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Book of Scottish Story
The Fight for the Standard

By James Paterson

Lietenant Charles Ewart, better known as "Sergeant Ewart of the Greys,” was born in Kilmarnock about the year I767, and enlisted in that regiment in 1789. He served under the Duke of York in the Low Country Campaigns of 1793-4, and shared in all the victories and defeats which the allied arms experienced. The disasters encountered by the British arose in a great measure from the duplicity of the Dutch, as well as from the military incapacity of the Royal general. At the battle, if we mistake not, of Fleurus, in the Netherlands, where the Republican forces, after a protracted contest, were the victors, Ewart had the misfortune to be taken prisoner. Towards the close of the action, the Greys were so thoroughly surrounded by the enemy that escape was considered next to impossible. As the only means of preventing their entire capture, they were ordered to disperse in small parties of twos and threes, each to exert himself as he best might in finding his way to the allied army, which had undertaken a retrograde movement. It was evening as Ewart and his companions endeavoured to thread their way amidst the smoke and spreading darkness by which they were enveloped. They had not proceeded far, when, perceiving a body of French cavalry at a short distance, they were compelled to seek safety in an opposite direction. Though hotly pursued, they put spurs to their horses, and soon distanced their enemies. At length they found themselves in the vicinity of a wood, and, ignorant of the direction in which they were proceeding, they determined on taking advantage of its shelter for the night. Tying their jaded horses to a tree, they lay down beside them. Tired out with the day’s fatigue, they fell soundly asleep; nor did they awaken until rudely stirred from their slumber in the morning by a large body of French infantry who had taken possession of the wood. Resistance being out of the question, they instantly surrendered ; but nothing could save them from the abuse and insult of the soldiers, by whom they were plundered of everything valuable. Fortunately, not above two hours afterwards, the advance corps of the French were beaten back by a number of Austrian troops, who in turn took the captors captive, and Ewart and his comrades were restored to their regiment, not, however, without having obtained permission of the Austrian officer in charge of the prisoners to take from the Frenchmen the property of which they had been plundered, and which they did with something of interest by way of repaying the usage they had experienced.

In the retreat of the British through Holland after the disastrous battle of Nimguen, though conducted by Sir Ralph Abercrombie with great skill and success, considering the desperate circumstances in which they were placed, the army suffered the utmost privations. The winter was unprecedentedly severe, and the loss of the stores and baggage added greatly to their sufferings. Hundreds perished from excessive cold, hunger, and fatigue. Many affecting anecdotes are told of the vicissitudes endured. While on the march one day, near a place, the name of which we forget, the faint wailings of a child were heard not far from the roadside. Ewart dismounted, and proceeding to the spot, found a woman and child lying amongst the snow. The mother was dead, but the infant, still in life, was in the act of sucking the breast of its lifeless parent. "Albeit unused to the melting mood," Ewart felt overcome by the spectacle. There was no time, however, for sentimentalism; but lifting the child in his arms, and wrapping his cloak around it, he remounted with his tender charge. On reaching the encampment for the evening, he applied to the colonel, who generously offered to defray the expenses of a nurse ; but so entirely were the women of the army absorbed with their own misfortunes, that not one of them could be found to take care of the little orphan. Ewart was at length fortunate in discovering the father of the child, a sergeant of the 60th regiment, who was so much affected that he could scarcely be restrained from retracing his steps in the vain hope of finding his partner still in life. Three years after the return of the army to Britain, and while the Greys were stationed in the south of England, Ewart was one evening called to the head inn of the town. The soldier to whom he was introduced grasped him warmly by the hand, as he inquired whether he knew him. Ewart replied in the negative. A short explanation sufficed. The stranger was the father of the child whom he had saved, come to tender his thanks in a more substantial manner than was in his power on the retreat in Holland. He had since that period been raised to the rank of sergeant-major, and the little orphan was then a thriving boy at home with his grandmother. He insisted on presenting Ewart with a sum of money, but the offer was firmly rejected. He pressed him, however, to accept a silver watch as a memento of his gratitude.

With the exception of a small portion of the regiment which took part in the Peninsular War, the Scots Greys were not again called abroad till 1815. During the intervening period, no opportunity of distinguishing themselves occurred. Ewart, who had borne himrself with uniform propriety, and gained the esteem of his superior officers by his soldierly conduct, was early advanced as a sergeant, while his skill in the sword exercise procured him further emolument by being appointed master-of-fence to the regiment. The unlooked-for escape of Napoleon from Elba gave a new impulse to the military ardour of this country. The Greys, as well as the household troops, were called to arms, and in the short but important campaign in Belgium, covered themselves with glory on the plains of Waterloo. The splendid charge of General Ponnonby’s cavalry brigade-composed of The First Royals, Greys, and Inniskillings —is matter of history. It was in one of those dashing affairs on the 18th, when covering the Highland brigade against a dense mass of Invincibles, that the two eagles were captured by the Greys and Royals. As the cavalry passed through the open columns of the Highlanders, the cry of “Scotland for ever!” created an enthusiasm which nothing could withstand, and the French infantry were scattered before them. Upwards of two thousand prisoners were taken in this single onset. Sergeant Ewart was engaged hand to hand with an officer, whom he was about to cut down, when a young ensign of the Greys interceded on his behalf, and desired that he might be passed to the rear. He had scarcely complied with the request, when, on hearing the report of a pistol, he turned and beheld the ensign falling from his saddle, and the French officer in the act of replacing the weapon with which he had savagely taken the life of his preserver. Enraged at the ingratitude of the Frenchman, Ewart immediately turned upon him, and, deaf to his supplications, cut him down to the brisket. This was the work only of a moment, for the conflict still raged, the French infantry having been supported by a numerous array of cuirassiers and lancers. Dashing forward, he now came within reach of the standard-bearer of one of the Invincible regiments to which they were opposed. A short conflict ensued, when the French officer fell beneath Ewart’s sword, and the staff of the eagle stuck fast in the ground, which was soft, so that he was enabled to lay hold of it without further trouble. Had the standard fallen, he could not have recovered it in the melee. Wheeling round, Ewart was in the act of making off with his prize, when a lancer, singling him out, galloped forward and hurled his spear at his breast. With all his reputed quickness in defence, he had just strength enough to ward off the blow, so that the lance merely grazed his side; then raising himself in his stirrups, he brought his antagonist to the ground with one cut of his sword. In riding away with the valuable trophy, Ewart experienced another narrow escape. A wounded Frenchman, whom he had supposed to be dead, having raised himself on his elbow, and fired at him as he passed. The ball fortunately missed him, and he escaped to the rear, when he was ordered to proceed with the standard to Brussels.

The prowess of Ewart was greatly applauded, not less in Belgium and France than in Britain, and he subsequently, through the influence of the late Sir John Sinclair, obtained a commission in a veteran battalion as a reward for his services. When in Edinburgh in 1816, he was invited to a Waterloo dinner at Leith, where Sir Walter Scott proposed his health in an eloquent and highly complimentary speech. Little accustomed to civilian society, Lieutenant Ewart felt diffident to reply ; and, in a note to the chairman, begged that he might be excused, adding, with the bluntness of a soldier, that "he would rather fight the battle of Waterloo over again, than face so large an assemblage? The company, however, would not be denied the gratification of a full-length view of his person, and he was under the necessity of shaking off his diffidence by acknowledging the toast in a brief reply, which he made amidst the rapturous cheers of his entertainers. He was also publicly entertained at dinner in Ayr and Kilmarnock, and was presented with the freedom of Irvine.

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