Private Wheeler's War
by William Wheeler

William Wheeler - Private Wheeler's War

BBC Radio 4: Afternoon Play

Broadcast: Thursday 30th April 1998 @ 2:15 p.m.

Sleeping in palaces or under the stars, seeking glory or courting fair damsels, hunting the enemy and in turn being hunted - an authentic account of life as a soldier in Wellington's peninsular campaign.

These are the letters - in the form of a frank and amusing diary - written by a private in Wellington's army who fought throughout the Napoleonic wars and it includes a colourful eye-witness account of the Battle of Waterloo. Private Wheeler's record covers the Peninsular Campaign, keeping order during the coronation of Louis XVIII whom he called "an old bloated poltroon" and his later posting to Corfu where he enjoyed reporting on the barbarous habits of the natives with obvious enjoyment. Wheeler wrote his accounts before the muskets of battle had cooled, and he was a master of lively anecdote and mischievous characterisation. Nothing escapes his sharp eyes, whether it is the local landscape or the looks of the local girls.

"The Letters of Private Wheeler, 1809-1828" by William Wheeler were first published in 1951. Sir Basil Liddell-Hart edited the letters and provided a Foward to the book. Liddell-Hart had joined the Army and served in the same regiment as Private Wheeler during the First World War.

The radio version of "Private Wheeler's War" was compiled from these published letters by Christopher Aird and Jonathan Tafler.

With Andrew Lincoln [William Wheeler], Ciaran Hinds [The Duke of Wellington], Olivier Pierre [Napoléon Bonaparte], Nick Murchie [Tom Hooker], Mark Bonner [Ned Egan], Paul Panting [McTavish], Trevor Martin [Major Roberts], and Chris Pavlo [Corporal Pepin (a French Prisoner in Hospital Ward) / Sergeant John Roach].

The Musical Director was Mia Soteriou who also sang "The Soldier's Death".

The violinist was Steve Bentley-Klein

Directed by Jonathan Tafler.

Produced by Eoin O'Callaghan

Re-broadcast on Thursday 1st October 1998 @ 2:15 p.m.

45 minutes


Foreword to "The Letters of Private Wheeler, 1809-1828" by William Wheeler

MOST of the eyewitness accounts of the "Great War" against Napoleon were written long after the events they describe. Although quite a number were by men who served in the ranks, or were compiled from their tales, the more interesting and valuable narratives came mainly from officers. The famous Recollections of Rifleman Harris are an exception -- but his story was recorded many years later by a half-pay officer turned journalist who discovered him, recognized the interest of his reminiscences, and set them down in a somewhat polished-up style. They covered only the opening phase of the Peninsular War -- the ill-fated Corunna campaign -- and the abortive Walcheren expedition.

A greater discovery has come more than a century later in the letters of Private William Wheeler of the 51st -- now the 1st Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. They start with the Walcheren expedition, cover the main part of the Peninsular War, and then give his impressions of the Waterloo campaign. I know of no contemporary story by a fighting soldier that equals this in atmosphere and interest. The later letters vividly depict the conditions of overseas garrison service after the "Great War," and provide some sidelights on the Greek War of Independence.

While on garrison duty on Corfu, Wheeler also set down his recollections of the war in a short narrative of some 14,000 words. A number of his comrades who read the manuscript "wished for a copy," and to meet their request he was induced to get it set up in type in 1824, at the Government Printing Office at Corfu, so that it could be available to subscribers. Scarcely any copies of this Journal have survived, but one was in Sir Charles Oman's library, and he lent it to Colonel H. C. Wylly who compiled the history of the K.O.Y.L.I. from 1755 to 1924. From comparison with the letters, it is evident that this journal must have been "polished," by the printers or someone else. In the process it lost more than it gained, for Wheeler's natural style of writing, though cruder, is more forceful and colourful.

