Under Wellington's Command: A Tale of the Peninsular War by G. A. Henty.
Preface. Chapter 1: A Detached Force. Chapter 2: Talavera. Chapter 3: Prisoners. Chapter 4: Guerillas. Chapter 5: An Escape. Chapter 6: Afloat. Chapter 7: A French Privateer. Chapter 8: A Smart Engagement. Chapter 9: Rejoining. Chapter 10: Almeida. Chapter 11: The French Advance. Chapter 12: Fuentes D'Onoro. Chapter 13: From Salamanca To Cadiz. Chapter 14: Effecting A Diversion. Chapter 15: Dick Ryan's Capture. Chapter 16: Back With The Army. Chapter 17: Ciudad Rodrigo. Chapter 18: The Sack Of A City. Chapter 19: Gratitude. Chapter 20: Salamanca. Chapter 21: Home Again.
"You may as well make your report to me, O'Connor." Plan of the Battle of Talavera. "We surrender, sir, as prisoners of war." Stooping so that their figures should not show against the sky. "She is walking along now." "This is Colonel O'Connor, sir." Plan of the Battle of Busaco. "Good news. We are going to take Coimbra." Plan of the Lines of Torres Vedras. Plan of the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro. The men leapt to their feet, cheering vociferously. "Search him at once." The man fell, with a sharp cry. Plan of the Forts and Operations round Salamanca. A shell had struck Terence's horse.
As many boys into whose hands the present volume may fall will not have read my last year's book, With Moore in Corunna, of which this is a continuation, it is necessary that a few words should be said, to enable them to take up the thread of the story. It was impossible, in the limits of one book, to give even an outline of the story of the Peninsular War, without devoting the whole space to the military operations. It would, in fact, have been a history rather than a tale; and it accordingly closed with the passage of the Douro, and the expulsion of the French from Portugal.
The hero, Terence O'Connor, was the son of the senior captain of the Mayo Fusiliers and, when the regiment was ordered to join Sir Arthur Wellesley's expedition to Portugal, the colonel of the regiment obtained for him a commission; although so notorious was the boy, for his mischievous pranks, that the colonel hesitated whether he would not get into some serious scrapes; especially as Dick Ryan, one of the ensigns, was always his companion in mischief, and both were aided and abetted by Captain O'Grady.
However, on the way out, the slow old transport, in which a wing of the regiment was carried, was attacked by two French privateers, who would have either taken or sunk her, had it not been for a happy suggestion of the quick-witted lad. For this he gained great credit, and was selected by General Fane as one of his aides-de-camp. In this capacity he went through the arduous campaign, under General Moore, that ended at Corunna.
His father had been so seriously wounded, at Vimiera, that he was invalided home and placed on half pay; and in the same battle Captain O'Grady lost his left arm but, on its being cured, returned to his place in the regiment.
At Corunna Terence, while carrying a despatch, was thrown from his horse and stunned; and on recovering found that the British had already embarked on board the ships of the fleet. He made his way to the frontier of Portugal, and thence to Lisbon. He was then appointed to the staff of Sir John Craddock, who was now in command; and sent in charge of some treasure for the use of the Spanish General Romana, who was collecting a force on the northern border of Portugal. Terence had orders to aid him, in any way in his power, to check the invasion of Portugal from the north.
Of this order he took advantage when, on the way, the agents of the junta of Oporto endeavoured to rob him; attacking the house where he and his escort had taken up their quarters with a newly-raised levy of two thousand five hundred unarmed peasants. By a ruse he got their leaders into his hands, and these showed such abject cowardice that the peasants refused further to follow them, and asked Terence to take the command of the force.
He assented, formed them into two battalions, appointed two British orderlies as majors, the Portuguese officer of his escort lieutenant-colonel, and his troopers captains of companies; put them in the way of obtaining arms and, by dint of hard drill and kindness, converted them into an efficient body of soldiers. Finding that little was to be expected from Romana's force, he acted as a partisan leader and, in this capacity, performed such valuable service that he was confirmed in the command of his force, which received the name of the Minho regiment; and he and his officers received commissions for the rank they held in the Portuguese army.
