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Twenty-Five Years In The Rifle Brigade Part 11

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The French officers were extremely polite, and asked us many questions of the news of the day, &c.; but the commander-in-chief, hearing of the familiarity which subsisted between the two armies, issued an order, prohibiting British officers from holding conversations with the enemy; for as all these conversations were necessarily conducted in French, (very few indeed of their officers being able to speak English,) he was apprehensive they might gain such information from our people, from their imperfect knowledge of the French language, as might materially injure our future proceedings. Before this order was issued, the most unbounded confidence subsisted between us, and which it was a pity to put a stop to, except for such weighty reasons. They used to get us such things as we wanted from Bayonne, particularly brandy, which was cheap and plentiful, and we in return gave them occasionally a little tea, of which some of them had learnt to be fond. Some of them also, who had been prisoners of war in England, sent letters through our army-post to their sweethearts in England, our people receiving the letters and forwarding them. They told us also how Hobkirk was situated, and were astonished at the extent and splendour of his equipage, (for he was a great dandy,) and could scarcely be persuaded he was only a captain.

My present commanding-officer, who was the senior captain, and in whose mess I then was, had sent to England, and got out from thence two immense pies, weighing nearly a hundred-weight each, and packed in tin cases. They were composed of every kind of game, and the best description of fowls, such as turkeys, &c., with the bones taken out, and the meat baked till it became like brawn when cut in slices. They were most excellent. One of these he had made a present of to our Major-general, and the other we were eating in the mess. We had also at this time a considerable quant.i.ty of good wine, which, by some accident, we had got hold of. We also had bought a pig and killed it, both living quite sumptuously at present, and having a good stock for future use.

But while we ourselves fared so well, our poor horses and mules were literally starving. There was no kind of forage for them, except what they could pick up in the now completely exhausted fields around us. We had nothing else to give them.

In this way we were going on, when, on the 9th of December, Lord Wellington, determining on pa.s.sing the Nive, preparatory to future operations, ordered our division and all the left, under Sir John Hope, who had now succeeded Sir Thomas Graham, to make a movement in advance, in order that the enemy's attention might be attracted to this point, while he threw over some divisions to the right bank of that river. My battalion had to advance along the ridge by which I had formerly pa.s.sed in peace, to meet the returning inhabitants, as may be recollected; but now the face of affairs was completely altered;--a heavy fire was kept up by the French picquets from the moment they saw us advance in arms, but we soon drove them from their advanced works, and they were obliged to take shelter in their intrenched camp, which was remarkably strong, and which it was not intended we should attack. We accordingly halted on the brow of the ridge, while they kept up an incessant fire, both from their guns and infantry, but which, considering its extent and duration, was not by any means a destructive fire.

Sir John Hope had a more laborious task to perform, or else his troops went beyond the point intended, for they continued the fight nearly all day, and at one time were considerably in advance, but afterwards recalled.



The pa.s.sage of the Nive was completely effected, and in the evening we returned to our comfortable houses, a short distance in the rear, and went to bed as usual. Next morning, however, very early, orders were given to turn out immediately, and stand to our arms, for the enemy was advancing; and indeed, when I came to the door, I heard a good deal of firing. The troops turned out at once, but the mules were to get, and the baggage to pack, and send away to the rear, or it might be lost; so I set myself about this with all dispatch; but before any of it was put up, I saw posting by me, with all expedition, a civil officer, who had only a short while joined us, and who, in his hurry, had put up all he could sc.r.a.pe together on his horse, on which he himself was riding. His boots, tied together, were slung over the horse's neck, and in short he looked more like a bagman than an officer, from the number of things he had hanging about him. It was most laughable to see him. I called out and asked him why he was in such a hurry, but he did not stop to give me an answer.

