Faced with the existential threat of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Britons bore arms on an impressive scale between 1793 and 1815, with more than one in five able-bodied men in full- or part-time service by 1805. The expansion of the regular army and proliferation of auxiliary corps generated unparalleled demand for military musicians, providing boys and young men from humble backgrounds with new opportunities to develop musical skills. Many veterans of this wartime ‘musical armed nation’ became professional performers, composers and music instructors after discharge, enriching cultural life in the United Kingdom and the wider British empire.
Examples of civilian musicians who began their careers in the armed forces are legion (and the topic of much of my PhD research). This article opens by examining the life of one such martial minstrel, John Sinclair, to illustrate the legacies of Napoleonic-era mass mobilization for British musical culture before exploring the military connections of other nineteenth-century musical celebrities.
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.’
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. 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 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.”
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. 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…”
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.
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. 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.
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…”
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.
 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.  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.  Shadrach Byfield, Narrative of a Light Company Soldier’s Service (Bradford, 1840), 48.  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).  Shadrach Byfield, ‘Two Years’ Service of a British Soldier’, United Service Journal, Part II (London, 1836), 508.  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.  TNA, WO 12/12061, Depots &c Andover, 3.  TNA, WO 116/19, ‘Examination of Invalid Soldiers on Tuesday the 8th of August 1815’.  Byfield, Narrative of a Light Company Soldier’s Service, 54.  TNA, WO 120/25, 41st Foot pensioners; Somerset Archives, Bathwick St Mary parish registers (accessed via Ancestry.com), 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.
British military musicians helped boost morale and stave off boredom both on campaign and in garrison. But music also had an important medical purpose, especially on transoceanic voyages, as soldiers wasted away in cramped, suffocating conditions below decks for months at a time. Open-air dances and promenades were regularly held on the quarterdeck, invariably accompanied by music, to provide soldiers with much-needed fresh air and exercise. The 2/1st Royal Scots band were ‘often requested’ to perform as men danced on deck ‘for the benefit of their health’ en route to India, while soldiers bound for the Caribbean spent their evenings dancing hornpipes and reels accompanied by fifes and bagpipes. During an 1817 voyage from Calcutta to St Helena, the 1/66th’s band offered a concert ‘every fine evening’ followed by a dance on the quarterdeck – ‘a most salutary amusement on board ship,’ according to Assistant Surgeon Walter Henry, ‘where exercise is so much needed.’ In the 1/45th, which spent nearly eighteen months at sea in 1806 and 1807, fifers and drummers on the Hercules transport were ordered to ‘play half an hour to each company’ as the men kept in shape by parading ‘round the decks’ twice daily.
Officers also relished musical entertainment at sea. Sixteen-year-old Dunbar Moodie, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2/21st, recalled his voyage to Holland in 1813 aboard the HMS Nightingale: ‘To add to our comforts, we had the regimental band with us, who were generally playing through the day, when the weather or sea-sickness would allow them.’
When transports travelled in convoys, military musicians aboard one vessel could entertain soldiers on neighbouring ships. An officer returning to England in 1812 recalled how the East Indiaman carrying the 33rd Foot’s musicians ‘would occasionally range up alongside [our transport], and give us an air… We also took advantage of the band to knock up a dance now and then.’
Sergeant Stephen Morley of the 5th Foot suggests that instrumental performances were routine aboard the Atlas transport during an 1806-7 voyage to South America via the Cape of Good Hope: ‘It was usual for the band to assemble every morning on the poop.’ But military musicians were no match for fickle weather conditions; multiple accounts describe performances being cut short when storm clouds gathered. According to Morley, the 5th’s band was once forced to disperse due to sudden strong winds, resulting in a humorous episode involving an unfortunate serpent-player –
“Henry Rogers, one of the band, whose instrument was a serpent, sat down, as the gale increased, on the quarter deck, holding on by a cleet to secure himself. The ship now laboured excessively, and on a sudden giving a lurch, brought her gun-wales under water, and caused Henry to drop the serpent and let go his hold: away they went, chasing each other from side to side, at every heave of the vessel, without the possibility of stopping. Such of the officers and men who for security, were holding on by the capstan, laughed heartily at this singular chase; such a one, as the St. Leger annals could never boast of. One of these gentlemen losing his hold followed against his will in this curious gambol, and added to the merriment of his companions.”
