Old Soldier’s Story - A Young Soldier Honors an Old Soldier
Field Marshal Sir Henry Evelyn Wood (1838-1919) was one of the most famous soldiers of the British Empire. He fought in the Crimea as a midshipman in the Naval Brigade, being wounded when just 15, and then, joining the army, served in the Indian Mutiny, earning a Victoria Cross, the Second Ashanti War, the Ninth Kaffir War, the Zulu War, the Egyptian Expedition, and the abortive effort to relieve Gordon at Khartoum, while qualifying as a barrister, and eventually holding a number of important administrative posts, in which he proved a notable reformer, helping to lay the foundation for the superb British Expeditionary Force of 1914. So when in 1906 he wrote his memoirs, From Midshipman to Field Marshal, Wood included many a stirring moment from his long, adventurous, and distinguished career. And also a moving incident that occurred during in 1872.
In that year Wood had recently become a lieutenant colonel of the 90th Perthshire Light Infantry *, then garrisoned at Stirling, Scotland. It transpired that though the regiment had been issued new “colours” in 1870, the tattered banners that these had replaced were still in storage. So Wood was asked to make arrangements with the City of Perth, so that the veteran colors could be displayed in the town’s cathedral. This duty necessitated several visits to the city. On the first such occasion, some members of the Council escorted him back to the railroad station. What followed, is best described by Wood himself.
I asked one of them, pointing to a distinguished looking old man, with a long white beard, who he was, and received the somewhat contemptuous reply, "Oh, he is of no importance - only an old Peninsula soldier."
I repeated my question to the stationmaster, who was more sympathetic, and at my request, obtained his initials from the Goods Office.
When I got back to Stirling, I went up to the Mess-room, where we had the Army Lists for eighty years past, and was rewarded by finding the name of the distinguished-looking old man who had been present in a Fusilier Regiment at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. William Napier [in History of the War in the Peninsula] wrote marvelously graphic English, but of all his work one piece stands out pre-eminent, "The Attack of the Fusilier Brigade at Albuera," and I committed to memory rather more than a page of his account of the climax of the battle. On the 27th June we went up to Perth – 16 officers and 14 non-commissioned officers, and the Commanding officer asked me to return thanks for our reception at the luncheon given to us by the Provost and Council.
On rising, I said, "I should have been glad to do so, but that I stand in the presence of one who has taken part in a more stubborn struggle than it has been my fate to see," and I recited Napier's stirring description. As I finished the last sentence, "The rain flowed after in streams discoloured with blood, and 1500 unwounded men, the remnant of 6000 unconquerable British soldiers, stood triumphant on the fatal hill!" I said, "I call on Lieutenant _____ of the Fusiliers to answer for the Army."
He was at the end of the Council Chamber, having taken literally and metaphorically, a back seat, and rising slowly and with difficulty, for he was more than eighty years of age, he doddered over to the table, and leaning heavily upon it said, simply "Let me greit [cry]!"
And "greit" he did; but presently brushing away his tears, and drawing his body up to its full height – and he was 6 foot 2 inches – he made an admirable speech, the gist of which was that he had lived in the City of Perth since 1814, and no one had ever asked him anything about the Peninsula; no one had ever spoken to him about the Battle of Albuera; "but now" he concluded, "when I have one foot in the grave, I see before me officers in the same coloured coats, and with the same sort of faces, and instead of talking about what they did in the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny, they recount in wonderful language the crowning scene of my military life." Then sinking back into a chair, he added, "I shall die happy."
* In 1881 the 90th became the 2nd
Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), which was disbanded in 1968.