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It appears Sir John Moore, just before he intended to set out, had received information, not only of Soult having been greatly reinforced, but that several strong corps of the French army were marching directly upon us, by which, should he delay only a few days, we should be completely surrounded, and cut off from a retreat. This was most distressing information, for never was an army more eager to come in contact with the enemy than ours was at this moment, and never was there a fairer prospect of success, had things remained as they were; but now, instead of honour and glory being acquired, by showing the French what British troops could do in the field, it was evident nothing remained but to commence a retrograde movement, the worst and most unpleasant, in a British soldier's view, of any other.
Winter had now completely set in; the face of the country being covered with deep snow, the weather was unusually severe. Our prospect, therefore, was by no means a pleasant one. To commence a retreat in front of a greatly superior force, and with the probability that other French armies might be before us, and intercept our retreat upon the sea, which was distant from us nearly 250 miles, with the country in our rear being already exhausted of every thing that could contribute to our support, and with such excessively bad weather to perform the retreat in, rendered it, I may say, as unpleasant a situation as troops could well be placed in. Added to which, our commissariat was by no means so efficient in those days as they have latterly become; and our troops in general being young, and unaccustomed to privation, it was but too obvious, that should the retreat continue long, many would be the disasters attending it. On Christmas day, our brigade, as the rear of the infantry, commenced its uncomfortable retreat, and continued marching till late at night, when we reached a convent near Majorga. The next day, although we started early, we only reached the village of St Miguel about midnight.
Here I had considerable difficulty with the baggage. I had had charge of it all day, my guard being composed of officers' servants, &c., who, the moment they got into the village, set off to their masters, and left me alone with the mules, the troops having, by the time I got in, all lain down to sleep. Several of the muleteers had been pressed into the service against their wills, and of course would have made their escape whenever an opportunity offered. I was therefore compelled to drive them all into the churchyard, and watch them myself, till luckily, after waiting in this situation a considerable time, without daring to go to sleep after the fatigues of such a day, some men happened to wander in that direction in search of meat, by whom I sent to our quartermaster to request he would send a guard, which he did soon after, and I had the happiness to be allowed to throw myself down and take some rest.
This day Lord Paget had another brush with the French cavalry, who, being apprized of our retreat, had advanced to Majorga. He attacked them with that gallantry which shone so conspicuously in the cavalry during the whole of this service, and completely overthrew them, killing and wounding many, and taking a number prisoners; in this affair the 10th hussars were engaged, and behaved n.o.bly. The next day we reached Castro Gonzales, and Castro Pipa. At the latter village, my battalion halted for the night and the next day. These two villages command the pa.s.sage over the river Eslar, they being about equidistant from the bridge, and something more than a mile apart on high ground over the river, which runs about a league in front of Benevente. Here we were obliged to remain during the time mentioned, in order that the heavy divisions of the army might get sufficiently forward before we moved.
I had still the charge of the baggage, and not knowing where my battalion was to be quartered for the night, I had crossed the Eslar to the Benevente side, till I learnt long after dark that Castro Pipa was its quarters. I consequently turned back and recrossed the river, and just as I reached the end of the bridge, I heard a shot immediately in my front. The 43d regiment guarded the bridge. It turned out to be a patrol of the enemy's cavalry who had come close to the top of the slope leading down to the bridge, and where a double sentry of the 43d was posted. By some accident these two men were not loaded; the French dragoons were consequently permitted to come close up to them without their being able to give any alarm. One of them, however, run his bayonet into one of the Frenchmen's horses, and retreated, but the other was not only cut down with the sabre, but had a pistol fired at him, which was the report I had just heard. I saw the wounded man, who was severely hurt, but whether he survived or not I know not.
When I reached Castro Pipa, my commanding-officer would scarcely credit the report I gave him, conceiving it impossible the French could be such near neighbours. I was a good deal chagrined at his suspecting my veracity, but he had never been what I may call a friendly commanding-officer to me, as the story of the rifle at Copenhagen will prove; indeed, as I had been put into the situation I held contrary to his wish, it was hardly to be expected that he would show himself very friendly. During the night, however, our quarters were beat up, not indeed by the enemy, but by our brigadier, who was not sparing of his censure for our want of alertness in turning out. Indeed, we neither had so good a look-out as we ought to have kept, nor did we get under arms with that prompt.i.tude which was desirable, and from the cause before a.s.signed; that is, that our commandant did not believe the enemy was so near.