At Oporto he rescued from a convent a cousin, who, at the death of her father, a British merchant there, had been shut up by her Portuguese mother until she would consent to sign away the property to which she was entitled, and to become a nun. She went to England to live with Terence's father, and came into possession of the fortune which her father, foreseeing that difficulties might arise at his death, had forwarded to a bank at home, having appointed Captain O'Connor her guardian.
The present volume takes the story of the Peninsular War up to the battle of Salamanca, and concludes the history of Terence O'Connor. My readers will understand that, in all actions in which the British army took part, the details are accurately given; but that the doings of the Minho regiment, and of Terence O'Connor as a partisan leader, are not to be considered as strictly historical, although similar feats of daring and adventure were accomplished by Trant, Pack, and other leaders of irregular forces.
G. A. Henty.
Chapter 1: A Detached Force.
"Be jabers, Terence, we shall all die of weariness with doing nothing, if we don't move soon," said Captain O'Grady; who, with Dick Ryan, had ridden over to spend the afternoon with Terence O'Connor, whose regiment of Portuguese was encamped some six miles out of Abrantes, where the division to which the Mayo Fusiliers belonged was stationed.
"Here we are in June, and the sun getting hotter and hotter, and the whisky just come to an end, though we have been mighty sparing over it, and nothing to eat but ration beef. Begorrah, if it wasn't for the bastely drill, I should forget that I was a soldier at all. I should take meself for a convict, condemned to stop all me life in one place. At first there was something to do, for one could forage for food dacent to eat; but now I don't believe there is as much as an old hen left within fifteen miles, and as for ducks and geese, I have almost forgotten the taste of them."
"It is not lively work, O'Grady, but it is worse for me here. You have got Dicky Ryan to stir you up and keep you alive, and O'Flaherty to look after your health and see that you don't exceed your allowance; while practically I have no one but Herrara to speak to, for though Bull and Macwitty are excellent fellows in their way, they are not much as companions.
"However, I think we must be nearly at the end of it. We have got pretty well all the troops up here, except those who are to remain at Lisbon."
"I see the men," O'Grady said, "but I don't see the victuals. We can't march until we get transport and food, and where they are to come from no one seems to know."
"I am afraid we shall do badly for a time in that respect, O'Grady. Sir Arthur has not had time, yet, to find out what humbugs the Spaniards are, and what wholesale lies they tell. Of course, he had some slight experience of it when we first landed, at the Mondego; but it takes longer than that to get at the bottom of their want of faith. Craddock learnt it after a bitter experience, and so did Moore. I have no doubt that the Spaniards have represented to Sir Arthur that they have large disciplined armies, that the French have been reduced to a mere handful, and that they are only waiting for his advance to drive them across the frontier. Also, no doubt, they have promised to find any amount of transport and provisions, as soon as he enters Spain. As to relying upon Cuesta, you might as well rely upon the assistance of an army of hares, commanded by a pig-headed owl."
"I can't make out, meself," O'Grady said, "what we want to have anything to do with the Spaniards for, at all. If I were in Sir Arthur's place, I would just march straight against the French and thrash them."
"That sounds well, O'Grady, but we know very little about where the French are, what they are doing, or what is their strength; and I think that you will allow that, though we have beaten them each time we have met them, they fought well. At Rolica we were three to one against them, and at Vimiera we had the advantage of a strong position. At Corunna things were pretty well even, but we had our backs to the wall.
"I am afraid, O'Grady, that just at present you are scarcely qualified to take command of the army; except only on the one point, that you thoroughly distrust the Spaniards.
"Well, Dick, have you been having any fun lately?"
"It is not to be done, Terence. Everyone is too disgusted and out of temper to make it safe. Even the chief is dangerous. I would as soon think of playing a joke on a wandering tiger, as on him. The major is not a man to trifle with, at the best of times and, except O'Flaherty, there is not a man among them who has a good word to throw at a dog. Faith, when one thinks of the good time one used to have at Athlone, it is heartbreaking."
