60651: Kenneth Macleod, Soldier in Egypt

By Angus Macleod, Calbost and Marybank; an account of his ancestor Kenneth Macleod’s career with the Seaforth Highlanders.

In the summer of 1804 the hated army recruiting agents of the Lewis Seaforth Landlord were once again combing through the Lewis villages pouncing on unsuspecting young men, and forcibly enlisting them into the 2nd Battalion of the 78th Seaforth Highlanders. Seaforth had volunteered to raise Battalions earlier in 1793 and 1794, and at first the Regiment was called the 78th Foot.

In 1804 the Seaforth recruiting agents came to Calbost and according to tradition it was Norman ‘Buidhe’ Mackenzie who they first approached and he protested and pointed out that he should be exempt from Military service because of his domestic circumstances. His mother was a widow and he was therefore the bread winner. The only other person in their family was his orphan cousin Kenneth Macleod who was fostered by his mother, accordingly Kenneth was taken and that event is still remembered 200 years later by the Gaelic saying heard on the lips of older generations of Calbost people to this day:

Tormod Buidhe carach, chuir e mo sheanar do’n airm.

Crafty Norman Buidhe sent my grandfather to the army.

Kenneth Macleod ‘Coinneach Mor’ was born in 1776 and was therefore 28 years old when he enlisted in the army at Fort George on 4th June 1804; his height is given as 5ft 10ins, black hair, hazel eyes and swarthy. After he was discharged he married a girl from Tolsta Chaolais, ‘Anna-an-Dhomhnuill’, the area from which he himself came from originally.

At the time that Kenneth Macleod and his Lewis compatriots were recruited for the British army they would be Gaelic only speaking as there were no English or even Gaelic schools in the area where they could learn to read and write, therefore it could hardly be said that they knew what they were called on to fight for in the distant overseas lands. We may be sure however they were told they were fighting for ‘King and Country’.

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries Britain was engaged in several Empire building and protecting wars, both in Europe and on a Worldwide front. Britain felt that her lines of communication with the Indian sub-continent were threatened by Napoleon and the war against France continued on several fronts.

It was the Turkish army led by "Muhammet Ali" in alliance with Napoleon of France that the British were fighting in Egypt at that time, a campaign known in Gaelic tradition as Cogadh na Tuirc, and after a spell of training at Fort George the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders to which our Kenneth was attached moved to Hythe Barracks and from there to Shorncliffe Barracks and then to Gibraltar, and on to Italy where they appear to have taken part in the glorious victory of the British at Maida"in Southern Italy.

Among those who joined up with our Kenneth Macleod of Calbost was another young soldier by the same name, Kenneth Macleod and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the one from the other in the records. However, they were lucky they were not called John Macleod because there were 16 new recruits of that name at Fort George at that time.

After Maida an expeditionary force was gathered in Sicily including the 2nd Seaforth Battalion and the two Kenneth Macleods were there. They went to Egypt in 1807 and after arriving in Alexandria they took part in stiff fighting at Rosetta. Then units of the British army occupied the valley of El Hammed on the 6th April 1807 and the post was reinforced on 20th April. On the following day Lt. Col. Patrick Macleod who was in command reported that 70 ‘D-Germs’ or large boats were descending the Nile with large enemy reinforcements, reinforcements of such magnitude that he requested instructions as to the wisdom of an immediate retirement, an order to that effect was despatched at once (to concentrate his forces and retire in three columns) but before he had time to carry out his design the enemy reinforcements had disembarked and rushed to the attack.

Colonel Macleod formed his men into a square, hoping assistance would come. They fought grimly until eventually Colonel Macleod, most of the officers and many of the men were killed, and there was no other course but to surrender. On surrendering on 21st April 1807 there was a mad scramble by the Turkish soldiers to take as many prisoners of war as they could, because it was the Turkish custom, that prisoners became the private property of the soldier who took them, and a ransom was expected for each prisoner. In that way the British prisoners of war were pulled and hauled and man-handled with little or no ceremony by the Turks.

Kenneth Macleod, Calbost, was among those listed killed or taken prisoner at El Hammed, and his worldly effects and credits at the time were valued at only 1.22. Fortunately it turned out that he was among the prisoners of war, and he was therefore spared to spend his estate of 1.22.

After the prisoners were sorted out by the victorious Turkish Army, they were made to march between two long avenues of poles topped with the heads of their slain comrades. The prisoners suffered barbarous treatment at the hands of their enemies. The ground at El Hammed was strewn with headless bodies as well as those who were severely wounded.

Five hundred British prisoners of war were taken to the slave market at Cairo and sold as slaves. There were Lewis men among them. The conditions of imprisonment were terrible and it was at this time that many of the Prisoners-of-War became affected with ophthalmia, a disease of the eyes which caused inflammation and blindness. Ophthalmia first appeared among the soldiers at Gibraltar and it was attributed partly, at least, to the change of diet from their native Scottish food of fish, oatmeal and vegetables to a greater consumption of animal food than they were accustomed to. Our Kenneth was among those who were afflicted with ophthalmia and he therefore escaped being sold as a slave in Cairo.

After the debacle at El Hammed and their failure at Rosetta, the British army retired to Alexandria where they were secure from attack within the walls of that city, where they remained for several months waiting for succour from Britain that never arrived, and at length, General Fraser sent a flag of truce to the Pacha, offering to evacuate Egypt providing all the prisoners of war in the hands of the Turks were released. The terms were readily accepted.

On September 23rd 1807, the British troops re-embarked and set sail for Sicily. Muhammed Ali did not carry out the terms of the truce to the letter but Kenneth Macleod of Calbost was released from prison hospital in Egypt in December 1807 where he was suffering from ophthalmia. Subsequently the blind and the wounded were sent home to Britain via Sicily and Malta in 1808. The other Kenneth Macleod in the regiment died in hospital in Malta.

Eventually, Kenneth Macleod of Calbost’s regiment arrived in the Isle of Wight where he spent some time in hospital. In 1809 he was back at Fort George from where he was discharged on 12th September 1809 as a Chelsea invalided Soldier with a disability of blindness after serving five and a half years in the army. He was granted a disability pension of 30 a year and 12 a year for a guide to lead him about.

There was no medal however for Kenneth because the only medal struck for the period from 1793 to 1814 was the Military General Service Medal, but it was not actually awarded until 1847, and even then, those who were entitled to it had to send in a claim for it, if they were still alive. If not their medal was not issued. Kenneth Macleod died in 1837 at the age of 61 years and that was some ten years before his medal became available at his request.

Angus Macleod Archive

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