Twenty-Five Years In The Rifle Brigade Part 5

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I may mention, in connexion with this, that on the Christmas of 1810, it was reported that sixteen people had been a.s.sa.s.sinated in Isla alone, on the evening or night before; it is probable the number may have been exaggerated, but the thing was such an almost everyday occurrence that it appeared not to excite the least horror at its atrocity. I had occasion to go down the town during the Christmas day, and I saw still lying at the corner of one of the most frequented streets, one of the unhappy beings who had thus fallen. No one seemed inclined to own him; and his body, foul with blood and dust, was thus permitted to remain in the public streets without any enquiry being made with respect to the perpetrator of so foul a deed. In truth they are, as it were, trained up to this recklessness of human life from their infancy, for in the town of Isla there was a sort of naval academy, where a number of boys, from perhaps eight to twelve years of age, were educated; these urchins were permitted to wear swords, and it is really astonishing how desirous they appeared to make use of them, for they could scarcely ever pa.s.s along the streets without trying the sharpness of their points upon the backs of pigs or dogs, or any other unfortunate animal that came in their way.

The French also occupied a long low tongue of land which stretches out into the Bay of Cadiz, taking its rise from between Port St Mary's and Porto Real, and extending to within about two and a half miles of Cadiz, and about one from Puntalis, a fort erected on the island opposite the extremity of this low tongue; this is called the Trocadero, since become famous as the field on which the Duke D'Angouleme, and Prince Carignan of Naples, gained so many honours. On the point of this tongue the enemy's princ.i.p.al batteries were erected, and from thence they contrived occasionally, but not often, and never with any great effect, to throw sh.e.l.ls into the town of Cadiz. The mortar now in St James' Park, called the "Prince Regent's bomb," was cast at Seville on purpose to enable them to reach the town, no ordnance of common dimensions being capable of throwing a sh.e.l.l so far; but it did not answer the end proposed, or at least the effect expected from it, for it was imagined by them, that if they could once succeed in throwing sh.e.l.ls into the city, the inhabitants would become so alarmed that they would compel the military to surrender. This, however, was far from being realized, although they did throw a few in; but the distance being so great, they were necessarily thrown much at random, some of them falling short of the town, others flying completely over into the bay near the lighthouse on the other side, and some few, as I said, falling in the city, but from which very few casualties occurred.[2] I am told they were obliged to have the mortar slung in chains at the time of firing it, the concussion being so great as to destroy the bed in which it was fixed.

As may be supposed, there was constant war between our fort Puntalis, before mentioned, and the enemy's batteries on this point; in fact our people had orders to throw a thirteen-inch sh.e.l.l every quarter of an hour, besides the occasional firing from the guns and other mortars when any thing appeared on the opposite side; and you may be certain the French were not behind us in the expenditure of ammunition; they were remarkably fond of firing what are termed salvos, that is, volleys of artillery. On one occasion I happened to be looking out from a high tower near Isla, called the Tore Alto, and while all was deep and profound silence, and I happened to be looking towards the point of Trocadero, in a moment the smoke rose from at least 100 pieces of artillery, fired by signal, and the noise they made was tremendous. Our poor little fort of Puntalis appeared almost enveloped in the dust raised by the striking of the shot, and the smoke from them which fell about it, and seemed as if almost deprived of power by so sudden and unexpected a salute; but she began at length to return the compliment, although feebly in comparison of the tremendous volley she had received.

This and such like were of frequent occurrence, scarcely a day pa.s.sing without something interesting taking place.

To enable us to cope in some measure with the French, a large double fortified sea-mortar was brought from Gibraltar, which threw thirteen-inch sh.e.l.ls. It was brought up to the back of the town of Isla, near some powder magazines, and an attempt made there to throw some sh.e.l.ls over to the Trocadero. The first trial, an empty sh.e.l.l was put in, with not less than thirty-two pounds of powder in the chamber. On firing it, the sh.e.l.l flew all to atoms, from the violent shock occasioned by so great a quant.i.ty of powder; and the sh.e.l.l being too weak for that description of mortar, another was tried filled with sand, to give it more weight and solidity; this answered the purpose, for it fell on the land on the opposite coast, but still, from the great range, much uncertainty must naturally attend the practice, and it was eventually given up. The next day, however, we were saluted from the opposite side with both shot and sh.e.l.l, the French thus showing us that they were better able to play at long bowls than we were; neither, however, did their practice continue, for there was nothing at the point where their shot and sh.e.l.ls fell to be injured by them, the magazines before noticed being now empty.

