I’ve been dropping off library books as I prepare to leave university and go back to work, and one of them was Charles Esdaille’s The Penninsular War (Palgrave 2003), which is a grand and detailed reference that I’d love to have in my collection.
I couldn’t drop it off without re-reading my favourite paragraph, in which Esdaille describes the particularly bad quality of the troops that Napoleon had on hand when he first invaded Spain in 1808. Max Foy described the army as being thrown together of inexperienced men and bits and pieces of units. “Unacquainted with each other, unknown to their officers, whose names, even, they knew not, taken little care of, badly subsisted and irregularly paid, [the soldier’s] existence as fluctuating and precarious, like that of the ephemeral corps of which they formed a part”.
It was a dangerous army to lead, as Blaze (Memoires d’un Apothecaire sur le Guerre dEspagne) described.
“On the fifteenth of March, we held exercises on a plain outside the town [of Valladolid], and General Malher was killed by a ramrod that a soldier had foolishly left in the barrel of his musket. An immediate inspection was carried out to discover the … culprit: eighteen ramrods were missing from the section of the line the shot had been fired from."
The unfortunate General Malher.
Jean-Pierre-Firmin Malher first enlisted in the army in 1777, and then two years later he served on the ship La Couronne. After the Revolution began, in October of 1789 Malher joined the National Guard of Paris. In 1792 he joined the 14th Battalion of Light Infantry, served with them in the Army of the North, and was commissioned as a sous-lieutenant. The next year he was promoted to lieutenant and became an aide-de-camp to General Queyssat. Malher continued to serve with the Army of the North and in 1794 he was promoted to chef de brigade and became the chief of staff to General Bonnaud's division.
Malher's next major command came in September of 1799 when he became Vandamme's chief of staff in the Army of Holland. The next month he served at Castricum, was promoted to général de brigade, and joined Boudet's division. In 1800 General Malher joined the Army of the Reserve in Watrin's division, and that May he seized Aoste and fought at Montestrutto, Ivrée, and Chiusella. In June he fought at Montebello and then was wounded at Marengo. That November Malher returned to Paris.
During the years of peace that followed , Malher was employed in the 24th military division and he received a promotion to général de division in 1803. In 1804 he went to the camp of Montreuil and took command of the 3rd Infantry Division that would become part of Marshal Ney's VI Corps the next year. Malher led his division throughout the campaign of 1805 and fought at Gunzbourg in October. On Christmas Day of 1805, Malher was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor.
The next year, a few weeks into the campaign in Prussia, General Malher was replaced in his command by General Vandamme. In 1807 Malher was employed in the interior and then given command of the 13th military division at Rennes. That November he took command of the 3rd Division of Dupont's II Corps. Traveling with the army into Spain, Malher and his men were at Valladolid in March of 1808. Malher was participating in a training exercise when a soldier fired his gun but had left his ramrod in the barrel. The ramrod flew out of control and through Malher's skull, killing him.
Where’s your ramrod, son? It’s in his head, innit?
Poor man, he deserved better than a ramrod through the skull. One wonders what happened to those eighteen soldats who had fired off their ramrods.
I might have caused a similar incident at a range day. On my first field exercise as a padre to my first regiment, the troops were working in pairs firing live ammunition with the C7 (Canadian version of the M16 assault rifle) while working through a course with pop-up targets. The Major in charge wanted me to take a rifle and go through the course with him. As a chaplain, I am strictly required to be a non-combatant, and it had been many years since I had handled an FN rifle, the predecessor of the C7. It would have been so easy for me to accidentally kill the Major or someone else, so I politely declined. I also declined his suggestion that I serve as a Range Safety Officer, for similar reasons. That Major was fortunate not to share the fate of poor General Malher!