Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

THE SUBALTERN.

CHAP. XII.

I AROSE next morning refreshed, vigorous, and prepared to follow my ordinary occupation of shooting. It was a clear frosty day, the sun was shining brightly over-head, and a thousand little birds were rejoicing in the warmth of his beams; my dogs were in high condition; my gun was clean and in good order; and myself big with determination, not to fire in too great a hurry, but to be sure of my aim before I pulled the trigger. Thus attended, and thus animated, I set forth after breakfast; and having previously ascertained the favourite haunt of a hare which had more than once escaped me, I turned my steps towards it. My faithful spaniel had just begun to give tongue, and my fowling-piece was already in a position to be lifted at once to the shoulder, when the report of a single cannon, coming from the front, attracted my attention. I stopped short, but had not time to call in my dog, when another and another discharge took place, mixed with an occasional rattle of musketry. This was warning enough. Though the hare started from her seat, I permitted her to depart in peace, and whistling loudly for my four-footed companions to follow, I ran back towards my quarters. As I proceeded, the firing beeame every moment more and more heavy, till at length it had increased into an uninterrupted roar.

On reaching the houses I found that the alarm was already given. The bugles were sounding to recall such as might be abroad, and the men were accoutering with all haste. For ourselves, Graham and I took care on the present occasion to make better provision against detention, than we had done the day before; but our baggage we were obliged to leave, to be packed and made ready for moving by our bat-men. Aid-de-camp after aid-decamp passed in the meanwhile to and fro, one galloping from the front to urge an immediate advance, another galloping from the rear to ascertain how matters were going; whilst the various battalions, as each was equipped and ready, hurried down to the main road, to join its particular brigade.

A quarter of an hour had scarcely elapsed from the moment that the alarm was first given, when we found ourselves marching once more in the same direction, and nearly in the same order, in which we had marched yesterday. Our march had in it, however, even more of deep excitement, than that of the preceding day. We had not proceeded above a mile, when indications of what was going on in front began to present themselves, in the form of baggage, mules, and horses, pouring, in all haste and confusion, to the rear; while a wounded man or two, ever and anon, dragged himself with difficulty in the same direction, and gave, as the wounded invariably give, the most alarming account of the state of affairs. "Push on, push on, for God's sake," said one poor fellow who had been shot in the head, and was lying, rather than sitting, across a horse, push on, or it will be all over. Forty thousand of the enemy are coming on, and there are not two thousand men up to oppose them." Of course, we quickened our pace with infinite good will.

66

A group of perhaps twenty wounded privates and officers had passed, when the next body which met us was a detachment of ten sound men and a sergeant, who were conducting to the rear about an hundred French prisoners. These were saluted with a cheer, but even these urged us forward, with the intelligence that the 5th division must be soon overpowered. And now the scene of action be gan to open upon us. We had passed through Bedart, and were descending the little eminence on which it is built, when the combatants became distinguishable; and a very magnificent, as well as gratifying spectacle, they presented. The nearest handful of British troops, were opposing themselves, in the most determined man-, ner, to a mass of men, so dense, and so extended, as to cover the whole of the main road, as far as the eye could reach. Our people were, it is true, giving way. They had already maintained a most unequal contest for upwards of two hours, and their numbers, originally small, were fast dimi

nishing. But no sooner had the head of our column shown itself, than their confidence completely returned, and they renewed the struggle with increased alacrity.

The same circumstance which gave fresh courage to our comrades, acted, as may well be supposed, in a directly contrary manner upon the enemy. Not that they fell into confusion, or exhibited any symptons of dismay; but it was evident, from their mode of proceeding, that their general had lost his confidence of immediate success, and that he deemed it necessary to trust less to the weight of his single column, and to add manoeuvring and skill to brute violence. His attack was accordingly suspended, whilst a battery of ten or twelve guns being hastily brought to the front, opened, not upon the division with which he had been hitherto engaged, but upon us. And I must confess that the guns were well served. The gunners laying them for a particular turning in the road, mowed down some two or three out of each company as it came up, and caused us to suffer no inconsiderable loss, long before we arrived within range of musketry.