On another occasion an attack was made by our people on the Trocadero itself, where it was reported the French had got a considerable number of boats, &c., laid up on sh.o.r.e, about half-way between the point and Porto Real; our folks took gun-boats and boats with rockets, the intention being to set fire to the enemy's craft. They accordingly advanced in good style, keeping as far, however, as possible out of the range of the French batteries at the point, which, as they were directed towards Cadiz and Puntalis, could not easily bring their artillery to bear upon our boats. They reached the place where it was said the French craft was lying, and fired a considerable number of rockets, but without being able to effect any thing farther than burning one boat, I believe.

As they were returning, however, they met the French commander, who had been down to the point in a light boat, and he, like a brave fellow, determined to run completely the gauntlet rather than return, keeping as close in sh.o.r.e, however, as possible. The whole of our gun-boats fired at him as he pa.s.sed, and knocked the water up about him in all directions without ever once touching him, although, to look at him, one would have imagined it impossible he could escape; but here the old soldier's adage was verified, for there was still more room to miss than to hit him, and he accordingly escaped scot-free.

While here, I had a most ample opportunity of closely viewing the Spanish army, great numbers being stationed in and about the Isla, and great numbers constantly coming into and going out of the place, after receiving such equipment as the government was able to provide for them.

Nothing could exceed the hardy and robust appearance of the men in general; and had they been clothed, appointed, and disciplined like either their enemies or their allies, there could not have been a finer soldiery. I cannot, however, say so much for their officers; most of them appeared to be utterly unfit and unable to command their men. Those who had the means, seemed to think of nothing else but dressing like apes or mountebanks, and intriguing with the women. It was really absurd and ludicrous to see the strange figures they generally made themselves.

In one regiment alone you might have observed more different uniforms than both we and the French have in all our armies. One would have had on a blue coat turned up with red, with a chaco and a straight sword, the uniform prescribed for officers of the infantry, I believe; the next would have most likely had on a hussar dress, with an enormous sabre dangling by his side; another would have had a red coat, a fourth yellow, a fifth white, and so on. In short, all the colours of the rainbow were generally exhibited in the uniforms of one regiment's officers; and every one of them appeared to vie with the other who could make the greatest harlequin of himself, whilst those of them who were mounted would caper and prance about the streets like so many fools, riding with their legs at full stretch, and the toe of the boot (if they had one) just touching the stirrup, and drawing the reins continually through the fingers of their right hand; and if by any chance an ape of this kind came near the window of his dulcinea, and thought there was a likelihood of her seeing him, I pitied the poor foot-pa.s.sengers who might happen to be near him, for he would make his unfortunate Rosinante prance and caper by the immense long bit in its mouth, and the pieces of iron in the shape of spurs on his (shoes perhaps), till the poor animal was like to fall under him. In short, they had all the pride, arrogance, and self-sufficiency of the best officers in the world, with the very least of all pretension to have an high opinion of themselves; it is true they were not all alike, but the majority of them were the most haughty, and at the same time the most contemptible creatures in the shape of officers, that I ever beheld. It was, therefore, not to be expected that the soldiers would or could look upon them with that degree of respect and reverence so essential to a due maintenance of subordination in an army.

About the month of February 1811, it was concerted between the Spanish government and General Graham, who commanded us, to undertake an expedition which should land in the vicinity of Gibraltar; and being there reinforced by some troops from that fortress, the whole should move forward in the direction of Chiclana, and, taking the enemy in the rear of his works, compel him either to abandon them or fight a battle.

Accordingly, on the 18th of that month, we embarked on board some small vessels that had been fitted up for the occasion in the bay of Cadiz, and, sailing soon after, we reached Algeziras, ten miles on this side of Gibraltar, and landed there on the 24th. Our force consisted of a brigade of artillery, with ten guns; two battalions of Foot Guards; the 28th, 67th, and 87th regiments; a battalion composed of flank companies from Gibraltar; two companies of the 47th regiment, and two of the 20th Portuguese regiment, with six companies of our corps and one squadron of cavalry,--in all about 4500 men. The Spanish army, under the command of General La Pena, (who, being senior officer, directed the whole,) consisted of two divisions,--in all from ten to eleven thousand. We were not allowed to take any baggage with us, consequently we could not expect much comfort during the service, which was expected to be short.