I own I was not sorry that the General paid us such a visit, as it not only put us more upon our guard, a thing so indispensably necessary in the presence of an enemy, but it gave me some satisfaction for the dishonour put upon me by disbelieving my information.
The enemy did not disturb us during the remainder of the night, and next morning the brigade was a.s.sembled on the height above, and in front of the bridge; considerable bodies of the enemy's cavalry appearing in the plain before us. Some skirmishing between our people and the enemy took place, but nothing of any importance occurred. Our brigade was left in this position to cover the working party who were preparing to blow up the bridge, at which they worked all day; during the night our people were withdrawn from the farther side, and the explosion soon after took place, but the destruction of the bridge was by no means so effectual as was wished and expected. When we turned out in the morning to move towards the bridge, I (still having charge of my battalion's baggage) discovered that a vast quant.i.ty of excellent biscuit was stored up in an empty house in the village, which, no doubt, had been baked for the purpose of supplying the magazine at Benevente; and as our people had been but very indifferently supplied with bread since we commenced the retreat, I determined to load a bullock-cart with it, and try to get it to a place of safety, where I hoped to be able to issue it to them.
I accordingly took a cart and two bullocks, there being plenty in the village, and apparently without owners, for the inhabitants had mostly either abandoned the place on the appearance of the French, or had hid themselves. I loaded the cart, but still I wanted a person to drive it; and although I used both promises and threats, I could not prevail upon any person to go with me. I therefore mounted the cart myself, and using my sword by way of a goad, I entered the river at a place which looked like a ford, and had the good fortune to reach the other side in safety.
I mention this to show that so much importance need not have been attached to the destruction of the bridge, as both here, and near Castro Gonzales, the river was perfectly fordable, for near the latter place the French cavalry forded it on the following morning.
I now made my way to Benevente, where I remained during the day of the 28th; and at night, as before hinted, the troops which had been guarding the bridge arrived, leaving cavalry piquets on the plain between the town and the river. The next morning our people left Benevente, and as I was a little behind them with the baggage, on my reaching a height in rear of the town, I observed in the plain in front a considerable body of the enemy's cavalry, who had, as before stated, crossed the river near Castro Gonzales, and were advancing towards the town, opposed, though feebly at first, by the few of our cavalry left there on piquet; but the cavalry regiments which were in town quickly turning out to their support, they were at length completely able to oppose, and finally overthrow them.
During the time I remained here, I saw our brave dragoons make three most gallant and successful charges against superior numbers of the enemy, completely breaking and dispersing the different bodies against which the charges were made. The enemy appeared to be drawn up in different lines, the front one of which was that always charged; and I observed, that as our people advanced upon them, they were always received with a fire either from the carbines or pistols of the enemy, but this never appeared in the least to check the ardour of the charge, for in a minute or two after I observed the French troops retired in confusion, and formed behind the other lines. At length they were completely driven back to the ford by which they had crossed; and in a charge now made upon them, General le Febvre, with about seventy men, fell into our people's hands. These troops were a part of Bonaparte's Imperial Guard, and the flower of his army, being fine-looking men, dressed in dark-green long coats, with high bear-skin caps, and mustaches, which gave them a formidable appearance. It was said that Bonaparte was looking on at this affair, and witnessed the defeat of his. .h.i.therto invincible Old Guard; it is certain that he slept the night before at Villalpando, a place only four leagues distant from the field.
I now set off and overtook the baggage and the bullock cart, not having had an opportunity of issuing the biscuit; but before I had proceeded above a few miles, the bullocks knocked up, and notwithstanding every exertion I found it impossible to get them any farther. Thus was I reluctantly compelled to abandon a cart-load of excellent biscuit, after having had so much trouble with it, at the time when I knew it was greatly needed by my hungry fellow soldiers, and to whom it would have been a most welcome offering. On this day's march, a most lamentable number of stragglers were overtaken by us, we being in rear of all the infantry; they had either fallen out from excessive fatigue, or from having (as in too many instances) drunk too much; indeed, the destruction of the magazine of provisions at the place we had left, enabled too many of them to obtain by one means or other considerable quant.i.ties of spirits, and which, of course, rendered them incapable of marching. This was a long and wearisome day's journey of nearly thirty miles; we did not reach Labeneza till late at night, where a considerable quant.i.ty of ammunition was obliged to be destroyed, the animals failing which drew it.