 R. Butler, Narrative of the Life and Travels of Serjeant Butler (3rd edn, Edinburgh, 1854), 62-3; J. Patterson, Adventures of Captain John Patterson (London, 1837), 388-9.  [W. Henry], Trifles from my Portfolio (2 vols, Quebec, 1839), I, 202.  S. Brown, Wellington’s Redjackets:The 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment on Campaign in South America and the Peninsula, 1805-14 (Barnsley, 2016), 15.  A. Bamford (ed), Triumphs and Disasters: Eyewitness Accounts from the Netherlands Campaign, 1813-1814 (Barnsley, 2016), 145.  J. Blakiston, Twelve Years’ Military Adventure in Three Quarters of the Globe… (2 vols, London, 1829), II, 116-7.  The St Leger Stakes is an annual English horse race which began in 1776.  S. Morley, Memoirs of a Sergeant of the 5th Regt. of Foot, Containing an Account of his Service in Hanover, South America, and the Peninsula (Ashford, 1842), 20-2.
As some visitors to 1812 and all that may already know, I recently edited the Napoleonic-era memoir of Sergeant Thomas Jackson, who served with the Staffordshire Militia at Windsor Castle before losing a leg in the botched 1814 storming of Bergen-op-Zoom with the Coldstream Guards. The Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson was published by Helion & Co in March 2018 and is available both online and in some book shops.
In this blog post, I figured I would share Jackson’s description of life in Windsor barracks. Anthologized in Roy Palmer’s classic Rambling Soldier (1977), this passage offers a vivid reconstruction of the daily routine of early nineteenth-century redcoats:
“As I have promised to tell the soldier’s life in his barrack, suffice it briefly told. Some barracks are very comfortable, and others are not so. The best I ever saw were those at Windsor; a palace compared with many others. Windsor barracks will hold about eight hundred men; the building is four stories high. The rooms are spacious; those on the ground floor take in two companies of men, probably ninety each, rank and file. The sergeants have separate rooms. The men’s rooms serve for mess, sitting, and sleeping rooms. Below (same size) is their cleaning room. The sleeping rooms each hold twenty-nine beds. The attics were appropriated to married soldiers. The rooms were kept remarkably clean and rubbed bright. Drum beats to rise at six in summer, and turn out. Each bed is folded, and sheets and blankets also laid in neat folding pleats. Knapsacks are neatly packed, and hung on pegs over the bed. The arms stand in a rack by the bedside. It was pretty to see the neatness and uniformity of these rooms. But, by the bye, no breakfast is got for the soldier at nine: the mess-drum beats at twelve. When I first went there I used to think that drum the most joyful music I ever heard. The mess was half a pound of boiled meat per man, a can of broth, and a pound of bread; he might either eat it or save it for supper. Two cooks cut out each man’s mess on a coarse brown plate. An officer attends to see all seated at table, and a corporal, pointing to a mess, will ask, “Who shall have this?” A man, with his back turned, replies – naming one. Perhaps a bony mess will sometimes fall to the lot of an unlucky hungry one, when any thing but pleasant looks are shewn; however, the pump makes up the deficiency. Now the dinner drum and fife always played the tune of “O the Roast Beef of Old England,” but it was “all gammon,” for I never tasted a bit of roast till the Jubilee, at the cost of “the good old king.” After dinner – romps, foolish talk, and corrupting each other. Tattoo beating at nine. All in barracks, and roll call; every man standing at his bed, and his name on the foot. The full pay of a private is one shilling and a penny per day, to find him meat, drink, washing, shirts, shoes, stockings, and sundry other things. The diet was well adapted to keep us from growing too corpulent and inactive.”
To find out more about Thomas Jackson’s Narrative, check out my blog post on the publisher’s website.
 This messing procedure was meant to ensure fairness, giving every man an equal chance of receiving a choice or gristly cut of meat. See for instance Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket (London, 2001), p. 281.  The tune ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’ was written by Henry Fielding for his play The Grub Street Opera, first performed in 1731, and was adopted by the British Army as the ‘Dinner Call’ played by fifers and drummers to summon soldiers for their early afternoon meal. See, for instance, Samuel Potter, The Art of Playing the Fife… (London, 1817), p. 16.  King George III’s Golden Jubilee, held on 25 October 1809, celebrated the beginning of the monarch’s fiftieth year on the throne.
Recently the Journal of the American Revolution (JAR) featured several newspaper advertisements giving descriptions of drummers and bandsmen who deserted from the British army in the Thirteen Colonies during the 1760s and 1770s. These notices, which typically offered a reward for the deserters’ apprehension, also provided unusually detailed descriptions to aid in their identification, reporting physical characteristics, uniforms, accents and even personality traits.
