Not So Easy, Lads: Wearing the Red Coat 1786-1797 (From Reason to Revolution) Vivien Roworth
Publisher: Helion and Company (May 31, 2023)
Paperback: 348 pages
First-hand unpublished eye-witness accounts of redcoats, particularly of redcoats in Georgian England, surface infrequently. Here the personal and public life in the letters of Serjeant Major William Roworth to his wife form the basis of one particular journey. A journey which was experienced by thousands of his fellow soldiers, played out over two and a half years, from June 1794 to January 1797. Roworth’s 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot was just one of many destined for duty on the Continent, where it joined the Duke of York’s army as reinforcements during the War of the First Coalition 1792–1797. The men had barely started service when the British were involved in a retreat, of some three hundred miles, that was as ignominious as it was disastrous. Fortescue likened it to the French retreat from Moscow and Moore’s retreat to Corunna. Disease and sickness were rife and the loss of men, women and children in the appalling frozen conditions considerable.
On the return to Britain in the late Spring of 1795, the prompt order for service in the West Indies was greeted with disbelief. The reputation of these islands equated to certain death and were famously known as a killing ground. If death in battle did not kill you, then the range of diseases on offer certainly would. First, however, there was a series of huge winter storms in the Atlantic to fight through, ably described by those who survived the experience – there were many who did not. It took a total of four attempts and five arduous months for the enormous fleet of 200-300 ships under Rear Admiral Sir Hugh Clobery Christian, to finally trickle into Bridgetown, Barbados, with troops ready and prepared to commence their duty.
The part the 44th Foot played out in the reduction of the island of St Lucia, stood as a template for the rest of the army under Lieutenent General Ralph Abercromby. The reduction of St Lucia apparently completed, Major General John Moore struggled with his own demons as the Governor of the island. The part played out by disease in the reduction of the regiments themselves was also mimicked by other regiments on other islands. Yes, battle took its toll in the hundreds, but did not equal the slaughter of thousands claimed by dysentery, malaria and yellow fever in the shocking year of 1796.
The Roworth letters highlighted so many of the concerns in the lives of soldiers then which are much the same today; love; duty; ambition; children; extended family; sickness at home; the difficulties distance and lack of communication created by infrequency of letters; the careful personal censorship of those letters, to avoid instilling fear – all these and more.
William Roworth left his own interpretation of the arenas of Boxtel and the reduction of St Lucia. He wore his red coat with pride from the day he volunteered until the day of his death – and rightly so.
Vivien Roworth was born in Devon in 1941. Convent, college and university educated, a teacher of the deaf and of children with special needs, she spent some years as a hearing aid technician. Her stepfather, a royal Marine bandsman, cultivated her interest in all things military. She has three sons, has written two books of poems and is a dedicated arboriculturist. In her first book, she follows the Georgian drum behind Serjeant Major William Roworth, of the 44th Regiment of Foot, across the Low Countries, the Atlantic and the West Indies during the lowest years in the British Army’s reputation.
"The men had barely started service when the British were involved in a retreat, of some three hundred miles, that was as ignominious as it was disastrous." A slight over-heating of the facts. In June 1794, the Duke of York's allied army was obliged to abandon Brussels and the Austrian Netherlands, but reinforced by the brigades brought over by Lord Moira (including the 44th East Essex), over the next three months they were able in stages to withdraw into the frontier defences of the United Provinces and behind the double moat of the rivers Meuse and Waal. It was only after those defences were iced over in a great frost at the turn of 1794-95 that the allied army was obliged to embark on what proved to a disastrous retreat across the frozen heaths of the Veluwe and Over IJssel into Westphalia.
That was over a distance of about 100 miles (the distance from Brussels was about 200 miles. The distance from Dunkirk where Moira had landed six months previously was about 300).