The Drummer Boy

by R. J. Richards

Copyright© 2012 by R. J. Richards

Historical Story: This story is based on an old English folk song. It takes place during the Napoleonic wars, and although the characters are fictitious, the dates, places, and flavor of the story ate accurate. It is the story of how a misfit youth who tried to fit into the harsh world around him.

Caution: This Historical Story contains strong sexual content, including Historical   Military   .

"Hey, what 'bout me?" yelled Tracy, feeling left out as the boys began their play.

"Aw go 'ome, yelled back William, who was both the biggest and eldest at the age of fifteen.

"Yeah, go 'ome," put in Richard, who was Tracy's step brother. "Why don't ya just go 'ome an' 'elp Mum in the kitchen?"

Tracy could do nothing but watch dejectedly as the older boys played as soldiers.

"I could show them I'm just as good as they at sword play, and once, before Uncle John went off to war with his regiment, he let me fire his musket," thought Tracy, as the youth sat on the stone wall surrounding the pasture while fuming. "I bet I'm the only one here who's ever done that!"

It was Late September of 1811. Most of Europe was at war and William hoped the war would last long enough for him to serve in it, and so did Richard but he was a year and a half younger than William.

"The war would practically 'ave to go on forever for you to serve in it," teased the older boy on more than one occasion.

Tracy didn't even dare to voice an opinion. There was no need to put up with the laughter and humiliation that such an opinion would elicit.

Still, the weather was dry for the north west of England where the town of Warrington was located. As usual, whenever the weather was good one could see the younger boys out practicing their soldierly skills against their imaginary French enemy most evenings between the time their chores were finished and when their Mums called them back home for supper.

The war on the Spanish peninsula was going well and it seemed that almost every week, the Lord Wellesly had achieved yet another victory. The navy too was wrecking havoc on the French shipping, but all of the boys were glad they were too young to be dragged off by the press gangs.

Whenever the navy's officers and men roamed the streets, it was time to close one's shutters and door, and woe to the poor souls caught in the pubs. More than once, the boys could hear the cries and shouts of men being taken away to serve on board Her Majesty's ships.

It was one thing to serve in the army where one's feet were solidly planted on the ground fighting the French. It was quite another to be on a ship away from land for months at a time. The iron discipline and its floggings were well known to all.

The army was always looking for recruits also, but at least with them there was more of a chance for adventure and the pillaging rights when a city or town is taken not to mention the glory and chance of becoming a hero. It was these things that the boys of Warrington dreamed of while they played.

All that changed one day when a few soldiers came back from the campaigns in Portugal and Spain. One was missing a leg, another an arm, while the third had lost his hand, most of his teeth and an eye as well!

"Tell me, do ya know what it's like to kill anotha' man?" asked the one eyed veteran, when he spied William with his wooden sword.

"No sir."

"Well I'll tell ya laddie. The way tha' 'e stairs at ya when 'e knows 'e's abou' ta die stays wit' ya an' eats at yer guts until ya can't sleep at night. An' just when ya can't stands it no more, it's yer turn if yer lucky an' if yer not, then ya goes 'ome half da man ya was when ya left!"

William stared wide eyed as the soldier held up the stump at the end of his arm.

The soldier let out a raspy laugh as the fifteen year old dropped his toy sword and ran with Richard on his heels.

"Ya better run laddies," yelled the soldier with the missing leg, after them. "'an hope ya can spend all yer days 'ere an' never have ta leave England."

That was the end of the boys' dream of finding adventure in the army, but not for Tracy. Unlike the two older boys, the youngster stood fast, and stared back at the one eyed soldier.

"What about you? Ain't ya gonna run too laddie?" asked the one legged soldier.

"No sir."

"Well don't I frighten ya boy?" asked the soldier with one eye.

Tracy swallowed hard, but didn't step back.

"Well don't I?"

"No sir."

"Well what then?" asked the man, who was missing an arm.

