T’was the night before Christmas….
Christmas Eve, 1808.
Even though the Victorian celebration of Christmas Day was still some years in the future, at home in Britain hands were being warmed in front of roaring fires and the smells of cooking filled kitchens great and small. All in gleeful anticipation of a feast-day on the morrow, if perhaps not, for most, a day off work.
Meanwhile, however, the British army marching through Northern Spain had that morning received disastrous news – Napoleon himself was hurrying toward them from Madrid, at the head of 40,000 veterans of his Grande Armée.
To the 30,000 of Sir John Moore’s force, shivering in six inches of snow which, mixed with rain, had fallen almost continually through the previous week, this meant only one thing. They must retreat, and quickly, before the Emperor was able to join with Marshal Soult’s nearby army of 20,000 and destroy the outnumbered Britons.
By now, the British looked decidedly ragged. Having already marched from Lisbon in Portugal and half-way across Spain, Moore’s supply lines were at breaking point. Troops constantly on duty, with cavalry and artillery horses not being unsaddled or unharnessed for days at a time, meant essentials like clothing and boots – and animals – were simply wearing out. And to make matters worse food, and forage for the horses, was in so short a supply the men had been on half-rations for more than a week. With the impoverished Spaniards unable to feed both themselves and the British in the midst of winter, a retreat might have seemed a sensible option, given the circumstances.
Instead, it would turn into a deadly, 300 mile dash to the coast; a race, against the French and freezing winter blizzards; against hunger and fatigue. And not across the gently rolling Spanish plains, but struggling over some of the most ferocious country in the world – the Cantabrian mountains.
So that Christmas Eve, as the army marched slowly out of the small town of Sahagun, scene of one of the British cavalry’s greatest escapades (see blog header picture above), perhaps it was just as well few men realised the enormity of what lay ahead.
Five thousand of them would not survive the journey home.
Christmas Eve, 2010.
The Victorians’ Christmas is still with us as, sadly, is a British army once again fighting on foreign soil. This time, however, circumstances are slightly different.
Heat is the killer in Afghanistan, rather than freezing temperatures. Thanks to modern-day logistics, food ought not to be a problem, though in a largely arid country, water often is. Armoured vehicles need no forage, (though I gather there has been some use of local horses by Special Forces personnel) and if we are to believe what the MOD tells us, the army receives all necessary equipment as it is requested. Hmm…
But the powers-that-be can’t supply courage; our servicemen and women must provide that themselves. It can’t be particularly pleasant to live in a constant state of alert; in constant fear, I’d say, because that’s how I imagine I would feel. Scared. All the time. And however you feel about the army’s presence in Afghanistan, those men and women deserve and need your support.
It doesn’t matter how you give it. There are plenty of service charities or benevolent funds, if you want to give money. You can pray for their safe return, whatever religion you follow. Even if you have none.
Or, as you sit round the table before tucking into your Christmas meal, simply give them a thought.
That’s enough, you see. Because to be forgotten by your country is worse than being injured, even killed, in its service. In our service.
But to be remembered? Remembrance…means no sacrifice will be in vain.
A final thought. While watching the disembarkation of a cavalry regiment, returning from Spain in January 1809, uniforms in rags and with no surviving horses at all, one observer remarked, “There are horses enough in Yorkshire to re-mount them, but thank God the brave men have been saved.”
Amen to that.
Best wishes to you all for a happy Christmas and peaceful New Year,