The day we landed we bivouacked on a height near Algeziras, and the next morning moved on towards Tarifa, where we remained for that day and the next, to allow time to get the artillery and cavalry horses on sh.o.r.e.

Here I observed a strange custom among the females of this place, the remains, I apprehend, of the Moorish fashion, (which no doubt would continue longer in this place than others, it being immediately opposite to and in sight of Africa.) The Spanish women all wear what they term a mantilla, that is, a kind of scarf made of cloth, generally black, which they throw over their heads lengthwise, letting the two ends come over their shoulders, and meeting and crossing on the breast, it forms a sort of head-dress which shows only the face, and keeps them close and snug about the head; but here, they bring it so far forward as to completely cover the face, leaving nothing but a very small hole in front of their left eye (I think it is), at which they peep out, without showing any part of the face. Colonel Brown of the 28th, who was then a most wild and eccentric character, although now I understand completely altered, could not relish this hiding of their beauty by the modest dames of Tarifa. All, therefore, that he met in the streets he stopped, and made them open the mantilla, that he might have a fair peep at them, to the great scandal of the good ladies of this still Moorish town, and which, had it been on any other occasion, might have been attended with unpleasant consequences to himself.

When every thing was ready we moved forward from Tarifa, and halted for the night on a height about twelve miles distant. The next day we reached Casas Vejas, or "Old Houses," where we bivouacked on a scrubby hill, the weather being very bitter, which we felt in all its force, having no covering whatever. Next day we had to cross a considerable lake of fresh water, by a sort of ford which crossed it about the middle. We had started before daylight, and, through some mismanagement, did not reach this lake till near mid-day, although it was only a few miles distant from our last night's quarters. One division of the Spaniards led the column, and another was behind us, we being thus in the centre, as being the least thought of probably by our Spanish Commander-in-Chief; for indeed we had often heard it said in and about Isla, "what fine-looking and well-disciplined soldiers the British are!--what a pity they cannot fight!" So thought La Pena, probably; but by two o'clock the first division of Spaniards had not near got over the lake, at which the patience of our General was so completely exhausted, that he requested the Spanish General to allow him to bring forward the British troops, to show him the way how he and they would act. My battalion led the van, and were ordered to march straight through it without any picking of steps, and to go forward in regular sections, one man supporting another. They went in and marched right through it, as if it had been plain ground, the water taking them generally about mid-deep. The rest of the British army followed, and were all through in less than half an hour; a one-horse cart, indeed, stuck fast in the middle of it, from the wheels having got entangled between the large stones at the bottom. General Graham seeing this, instantly dismounted, and, plunging in, set his shoulder to the wheel, and fairly lifted it clear of the obstruction.

La Pena, and those about him, after witnessing the example set them by our General and his troops, seemed really ashamed of their former conduct, and, setting to in good earnest, they contrived to urge their soldiers and officers to take the water with more freedom, and before dark the whole army had got over. While we were so long detained by the first division of Spaniards getting across, I, with several other mounted people, rode forward to the ford, to ascertain the cause of our stoppage for so long a time. The Spaniards were going into the water one at a time,--here one, and there one,--while the creatures of officers were making the men carry them on their backs. Had the whole army acted thus, we should not have got over before daylight next morning.

When all were across, and the columns formed, we moved forward, and reached the neighbourhood of Veger, which stands on a high hill not far distant from the memorable Cape Trafalgar. We halted in an olive-grove below the town, and bivouacked for the night; it was bitter cold, and the troops could find but little wood for firing, which they much needed, from having got so completely wet in crossing the lake.

We remained at Veger all the next day, and a little after dark commenced our march. We being now in the neighbourhood of the enemy, it became necessary to conceal our movements as much as possible. During the night we pa.s.sed the fishing town of Conil, and, keeping near the coast, we arrived the next morning on the plain of Chiclana. I quote from our General's dispatch, as it states the thing in a much more clear and satisfactory manner than I could do. He says,--"After a night march of sixteen hours from the camp (bivouack) near Veger, we arrived on the morning of the 5th on the low ridge of Barossa, about four miles from the Santi Petri river. This height extends inland about a mile and a half, continuing on the north the extensive heathy plain of Chiclana. A great pine-forest skirts the plain, and circles round the height at some distance, terminating down towards Santi Petri, the intermediate s.p.a.ce between the north side of the height and the forest being uneven and broken."