"I think it to be an honor to fight for England."

"For God an' Queen eh?"

Suddenly the soldier stood up crying out, "Jus' look what God an' Queen 'as gotten me boy!"

"Aw leave 'im be now George," said the man with one leg. "It ain't 'is fault 'e's like that."

"Like what?" growled the man with one eye.

"Young an' stupid. Leave 'im be. 'E'll learn soon 'nough on 'is own."

That night, Tracy laid on the hard dirt floor of his family's tiny cottage, and thought about all that was said. The sight of the three soldiers was frightening enough, but not enough to stop the desire to become one. It was certainly enough for William though, and also for Richard but not for Tracy.

"Did ya wash the pots?"

"Yes Mum."

"An' feed da animals?"

"Yes Mum."

"You mean ya dit all yer chores already?"

"Yes Mum."

It was the same everyday. Tracy did nearly all the work around the house which was quite a heavy load for one not quite thirteen years old. Richard had some chores too since he was the eldest, and their father had passed on. Sarah was a widow with two children now. Tracy's father had married her, and with his kind heart he'd taken on her son Richard as if the boy was his own, but his own child, Tracy, whose mother had died at birth never got along with Sarah. She always made the youth feel as an outsider, and when her second husband died, she made his child's life miserable until Tracy couldn't take it anymore, and sought some way to escape.

It wasn't so much the beatings, or even the constant barrage of insults as it was the loneliness and the irritation felt when none of the boys bothered to include Tracy in their play except only on very rare occasions.

One evening it all came to a head, and not seeing any other way to improve life, Tracy realized a change had to made before winding up in Magdalin, the insane asylum in Kent.

There was only an hour before the evening chores had to be started, and it was during that cold, December evening when the rat-a-tat-tat of a drum was heard floating through the air in the distance.

"That's the answer," said Tracy, softly thinking out loud.

Unfortunately, the drumming stopped before its source could be discovered, and it took three days of careful listening and plotting before Tracy could, out of sheer desperation, steal the drum that had broken the quiet air that December evening.

A hiding place had already been planned as well as a place in the woods to practice it where no one would hear, and that is exactly what Tracy did at every opportunity. By listening carefully whenever any drumming was to be heard, Tracy had learned an assortment of well sounding steady beats, and was quite proficient by the beginning of March.

It was later that month when the 1st battalion of the 38th foot regiment came marching through Warrington on their way to Liverpool. They had been ordered to rejoin the Army of Portugal and Spain under the now, Duke of Wellington, and that was Tracy's long awaited chance. The youth left early in the morning, forgetting about all the chores and other duties that had been laid out the previous night.

The regiment was to march through the streets at 10 o'clock in the morning, and Tracy's plan was to simply fall in with them while playing the little drum the best that it could possibly be played.

Captain Fenton had served during the campaign in Portugal, and after being wounded he was returned to England, and was now returning to the Army of Portugal and Spain with the 1st battalion of the 38th foot, and as they marched through Warrington, Tracy fell into Captain Fenton's company beside the other drummer boys sounding the quick time as steadily and as loudly as it could be played on the small drum.

Captain Fenton heard the additional drum instantly, and looking back he saw the drummer boy beating out the rhythm and grinned. The small drum wasn't as loud and was higher pitched than the regulation drums of the regiment, but decided to let him stay for the moment. Not only was the beat perfect, but it was good for the moral of the troops as well as the civilians that lined the streets.

The experience was unlike anything else Tracy had ever been through, and raveled in all the attention. There were a few scowls from a couple of the other drummer boys, but compared to what the youth had been through before that was nothing, and he easily ignored them while continuing to pound out the beat on the little drum.

The test would come when they finally reached the place they were to make camp on their way to Liverpool. Tracy already knew the arguments that would come, and had carefully chosen what words that needed to be said.

