Feeding Wellington’s Army – The Memoirs of Commissary Tupper Carey Volume 1

Feeding Wellington’s Army – The Memoirs of Commissary Tupper Carey Volume 1

Published by Pen & Sword November 2023

Some of the finest memoirs written from the Peninsular War (1808-14) have actually emanated from one of the civilian branches, the Commissariat Department. For those already cognisant with at least some of these memoirs, one is immediately drawn to the astonishing account of that inveterate womaniser August Schaumann[1], the travelogue of William Graham[2], or the more prosaic memoirs of John Daniel[3] and Richard Henegan[4], but these memoirs often fail to fully explain the role they performed in much detail or how they achieved it in such a hostile environment.

Commissary General Tupper Carey may also be known by some for his short but interesting and very honest account of his service during the Waterloo campaign with General Sir Henry Clinton’s Second Division[5], but unfortunately that is all we have had of his memoirs. To be strictly accurate, that is not true, because the early part of his Peninsular War Recollections was published in an obscure magazine in a small series of articles[6], but they never even reached as far as the Battle of Talavera in 1809 before they stopped, hinting perhaps that the rest was already lost forever.

Then, a few years ago, I received an email from Dr Juliet Carey, a direct descendant, stating that the family had the entire memoirs of Tupper Carey and wanted someone to publish them in their entirety – I need hardly say that I jumped at the chance.

Tupper’s memoirs are contained in four large, tightly hand-written journals, covering from his first moment as a junior office clerk, through to the end of the Army of Occupation when he was arguably the most important Commissary then working for the Duke of Wellington. The manuscript unfortunately does not cover his later career in the West Indies and eventually Malta, but what it does contain is a vast amount of detail on the role he carried out, giving us a truly unique window into the life of a Commissary, thankfully without ever over-doing the sheer drudgery of the role at times. However, although a civilian and greatly discouraged from putting himself in mortal danger, Tupper was often to be found watching the fighting from some nearby (and hopefully safe vantage point) and often describes the actions he witnessed, particularly where it affected his own charge, whether a battalion, a brigade or even later an entire division. Interspersed with these primary roles, he was often seconded to form supply bases in the rear of the army, or to hastily remove or destroy stores when threatened by enemy advances. He also talks freely about fellow officers, and being a private journal written simply for the eyes of his immediate family, he is not shy in giving his honest opinions of both his subordinates or indeed his superiors.

Indeed his memoirs are so voluminous (nearly 180,000 words), that they have had to be published in two volumes. This the first volume, covers his early life, joining as a clerk and his early years as a Commissary up until the spring of 1813, just before the Duke of Wellington launched his troops on that memorable campaign, designed to drive the French back out of Spain, across the Pyrenees.


Tupper was born on the 16 April 1788 and was baptised on 25 April 1788 at the Town Church[7]. He was apparently sent away to school – all efforts have failed to discover where – and in 1804 he returned home at the age of sixteen and was immediately put to work as a clerk and so started his career in the Commissariat.

So let us look at where he served, in what capacity and what major events this volume covers within the very varied career of Tupper Carey in his own words, taken from his statement written in Malta in the early 1840’s.


Services of Commissary General Tupper Carey officially called for by the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury while at the head of the Commissariat Department in the Island of Malta and dependencies


He entered the Commissariat at the age of 16 at Guernsey in December 1804 as clerk to the Assistant Commissary General Rawlings, during whose continued and protracted absences in England in 1807 until August 1808 [he] carried on in great measure, the duty of that island and was entrusted with the custody of the public money in Bank of England notes, often times to the amount of £1,000 and upwards, intended to operate the reduction of the existing discount on public bills.