As soon as we had passed this perilous spot, we abandoned the main road, and turning into an open green field on the right, we marched into line. In front of us was a thick wood, for the possession of which our people and the French were warmly struggling. On our side, it was garrisoned by a battalion of Portuguese, and a couple of British regiments, and it was assaulted by a perfect swarm of French tiralleurs; but neither did the latter succeed in driving their opponents through it, nor could the former deliver themselves from the annoyance of continual assaults. It was peculiarly the business of the corps to which I belonged, to give support to the defenders of that wood; for which purpose, company after company was sent forward, as a fresh supply of men became from time to time necessary; whilst two other corps, continuing steadily in line, prepared to use the bayonet with effect, in case our efforts to maintain our ground should prove unavailing.

Even the unwarlike reader will probably understand me, when I say, that the feelings of a man hurried in to battle, as we were to-day, are total

ly different from those of the same man who goes gradually, and as it were preparedly, into danger. We had dreamed of nothing less than a general action this morning; and we found ourselves bearing the brunt of it, before we could very well make up our minds as to the proximity of an enemy. Everything was accordingly done, every word spoken, and every movement made, under the influence of that species of excitement, which absolutely shuts out all ideas, except those which spring from the circumstances immediately about you; I mean an apprehension lest your own men shall give way, and an inexpressible eagerness to close with your adversary. Nor were sundry opportunities wanting, of gratifying the last of these desires. We fought, at least where I was stationed, in a thick wood; and more than once it occurred, that we fought hand to hand.

Affairs had continued in this state

till about three in the afternoon; when the enemy, as if weary with their fruitless efforts, began to slacken in their exertions, and gradually to fall back. Not very far from the spot where I was posted, stood a chateau, the property, I believe, of the Mayor of Bearitz; for the occupation of which, the French had made, during the morning, several desperate, but unavailing efforts. Towards it, as soon as the firing began to wax faint, Sir John Hope, attended by three or four aidesde-camp and a few orderly dragoons, made his way. He had already mounted to an upper room, for the purpose of observing from thence the enemy's proceedings; his staff and orderlies were lounging about the court-yard, and the few skirmishers which lined the hedge in front were lying down to rest, when a mass of French infantry, which had formed in a hollow road alittle to the left, dashed forward. The movement was so rapid, and the force employed so great, that all opposition on the part of the few British troops then up, was overcome ;—the house was surrounded. Instantly a cry was raised, "Save the general, Save the general," and a rush was made from all quarters towards the chateau ; but our assistance was unnecessary. Sir John, seeing what had happened, threw himself upon his horse, and at the head of his mounted attendants charged from the door-way of

the court-yard. He received, indeed, no fewer than three musket balls through his hat, and his horse was so severely wounded, that its strength served only to carry him to a place of safety; but the charge was decisive. Many of the French were sabred, and the little party escaped and now the fight was renewed on all sides with desperate resolution. Again and again the enemy pressed forward to empty the wood of its defenders and to secure the high-road; but all their efforts failed, and when the approach of darkness compelled the combatants to separate, the two armies occupied almost the same ground which they had occupied when the fighting began.

It were vain for me to attempt any description of the scene which now took place. So vigorous had been the last attack, and so determined our resistance, that when daylight disappeared, the French and allied troops found themselves completely mixed together. Instead of the roar of musketry, my ears were accordingly saluted by shouts and exclamations, delivered in almost every European tongue. French, English, German, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese; the natives, in short, of almost every kingdom were here; and as each called out in his own language as loud as he could bawl, for the purpose of discovering his comrades, and giving evidence of his own situation, a jar gon was produced, such as no man has probably listened to before, unless we except the artificers employed of yore in the erection of Babel. So complete, indeed, was the confusion, that neither the one party nor the other made the slightest attempt to avail itself of it for military purposes, on the contrary, we were each of us heartily glad to get rid of our troublesome neighbours, and not little pleased when order became so far restored, as to permit our taking up a definite position for the night.