The next day we reached our old quarters at Zalada, a league in front of Astorga, where we halted for the night, the remainder of the brigade going into the town. It was to this village, it may be remembered, that we were sent on our first advance, and subsequently after our first retreat from Labeneza; but besides these movements from the village and back again, during the time we remained in it, we almost every morning had orders to pack up and move a short distance out of the place. This was done no doubt to accustom us to a ready turning out, as till this period our baggage had been transported on bullock-carts; but now we had mules, and it was necessary to accustom those whose duty it was, to load the mules with dispatch. But on every occasion of this kind, the inhabitants always imagined we were actually going to leave them, and the moment we were clean gone, as they thought, they set to work and rung the church bell with all their might. This was either to testify their regret at losing our company, or to evince their grat.i.tude to Heaven for having got rid of such a band of heretics, by which their most pure and holy dwellings had been defiled; it was laughable to see the long faces they put on when we, so contrary to their hopes and expectations, always returned to our wretched and uncomfortable quarters.
During the whole of the time we remained in this village, I, as a staff-sergeant, could find no better lodgings than a dirty open shed; the reader will therefore judge how ill the privates must have been off.
Our fellows began about this time to pick up little bits of Spanish, and would often exercise their ability to converse in the native tongue, by telling the inhabitants that we were certainly going to "_marcha manana_", that is, to march to-morrow, so that it became quite a by-word, which annoyed our hosts not a little. If I mistake not, the Padre of this village was a great knave, and did not scruple to help himself to such things as he had a mind for, belonging to our officers, whenever a fit opportunity presented itself. The next day, the 31st, we moved into Astorga, where we halted for an hour or two, till the destruction of the magazine there was completed, although nothing but rum remained; and here I witnessed such a brutal and swinish eagerness for drink as was quite disgusting. The rum casks were ordered to be staved, and to let the contents run out on the street, that they might not fall into the hands of the enemy: thus the rum which had cost so much trouble in bringing up all the way from Corunna was about to be lost for ever; a thing most heart-rending to the numerous soldiers looking on, who loved it so dearly. However, they were determined not to lose all, for when the heads of the casks were knocked in, and their contents permitted to run in streams down the gutters, some of those brutes deliberately took off their greasy caps, and laving up the rum and the mud together, drank, or rather ate, the swinish mixture. What n.o.ble soldiers would our country produce, were not that detestable vice of drunkenness so common among us; but to it how many have I seen deliberately sacrifice their own and country's honour, nay their very life itself, rather than forego the beastly gratification!
All this morning we had been told to keep a sharp look-out on the Leon side of Astorga, for the enemy was every moment expected to make his appearance from that quarter; however, we were not disturbed during the short time we remained. We here fell in with a considerable body of Romana's army, apparently all confusion, and dest.i.tute of every thing.
We understood that they were not to be marched in the same line we were taking, but that it had been concerted between the two generals that our route should be kept free; however, here, and for several days afterwards, we suffered greatly from their contiguity.
We continued our march from Astorga the same day, and reached at night the village of Foncevadon, about twenty miles distant. Here we pigged in as well as we were able, there being only five or six houses; but as we had a few tents with us, we managed not amiss. Till now our brigade had formed the rear of the infantry, there being some cavalry in rear of us; but it was now determined that ours and the Light German Brigade under Brigadier-general Charles Alten, should strike off from the great road, and take the route for Orense and Vigo. This was done, I understand, with a view to secure a pa.s.sage across the Minho at the former place, should Sir John, with the main army, be compelled to retreat in that direction, and probably with the view also of drawing off a part of the enemy's overwhelming force from the pursuit of that body, and to induce them to follow us into the mountains.
Notwithstanding this, they continued to pursue Sir John on the great road, whilst they left us free altogether.
I beg to notice here, that both Mr Gifford and Mr Moore (Sir John's brother), have fallen into a trifling error respecting the period of our separation from the main body, they both making us be detached before our arrival at Astorga, whereas it was not till we had pa.s.sed a day's march beyond it that we were sent off. The thing is of no consequence, only it is as well to be correct.
