A DRUMMER FOR NAPOLEON
FRANCE – 1791 to 1808
Jean Pierre Meunier was probably born in Epinal in the French province of Lorraine, in 1791. His ticket of leave gives his birthplace as Lorient, a city on the west coast of France,(1) but earlier army records – written in French – make it clear that this was an error or a deliberate subterfuge.(2) It was the third year of the French revolution, and the country was in turmoil. The following year the Tuileries Palace was stormed, King Louis XVI and his family were arrested, and the guillotine began to rise and fall.
Nothing is known of Jean Pierre’s early life,(3) but the record shows that at 17 or 18 – and possibly earlier – he was a soldier. Universal conscription was a feature of Napoleonic France, with every single man between 20 and 25 liable to be called up to serve in the military for five years. In December 1806 the minimum age was reduced to 19 but, if his year of birth is correct, Jean Pierre would have turned 17 in 1808, the year when he most likely became a soldier, so he might have been a volunteer. While a record of his French military service has not been found, the following hypothesis is consistent with the known facts.
SPAIN – 1808 to 1809
The Peninsular War began in 1807 when Napoleon’s France and Bourbon Spain, then allies, invaded and occupied Portugal. Spain joined the campaign, “secretly induced to aid the forthcoming invasion with both facilities and troops”.(4) The French offensive was led by the First Corps d’Observation de la Gironde, with 25,000 men under the command of General Junot. The corps, raised in August 1807, marched south from France and by late November had taken Lisbon. Meanwhile, a Second Corps d’Observation de la Gironde had been ordered by Napoleon in mid-October,(5) and subsequent events point to Jean Pierre Meunier being a drummer in this corps. These two corps formed in the French Basque city of Bayonne, close to the Spanish border, with the second led by General Pierre Dupont de l’Etang.(6)
Napoleon had a broader objective than the conquest of Portugal, setting out to bring the entire Iberian Peninsula – Portugal and Spain – into the Continental System, and subservient to France. In 1808 General Dupont entered Spain with his army, and in August that year Napoleon installed his elder brother Joseph as King of Spain. Dupont’s force marched to Toledo as part of what was, by now, effectively an army of occupation. Napoleon’s actions led to open hostility and widespread guerrilla attacks by the Spanish, and Dupont was dispatched:
… south from Toledo, to occupy and secure the strategic port of Cadiz against attack by the [British] Royal Navy. The force was led by General Pierre Dupont de l’Etang, a forty-three-year-old hero of Napoleon’s victories at Ulm, Halle, and Friedland, who was in his first independent command. He expected an easy and unopposed march to Cadiz. Apart from 500 elite seamen of the Imperial Guard, 1,200 members of the Paris Guard, and 3,300 Swiss mercenaries, Dupont’s army [of 13,000] was a motley crowd of young and untested conscripts (both French and foreign), led by any officers who could be found in the depots. (7)
After various manoeuvres during which he was pursued by the newly-constituted Andalusian army, three of his five divisions were trapped at Bailén, 100km north-east of Cordoba. Two Swiss regiments defected to the Spanish side and, in the sweltering July heat, Dupont was defeated. The Spanish forces had liberated Bailén, giving them the advantage of access to water, whereas the French troops had no water supply. By the terms of his surrender, 17,000 French soldiers under Dupont’s command became prisoners of war, joined by some 5,000 more French troops who capitulated to the Andalusian army. The battle of Bailén was the first major defeat of a French army during the Napoleonic wars, and was widely seen throughout Europe as evidence that the French were not invincible. It is still celebrated annually as the beginning of the liberation of Spain, though the country did not finally throw off the French occupation until after the battle of Waterloo.
Without knowing which of Dupont’s divisions had recruited Jean Pierre, we cannot tell if he was personally involved at Bailén, but it is highly likely that he was one of the French prisoners who, by their sheer numbers, created problems for their captors. They were first quartered in scattered towns and villages through western Andalusia, but when Napoleon’s fresh army retook Madrid in December they were taken to Cadiz, where
… they joined several thousand French sailors who had been trapped in the harbor when the Spanish rose. The prisoners were crowded aboard dismasted warships - the dreaded hulks or pontons. There fetid air and worse food brought on diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever and scurvy. The Spanish referred to the Vieille Castille, a hulk reserved for French officers, as "the ship of the dead." The prisoners died at a rate of fifteen to twenty a day. Bodies were at first unceremoniously dumped in the harbor creating potential health problems for the citizens of Cadiz. (8)
The hulks were the remains of Napoleon’s fleet, vanquished in the Battle of Trafalgar in the waters offshore from Cadiz, in 1805. Here, we leave Jean Pierre in his misery while we background the agent of his deliverance, in April the following year. He was one of the fortunate ones: it has been estimated that of almost 12,000 men imprisoned at Cadiz and afterwards taken to remote islands in the Balearic archipelago, as many as 10,000 perished. (9)
MALTA – 1809 to 1813
The de Meuron regiment was another Swiss mercenary force, raised in Switzerland in 1781 by its commander and owner, Charles-Daniel de Meuron, who sold its service to the Dutch East Indies Company in Dutch Ceylon. (10) When France invaded the Netherlands in 1795, and William of Orange ordered forces in the surviving Dutch colonies to surrender to the English (thus joining them against France), the Swiss de Meuron regiment agreed to form an alliance and, as a result, Ceylon fell to England. The regiment subsequently served with the British army in India, mainly in Madras and Mysore, until in October 1806 it embarked for England, arriving in July the following year. Then followed service in Gibraltar, and in Italy in 1808, and by June of that year the regiment is recorded as being stationed in Malta. (11)
The De Meuron regimental flag. Its independence from British Army tradition is evident in the use of a Swiss Sun Burst, in the de Meuron family livery of green black and yellow.