I got up our baggage very well, but what to do with the pie, the pig, and the wine, I knew not, so was constrained to leave them as they were, hoping we might not allow the enemy to penetrate so far. I then moved off the baggage, and, directing the servants who had charge of it to proceed up a lane which carried them towards the rear, I moved on and joined the battalion. Just as I reached the plateau, or high ground in front of the church of Arcangues, I met an officer of ours to whom I had lately lent a fine young mare, for which I had not food sufficient; and he having no horse himself, I thought he would take care of her; but here I met him going into the fight riding on the poor animal, although scarcely able to drag one leg behind the other. I remonstrated with him, but he did not mind me. The result was as might have been antic.i.p.ated--she soon after dropped down, unable to move farther, and died; thus I lost L.35 more, which she had cost me. By this time the enemy had driven in the regiment which had been on picquet, and one or two of our companies were sent forward to cover their retreat to the church behind us, where they were ordered to take post, it being a high and fine position, and had by this time been partly fortified. My people retired gradually before the enemy, who now advanced in great numbers.

Our 1st battalion were not so fortunate in effecting their retreat. An officer and some men having got into a hollow way, were surrounded by the enemy and taken; another was killed; and another, with his section, had to force their way through a strong body which had got in his rear.

My battalion did not fall into any sc.r.a.pe of that nature, but sustained a considerable loss in killed and wounded, from the vast superiority of the enemy in point of numbers, who, no doubt, did not escape with impunity. We held our ground at the bottom of the hill on which the church is built, the French not being able to force us farther back; the 1st battalion, at the same time, holding the fence and ditch in front of the Chateau, as well as that building itself. But a rather unpleasant occurrence took place at this time. When the enemy appeared on the plateau before mentioned, a regiment behind us, without orders, I believe, opened a heavy fire upon them, several shots of which struck among our men. One of them went in at the back of one of our soldiers, and killed him on the spot; another penetrated the back window of a house into which a party of ours had entered for defence, and very near struck an officer, who was in the room at the time. These shots must have been fired either by young soldiers, who scarcely knew how they pointed their muskets, or they must have taken our people for the enemy, from which, indeed, they were not far distant. I am confident it was purely accidental, for no two corps could be on better terms than that regiment and ours always were. The skirmishing continued till dark.

This was one of a series of masterly movements between the two contending generals. Lord Wellington having sent a pretty strong force across the Nive, as before mentioned, Soult imagined he had so weakened his force on the left, as to render it probable he might penetrate it, and thus cause his lordship to withdraw his troops again from the right bank of the Nive; but he was antic.i.p.ated; for Lord Wellington had no sooner established himself on the other side of the Nive, than he brought one of the supporting divisions of that movement to support us at the church of Arcangues, it being an important post to hold; so that, when we looked behind us, after we retired into position, we saw innumerable bayonets glistening in the sun, and ready to move forward whenever they should be required; but they never were wanted here, the light division being quite sufficient to sustain any attack the enemy had yet made on them. This, however, showed the provident care of his lordship, and how completely he had penetrated Soult's design.

This night two or three battalions of the Na.s.sau and Frankfort regiments came over and left the French. They had heard that the Dutch had declared against Bonaparte, and wished to be transported to Holland, with all their arms and appointments, which they brought with them. We remained in bivouack on the ridge extending between the church and chateau of Arcangues all night, our picquets remaining in possession of the houses and hedges at the bottom of the hill, where we stopped the French in the morning. I visited the picquets at night, in company with my commanding-officer, where we found all well, and alert. The next day, there being no firing between us and those in our front, three French officers, seemingly anxious to prove how far politeness and good breeding could be carried between the two nations, when war did not compel them to be unfriendly, took a table and some chairs out of a house which was immediately in our front, and one which we had lately occupied as a barrack; and bringing them down into the middle of the field, which separated the advance of the two armies, sat down within 100 yards of our picquet, and drank wine, holding up their gla.s.ses, as much as to say your health, every time they drank. Of course we did not molest them, but allowed them to have their frolic out.

During the day, also, we saw soldiers of the three nations, viz.

English, Portuguese, and French, all plundering at the same time in one unfortunate house, where our pie, our pig, and wine had been left. It stood about 150 or 200 yards below the church, on a sort of neutral ground between the two armies; hence the a.s.semblage at the same moment of such a group of these motley marauders. They plundered in perfect harmony, no one disturbing the other on account of his nation or colour.

