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Sergeant Lamb's America

Robert Graves


  Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth































  Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth

  Robert Graves was born in 1895 in Wimbledon, the son of Irish writer Perceval Graves and Amalia Von Ranke. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme. After that, apart from a year as Professor of English Literature at Cairo University in 1926, he earned his living by writing. His mostly historical novels include I, Claudius; Claudius the God; Count Belisarius; Wife to Mr Milton; Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth; Proceed, Sergeant Lamb; The Golden Fleece; They Hanged My Saintly Billy; and The Isles of Unwisdom. He wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929, and it was soon established as a modern classic. The Times Literary Supplement acclaimed it as ‘one of the most candid self-portraits of a poet, warts and all, ever painted’, as well as being of exceptional value as a war document. His two most discussed non-fiction works are The White Goddess, a study of poetic inspiration, and The Nazarine Gospel Restored (with Joshua Podro), an examination of primitive Christianity. He also translated or co-translated Apuleius, Lucan, Suetonius and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám for Penguin, and compiled the first modern dictionary of Greek Mythology, The Greek Myths. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961 and made an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, in 1971.

  Robert Graves died on 7 December 1985 in Majorca, his home since 1929. On his death The Times wrote of him, ‘He will be remembered for his achievements as a prose stylist, historical novelist and memoirist, but above all as the great paradigm of the dedicated poet, “the greatest love poet in English since Donne”.’ His Complete Poems, as well as many of his novels, is published in Penguin Classics.

  Map 1



  I FIRST came across the name of Sergeant Roger Lamb in 1914, when I was a young officer instructing my platoon in regimental history. His experiences conveyed little to me at the time, because of my truly British ignorance of America and the Americans. However, I visited the United States twenty-five years later and stayed for some weeks with American friends at Princeton, New Jersey, where Washington’s defeat of the Hessian Division of the British Army was a proud tradition of the town. It happened to be the time when King George and Queen Elizabeth were being magnificently welcomed by the President and people of the United States; and as an Englishman I came in for my share of the popular warmth. I naturally remembered Sergeant Lamb as a representative British soldier of the period and looked up his story. This novel then suggested itself as a means of learning, as I wrote, why and how the Americans had separated themselves from the British Crown. These were for me very serious questions – for I now regarded the American Revolution as the most important single event of modern times – and I had found them as equivocally treated in American as in English text-books of history.

  Since Sergeant Lamb of The Ninth is not presented as straight history, I have avoided footnotes or other documentation. All that readers of an historical novel can fairly ask from the author is an assurance that he has nowhere wilfully falsified geography, chronology, or character, and that the information contained in it is accurate enough to add without discount to their general stock of history. I am prepared to give that assurance. I have invented no main characters, not even Chaplain John Martin, Sergeant Buchanan, Dipper Brooks, or the child born at the Quaker’s house in the forest by Lake George. All the opinions on the war which are here put into the mouth of Lamb or quoted from his friends and enemies – however shockingly they may read now – are actual opinions recorded during the American War of Independence.

  The letter reproduced as a frontispiece, by kind permission of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, is the only one in Lamb’s hand that appears to be extant. It is addressed to General Calvert, the Adjutant-General of the Army, and went as covering letter to his manuscript Memorial, applying for an out-pension at the Hospital. It refers to adventures subsequent to those contained in this book: when, escaping from his American prison-camp, he became Sergeant Lamb of The Twenty-third, or Royal Welch Fusiliers. These make a long story in themselves.

  The date of Lamb’s death is not known, the record having apparently perished when the Four Courts were blown up in 1922 by the Irish revolutionaries: but from information that Mr Dermot Coffey of the Irish Public Record Office has been good enough to supply, he appears to have lived until at least 1824. After his discharge from the Army in 1784 he became schoolmaster of the Free School at White Friars Lane, Dublin. He married Jane Crumer by banns in St Anne’s Parish Church, Dublin, in January 1786.

  R. G.

  Galmpton-Brixham, Devon


  Roger Lamb’s Note of Explanation

  I CANNOT readily convey to paper the vexations and disappointments which attended the publication of the autobiographical book on which I had for so many years laboured, after school hours, and during the whole of my holidays, while master of the crowded Free School of White Friars Lane in this city of Dublin. I had written it as a faithful memoir of interesting events, not shrinking from any confession of error or boast of success, so long as I should keep to the truth.

  In the year 1808, when it was concluded, I showed the manuscript to one or two of my old military comrades who resided in Dublin. They considered it pretty well as a story, and had little fault to find with its exactness as historical writing. But with the booksellers it was an altogether different matter. Few of these would deign so much as to look into the work, which they said was clearly of tedious and inordinate length as the life-story of so obscure an individual as I was; others read a page or two and then asked me, affecting to like it fairly, whether I would pay them a hundred guineas for the risk of publication. But I was a poor man, with a parcel of debts, indifferent health, and a numerous family to support; and had expected the tide of money rather to flow in the opposite direction.