It had arrived in Malta much depleted, with its payroll listing 12 fifers and drummers and 235 privates, plus officers and NCOs. A small detachment had been left in Gibraltar, however, specifically to recruit men into de Meuron’s service, and their activities increased markedly when the French prisoners from Bailén arrived in Cadiz. One of those recruits was Jean Pierre, who first appears on the muster as “Meunier Pierre J”, recruited on the 22nd April and paid his four guineas signing-on bounty. The same pay list notes that a sergeant, a corporal and a private who were recruited during this period were “left at Gibraltar on recruiting”. (12) In the full pay list for the quarter 25 March to 24 June 1809, John Pierre Meunier is listed as a private in the 10th company of the regiment, being paid from 1 May to 24 June. His entry notes that he is a drummer, from which the foregoing hypothesis was developed, since being a drummer points to previous military service.
Jean Pierre (No. 2008) joins de Meuron’s regiment. This source notes he was born in Epinal, Lorraine.
From 25 June 1809 to 24 September 1809, and from that point onwards, Jean Pierre was listed as one of the regiment’s drummers and fifers, having been transferred from the 10th company. He was paid £2/19/5 for the three months. He missed the second of the monthly musters because he was in the regimental hospital. By now the regiment was up to a full complement of 22 drummers and fifers.
He is certainly the Jean Pierre Meunier in whom we are interested – the subsequent documentation has no gaps – and so we have a Frenchman who has had previous military service, recruited at a time that de Meuron was actively rebuilding his regiment from Gibraltar. It seems that Jean Pierre’s timing was also fortunate. Later in 1809, when the regiment’s agreement with the British army was renewed for a further seven years, one condition was that no Italians, Englishmen or Frenchmen should henceforth be recruited.
Jean Pierre was recorded as being a drummer and fifer with the de Meuron regiment of the British Army from at least 25 March 1811, to 8 October 1813. (13) A drummer and fifer was a non-combatant soldier who functioned as both a camp clock and a field signalman. The first recorded use of fifes and drums, according to Beck, was by the Swiss army in 1386 at the battle of Sempach. (14) They had found that the high pitch of the fife and the low pitch of a thudding drum could be heard over considerable distances, even during the heat of battle.
On the battlefield, musicians had the responsibility of helping keep order in battle and make sure the soldiers functioned well as a unit. Drummers would play beatings telling the soldiers to turn right or left as well as to load and fire their muskets. There was a tune called Cease Fire that fifers and drummers would play to tell the soldiers to stop firing at the end of a battle while a tune called Parley was used to signal to the enemy that a surrender or peace talk was desired. In the camp, fifers and drummers were used to help regulate the working day. Every task that needed to be carried out would be signalled by a fife and a drum. Tunes were used to tell the soldiers to wake up, eat meals, and perform camp chores. Music was provided for ceremonies that were used to start and end the working day. Whenever a command needed to be spread throughout the army, whether it be in the camp or on a battlefield, a fifer and drummer would play the tune, and other fifers and drummers would start playing the same tune, until the whole army knew what they needed to do. (15)
The regiment’s time as a garrison on Malta seems to have gone smoothly, and they were nicely complimented by the garrison command when they left under a transfer order to British Canada.
Garrison Order Malta
4th May, 1813
Lieutenant-General Oakes cannot suffer the Regiment De Meuron to quit this Garrison, where they have so long been stationed under his command, without assuring them of the satisfaction which their good conduct, and attention to military discipline, have constantly afforded him; and which have been equally conspicuous in every rank. They will embark from hence, as fine and well-appointed a regiment, as any in His Majesty’s service.
The Lieutenant-General has no doubt but by their conduct and gallantry, on the desirable services on which they are about to be employed, they will confirm the high opinion he has formed of them, and will equally merit the praise and approbation of the General under whose orders they will soon be placed, to whom he shall not fail justly to set forward their merits.
He begs leave to assure this regiment of his warmest wishes for their glory and success, and of the sincere interest he shall ever take in their welfare. (16)
Next: Jean Pierre court-martialled in Canada
©Brian Wills-Johnson, 2020
(1) State Archives NSW; Series: NRS 12202; Item: [4/4080], tickets of leave 1810-1869.
(2) WO25/677 De Meuron regiment, p. 175.
(3) Extensive searches of the French registers for Meunier and its variants, and Mousnier and its variants, have failed to find a record of his birth.
(4) David Chandler, Napoleon, Pen and Sword Books (reprint), 2002.
(6) Avner Falk, Napoleon Against Himself: A Psychobiography’ Pitchstone Publishing, 2007.
(7) Denis Smith, The Prisoners of Cabrera: Napoleon’s Forgotten Soldiers, 1809 to 1814, Four Wall Eight Windows, 2001, p. 8. https://archive.org/stream/prisonersofcabre00smit#page/36/mode/2up
(8) Denis Smith, The Prisoners of Cabrera: Napoleon’s Forgotten Soldiers, 1809 to 1814, Four Wall Eight Windows, 2001 – this quote from a review of Smith’s book published by www.napoleon-series.org
(10) There is still a Swiss mercenary corps on active duty – the Papal Guard.
(11) PRO W.O.12/11963, muster books and pay lists, Regiment De Meuron, 1809.
(12) PRO W.O.12/11963, muster books and pay lists, Regiment De Meuron, 1809.
(13) British Army and Canadian Militia Muster Rolls and Pay Lists, 1795-1850, at www.ancestry.com.
(14) John H. Beck (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Percussion, Routledge, 2007, p. 147.
(15) The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, at https://www.fifeanddrum.army.mil/kids_fife_drum.html
(16) John Halkett, Statement Resecting the Earl of Selkirk’s Settlement Upon the Red River, in North America, London, John Murray, 1817, pp. 175-176.