The next day, the 1st of January 1809, we marched by a most difficult road through the mountains, to Ponferrada, situated about a league to the left of the great road to Corunna, on which the main army was retreating. When we got in, our commissary immediately made a requisition to the Alcalde of the town, to provide bread for the two brigades, as we began to be in most fearful want. He promised to set the bakers to work immediately, and in a few hours, he said, the bread would be ready. We called on him repeatedly, without obtaining any, he still alleging it was not yet quite ready, and putting us off from time to time, till midnight, when the patience of our commissary being fairly worn out, he yielded to the anger so naturally inspired by such shuffling conduct, and used some strong language to the Alcalde.
Whereupon, we discovered at once that he had been only amusing us with promises he did not intend to fulfil; and told the commissary that he did not fear any of his threats, for that, as Romana's army had now also entered the town, he had no doubt they would protect him, and revenge any insult offered to him. The commissary had indeed talked about hanging him for his double-dealing, and leaving the troops utterly starving; but if he could have got any bread ready, it is most natural to suppose he would prefer letting his own countrymen have it; this, however, as might be expected, had a most pernicious effect upon our suffering soldiers, for when provisions could not be procured in the regular and ordinary mode, it is evident they would take them wherever they were to be found--for hunger is not easily borne, accompanied by incessant fatigue. In the morning, when we turned out to continue our march towards Orense, we heard a heavy firing towards our right and front, and this proved to be an attack made by the enemy's light troops upon our first battalion, who, with some cavalry, had been left in Cacabelos as a rearguard. Our first battalion gained great credit for their conduct on this occasion. The force of the enemy greatly exceeded ours, yet our people drove them back with great loss, killing General Colbert, who commanded the advance. This was done by a noted pickle of the name of Tom Plunkett, who, fearless of all danger to himself, got sufficiently nigh to make sure of his mark, and shot him, which, with the fire of the others, caused great havoc in the enemy's ranks, and set them flying to the rear much faster than they advanced. Our situation was thus, in a manner, in rear of the enemy's advance guard, yet they did not turn in our direction. Cacabelos was distant from us only about a league.
Our road this day lay over high and almost inaccessible mountains, deeply covered with snow. On the top of one of these, as our General was pa.s.sing the column, a cry was pa.s.sed from the rear to open out to allow him to pa.s.s, the road being very narrow. One of our men, as the General came near, happened to say, loud enough for him to hear, that "he had more need to give us some bread," or words to that effect, which so exasperated the General, that he instantly halted the whole brigade, ordered the man to be tried by a drum-head court-martial, and flogged him on the spot. It was a severe, but perhaps necessary discipline, in order to check in the bud the seeds of murmuring and insubordination, although I own it appeared harsh.
Our march was a long and toilsome one indeed, and did not terminate till about ten at night, when we reached St Domingo-Flores, where nothing could be procured but a very small quant.i.ty of black bread, the village being quite small. Tired with the journey, we felt rather inclined to sleep than eat; and, wet and dirty as we were, we laid ourselves down till dawn, when we commenced another such day's march, and reached at night the village of La Rua. During these two days, want and fatigue had compelled many to fall out, some of whom, no doubt, perished in the snow on the bleak mountains, over which our road, or rather path, had lain; others fell into the hands of the enemy, and some few rejoined us after having obtained some little refreshment from the natives.
It would but be a repet.i.tion of the privations and fatigues we underwent, to notice all that befell us on our way thence to Orense, which place we reached on the 7th of January, having previously pushed on, by double forced marches, a few hundred men, to take possession of the bridge over the Minho at this place. Here we remained a day, and obtained provisions, then much needed by us all, for the men had been literally starving for several days past. We had time and opportunity here also to strip and change our linen, that is, those who had a change; the others washed the shirt they took off, sitting without one till it was dry. Indeed, by this time we were in a most miserable plight; our shoes, of course, were nearly all worn out, and many travelling barefoot; and our clothes, as might be expected, were ragged and filthy in the extreme; indeed they could not be otherwise, for I suppose none of us had put any thing off since we commenced the retreat.
