Experience: I Served in the British Army of 1812

My introduction to the geopolitics of British Romanticism came about in a highly unusual way. In the summer of 2007, I had a job as a historical reenactor: six days a week, I became a foot soldier and musician in a Drum Corps of the British Army during the War of 1812. My one-time service for the honour of the Prince Regent took place at Fort York, a National Historic Site located in downtown Toronto, Canada, and in this post I will share my lived observations of what the daily experiences of colonial military service would have been like for a British soldier at the height of the Romantic period.

The American attack on York in 1813 (from Fort York website)
The American attack on York in 1813 (Fort York website)

First, a little history of the British Army at Fort York, Upper Canada. Now surrounded by condominiums, a brewery, an airport, and former abattoirs, Fort York is one of Toronto’s oldest landmarks, with a complex history. Built in 1793 in anticipation of an American invasion, the Fort housed the British regiments outposted to Upper Canada, including grenadier corps like the 8th Regiment of Foot, the Canadian Fencible Infantry, and the Royal Artillery detachment. As Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe had anticipated, Fort York would indeed see action, and it was a key site of conflict on the Canadian side of the border during the War of 1812. In April 1813, the City of York (now Toronto) was overcome by an American force of 2700 men who crossed Lake Ontario in a fleet of fourteen ships, armed with 85 cannon. (By contrast, the defending force consisted of only 750 Britons, Canadians, and First Nations peoples, with a meagre 12 cannon.) Notable events during the battle included the British commander’s order to blow up the gunpowder magazine, and the death of the American commander, Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike. Though the American force occupied Fort York for six days, and burned the surrounding town, by 1814, the British forces had strengthened Fort York sufficiently to repel another water invasion from Lake Ontario, and the war ended with York still under British control (Canada, of course, would not become a separate nation from Britain until 1867). Today, Fort York operates as a historic site that portrays the regimental activities of British forces in the early nineteenth century, preserving details from the reenactors’ uniforms, to musket drills, to sumptuous (if somewhat bland) Georgian mess dinners for both officers and the distinguished citizens of Toronto — all in full Romantic-era dress.

The Art of Playing the Fife
The Art of Playing the Fife (Fort York website)

I fell into the job almost by chance, and began my service at Fort York as a musician. Fresh from my first year at University, I was a pretty good flautist and piccolo player, so the job of fifer in the Drum Corps seemed a natural fit. When it came to mastering the shrill instrument itself, I was a quick study; the far greater challenge was memorizing up to 40 short pieces to be played on command. All of our music (ranging from duty calls to marches) was historically accurate, and our repertoire included the usual suspects (like “God Save the King” and “The British Grenadiers”), but also some rarer melodies from eighteenth-century collections of folk tunes. Later, I learned that many of our fife and drum pieces predated the Romantic period, with several of them, like Lillibulero, appearing in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), or even dating to the English Civil War. On the battlefield, the role of the Drum Corps was to deliver orders to the different squadrons through musical calls, and, as I was to learn during reenacted battles, military convention forbade shooting at the musicians, who were armed only with swords. In preparation for battle exercises, we practiced several calls to summon the troops. Our particular affiliated troop was the Fort York Squad, a regiment that drilled with muskets and bayonets and performed on parade.

Drum Corps on parade (Wikimedia Commons)
Fort York Drum Corps on parade (Wikimedia Commons)

But the musical training was only a small part of the Drum Corps’ duties. What I wasn’t anticipating were the rest of the Corps’ military responsibilities. Each day, we would arrive at the Fort to spend up to an hour in the blockhouse cleaning the brass buttons and insignia on our uniforms and shakos (top hats), and polishing our boots to a perfect shine; each day, we had to show them to a commanding officer for approval before venturing outdoors. Our uniforms consisted of white linen trousers that buttoned at the front, a simple linen shirt, a wool jacket with the design of the Regiment of Fencibles (yellow for the Drum Corps; red for the Squad), black leather boots, and a black shako with a brass plate and an enormous felted plume (it looked rather like a pipe cleaner). In the middle of summer, the heat of the uniform was almost unbearable, and we would march hastily after drills into the blockhouse to strip off our wool jackets. We were also allowed to walk outdoors, while not on parade, in just our under-layers and boots, but were required to wear a small felt hat at all times. (The historical effet de réel of our garments was heightened by the rumour that one of Fort York’s directors had been a consultant on the uniforms for the British Navy in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.)

