Talking Point with Peter Hicks : William Clark, an old soldier’s story

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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In the Dundee Courier and Argus dated Monday 11 September 1876, was published an account by 83-year-old William Clark of his time guarding Napoleon on St Helena, 55 years earlier.

If we are to believe his story, he might even have been one of Napoleon’s pall bearers… This soldier’s-eye view of the French Emperor’s last days is a charming and fascinating mixture of personal experience and rumour, truth and fiction, impossible to unravel.

Talking Point with Peter Hicks : William Clark, an old soldier’s story

“[…] There is living in this village, an old soldier, formerly of the 20th regiment, and who served as one of the guard over Napoleon, at St Helena. His recollections of his youth are vivid. The name of my parishioner is William Clark. He says – ‘I was born on the 28th of December 1793, at Hopton, near Thetford, in Suffolk. I enlisted on the 8th of May, 1815, in her Majesty’s 20th Regiment, then lying at Waterford. I joined the depot at Newport, Isle of Wight. Seven thousand men were then lying there. After seven months at Waterford, we went from station to station in Ireland, and on the 14th February, 1818, we were sent to relieve the 53rd regiment, which had accompanied Napoleon to his exile in St Helena. We arrived in St Helena about the 10th of May, 1818, and remained there till six months after the death of Napoleon, who died on the 5th of May 1821. We had to lie on the floor, one blanket to each man, which we placed half under and half over us. Sir Hudson Lowe refused the petition of Colonel South to allow bedding – “This would make them sleep too soundly”. At gunfire (6 o’clock p.m.) the guard formed closer in, and all out-pickets were joined to Boney’s guard. Guards, pickets, and all amounted at night to 63 or 64. About a mile from our regular quarters were three guns, at a point we called Break-neck Valley.

Sir Hudson Lowe was a very good general in regard to his behaviour to the men. He wasn’t a bad gentleman; a very kind, nice man. I’ve seen him many a time with his lady and two daughters – nice young ladies they were. They used to keep a carriage drawn by two bullocks. I’ve seen ‘em come to the church, which was near Boney’s quarters. He would lean on the pew door,(Eighteenth-century Anglican pews were small enclosures, unique to each family – sometimes marked with their name – and arranged in social order. Each pew enclosure had its own entrance door which could be locked) and he would never sit down till he had every one – slaves and all – accommodated with seats. If he saw a bare-footed man – a slave – without a seat, he would beckon to him and see him seated.

Sir Hudson Lowe’s quarters were at a distance from Napoleon’s. A captain either of the 66th or the 20th Regiment was always stationed inside Boney’s compound; and it was his duty to see him once a day. Boney knew this was the case, and while he would not report himself he would give him opportunities of seeing him, unless he was sulky. He was very sulky sometimes, perhaps would not show himself for several days. The captain on the watch would signal accordingly; and after two or three days, Sir Hudson would come riding up with his staff, ring the bell, and ask, “where is Napoleon?” “In his study”. “Tell him I want him”. Perhaps after a time he would show himself, without coming to the governor.

At the beginning of the year 1821, Sir Hudson sent Napoleon orders to occupy four rooms which were completed in the new State Prison. Napoleon, with his generals, came and looked at the apartments, and said (as was reported), “I am ordered by Hudson to occupy this place, but I will never live a day in it.” He returned to his old quarters, and the next days reported himself sick to Dr Arnott, the physician of our (20th) Regiment. He was never seen afterwards by any guard or sentry; never, in fact, came out from his house again, till he was brought out to his grave, about seven weeks afterwards. Boney was the fattest man I ever saw; the calves of his legs, and his cheek too, you might see them shake as he was walking, and yet he had not the ruddy, healthy look our people had. He would carry a stick, about as thick as my walking-stick, with an iron spud at the end, and if he saw a weed he would always spud it up, anywhere where he went. Four nights out of seven I was on sentry, and would fall asleep while walking, and stray off the path; and then my hair would stand on end with fright and raise my cap, for I knew if I were caught napping I was safe for 300 lashes. I have heard men say that their sufferings from want of rest in St Helena were more trying to them than the hardships of a campaign.

Napoleon died on the 5th of May 1821. Two priests were in attendance. We who had to lift the body were not allowed to touch the coffin until a priest had sprinkled it with holy water. It was reported that Napoleon had requested to be buried with the honours of Royalty, 21 guns; but the Governor ordered 19 guns to be fired, the number assigned to a General. The coffin was covered over with a large flag stone, and the four corners were bored and filled in with melted lead, which fastened them firmly together. The remainder of the excavation was filled in with rubble and levelled, and a mound resembling a common grave raised above it. An iron palisading was placed round, and sentry kept over it night and day until the troops were withdrawn. They were gradually withdrawn, and our regiment left six months after the funeral.

Every man of full age on the island, whatever his ordinary occupation, was required to have arms, and to carry them on occasions; and Sir Hudson Lowe from time to time, at intervals of a month or six weeks, would require them to muster in a body. The Duke of Reichstadt was at this time in America, and the idea was that possibly a rescue might be attempted from that quarter. The Conqueror, of 74 guns, was in the harbour, and kept guard there. Two sloops of war were always cru[i]sing round.

I believe, if ever any man died broken-hearted, it was Boney. He had been low-spirited for some time before he was ordered to take up his quarters in the new State prison. To be sure, it had the name of a prison; but I saw into the drawing-room and dining-room, and they were beautiful. It was built by the sappers and miners and by 400 Chinamen, and they were all of different trades. Mr Darlan [in fact, Darling] told me that Napoleon left the funeral party 1000£; but Sir Hudson Lowe said it was more than he dared do to grant it. Napoleon also would have given to each man of our regiment a gold chain to hold his picker and brush, but we were not permitted to accept it.’”

Peter Hicks
March 2021

Peter Hicks is manager of international affairs Fondation Napoléon.

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