Benjamin Harris: Sufferer of the Walcheren Expedition

Benjamin Randell Harris is most widely remembered today as the author of a memoir of his time in the 95th Rifles entitled The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, which affords us a rare insight into the world of the enlisted man in Wellington's army. Most memoirs published after the war came from serving officers, and the experiences of ordinary soldiers were overlooked due to the illiteracy of so many people at that time. Harris himself was illiterate; his recollections were recorded for him at some stage in the middle of the 1830s by an officer who knew him, Captain Henry Curling. Curling then kept the manuscript until 1848, when he succeeded in getting it published.

Benjamin Harris is vague about his origins in his text, but investigations by the historian Eileen Hathaway have revealed that he was born in Portsea, Hampshire to Robert and Elizabeth Harris around the 28 October 1781. In his discharge papers he is described as being 5 feet 5 inches in height, with black hair, grey eyes, and of dark complexion. His family however were shepherds from Stalbridge in North Dorset, and it was here that Benjamin grew up, in a large family with whom he remained until 1803. In that year he was drafted into the 66th Regiment of Foot somewhat against his will, and forcibly marched to Winchester, where he underwent training in preparation for deployment against the French as the Peace of Amiens was drawing to a close. It was whilst stationed there that he was randomly selected as part of a firing squad to execute a deserter, and action which he reports "for many years afterwards remained deeply impressed on my mind".         

Shortly afterwards he was despatched as a garrison force to Ireland, and served duty in Cork and in Dublin, where he met and joined a newly formed regiment, the 95th Regiment of Foot, the now infamous green-jacketed riflemen.

Flames rising above Copenhagen during the bombardment.

From Ireland, Harris was returned to England following a period with a recruiting party, and rapidly settled into regimental life, learning to become a cobbler in addition to his regular duties, by which means he made a substantial amount of money which later enabled him to afford medical treatment which saved his life. Harris' first experience of military service came in 1807, when he participated in the brief land campaign which accompanied the Bombardment of Copenhagen. He saw action in the skirmish at Køge (which was also the first action of the Duke of Wellington following his return from India).  Harris writes of this first experience of action:

'I felt so much exhilarated that I could hardly keep back, and was checked by the commander of the company (Capt. Leech), who called to me by name to keep my place. About this time, my front rank man, a tall fellow named Jack Johnson, showed a disposition as though firing had on him an effect the reverse of what it had on many others of the company, for he seemed inclined to hang back, and once or twice turned round in my face. I was a rear-rank man, and porting my piece, in the excitement of the moment I swore that if he did not keep his ground, I would shoot him dead on the spot... it is the only instance I remember of a British soldier endevouring to hold back when his comrades were going forward.'

Soon afterwards, he and his unit returned to England on captured Danish vessels.

Harris was soon moving again, sailing to Portugal to participate in the opening actions of the British involvement in the Peninsula War. Harris was at the very first action, a skirmish at the town of Obidos, where he saw Lieutenant Ralph Bunbury fall, the first British casualty of the war. On the 17 August 1808 he was in the hotly contested skirmish line at the Battle of Rolica, and saw serious opposition for the first time, reporting it as an exhilarating and terrifying experience. Many of his companions were killed at this action and the ensuing Battle of Vimeiro, but Harris remained unhurt, continuing the march to Salamanca before becoming trapped in northern Spain with the rest of Sir John Moore's army.

Harris recalls Vimeiro:

'As I looked about me, whilst standing enranked, and just before the commencement of battle, I thought it the most imposing sight the world could produce. Our lines glitering with bright arms, the stern features of the men, as they stood with their eyes fixed unalterably upon the enemy, the proud colours of England floating over the heads of the different battalions, and the dark cannon on the rising ground... Altogether the sight had a singular and terrible effect upon the feelings of a youth who, a few short months before, had been a solitary shepherd upon the Downs of Dorsetshire, and had never contemplated any other sort of life than the peaceful occupation of watching the innocent sheep as they fed upon the grassy turf.'

