This article was discovered in the New York Times dated 28th December 1879.
It does not say which Queen’s Own Hussars the author, Archibald Forbes, was writing about, but as he calls the Regiment ‘The Duke of Connaught’s Canaries” it is assumed it is the 7th, as it is known that around that time the Duke of Connaught was serving in the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars.
This article gives a brief but good insight into life in a cavalry regiment during this period.
I have no reasons to give why I joined the Queen’s Own Hussars one fine day in September 187? I had a desire to be a soldier, and a horse soldier at that, for the jaunty air of the Queen’s Own Hussars had imposed on me. I knew exactly where to go. Recruiting Sergeants in London were always to be found on Westminster Bridge.
When I had passed over this great London thoroughfare before, fine-looking fellows in tight shell jackets had had their word with me. Their speech was formulated pretty much as follows: “Want to enlist? Just the make for a soldier. Try a gentleman’s life? What d’ya say!” I went boldly up to one of these Sergeants and he met me more than halfway. “Come” said he, “let’s have something and we’ll talk it over, you are just the build, and will make the prettiest of soldiers in a crack Regiment and have all the chances. Try a gentleman’s calling”.
Nothing loath, I went into a public house in the immediate neighbourhood, which was a rendezvous, apparently, for I was taken to a private room, where the Sergeant subjected me to certain rapid measurements. I was well built, as sound as a roach, and “just the thing” so the Sergeant told me. I was then presented with the Queen’s shilling. Being perfectly ignorant of this formality, and having some £12 and odd shillings in my pocket, I declined it. “But you must”, said the Sergeant, “for the Queen desires her compliments”. Her Majesty having conveyed to me through twelve pence her congratulations in this roundabout way. I took the shilling, and very magnificently gave the Sergeant a half-crown, quite ignorant at the time that for every man the Sergeant enlists he receives a sovereign, a gain of some 19 shillings.
I kept the shilling for many months and wore it around my neck. If ever I should be a Napier or a Sir Garnet Wolseley I would look at that shilling. Alas! It went for beer one thirsty day.
I signed some preliminary papers but was not yet exactly one of Her Majesty’s brave defenders. There is a very wise provision in the English service that allows 24 hours to elapse before the final enlistment takes place. During this time if you wish to back out or if your relatives want to keep you out of the service by the payment of one sovereign, called smart money, your first engagement as a soldier is as if it had not been.
I was allowed a free leg but had instructions to report to St. Georges Barracks, Trafalgar Square, the next day, for examination. On coming there, I had the first sight of the character of her Majesty’s London recruits. It was an awfully seedy lot – the most abject set of human creatures I had ever seen. They were all dirty and with the look of jail dogs. Evidently, the major part of them had been familiar with the prison. There was an exception, for I noticed a well dressed young fellow, who looked miserable in such abject company. I went straight up to him, sat alongside him, and we agreed, if possible, to join the same regiment, so that we might chum. My age was 19, and when the Assistant Surgeon examined me, I was all right as to height, and breadth of chest, and nearly so as to weight, for I barely turned the scales at 115 pounds, and 3 more pounds were de rigueur. I was terribly annoyed at this, but my mentor, the Recruiting Sergeant, gave me an encouraging wink, as much as to say – “It’s all right.”
This examination was only preliminary to a second one. When I dressed myself – for I had been in puris naturalibus – the Sergeant took me to a public house. Of course, I was excited and thirsty, for I had to hop all around the room some 30 feet square, on one foot, so as to have my wind tested. “Drink my boy,” said the Sergeant, “I stand the cost.” And into me was poured exactly two and one-half quarts of the best London stout. It is unnecessary to state that, though quite fuddled when I went to the scale for the second time, I weighed precisely 123 pounds. I use the world fuddled, for the British soldier is frequently in this condition, and this was my first introduction to drink.
