The autobiography of Sir Harry Smith, 1st Baronet of Aliwal, is as exciting, varied and adventurous as the epic life that he led. He joined the British army in the 1st battalion of the 95th Rifles, whose dark green uniform he was proud to wear and despite an inauspicious posting along with the disastrous expedition to Montevideo in 1807 his talents began to emerge. These talents were to be brought to bear on three other continents in the service of the British.
A contemporary of, and good friend of, other famed writers of the Rifles, such as Sir John Kincaid, Major George Simmons, and Jonathan Leach. These characters appear in their varied guises throughout the narrative to give it a distinctly Rifle Brigade feeling.
The autobiography was originally published in two parts, however in terms of phases or major periods of his life it is best to describe them in three distinct eras;
The Napoleonic Period covers Sir Harry’s career in the 95th through-out the Peninsular War, fighting in the Light Division from victory to victory. His Peninsular Medal , when issued in 1847, came with 12 clasps: Coruna, Busaco, Fuentes d'Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthez, Toulouse to represent the hard fought and glorious victories he had participated in. However perhaps his most fortuitous discovery during this period was Juana, his wife who having seen all here property destroyed in Badajoz came to the British lines to seek protection. Sir harry also participated in the Waterloo campaign in 1815 and provides a number of vivid anecdotes and flashes of action.
The second period was in the emergent British Empire in India, where he trained and fought alongside native forces in the First Anglo-Sikh war. His victory at Aliwal on the Sutlej, in which he was outnumbered almost two to one, is widely regarded as the turning point of the war and led to further expansion what would become the Raj. Of the battle itself, the following quote might serve
“Mr. B. Genn, late of the 15th Hussars, who had served under him in India in 1846, and who had fired over his grave. As soon as I had opened the door, a fine engraving of Sir Harry greeted me. It had been bought at a sale. The old veteran spoke of his commander always as the "dear old man." When I asked him if he thought him a good General, he fired up quickly, "Why, think of the battle of Aliwal! Not a mistake anywhere."
Smith’s next major positing was to the South Africa, where he played a major role in shaping the form of the colony. The evident differences between the natives, Boers and the administration that would flare up over the forty years since the ending of Smith’s time, are littered amongst the pages of his writing. Of lasting fame can still be found here in the naming of numerous towns, not least of which the city of Ladysmith named after his wife Juana.
A passionate man, often wild of temper, but brilliant and balanced nevertheless; an anecdote reported in his autobiography gives a little flavour of the man;
"It was a common habit with Sir Harry Smith to threaten to jump down people's throats,–boots, spurs, and all; and he once on a field of battle sent a message, seasoned with some fearful expletives, to a colonel that if he kept his regiment so much to the front, he'd have him knee-haltered. But the fine old General drew a line at swearing and never allowed of personal abuse."
Text taken, whole and complete, from the 1902 edition, in one volume, published in London by John Murray, Original 836 pages.
Author – Lieutenant-General Sir Harry [Henry] George Wakelyn Smith BART, G.C.B. (1787-1860)
Editor – George Charles Moore Smith (1858-1940)
Linked TOC and 16 Illustrations.