Harris missed the Battle of Corunna which culminated the campaign, but the sights and horrors of the march remained with him for decades to come, and he was lucky to escape, claiming to be the very last man collected from the beaches at Vigo, and embarking for England in a severely weakened state

The biggest upheaval in Harris' life was the disastrous 1809 Walcheren Expedition, in which a British force was sent to the islands of Walcheren of the Dutch coast with the aim of destroying the dykes and lock gates there to render the port of Antwerp unusable for the French navy.

Map of the Scheldt Estuary, showing the position of the island of Walcheren to the West.

The operation was commanded by John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Army) and Sir Richard Strachan (Navy). Chatham had a reputation as an extremely cautious commander, and gave the operation a dangerously slow pace. While the British troops were diverted into the capture of Flushing (August 15) and surrounding towns, the enemy heavily reinforced Antwerp. With the main objective out of reach, the expedition was called off in early September. Around 12,000 troops stayed on Walcheren, by October only 5,500 remained fit for duty. Ironically, it had been widely reported a few years earlier that an occupying French force had lost 80% of its numbers also due to disease.

In all the British government had wasted almost £8 million on the expedition, 4,067 men had died (only 106 in combat). Almost 12,000 were still ill in February 1810 and many others remained permanently weakened. It was well known, that Walcheren was an unhealthy place to be. The French Admiral Missiessy had refused to station himself at Flushing for fear that his men would contract the Walcheren fever, whilst the British should really have remembered that their previous expedition to the region in 1747 had also been decimated by illness which had been comprehensively documented by the military surgeon John Pringle.       

Although Walcheren seemed a pleasant enough place on first acquaintance it was in truth a rather unhealthy place to spend any time as the drainage dykes were little more than fetid ditches full of mosquitoes. Fresh water was always in short supply and was most certainly not present in sufficient quantities to supply a large occupying force and the British were forced to ship across some 800 casks of fresh water each and every day from the Downs. But despite the best efforts of the British Army men began falling ill within week or so of their arrival at Walcheren. At the beginning of August there were fewer than 700 men sick, but by the 3rd September over 8,000 of them had been struck down by fever.

Harris was amongst those disabled, spending months in plague wards from which he was never expected to recover, and on at least one occasion only surviving through the extra medical care he received thanks to his financial reserves. Although he was recalled to his regiment in 1810 for service in Spain, he was unable to attend due to recurring bouts of malaria, and spent much of the period between 1809 and 1814 in hospitals or his father's home in Stalbridge, especially after Wellington had decreed that no men who served in Walcheren were to be sent to the Peninsula as they were unfit for further service. Those few months when he was able to live normally he spent in London with Veterans Battalions of unfit and wounded men, including numerous French deserters.

Excerpt from Harris’s book on the Walcheren expedition:

'...A fair wind soon carried us off Flushing, where one part of the expedition disembarked; the other made for South Beveland, among which latter I myself was. The five companies of Rifles immediately occupied a very pretty village, with rows of trees on either side of its principal streets, where we had plenty of leisure to listen to the cannonading going on amongst the companies we had left at Flushing. The appearance of the country (such as it was) was extremely pleasant, and for a few days the men enjoyed themselves much.

But at the expiration of (I think) less time than a week, an awful visitation came suddenly upon us. The first I observed of it was one day as I sat in my billet, when I beheld whole parties of our Riflemen in the street shaking with a sort of ague, to such a degree that they could hardly walk; strong and fine young men who had been but a short time in the service seemed suddenly reduced in strength to infants, unable to stand upright-so great a shaking had seized upon their whole bodies from head to heel. The company I belonged to was quartered in a barn, and I quickly perceived that hardly a man there had stomach for the bread that was served out to him, or even to taste his grog, although each man had an allowance of half-a-pint of gin per day. In fact I should say that about three weeks from the day we landed, I and two others were the only individuals who could stand upon our legs. They lay groaning in rows in the barn, amongst the heaps of lumpy black bread they were unable to eat. 
This awful spectacle considerably alarmed the officers, who were also many of them attacked. The naval doctors came on shore to assist the regimental surgeons, who, indeed, had more upon their hands than they could manage; Dr. Ridgeway of the Rifles, and his assistant, having nearly five hundred patients prostrate at the same moment. In short, except myself and three or four others, the whole concern was completely floored.

The army leaving Walcheren.