There were a great number of apples in it at the time we left it, belonging to the owner of the house, but when we returned, two or three days afterwards, the desolation was complete. Our once comfortable quarter contained nothing now but filth and dirt. One poor girl had remained in it all the while, but she could not save one article; indeed, in such a case it would have been a service of danger to attempt it.

At night one of our sergeants played the French a trick. He took with him a few men, and, knowing the ground well, they pa.s.sed the French sentry un.o.bserved, having reached the house at the top of the field out of which they had brought the table, &c., where their picquet was stationed. He made a rush at their arms, which he found piled in front of the house, and set to work and broke them before the French had time to recover from the consternation into which they were thrown by so unexpected an a.s.sault. He and his party then came running off without sustaining any injury. He was a most determined brave soldier this, but afterwards lost an arm at Toulouse, and was of course discharged with a pension.

On the 12th, the enemy made a mighty show of attacking our position, having greatly increased their force in front of us, and had, some way or other, found the means of spreading a report in our lines that 1800 grenadiers had been chosen to lead on the attack. They also traced out batteries, and cut embrasures, apparently with the intention of burning or knocking down the chateau of Arcangues, the owner of which remained in it all this time, and was rather suspected of holding correspondence with his countrymen. It is not unlikely it was by his means the report above alluded to was propagated. Every thing now wore a serious aspect, and of course every thing was done to render their attack abortive. All were animated with the best disposition to defend the post to the last extremity; but while the generality believed all these preparations were serious, there were others who thought it only a _ruse de guerre_; indeed, had our friends, the German hussars, (with whom we had often acted in concert,) been here at this time, it is more than probable they would have been strongly inclined to the latter opinion, for they scarcely ever saw the French make a great bustle and noise, as if about immediately to advance and attack, but they would coolly say, after eyeing them awhile, "Oh, he not come to-day!" "He go away!" and were generally certain of being right. So full of trick and artifice are our French antagonists, that they generally act in quite a contrary manner to what appearances indicate. But they began to be known; hence the scepticism of some of our people on the present occasion. Accordingly, about midnight, when the attack was to have been made, away they went, and retired nearly into their lines, leaving only a few to keep the ground.

At daylight next morning we again moved forward, on which there was a good deal of firing between the Portuguese battalion that had followed them and their rearguard; but when our people advanced to our old post on the ridge, I, happening to be first, took off my cap, and, putting it on the top of my sword, held it up, which the French taking for a signal of peace, as it was intended, the firing on both sides ceased, each party taking up the post they held previous to the late movements. We wondered why the French had retired, but presently heard a tremendously heavy firing in the direction of the Nive. Soult, it seems, had withdrawn nearly all his troops from our flank, and marching rapidly through Bayonne, had attacked General Hill, who commanded on the other side of the Nive, with great impetuosity, thinking Lord Wellington had weakened that force to strengthen us; but here again Soult was outwitted, for he found on that side quite sufficient to give him as sound a drubbing as he ever got; the Portuguese on this occasion, I understand, performing wonders.

These five days' fighting (for on every day there was firing, more or less, in one part or other of the line) were called the Battle of the Nive. We had had three days' work of it--they on our right two--and Sir John Hope's people, on our left, four, I believe, and they not trifling ones. In every thing Soult undertook, he was completely foiled--all his schemes having been clearly seen through by his more sagacious opponent.

Indeed he had inflicted a heavy loss on our left wing, commanded by Sir John Hope, where the fighting had been most severe, but no doubt he suffered equally, if not more severely than they did. I am told that the enemy's light troops were most insolent and annoying to our heavy regiments on the left, on this occasion. What a pity that they could not have been opposed by troops of a similar description!

