Profile - The Adventures of Private Comberbeck, 15th King’s Dragoons
Unlucky in love, doing poorly in his studies at Cambridge, and heavily in debt, on December 2, 1793, finding himself down and out in London, Silas Tompkyns Comberbeck, a young Englishman of good family, enlisted as a private in a troop of the 15th King’s Dragoons. Two days later, having passed the rudimentary mental and physical examination required of all recruits, he took the oath of enlistment, and pocketed the 6½ guineas (£6 16s 6p) due him as a volunteer.
Comberbeck was issued his equipment, a lot of it, and initially assigned to muck out the stables. Shortly before Christmas, he was sent to the equivalent of basic training at the regimental headquarters, at Reading, in Berkshire, northwest of London. There, Comberbeck proved a singularly inept recruit. In fact, by some accounts he “never got out of the awkward squad.” Once, the sergeant major entered the barracks. Glancing over the racked muskets, he noted on that was dirty and bellowed, "Whose dirty musket is this?"
Comberbeck spoke up, "Is it very, very dirty?"
“Yes,” replied the sergeant major.
"Then it must be mine."
Worse was to come, for it turned out that Comberbeck and horses did not mix well. To begin with, he’d never learned to ride. Worse, he was afraid of horses. As a result, he never developed any skill in managing them. Perhaps sensing his fear, his mounts seem to have taken their revenge. He later observed that he was often “thrown or run away with to the no small purturbation of my nervous system almost every day”
Although a poor soldier and inept as an equestrian, Comberbeck did prove to have a number of qualities that endeared him to his comrades and superiors. His manners, and manner, were such that despite his poor showing as a soldier, everyone in the regiment, including many of the officers, considered him an excellent young man. Because he could read and write in an age when such skills were still relatively rare, his comrades often asked him to compose letters for them, and Comberbeck proved singularly adept at writing romantic missives to local lasses. In return, his comrades did him a big favor, they tended his horse, which was a good thing, since he never learned to rub down his mount properly. Comberbeck also proved to be an excellent raconteur, with a knack for telling war stories, though the tales were usually populated by characters with odd names like Leonidas or Xenophon.
Comberbeck displayed some other unusual characteristics for a common soldier. One day, his company commander, Capt. Nathaniel Ogle, was inspecting the company stables. Ogle he had spotted a line of Latin scratched on the wall under one of the saddles, "Eheu? quam infortunii miserrimum est fuisse felicem! ” The captain inquired as to whom the saddle belonged. Learning it was Comberbeck, Ogle spoke with the young man and realized that he was something more than an ordinary recruit. Ogle decided to keep an eye on Comberbeck, with his education and fine manners. In fact, a few weeks later, Ogle selected Comberbeck for duty as part of the guard of honor at a military ball. Comberbeck was, of course, splendidly decked out in full dress for the occasion, from the carefully teased red and white plume of his helmet to the highly polished Hessian boots and spurs on his feet. By chance, during the ball, Captain Ogle and another officer paused in conversation where Comberbeck was on duty. In the course of their chat, the other officer quoted a couple of lines of Greek verse, and attributing them to Euripides. At that, the young sentry blurted out “If your Honour will excuse me, that’s not quite accurate. They’re from Oedipus, by Sophocles,” and proceeded to recite the correct lines. Although a gross breach of discipline, the outburst still further impressed Ogle, who resolved to make Comberbeck his orderly, once he completed training.
But Comberbeck never completed training. In February, virtually prostrate from what he termed “dreadful eruptions which . . . grimly castellated my posterior,” Comberbeck was transferred to nurse a fellow soldier who had been sent to the local “Pest House” with a case of smallpox. It was while discharging this duty, under terrible conditions, that the world he had attempted to escape intruded on Comberbeck’s new life.
It seems that some of his former school mates had alerted the young man’s family to the fact that he was absent from Jesus College, at Cambridge. The family had made inquiries. Tracing the young man’s movements, they discovered that he had enlisted as a common soldier, a terrible disgrace for the scion of a middle class family..
The family immediately contacted the regimental authorities, seeking to get him discharged. This proved no simple task. In the end, it required six weeks of negotiations with the regimental commander to arrange the young soldier’s discharged. While these negotiations were going on, life for the young man changed rather radically. He was immediately recalled from the Pest House and relieved of all duties. The young man’s friends set him up in the Bear, a comfortable inn at Reading. There he entertained his family and friends, was visited by Captain Ogle and some of the other officers from his regiment, and dashed off some poetry. Finally, the family having paid £40 in commutation to the regiment (an enormous sum for the day, sufficient to maintain a small family in modest comfort for more than a year), on April 10, 1794, he was discharged, officially because he was “insane.” As he boarded a coach to take him back to Cambridge, the young man was seen off by many of his erstwhile comrades, and received a hearty handshake from several of the officers of the regiment.
Silas Tompkyns Comberbeck was actually Samuel Taylor Coleridge(1772-1834) , later among the most notable English poets, author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.”
Coleridge’s hitch as a soldier, short and inglorious as it was does seem to have made some impression on his work. It was while awaiting his discharge in Reading that he wrote "Religious Musings," considered among his best works, and the stark imagery of the dead sailors in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is attributed by some critics to his experiences in the Pest House at Reading