He left that station for more active service and on the recommendation of Lieutenant General Sir J Doyle, under whom he had been serving, was immediately afterwards appointed by Commissary in Chief Erskine, to the army of Sir David Baird, proceeding in September 1808 to the Peninsula. On landing at Corunna, [he] remained some time at Deputy Commissary General Cooper’s office and was sent in November to form a department at Orense [Ourense] on the frontiers of Galicia, intended for the supply of the two armies in effecting their junction; which depot, on the retreat of Sir John Moore, was distributed to the Marquis of Romana’s army and to the Light Division of the British Army retiring to Vigo, afterwards was attached as Commissariat Officer to the rear guard and embarked with them for England.

Continued in Mr Erskine’s office [at] Whitehall until he re-embarked for Portugal in April 1809 and then had the Commissariat charge of two brigades [of artillery] and [the] reserve artillery during the operations of the passage of the Douro, Battle of Talavera and subsequent retreat.

Was employed at Elvas, in the Superintendent of Transport [Office] attached to the extensive General Hospital at [the] depot there; afterwards in Commissary General Murray’s office at Badajoz, for some months and returned to the Reserve of Artillery, at the express request of Major General Sir W [E] Howorth who commanded the artillery in its march to the north of Portugal in December 1809 and [he] was then made [an] Acting Assistant Commissary General.

In January 1810 [was given] the additional Commissariat charge of the extensive depot of Coimbra; in July that of Pinhanços at the time of movement of the army near the frontier, while the French were besieging Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida. [He] broke it up upon the approach of the enemy, subsequently in September established that of Espinhal and for the same reason abandoned it. Was actively employed in the retirement to the Lines of Torres Vedras near Lisbon, in removing stores from several points on the line of movement and on the Tagus, to avoid their falling into the hands of the enemy. Immediately after joined Sir William Erskine’s Brigade of infantry [in the 1st Division] in the Lines of Torres Vedras and remained with it until March 1811.

Went ill to Lisbon from fatigue and was then employed in the Deputy Commissary General Vaux’s office examining accounts until July, when he rejoined the army at Portalegre and took charge of the depot of Castelo Branco in August and was confirmed Assistant Commissary General on the 10th of that month.

In November [1811, he] was transferred to the 3rd Regiment of Heavy Dragoons as Senior Commissariat Officer of the brigade of cavalry under the command of the late Major General Le Marchant, with which he continued during the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Battle of Salamanca, entrance into Madrid and siege of Burgos until the retreat from there in November 1812. From thence in November 1812, he joined the [4th] Division of infantry under Lieutenant General Sir Lowry Cole, as Senior Superintending Commissariat Officer with which he continued during the many arduous campaigns of the years 1813.


The dates of his seniority are:

Acting Assistant Commissary General December 1809

Deputy Assistant Commissary General 23 May 1810

Assistant Commissary General 10 August 1811


The rest of Tupper’s incredible career will be covered in the second volume.


The Commissariat


Junior Commissaries were generally employed initially as clerks, checking the paperwork and invoices from the contractors who supplied the soldiers with virtually every store required, from food and drink, to their fuel for cooking. More senior commissaries were given the more demanding role of overseeing the actual supply of provisions and stores to the units they were seconded to, whether a battalion, a brigade or division depending on their seniority. When their units were constantly on the march, this role became particularly vital and infinitely more difficult to achieve and it often became a very stressful and thankless role; if you fed the troops it was merely what they expected and if you failed to feed them they were very quick to complain bitterly. Commissaries were dressed in a blue coat as a uniform but they were civilians and should be looked upon as Treasury officials overseeing the money spent by the army and had a rank structure until 1810 of only Clerk, Assistant Commissary General, Deputy Commissary General and Commissary General with no equivalent status to a rank in the Army.

From March 1810 it was expanded by include two further ranks and was given equivalent status to:

Clerk (equivalent to an Ensign)

Deputy Assistant Commissary General (looked after a battalion – equivalent to a Lieutenant) Assistant Commissary General (looked after a brigade – equivalent to a Captain)

Deputy Commissary General (looked after a division – equivalent to a Major)

Commissary General (looking after an entire corps or army – equivalent to a Brigadier General)

And in Whitehall at the very top were a

Principal Deputy Commissary General and above him a Commissary in Chief.