Inspired by the JAR article, I’ve decided to share a few similar advertisements for drummers and bandsmen from the Napoleonic period. It’s worth noting that several of these musicians could play multiple instruments; one (James Crick) had previously worked as a singer at the Royal Circus, a London theatre that staged an eclectic mix of equestrian and musical entertainments. Indeed, musicians were more likely to desert than many unskilled rank-and-file soldiers as they possessed marketable talents which allowed them to make a decent living in civilian life. As one officer stated in 1861: ‘There is no greater amount of desertions in any regiment than from the band; but that is simply because they get a certain amount of musical education which enables them to earn a livelihood, and they go away.’ (Nick Mansfield, Soldiers as Workers, p. 108) While this testimony dates from a later period, the remark appears to have held true of the Napoleonic era as well. One of the deserter advertisements below lists three bandsmen and a drummer who all fled from the East Essex Militia on the same night, suggesting a coordinated plot, while most of the 43rd Foot’s band also deserted during its post-war service in northern France. Similarly, four musicians of the 18th Light Dragoons absconded from Brighton in 1802, with press reports suggesting they had ‘escaped to France’. Given the high proportion of foreign bandsmen employed by the British army, however, it is possible that these deserters were motivated less by Bonapartist fervour than by homesickness. (Bury and Norwich Post, 9 June 1802)
1. John Massey Tierney AKA Francis Massey, various corps
DESERTED, on the THIRTEENTH February, 1806, from his Majesty’s 21st Regiment of Light Dragoons, at York Barracks,
JOHN MASSEY TIERNEY, aged 23 years, 5 feet 11 inches high, fresh complexion, brown hair, hazle eyes, born at Rathkeal, in the County of Limerick, and by profession a Musician; had on when he deserted a light brown or drab coloured double-breasted coat, black satin waistcoat, blue overalls, hussar boots, white neck-handkerchief, and round hat. He slept at the Tiger Inn, at Beverley, on Friday night, the 14th inst. at which place he left his overalls to defray his expenses. It is supposed he is gone to Hull, as he wanted a Chaise [horse-drawn carriage] from Beverley to that place. He was formerly a trumpeter in the Limerick Fencible Cavalry, and was discharged at the reduction of that Corps; after which he enlisted into the 21st Light Dragoons, married, and purchased his discharge. He has since served in the 16th Light Dragoons, and the 96th Regiment of Foot, from both of which he deserted, and availed himself of his Majesty’s late Proclamation for Pardoning Deserters, and was allowed to join the 21st Light Dragoons.
The following advertisement of the above Man, appeared in “The Hue and Cry,” of the 9th November 1805:
DESERTER – From the 96th Regiment of Foot,
FRANCIS MASSEY, 22 years of age, 5 feet 11 inches high, is handsome and well made, gentlemanly manners, and animated address; had on a blue hunting jacket, single breasted, with white metal buttons, striped waistcoat, brown breeches, German boots, white cotton stockings, black beaver hat, a pea-green silk plaid cravat, and sometimes a white fur inside his cravat.
This man has a strong propensity to lying, is continually talking of having gambled away large sums of money, which has reduced him to his present state; of being nearly related to Lord Clarina and the Massey family of the county of Limerick. Has been in the practice of forging letters of introduction to respectable families for the purpose of obtaining money, by pretending to be a young gentleman who will shortly possess large property; and it is not impossible that he may have recourse to swindling to maintain his imaginary or assumed consequence.
He was formerly a trumpeter in some regiment of dragoons, married a girl in Limerick, who had some money, by which he procured his discharge, and spent the money, was necessitated to inlist in the 96th regiment as a Musician, in which he remained but a few months before he deserted; he was charged at Bristol with having loaded dice in his possession.
He surrendered himself under His Majesty’s Proclamation of the 14th? of October last before a Magistrate [word obscured] to Lieutenant Dawson, commanding a recruiting party of the 2d Battalion of the 62d [Regiment – words obscured], and deserted again on the [date obscured]. (York Herald, February 22, 1806)
2. Matthew Pollard, Armagh Militia
MATTHEW POLLARD, Musician, aged 22, five feet four inches high, fair complexion, a little freckled, oval vissage, brown hair, grey eyes, slender body, strong limbs, thick ancles [sic] and large feet, remarkable thick lips, rather turning outwards, a particular open between the front teeth of the lower jaw; had on at the time of desertion, a regimental Waistcoat over his Uniform, viz. white Jacket laced with scarlet twist in the Light Dragoon style, Bearskin wings, round buttons, with a black Waist-belt, and [a] high black varnished Cap, speaks affectedly as endeavouring to imitate an English accent.
A Reward of FIVE GUINEAS, over and above his Majesty’s Bounty, will be paid to any Person lodging the above Deserter in any of his Majesty’s Gaols or Guard-houses…
(Belfast Newsletter, 6 November 1807)
3. Three musicians and a drummer of the East Essex Militia
All four men deserted from Portsmouth on the evening of 21 August, 1811, presumably as a group.