It may be remembered the civil officer of whom I made mention, as having rode away with the greater part of his wardrobe hanging about his horse; he was more fortunate than we were, for the things which he left, his kind landlady took care of, and hid in some snug corner till the business was over, and on his return restored them all to him. He said the cause of his going off in such a hurry arose from a cannon-shot having struck the lintel of the door or window of his house while he was in the act of shaving, on which he bundled out with whatever he could sc.r.a.pe together, and set off. I verily believe it must have been the effect of imagination, for I remained behind him at least a quarter of an hour, and although our houses were close together, I did not either hear or see a shot fired in that direction till we had reached the hill, nearly an hour after; but he constantly maintained that it was so.

We again took up our old quarters in front of the church; but oh, how changed were they now from what they had formerly been in point of comfort! nevertheless, they still afforded us shelter from the inclemency of the weather. Soon after dark on this evening, a rather unpleasant affair occurred at the left advanced post of our division. An officer and two men coming from the French advance, with what intention is not known, were observed by the corporal who was stationed at our abatis, who immediately took out his rifle and shot the officer through the body, on which his two men lifted him up and carried him into their picquet-house. We were apprehensive this would put an end to that good understanding which had hitherto subsisted between the picquets of the two nations, and much regretted the circ.u.mstance. It is more than probable the officer was coming as a sort of patrol, to ascertain whether or not we had left the post, which, being a military undertaking, subjected him to all the chances of war attendant thereon.

This is the more probable from his having two soldiers with him armed, as I understand they were; but if it was meant as a friendly visit, as formerly sometimes took place, it was greatly to be lamented; however, they did not, on account of this occurrence, manifest any soreness or ill-will afterwards, and the mutual good understanding continued to subsist between us.

While we remain at rest here a short s.p.a.ce, I will endeavour to put the reader in possession of the character of the inhabitants, among whom we have been sojourning for a few months past--I mean the Biscayans. From the time we crossed the Ebro, a wonderful change took place in the appearance of the natives; and I believe the same description of people extend considerably into France, although under another government; they, I understand, still retain their ancient customs, dress, and language; they are denominated Basques, from the name of the province, I apprehend, which is called Biscay. They speak a different language from either the Spaniards, who border them on one side, or the French, on the other; and some of our officers who spoke Welsh, said they could understand a few of their words; it is denominated the Basque language.

They generally wear cloth of their own manufacture, which is commonly blue, in some parts red or brown; in the neighbourhood of Pamplona, almost always the latter. The men wear a sort of Scotch bonnet, with a short jacket and trowsers, and are an amazingly athletic and active people. The women wear a short jacket also, of the same colour with their petticoat; and with their hair, which they encourage to grow to a great length, plaited in one large plait, and tied with a small piece of ribbon; it is allowed to hang down their back, and almost in all cases reaches to, or below their middle. They wear a handkerchief tastefully disposed upon their head. They are a fine, tall, and handsome race of women; but they have a custom of compressing their b.r.e.a.s.t.s, so that they appear as flat in the bosom as the men, which, to an English eye, is not becoming. The women do the same kind of work as the men, that is, they plough, and labour at all sorts of husbandry; but what seemed most remarkable to us, was their sole management of the ferry-boats about Pa.s.sages and St Sebastian; they row as well as any men, being amazingly strong and active; they seem content with their lot, and always appeared cheerful and happy. I believe they are strictly virtuous; and although very handsome in general, they did not seem so fond of admiration as the females of many other countries are; upon the whole, I think they resemble the Welsh more than any other people with whom I am acquainted; their countries are exceedingly similar, being mountainous, and in general not over fruitful, so that constant labour seems to be rendered absolutely necessary to insure to them the means of subsistence; hence they are industrious and frugal, and, upon the whole, an interesting and moral people.

CHAPTER XIII.

The Author's Battalion quartered in Aurantz on 3d January, 1814--The Cantonments at Aurantz broke up on 16th February, and the Campaign of 1814 commenced--Farther Advance into France--Skirmishing with the Enemy--Military Manoeuvres--Battle of Orthes--Defeat and Pursuit of the Enemy--Succession of Attacks on them--They are driven from their Position in and near Tarbes--Skirmishing at Tournefoile--The Enemy retire towards Toulouse.