"Well, come in and refresh yourselves. I have a bottle or two still left."
"That is good news!" O'Grady said fervently. "It has been on the tip of me tongue to ask you, for me mouth is like an oven; but I was so afraid you would say it was gone that I dare n't open me lips about it."
"To tell you the truth, O'Grady, except when some of you fellows come over, there is not any whisky touched in this camp. I have kept it strictly for your sergeants, who have been helping to teach my men drill, and coaching the non-commissioned officers. It has been hard work for them, but they have stuck to it well, and the thought of an allowance at the end of the day's work has done wonders with them.
"We made a very fair show when we came in, but now I think the two battalions could work with the best here, without doing themselves discredit. The non-commissioned officers have always been our weak point, but now my fellows know their work very fairly, and they go at it with a will. You see, they are all very proud of the corps, and have spared no pains to make themselves worthy of it.
"Of course, what you may call purely parade movements are not done as they are by our infantry; but in all useful work, I would back them against any here. They are very fair shots, too. I have paid for a lot of extra ammunition; which, I confess, we bought from some of the native levies. No doubt I should get into a row over it, if it were known; but as these fellows are not likely ever to fire a shot against the French, and it is of importance that mine should be able to shoot well, I didn't hesitate to do it. Fortunately the regimental chest is not empty, and all the officers have given a third of their pay, to help. But it has certainly done a lot of good, and the shooting has greatly improved since we came here."
"I have been working steadily at Portuguese, Terence, ever since you spoke to me about it. One has no end of time on one's hands and, really, I am getting on very fairly."
"That is right, Dicky. If we win this campaign I will certainly ask for you as adjutant. I shall be awfully glad to have you with me, and I really do want an adjutant for each battalion.
"And you, O'Grady?"
"Well, I can't report favourably of meself at all, at all. I tried hard for a week, and it is the fault of me tongue, and not of meself. I can't get it to twist itself to the outlandish words. I am willing enough, but me tongue isn't; and I am afraid that, were it a necessity that every officer in your corps should speak the bastely language, I should have to stay at home."
"I am afraid that it is quite necessary, O'Grady," Terence laughed. "An adjutant who could not make himself understood would be of no shadow of use. You know how I should like to have you with me; but, upon the other hand, there would be inconveniences. You are, as you have said many a time, my superior officer in our army, and I really should not like to have to give you orders. Then again, Bull and Macwitty are still more your juniors, having only received their commissions a few months back; and they would feel just as uncomfortable as I should, at having you under them. I don't think that it would do at all. Besides, you know, you are not fond of work by any means, and there would be more to do in a regiment like this than in one of our own."
"I suppose that it must be so, Terence," O'Grady said resignedly, as he emptied his tumbler; "and besides, there is a sort of superstition in the service that an adjutant should be always able to walk straight to his tent, even after a warm night at mess. Now, although it seems to me that I have every other qualification, in that respect I should be a failure; and I imagine that, in a Portuguese regiment, the thing would be looked at more seriously than it is in an Irish one; where such a matter occurs, occasionally, among men as well as officers."
"That is quite true, O'Grady. The Portuguese are a sober people and would not, as you say, be able to make the same allowance for our weaknesses that Irish soldiers do; seeing that it is too common for our men to be either one way or the other.
"However, Ryan, I do hope I shall be able to get you. I never had much hopes of O'Grady; and this failure of his tongue to aid him, in his vigorous efforts to learn the language, seems to quite settle the matter as far as he is concerned."
At this moment an orderly rode up to the tent. Terence went out.
"A despatch from headquarters, sir," the trooper said, saluting.
"All right, my man! You had better wait for five minutes, and see if any answer is required."
Going into the tent, he opened the despatch.
"Hooray!" he said, as he glanced at the contents, "here is a movement, at last."