1st. JAMES CRICK is about 30 Years of age, 5 Feet 8 Inches high, very thin make, pale complexion, dark hair, hazle eyes, by trade a watchmaker, born and served his apprenticeship at Norwich, long head and face, very wide mouth and large teeth, aquiline nose, round shoulders, stoops in his walk, has been employed as a singer in the Royal Circus, London some years ago, noted for comic singing, played a bassoon in the band.
2nd. JAMES FULKER is about 23 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high, straight and well made, fresh complexion, dark brown hair, grey eyes and dark eyebrows, round head and face, short nose, wide mouth, and speaks thick, walks very upright, born at Halstead in Essex, played the octave fife in the band, and plays on the violin.
3d. WILLIAM SMITH is 28 years of age, 5 Feet 10 inches high, stout, well made, fresh complexion, brown hair, gray eyes, light eyebrows, large head and round face, common mouth, broad shoulders, walks very upright, lisps in his speech, born at Halstead in Essex, by trade a woolcomber, played on the trombone in the band.
4th. WILLIAM CARTER, Drummer, is 33 years of age, 5 feet 6 3/4 inches high, stout made, dark complexion, dark brown hair, hazle eyes and dark eyebrows, large head, round face, short thick nose, small mouth, pitted with the small pox, has a scar on the right side of his chin, large square shoulder, proportionable thighs and legs, small feet, steps very quick in his walk, born at Coggeshall in Essex. (Ipswich Journal, 31 August 1811)
4. James Smith, formerly of the disbanded Royal African Corps
JAMES SMITH, 1st Company, 42 years of age, 5 feet 4 3/4 inches high, stout made, round head, oval face, grey eyes, brown eyebrows, long nose, small mouth, long neck, brown hair, square shoulders, long arms, small hands, proportional thighs and legs, small feet, born in Liverpool, County of Lancaster, by trade a labourer, deserted on the 22d Sept. 1822, from Wynberg [Cape Colony]; he has a wound on the right knee, and plays on the trumpet, bugle, flute, and other musical instruments. (Cape Town Gazette, and African Advertiser, 14 June 1823)
This summer, I’m hoping to enhance this site both by adding some new articles and by posting in this blog section about various titbits of interesting information and anecdotes I have come across in my research. As a personal update, I have just finished an MPhil on duelling and courts-martial in the Napoleonic-era British army and will be starting a PhD this autumn on military music during the same period.
A couple months ago, I was in York for the ‘From Reason to Revolution‘ conference on eighteenth-century military history, held at the excellent and well-presented York Army Museum. While there, I noticed a rather intriguing artefact – a silver snuff box made from the head of the 15th Foot’s drum-major’s mace. It was presented to Lieutenant-General Sir George Beckwith as a mark of the corps’ esteem for his leadership during the capture of Martinique and Guadeloupe, important French Caribbean sugar islands, in 1809 and 1810 respectively.
The repurposing of the mace head for such a presentation piece underlines the fact that drum-major’s staffs were themselves often elaborate and finely-engraved trophies – prized (and costly) symbols of regimental prestige. But while some corps commissioned bespoke silver-tipped canes with royal and regimental insignia, units who managed to capture such maces from the French enjoyed both monetary savings and bragging rights. According to Sergeant Thomas Lawrence, the 40th Foot seized a ‘splendid drum-major’s staff from the enemy’ at the 1812 Battle of Salamanca, ‘which was stated to be worth at least £50, and it must have come in very useful, for ours was terribly worn and knocked about, being very old, having been itself taken from the French in Holland, during the commandership of the Duke of York [ie. either in 1794-5 or 1799].’ (Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence, 1886, p. 124-5)
But to return to the 15th Foot, while the 1st Battalion was sweltering in the disease-ridden West Indies, the 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Sibbald, was stationed at Malton in Yorkshire in 1808. His wife Susan fondly recalled the 2/15th’s Drum-Major Alexander Cook in a passage from her memoirs, which also alludes to the drum-major’s role in retrieving and returning the regimental colours for parade.
“The Drum Major was a great character in his yellow coat trimmed with silver lace, cocked hat and a cane almost as tall as himself, and which he contrived to flourish in a peculiar manner at the time of the troup [sic – troop], which was a slow sort of figure march – I cannot call it a dance – that was performed by the band whilst the Commanding Officer on foot was inspecting the different companies of the Regiment. I had charge of the Regimental colours, which if they got wet on a field day Major Cook, as he was always called, would bring in and spread on the sides of my sitting room, and come again to furl when he thought them dry enough.” (Memoirs of Susan Sibbald, 1926, p. 255-6)
However flattering as this pen-portrait seems, Drum-Major Cook’s career was not entirely free from misadventure. In 1817, he was convicted of ‘Repeated unsoldierlike conduct and [being] drunk at Morning Parade’ and reduced to the rank of drummer. (UK National Archives, WO 27/142)