On the 3d of January 1814, we were ordered to quit a part of the country, which, from the various occurrences that had taken place since we first arrived in it, had, in some measure, rendered it interesting to us. We moved a little to the right, and crossed the Nive, and again moved in advance about a league or more. This movement was made in support of some operations which Lord Wellington was conducting in the direction of the Adour, which being completed, we returned to the Nive, and took up our cantonments in the villages of Ustaritz and Aurantz.

About this time, nearly the whole of the peasantry, who had fled on our entering France, were now returning to their habitations, all fear that we should murder them, and eat their children, having by this time been completely dissipated. Indeed we were often told after this, that they would much prefer having a British army among them, to their own people, for they were always haughty, they said, and overbearing, and never scrupled to take whatever they had a mind for, while we were orderly and quiet, and never took an article without amply repaying the owner for it. Indeed I am well convinced the change the poor people had made in their lodgers was greatly for the better to them.

My battalion was quartered in the village of Aurantz, from which we often took a stroll, to look at the scene of our late operations. The French having, in consequence of Lord Wellington's movements near the Adour, strengthened their army in that direction, which of course rendered it necessary they should contract the limits of their front on the side towards Spain, they had consequently withdrawn their advance considerably within their former lines. We now also had plenty of opportunity for shooting, but were but ill supplied with fowling-pieces, or we might have killed an abundance of woodc.o.c.ks, every thicket in the neighbourhood being filled with them.

The weather now was extremely bad, and the roads impa.s.sable, except by yourself wading up to the knees, or having your horse almost continually nearly up to his belly. In consequence of the difficulty of communicating by dragoons, on account of the roads, telegraphs were established all along from the right of the army, on the banks of the Adour, to St Jean de Luz on our left, the head-quarters of the army.

While in these cantonments, an account arrived of our gallant Major-general (Kempt) having been appointed to the colonelcy of the 8th battalion of the 60th regiment, which had just been raised. At the recommendation of my commanding-officer, now Major Balvaird, the general kindly transmitted my name to the War Office for the appointment of paymaster of his battalion; but unfortunately for me, before my name arrived, his late Royal Highness the Duke of York, as Colonel-in-chief of the regiment, had nominated another person to the situation. It had always. .h.i.therto been customary for Colonels-commandant, and not the Colonel-in-chief, to nominate their own staff, but on this occasion another rule was adopted, which, of course, was a great disappointment to me, as I had, with considerable trouble, got all my sureties, &c.

prepared, although they were now not needed.

I had, during our stay here, one or more trips to the paymaster-general for money, for although the paymaster of the battalion had by this time arrived, I had several months' pay still to draw, the army being considerably in arrear in their pay. I had thus an opportunity of visiting St Jean de Luz, and all the enemy's late fortifications and position in that neighbourhood, and amazingly strong they had indeed rendered the ground in front of that town. It was a considerable and well-built town, partaking a good deal of both the Spanish and French character of course, it being the first French town next to the frontier; and, as I said before, there being very little difference between the Basques on either side of the Bida.s.soa, the change of countries in respect to inhabitants was not very observable except among the better orders.

On the 16th of February we broke up from our cantonments in Aurantz, and commenced the campaign of 1814, crossing the Nive at Ustaritz, and moving on in the direction of La Bastide de Clarence. We encamped on a wild heath, without any village or town being near us, and again the next morning continued our route to the place above-named, which we reached about noon, and encamped on a hill beyond it.

On the 22d we advanced to St Palais, having pa.s.sed other villages, the names of which I have forgot, in the intermediate days. Nothing, however, of any note occurred in that period. On the 23d we encamped near La Chere and Charrette; on the 24th we crossed two rapid and deep streams of the Bidowse. The first we got over with considerable ease,--it was the Gave de Mauleon, which we crossed at Nabes; but the second, the Gave d'Oleron, was not only both deeper and more rapid than the other, but the pa.s.sage seemed intended to be disputed with us; some French cavalry having made their appearance on the opposite bank, as we approached the river. The resistance they could offer, however, seemed very trifling, for, on our bringing up some guns to the bank, and a few shots having been fired from them, and from a company of our second battalion, they withdrew.