This day's rest, however, refreshed us greatly, and enabled us to perform the remainder of our toilsome journey with more comfort; indeed, since we had secured the pa.s.sage of the Minho, and thus prevented the enemy from getting in before us, our minds were more at ease, for strong apprehensions were entertained that the French would have detached a corps from their main body to seize this pa.s.s, and thus cut off our retreat to Vigo. A part of Romana's army entered Orense before we left it, worse, if possible, in point of appearance than ourselves; but they, in their best days, are more like an armed mob than regularly organized soldiers.
It is a pity that Romana did not adopt the plan pointed out to him by Sir John Moore, either to retire into the Asturias with his army unbroken, or hang upon the flanks of the enemy as he pa.s.sed through the mountains; and which he could have done with ease and safety, for these fellows could live where regular troops would starve, and there was no doubt but the peasantry would have a.s.sisted their countrymen with all their means. This would have in some measure r.e.t.a.r.ded the too rapid progress of the French, and probably been the means of saving to our country one of its bravest and most skilful generals.
Some of our men who had been compelled to stop behind from fatigue and starvation, rejoined us here, having generally been a.s.sisted by the peasantry, who gave them food, and helped them forward.
On the 9th, in the morning, we left Orense, crossing the Minho to the north side of that river, and continued our march to the town of Ribadavia, situated at the junction of the rivers Avia and Minho, both of which, from the melting of the snow, and the immense quant.i.ties of rain that had fallen, were greatly swollen. So much so, that when I approached the town with the baggage, (the troops having gone on before,) and which I did not reach till near midnight, I found the road completely overflowed with water; and being without a guide, I could not of course in the night be certain where the road lay, the whole bank of the river being completely under water. We were in consequence obliged to climb the mountains to our left, and proceed in the best manner we were able with the loaded mules; but so precipitous were they in one place, that a load of ammunition slid off the mule's back, and the casks rolled rapidly down the hill towards the river. I durst not venture to leave them, although my chance of finding them in such a situation appeared small indeed; however, we halted the remainder of the mules, while a few of us set off down the steep in the direction we had seen them go, and after a long and anxious groping in every hollow of the rocky mountain, succeeded in recovering them; but the powder in them, and indeed nearly all the ammunition we had, was rendered completely useless, from the constant heavy rain that had fallen. I am almost astonished that no accident happened to either man or beast in this perilous journey, for our feet literally "stumbled upon the dark mountains," without either guide or path, and where the ground was most uneven and dangerous. We however at length reached our destination, wet and weary enough, and, just as we entered the town, were informed that the corridor of one of the convents where two of our companies were sleeping, had just fallen to the ground with a tremendous crash, and that several men had had their limbs broken by the fall; I do not remember that any were killed. It being so late, I could not procure any kind of quarter, so I was fain to sit down by the side of a fire kindled in the yard of this convent for the remainder of the night.
We next morning resumed our journey, and in three days more from this place we reached Vigo. On this last day's march we had a pretty high eminence to ascend at some distance from the town, from which the view of the town, the shipping, and the sea, broke all at once upon us. It was a most delightful prospect, and it was highly amusing to observe the joy which seemed to animate the woe-worn countenances of our ragged and dirty soldiers. Fellows without a shoe or a stocking, and who before were shuffling along with sore and lacerated feet like so many lame ducks, now made an attempt to dance for joy; laughter and mirth, and the joke, now succeeded to the gloomy silence with which they had in general prosecuted their wearisome journey for several days past, as the friendly element before them promised shortly to put a period to long and toilsome wanderings. Indeed, although I am a bad sailor, and suffer always severely when at sea, I do not remember ever to have witnessed a sight which inspired me with greater pleasure than the shipping and the sea did on this occasion.
The fleet of transports for the army under Sir John Moore, was just clearing the bay as we came in sight, but we observed that a sufficient number remained at Vigo to transport us to our native land, a place we sorely longed for, as we had often contrasted the happiness and security and comfort of our friends at home, with the poverty and misery we had lately witnessed in the country we were leaving; and this no doubt increased our anxiety for the change. We marched into Vigo, and were soon after put on board the vessels destined to receive us. It was my fortune to be sent on board the Alfred, 74, with two of our companies; a great number of men were still behind, for even the few last days'
marches had deprived us of many who till then had braved the toils and privations of the journey, but who now had fairly sunk under exhaustion.