The two Spanish divisions had preceded us, who, after having rested a while on the plain, moved down towards the Santi Petri, where a bridge was to be thrown over by the troops in the Isla de Leon, and thus open a communication between the two armies, that is, between those inside the island and us.

The General goes on to say,--"A well-conducted and successful attack on the rear of the enemy's lines, near Santi Petri, by the vanguard of the Spanish army under Brigadier-general Ladrizabel, having opened the communication with the Isla de Leon, I received General La Pena's directions to move down from the position of Barossa to that of the Torre de Bermesa, about half-way to the Santi Petri river, over which a bridge had been lately established. This latter position occupies a narrow woody ridge, the right on the sea-cliff, and the left falling down to the Almanza creek, on the edge of the marsh; a hard sandy beach gives an easy communication between the western points of these two positions.

"My division being halted on the eastern slope of the Barossa height, was marched about twelve o'clock through the wood towards Bermesa, (cavalry patrols having previously been sent towards Chiclana, without meeting with the enemy.) On the march I received notice that the enemy had appeared in force on the plain, and was advancing towards the heights of Barossa. As I considered that position as the key of Santi Petri, I immediately countermarched, in order to support the troops left for its defence; and the alacrity with which this manoeuvre was executed, served as a favourable omen. It was, however, impossible, in such intricate and difficult ground, to preserve order in the columns, and there never was time to restore it entirely. But before we could get ourselves quite disentangled from the wood, the troops on the Barossa hill were seen returning from it, while the enemy's left wing was rapidly ascending. At the same time his right wing stood on the plain, on the edge of the wood, within cannon-shot. A retreat in the face of such an enemy, already within reach of the easy communication by the sea-beach, must have involved the whole allied army in all the danger of being attacked during the unavoidable confusion of the different corps arriving on the narrow ridge of Bermesa nearly at the same time.

"Trusting to the known heroism of British troops, regardless of the numbers and position of the enemy, an immediate attack was determined on. Major Duncan soon opened a powerful battery of ten guns in the centre. Brigadier-general Dilkes, with the brigade of Guards, Lieutenant-colonel Brown's (of the 28th) flank battalion, Lieutenant-colonel Norcott's two companies of the 2d rifle corps, and Major Acheson, with a part of the 67th, (separated from the regiment in the wood,) formed on the right.

"Colonel Wheately's brigade, (consisting of the 28th, 67th, and 87th,) with three companies of the Coldstream Guards, under Lieutenant-colonel Jackson (separated likewise from his battalion in the wood), and Lieutenant-colonel Barnard's flank battalion (being two companies 47th, two ditto 20th Portuguese, and four of third battalion 95th) formed on the left. As soon as the infantry was thus hastily got together, the guns advanced to a more favourable position, and kept up a destructive fire. The right wing proceeded to the attack of General Ruffin's division on the hill, while Lieutenant-colonel Barnard's flank battalion, and Lieutenant-colonel Bush's detachment of the 20th Portuguese, were warmly engaged with the enemy's tirailleurs on our left.

"General Laval's division, notwithstanding the havoc made by Major Duncan's battery, continued to advance in very imposing ma.s.ses, opening his fire of musketry, and was only checked by that of the left wing. The left wing now advanced firing. A most destructive charge, by the three companies of the Guards and the 87th regiment, supported by all the remainder of the wing, decided the defeat of General Laval's division.

"The eagle of the 8th regiment of light infantry, which suffered immensely, and a howitzer, rewarded this charge, and remained in possession of Major Gough of the 87th regiment. These attacks were zealously supported by Colonel Bilson with the 28th regiment, and Lieutenant-colonel Prevost with a part of the 67th. A reserve, formed beyond the narrow valley, across which the enemy was closely pursued, next shared the same fate, and was routed by the same means.

"Meanwhile, the right wing was not less successful. The enemy, confident of success, met General Dilkes on the ascent of the hill, and the contest was sanguinary; but the undaunted perseverance of the brigade of Guards, of Lieutenant-colonel Brown's battalion, and of Lieutenant-colonel Norcott's and Major Acheson's detachments, overcame every obstacle, and General Ruffin's division was driven from the heights in confusion, leaving two pieces of cannon.