The letter was as follows:
"Colonel O'Connor will at once march with his force to Plasencia; and will reconnoitre the country between that town and the Tagus to the south, and Bejar to the north. He will ascertain, as far as possible, the position and movements of the French army under Victor. He will send a daily report of his observations to headquarters. Twenty Portuguese cavalry, under a subaltern, will be attached to his command, and will furnish orderlies to carry his reports.
"It is desirable that Colonel O'Connor's troops should not come in contact with the enemy, except to check any reconnoitring parties moving towards Castello Branco and Villa Velha. It is most necessary to prevent the news of an advance of the army in that direction reaching the enemy, and to give the earliest possible information of any hostile gathering that might menace the flank of the army, while on its march.
"The passes of Banos and Periles will be held by the troops of Marshal Beresford and General Del Parque, and it is to the country between the mountains and Marshal Cuesta's force, at Almaraz, that Colonel O'Connor is directed to concentrate his attention. In case of being attacked by superior forces, Colonel O'Connor will, if possible, retreat into the mountains on his left flank, maintain himself there, and open communications with Lord Beresford's forces at Banos or Bejar.
"Colonel O'Connor is authorized to requisition six carts from the quartermaster's department, and to hand over his tents to them; to draw 50,000 rounds of ball cartridge, and such rations as he may be able to carry with him. The paymaster has received authority to hand over to him 500 pounds, for the payment of supplies for his men. When this sum is exhausted, Colonel O'Connor is authorized to issue orders for supplies payable by the paymaster to the forces, exercising the strictest economy, and sending notification to the Paymaster General of the issue of such orders.
"This despatch is confidential, and the direction of the route is, on no account, to be divulged."
"You hear that, O'Grady; and you too, Dicky. I ought not to have read the despatch out loud. However, I know you will keep the matter secret."
"You may trust us for that, Terence, for it is a secret worth knowing. It is evident that Sir Arthur is going to join Cuesta, and make a dash on Madrid. Well, he has been long enough in making up his mind; but it is a satisfaction that we are likely to have hot work, at last, though I wish we could have done it without those Spaniards. We have seen enough of them to know that nothing, beyond kind words, are to be expected of them and, when the time for fighting comes, I would rather that we depended upon ourselves than have to act with fellows on whom there is no reliance, whatever, to be placed."
"I agree with you there, heartily, O'Grady. However, thank goodness we are going to set out at last; and I am very glad that it falls to us to act as the vanguard of the army, instead of being attached to Beresford's command and kept stationary in the passes.
"Now I must be at work. I daresay we shall meet again, before long."
Terence wrote an acknowledgment of the receipt of the general's order, and handed it to the orderly who had brought it. A bugler at once sounded the field-officers' call.
"We are to march at once," he said, when Herrara, Bull, and Macwitty arrived. "Let the tents be struck, and handed over to the quartermaster's department. See that the men have four days' biscuit in their haversacks.
"Each battalion is to take three carts with it. I will go to the quartermaster's department, to draw them. Tell off six men from each battalion to accompany me, and take charge of the carts. Each battalion will carry 25,000 rounds of spare ammunition, and a chest of 250 pounds. I will requisition from the commissariat as much biscuit as we can carry, and twenty bullocks for each battalion, to be driven with the carts.
"As soon as the carts are obtained, the men will drive them to the ordnance stores for the ammunition, and to the commissariat stores to load up the food. You had better send an officer in charge of the men of each battalion.
"I will myself draw the money from the paymaster. I will go there at once. Send a couple of men with me, for of course it will be paid in silver. Then I will go to the quartermaster's stores, and get the carts ready by the time that the men arrive. I want to march in an hour's time, at latest."
In a few minutes the camp was a scene of bustle and activity. The tents were struck and packed away in their bags, and piled in order to be handed over to the quartermaster; and in a few minutes over an hour from the receipt of the order, the two battalions were in motion.
After a twenty-mile march, they halted for the night near the frontier. An hour later they were joined by twenty troopers of a Portuguese regiment, under the command of a subaltern.
The next day they marched through Plasencia, and halted for the night on the slopes of the Sierra. An orderly was despatched, next morning, to the officer in command of any force that there might be at Banos, informing him of the position that they had taken up.
