A Blupete Biography Page

The Army, Part 3 to the Life & Works of
William Cobbett

Next, Cobbett joined the army. It was thought that such an adventure would be preferable to drudging for long days in an ill lit barrister's office. After receiving the King's shilling, Cobbett was sent to Chatham to learn how to become a soldier. At Chatham, Cobbett was spotted as a man who could write with a fair hand; an officer, Colonel (later General) Hugh Debbieg took him on as a secretary. Debbieg became Cobbett's mentor and while encouraging Cobbett in his writing abilities suggested that he had a long way to go. Cobbett, presumably at Debbieg's suggestion, went out and bought a grammar book.6 This grammar book was not to be treated as only a reference work: Cobbett made a study of the book; he was to write it out word by word on more than one occasion and while on lonely sentry duty bawled memorized parts of it out into the night air. Such an approach to the matter, of course, was to improve Cobbett's ability to deal with the English language, and, incidently, was to impress his superiors. Cobbett in short order was promoted to corporal. In March of 1785, he was sent off to join his regiment, the 54th, which was just then stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia.7

George Spater, one of Cobbett's biographers, writes:

"Cobbett learned the full value of his knowledge of grammar after he joined his regiment. He was first made clerk of the regiment, then the whole business of the regiment fell into his hands. At the end of about a year, 'neither adjutant, paymaster, or quarter-master could move an inch without my assistance.' He drew up the returns, reports, and other official papers."8
It was during this time while soldiering in Canada that Cobbett taught himself French; and, further, he "found time for skaiting, fishing, shooting, and all the other sports of the country." It was during this time, too, that Cobbett met his future wife, Anne or Nancy Reid. She was the daughter of a fellow soldier; and when he first met her she was but thirteen years old, he twenty-four. I am sure not too much transpired between the couple, but plainly Cobbett had his eye on her and was sorry to see her family go back to England, he to continue on in lonely duty at Fort Howe.

We saw where, because of his abilities, that "the whole business of the regiment fell into his hands"; this was to turn into a serious problem for our hero; he came to see that the officers of the regiment were dishonest in that a portion of the army provisions were being siphoned off for the benefit of those in control. Most of the soldiers were content to let the matter slide, as, most, it seems, were to one degree or another, to take benefit from this well established system of corruption: Cobbett resolved to blow the whistle. He went about collecting evidence and when he returned to England brought it with him. Cobbett returned to England with his regiment in 1791; Cobbett, himself, was to receive his discharge shortly after his return.

One of the first things that Cobbett was to do on his return to England was to look up Miss Reid. The couple, Nancy and Billy, were married at Woolwich on February 5th, 1792. It was also, at the first of this year, that Cobbett was to set in motion a train of events, the culmination of which was to badly backfire on Cobbett and haunt him for a number of years thereafter. Turning over his evidence to the authorities, he prepared a petition addressed to the Secretary of War accusing four officers of his old regiment of various acts of misconduct. A court-martial was summoned and a hearing was to take place in March of that year; however, no one showed up to prosecute the case and the charges were dismissed and the defendants acquitted. Just before the court convened, Cobbett and his new wife fled to France ("the six happiest months of my life"). It seems, that in getting the case ready, Cobbett formed the opinion that the evidence had been tampered with; further, it would appear that some of Cobbett's friends were going to be implicated. He advised the officers who were to prosecute the case that he would not give evidence unless certain guarantees could be given to keep his friends clear of all the trouble: no such guarantees were given: and thus the reason that Cobbett fled the country.



Found this material Helpful?

2011 (2019)
Peter Landry