Byfield’s Bugler

Byfield’s Narrative

For a number of years, I have been interested in the life of Shadrack Byfield (1789-1874), a Wiltshire-born soldier of the 41st Foot known his 1840 memoir, A Narrative of a Light Company Soldier’s Service, which chronicles his experiences during the War of 1812. But Byfield’s adventures certainly did not end with the amputation of his left forearm following a wound suffered at the Battle of Conjocta Creek in 1814. Among other post-war escapades, he secured the patronage of Sir William Napier (the famed Peninsular War historian), published a second memoir detailing his religious conversion, and (allegedly) ripped open an adversary’s eye and face with his iron hook prosthesis during an 1853 riot over predestination in a Gloucestershire Baptist chapel.

My research on Shadrack Byfield will hopefully result in a book in due course, but this brief blog post, written to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, explores the somewhat less colourful life of William Buckman, the light company bugler repeatedly mentioned in Byfield’s writings. By coupling this testimony with information gleaned from Buckman’s army pension record, we can gain insight into the life of one early nineteenth-century ‘musical warrior.’

41st Ft 1823 illust letter Madras Chris Bryant coll Scan 102
Portrait of 41st drummer and wife, Madras, 1823 (Chris Bryant Collection, courtesy René Chartrand)

William Buckman was born circa 1797 in Bath, a famous spa town in the southwestern English county of Somerset. He enlisted in the 41st Foot’s newly-formed 2nd Battalion, headquartered at Winchester, on 16 September 1812, aged approximately fifteen or sixteen. The following year, the 2/41st was sent out to British North America to reinforce the regiment’s 1st Battalion, which had served in the Canadas since 1799.

William Buckman’s first (and only) experience under fire was at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane on 25 July 1814, the bloodiest engagement ever fought on Canadian soil.[1] The 41st’s light company, commanded by Captain Joseph Glew, joined the confused contest after nightfall, but were scarcely able to tell friend and foe apart in the darkness. The light company’s two buglers (William Buckman and John Stott) presumably played a critical role in transmitting orders in action, and in one case appear to have spared their comrades from the brunt of an American volley. According to Byfield, on encountering an unknown regiment on the battlefield: “The [company’s] guide positively asserted that it was one of the enemy. Our bugle then sounded for the company to drop. A volley was then fired upon us which killed two corporals[2] and wounded a sergeant and several of the men. The company then arose, fired, and charged. The enemy quitted their position; we followed and took three field pieces.”[3]

As Byfield’s account suggests, the 41st light company’s bold charge recovered, albeit only temporarily, the captured British guns at the centre of the battlefield.[4] Yet Glew’s daring gambit came at a cost for Buckman, who was injured in the right arm. Byfield seemingly alluded to the bugler’s wounding in an alternative account of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane included in his shorter 1836 memoir: “We came at once to a charge,—and although the two corporals on my right were killed, and the trumpet knocked from the trumpeter’s mouth, the enemy retreated…”[5]

Buckman’s right forearm was amputated near the elbow joint; he spent time in hospital but was deemed ‘unfit for further service abroad’ and was sent home to England in autumn 1814. The bugler’s discharge papers, signed by 41st Lieutenant-Colonel William Evans, described Buckman as a ‘Gallant Soldier’ with ‘a very Good character’, certifying his eligibility for a pension. These documents also provided a basic physical description: Buckman boasted hazel eyes, black hair and a brown complexion, was only 5’1” in height and was classified as a labourer – a catch-all occupational category for soldiers without a specific trade.[6]

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Buckman was sent to the Invalid Depot at Chatham in Kent, where he awaited a hearing before the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Board of Commissioners, who determined the pensions awarded to wounded soldiers on leaving the army.[7] But as Chelsea was overwhelmed by a backlog of injured and incapacitated servicemen returning from overseas campaigns, Buckman was not called before the Board until 8 August 1815, when he appeared alongside ten other 41st invalids, including Shadrack Byfield.[8]

Byfield specifically noted Buckman’s case when recalling his own Chelsea hearing in his 1840 memoirs: “My feelings were much excited, that day, on learning that our bugle-horn man, who was a young soldier, who had been but in one action, and had lost a fore arm, about the same length as mine, was rewarded with one shilling per day. I must say, that I felt very much dissatisfied with nine pence…”[9]


Buckman WO 116:19
William Buckman’s entry in the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Out-Pension Admission Books (TNA, WO 116/19)

Byfield, a battle-hardened veteran, clearly felt slighted that the young, inexperienced Buckman had been awarded a more generous pension, echoing the complaints of other soldier-memoirists like Thomas Jackson or William Lawrence, who accused the Chelsea commissioners of both parsimony and caprice. To be fair, however, their wounds were not exactly comparable, for Buckman had been deprived of his right forearm while Byfield had lost his left. Assuming both men were right-hand dominant, it was arguably reasonable for the Chelsea board to consider Buckman’s injury the greater loss. Nevertheless, Byfield was convinced he had been shortchanged and doggedly pursued the increase he believed he was owed until finally granted the full shilling two decades later.

As for Buckman, nothing is known of his post-war life. He died on 16 March 1833, aged 36, and was buried five days later at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Bathwick, a suburb of Bath.[10]

[1] Buckman was presumably joined at Lundy’s Lane by the light (No. 6) company’s other bugler, John Stott. See The National Archives, UK (TNA) , WO 12/5416, 41st Pay Lists.
[2] The two corporals killed at Lundy’s Lane were Benjamin Morris, a weaver from Blackburn, Lancashire, and Thomas Seville, a labourer from Amesbury, Wiltshire. See TNA, WO 12/5416, 41st Pay Lists, and WO 25/1768, 1769, 41st Casualty Returns.
[3] Shadrach Byfield, Narrative of a Light Company Soldier’s Service (Bradford, 1840), 48.
[4] John Le Couteur, Merry Hearts Make Light Days, ed. Donald E. Graves (Montreal, 2012), 175. For a wider discussion of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, and debate over which side controlled the guns at the close of the engagement, see Donald E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead! The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814 (Montreal, 1997).
[5] Shadrach Byfield, ‘Two Years’ Service of a British Soldier’, United Service Journal, Part II (London, 1836), 508.
[6] TNA, WO 97/569/19, discharge papers of William Buckman. Here and elsewhere, Buckman is ranked as a drummer, a term used by contemporaries to refer to fifers and buglers as well as drummers. Buckman’s service in the light company, coupled with Byfield’s reference to him as ‘our bugle-horn man’, prove that he served as a bugler.
[7] TNA, WO 12/12061, Depots &c Andover,  3.
[8] TNA, WO 116/19, ‘Examination of Invalid Soldiers on Tuesday the 8th of August 1815’.
[9] Byfield, Narrative of a Light Company Soldier’s Service, 54.
[10] TNA, WO 120/25, 41st Foot pensioners; Somerset Archives, Bathwick St Mary parish registers (accessed via, 1833 burials, page 3. Buckman was buried on 21 March 1833. He was living in Burlington Place, Walcot (a Bath suburb) at the time of his death.

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