Fort York Squad (from Fort York website)
Fort York Squad drilling (Fort York website)

At the Fort, our daily routines included numerous drills, raising and lowering the flag (a historically accurate version of the Union Jack, which was missing a few key white bars), musical demonstrations, and — most excitingly — artillery. Directed by our Drum Major, the Corps practiced for battle by marching in two rows, while playing in time — an activity that required hours of drilling on the parade grounds of Fort York. (Thanks to the extensive drills, I will never forget how to do a “right-about… FACE!”) We were also instructed in the minutiae of dressage within the rank and file, which we practiced faithfully before performing our drills before the visiting public. In addition, we were well-versed in military decorum, never failing to salute our Lieutenant, Corporal, Sergeant, and Drum Major while passing them on the parade ground. Meanwhile, the Squad practiced their musketry, bayonet-charges, battle-cries, and marching. There was one particularly terrifying Squad member who would lead the troops in screaming “Kill — Kill — KILL!” during bayonet exercises (the Corps would often quietly retreat to the barracks during those sessions). Intriguingly, the drills revealed that the musket, the Romantic-era individual weapon of choice, was surprisingly inefficient: since the musket often took a minute or more to reload after a single shot, the Squad could not afford to waste a second, and our Squad’s hard work in mastering their drills that summer was rewarded with a first place in the Drill Competition at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Fort George.

The only surviving photo from my time at the Fort. Here I am manning the gun (with sponge in hand) during an unusual girls'-only artillery demonstration (complete with Regency dresses).
The only surviving photo of me from my time at the Fort. Here I am on the cannon (with sponge in hand) during an unusual women-only artillery demonstration.

My favourite daily practice was the artillery demonstration. Instead of our usual yellow regimentals, we wore the blue coats of the Royal Artillery Detachment for this exercise, and manned a six-pound field gun in three- to six-person teams. Each person took a specific position on the gun, which included commanding the drill, sponging out the barrel, loading the powder charge, carrying and igniting the wick, and hooking out the debris after the cannon had fired. Thanks to my enthusiasm for the latter responsibility, I won (for the first — and hopefully the last — time), the ‘Happy Hooker’ award at the end of the summer. Since we were firing directly at a major expressway, we didn’t use ammunition, but the demonstration was still impressive enough with gunpowder alone.

As members of a broader ceremonial British Army still apparently extant throughout Canada, we also took part in occasional mock-battles at other forts around the region, including a water invasion at Fort Niagara in New York State, and several battles and marches at Fort George just across the Ontario border. The Fort Niagara battles were particularly fierce, since we — the British cohorts — had been instructed to lose command of the Fort to a huge invading American force of reenactors. During the battle, since the reenacting squads were permitted to use their weaponry, there were sounds of shots and wreaths of smoke surrounding our Drum Corps as we played the duty calls to our troops, and, in a moment of horror for all concerned, one of our soldiers actually fell to the ground bleeding (it turned out he had had a voluminous nosebleed due to the stress of the experience). As night fell, we resumed our open-air sleeping quarters inside Fort Niagara’s walls, while the American reenactors pitched white tents outside the Fort, and their families and children, in full period dress, prepared historic cuisine on small campfires.

Though we came together in solidarity for mock battles, there was also tremendous rivalry between local British Army forts: our great competitor, Fort Henry (in Kingston, Ontario) even took out a huge billboard mockingly advertising its reenactment programs over the expressway above Fort York, and, when I dined at Fort Henry with family that Thanksgiving, I felt almost treasonous to my own Fort’s good name. This historically accurate rivalry, intriguingly, became a key motif in Canadian literature. As I learned later in my English classes, Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye have written extensively about how the “Garrison Mentality” of early British colonial forts, like Fort York and Fort Henry, contributed to a kind of willful isolationism in the settings of the literature of the next two hundred years. As a microcosm of a distant civilization in the face of an encroaching wilderness, the garrison demanded total obeisance to internal hierarchies, and an attitude of competition towards other such outposts; what is striking, to me, is how this garrison mentality from the Romantic era persists in quite literal fashion among the post-colonial historic sites today.

What did I learn by serving in the Regency military?  The life of the colonially-posted British soldier was exceptionally formalist, with a great deal of emphasis on appearance, protocol, drill, and duty, and often with very little active service. But when service suddenly became real in battle, our well-practiced forms were all we could fall back on. I was also surprised at the central role of art in providing formal structure to the British soldier’s life: the fife and drum calls governed the structure of the day, the soldier’s physical movements, and even his (or her!) survival. Finally, and perhaps in contrast to other immersive experiences that are available in the modern era (e.g. Dickens Universe; the Jane Austen Society of North America’s conferences), becoming a Regency soldier for several months meant entering in a more serious way into the daily pace of Regency military life. The most memorable thing, to me, was the shift in pace between bucolic in-Fort domesticity and the sudden, shocking nature of battle, which Austen captures so well (with reference to the Navy) at the end of Persuasion: we, like the Wentworths, had suddenly to “pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.”

All photos come from the Friends of Fort York website —  www.fortyork.ca — unless otherwise noted.