Terence ordered two companies to remain at this spot, which was at the head of a little stream running down into an affluent of the Tagus; their position being now nearly due north of Almaraz, from which they were distant some twenty miles. The rest of the force descended into the plain, and took post at various villages between the Sierra and Oropesa, the most advanced party halting four miles from that town.
The French forces under Victor had, in accordance with orders from Madrid, fallen back from Plasencia a week before, and taken up his quarters at Talavera.
At the time when the regiment received its uniforms, Terence had ordered that twenty suits of the men's peasant clothes should be retained in store and, specially intelligent men being chosen, twenty of these were sent forward towards the river Alberche, to discover Victor's position. They brought in news that he had placed his troops behind the river, and that Cuesta, who had at one time an advanced guard at Oropesa, had recalled it to Almaraz. Parties of Victor's cavalry were patrolling the country between Talavera and Oropesa.
Terence had sent Bull, with five hundred men, to occupy all the passes across the Sierras, with orders to capture any orderlies or messengers who might come along; and a day later four men brought in a French officer, who had been captured on the road leading south. He was the bearer of a letter from Soult to the king, and was at once sent, under the escort of four troopers, to headquarters.
The men who had brought in the officer reported that they had learned that Wilson, with his command of four thousand men, was in the mountains north of the Escurial; and that spies from that officer had ascertained that there was great alarm in Madrid, where the news of the British advance towards Plasencia was already known; and that it was feared that this force, with Cuesta's army at Almaraz and Venegas' army in La Mancha, were about to combine in an attack upon the capital. This, indeed, was Sir Arthur's plan, and had been arranged with the Supreme Junta. The Junta, however, being jealous of Cuesta, had given secret instructions to Venegas to keep aloof.
On his arrival at Plasencia, the English general had learned at once the hollowness of the Spanish promises. He had been assured of an ample supply of food, mules, and carts for transport; and had, on the strength of these statements, advanced with but small supplies, for little food and but few animals could be obtained in Portugal. He found, on arriving, that no preparations whatever had been made; and the army, thus early in the campaign, was put on half rations. Day after day passed without any of the promised supplies arriving, and Sir Arthur wrote to the Supreme Junta; saying that although, in accordance with his agreement, he would march to the Alberche, he would not cross that river unless the promises that had been made were kept, to the letter.
He had, by this time, learned that the French forces north of the mountains were much more formidable than the Spanish reports had led him to believe; but he still greatly underrated Soult's army, and was altogether ignorant that Ney had evacuated Galicia, and was marching south with all speed, with his command. Del Parque had failed in his promise to garrison Bejar and Banos, and these passes were now only held by a few hundreds of Cuesta's Spaniards.
A week after taking up his position north of Oropesa, Terence received orders to move with his two battalions, and to take post to guard these passes; with his left resting on Bejar, and his right in communication with Wilson's force. The detachments were at once recalled. A thousand men were posted near Bejar, and the rest divided among the other passes by which a French army from the north could cross the Sierra.
As soon as this arrangement was made, Terence rode to Wilson's headquarters. He was received very cordially by that officer.
"I am heartily glad to see you, Colonel O'Connor," the latter said. "Of course, I have heard of the doings of your battalions; and am glad, indeed, to have your support. I sent a messenger off, only this morning, to Sir Arthur; telling him that, from the information brought in by my spies, I am convinced that Soult is much stronger than has been supposed; and that, if he moves south, I shall scarce be able to hold the passes of Arenas and San Pedro Barnardo; and that I can certainly spare no men for the defence of the more westerly ones, by which Soult is likely to march from Salamanca. However, now you are there, I shall feel safe."
"No doubt I could hinder an advance, Sir Robert," Terence said, "but I certainly could not hope to bar the passes to a French army. I have no artillery and, though my men are steady enough against infantry, I doubt whether they would be able to withstand an attack heralded by a heavy cannonade. With a couple of batteries of artillery to sweep the passes, one might make a fair stand for a time against a greatly superior force; but with only infantry, one could not hope to maintain one's position."