I had some liking for active service, and as the Twelfth Lancers were in India I applied for a place in that regiment, but as my newly made friend was a half-inch undersize, so I gave up on this idea, and we both asked to be incorporated in the Hussars, then called by the nickname of the Duke of Connaught’s Canaries. This privilege was granted to us.
In cavalry regiments, size regulates the special service. I knew a fine lad who joined us a little later, who stood only 5 feet 7 inches, but who in three years loomed up to be 6 feet 2, and who was lucky enough to be drafted into the Horse Guards. I hung around the barracks, having little to do when we were taken to Bow Street, where we took the prescribed oath. I remember there was a plurality of men and a paucity of Bibles, as some 20 of us had all to put our fingers on the cover of the sacred book at one and the same time.
The next morning we were placed on board a very poor steamer and shipped to Edinburgh. Military overcoats were given us with a second-class ticket. We had a very rough passage of two day’s, rendered more disagreeable by the presence of a number of old soldiers, who were going to join their commands in Scotland. These men were brutish and bullying to us poor devils of recruits. After a while, when they all got drunk, which they did in the shortest time possible, we had some peace.
At Edinburgh, we were taken to Jock’s Lodge Barracks and were shown our quarters. The sleeping room was fairly ventilated and clean, and there were 30 beds in it. A non-commissioned officer put us in line, and a pillowcase and a paillasse were given us, and we were marched to a pile of straw, and my next lesson in military upholstery was acquired. The straw was wet and full of thistles, and I had that night the most painful reminiscences of Scotland’s favourite flower.
When I turned in I put my money in my waistcoat under my head, spreading my trousers o the bed and putting under the bed a black bag, containing my best clothing. As yet I had no military togs. That night I saw a man take my pantaloons and go through them, and he also tried my bag, which was locked. I was too frightened to say anything.
In the morning my money in the trousers was gone. The next day I mucked (cleaned) a horse for the first time, under the instruction of an old soldier. That night, tired out, I went to sleep. Next morning when I awoke all the clothes I had consisted of the shirt and drawers I had slept in and the waistcoat under my head. Some soldier had helped himself. Stealing in the service is not called stealing but “boating”, and is more or less of a military accomplishment. To steal from one another is considered of no moment, and from a recruit, a positive duty. Still, there is honour among thieves. Of course, I could not report “accoutred as I was”, and soon had a non-commissioned officer after me in a great rave to know the reason why I was absent. I received no sympathy when my condition was explained, the theft being taken as a matter of course.
That day a desertion took place and it was quite certain that my things had been looted by some of the troop who dressed in my best, had thus gIven her Majesty leg-bail. For three days I stalked around the room, draped in sheets and blankets, like a patient at a water-cure. Then I bloomed in all the jaunty habiliments of a hussar. I must state that it was one month after I had my uniform before I was allowed to go out. The reasons were that I had not yet assumed that military air or swagger which belongs to a private in a crack regiment.
Lessons were given to me in port and manner. I was to hold my whip so, (there was no going out without a whip). My arm was to be held akimbo at just such as angle, and as to the salute, why, that required as much study as one of Coulon’s bows in a minute. I have often laughed at the instructions one officer, a little puny Lieutenant, would give a hulking awkward fellow, who could have bent the officer across his knee and snapped him in two. “See here, my man, don’t cringe or take on a hang-down look. When you salute me, look me full in the eyes, just as if you were as good a man as I am”.
At last, I was thought to have brass enough to impress me elegant abandon on the waiting maids and not likely to prove a discredit to the gallant corps and I had my first stroll and was dreadfully ashamed of myself. Foot drill, exercises of suppling the muscles and instructions of various kinds were given, the spare time amply filled up with all the dirty work which could be heaped on us.
In a month more we were put in the riding school. We led round the horses which had on only a pad – the numuals – and a snaffle. Riding lessons were given to some 20 of us at a time. The instructors were what were called rough-riding Corporals and rough enough they were. We were first told to take an active spring and to land on the horses back. Of the whole squad, I was the only one who got unaided on the horses back. I was wall up in pig-skin accomplishment, having hunted somewhat, so I was soon at home and had no trouble in requiring a military seat, and this knowledge was immensely to my advantage.