"'Eh you there lad. It's time for ya ta be off now," said a burly corporal, motioning with his thumb over his shoulder. "Yer Mum must be getin' pretty worried abou' ya by now."

"I 'ave no Mum ta worry abou' me, nor any other family," answered Tracy, looking down at his feet. Me Granmum I was livin' with took sick an' died three days ago."

"Well ya can't stay 'ere with us. We're goin' off ta war ya know an' yer a bit young for it yet."

"I'm every bit o' fourteen years old now, " lied Tracy, defensively.

"Ya looks ta be a bit puny for a lad o' fourteen."

"Awe come on now Corp. Let the lad stay. 'E's not botherin' anyone. Besides, 'e plays a good drum," said a thin, lanky soldier who was sitting nearby.

"Aye," agreed another. "I'd say 'e plays it a might better than the others we go' 'ere."

"Besides," said a third, "Bein' 'es so small, it's not like 'e'll eat very much."

The others around laughed, and the corporal was about to admonish them when he was interrupted by their sergeant.

"Attention!" cried the big man with the three stripes that marked him as the company's senior noncommissioned officer, as the captain and two of his lieutenants walked over to the group.

"What are you men carrying on about?" asked the officer, with a keen, practiced eye.

"Sir! Why we was just talkin' 'bout the prospects o' our new drummer boy 'ere sir," replied the thin soldier who'd first spoken, while standing rigidly at attention among the others.

"Come here lad, and lets have a look at you."

Tracy knew this was not a time to be timid, and boldly walked up to the captain and taking his cue from the others, he also stood rigidly at attention before this refined officer who held the youth's fate in his hands.

"Why you're a bit small to be going off to war don't you think?"

Unlike before, the other men would not come to his rescue this time. It was one thing to speak up to a corporal who'd been one of them until only a few weeks ago, but quite another to speak out of turn to an officer who could cut a man's rations or have a soldier flogged if he didn't like what was said, and seeing how the others stood as if turned to stone Tracy knew everything depended on what words he was going to say next.

"Please sir, I would like to join the regiment. I'm good with the drum, I'm of legal age, and I ain't afraid of anything."

"Only a fool is not afraid of anything," replied the captain, looking directly into the youth's eyes. "Hold out your hands."

Tracy held out his hands before the officer, and grasping them firmly, Captain Fenton flipped them over to look at both sides of them.

"Your fingers are kind of small, but you have calluses from practicing, and your drumming was good," and dropping his hands, the captain stared into the youth's eye once more as he sized the boy up.

Tracy stared back without flinching, and with as much confidence as he could muster.

The captain did not fail to see the almost defiant look in the youth's eyes and asked, "How long can you hold a beat boy?"

"As long as you need me to sir," came the quick answer.

Turning to the sergeant and lieutenants who were with him, he said, "I like his spunk, and he did hold a good beat during the march here."

"Didn't miss a single stroke sir," put in the sergeant, with his hands behind his back and rising up on his toes.

"Where are your parents?"

"Dead sir."

"Go get him a real drum, and let's hear what he can do."

The sergeant nodded to the corporal who immediately went off to commandeer one of the regimental drums from another boy.

"Here lad. Take this and let's hear what you can do."

Tracy took the drum and slung the wide white leather strap over his shoulder, and quickly adjusted it until the drum was at the right height for him to play.

"Quick time ... march!" ordered the sergeant.

Rat-a-tat-tat came the immediate answer as Tracy beat out the exact rhythm required.

"Double time ... march!" came the next command which was answered by the correct beat from the drum.

"Charge!" ordered the sergeant, suddenly.

Tracy just as suddenly sounded out the correct beat without the slightest hesitation in the rhythm.


Again, Tracy changed the rhythm, sounding the correct beat.

This was followed with assembly, mark time and half time with the same results, but when the sergeant called for retreat, Tracy did hesitate.

"What's the matter with you lad? Don't you know the beat?" asked the captain.

