Monday, November 4, 2013

Caithness and Napoleon 3

James Caithness was one of an estimated 12 000 to 16 000 British prisoners-of-war held in Napoleonic France. Statistics vary, but the number was small when compared with the many thousands captured on the battlefields of Europe. The latter were subjected to extreme brutality and degradation, particularly the Spanish. Treatment of British prisoners was tempered by fear of reprisals on the other side of the Channel, where some 70 000 French prisoners were sitting out the war in England.

It seems obvious that there should have been a system for exchange of prisoners but Napoleon made his own rules and in any case things had changed since the mid-18th c when an unwritten code of honourable conduct regarding captives was generally accepted. The French Revolution had swept away such norms.

There were some instances where British officers were exchanged for French prisoners of equal rank. Captain Woodriff of HMS Calcutta, imprisoned at Verdun, achieved his release in this way early in 1807. For the lower deck sailors and military rank and file there was no option but to survive as best they might or to risk the dangers of escape and possible recapture followed by rigorous punishment or death. Accounts of these daring and often repeated attempts are an astonishing testament to the indomitable human spirit.

The constant moving of captives from one fortress to another was a way of foiling plots to escape, preventing men becoming closely acquainted during lengthy stays. These forced marches were one of the worst aspects of the prisoners’ existence. Batches were escorted by gendarmes or soldiers, the men handcuffed in pairs or roped together. Overnight they would be locked in barns or disused buildings or the town gaols.

‘We walked always between 20 and 30 miles’ said one British prisoner ‘and on entering any town where we were to pass the night we were … called over (roll call or appel) … the same form of calling over took place again next morning.’

Midshipman O’Brien of the frigate Hussar, wrecked off the coast of Brittany in the early part of 1804, relates how he and the rest of his ship’s company were marched from Brest to Verdun, lodged in abominable hovels or underground dungeons in bitterly cold weather with a scanty supply of straw for bedding.

At some places when the convoy arrived at their destination for the night they were paraded in the market-place and made a spectacle for jeering townspeople. O’Brien mentions that at Rouen, in the gaol where the captive Hussar crew were confined, ‘French naval officers came to inspect our people and gave them some pieces of money to induce them to enter the French service … this was publicly done in the gaol-yard. We will take what money they choose to give us, sir, and that shall be all they will gain by coming here, said one volunteer.'

In January 1808, after Captain Woodriff’s release and return to England, he and his officers were acquitted at a court martial over the surrender of HMS Calcutta. Woodriff was praised for his gallant and courageous action which resulted in the convoy’s escape. Lieutenant Tuckey was a prisoner in France for almost nine years before he was released.

For James Caithness there would be no respite until 1814. Perhaps there were moments when he wished that all on board the Calcutta had fought to the death rather than endure the privations of imprisonment.

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