Prisoners from Napoleon: All Men Are Brethren book preview

ONE Sunday in 1812, a 12-year-old boy stood at the edge of St Mungo's parish churchyard in Penicuik, Midlothian.

Amid the doldrums of a 19th-century Scottish Sabbath, he gazed, astonished, at the pallisaded yards and buildings in the dell below him. Two ranks of men danced to the music of a fiddler perched on a barrel, others were fencing with sticks, pots were bubbling over open fires, and a nearby ramshackle booth bore the sign "Caf de Paris", with a Tricolour flag fluttering defiantly above it.

William Chambers, who would grow up to establish with his brother Robert the eponymous publishing empire and become twice Lord Provost of Edinburgh, was looking at Valleyfield Depot, a prisoner-of-war camp holding French and other soldiers and sailors captured in the Napoleonic Wars raging at the time – and the place was going like a fair. "The shops in the village were shut," he would write 60-odd years later. "From the church was heard the voice of the preacher. Looking down on this hive of living beings, there was not among them a vestige of the ordinary calm of Sunday – only Dimanche!

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"The drollest thing about the scene was that the multitudinous diversions should have been going on at full blast in the hollows of a pretty Scottish dell on Sunday forenoon, within the sound of psalm-singing in the parish kirk."

Two centuries on, with Scotland's History on BBC TV, a largely neglected chapter in that history is revealed in a new book by social historian Ian MacDougall. All Men Are Brethren is the first survey of the thousands of prisoners – French, Dutch, Italian, Scandinavian and others – held in Scotland as guests of His Britannic Majesty during the Napoleonic Wars.

The results of 20 years of research, the 900-page volume provides compendious details of the rank-and-file prisoners, the conditions in which they were kept, what they were fed, their illnesses and, not infrequently, escapes.

MacDougall, 74, regards the subject as "one of many aspects of Scotland's history which haven't been explored as thoroughly as they could have been. There have been some other works on this, but they tended to concentrate on some of the parole prisoners – commissioned officers, mainly, who were given parole and civilian digs in the 'parole towns' such as Peebles, Kelso and Dumfries."

A total of 122,000 French and allied prisoners of war were held in Britain between 1803 and 1814, of whom MacDougall reckons an aggregate of between 12,000 and 13,000 were held in Scotland. Of the depots established to hold them by the Transport Board and office responsible for prisoners of war, three were at Penicuik – first at Greenlaw, now the site of Glencorse Barracks, then at the converted Valleyfield and Esk mills, and at Perth, where the purpose-built depot would become Perth Prison.

Despite its "French prison", there were few prisoners interred in Edinburgh Castle during the Napoleonic Wars, compared with previous conflicts such as the French Revolutionary Wars. "Prisoners were maybe kept there overnight, while being marched to Greenlaw from Leith, until the Castle became a normal POW war depot early in 1811."

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It was in 1811, MacDougall explains, that the greatest mass of prisoners started arriving in Scotland, partly because of greater numbers being captured in the West Indies and the Iberian Peninsular, but also because there were fears that prisoners in the "floating hulks" and other depots in the south of England were plotting to break out en masse and seize the naval arsenal at Portsmouth while Napoleon attempted a last-ditch invasion. Large numbers, therefore, were transferred north of the Border.

While many of the prisoners in Scotland were sailors captured at sea, most were captured during land battles, such as Salamanca, Molino, Vigo and the disastrous Walcheren campaign. Surprisingly, only one out of the thousands of prisoners interred in Scotland has been identified as having been captured at Waterloo, during Napoleon's last-ditch "Hundred Days" in 1815 – one Marcher, a prisoner at Valleyfield, who lost an arm during that decisive battle.

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Edinburgh Castle did see some of the most daring escapes, particularly on the night of 11-12 April, 1811, when 49 or 50 French prisoners broke out of the fortress and descended to the foot of the castle rock using a clothes rope. One of them fell and died of a broken spine, four were captured almost immediately, others were rounded up further afield. The last four made it as far as Tynemouth, east of Newcastle, where they were caught boarding an American vessel, doubtless savouring a salty yet short-lived tang of freedom.

It is also intriguing to read accounts of two prisoners being shot dead at Greenlaw, one a young Dunkirk seaman, Charles Cotier, and the other a Danish seaman, Simon Simonsen. In the first, Ensign Hugh Maxwell, the officer who commanded a sentry to fire into a room after the prisoners had failed to extinguish their lights, was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment in Edinburgh's Canongate Tolbooth. In the second, Private James Inglis shot Simonsen through a window after guards had been pelted with stones and scraps. He was also charged with culpable homicide, and was condemned to 14 years' transportation.

Considerations of class, one speculates, but the prompt action taken by the authorities was informed by anxieties about enemy retaliation on British prisoners. "The Geneva Convention didn't exist at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but there were practices that developed, particularly between Britain and France, during the 18th century, which ensured some level of humanity," explains MacDougall.

While ploughing through the Admiralty and Transport Board archives at Kew, MacDougall was surprised to discover the names of seven women, one accompanied by two infant girls, listed among the prisoners taken into the newly opened depot at Perth. And at Valleyfield, in the traditional of many a folk song, one uniformed "hussar" proved to be a doughty Spanish woman, the wife of a French artilleryman who had accompanied her man through thick and thin, and even to Penicuik. And at Perth, as the Perth Courier reported in July 1813, an under-clerk was "suspended from his office for attempting to introduce a profligate woman (disguised in sailor's clothes] into one of the prisons".

Almost all human life was there, including skilled craftwork – combs, model ships, dominoes, snuff boxes – sold to visiting locals, and a flourishing banknote forgery business. Today, though, there is little to remind us of this episode, apart from a well-weathered tombstone in Glencorse parish kirkyard bearing the poignant if barely legible legend: "Ici repose Charles Cotier de Dunkerque, mort le 8 janvier 1807." And in Penicuik itself, near the Valleyfield site, a memorial stands, erected in 1830 and bearing an inscription by the poet Alphonse de Lamartine, and the enjoinder, "remember that all Men are Brethren".

Not everyone might have felt so fraternal. James Chambers – father of the William who left us such a vivid account of those extraordinary Sabbath scenes – was forced out of his drapery business in Peebles after French parole prisoners who had bought cloth from him failed to repay their debts. Instead of pursuing the university educations they might otherwise have received, William and Robert went into the book trade to earn livings. One might argue that, if it hadn't been for those improvident French prisoners of war, we might never have had Chambers Dictionary.

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&149 All Men Are Brethren is published by John Donald, 25.


1799 Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power in France.

1802 Peace of Amiens signed by British and French governments.

1803 Hostilities resume in May; Napoleon becomes Emperor.

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1805 Nelson victorious at Trafalgar; in December, Austrians and Russians defeated at Austerlitz.

1806 Napoleon blockades Britain.

1807 Outbreak of Peninsular War.

1809 Death of Sir John Moore at the retreat of Corunna in January; Arthur Wellesley returns to command defence of Portugal and is made Viscount Wellington of Talavera. Walcheren expedition fails disastrously.

1812 Napoleon invades Russia in May, culminating in the disastrous French retreat from Moscow.

1813 Napoleon defeated at Battle of Leipzig in October.

1814 Napoleon abdicates in April and is sent to Elba.

1815 Napoleon returns to France, musters his army in Belgium before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.