With the men – not one of them ever having ridden a horse – it was hard work. Instruction was, however, gradual, and in about three months the men all knew how to ride. Then, for the next three months, we had saddles without stirrups, with sword exercise and carbine drill. At last we had given us, the full rig. We were then first class recruits, and supposed to be perfect as soldiers.
As to food, it was not plentiful. In the morning, one pound of bread was issued to each man and at 1 o’clock 12 ounces of cooked meat. Everything else had to be paid for out of 4d, (our allowance per day being 1s.2d.) such as tea, coffee, and potatoes. I have often lain at night sleepless from hunger. With three hours of horseback exercise before breakfast, a pound of bread went in a half dozen mouthfuls. How grateful I have been more than once when Dan, an old soldier, would give me a crust of his bread at night, Dan-never sober, was always in his cups of evenings, and had not much appetite. Dan used to give me his money to keep, a few farthings or so, when he came home tipsy, otherwise he would have been bested out of it. In return, as the custodian of his wealth, he gave me his old crusts.
As a safe deposit, I was amply paid. The occasions of poverty and starvation with 1s. a day would arise from the fact that if we spoiled our clothes by accident we had to replace them. An unfortunate comrade, who tore my jack-boots with his spurs, his horse having run away with him, kept me hungry until the 15s the boots cost were paid.
Once on a review my own mount slipped down, and I barely escaped from having my horse roll over me. It was not the bruises which disturbed me, but the fact that my very tight trousers were torn to tatters, which meant 21s, or over a month of scant rations.
In Glasgow we had a great many Irish recruits. They were better in every respect, as to manners and morals, than the English, save for their inclination to drink. Some of the men had occupied a good condition at home. We had few Scotch recruits, though I remember one, a young fellow who was driven up to the recruiting station by his father in an elegant carriage. The boy had gone wild, and his father had made him take the Queen’s shilling. A more miserable, unhappy man in the service than was this aristocrat’s son I never met with.
As to my officers – the commissioned ones – I cannot but speak of them with the highest praise. They were considerate, conscientious, and whenever they could see far enough into a matter were perfectly just, but, very unfortunately, they were often terribly bamboozled. The most cunning of human beings is a soldier, especially an old soldier, and very often black was made to look white – at least to the officers. Perhaps, under stress of circumstance, I may have bamboozled my officers at times.
I remember perfectly how cheek helped me once. It was at the conclusion of my period of probation, when from being a raw recruit., I was to become a soldier, with its privileges. I had been on a lark the night before, and next morning, if ever my life had to be clean and neat it was as that solemn occasion when we were to pass the most minute of inspections. My accoutrements were in a filthy condition, my horse dirty, and as to the 40 odd buckles of brass, they had green rust on them. All I could do in the hour I took was to work like lightning on my outside. That portion, then, of myself which was to be seen was of the most immaculate purity, but inside, oh! I was a fearful hussar and a disgrace! My Sergeant, an old soldier, well posted in the tricks of the craft, detected me in an instant. “You are gone. It is three more months of work for you, my man, and special punishment. I shan’t say a word. I’ll let the inspecting officer see you for himself, and then won’t you get a wigging.”
In fear and trembling I mounted my horse, whose head, neck, and maine were clean, but as to his hind quarters, they were pitiable. My boots were bright black outside and dingy inside. Nothing but brass would save me. I braced myself, sat up straight as a poker, and when the inspecting officer passed me I looked him square in the face without a wink. He returned the gaze. My coolness seemed to impress him. He only looked at what he saw. I had heard that my Captain was a clever amateur artist, and I am led to believe that he took in a picture as to its general effects, and was indifferent to the details. I had, I fancy, the proper couleur locale. My rustiness was in harmony with his art appreciativeness. Maybe it was the way I returned his gaze as a motionless picture, in De Neuville’s best style, which suited him. “That man has a look of a soldier. I like to see a man sit like that – very good indeed! He is a model.
