« VorigeDoorgaan »
march at day-light on the 14th : our movements partook of extraordinary rashness; and what increased the danger, we were insensible of it. The morning was so obscured that nothing could be distinguished at the distance of a hundred feet, but the sound of a great multitude was heard on the hills in front, and it being evident that the French were there in force, many officers represented the impropriety of thus advancing without orders, and in such a fog: but Erskine, with what is deemed astounding negligence, sent the 52d forward in a simple column of sections, without a van-guard or other precaution, and even before the picquets had come in from their posts. The road dipped suddenly, descending into a valley, and the regiment was immediately lost in the mist, which was so thick that the troops, unconsciously passing the enemy's outposts, had nearly captured Ney himself, whose bivouac was close to the picquets. The riflemen followed in a few moments, and the rest of the division was about to plunge into the same gulf, when the rattling of musketry, and the booming of round shot was heard ; and when the vapour slowly rose, the 52d were seen on the slopes of the opposite mountain engaged, without support, in the midst of the enemy's army. At this moment Lord Wellington arrived, and the whole of the light division were pushed forward to sustain the 52d. The enemy's ground was so extensive, and his skirmishers so thick and so easily supported, that in a little time the division was necessarily stretched out in one thin thread, and closely engaged in every part without any reserve; nor could it even thus present an equal front, until Picton sent the riflemen of the 60th to prolong the line. The fight was vigorously maintained amidst the numerous stone enclosures on the mountain side ; some advantages were gained, and the right of the enemy was partially turned, yet the main position
could not be shaken until Picton and Cole had turned it by the left. Ney then commenced his retreat, retiring from ridge to ridge with admirable precision, and for a long time without confusion and with very little loss. Towards the middle of the day, however, the British guns and the skirmishers got within range of his masses, and the retreat became more rapid and less orderly ; yet he finally gained the strong pass of Miranda de Corvo, which was secured by the main body of the French. The loss in the light division this day was eleven officers and a hundred and fifty men, and about a hundred prisoners were taken.
On the 15th the weather was so obscure that the allies could not reach the Ceira before four o'clock in the afternoon, and the troops as they came up proceeded to kindle fires for the night. The French right rested on some thick and wooded ground, and their left on the village of Fons d'Aronce; but Lord Wellington, having cast a rapid glance over it, directed the light division, who were seldom forgotten when honour was to be obtained, to hold the right in play, and at the same moment the horse artillery, galloping forward to a rising ground, opened with great and sudden effect. Ney's left wing being surprised and overthrown by the first charge, dispersed in a panic, and fled in such confusion towards the river that some, missing the fords, were drowned, and others, crowding on the bridge, were crushed to death. On the right the ground was so rugged and close that the action resolved itself into a skirmish, and thus Ney was able to use some battalions to check the pursuit of his left; but meanwhile darkness came on, and the French troops in their disorder fired upon each other. Only four officers and sixty men fell on the side of the British; the enemy's loss was not less than five hundred, of which one half were drowned, and an eagle was afterwards found in the bed of the river when the
waters had subsided. Ney maintained the left bank of the Ceira until every incumbrance had passed, and then, blowing up seventy feet of the bridge, sent his corps on. Thus terminated the first part of the retreat from Santarem, in which, though the ability of the French Commander was conspicuous, it revealed much that savoured of a harsh and ruthless spirit. Almost every horror that could make war hideous attended this dreadful march. Death was dealt out in all modes. Unpitying vengeance seemed to steel every breast. Lives were lost by wounds, by fatigue, by fire, by water, besides the numerous victims of famine. One of my comrades, going out at dusk in search of provisions, on turning a corner stumbled over, the body of a recently murdered man. The natives were of course excited to retaliate, and Colonel Napier once saw a peasant cheering on his dog to devour the dead and dying ; the spirit of cruelty once unchained, smote even the brute creation. On the 15th, the French General, in order to diminish the incumbrances on his march, ordered a number of beasts of burden to be destroyed. The inhuman fellow charged with the execution, who, if known, would have long since been hooted from society, ham-stringed five hundred asses, and left them to starve, and thus they were found by the British army. The acute, but deep expression of pain, visible in these poor creatures' looks, wonderfully aroused the fury of the soldiers ; and so little weight has reason with the multitude, when opposed by momentary sensation, that had prisoners been taken at that moment, no quarter most assuredly would have been given.
At day-light on the 3d of April our nearness to the enemy indicated the approach of another collision. The English General, having ten thousand men pivoted on the 5th division at Sabugal, designed to turn Reynier's left, and surround him before he could be succoured. This well-concerted plan was marred by one of those accidents to which war is always liable, and brought on the combat of Sabugal, one of the hottest in which I was ever engaged. The morning was so foggy that the troops could not gain their respective posts of attack with that simultaneous regularity which is so essential to success. Colonel Beckwith, who commanded the first brigade, halted at a ford to await orders, and at that moment a staffofficer rode up, and somewhat hastily asked why he did not attack. The thing appeared rash ; but with an enemy in front he could make no reply; and instantly passing the river, which was deep and rapid, mounted a steep wooded hill on the other side. Many of the men were up to their middle in water; and a dark, heavy rain coming on, it was impossible for some time to distinguish friends from foes. The attack was thus made too soon ; for owing to the obscurity, none of the divisions of the army had reached their respective posts; and Beckwith, having only one bayonet regiment, and four companies of riflemen, was advancing against more than twelve thousand infantry supported by cavalry and artillery. Scarcely had the riflemen reached the top of the hill, when a compact and strong body of French drove them back
the 43d. The weather cleared at that instant, and Beckwith at once saw and felt all his danger ; but well supported as he was, it was met with a heart that nothing could shake. Leading a fierce charge, he beat back the enemy, and the summit of the hill was attained; but at the same moment two French guns opened with grape, at the distance of a hundred yards : a fresh body appeared in front, and considerable forces fell upon either flank of the regiment. Fortunately, Reynier, little expecting to be attacked, had, for the convenience of water, placed his principal masses in the low ground, behind the height on which the action commenced ; his renewed attack was therefore uphill ; yet the musketry, heavy from the beginning, now increased to a storm. The French mounted the acclivity with great clamour ; and it was evident that nothing but the most desperate fighting could save the regiment from destruction. Captain Hopkins, commanding a flank company of the 43d, immediately ran out to the right, and with admirable presence of mind seized a small eminence close to the French guns and commanding the ascent by which the French troops were approaching. His first fire was so sharp that the assailants were thrown into confusion ; they rallied, and were again confounded by the volleys of this company : a third time they endeavoured to form an attack, when Hopkins, with a sudden charge, increased the disorder; and at the same moment the two battalions of the 52d regiment, which had been attracted by the fire, entered the line. Meantime the centre and left of the 43d were furiously engaged, and excited beyond all former precedent. Beckwith, wounded in the head, and with the blood streaming down his face, rode amongst the foremost of the skirmishers, directing all with ability, and praising the men in a loud, cheerful tone. I was close to him at the time. One of sur company called out, “Old Sydney is wounded.”