On January 30, 1812, Private Wheeler, serving in the British army in the Peninsular War, writes to his family. Excerpts from the letter follow:
On the 2nd inst. the 7th. Division marched to the mountains of Sierra de Gatta, in the neighbourhood of Ciudad Rodrigo. We were quartered in the village of Pio, this place contains a few miserable dwellings. We were stationed here to prevent the enemy from rendering assistance to the garrison while the siege was going on. Our duty was very severe, it consisting in furnishing piquets in the passes of the mountains, the nearest to Pio being about two leagues.
The country all around was covered with snow. To shelter ourselves from the keen frosty air that continued during our sty in this part, we dug a large hole in the snow; in the centre, we kept a good fire, around which sat the men on duty; our fuel consisted of furze and fern. Of this we had abundance from places where the snow had drifted, but in collecting it we wanted snow pattern, for often we would sink over our heads, into some hole or burrow, when we expected we had firm footing...
... We could hear the roaring of the guns at Rodrigo, and we heartily wished the place reduced; the nigh of the 19th the assault was made and the place carried by storm. This was welcome news to us. A few days after we returned to Penamacor. Here we found our new clothing and a supply of necessaries had arrived; these being issued were were made comparatively comfortable.
To fill up the remainder of this letter for want of something better I shall give you an account of the manner I have slept this winter. In one corner of the room I have, collected a quantity of dry fern, this forms my bed, it being necessary to strip to keep free from vermin. Every night the contents of my haversack is transferred to my knapsack. This forms my pillow, at the same time secures my kit and provisions from midnight marauders.
The haversack is then converted into a nightcap. Being stripped, my legs are thrust into the sleeves of an old watch coat, carefully tied at the cuffs to keep out the cold. The other part of the coat wrapped around my body served for under blanket and sheet. Next my trousers are drawn on my legs over the sleeves of the coat, my red jacket has the distinguished place of covering my seat of honour and lastly my blanket covers all. In this manner I have slept as comfortable as a prince. No idle dreams disturb my rest.
I am in possession of that inestimable treasure, health and a lively flow of spirits. Nothing gives me trouble. I am as well off as my comrades and I am convinced we all are provided for a well the nature of the service will allow.
Since our return to Penamacor we have been employed in assisting the battering train from Saba Gal to Castala Branco. I understand the train is on the road to Elvas. If so Badajoz is the next place to be reduced. We expect to march soon. Probably my next will be from that place. It is time we moved from this place for we have nearly glutted the houses, of all wood we could rip for fuel. I am getting tired of this dreary abode. The sooner the campaign opens the better. It is true we shall have to encounter great dangers and fatigues. What of that, it is the very life and soul of a soldier to keep moving. If we do suffer privations, at times, we have some sunshiny days, and dame fortune often leads us out of difficulty and puts us into possession of all the luxuries of life.
Source: Private Wheeler, Private Wheeler: The Letters of a Soldier of the 51st Light Infantry during the Peninsular War & at Waterloo (Leonaur, 2009), 62-64