The enemy having gradually collected their scattered battalions, retired to the hollow-way from which they last emerged. On our part, no movement of importance was made; except that the corps to which I belonged, leaving its original garrison to watch the wood during the hours of darkness, fell back as far as the green field, or rather common, where we had left the rest

of the brigade. Here, with numbers considerably diminished, we drew up in line; when the arms being piled, we followed the example of our companions, and lighted large fires, round which men and officers indiscriminately crowded, in groups more or less numerous, according as each fire was capable of affording to them warmth. I do not recollect to have witnessed, during the whole course of my military career, a more strikingly warlike spectacle than that which was now before me. Besides my own corps, three battalions of infantry lay stretched in a single green field round their watch fires; amounting, in all, to about an hundred. Immediately behind them stood their arms piled up in regular order, and glancing in the flames, which threw a dark red light across the common, upon the bare branches beyond; about twenty yards in rear, two regiments of cavalry were similarly disposed of, their horses being picketed in line, and the men seated or lying on the ground. Looking farther back again, and towards the opposite side of the road, the fires of the whole of the fifth and first divisions met the eye; darkened ever and anon, as the soldiers passed between them, or a heap of wood was cast on to feed their brightness. By the light of these fires, I could farther perceive, that the road itself was thronged with artillery and tumbrils; whilst the glaring atmosphere above the wood, showed that it too was fully tenanted, and that its occupants were, like ourselves, reposing in an attitude of watchfulness. To complete the picture, the night chanced to be uncommonly dark. Neither moon nor stars were out, and though no rain fell, a considerable fog was in the air; which, hindering the flames from ascending beyond a certain length, caused them to shed a stronger colouring upon surrounding objects. Then the knowledge that the enemy was at hand, and that we only waited for the dawn of to-morrow, to renew the combat; the whole of these circumstances combined, gave so deep an interest to our situation, that it was long ere I was able to follow the example of my comrades, and lie down. Fatigue, however, at length prevailed over enthusiasm, and having heartily partaken of the meal which our faithful Francisco brought up, I wrapped

my cloak about me, and taking my station, like the rest, with my feet towards the fire, I soon fell fast asleep.

It was still perfectly dark when the general stir among the troops put an end to my repose. The infantry stood to their arms; the cavalry mounted their horses; the artillery-men were at their guns with lighted matches; all in the space of one minute; nor was a single word uttered by any man beyond what was absolutely requisite in issuing orders. Early as it was, how ever, our fires had all but consumed themselves; they had become dull and red; and they threw not out heat enough to keep our blood greatly above the freezing point; but we bore the intense cold with exemplary patience, in the full assurance of warm work as soon as day-light should appear. Nor is there any hour in the four and twenty, as every outsidetraveller by a stage-coach must know, so fruitful in intense cold, as that which immediately precedes the dawn. To-day, too, it chanced to freeze, with a cutting wind directly in our faces; nevertheless, our courage was high, and we counted the moments impatiently as they passed, not so much from a sense of our present uncomfortable situation, as from an eager desire to renew the battle.

Day dawned at length, but the enemy made no movement. They were before us as they had been all night, in countless numbers; but, like ourselves, they stood quietly in their ranks, as if they expected to be attacked, rather than to attack. For nearly two hours both armies continued stationary, till Lord Wellington coming up, ordered three Portuguese battalions to advance, with no other design than to bring matters to a crisis. Nor did this movement fail to lead the enemy into a renewal of offensive operations. The Portuguese brigade was gallantly met, and after a good deal of firing, repulsed; and the repulse of it was followed by a determiited assault upon such of our corps as defended the road, and occupied the wood.

Nothing can be more spirited or impetuous than the first attack of French troops. They come on, for a while, slowly, and in silence; till, having reached within a hundred yards, or two, of the point to be assailed, they raise a loud but discordant yell, and

rush forward. The advance of their columns is, moreover, covered by a perfect cloud of tiralleurs, who press on, apparently in utter confusion, but with every demonstration of courage; who fire irregularly, it is true, but with great rapidity and precision; and who are as much at home in the art of availing themselves of every species of cover, as any light troops in the world. The ardour of the French is, however, admirably opposed by the coolness and undaunted deportment of Britons. On the present occasion, for instance, our people met their assailants exactly as if the whole affair had been a piece of acting; no man quitting his ground, but each deliberately waiting till the word of command was given, and then discharging his piece. Every effort of Marshal Soult to possess himself of the mayor's house, and of the enclosure and wood about it, accordingly proved fruitless; and hence his formidable column, which covered the high-road as far as the eye could reach, was, per force, obliged to halt, and to remain idle.