We now prepared to go over; accordingly, every man was ordered to take off his pouch and buckle it on the top of his knapsack, the ford being so deep as to take the men up to or above the middle. On this occasion I had I know not how many of the poor men hanging about me and my horse.

Some were holding by the stirrup, some by the tail, and others by the mane, or wherever they could lay hold, for the stream was so rapid as to nearly sweep them off their legs. Indeed I understand several of those who followed us were actually swept down, and perished.

On reaching the farther bank, we found the French had endeavoured to render it impa.s.sable, by throwing harrows, &c., with their spikes upmost, in the only places where you could ascend from the river. I believe a trumpeter of the French was all who fell on this day.

We pa.s.sed through Ville Neuve, and formed in a field beyond the village, till the whole division had got over. It was in this village where the scene between the mother, the child, and some of our officers, took place. When joined and formed, we moved on to a high and ugly common, not far in rear of the village of Orion, where we bivouacked for the night. It was most uncomfortable.

Before we reached our ground this evening, we observed, at a short distance to our left, a body of about 200 French infantry moving on parallel to us, but apparently making all haste to get away in front of us. Some suggested the idea of attacking and taking them prisoners; but as they were rather before us, it could not have been done without setting one of the battalions at them in double-quick time, and which would not have been an easy operation, after a long and fatiguing march, and fording two rivers. Besides, as our Quartermaster-general said, it was certain they could not be far from their support; consequently it would only bring on an affair, which it was not the General's wish to do at that time, for there was none near to support us should the enemy send a force against us. This day General Picton's division had a sharp affair at Navarreins, where they forced the pa.s.sage of the Gave we had crossed.

On the 25th, we moved forward early in the morning, and on reaching the village of Orion, we found that Soult had had his head-quarters the night before, with a considerable portion of his army, in and around the village; it was therefore fortunate we did not attack the French detachment before mentioned, for we should certainly have had Soult, with all his people, upon our single division. A French band had remained in this village till our arrival, having deserted in a body from the regiment to which they belonged, or they, seeing they could not make their escape, pretended to desert and join our army.

We bent our course towards Orthes, which was now only a few leagues in front of us. A man brought a cask of excellent wine to the roadside, with the intention of giving every man of the division a drink, but we could not wait, and were consequently obliged to leave the good man's gift. It showed that either good-will or fear had prompted him to this act. I rather think the former was the cause, as he lived some distance from the road. We had not continued long on the march, till we heard a loud and thundering explosion in front of us, which, as it was expected, turned out to be the bridge of Orthes, which the enemy had blown up. A short while after we came in sight of the town, and one of our Portuguese Cacadore regiments being sent forward, a smart skirmish commenced between them and the French, who had been left on and about the bridge to prevent our repairing it. I foolishly went down to see what was going on, and had nigh paid for my curiosity.

We took up our ground behind a height which overlooked the town, through which the enemy were pa.s.sing in large columns. In consequence of this, we got some guns into a field in front of our hill, and commenced a cannonade upon them, which, we could observe, made them hurry their pace considerably. They also brought some heavy field-guns to bear upon us, and fired some shots, but without doing us much injury. Throughout the whole of the road by which the French had come before us, desolation and misery marked their footsteps; and in the village of Orion, where Soult himself had slept the night before, nothing could exceed the despair and misery of the few remaining inhabitants, who told us they had been literally stripped of their all; indeed, they appeared most forlorn and wretched beings, and, as might be expected, poured out the most heavy and bitter complaints, not unmingled with imprecations, on the heads of their plundering countrymen. I went into a poor weaver's house here, where, if I mistake not greatly, the marauders had actually cut the web he was weaving out of the loom, and carried it off with them.