After Wheeler, now a serjeant, was invalided from the service on pension -- in 1828, at the age of forty-three -- he lived in the memories of his soldiering days. Finding, he says, that his letters had been carefully preserved by his family, he devoted his time to making a fair copy of them in a leather-bound volume. He incorporated a number of notes that he had made at different times, and may also have omitted some anecdotes -- for those that appeared in the Journal printed at Corfu are rarely repeated, even in different words, in the volume of "Letters." The volume was kept in the family and came down to his great-granddaughter and her husband, Mr. Ellis. Then in 1948 a visitor to their house saw it and suggested that it should be published.

It was sent to the Editor of The Strand, Mr. Macdonald Hastings. His secretary, Miss Angela Mack, has a keen interest in the Waterloo period, and was thus moved to read the dim and spidery handwriting -- which had deterred those who usually "vetted" MSS. from tackling the volume during the weeks since its arrival. She typed out Wheeler's description of Waterloo, at first for her own edification -- and the importance of the find was at once realised. Three extracts were published in 1949 -- the Editor managing to squeeze them into the last few issues of The Strand before that magazine's long life was ended (through a decision already taken). The publication of these few extracts attracted wide interest, and was a fitting climax for a magazine that had made several great literary finds in the past.

"The Letters of Private Wheeler" are a unique find. They provide a living picture of war in the days of the "thin red line" as seen through the eyes of the man in the ranks, and at the time he saw it -- instead of through the haze of distant recollection. Wheeler's letters were mostly written hard on the heels of the events he describes, and often before the battlefield had been cleared. When he wrote home after the battle of Waterloo, he began: "The three days' fight is over" -- and could not tell what name Wellington, and history, would give to the battle. Naturally, his details are not always accurate, but his impressions usually are -- and can be gauged from other records where they exist. He puts a distinctive stamp on them. He had little education beyond a grounding in the three R's, but he had a remarkable narrative gift -- as often happened in those days among men of his kind. A good storyteller who could relate experiences vividly got plenty of encouragement in an age when many people of his class could not read and the cinematograph was not invented. It is to be noted, however, that Wheeler himself had a considerable acquaintance with books.

The scarcity of his formal education had compensating advantages. There is no seeking for style, nor cramping by grammatical convention, in his writing -- his way of writing is akin to lively talking. His reflections, or asides, are free from the conventional moralizing then fashionable in writing. If he makes a moral comment it is genuinely felt. His pen portraits of comrades and officers bring them to life. In character-sketching he is both shrewd and sympathetic.

By his descriptive gifts he gives the reader a vivid picture of warfare as it was raged in the Napoleonic era, and of the countries in which Wellington's army fought. He has a remarkably observant mind, and a pleasant vein of honour. He depicts both the bright and the dark side of the picture. His letters make us realise more what it meant to fall sick or be wounded in those days, when medical services were primitive and surgery was done without anaesthetics. He shows us the harshness of the discipline, the brutal floggings and drastic executions, but also its astonishing unevenness -- according to whether the officers in command were tyrannical, fatherly, or eccentric. But, on balance, his testimony is favourable. He comes to love the army, and helps the reader to understand how such an attachment develops. Deeper still is his feeling for, and pride in, his regiment. Nothing is stronger than such a bond, and nothing can sever it. When asked to edit Wheeler's letters, my own response was the more ready because I served in the same regiment as he did, and left it not only from similar causes but with equal regret.

In the editorial task, I have provided a number of "background" notes, and have also, for easier reading, done some paragraphing and punctuation of his letters. For they were punctuated only by commas. But I have not changed his spelling, save where it is an obvious slip of the pen. On principle, any alteration in the reproduction of the historical document should be eschewed, and Wheeler's misspellings are usually intelligible, while adding flavour to his story.



Preface to Book

AS THESE LETTERS may fall into many hands who will form many different opinions respecting their origin, I have only to say, that on my return home I found the whole of my letters carefully preserved. From these letters, and from hasty notes made at different times, I have endeavoured to give a faithful and impartial record of the services of the Regiment during my time, in which I spent so many happy years. The Anecdotes are all original, none ever having appeared in print. Such is their simple history.

If it should meet the eye of any veteran who served his country during the eventful period here recorded, I hope it will prove a source of pleasure in recalling to his recollection many glorious achievements time have obliterated from his memory.


26th February, 1837.


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