The Ordnance Department being independent to the Army, which particularly controlled weapons and ammunition, had their own Commissaries, known as the Field Train Department with even a different rank structure.

Around 130 -140 Commissaries were operating with Wellington’s Army in the Peninsula at any one time.

Pay rates in 1812 were:

Commissary General                             £3 per day

Deputy Commissary General                 £1 10 Shillings per day

Assistant Commissary General               15 Shillings per day

Deputy Assistant Commissary General   10 Shillings per day

As can be seen from his service record above, Tupper Carey served throughout almost the entire Peninsular War in a multitude of roles and saw regular promotion. He appears to have been scrupulously honest and extremely diligent and capable in his job and certainly many senior officers sought his employment with their corps, a sure sign of his abilities and high reputation. He was not however unique in these qualities and the publication of his recollections will hopefully do much to counter the ill-founded but dire reputation of the Commissariat Department. It cannot be denied that a number of Commissaries were court martialled and dismissed from the service for illegal practices, designed purely to line their own pockets; with stories of Commissaries making a fortune by buying back privately the receipts issued to the farmers for their crops at a vastly deflated value; altering the numbers on the official receipts to over-claim on payments; or illegally charging to process payments more expeditiously. Even apocryphal stories abound of Commissaries being threatened by senior officers with hanging if they failed to provide rations for their troops[8]  Elements of this was true of some, but most if not all were eventually caught and dismissed, while the vast majority of Commissaries diligently carried out their incredibly difficult jobs with complete honesty and integrity. Indeed S.G.P. Ward wrote in a lengthy article on The Peninsular Commissary[9] that in his great work Wellington’s Headquarters[10], having only touched briefly on the role of the Commissary, he had opined that with only some exceptions, they ‘tended to come from the very worst elements of the commercial world’.

His conclusion on the Commissary was however much changed forty years later, when he stated:

‘The closer study which I have been able to give him since has convinced me that I misjudged him. There were some rogues, there were some commissaries that made money on the side; but I am sure that most of them were honest men by their lights and that among their number there were men of great ability, enterprise and business acumen’.

It is hoped that having read the accounts of Tupper Carey in full, who undoubtedly was one of those of great ability, that the reader will be persuaded to fully endorse this more enlightened view of the more typical Peninsular Commissary.

[1] Published as On the road with Wellington: The diary of a War Commissary in the Peninsular campaigns in London 1924.

[2] Published as Travels through Portugal and Spain during the Peninsular War, London 1820

[3] Published as Journal of an Officer in the Commissariat Department: 1811-1815 and a Short Account of the Army of Occupation in France during the years 1816-18, London 1820.

[4] Published as Seven years campaigning in the Peninsula and the Netherlands from 1808-1815, London 1846.

[5] A truncated version of his Waterloo campaign journal was published as Extracts from ‘Reminiscences of a Commissariat Officer’ in volume 79 of The Cornhill Magazine of June 1899 and republished in the editor’s Waterloo Archive Volume VI, published Barnsley 2014.

[6] A series of articles entitled ‘Recollections of my Public Life from the period of entering the Commissariat to the Close of the Campaign in France in 1818’ was published in The Clan Sandeman Family Magazine in four excerpts between March 1899 and January 1901. I can only find one copy of this publication anywhere and that is in the National Library of Scotland.

[7] Reference DSCN 9115 Town Church Registers. The Town Church is now known more readily as St Stephen’s, St Peter Port.

[8] The famous claim that General Picton threatened to hang his Commissary is stated to be wholly untrue in all of the memoirs of Commissaries including Tupper Carey. Certainly the Commissary (George Head) attached to his particular division at the time it is claimed to have occurred, denies it ever happened.

[9] Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research Vol. 75 No. 304 (Winter 1997) pp230-239.

[10] Wellington’s Headquarters: A Study of the Administrative problems in the Peninsula 1809-14 by SGP Ward, Oxford University Press 1957.