"No expressions of mine could do justice to the conduct of the troops throughout--nothing less than the almost unparalleled exertions of every officer, the invincible bravery of every soldier, and the most determined devotion of the honour of his Majesty's arms in all, could have achieved this brilliant success against such a formidable enemy, so posted. In less than an hour and a half from the commencement of the action, the enemy was in full retreat. The retiring divisions met, halted, and seemed inclined to form; a new and more advanced position of our artillery quickly dispersed them. The exhausted state of the troops made pursuit impossible. A position was taken up on the eastern side of the hill; and we were strengthened on our right by the return of two Spanish regiments, that had been attached before to my division, but which I had left on the hill, and which had been ordered to retire.

"An eagle, six pieces of cannon, the General of Division Ruffin, and the General of Brigade Rousseau, wounded and taken; the Chief of the Staff, General Bellegarde, and aide-de-camp of Marshal Victor, and the colonel of the 8th regiment, with many other officers killed, and several wounded and taken prisoners, the field covered with the dead bodies of the enemy, attest that my confidence in this division was n.o.bly repaid.

The animated charges of the 87th regiment were most conspicuous.

Lieutenant-colonel Barnard, (twice wounded,) and the officers of his flank-battalion, executed the duty of skirmishing in advance with the enemy in a masterly manner; and were ably seconded by Lieutenant-Colonel Bush, of the 20th Portuguese, who (likewise twice wounded) fell into the enemy's hands, but was afterwards rescued."

The dispatch contains many more acknowledgments, which, as they have no connexion with my narrative, I have omitted.

I beg now to make such remarks and observations as may tend to throw light upon the different parts of the foregoing dispatch.

The two Spanish battalions attached to our division, together with Lieutenant-colonel Brown's flank-battalion, were left upon the height of Barossa, when we moved down into the wood, in order to secure that position till we had possessed ourselves of the height of Bermesa; but we had not left the plain more than half an hour, I think, and descended into the wood, till an officer came galloping after us, saying the French had debouched from the wood, and were moving on to the high ground in our rear, and had attacked the troops left there for its defence. Orders were instantly given us to countermarch, and to get on to the plain and into action as soon as possible. In coming about, one of the guns got entangled with a pine-tree; there was no time to disengage it, and setting to with the whip, they pushed the horses forward, and tore up the tree completely by the roots, although one of considerable size. I thought (as our General says) it appeared a good omen, and that a trifling obstacle would not be allowed to impede their career.

When we reached the plain, and perceived the enemy, never did a finer sight present itself. They were manoeuvring on the high ground before us; and as Home says,

"The hill they gained, and moving on its top, Of more than mortal size, towering, they seemed An host angelic, clad in burning arms."

Those immediately in front of my battalion were the famed 8th regiment, and consisted of two battalions of 700 men each; one was composed of grenadiers, and the other of voltigeurs, or light infantry. The grenadiers had long waving red plumes in their caps, at least a foot in length; while the light infantry had feathers of the same length and make, but green, with yellow tops. The whole of the French army had on their best or holyday suits of clothing, with their arms as bright as silver, and glancing in the sun as they moved in column, gave them really a n.o.ble and martial appearance. We had no sooner cleared the wood than we inclined to our left, and went immediately at them. Major Duncan's guns commenced playing upon their column the moment he could get a clear piece of ground. The two companies of the 47th, attached to my battalion, were taken to cover and remain with the guns. Our people extended as we went up the hill, the Portuguese supporting us in the rear; and in a very short time we were hotly engaged with the fellows with the beautiful green feathers, many of which fell on the ground in a short time. As we advanced, the battalions to our right and in rear of us got formed in line, and moving forward in fine style, took up stronger ground in advance; the guns in the centre also moving onward, and causing dreadful havoc in the enemy's ranks.