"No sir," came the answer, but as the men began to look doubtfully at one another, Tracy interrupted their thoughts saying, "If you please sir, if I could but hear it once, I'll play it."

Captain Fenton gave him a sidelong glance, and Tracy could see the disbelief in the man's eyes.

"Please sir. Just once."

The captain nodded his head, and the corporal went to get one of the other drummer boys who gave Tracy a disdainful look when he was told what he was to do.

"Sound retreat!" ordered the sergeant, and the drummer boy immediately pounded out the beat, but was cut off by the sergeant only after a few moments.

"Well? Can you do it?" asked the captain.

"Half a minute if you please sir."

The lieutenants exchanged grins, and the sergeant gave a displeased grunt but Captain Fenton stood still as stone as he stared expectantly at the youth.

Tracy played the beat over again in his mind, and after closing his eyes once more he looked directly into the captain's eyes and nodded his head.

"Sound retreat."

This time, it was Captain Fenton who quietly gave the command, and Tracy immediately played retreat on the drum and never broke his gaze from the captain's face.

"Well, it looks like we go' us a new drummer boy!" exclaimed the sergeant, reading the look on the captain's face. "We'll have ta keep on eye on such a pretty lad, but now we can finally get rid o' that Miller boy. 'E can't hold a good beat for more than five minutes and 'e's a pain in the arse besides!"

Seeing the drummer boy in question wasn't nearby, the Sergeant called the corporal over and ordered, "Go rouse that Miller lad and get 'is drum," and looking Tracy up and down, he said, "Me thinks they're 'bout the same size. Get 'is uniforms too, and then we'll be done with 'im. We can make any adjustments on them in Liverpool before we leave."

The boy had truly been more trouble than he was worth, and the corporal saluted with relish before turning to carry out the orders.

Calling one of the lieutenants over to him, Captain Fenton instructed him saying, "Make arrangements to return the miller boy to his home."

The next morning saw Tracy marching down the dusty road, steadily beating the quick time out on the drum. Though his new uniform was awfully loose in place, and the trousers had to be turned up at the bottom, it didn't look too bad on him, and the burley Sergeant looked pleased, and for the first time in a very long time the youth felt truly happy while tapping out the beat for the regiment on his new drum.

That evening while sitting around eating supper with the men, the sergeant filled Tracy in on some of the history of the battalion and regiment.

"Yer lucky ta be in the oldest battalion of the regiment. The 38th foot 'as the honor o' endurin' the longest overseas tour in the history o' the army. We was first formed in 1705 and was sent to the West Indies in 1707. Ya know, they stayed there 'til 1764!

When the uniforms wore out, they used the local sugar sacks ta make new ones. That be why ya 'ave that patch o' sack cloth behind yer regimental badge. Aye lad, yer lucky ta be in the first battalion o' the Staffordshire Foot Regiment!"

There was so much pride in the Sergeant's voice that Tracy felt much honored to actually be part of such a unit and knew he'd made the right decision.

The battalion stayed in Liverpool for four days, and during that time Tracy's uniforms were adjusted to fit the smaller frame of the drummer boy. By then, some of the men had come to know the boy a little better, and a few even admired him for his steadfast drumming while on the march. It seemed the boy never missed a beat no matter how long he had to keep at it.

"'E may be a bit small yet, but 'e can 'old the beat with the best o' 'em," said a husky grenadier named Bill.

"Aye, but wait 'till we see what 'e can do when we get ta Spain," replied an older soldier named John. "Once the miniballs start flyin' abou', then we'll see what kind o' mettle the boy's made o'!"

Tracy's eyes were big while looking about the port of Liverpool. It was so much bigger than Warrington, and except for the small craft on the river he'd never really seen a big boat before, and the large naval vessels that were docked along the wharfs simply amazed him. Even so, his spirits were quickly dampened as the rolling decks of the transport caused his stomach to flip flop, and Tracy spent much of the time heaving up its contents.