"Quite so, and Sir Arthur could not expect it. My own opinion is that we shall have fifty thousand men coming down from the north. I have told the chief as much; but naturally he will believe the assurances of the Spanish juntas, rather than reports gathered by our spies; and no doubt hopes to crush Victor altogether, before Soult makes any movement; and he trusts to Venegas' advance, from the south towards the upper Tagus, to cause Don Joseph to evacuate Madrid, as soon as he hears of Victor's defeat.
"But I have, certainly, no faith whatever in either Venegas or Cuesta. Cuesta is loyal enough, but he is obstinate and pig headed and, at present, he is furious because the Supreme Junta has been sending all the best troops to Venegas, instead of to him; and he knows, well enough, that that perpetual intriguer Frere is working underhand to get Albuquerque appointed to the supreme command. As to Venegas, he is a mere tool of the Supreme Junta and, as likely as not, they will order him to do nothing but keep his army intact.
"Then again, the delay at Plasencia has upset all Sir Arthur's arrangements. Had he pressed straight forward on the 28th of last month, when he crossed the frontier, disregarding Cuesta altogether, he could have been at Madrid long before this; for I know that at that time Victor's force had been so weakened that he had but between fourteen and fifteen thousand men, and must have fallen back without fighting. Now he has again got the troops that had been taken from him, and will be further reinforced before Sir Arthur arrives on the Alberche; and of course Soult has had plenty of time to get everything in readiness to cross the mountains, and fall upon the British rear, as soon as he hears that they are fairly on their way towards Madrid. Here we are at the 20th, and our forces will only reach Oropesa today.
"Victor is evidently afraid that Sir Arthur will move from Oropesa towards the hills, pass the upper Alberche, and so place himself between him and Madrid; for a strong force of cavalry reconnoitred in this direction, this morning."
"Would it not be as well, sir," said Terence, "if we were to arrange some signals by which we could aid each other? That hill top can be seen from the hill beyond which is the little village where I have established myself. I noticed it this morning, before I started. If you would keep a lookout on your hill, I would have one on mine. We might each get three bonfires, a hundred yards apart, ready for lighting. If I hear of any great force approaching the defiles I am watching, I could summon your aid either by day or night by these fires; and in the same way, if Soult should advance by the line that you are guarding, you could summon me. My men are really well trained in this sort of work, and you could trust them to make an obstinate defence."
"I think that your idea is a very good one, and will certainly carry it out. You see, we are really both of us protecting the left flank of our army, and can certainly do so more effectually if we work together.
"We might, too, arrange another signal. One fire might mean that, for some reason or other, we are marching away. I may have orders to move some distance towards Madrid, so as to compel Victor to weaken himself by detaching a force to check me; you may be ordered, as the army advances, to leave your defiles in charge of the Spaniards, and to accompany the army. Two fires might mean, spies have reported a general advance of the French coming by several routes. Thus, you see, we should be in readiness for any emergency.
"I should be extremely glad of your help, if Soult comes this way. My own corps of 1200 men are fairly good soldiers, and I can rely upon them to do their best; but the other 3000 have been but recently raised, and I don't think that any dependence can be placed upon them, in case of hard fighting; but with your two battalions, we ought to be able to hold any of these defiles for a considerable time."
Two days later, Terence received orders to march instantly with his force down into the valley, to follow the foot of the hills until he reached the Alberche, when he was to report his arrival, wait until he received orders, and check the advance of any French force endeavouring to move round the left flank of the British. The evening before, one signal fire had announced that Wilson was on the move and, thinking that he, too, might be summoned, Terence had called in all his outposts, and was able to march a quarter of an hour after he received the order.