Early in the action my horse was killed, being shot in the head, which ball, had his head not stopped it, would in all probability have entered my body. He fell like a stone. I then went on and joined the ranks, and finding a rifle of a man that had just fallen, (poor little Croudace's servant, who afterwards fell himself,) I took a few shots at them in revenge for my horse. At this time the grenadier battalion of the 8th, with their waving red plumes, began to advance in close column, the drums beating all the time the _pas de charge_. They were supported by other columns in their rear, together with one, the French 54th, which they sent into the wood to try to turn our left. The 8th advanced, notwithstanding the galling fire kept up by our people and the Portuguese, every shot almost of which must have told, as they were in a solid body, not more than from 100 to 150 yards' distance. Our people were of course compelled to give way to this imposing column, when the regiments on our right and in our rear, opening out upon them a destructive fire, and the 87th and Guards immediately after attacking them with the bayonet, their rout and discomfiture was complete. The 8th, which suffered most, and from whom the eagle was taken, never yet got into line--nor did they intend, I believe--but advanced as a solid body, (occasionally firing from their front,) till, coming in contact with the regiments above mentioned, and in this state receiving the charge, their loss was excessive, for they could not get away. I understand, when the 87th charged, Ensign Keogh of that regiment made the first attempt to wrench the eagle from the officer who carried it; but in so doing he was run through by several of those who supported it, and fell lifeless to the ground. Sergeant Masterson of that regiment then dashed at it, and was more fortunate, he succeeding in securing it.

I understand there was some dispute between them and the Guards, who charged at the same time with the 87th, to whom it properly belonged; but I imagine the 87th must have been the captors, for Sergeant Masterson soon after received a commission for his gallantry, and is now a captain in that regiment.

The 54th, the French regiment, which had been sent into the wood to turn our left flank, by some means got entangled; for, except their light company, no part of the regiment ever got into action again; and when their columns were routed, they found some difficulty in effecting their retreat. There is something rather extraordinary and very interesting in the story of the eagle and the 8th regiment, if it be true, and which I see no reason to doubt. They were one of the regiments, it is said, which were engaged at Talavera, and were particularly distinguished; and it is further said, that the 87th was one of the regiments opposed to them, and over which they gained some advantage; that is, the French troops caused the British brigade, in which the 87th was serving, to retire with considerable loss; and that it was for their conduct in this action that Bonaparte had placed a golden wreath of laurel round the neck of the regimental eagle with his own hand. If such was the case, it is most remarkable that the very regiment by whom they should have obtained this honour, should be the regiment that deprived them of their eagle, which had been so highly honoured. But here, poor fellows, although they did not lose their honour, they lost very nearly the whole regiment; for out of 1400 which entered the field, not more than 200 of them entered Chiclana after the action. Indeed I never witnessed any field so thickly strewed with dead as this plain was after the action; and I feel confident, and all accounts agree in confirming the opinion, that the loss of the French on this occasion was little short of 3000 men; ours was about 1250. Here then we have a loss of 4000 men in about an hour and a half, out of about 12,000 which composed the two armies.

In this action, Colonel Bush was almost absurdly brave and conspicuous.

As soon as he got his Portuguese fairly into action, he rode slowly backward and forward among them, with his spectacles on, crying out as the b.a.l.l.s whistled past him, "Que bella musica!" what delightful music!

Poor fellow, he did not ride there many minutes; for, being within a very short distance of the enemy's tirailleurs so conspicuous an object, it was not to be expected he could escape. He died a few days after the action.

Colonel Barnard, my commandant, (now Sir Andrew,) about the middle of the action, received a severe wound, and was borne away to the rear.

Whilst the surgeon was dressing him, another shot struck him, and inflicted, I believe, a worse wound than the former. The horses of my battalion suffered greatly in proportion to their numbers. We had only four in the field, two of which, Major Ross's and my own, were killed, and Colonel Barnard's wounded; only the adjutant's escaped with a whole skin. Indeed there was scarcely an officer or soldier in the action that had not marks of shot about him. The caps of the tall guardsmen were riddled as it were; while the greater part of the enemy's shot pa.s.sed over our little fellows, who were both too near them, and too low for their fire. I may remark on this subject that the French generally fire high, but here I think unusually so; for, after a considerable quant.i.ty of ammunition had been expended by my battalion, it became my duty to look out for a fresh supply. I accordingly posted off to the rear, where I expected to have found some mules which had been attached to us, with ammunition on their backs; but on my way thither, the ground was actually ploughing up on all sides by the enemy's large shot, and their musket-b.a.l.l.s falling very thick; so much so, that some of our mules far to the rear had been wounded, and the others had dispersed. Hence also the second wound which my gallant commander received, where he ought to have been completely out of danger. Some ammunition for our rifles was, however, found in a one-horse cart belonging to the artillery, and out of it those whose ammunition was expended were replenished. But during my absence to the rear, the gallant and decisive charge had been made; and when I again reached the front, I perceived the enemy's columns in full retreat, covered by the remainder of their light troops, closely followed by some of my people. The retreat was accordingly sounded to recall them from the pursuit, and our brave and victorious little army cheered the enemy as his beaten and disheartened columns left the field.

