A Veteran of the Peninsular War
By Maureen Storey
This article was originally published in the March 1996 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Robert Soule first appears in our re≠cords on 19 April 1805 at Ashford, Kent when he enlisted in the army.
He gave his place of birth as North Cave, Hull and his age as 18 but as yet we have been unable to place him in any of the families on the Sole charts held by the Society.
He served with the 34th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Cumberland Regiment, winning promotion first to corporal in 1807 and then to sergeant in 1812. Looking back now, it is hard to imagine why he should have chosen to join up ‑ whilst officers were generally regarded as gallant and dashing, the rank and file were considered to come from the dregs of society and were treated accordingly. The life was hard and the discipline harder. Sentences of two hundred lashes were commonly given for trivial offences. However, in 1805 there was widespread fear that Napoleon would invade Britain and the army redoubled its efforts to recruit more men. The bounty paid to each man when he en≠listed was increased, averaging about £12 but going as high as £40 where there was competition between the army and navy for new recruits.
Whatever his reasons for joining, whether in a fit of patriotic fervour because he was tempted by the bounty, or because he was escaping from an even more miserable life than that of a private soldier, Robert Soule signed up for the customary 'unlimited service', that is, until death or until rendered unfit by illness, injury, or old age.
The expected invasion never materialised. Instead Napoleon tried to counter the threat that Britain posed to his ambitions with a trade embargo which was designed to un≠dermine the British economy. However, first Portugal and then Spain refused to imple≠ment the embargo and Napoleon retaliated by occupying both countries. The Portuguese and Spanish governments appealed to Britain for help and so began the series of marches and counter‑marches, sieges and battles, that made up the Peninsular War.
The first engagement of the war was at Rolica in August 1808 but Robert Souleís regiment was not sent to the Peninsula until 1810, arriving just as Marshal Massena was forcing Wellington to retreat further into Portugal towards the Lines of Torres Vedras. The retreat ended when Wellington halted his troops along the great ridge at Busaco. One of the reasons for Wellington's success in the Peninsula was his ability to choose his ground, invariably forcing the French to attack uphill. The 34th Foot reached Wellington's army in time to be present at the victory at Busaco but they played only a small part in the battle. Their first major action was at Albuera in May 1811, where they fought in Abercrombie's Brigade which was part of Stuart's Second Division. Albuera has been described as one of the bloodiest and most desperate battles of the war. At one point, the 34th Foot was ordered to strengthen the Allied centre and took its place in a group of 3,700 men who bore the brunt of an assault by two full French Divi≠sions about 7,800 strong. The two sides closed to almost point‑blank range and en≠gaged in a ferocious fire fight in which the heavily outnumbered British resolutely stood their ground in spite of heavy losses. Their refusal to give way before the onslaught bought the time necessary for reinforcements to arrive and the French were finally driven back.
The regimentís next major engagement was at Arroyo dos Molinos in October 1811 where they achieved the unusual feat of capturing almost the entire French 34me Regiment, complete with its band and instruments ‑ an event still commemorated on the anniversary of the battle when the French drums are ceremonially paraded by drum≠mers in the uniform of the 34me Regiment. In the spring of 1812 the 34th Foot helped to cover the siege operations at Badajoz, although they played no part in its final storming. With Badajoz secured, Wellington began preparations for the advance into Spain. He sent a small force including the 34th Foot to capture the bridge over the Tagus at Almarez in order to sever the communications between the forces of Marshal Marmont to the north of the river, and Marshal Soult to the south. The bridge was defended with a fortress on each bank but the Allied force took the stronger fortress by storm and then turned its guns on the other one, at which point the French fled. It was a year before the 34th Foot took part in another major battle, this time at Vittoria in June 1813. Here, again as part of the Second Division, it helped to secure the army's right flank by ejecting the French from the Heights of Puebla in the opening stages of the battle.
After the victory at Vittoria, there were only two pockets of French resistance left in Spain, the heavily fortified towns of Pam≠plona and San Sebastian which lay respectively on the right and left flanks of the Allied Army. Wellington wanted to remove these enemy garrisons before crossing the Pyrenees into France and therefore set about blockading Pamplona while sending his siege train north to invest San Sebastian. Marshal Soult look advantage of the fact that this left the Allied troops over‑extended with 60,000 men spread out over a front some 50 miles long and launched a counter‑offensive. The series of actions that followed are collectively known as the Bat≠tles of the Pyrenees. Wellington believed that if the French were going to try to relieve their two besieged fortresses, they would re‑enter Spain along the coast road and so concentrated most of his forces there, at Irun. Soult however, decided to advance through two major passes over the moun≠tains, those at Roncevalles and Maya. The 4th Foot was part of the force defending Maya and suffered nearly 300 (about 40%) killed or wounded in the ensuing action in which the British were forced out of the pass but managed to block the road to Pamplona.. Sergeant Robert Soule is recorded as being one of the wounded although there is no indication of how serious his injuries were or whether he recovered in time to rejoin his regiment as they crossed into France to take part in the last battles of the Peninsula War, those of Nivelle, Nive, Orthes and Toulouse.
After the signing of the armistice in April 1814, the 34th Foot stayed in France until July, when it was sent to Ireland. The regiment remained in Great Britain ‑ missing the Battle of Waterloo ‑ until February 1816 when it was posted to India to help protect and police the areas controlled by the East India Company. It took part in the Pindari Wars of 1817‑19, in which the Pindaris ‑ marauding bands of mercenaries from the neighbouring Maratha states ‑ were chased out of British controlled India. Robert Soule remained in India until 7 July 1823, and was finally discharged from the army on 16 August 1823 due to 'rheumatismí, having served for 18 years and 130 days. He applied for and was granted an army pension: his length of service and rank entitled him to Is 10d a day.
With time and a little patience it should prove relatively easy to fill in the gaps in Robert Soule's army career using first the pay and muster books at the PRO at Kew to follow him as he moved from station to station and then the regimental records to find out what the regiment did at each posting. A little delving into the registers which cover North Cave and its environs will hopefully reveal his baptism and allow us to place him on one of the Society's Yorkshire charts. However, nothing is known of this veteran of the Peninsula, described as about 36 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes, a dark complexion and a labourer by trade. After the summer of 1823 as he marched away from his regiment that August, Sergeant Robert Soule disappeared back into obscurity.
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