He had learned, on the evening he returned from his visit to Sir Robert, from men sent down into the plain for the purpose, that Cuesta's army and that of Sir Arthur had advanced together from Oropesa. He was glad at the order to join the army, as he had felt that, should Soult advance, his force, unprovided as it was with guns, would be able to offer but a very temporary resistance; especially if the French Marshal was at the head of a force anything like as strong as was reported by the peasantry. As to this, however, he had very strong doubts, having come to distrust thoroughly every report given by the Spaniards. He knew that they were as ready, under the influence of fear, to exaggerate the force of an enemy as they were, at other times, to magnify their own numbers. Sir Arthur must, he thought, be far better informed than he himself could be; for his men, being Portuguese, were viewed with doubt and suspicion by the Spanish peasantry, who would probably take a pleasure in misleading them altogether.
The short stay in the mountains had braced up the men and, with only a short halt, they made a forty-mile march to the Alberche by midnight. Scarcely had they lit their fires, when an Hussar officer and some troopers rode up. They halted a hundred yards away, and the officer shouted in English:
"What corps is this?"
Terence at once left the fire, and advanced towards them.
"Two Portuguese battalions," he answered, "under myself, Colonel O'Connor."
The officer at once rode forward.
"I was not quite sure," he said, as he came close, "that my question would not be answered by a volley. By the direction from which I saw you coming, I thought that you must be friends. Still, you might have been an advanced party of a force that had come down through the defiles. However, as soon as I saw you light your fires, I made sure it was all right; for the Frenchmen would not likely have ventured to do so unless, indeed, they were altogether ignorant of our advance."
"At ten o'clock this morning I received orders from headquarters to move to this point at once and, as we have marched from Banos, you see we have lost very little time on the way."
"Indeed, you have not. I suppose it is about forty miles; and that distance, in fourteen hours, is certainly first-rate marching. I will send off one of my men to report who you are. Two squadrons of my regiment are a quarter of a mile away, awaiting my return."
"Have you any reason to believe that the enemy are near?"
"No particular reason that I know of, but their cavalry have been in great force along the upper part of the river, for the last two days. Victor has retired from Talavera, for I fancy that he was afraid we might move round this way, and cut him off from Madrid. The Spaniards might have harassed him as he fell back, but they dared not even make a charge on his rear guard, though they had 3000 cavalry.
"We are not quite sure where the French are and, of course, we get no information from the people here; either their stupidity is something astounding, or their sympathies are entirely with the French."
"My experience is," Terence said, "that the best way is to get as much information as you can from them, and then to act with the certainty that the real facts are just the reverse of the statements made to you."
As soon as the forces halted a picket had been sent out; and Terence, when the men finished their supper, established a cordon of advanced pickets, with strong supports, at a distance of a mile from his front and flanks; so as to ensure himself against surprise, and to detect any movement upon the part of the enemy's cavalry, who might be pressing round to obtain information of the British position. At daybreak he mounted and rode to Talavera, and reported the arrival of his command, and the position where he had halted for the night.
"You have wasted no time over it, Colonel O'Connor. You can only have received the order yesterday morning, and I scarcely expected that you could be here till this evening."
"My men are excellent marchers, sir. They did the forty miles in fourteen hours, and might have done it an hour quicker, had they been pressed. Not a man fell out."
"Your duty will now be to cover our left flank. I don't know whether you are aware that Wilson has moved forward, and will take post on the slopes near the Escurial. He has been directed to spread his force as much as possible, so as to give an appearance of greater strength than he has."
"I knew that he had left his former position," Terence said. "We had arranged a code of smoke signals, by which we could ask each other for assistance should the defiles be attacked; and I learned yesterday morning, in this way, that he was marching away."
"Have you any news of what is taking place on the other side of the hills, since you sent off word two days ago?"
"No, sir; at least, all we hear is of the same character as before. We don't hear that Soult is moving, but his force is certainly put down as being considerably larger than was supposed. I have deemed it my duty to state this in my reports, but the Spaniards are so inclined to exaggerate everything that I always receive statements of this kind with great doubt."
"All our news—from the juntas, from Mr. Frere, and from other quarters—is quite the other way," the officer said. "We are assured that Soult has not fifteen thousand men in condition to take the field, and that he could not venture to move these, as he knows that the whole country would rise, did he do so.