  The chief subject treated of was my campaigning experiences in the American War of 1775-83, which these booksellers professed to regard as ‘a Lazarus’ – their trade term for a subject that was not only dead but stinking. They refused to listen to me when I argued that the present hostilities with France would greatly favour the book, as calling attention to the thankless heroism once displayed in America by the same regiments then triumphantly engaged under Lord Wellington in the Spanish Peninsula.

  This American war had, admittedly, been a war lost, and so was in general not a pleasant subject for the British people to dwell upon; and a shameful war, too, as fought against men of our own blood, the American colonists; and still more shameful in that these had been leagued after a time with our natural enemies the French, against whose agressions we had so recently defended them. Yet in spite of all this, we (if I may speak for the s
urvivors of the British expeditionary forces in America) had nothing with which to reproach ourselves, nor could we hold ourselves the inferiors in either skill or courage to Lord Wellington’s troops. Our common conviction was that it was not we who had lost the war – indeed there was hardly a skirmish or battle in which we had not been left in victorious possession of the field – but that it was lost by a supine and ignorant Ministry seconded by an unpatriotic and malignant Opposition. Nor could our view be readily disputed.

  I put all this, perhaps almost too hotly, to Messrs. Wilkinson and Courtney, two enterprising booksellers of Wood Street to whom finally I brought the manuscript of my book. And I asked this question of old Mr Courtney: ‘When is it, sir, that old campaigners speak most earnestly and warmly about the hazards, fatigues, triumphs, and frolics that they have lived through together?’ ‘It is’ (I informed him in the same breath) ‘when a new war is in progress and when the regiments whose badges and facings they once wore with pride are again hotly engaged, as now. Can such a subject as the American War be therefore called “a Lazarus”, except in the sense that Lazarus was by a miracle raised from the dead and acclaimed by the crowds?’

  Mr Courtney admitted the justice of my observations, and agreed that a great many retired officers could perhaps be found in Ireland and elsewhere to subscribe to a book which gave an account of campaigns in which they had themselves sometime fought.

  Young Mr Wilkinson then undertook to read the book rough, which he did; and a few days later proposed to come to an agreement with me, as follows. Mr Wilkinson should have authority to solicit subscriptions in my name for a work entitled A True and Authentic Journal of Occurrences in the Late American War, in which he would include the more general and striking parts of my story and fat it up with extracts drawn from dependable works of travel and biography. He would excite the compassionate interest of the nobility, clergy, and gentry in me as a worn-out old soldier now surprisingly turned writer, and he would expunge from my work all judgments and incidents not consonant with that humble character. He fully expected an edition of fifteen hundred copies to be taken up; and undertook to pay me five pounds down and sixpence for each copy subscribed, which he represented to be very handsome payment indeed. If matters turned out as he hoped, he would publish the remainder of my writings, a more particular Memoir of His Own Life: by R. Lamb, as a separate work of a highly moral tone; he would not handle this himself but turn it over to a hackney writer, some hedge-parson or other, who could strike the note of contrition that the middling public would heed. For this work I should receive nothing but the glory of being the author of a second book, until after one thousand copies had been sold, when my reward should be at threepence a copy.

  This was a wretched offer and at first I refused it with indignation. But presently I swallowed my pride and signified my acceptance, because of my great want of money and the wretched importunities of the tradesmen who were my creditors, small men almost as impoverished as myself.

  Mr Wilkinson allowed me to assist him in the editing of my book. It was excessively painful for me to sit and watch him run his lead-pencil through its choicest passages with a reiterated groan of ‘No, no, Mr Lamb, this will never do’. This was trifling, that was vulgar, the other would not only cause pain and offence but dry up subscriptions like a styptic. However, I now had somewhat less urgent need of money than before, since my recent application for an out-pension from the Chelsea Hospital had been immediately and unexpectedly granted – through the good offices of General H. Calvert (by whose side I had once fought) with His Royal Highness the Duke of York. I therefore wished to tear up the signed agreement made in an evil hour with these cognoscenti of literature, repay them the five pounds and have my book back. But they held me to my signature and I had no legal remedy against them.

  Not once did Mr Wilkinson respect my plea to allow some particular or other to stand in his version. I therefore soon left him to finish his butcherly work alone; and I confess that I was sick at heart when the True and Authentic Journal was finally presented to me bound in calf, handsomely printed and with hardly a sentence left as I had penned it. That I received my twenty guineas was poor consolation, or that the list of subscribers to the work included such great names as Major-General W. H. Clinton, M.P., the Quartermaster-General of Ireland; Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Asgill, Bt., then commanding the Eastern District; and the Earl of Harrington himself, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in Ireland – it was no longer my book, no longer the truth as I had wished to tell it. The second volume was yet worse, a sad hotchpotch of religious sentiment and irrelevant anecdote; but it was at least gratifying for me to know that if I got nothing from it, the publishers got less than nothing (though they had shared their risks with a Welsh printer named J. Jones of South Great George’s Street), for hardly a copy sold.

