Reviews: Books

A Hellish Business:  the Letters of Captain Charles Kinloch 52nd Light Infantry 1806 – 1816


Cover: A Hellish Business

Kinloch, Charles.  A Hellish Business:  the Letters of Captain Charles Kinloch 52nd Light Infantry 1806 – 1816. Ed. Gareth Glover. Godmanchester, UK: Ken Trotman, 2007.  247 pages.  ISBN-13#: 9781905076655.  Paperback. £22.50; a collector's limited edition of 50 numbered copies, hand-bound in quarter leather: £55.

Unlike their fellow Light Division Regiment, the 95th Rifles, few memoirs, diaries, or sets of letters, written by members of the 52nd Light Infantry have been published.  I have only found four sets in thirty years of collecting British memoirs.[1]  When I saw that Ken Trotman had published a set of letters by an officer, that had never been published before, I immediately ordered a copy. 

A Hellish Business consists of 181 letters written by Charles Kinloch from 1806 – 1816.  Most of these letters were to his mother.  Kinloch came from a relatively wealthy Scottish family, with some political and social connections.  Although it is not clear how he came about being commissioned in the 52nd Regiment, it was most likely through purchase, which officially cost £400.  Combined with the need to outfit him with uniforms, a kit, and a horse, his joining the army probably cost his family over £900.  Kinloch had no income of his own, other than his pay, so many of his letters are filled with anecdotes on how expensive it was to be an officer of the regiment and asking his father for more money.

Charles Kinloch joined the regiment in 1806 and was soon on active service.  He  participated was in the Copenhagen Campaign; with the ill-fated British force under Moore in Spain; and then with the Walcheran Expedition – where he had the good fortune of not catching Walcheran Fever, which decimated the British force.  He was back in England for less than a year when he was ordered out to Portugal in 1810.  He marched with the Light Division for almost two years and was wounded at the Siege of Badajoz. His wound was so serious that he was invalided back to England.  Kinloch returned to the Peninsula in January 1814 as an aide-de-camp to Sir John Hope.  He missed Waterloo, because he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, however he was ordered to join the regiment as a replacement for an officer who was killed.  He stayed with the Occupation Army in Paris for a year and his letters end in July 1816.

Some memoirs are known for their descriptions of military life, while others are better known for their accounts of skirmishes and battles. Although A Hellish Business does provide some vivid battle scenes, especially when  Kinloch was serving as an aide to Sir John Hope, his letters are not consistent.  He was involved in many of the actions of the Light division in 1810 and 1811, including Fuentes d'Orno – which he only mentions in passing -- and at the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, but does not mention it all.  It may have been that he was sparing his mother the gory details.  However his letters from 1814 are the exact opposite.  He had a keen eye for detail when describing the building of the bridge boats across the Adour and the wounding and capture of Sir John Hope at the battle of Bayonne.

The real value of these memoirs lay in Kinloch's mindset.  His letters home are filled with his hopes for promotion and his schemes on how to secure a step up by first obtaining a captaincy and then an appointment to the staff.  One letter would be about his bright prospects because some higher officer is interceding on his behalf; and the next would be full of dismay when nothing comes of it.  After Kinloch is severely wounded at Badajoz in 1812, he is invalided home.  During his long recovery, his scheming never stopped.  In 1813, he finally has the opportunity and money to buy a captaincy in the 99th Regiment.  His real goal, however was to obtain a company in the 52nd Foot.  Unfortunately for him, the 52nd was a fashionable regiment and vacancies were hard to come by.  He delayed his departure to the 99th Regiment for as long as possible – in hopes of exchanging back into the 52nd – that the regimental commander had to issue him an order to report to duty.  At the last moment, he was able to exchange into the 2nd Battalion of the 52nd , and thus avoid the expense of buying new uniforms.

Despite obtaining the captaincy in the 52nd, Kinloch was still not satisfied.  He wanted to be on the staff.  Due to his family connections, he hoped to obtain an appointment as an aide-de-camp to Sir John Hope, who was heading out to the Peninsula to be the second-in-command of Wellington's Army.  The road to this appointment was as rocky as that to his captaincy.  At first his letters were very optimistic and then soon his discouragement began to creep into them, when his plans went awry.  His luck just was not there.  He would gain the support of a senior officer and then something would happen that would set him back.  Eventually, he did obtain a position in Sir John Hope's official family, but not one that as he had wanted.  He was allowed to join his staff, but only as an "extra aide-de-camp".  Since Hope already had his authorized number of aides, any expenses Kinloch incurred would not be reimbursed.  And they were considerable – almost £300!  He does list what the money was spent on, mostly for three horses, but also clothing to ensure that his servant was outfitted properly.  But Kinloch did get his wish and he was back with the Peninsula Army for the final months of the war.

At £22.50 for a paperback, A Hellish Business is expensive.   However it is well worth the money.  Gareth Glover has once again done his normal superb job of editing.  He provides extensive notes about the people, places, and events mentioned in the letters.  I bought a copy of the limited edition hand-bound in quarter leather and was quite pleased with its look.  Hopefully, my heirs will think it was a great investment in the far future!  You can not go wrong with either the paperback or the limited edition.  Either will be a nice addition to anyone's collection.


[1] Colborne, John. The Life of John Colborne, Field-Marshal Lord Seaton: ... Compiled from His Letters, Records of His Conversations, and Other Sources. G.C. Moore Smith (ed.) New York: Dutton, 1903.

Dobbs, John. Recollections of an Old 52nd Man.  Staplehurst: Spellmount, 2000.

Hay, William. Reminiscences 1808 - 1815 Under Wellington. Cambridge: Ken Trotman, 1992.

Napier, George. The Early Military Life of General Sir George T. Napier. William Napier (ed.) London: John Murray, 1886.  


Reviewed by: Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2008


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