Friday August 24, 2012
special to the star
Gen. Isaac Brock, Tecumseh, Lt. James Fitzgibbon, and Lt.-Col. Charles de Salaberry are among the heroic leaders Canadians honour as we mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
But what of the ordinary soldiers who fought and died in that war?
At historic sites such as Fort York, re-enactors dress in crisp red uniforms, march on parade grounds and fire volleys with replica muskets. It’s fun to watch but it’s a squeaky clean imitation of what military life was really like for the common soldier in Canada during the tumultuous years of 1812-1814.
For the lowly foot soldier, life was hard even before he saw battle. He endured an endless routine of drills, marching and boredom. Military discipline was harsh and the slightest infractions were punishable by the lash. A soldier on guard duty in the summer sweated in his woollen tunic. In winter, a thick greatcoat protected his body, but his face, hands and feet were often frostbitten. For off-duty soldiers, there weren’t many diversions besides drinking and gambling, and drunkenness could mean a trip to the whipping post.
Primitive sanitary conditions made disease a constant danger. The cook might fetch water from near the latrine. In the close confines of camps, contagious diseases spread rapidly. A soldier was more likely to die from sickness than from a battle wound.
In Upper Canada, the soldier’s diet was usually a monotonous daily ration of bread and boiled beef, supplemented with whatever fruits and vegetables were available. Militia Sgt. James Dubro of the Cornwall volunteers wrote to his mother in October 1813, “The poor quality of the beef and weevil-ridden excuse for bread might get me before a Yankee musket ball.”
But at least the soldiers under Brock and his successors didn’t suffer from food shortages — thanks to the enemy. The farmers of the border states had no qualms about selling food to the British. They had opposed the war in the first place, and the British paid well.
The American government actually had to send Gen. Zebulon Pike to Sackets Harbor to stop the smuggling. When one of his men was assaulted by smugglers and requested help, Pike responded, “I have sent two detachments down into your quarter to punish those miscreants who possess so little patriotism as to wish success to an enemy.”
For the common foot soldier, a battlefield was a terrible place. A company of troopers might have to wait in formation for hours before they were sent into the fight. Some filled their canteens with whisky to maintain courage. If nature called, the soldier had to relieve himself on the spot.
In a “set battle,” the basic tactic was to line up as many men as possible against an enemy position, and have them advance through a storm of artillery and musket fire in the hope that enough of them survived to take the position. The gaps formed in the line by men who fell were filled by those behind them. They just stepped over the dead and the wounded to take their places. For this reason, foot soldiers were called “cannon fodder.”
The soldier’s weapon was a smoothbore, flintlock musket nicknamed Brown Bess. The gun weighed about 4.5 kilograms and fired a .75-calibre ball. A well-trained soldier could reload this single-shot weapon fast enough to fire four rounds a minute. In precision volleys, that meant a devastating barrage of lead balls that smashed into enemy ranks, ripping through flesh and shattering bone. The soft lead balls tended to mushroom or fragment inside a human body, inflicting frightful damage to muscle and vital organs.
American troops answered British fire with volleys of “buck and ball,” a combination of musket balls and buckshot that caused maximum carnage.
Rifled weapons such as the famous Kentucky long rifle had been available since the mid-18th century. They had greater range and accuracy than the musket and were used by snipers to pick off enemy officers. But the rifle was too expensive to be mass produced for regular troops. It took longer to reload and it fired a smaller ball. An ordinary soldier didn’t have to be a marksman. He just had to keep blasting away at the enemy army.
The long rifle’s greatest disadvantage, as far as the military was concerned, was that it couldn’t be effectively fitted with a bayonet, a soldier’s universal tool. He used it for digging or any chore that required a blade or a sharp point. In camp it served as a spit to cook a piece of meat over a fire — presumably after being wiped clean of any blood from the most recent battle. In combat, it could become the soldier’s principal weapon.
Sometimes an enemy army fled after the exchange of a few volleys. But if the opposing ranks closed, then the hand-to-hand, face-to-face struggle was truly horrific. In that wild melee, there was little chance to reload a musket. The soldier now relied on the 43-centimetre bayonet at the end of his gun. He had been trained to go for the belly, because if he stabbed his man in the rib cage, the bayonet might get stuck.
There was nothing glorious about a battlefield. The black gunpowder of the time produced thick smoke, so the field would be shrouded in an acrid fog that stung the eyes and throat. The roar of cannons and muskets was deafening. Witnesses to the Battle of Crysler’s Farm described the sound of the British muskets firing in unison at regular intervals as “a tremendous roll of thunder.”
Even above the din of battle, the screams of wounded men could be heard. A man who had had a leg blown off by a cannon ball, or his stomach punctured by a bayonet, was not likely to die quietly.
Wounded men often lost control of bodily functions. Battlefields, therefore, stank of blood, vomit, urine and feces. In the aftermath of a clash, it was said that you could smell a battlefield a mile away. As you got closer, you could hear the cries of the wounded men still lying in the field. Their lament became known as the Holy Trinity of the Battlefield: God, Mother and Water.
For the wounded soldier, the nightmare was just beginning. A military hospital could be even more deadly than the battlefield. The surgeon’s main tools were the probe, with which he dug out bullets, and the bone saw, with which he amputated limbs (earning surgeons the nickname “Sawbones”). There were no anesthetics, so the patient had to be restrained and given a piece of leather to bite on. Surgeons such as William “Tiger” Dunlop wrote that they were sometimes ankle-deep in blood. Outside the hospital tent would be a pile of body parts. Even if the soldier survived the surgery, there was still the threat of infection. Antibiotics like penicillin were unheard of.
Human scavengers often prowled through battlefields, robbing dead and wounded soldiers of money and valuables. Because the army often had to move on in a hurry, there might only be time to quickly bury the dead in shallow graves that were vulnerable to animals. Over time, many such gravesites would be lost and forgotten.
When we visit War of 1812 battlegrounds such as Queenston and Stoney Creek and recall the deeds of famous men, we should spare a thought for the common soldiers who followed them, and whose blood bought Canada’s future.