You will do sir,” said the inspecting officer, as he moved off a little, as he would an amateur on a first view day at the Royal Academy. The further he went away the better I liked it. If my horse had moved an inch, if a fly had bitten him, had he lifted his foot, I should have been lost. I know that feat of mine raised me immensely in the estimation of my comrades; even the Sergeant offered his congratulations.
The commissioned officers kept the point of honor high, and an earnest endeavour was made all the time to elevate the soldier, but it was, in certain respects, a very dull and soggy soil. I cannot praise as much the non-commissioned officers. They wanted just that little bit of education, (non military), which would have gained them respect. Almost all of them were tyrannical and inclined to overexert the power they had given them.
In six months I was a Corporal, with 2p added to my pay. We were ordered to Ireland and made marches by squadron through Glasgow and Paisley to Greenock taking steamer there to Dublin. All the service I saw in Ireland was trying to quell an Orange riot. We were nicely pelted with stones but stood it patiently for an hour, not a man losing his temper, when an intimation from our officer to the mob that more serious measures would be used quieted down matters.
Once in England, at Windsor, with 13 other men, I had the honor to escort her Majesty, though I never had the chance of seeing her kind face. I remember we were in the saddle on that occasion for 14 hours without a mouthful to eat, but plenty to drink. There is a most kindly feeling existing between the common people and the “sojers,” and invitations to take a drink of beer are constant. In fact, there are few occasions in a soldier’s life in England, Scotland, or Ireland, when he cannot get all the beer he can swallow. Intemperance is not regarded in the same light in England as it is in the United States. I have seen occasionally that rare thing, a soldier who was moderate, but have yet to find a teetotaler in the ranks. I know something about the French soldier. He may drink occasionally, but not habitually, like an Englishman.
In Ireland I came to grief all through whisky; not that I was intoxicated; but my men were. We were on picket duty, and our business was to carry dispatches to the numerous barracks in and around Dublin. One cold winter night, with three of my men, I occupied a little guard-room. Horses were saddled and bridled, and all ready.
Unfortunately, some friends of the men came in, and liquors and cigars were introduced. When the officer came down on us, my men could not stand. Busbies were put on wrong side front accoutrements were all away, jackets were unbuttoned, and the men, in endeavoring to stand in line, fell over one another, like a pile of bricks, I was degraded, and I deserved it. I did not feel the humiliation, but took to the ranks again with pleasure.
My skill in riding gave me a place in breaking the Irish horses for the regiment It was a business requiring nerve and skill. Officers who had animals which were too fresh for them, used to give them to me to take the temper out of them. The worst business was to break these wild horses for the farrier. I have more than once been thrown, by the violent motion of their hind legs, (not stuck by their hoofs for that would have brained me) head over heels half across the riding school.
One fine day I had my knee cap fractured. The service of breaking horse I liked as though it was hard and sometimes dangerous work, .it gave relief from drudgery. It was a recruit who kept my saddle, horse, and traps in order. It was to the fact my horse was the cleanest in the whole company that lowed my advance. My Colonel has often put on a white kid glove and passed It over my horse, rubbing the skin, without having his glove sullied.
One day a new experiment with cavalry was to be tried. It was something very ingenious, invented by a superior officer, who took his ideas from books. It was beautifully imaginative. The thing to do was to ride up to artillery, the mounted men to have ropes, 30 feet long, attached to their saddles, and, after having sabred the enemy, to attach the ropes to the gun-carriage and ride off with it.
We were drawn up, the full regiment, and two men were told off. It was a compliment paid to my horsemanship and to that of another man. My comrade was quite an accomplished rider, only his mount was not as high-strung nor as quick as mine. Our instructions were to ride up a hill at full speed, where a gun-carriage stood, to pretend to sabre the enemy, to lasso the carriage, and to come down with it full tilt.