We remained on this ground all night, and the next morning his lordship was intently occupied for a considerable time in reconnoitring the enemy's position. At length, as if he had fully made up his mind how to act, he ordered our division to fall in, which was promptly obeyed; then, sending his staff with directions, we were ordered to file to the right, and to move down towards the river, apparently with the intention of crossing a little above the bridge, which had been destroyed. On the other side, immediately opposite what appeared to be the ford, were large bodies of infantry, together with a great quant.i.ty of artillery.

I recollect my battalion was leading the division, and it appeared at this moment as if we were going to be engaged in a most arduous and hazardous undertaking; for the enemy's artillery would have swept us off the face of the earth before we could possibly have reached the farther bank; however, this was only a _ruse de guerre_, and a most deep-planned and well-executed one it was; for while we were moving down towards the river, a staff-officer came riding, and ordered us all to hide as much as possible from the view of the enemy, by crouching down, &c. as we moved along. It may seem rather paradoxical to be ordered thus to act, at the same time that we wished the enemy to observe our movement; but the fact is, there were probably a thousand eyes fixed on us all the time we lay here, and who watched most closely our every movement; consequently, we could not stir without the enemy being aware of it; and if on this occasion we had made a show and a parade of our movement, it would have been suspected as only a feint at once, as the French themselves, from often practising this stratagem, would have penetrated immediately our object. But our Chief went a step too deep for them, adepts as they are in all the arts of this kind; for he made a pretence of hiding from them his movement, knowing well that we were observed; and this completely deceived them. This threat of crossing here was made in order to favour the construction of a bridge about eight or ten miles down the river, and the crossing there by another division, as they were thus enabled to guess where the princ.i.p.al force for opposition would be required. I believe a better planned or more successful stratagem was never practised. But I own, when we were marching down to the river to cross in front of the immense ma.s.ses which we saw ready to oppose us, I believed that few would survive to tell the tale hereafter.

The moment when we were just opening from the covered ground to plunge into the river, we were instantly countermarched with all expedition, and moved down the river at a quick pace till we reached the pontoon bridge which had been so successfully constructed and thrown over at the village of Sala. This being now perfectly safe, we encamped at the village for the night.

On the morning of the 27th, we early crossed the river called the Gave de Pau, and moved forward in the direction of the town of Orthes by the great road. On the right bank of that river, when we came within about two miles of the town, we were moved more to our left, ascending the high ridge which runs parallel with the river, and on which the French had taken up a strong position, and were said to be between 30,000 and 40,000 strong. One division had been ordered to move along the summit of this ridge, on which ran the great road to Peyrehourade, and to attack the enemy on that flank, while our division communicated with that and the 3d division to our right. When the action was commenced, the 2d division had been directed to ford above the bridge, where our feint had been made the day before, and pa.s.sing through the town, to attack on the opposite flank, and thus cut off their retreat towards the Pau. The enemy's position proved to be exceedingly strong, and difficult of access by us.

The action commenced by the 4th division attacking on the road leading along the ridge, where an obstinate and b.l.o.o.d.y conflict took place, without our people being able to make any impression. The attack of the 3d division, on our right, also commenced immediately after; but such was the nature of the ground on this side, being mostly in long pointed ridges, running out like the rays of a star, and which were exceedingly strong, that no efforts were able to force them from this ground.

General Hill had by this time got over the river, and was approaching the position. My division, having been deprived of two of its regiments, which had been sent, previous to the commencement of our operations this spring, to receive their clothing at St Jean de Luz, being rendered weak in consequence, it was kept in reserve, as I before mentioned. During this unsuccessful attack, our gallant Chief was for a considerable time immediately in front of us, watching with the most anxious care every motion of both armies. He appeared to me to be extremely thoughtful and serious on the occasion, as our troops did not succeed in forcing this stronghold of the enemy. The firing at this time was extremely animated, particularly on the ridge to our left, where great slaughter was made on both sides. And the French having discovered where he and his staff were a.s.sembled, opened a smart cannonade on the group, but without doing any mischief, I believe, and without being noticed by him. Their shots generally fell about our division, which was formed immediately behind the hill on which he stood.

