Friday, March 13, 2009

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris

I finally got around to reading The Recollections of Rifleman Harris (Christopher Hibbert, ed., 1970), one of the better-known Peninsular War memoirs. Harris was a shepherd and cobbler from Dorsetshire who was drafted into the militia (think National Guard, only they couldn't be required to serve outside of Great Britain and Ireland) and then chose to enlist in the 95th Rifles. He only served in the earliest part of the Peninsular campaign--after the first expeditionary force was evacuated in 1809, he was sent on the ill-fated Walcheren expedition and was one of many men who came down with what was probably malaria. He never recovered enough to resume active service, and was working in London as a cobbler years after Waterloo when he encountered Henry Curling, the officer who set down his story. (Harris himself was probably illiterate.)

Harris's memories are rambling and disjointed; Christopher Hibbert's occasional footnotes and clarifications are a big help. Even so, I'd only recommend it to readers who know a fair amount about the Peninsular War. It's a striking read for its calm, straightforward narrative of the horrors and privations of war, and the mixture of inhumanity and grace in how people respond to it. It did sadden me a bit to see Harris completely buy into the evils of the system he served in--he believed flogging was a necessary evil and preferred officers to be from the gentry or the aristocracy. It doesn't surprise me to see beneficiaries of such a system defend it, but I like to think people like Harris would've been itching to, oh, fight the power and stick it to The Man. Of course, if they had, the course of British history would've been very different, but reading that kind of servility still makes me wince.

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