Immediately after our army began to move off towards the Isla, our General being, as I understood, so much exasperated with the apathy evinced by the Spanish General, that he would no longer co-operate with him, and consequently drew off our troops into the Isle of Leon. My battalion, however, was destined to remain on the field all night to protect the numerous wounded from any marauders, or small parties and cavalry patrols of the enemy, which might happen to return. However, not a Frenchman made his appearance there again that night. When it was determined to withdraw the British army, Major Duncan, with great humanity, (approved of course by our excellent General,) cast off from the artillery-carriages all the spare ammunition, in order to make room for as many of our wounded officers and soldiers as those carriages could accommodate, and thus a considerable number of them were carried from the field immediately.

After they had left us, and my battalion was still standing in front of the position last occupied by our troops, all having retired but ourselves, and it now began to draw towards night, and we were preparing to move off, an unfortunate French sergeant attracted our notice. Poor fellow, he had been shot in the small of the back, and (on our surgeon examining him) p.r.o.nounced to be mortally. He appeared to be a man above forty, and apparently a veteran, who had fought many a hard field; and was, I think, one of the most respectable-looking men of his cla.s.s that I have seen. When he saw us preparing to leave him to his fate, the expression of his countenance became the most piteous and beseeching imaginable; imploring us in French not to leave him there to perish. My heart bled for him; but unhappily we had no means of removing him, had there even been a hope of his recovery. When he saw that his fate was inevitable, he crawled in the best manner he was able to a broken ammunition-box, and raising himself on his knees, supported by it, besought that Being who never casts out the cry of the unfortunate, and who, I sincerely hope, imparted to him that strength and comfort which his unhappy circ.u.mstances so greatly required. I doubt not he was a sincere Christian; never shall I forget the impression his unhappy fate made on my mind. To be left in solitude and darkness on this blood-stained heath, with the prospect of his own certain death before his eyes, and without any to comfort him in his last agony, must indeed have been a severe trial to his fort.i.tude. Would to G.o.d I could have relieved him! His case was not singular, it is true; but none ever presented itself to my view under such truly affecting circ.u.mstances as this unhappy veteran's did.

After dark, my battalion retired over the field where the thickest of the dead and wounded were strewed, and many were the dying groans which struck upon our ears, as we traversed this b.l.o.o.d.y field; but, except these groans, no sound was heard, where lately the din of arms had been loud and fierce, and where war had raged in all its fury; till coming to the house upon the sea-beach, where many of the wounded had been collected, we were formed into square on a sand-hill near it, and in this position rested on our arms for the remainder of the night. On our way from the front, we pa.s.sed not far from where my horse had fallen; and as saddlery was scarce at Cadiz, I thought it would be prudent to try to recover that on which I had been riding. I found it; but my horse having fallen with his back inclined to the front, it was perforated by shot in five places, and the tree was broken. However, I disengaged it, and giving it to one of the men, whose rifle I carried in return, I got it safely into Isla.

About twelve at night, poor General Rousseau died, a cannon-shot having carried away the greater part of the flesh of one of his thighs; and as no other troops were near, the task of paying him the last sad duty devolved upon me. I went to the house aforesaid, and procured a shovel or a spade, and digging a hole in the sand by the light of the moon, his body was deposited, where it in all probability will remain till the last trumpet shall summon it to rise. Poor drunken Gilles, one of the men I had employed on the occasion, p.r.o.nounced the only service as he was committed to the dust, which was, "G.o.d rest his soul!" I indeed sincerely hope so. Poor Rousseau had been a n.o.ble soldier; in his pocket was found a leave which he had obtained to return to France on account of ill health; but in the prospect of the approaching action he had delayed his departure, and thus fell a victim as it were to his patriotism and his sense of honour. He was military governor of Xeres de la Frontera, from whence we have our wine called Sherry, a corruption of Xeres. He was a small slender person, and apparently had suffered greatly from ill health. During the night some Spaniards were sent into the field to look for and bring off the guns we had taken, which they did.