The Commodore, therefore, remained as long in the bay as it was safe, sending the stragglers as they arrived on board the different ships; but within a few days after our arrival, the enemy entered the town, which of course precluded all hope of more escaping. We consequently weighed and stood out towards the outer bay, where we again came to anchor.
A Russian ship-of-war was in a small harbour in this bay, which it was intended to board and cut out. As we were then, I believe, on rather bad terms with that nation, never did I witness such alacrity and delight as our tars on board the Alfred manifested when buckling on their cutla.s.ses for the occasion, and I feel certain that if confidence in themselves would tend to insure the victory, no men had a better chance of succeeding; but from some cause or other with which I am unacquainted, the enterprise was abandoned.
On the 21st January we weighed and stood out to sea; but a gale coming on we were obliged to come to anchor again under the shelter of the Isle of Bagona. We did not get to sea till the 24th, but on the 25th we spoke a frigate going out to Lisbon with General Dyatt on board, who informed us of the fatal business at Corunna. Indeed the people on board this ship had, from vague reports, greatly magnified our loss on that occasion, telling us that the whole army had been nearly cut to pieces, and that very few indeed had been able to effect their escape. We each, of course, mourned for his particular friends, not doubting but they had fallen among the rest. I think it was the same night on which we saw this ship, a fatal accident had very nigh taken place. Our captain was the Commodore, and the captain of the Hindostan store-ship had charge of the rear of the fleet; his place was consequently always behind all the other vessels. Some time after dark, however, our look-out people gave notice of a large vessel on our starboard quarter. We shortened sail and let her come up pretty close to us, and made the private signal, but no answer was returned. At length, when near enough, we hailed her, but still no answer. An order was now given to stand to quarters and prepare for action, not doubting she was an enemy which had got among the fleet.
The guns were accordingly run out, the matches lit, and every thing prepared for action. She appeared a large ship, but of what force they could not guess. Again she was hailed, and again she disregarded it. Our first lieutenant was now fully convinced she was an enemy, and pleaded hard with the captain to give the word fire, but the captain said he would hail her once more, and if she did not answer he would fire.
Providentially they heard us this time, and answered it was the Hindostan. What they had been about I know not, for we were quite near each other; and had she received our broadside, as was the intention had she not then answered, it is most probable she would have gone down; at all events the consequences must have been awful, for she had the whole of the 43d regiment on board, besides her own crew. Our captain certainly censured him in no very mild terms for leaving his station in the rear, and getting to the very head of the fleet. She was a very lofty ship, and carried forty-four guns I believe, and had not less than 1000 men on board, many of whom must have suffered had we fired upon her.
A few days after this we encountered a most tremendous gale, and came in sight of the English coast, somewhere near the Lizard or the Start; but our master not knowing exactly where he was, we stood off again towards the French coast.
The next day the gale was if possible more severe, and the ship rolled so much that they were afraid her guns would break loose from their lashings, in consequence of which large spikes were driven in behind the wheels of each gun-carriage to prevent such an accident. In this situation, I know not whether I did not almost wish myself on the snowy mountains of Galicia again, rather than where I was, so miserable a sailor am I, and so much do I suffer from sea-sickness.
The fleet was by this time completely scattered, every one making the best shift he could for himself; some got into Plymouth, some reached Portsmouth, and some, I believe, foundered in the gale, among which, if I mistake not, was a brig, on board of which my two companies had been first embarked, but were subsequently removed to the Alfred, and some of the German Legion, I think, put on board her.
At length we made the Isle of Wight, and subsequently Spithead, which we reached on the 31st, and the next day landed once more on the happy sh.o.r.e of our native Britain. Thankful indeed I ought to have been for the ever watchful care of an indulgent and kind Providence, who had brought me safely through the toils and sufferings under which so many more robust and hardy than myself had sunk; but, alas! I had then no sense of the grat.i.tude due for such unmerited favours, and instead of rendering thanks to Him who had thus preserved me, I entered, with all the eagerness of a person devoid of reason and religion, into every vice and sensuality that presented itself. I here learnt with sorrow the great loss which my friends in the first battalion had sustained, but glad nevertheless that it was not to the extent we apprehended, and that none of my particular friends had fallen.