It was all to be done as rapidly as possible. At it we went on the full jump. We slashed away at imaginary Prussians, Russians or Pathans, and then hooked the ropes on the carriage without much trouble. Down the hill we went. The gun-carriage offering some resistance to the horses, which had never pulled a pound in their lives they commenced kicking and plunging. Presently the carriage moved, and down it started with a rumble. As the declivity was rapid, the danger was that the heavy carriage would run into us. Now we put on spurs and dashed down the steep, the infernal thing gaining on us. All we could do was to spread wide apart, when, like a locomotive, the carriage tore between our two borses, twisting the ropes around the animals, and throwing them completely off their feet.
As it was, two horses and two men were all in a heap but the momentum of the gun-carriage was stopped. I was recalled to life by bearing a couple of shots. Our vet had been obliged to kill both horses, whose legs were broken. As I came to I was complimented by one of the officers as be said I had saved the other man’s life, but how I never exactly knew. We were both terribly bruised, and when out of hospital I had a furlough of a month. Then my family intervened, and, there being no war, on the payment of £30 I left the service. My friend is in the Hussars still, and as he is an educated man, may, perhaps, rise some day to be Quartermaster.
Notwithstanding their thieving qualities and drinking, there is a strange English sense of honour and fair play among the men. I have had many a hard fight with comrades, according to the rules of the prize-ring, and have often been badly whipped but when the fight was over we were always good friends.
I know I left the service with regret, for I had made many friends. Having been trained to athletic sports and the officers being desirous that the men should amuse themselves that way, I entered fully into the fun of the thing, which pleased my superiors.
In my regiment, in a different company, there was a bugler who was a good runner. For three years he had won all the prizes. When I had been six months in the service, on the parade-ground one day, I put in a good lope of a half-mile. I was afraid that the position on horseback, with the tension on the muscles of the knees, would cramp my legs and I wanted to limber up. One of the officers had timed me without my knowing it. A Sergeant then came to me and told me that it would be agreeable to everybody, especially at head-quarters, if I would train for the coming athletic contest. That sounded something like a command.
I soon worked down into good form and got some seconds off my best time as a lad at Rugby. Then the excitement commenced. The bugler, hearing of my being entered for the race, called on me, offered to divide, and all that kind of thing, which of course, I declined. I knew the men would bet heavily on me with their few scant shillings, and, as to the officers of my company, I learned there was £800, at least, on the event, though I was far from being the favorite.
I don’t know whether some of my military duties were not a little neglected during the three weeks prior to the event – at least I think that my faults just then were leniently dealt with. The great day came, and at it we went. There were 30 entries. My adversary was a good hand but when I saw him walk and take a warming-up run, I noticed that he had a cavalry gait We toed the mark, and as he started, I saw he was a clipper, and that I must keep him up to the top of his speed and tire him out. I followed him close as we distanced all the rest of the. men, and when he spurted, so did I. It was a mile race, and over a rather heavy track, which was to my advantage as he was the heavier man by 15 pounds, and within the last 50 yards I lapped him, saving myself for the final 25 yards. Then there was the hardest struggle I ever had in my lire, but I headed him by not two feet and won the race.
Because I had been fair and square, and not bet a penny on myself, I gained the good will of the various companies, though I had to fight the bugler afterward, who was, I am sorry to say, as I learned to my discomfort, a much better sparrer than runner.
It was a last running performance on my part, however, as I saw that if I wanted to be the champion runner of the regiment, I should in time have been forced to overdo the business, and felt disinclined to be counted in as a professional.
This insight into her Majesty’s service did me a great deal of good. It built up my health, taught me what was discipline, made me a horseman. and has given my a certain amount of self-reliance. I fancy it was training of this kind that made Archibald Forbes.