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John LeCouteur and the Winter
March of the 104th Regiment
In June 1812, a small brig carrying officers of the British army to join their regiments in Canada docked at Halifax. On board was seventeen-year-old Lieutenant John Le Couteur, a native of the Channel Island of Jersey and a graduate of the recently established Royal Military College.
A lively and intelligent personality, and a gifted writer, John Le Couteur chronicled his experiences in the War of 1812 that broke out almost as soon as he set foot in North America. His very readable and colourful account, edited by Donald E. Graves, is now published as Merry Hearts Make Light Days. You may acquire this fine book by simply clicking on the following links that will take directly to this book's information page: BarnesandNoble.com (Bookstores please contact Robin Brass Studio in Toronto for wholesale pricing).
After spending seven very pleasant months on garrison duty in New Brunswick, Johnnys regiment is ordered to make a gruelling march to Quebec City. Our hero takes up the story:
Every arrangement being completed, and the regiment in good marching order, some detachments having already come a hundred miles up to Fredericton, Colonel Halkett, with the head-quarters and the grenadier company, marched on the 16th February, 1813; a battalion company following on each succeeding day and the light company, forming the rearguard, on Sunday the 21st of February . ......
I shall never forget the morning parade of that Sunday for, although we marched with the best intentions, it was impossible not to feel, in a certain degree, low spirited as our bugles struck up the merry air, "The Girls we leave behind us," most of our gallant fellows being, as it proved, destined never to return to their sisters or sweethearts.
The company presented a most unmilitary appearance as it marched without arms or knapsacks, in Indian file, divided into squads, so many to each Toboggan, the rear of it being nearly half a mile from the front.
It would be needless here to detail our day's marches, as a general outline of them is sufficient. The first seven days marches being through a tolerably well settled country, we found them comparatively easy, though sometimes the snow might be eight inches or a foot in depth, from the circumstance of the foundation of it being a beaten road, and, at the close of each day's march, houses or barns to lodge the men in. ......
On the 29th [of February 1813] we hutted. This operation was most fatiguing and disheartening after a heavy day's march, as it had snowed incessantly, and so heavily that we frequently lost our narrow snow-shoe track, and, if careless, were precipitated into deep snow. One man getting a fall of this kind caused a halt to all those in his rear for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, until he had scrambled from his cold bath.
The inconvenience of keeping all the rear at a halt was found so great that it was soon agreed to march on and leave the straggler to regain his place when could, which was by no means an easy matter, and made officers and men very careful not to fall if they could avoid it, from the fear of having to march some distance in the deep snow.
In order to relieve the men, each officer and man took his turn to break the road, as it was called, by marching as leader for ten or fifteen minutes, then stepping one pace aside and letting the whole company pass him, when he three of his snow-shoes and marched on a firm, hard path in the rear. ......
We generally marched close along the edge of the river, whenever no rapids intervened to prevent it, and always constructed our huts on the windward side of it in the woods, in order to gain a little shelter. ...... [To hut, the men] were divided into squads, the best axemen immediately set to felling young pine trees to form the rafters for the hut. These being trimmed of all their lateral branches, were cut to about fifteen feet in height. Others trimmed branches of pine for thatching it and others felled hard woods and cut it into logs for burning.
While these were at work, some were clearing away spaces for the areas of the hut, ... by taking off their snowshoes and using them as shovels to throw back the snow till they got the soil destined for the floor, four or five feet deep. The snow that was thrown back formed a high wall round it, which served to shelter us somewhat from the chilling wind. ....... A blazing fire was then lit in the centre of the hut, and all around it was strewed a thick layer of pine branches which formed a delicious and fragrant bed -- here were not feather bed soldiers.
The next precaution was to close the only aperture in the hut, which was intended for a doorway, made just large enough for a man to creep through edgewise, and a blanket, which everyone in turn grumbled to give up, served as an inner door to shut out the cold if possible. ...... It generally happened that we were as completely enveloped in smoke as an Esquimaux family but, like the, we found it much more agreeable than having no smoke at all, as it warmed the hut. Moreover, I imagine that sleep without fire in such cold would have proved the sleep of death ......
On the 4th of March the cold was gradually increasing and an incessant snow-storm filling the track up rapidly made the dragging of the Toboggans exceedingly laborious ....... When we got to the end of our day's march the cold was so intense that the men could scarcely use their fingers to hew down the fire-wood, or to build huts, and it was dark before we could commence cooking; if sticking a bit of salt pork on the end of a twig and holding it in a fire could be so termed.
On the morning of the 5th the cold had greatly augmented and the thermometer once more fell to 27 degrees below zero, together with a gale, a north-wester in our teeth, which scarcely left us power to breathe ......
About mid-day, on turning the angle or corner along the river, I was surprised to find that the head of the company had stopped, which caused the centre and the rear to halt as they came up. Knowing the dangerous consequences that might ensue ... I hastened in the deep snow to the head of the company and, going along, I observed that almost every man was already more or less frost-bitten ...... By changing the leading file every four or five minutes we at length got to the huts, having about 90 men of 105 more or less frost-bitten on that occasion. ...... We had to leave poor Rogers, who was so severely frostbitten ...... [that] He was quite a hideous spectacle, altogether once ulcerated mass, as if scalded all over from boiling water. ......
[One night] The wind being high had so completely dried the top of our pine thatch that it caught fire, and, on waking from a sound slumber, I found myself in a blaze, in a complete auto da fe, for there was no appearance of a door or outlet, so instantaneous was the blaze. However, a yell of despair from an officer of the regiment who dashed into the hut through the flamed exclaiming: "Holy J____s, my money box!" which he snatched up with the fondness of a father saving his only child from peril, enabled me to dash out after him, dragging my all -- a change of suit -- in a hysterical fit of laughter at the strange lamentation ......
The next morning we started with joyful countenance under the impression that it was our last day's march through an uninhabited country and ...... both officers and men were heartily rejoiced when they beheld a gentleman of the commissariat with a horse in a sleigh who had been sent from Quebec to receive us and, in addition to the Government rum and rations provided for us, he kindly and considerately brought with him an ample supply of fowls, hams, veal and wines ... which afforded us the best meal we had ever tasted, and gratitude proclaimed our worthy friend ever after, a standing toast among us.
On 15 March 1813, after 24 days on the route from Frederiction, Le Couteur and his regiment arrived at Quebec City, the capital of British North America. Here they received 10 days to rest but were then ordered to march west to Chambly near Montreal, a distance of two hundred miles. Just as they approached this destination, they were sent a further two hundred miles west to Kingston causing one soldier to exclaim: "we are like the children of Israel, we must march forty years before we halt!" Finally, on 12 April 1813, nearly six weeks after leaving Fredericton, the 104th Regiment of Foot "were marching up a gentle ascent" when there was a shout from the leading troops: "The sea, the sea, -- the ships, the ships!" Johnny Le Couteur had reached Kingston, Upper Canada, to gaze at the British naval squadron anchored on Lake Ontario.
But Johnnys adventures were just beginning ......
Watch this website for Episode 2 of "Merry Hearts Make Light Days!" In which our hero attacks Cousin Jonathan on his own soil!
Copyright Donald E. Graves 2000