As it approached towards morning, Major Ross, seeing all was quiet, moved us off by the beach towards our former quarters; and pa.s.sing over the position of Bermesa, which the Spaniards still occupied, and crossing the Santi Petri by the lately erected bridge, we returned weary and hungry to La Isla, and where our friends received us once again with great cordiality. If my reader is not tired of the subject, I would just beg to draw his attention for a moment to the circ.u.mstances attending this action. The French troops were at least 7500 (some say 8000) strong, well clothed and appointed, and apparently well fed, and fresh from their cantonments, none of them probably having marched more than four miles. They were some of the best in the French service, and commanded by one of Bonaparte's ablest generals, a marshal of France, Victor, Duke of Belluno. They occupied a fine position, having the ground completely at their choice; while we did not muster more than 4500 at most. We had been marching for sixteen hours successively through the night over bad roads; and being taken in a manner by surprise, we came out of the wood _beneath_ the enemy, broken and disjointed, and were instantly hurried into action.

The French fought desperately; for when their marauding columns came down upon us with an intrepidity seldom seen in the French army, and opening out their heavy and destructive fire, my heart quaked within me for the safety of our little army, and the honour of our country, for I thought it would be impossible to resist them. However, the steady valour of our troops repelled the a.s.sailants, and, taking advantage of their proximity, charged as before stated, and completely overthrew them. It is certain, as General Graham says, that _all_ must have done their duty on this occasion; notwithstanding, we may sing with great propriety, "Non n.o.bis, Domine"--"Not unto us, O Lord, but unto thy name be the praise;" for it is certain we must have been specially favoured by a kind Providence, or it is impossible we could have gained _such_ a victory under so many and so great disadvantages; for never was victory more complete. In less than three hours from the first glimpse we had of them as we debouched from the wood, a Frenchman was not to be seen in all the field, save the numerous killed and wounded.

Although our General did not say any thing in his public dispatch of the abominable conduct of La Pena, no doubt he stated truly in his private information how ill that General had behaved; for he and the 10,000 or 11,000 Spaniards he had with him remained within two miles of the field of action, quiet and pa.s.sive spectators of the scene, without making one effort to support us had we been beaten, or to take advantage of the victory should we gain it; and the consequence was, the French retained their ground and works by which they invested Cadiz and La Isla, whereas, had he made the slightest movement during or after the fight, they would have all gone off, and the siege would have been raised, for it is evident they contemplated and were prepared for this, the soldiers having each three or four days' bread in his possession.

A considerable number of other officers besides Generals Ruffin and Rousseau were taken. Ruffin was wounded in the neck by a rifle-shot, which touched the spinal marrow, depriving him of the use of his limbs.

He was soon after embarked for England, but died as he came within sight of the Isle of Wight. He was an immense and a fine-looking man, about six feet two inches or six feet three inches high, and ate enormously.

He every day received a mess from our General's table. The other officers also were treated with the greatest politeness and attention, dining first at one regimental mess, and then at another. They were fully sensible of the kindness shown them, and expressed themselves very grateful. They were afterwards sent to England.

I cannot omit here noticing the high estimation in which General Graham was held by every officer and soldier of this little army. I may truly say, he lived in their affections; they not only looked up to him with confidence as their commander, but they esteemed and respected him as their firm friend and protector, which indeed he always showed himself to be.

In all my fighting I never was in an action where the chances of death were so numerous as in this; and I may say, I never was in an action where I was less prepared to die. It is therefore of the Lord's mercies that he spared me--I hope, for good at last.


[2] The distance to which the French threw these sh.e.l.ls is truly amazing. The longest range of heavy iron sea mortars is only about 4200 yards, whereas the distance from the French batteries on the Trocadero to the nearest point of Cadiz was, I believe, 4500 or more; but they exceeded this considerably, for, as I said above, some of their sh.e.l.ls fell in the sea beyond the town, near the lighthouse, a distance of at least 500 or 600 yards farther. The sh.e.l.ls were always half filled with lead, to increase their flight, so that when they burst the mischief they occasioned was never extensive; I believe not more than about half-a-dozen individuals suffered from them in all.

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Twenty-Five Years In The Rifle Brigade Part 5 summary

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