Under these circumstances, which considerably confounded the doctors, orders were issued (since all hopes of getting the men upon their legs seemed gone) to embark them as fast as possible, which was accordingly done with some little difficulty. The poor fellows made every effort to get on board; those who were a trifle better than others crawled to the boats; many supported each other; and many were carried helpless as infants...On shipboard the aspect of affairs did not mend; the men beginning to die so fast that they committed ten or twelve to the deep in one day. It was rather extraordinary that myself, and Brooks, and a man named Bowley, who had all three been at Corunna, were at this moment unattcked by the disease, and notwithstanding the awful appearance of the pest-ship we were in, I myself had little fear of it, I thought myself so hardened that it could not touch me. It happened, however, that I stood sentinel (men being scarce) over the hatchway, and Brooks, who was always a jolly and jeering companion (even in the very jaws of death) came past me, and offered me a lump of pudding, it being pudding-day on board. At that moment I felt struck with a deadly faintness, shaking all over like an aspen, and my teeth chattering in my head so that I could hardly hold my rifle. Brooks looked at me for a moment with the pudding in his hand, which he saw I could not take, 'Hullo', he said, 'why Harris, old boy, you are not going to begin are you?' I felt unable to answer him, but only muttered out as I tumbled, 'For God's sake get me relieved, Brooks!'.... In fact I was now sprawling upon the forecastle, amongst many others, in a miserable state, our knapsacks and our great-coats over us,... and thus we arrived at Dover...The Warwickshire Militia were at this time quartered at Dover. They came to assist in disembarking us, and were obliged to lift many of us out of the boats like sacks of flour. If any of those militiamen remain alive, they will not easily forget that piece of duty; for I never beheld men more moved than they were at our helpless state. Many died at Dover and numbers in Deal.'

Even a poem was written about this ill fated expedition by Leigh Hunt in 1810 called the Walcheren Expedition; Or, the Englishman's Lamentation for the Loss of His Countrymen. Which starts with the lines:

Ye brave, enduring Englishmen,
     Who dash through fire and flood, 
And spend with equal thoughtlessness
     Your money and your blood, 
I sing of that black season,
     Which all true hearts deplore, 
         When ye lay, 
         Night and day, 
Upon Walcheren's swampy shore.

The full text, along with other poetry of the period can be found in separate article.

Harris was discharged in consequence of visceral disease, (a disease of the abdominal organs) His Majesty having no further occasion for his services. His pension was set at 6d per day, but he never drew it, having been disqualified for failing to report for duty on the general recall of pensioners to the colours on Napoleon's escape from Elba, leaving Harris with no choice but to re-enter the work force as a cobbler, which trade he plied in London. In the 1830s an acquaintance, Captain Henry Curling, found him as a worker in a cobblers and boot makers in the city and persuaded him to relate his war experiences, which Curling collected into a manuscript.

Harris's discharge papers.

The medal roll for the Military General Service Medal (MGSM) for non-pensioners shows that Benjamin Harris of the 95th Foot was awarded a medal with clasps for Roleia, Vimiera and Corunna. He claimed a clasp for Busaco, but this request was rejected, a note indicating 'sick at Hillsea the whole period".

The MGSM was approved on 1 June 1847 as a retrospective award for various military actions from 1793 to 1814; a period encompassing the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Anglo-American War of 1812. Each battle or action covered by the medal was represented by a clasp on the ribbon; twenty-nine were sanctioned the maximum awarded to one man was fifteen. The medal was never issued without a clasp. The medal was awarded only to surviving claimants; next of kin could not apply for a medal on behalf of a deceased relative. However, the medal was awarded to next of kin of those claimants who had died between the date of their application and the date of presentation. There were some 25,650 applications in total

The Chelsea Hospital registers record his death as 28 October 1858, within the 2nd North London pension district. His full name on his death certificate is Benjamin Randall Harris, aged 77, and his place of death was Poland Street Workhouse, Westminster.

His memoirs were not well known at the time, only becoming well read much later by historians of the twentieth century. Harris did however leave a postscript to his manuscript, which reads:

"I enjoyed life more whilst on active service than I have ever done since, and I look back on my time spent on the fields of the Peninsula as the only part worthy of remembrance".