Tuesday, February 26, 2013

British Diary Part 1: Journey to America

The Royal Welsh Fusiliers, by Don Troiani

Dear Reader,

After the polling concluded, we had one vote for a spotlight on British soldiers in North America, and two votes for examining an 18th century soldier's diary. So, in an effort to appease both parties, today, we are examining the Journal of  William Digby, a British soldier in the American War of Independence. Digby's journal chronicles his experience from 1776 to his capture by the American rebels at Saratoga in 1777.

William Digby's journal was printed in the late 19th century by James Phinney Baxter. While Baxter describes Digby as "a manly spirit guided by an unswerving instinct to justice," Digby's  motives for joining the British army were likely similar to most other soldiers in the Kabinettskriege period.

Lt. William Digby joined the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment, and was a member of the Grenadier company. (For quick reference, one of those guys in the furry hats at the top of the page.) Even if he had not specifically told us this, we could guess, as only the Grenadier and Light Infantry companies of the 53rd participated in the events he describes. Like many soldiers, Digby composed his journal in an unspecified time after the campaign concluded, possibly at the request of "a particular friend," who he alludes to in the preface of the journal. Digby wisely adds that a disclaimer that some of his information may be incorrect, as he is only human.

Soldiers to North America:
Digby begins his narrative with the 53rd's journey to America aboard the transport ship Woodcock,  in April of 1776. Like many of the soldiers fighting for the British crown, Digby had never been aboard a ship before in his life. He describes what it felt like to see an iceberg for the first time, and lists the numerous types of wildlife encountered on the Atlantic voyage. The sea still held mythic appeal for many soldiers, and despite complaining about the cold and fog, he often describes fanciful, non-factual events, such as swordfish attacking whales. While the specifics of his account are non-factual, he is probably relaying information he received from the sailors on the ship, who might have witnessed a blue marlin impale a whale at some point. (This does occasionally happen- see here for details.)

On the 7th of May, Digby described confusion, as the fleet approached the shoreline at night, and many ships, including his own, nearly went aground on the southern tip of Newfoundland. As the fleet neared America, Digby shared that many soldiers believed that Quebec and the rest of Canada had already fallen to the American rebels.

On the way up the Saint Lawrence seaway, the Woodcock met with the Hope, a messenger ship headed back to England. The soldiers were told that if they wished, this ship would carry letters to loved ones back home to England. Transatlantic mail was a tricky business in the 18th century, and family back in England often heard almost nothing from soldiers for the entire length of a campaign.  For servicemen currently overseas, who have the ability to call home, having to wait six weeks for letters from home would seem unbearable.

Digby makes it clear that the soldiers felt extreme uneasy while on board ship. At one point in the night, on May 20th, Digby's transport ran into the warship Providence. One the Grenadiers in his regiment panicked, thinking that the ship was about to sink; tried to jump onto the Providence, and was killed in the process. Upon finally reaching mainland Canada, the regiment was, "all in great spirits on leaving the ships." Most of the soldiers felt much better upon reaching dry land. With life on board ship concluded, Digby and the rest of the men of the 53rd prepared to face the rebel forces still in Canada.

The adventures of William Digby will continue, with a post about his life in North America, and a post about his combat experiences in the 1777 Saratoga campaign.

Thanks for reading,

Alexander Burns

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