sent back to Ireland, remaining there until 1825, when they received a posting to Gibraltar.

Four years later, in February 1829, cholera broke out in Gibraltar, killing 60 men of John Harper's battalion and affecting him to such an extent that, a year later, he was invalided out of the Army.

His discharge papers quote the surgeon's report that Private Harper was suffering from a chronic lung infection of long standing, which, combined with impaired general health, rendered him unfit for service. His disability was attributed solely to the effect of military service, being in no way due to any intemperance or vice on his part.

In other words, he was not a drunkard, nor had he contracted a venereal disease.

The Regimental Board was unanimous in its assessment of Private Harper's character, judging him to have been "a good and efficient soldier, seldom in hospital, and trustworthy and sober".

The date of John Harper's discharge was February 15, 1830. He was 45 years of age, 22 years and 190 days of which had been devoted to the Army. John Harper is notable as the first Caithness man to enter the list of the famous Chelsea Pensioners.

John Harper now returned to Caithness where he settled down on a croft with his wife Elizabeth (nee Mackenzie) and his daughter Isabella, who had been born at Wick The Harpers had no further children, their line continuing via Isabella, who married James Cormack of Slickly, bearing him a son, David, born in 1837. David took up the trade of mason, marrying Janet, daughter of John Waters, farmer, at Hastigrow in 1860. Their son, Gordon, was born at Slickly in October 1868.

Gordon was twice married. He died in Edinburgh in 1948. His grandsons are Gordon and Ronald Thomson, and it is to Gordon that we owe the information concerning his great-great-grandfather, John Harper, whose date of death is presently not known.

Anyone with any additional information on Private John Harper or his descendants is invited to contact David Bews on Thurso 895342. As usual I cannot over-emphasise the value of David's patient research, without which this article could not have been written.


To read the detailed research by David click here

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Steven Cashmore 1998

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