We left Portsmouth, and returned to our old quarters at Hythe, in Kent, pa.s.sing again on the road my native county militia at Battle, in Suss.e.x, as I did at Bury, on my return from Holland; and truly our appearance on this occasion was, if possible, more deplorable than on the former.
However, our tattered and worn-out habiliments had the effect of inspiring some of my countrymen in that regiment with a desire of sharing in the glory, as they termed it, of suffering so much in the defence of our beloved country; and they accordingly made up their minds to volunteer into our corps the first opportunity that offered, and which they put in execution that same year, as will be told hereafter.
We took up our abode in the comfortable barracks at Hythe, and immediately set about putting every thing in order, and truly much was wanting to fit us again for duty as soldiers.
Volunteering--Farther Promotion--Embarks for Portugal, with two Companies of the Second Battalion--Debark at Cadiz--Advance to the Isla--The French occupy all the adjacent Towns, except Cadiz and the Isla--Cannonading--Spanish Army--Detachment of the Allied Army sent Around by Gibraltar and Chiclana, to take the Enemy in the rear of his works, and compel him either to fight or abandon them--Come up with a portion of the Enemy in the vicinity of Veger--Bravery of the British--The Enemy repulsed with great Loss, but, from the apathy and misconduct of General La Pena, and the Spaniards under his command, the French are allowed to retain their Works in the vicinity of Cadiz.
In April of this year, an order was issued to allow the militia regiments to volunteer, for the purpose of filling up the regiments of the line; and I was sent by Colonel Beckwith (our two battalions being then both at Hythe) to receive those who chose to volunteer from the Northumberland militia before-mentioned, which had now been removed to Ipswich. Lieutenant Beckwith had the charge of our party, but proceeded _incog._ to Ipswich, the general orders not permitting officers of the line to be seen in the quarters of the militia. On our arrival at Ipswich, I had the pleasure of obtaining the names of thirty fine young fellows, among whom the patriots formerly mentioned of course were included. Several other militia regiments in this district also gave volunteers to us, so that in three days, from the commencement of the volunteering, we obtained upwards of 1100 men; and had we not, by an order from the Horse-Guards, been precluded from taking any more, I doubt not we should have obtained several hundreds besides, for our regiment alone had near eighty names down for us, who were not allowed to enter from the above cause. Indeed the Commander-in-Chief, Sir David Dundas, (afterwards our Colonel,) appeared quite astonished, and not well pleased, that we had run away with so many men when others wanted them so much. He was obliged, however, to grant us a 3d battalion, as we had so many more men than were required to fill up the 1st and 2d; and our respected Colonel, Major-general Coote Manningham, dying about this time of the fatigue he had undergone in Spain, Sir David took us to himself, and became our Colonel-in-Chief, giving the command of the 3d battalion to my respected (and now lamented) friend and benefactor, Major-general the Honourable William Stewart. The Lieutenant-colonelcy was given to Major Norman M'Leod, our senior Major, and only two or three other steps were given to the officers of the regiment, although it was alone owing to their exertions in obtaining men, and to the high character the regiment had acquired, that such numbers had volunteered into it.
It becomes not me to censure or criticise the measures of government, but I cannot help thinking that more favour was certainly due to the corps as a body. For myself, I ought and must speak with grat.i.tude, not of them, but of that kind Providence which has favoured me so far, so very far, beyond my deserts, for, on the 8th of June following, I was appointed Quartermaster of the 3d battalion.
Our 1st battalion was again sent out to join the army in Portugal, while mine was sent to Brabournlees to equip and drill our new levies. Every exertion was made to this effect, and the battalion was soon completed and rendered fit for service. Here my wife joined me again, the child to which she gave birth in my absence having died when six weeks old. This was the only child she ever had, and it was perhaps a providential dispensation, for she was extremely delicate, and by no means a healthy person, and it is not unlikely her offspring might have inherited her disease, that is, an affection of the chest. We had only lived a few months together, till another call for service separated us again.
In June 1810, we received orders to send out to Cadiz two companies of my battalion, together with the commanding-officer and staff, three others having been already sent thither in the spring. The melancholy business of parting with my wife was again to be gone through; but on this occasion I was favoured by being permitted to accompany her to London, where, parting from her with a heavy heart, I took my place for Chichester, at which place my detachment would be quartered next day, on their way to Portsmouth. I omitted to mention, that Lieutenant-colonel Barnard of the 1st or Royals, had exchanged with Lieutenant-colonel M'Leod some time previous, and he consequently was now going out as my commanding-officer. We embarked at Portsmouth on the 11th July, on board the Mercury frigate, armed _en flute_, and commanded by Captain Tanc.o.c.k.