He wasn't alone however, and no one ridiculed him as he had many of the largest and bravest soldiers along side of him at the rail while the sailors laughed and enjoyed the spectacle while they went about their duties.

Never in his young life was Tracy more happy than when they finally landed in Portugal and he was finally able to step back down upon solid ground again. Still, there was little time for him to think about it nor the interesting sights and sounds of the strange country for he was quickly called upon to sound assembly as the battalion scrambled to form up.

"'Urry up there lads! Old Hawk Nose is ready ta advance inta Spain an' needs are help," barked the sergeant, as the men scrambled.

"'Ho's Old Hawk Nose?" asked Tracy, as he beat out the call to assemble.

"The Duke o' Wellington o' course," whispered back one of the older boys. "'e's the commander o' the Army o' Portugal an' Spain."

Even Tracy had heard of Lord Wellesly, the hero who'd finally defeated one of Napoleon's armies.

Their long march to rejoin the army at Cuidad Rodrigo was a long and arduous one, but young Tracy kept the beat every step of the way when he was required to, though his arms felt as if they were of lead, and had become stiff with the demand placed on them.

Naturally, he and the other drummer boys switched off, but it was Tracy's drum that maintained the beat the longest, and he was greatly elevated in the eyes of the men behind him as well as the officers who marched along with the colors in front.

It was May by the time they'd joined the rest of the army encamped at Cuidad Rodrigo inside the Spanish border but their stay was short for Wellington soon had the entire army on the march. The Portuguese often marched with them, and on occasion so did the Spanish guerrillas who fought against the French.

Tracy only heard about the skirmishes that had been fought against Marshal Marmont's French army that shadowed them to the east. The two armies were relatively equal in size, but like the others who marched for Wellington, soldiers like Bill and John were confident they could beat the French, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Still, Tracy kept his silence for the most part. He'd learned early on that his opinion was not welcomed by the others, and faced ridicule whenever he gave voice to one.

"Aw what do ya knows 'bou' it?" asked one of the men, the first time he'd ventured a remark about the coming battle. "Most o' us were fightin' the French while you was still suckling from your Mum's teat!"

Being ever near the Captain, Tracy was privy to many of the conversations among the officers, and one day when they were near the town of Salamanca, he heard the colonel telling Captain Fenton, "The Duke is just biding his time. Eventually, one of us is going to make a mistake, and then we'll be in it," and looking around the colonel licked his dry lips and added, "I just hope it will be the French who makes the first mistake."

The next day General Picton, who always refused to wear a uniform came by on his horse to look over the men.

As part of the third division, he was in command of them, and Tracy once asked Bill, "If he doesn't wear a uniform, then how can we tell if he's the general?"

The big man laughed and said, "'E's easy 'nough to spot 'cause 'e's the only one 'ho's not wearin' one!"

Picton rode down the line and stopped just in front of the drummer boys, and while staring directly at Tracy, he said, "If the French take the bait, we'll be in it soon so be ready and come quickly when I call for you. Don't lose courage, and if we keep at it we'll end this little dance with the French and send them all to Hell!"

The young drummer boy felt as if the general was talking directly to him and his small chest swelled with pride, and he was determined to do his part to fulfill the general's words.

They arrived at Salamanca later that day. It was the 21st of July and it had been quite hot, and they all looked forward to resting in the small city where so much more would be available to them than out in the open plains.

Early the next morning, it appeared that the Duke was preparing the army to retreat back towards Portugal and the men were pretty upset about it.

"All this walkin' 'bout for nothin'," grumbled Bill.

"Aye, an' we didn't even 'ave a chance to give the French a good thrashin' yet an' already we're givin' up," complained John.

"Shut up an just move yer arses!" yelled the corporal, as Tracy and the other boys beat out assembly on their drums.

They had just begun their march when suddenly, they heard the sounds of battle just to the west, and a dragoon from the 4th came riding up to them with a message from General Picton.

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