At length, whether from the request of Colonel Barnard, who was at this time by his lordship's side, or whether by his own direction, I know not, but the Colonel was ordered to take on the 52d and 1st Portuguese belonging to the Cacadores, our 2d brigade, and endeavour to force a pa.s.sage through the French line, by the gorge of the valley, which lay immediately in his front, and they would thus, if successful, penetrate into the centre of the enemy's position. They accordingly moved up the valley in column of companies, sustaining all the time the most galling and destructive fire, for the enemy were thus on each of their flanks, as well as in front. When they reached within a short distance of the centre height, they formed line, and moving on at a brisk pace and carrying every thing before them, they drove the enemy from the plateau, and thus penetrated into the very heart of their army. This was a most daring and intrepid movement, for although a.s.sailed by ten times their force, and nearly surrounded by the enemy, these gallant corps hesitated not to push on, although the very elements seemed as it were to fight against them; for on the brow of the enemy's position the fire had been so heavy and so incessant, that the very furze bushes and herbs of all kinds were in a blaze along the front, through which, with innumerable foes behind it, these gallant men forced a pa.s.sage at the point of the bayonet.

This movement had the effect of at once deciding the fate of the day, for Soult seeing his very centre and strongest position carried, which separated between his wings, at once ordered a retreat of his whole force. The remainder of our division were now despatched with all speed in pursuit of the flying enemy, but they never attempted after this to make a stand, and nothing was left for us to perform but to give chase to the fugitives. When we reached the enemy's centre position, we found that every thing had been cleared away which could in the least impede his movements; every hedge and ditch had been completely levelled, so that nothing remained but a beautiful plain on the top of the ridge, except where works of defence had been thrown up. We were not successful in capturing any of the enemy, except the wounded, who had necessarily been left on the field, and we did not lay hold of any of his materiel, except a few guns which he had been obliged to abandon in a swamp below the position.

I have related only such things as fell within my own observation, but no doubt many were the heroic and gallant deeds that were performed in this hard contested battle, besides what I have detailed. As might be expected, the gallant 52d and its supporting corps, the 1st Portuguese Cacadores, suffered dreadfully, leaving probably one-fourth of their numbers on the field. But I must not omit mentioning one trait of gallantry which attracted the admiration of the whole army. Lord March (now the Duke of Richmond) had for some time been on the personal staff of Lord Wellington, where his services had been most efficient. He also was at this time a captain in the 52d regiment, but from his high civil rank had never served as an infantry officer with his regiment. He was determined to know and practice his duty in every situation, and therefore requested leave from his lordship to be permitted to join his corps as a captain, which was granted of course, and this was his first debut in the character of an officer of foot. It was no doubt a sharp trial; and poor fellow, while bravely leading on the company which his Majesty had intrusted to his command, he fell dangerously (then supposed mortally) wounded. This was a n.o.ble example to set our young n.o.bility, and they cannot do better than to follow such a precedent. I understand he has been heard to say, "that the chance of a staff-officer being hit in action, is not near so great as that of an officer of infantry, who must quietly brave all that comes against him, while a staff-officer, being well mounted, can quickly get out of danger; and that if a gentleman wishes truly to learn his profession as an officer, he ought to serve for a time in the infantry whilst engaged in operations in the field."

This was a most decided, but withal an unfruitful victory, and only tended to establish more firmly the superior skill of our commander, and the superior bravery of the British army. We had heard of the proceedings of the allies in the north, and of a number of the French generals having deserted the cause of their once potent, but now fallen master. And I verily believed that Soult had collected his whole force together here for the express purpose of either allowing himself to be surrounded, and thus make a show of being compelled to surrender, or of inducing his whole army to come over at once to the side of the Bourbons, but in all these conjectures I was completely mistaken; for whatever may have been Soult's faults as a man, he has always shown himself a consistent and an able defender of the cause he first espoused, and as such is certainly respectable.

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Twenty-Five Years In The Rifle Brigade Part 11 summary

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