We had a favourable pa.s.sage, and landed at Cadiz on the 29th of that month. This city, it may be remembered, was besieged at this time by a French army under Marshal Victor; consequently, when we arrived, we were amused by seeing immense sh.e.l.ls flying from one party to the other, but without doing any serious injury to either, the distance being too great to produce any effect of moment. As we came in sight of Cadiz, the view was most enchanting, for the city appeared as if composed of lofty and elegant snow-white buildings, apparently rising from the bosom of the ocean, for the land on which it is built cannot be seen at a distance; added to which, the numerous and beautiful towns about the bay, and a little beyond it, rendered it a most delightful scene. On the right was Cadiz, with its lofty lighthouse, and its strong sea-walls rising out of the water; on the left was Rota, an apparently neat little town. Farther up the bay, on the same side, was Port St Mary's, and beyond that Porto Real, both considerable towns. In the centre rises the Isla de Leon, now called St Ferdinand; beyond that Chiclana, composed of the elegant country residences of the more wealthy Cadiz merchants; and, in the distance, towering on the mountains behind, the dazzling white town of Medina Sidonia shining in the sun; indeed altogether imagination can scarcely picture to itself a more interesting _coup-d'oeil_, the scene being closed by the lofty snow-clad mountains of Ronda. We landed at Cadiz, and remained for the night in the barracks situated in the barrier, on the land-side of the town, and which is remarkably strong, the fortifications being composed of solid masonry, and the barracks all bomb-proof. I suffered dreadfully from the myriads of fleas which preyed upon me during the night, and was glad when morning appeared.
We marched next day to the Isla, (be it observed the town is called by that name as well as the island on which it and Cadiz are situated,) distant from Cadiz about seven miles; the island is of a most singular form, being about ten miles broad at the end next the continent, from which it is separated by the river Santi Petri; immediately below the town of Isla it begins to narrow very rapidly, forming from thence to Cadiz nothing more than a narrow sand-bank, in some places not more than a hundred yards across, and on which a causeway has been built to connect the two places. We took up our abode in the Isla, where the Spanish government, such as it was, at this time resided; and here I witnessed the first opening of the Spanish Cortes in 1810, which was attended with all the pomp and show of a truly Roman Catholic people.
_Te Deums_ and other pompous and brilliant ceremonies marked the event; indeed, here we had an opportunity of seeing a great number of the grandees of the Spanish nation, for, as I said before, the government had retired to this place from Madrid, and most of the courtiers and others attached to the government had a.s.sembled here, together with the deputies from the different provinces; altogether the scenes we witnessed here were sometimes very imposing.
The French occupied all the towns before named save Cadiz and Isla, their advanced piquets being thrown forward to near the river Santi Petri, except near the Bridge of Luaza, which is the only communication across from the island to the mainland; here our pickets were advanced a considerable distance beyond the bridge upon a causeway on which is the road leading to Seville, through a broad salt marsh on the banks of the river; it is here about two miles wide, and utterly impa.s.sable, except to those who know the footpaths across it, being intersected at every few paces by deep salt-pits or pans. The enemy, as mentioned before, had their sentries at some parts pretty far into the centre of this marsh, and there were some fellows in the Spanish service called by the name of "creepers," they obtaining their livelihood by killing sea-fowl and other animals in this marsh; and so dexterous were they at this _creeping_, that they could steal upon the birds unperceived, which enabled them to get them with ease. Sometimes a fellow of this calling would set off on a _creeping_ excursion, and instead of bagging a wild-duck, or some other such bird, would plunge his stiletto into the heart of an unsuspecting French sentry, and leave him weltering in his gore. This was a n.o.ble exploit in their estimation, and marks strongly the character of the Spaniard, who, inured to blood by the frequency of their bull-fights and other similar exhibitions, hesitates not a moment at a.s.sa.s.sination if urged on by what he deems his own or country's wrongs; this inhuman act, of course, was perpetrated in the dark.