‘Our Observatory’

The following article was published in the Arbroath Herald on 23 August 1906 and is a fascinating transcription of a letter written almost one-hundred years earlier by a soldier named David Wishart (WIS0037), to his brother Thomas whilst he was serving overseas in the Peninsula War (1808 – 1814.) David was born in Arbroath about 1784, a labourer by trade and enlisted with the 1st Foot Soldiers, 3rd Battalion on 3 December 1806 for seven years service. During his time in the army he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and was wounded in action (as detailed in the letter) during an unsuccessful attack by Wellington at San Sebastián on 25 July 1813. He survived the rest of the war and was discharged from service at Fermoy, Ireland on 25 November 1814. After leaving the army he returned to Arbroath and married Helen Gorty on 10 May 1817. He died in 1848 but was awarded the Peninsula Medal in 1842.

The following letter, addressed to one “Thomas Wishart, carter, Arbroath,” posseses more than ordinary interest.  The point is that Thomas Wishart was living a hundred years ago and that the letter was from a brother of his with the British army in the Peninsula War.  But before I quote the letter, I may remark that the copy before me, written in a beautifully clear hand, as the term is used, is the work of a girl with no hands at all.  It is difficult to believe it, but the fact is there.  All the qualities of good handwriting are shown in the pages before me; the letters are well and firmly made; the lines are straight and equi-distant; and there is that equal spacing between words and letters that makes all the difference between good handwriting and bad.  I understand, however, that the mere writing of a letter is a minor feat in this case; for the young lady in question has actually secured prizes in open knitting competitions, and what is even more wonderful – for fancy needlework.  Good luck to her.  I warrant few in town who were aware that a young Arbroath girl had showed so much determination and ability in overcoming extraordinary difficulties.

Here is the letter : –

Bilboa, 1st Nov., 1813.

Dear Brother, – I take this opportunity of writing these few lines informing you of my health at present.  You will have heard of the battle of Vittoria.  It was fought on 21st June.  I got safe off there, and we advanced after the French till we came to St Sebastian.  We raised works for the storming of the town and castle, and we stormed it on the 23rd July, in the morning.  I received a wound in my left breast, and the ball was taken out of my back.  I have been these three months in the hospital, but thanks be to God I am almost well, and going up to join the army again.  Our army is four leagues in the frontier of France at the present; they are going to storm a town called Bayonne, a garrison town in the frontier of France, and I think I will be up at the army before it is taken.  You will be so good as let my uncle George know that I saw George, my cousin, on 26th June, and he is well.  We had a drop of wine together.  Their division was on the march for Pamplona, a garrison town in Spain.  I was asking at some of his regiment that were wounded and they told me he was well on 1st November. (There seems to be a slip in the date here; note the date of writing.)

You will let John Peter, the Volunteer Tavern, know that Sergt. Hay was killed on the 25th July at the storming of St. Sebastian, and let Peter Fairweather know that his son was well on the 26th June.  There is a lad of the name of Soutar in the hospital that has his compliments to you.  He is in the 92nd Regt. You will think it strange for me not writing sooner, but it was out of my power for we had so long a march and skirmishing every day with the French.  We lost 150 men at Vittoria, and two officers and our Colonel were wounded on the 21st June; and on the 25th July we lost 550 men and 23 officers killed and wounded.  There is great talk of the regiment going to England.  We are not above 50 men strong, but what are in the hospitals are getting better and going up to join the army there.

Many of the men were for seven years volunteering again.  I think I shall (not?) volunteer again, for it is impossible to escape being killed or wounded.  I can give little or no news here, for when I was wounded were were put on board the George of London and were 13 days on board and came to Bilboa to the rear.  You will have heard all that happened in Spain and Portugal.  There were 2000 prisoners taken in St Sebastian, and there were 200 pieces of cannon taken at Vittoria.  How many were killed and wounded I do not know, but it was a sore day’s fighting.  You will give my compliments to all my brothers and sisters and let them know that I am well, and let James Couty and his wife know that I am well.  You must excuse bad writing, for I can’t sit up with my breast as yet, but it is almost well.  It would have been well had the ball gone right through me, but it drove the gallows-buckle through and stopped in itself, and it was cut out of my back.  It was a metal ball, 2 oz weight.

I am going to leave the hospital tomorrow, and going right up to join the army and have another rap at them again, but I am afraid they will wing me this time.  There are above eight hundred men maimed in the different hospitals.  No more at present, but remain, Your brother,

David Wishart

N.B. When you write, direct – David Wishart, Sergt., 3 Battn, Royal 5th Division, British Army, Spain.  Write by post and give me the news of the town.  I expect to get my Christmas dinner in Arbroath or on the Pyrenees mountains on the frontier of France.