  Much mortified, I prevailed upon an underling of Mr Wilkinson’s (paying him a guinea) to find and restore to me the pencil-scarred manuscript; which Mr Wilkinson continually pretended, when I applied directly to him, that he could not lay his hand upon. Then I set myself, as a sort of penitential task, to rewrite the original story again, and in a manner that displayed even less regard than before for the susceptibilities of the nobility, clergy, and gentry; at the same time correcting numerous errors of detail that I ; had committed, or that had been fathered on me by the ingenious but unhistorical Mr Wilkinson. I trust that I have now done my duty by the jealous nymph Clio, whom the ancients figured in their legends as the Muse of authentic history.


  (December 1814)

  The Free School,

  White Friars Lane, Dublin.

  Chapter I

  THERE ARE more ways than one of telling a story. I could perhaps plunge as Homer does – whom I have read in translation – in medias res with my arrival at the city of Quebec in May 1776, when the American War had been already in progress for a year; and tell the story backward from that point until overtaking it again. But I consider it both more workman-like and more soldier-like a method to do as follows: first, to relate some particulars of my early life and peace-time service with the British Army in Ireland; next, before coming to my own experiences in the war, to venture upon a general account of its origins and commencement. Here I beg leave to point out a grave historical lack: namely, an impartial Detail of the more minute but no less important occurrences of the war which, as secret springs of a clock, actuated the visible pendulum and turned round publicly the hands of time. The only attempt at such a Detail of which I have knowledge is a work published in America, and written by a Member of Congress, but which I find to be exceedingly partial.

  I first heard the name of America from my father, an industrious Dublin tradesman who dealt chiefly in seamen’s necessaries, on the occasion of the news reaching our city of the British capture of Quebec in Canada from the French under M. de Montcalm. This was in November 1759, the year of victories, when I was not quite four years old. Great cheering and shouting was heard in our humble street, which lay contiguous to the Arran Bridge on the River Liffey, because it was a Protestant street and here was another victory to be celebrated over the Papists of our vicinity. My big brother Tom came bouncing in with the news, blackthorn in fist, huzza-ing and twirling in the air his frieze cap. But my father, upon learning that the gallant and affable general Sir James Wolfe, who had been Quartermaster-General of the Forces in Ireland but a year previously, had fallen in the hour of victory, sternly rebuked Tom’s enthusiasm. He made him sit down quietly upon a stool and hearken to a geographical lesson upon the subject of North America which (my father said) was wholly ours now, for ever. This was, as I say, the first time that ever I heard tell of America, and the name was thereby endued for me with solemn associations of glory and grief. My father, I must observe, was a man of much reading which strong native powers of intellect had led him to digest and methodize; but he was by no means pious and gave me no regular religious education, though he tau
ght me at an early age to read, cipher, and write a fair hand.

  For many weeks after, a favourite play in our back garden was the ‘Capture of Quebec’, in which my brothers played the part of the British forlorn-hope that swarmed up the Heights of Abraham (a withered apple-tree) to the Upper City of Quebec (the roof of a wood-shed) where two of my younger sisters and myself did duty for the French Army. Tom was the eldest, and I the youngest of our family of eleven, of whom four were boys. In the following year Tom sacrificed his life in defence of his country, dying of a wound received on board a British frigate during a fight in the English Channel. My father was gravely afflicted by the news, which took the sweet taste of perpetual victory from his mouth and left only bitterness. Hitherto he had used to take me every Sunday afternoon along the North Wall and describe to me, in the most interesting and familiar manner, the latest naval engagement of which news had reached him; pausing now and then to illustrate the manœvres of the ships with marks scratched in the mud. He used the point of his stick, a curious twisted piece of ivory, the spear of a sword-fish. But there was now no more of that, for when one day I asked him: ‘Father: tell me a battle!’ he shook his head and tears came into his eyes.

  He replied: ‘Ah, Gerry, dear child, I see your little breast has been fired with the accounts I have given you. But I only related these things to form your judgment: I would not have you become a fighting man, no, not on any account. I have lost one fine boy already in fighting for his country. Let us have no more talk of battles for a while.’

  A year or two later, my two remaining brothers (as well as my favourite sister) died of the confluent smallpox, so that I was left the only son of my parents. I was nearly carried off myself, and being thus preserved unexpectedly was for some time so cosseted and indulged by my mother that I became very wilful; and when my father began again to discipline me for my faults I resented it greatly. I openly defied him, and allowed him no alternative but a sterner discipline yet. My mother took my part, but secretly, because she stood somewhat in dread of my father, who was of powerful body and of temper difficult to govern.