From the Seat of War: Letters by Victorian Soldiers

It is through reading the letters that the soldiers sent home, argues Frank Emery, that “the Victorian rank and file cease to be a mute and anonymous body of men marching past in scarlet or khaki columns.”

“I spent the evening, as usual on the eve of a battle, in writing a letter to my parents. This done, I retired to rest and slept soundly.” The battle was Gujerat, fought by a British army in the Punjab during the Second Sikh War of 1848-49. The writer was a private soldier, Robert Waterfield, whose Memoirs cover his military service from 1842 to 1857, giving a classic pen-picture of his experiences in the Victorian ranks. Only now is it becoming clear that many others followed Waterfield’s pattern of correspondence. Their writings (as distinct form officers’ letters) are a largely untapped source of information, hidden away in regimental museums, record offices or family collections. Occasionally they appear in print in the military journals. Few were published in book form: Sergeant Timothy Gowing’s letters from the Crimean War may be read in his Voice from the Ranks (1883), which he described modestly as a record of facts, not as an attempt at fine writing.

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