Matters continued in this state till towards noon, and yet a comparatively trifling number of our troops were engaged. The entire brigade to which I belonged, the brigade of light cavalry, as well as the greater proportion of the first division, had been mere spectators of the valour of others; when the enemy, as if worn out with fatigue, and disheartened by repeated failures, suddenly began to retire. His column of infantry, having moved to the rear, till some rising ground in a great degree concealed it, seemed to disperse; his guns were withdrawn, and his skirmishers falling back, left our advanced corps in possession of the disputed post. A retreat, indeed, appeared to have fairly commenced; and to many it was matter of surprise that no pursuit was on our side instituted. But our general, by keeping his soldiers steady in their places, showed that he was quite aware of his adversary's intentions; and that he was a far better judge of the measures which it behoved him to adopt, than any of the numerous critics who presumed to pass censure upon him. The whole of this movement was no other than a manoeuvre on the part of the French Marshal, to draw our troops from their position, and to enfeeble the centre of our line, by causing the

left to be too far advanced; but though skilfully executed, it proved of no avail, thanks to the superior sagacity of Lord Wellington. Instead of being harassed by any useless change of ground, we were commanded to take advantage of the temporary truce, by cooking our dinners; a measure which the long fast of many of the soldiers, particularly of the Portuguese, who had eaten nothing during the whole of yesterday, rendered peculiarly desirable.

In a moment numerous fires were again lighted, and half of the men in each regiment, disencumbering themselves of their accoutrements, set to work, felling wood, boiling kettles, and preparing food for their comrades. In the meanwhile six or eight springwaggons arriving, such of the wounded as were unable to crawl to the rear were collected from the various spots where they lay mingled with the dead, and lifted into them, with as much care as circumstances would permit. It was a sad spectacle this. The shrieks and groans of many of these poor fellows sounded horribly in our ears; whilst the absolute silence of the rest was not less appalling, inasmuch as it gave but too much reason to believe, that they were removed from the field only to die in the waggons. Nor were the muleteers, and other followers of the camp, idle. These harpies, spreading themselves in vast numbers over the face of the country, stripped and plundered the dead in an incredibly short space of time; and they were, withal, so skilful in their vocation, that they rarely afforded an opportunity of detecting them in this act. Nothing, indeed, has ever astonished me more, than the celerity with which these body-strippers execute their task. A man falls by your side, and the very next moment, if you chance to look round, he is as naked as he was when he came into the world, without your being able so much as to guess by whom his garments have been taken.

boremarks of having fallen by the sabre. One man, in particular, I observed, whose head was cloven asunder, the sword of his adversary having fairly divided it as far as the eyes; whilst another lay upon his back, with his face absolutely split into two parts, across the line of the nose. The great majority had, however, been shot; and they were mixed indiscriminately together, English and French, as if each had been cut off by the hand of his next neighbour.

I was not, however, so fully occupied in contemplating the dead, but that I cast various anxious glances towards the living; nor was ground of anxiety wanting. The enemy had, indeed, fallen back; neither did he show any column upon the road, nor any masses in the woods. But I observed his men crossing the high-road towards our right, by twos and threes at a time, as if some formation was going on which he desired might escape notice. Nor was the circumstance lost upon my companions: "We shall have it again presently," said a veteran serjeant who stood near me; and the prediction was hardly uttered, when it was fulfilled. As if they had risen from beneath the earth, two ponderous masses of infantry, covered by the fire of twelve pieces of cannon, rushed forward; one, a little to the right of where I was, and the other, upon the church and village of Arcanques; and such was the fury of their attack, that, for the instant, they carried everything before them. A Portuguese corps, which occupied the former of those parts, was broken, and gave way; a British regiment, stationed to support them, followed their example; and now, for the first time since the battle began, the head of a French column showed itself upon the common.

Whilst all these persons were engaged in their various occupations, I wandered towards the front, for the purpose of examining, in a moment of coolness, the nature of the ground on which we had yesterday fought. It was literally covered with the carcases of men and horses. Round the mayor's house, in particular, they lay in clusters, and not a few of the Frenchmen VOL, XVII.

In the meanwhile, all was hurry and bustle in the rear. The plunderers, taking to their heels, fled in all directions; the waggons with the wounded set off at a pace by no means the most moderate, or the least likely to jolt those who filled them; our people, casting their half-dressed provisions into the fire, buckled on their accoutrements, and took their stations; whilst the artillery, which had begun to retire, came up again, at a hand gallop, to the front. Two squadrons of cavalry were next ordered out, part5 A

« PreviousContinue »