Paymaster John Harley wrote his memoirs in the mid to late 1830’s, some fifteen years after he had left the army under questionable circumstances. He apparently published this memoir privately in two volumes in 1838 a few years before his death - quite possibly as he had not found a mainstream publisher because of its potentially libellous content – and only four hundred copies were apparently printed.
John Harley had a varied and interesting military career, serving in the Tarbert Fencibles, the 54th Foot in Egypt, and then the 47th Foot with Wellington in Spain and Southern France.
John Harley was born in Cork, Ireland on 18 November 1769 but his father died within a few weeks, he therefore lived with his mother for most of his youth in the area of Kilkenny. At the age of fourteen he was put to work at a merchant house in the city but never really settled in this role and secured a lieutenancy in the Tarbert Fencibles on their formation in 1798.
Harley gained a commission as Quartermaster of the 54th Foot on 12 June 1800 and joined his new regiment at Winchester. Soon after they were ordered to proceed abroad and within a year Harley found himself trudging through the hot sands of Egypt in the campaign of Sir Ralph Abercromby to oust the French from Africa. Thereafter, they formed part of the garrison of Gibraltar and were there during the infamous mutiny against the governor the Duke of Kent.
After being placed on half-pay during the Peace of Amiens, Harley soon found a new position, as Quartermaster in the 1st Battalion 47th Foot. On 11 July 1805 John Harley gained the position of Paymaster to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion and moved with it around Ireland for the next three years, thence to England in 1807 where they remained until 1809 when they were finally ordered for foreign service. They sailed for Gibraltar in October 1809 and were then transferred to Cadiz, taking part in the defence of that place and of Tarifa in 1811. The following year the siege of Cadiz ended, the battalion marched to Seville and then joined in Wellington’s difficult retreat to Portugal. In 1813 the battalion was at the Battle of Vitoria, where John had the awful news of the death of his son; he then took part in the siege of San Sebastian. They were then involved in the crossing of the Bidassoa, the Battles of Nivelle and the Nive and finally involved in the sortie from Bayonne, when the war ended.
As a Paymaster, Harley was rarely in the fighting, but he was certainly close to the action at times and also saw much of the terrible aftermath. However, some of the greatest and most entertaining memoirs have already come from non-combatants. It is a simple truth that if you want to know what it was really like in the British army for the ninety-nine percent of the time when there was no fighting, read the memoirs of such men, who had opportunity to enjoy the best of times, partook in many of the greatest adventures, and thankfully had the spare time to record them for posterity.
Although he did not write his memoirs until 1830, Harley remembers a great deal; names, personalities, incidents, and tragedies and although his memory might occasionally confuse the correct ranks or some of the fine details; every one of the major incidents he recounts is to be found in the records.
But the greatest joy of these pages are the various scurrilous incidents mentioned in these memoirs, which have all been found to be fully established in fact. Duels, bigamy, abductions, women tricked into marriage, sinking boats, cowardice, larceny, murder, corruption, human tragedy, bankruptcy, forgery, suicides, privateers, debtors prison, card sharks, highwaymen, prisoners of war, and Garryowen Boys, indeed the whole gambit. It truly exposes the seedy underside of Georgian life both within the army and in civilian life too.
John Harley’s memoirs are a real joy and a real eye-opener on many levels – once you have read them, you will never look at Wellington’s army in the same light ever again.
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