"I have no specific orders to give you. You will keep in touch with General Hill's brigade, which forms our left and, as we move forward, you will advance along the lower slopes of the Sierra and prevent any attempt, on the part of the French, to turn our flank.
"I dare say you do not know exactly what is going on, Colonel O'Connor. It may be of assistance to you, in taking up your position, to know that the fighting is likely to take place on the line between Talavera and the mountains. Cuesta has fallen back, in great haste, to Talavera. We shall advance today and take up our line with him.
"The Spaniards will hold the low marshy ground near the town. Our right will rest on an eminence on his left flank, and will extend to a group of hills, separated by a valley from the Sierra. Our cavalry will probably check any attempt by the French to turn our flank there, and you and the Spaniards will do your best to hold the slope of the Sierra, should the French move a force along there.
"I may say that Victor has been largely reinforced by Sebastiani, and is likely to take the offensive. Indeed, we hear that he is already moving in this direction. We are not aware of his exact strength, but we believe that it must approach, if not equal, that of ourselves and Cuesta united.
"Cuesta has, indeed, been already roughly handled by the French. Disregarding Sir Arthur's entreaties, and believing Victor to be in full retreat, he marched on alone, impelled by the desire to be the first to enter Madrid; but at two o'clock on the morning of the 26th of July, the French suddenly fell upon him, drove the Spanish cavalry back from their advanced position, and chased them hotly. They fled in great disorder, and the panic would have spread to the whole army, had not Albuquerque brought up 3000 fresh cavalry and held the French in check, while Cuesta retreated in great disorder and, had the French pressed forward, would have fled in utter rout. Sherbrooke's division, which was in advance of the British army, moved forward and took up its position in front of the panic-stricken Spaniards, and then the French drew off.
"Cuesta then yielded to Sir Arthur's entreaties, recrossed the Alberche, and took up his position near Talavera. Here, even the worst troops should be able to make a stand against the best. The ground is marshy and traversed by a rivulet. On its left is a strong redoubt, which is armed with Spanish artillery; on the right is another very strong battery, on a rise close to Talavera; while other batteries sweep the road to Madrid. Sir Arthur has strengthened the front by felling trees and forming abattis, so that he has good reason to hope that, poor as the Spanish troops may be, they should be able to hold their part of the line.
"Campbell's division forms the British right, Sherbrooke comes next, the German legion are in the centre, Donkin is to take his place on the hill that rises two-thirds of the way across the valley, while General Hill's division is to hold the face looking north, and separated from the Sierra only by the comparatively narrow valley in which you have bivouacked. At present, however, his troops and those of Donkin have not taken up their position."
The country between the positions on which the allied armies had now fallen back was covered with olive and cork trees. The whole line from Talavera to the hill, which was to be held by Hill's division, was two miles in length; and the valley between that and the Sierra was half a mile in width, but extremely broken and rugged, and was intersected by a ravine, through which ran the rivulet that fell into the Tagus at Talavera.
Chapter 2: Talavera.
On leaving the Adjutant General, Terence—knowing that Mackenzie's brigade was some two miles in advance on the Alberche river, and that the enemy was not in sight—sent off one of the orderlies who accompanied him, with a message to Herrara to fall back and take up his station on the lower slopes of the Sierra, facing the rounded hill; and then went to a restaurant and had breakfast. It was crowded with Spanish officers, with a few British scattered among them.
As he ate his food, he was greatly amused at the boasting of the Spaniards as to what they would accomplish, if the French ventured to attack them; knowing as he did how shamefully they had behaved, two days before, when the whole of Cuesta's army had been thrown into utter disorder by two or three thousand French cavalry, and had only been saved from utter rout by the interposition of a British brigade. When he had finished breakfast, he mounted his horse and rode to the camp of his old regiment.
"Hooroo, Terence!" Captain O'Grady shouted, as he rode up, "I thought you would be turning up, when there was going to be something to do. It's yourself that has the knack of always getting into the thick of it.
"Orderly, take Colonel O'Connor's horse, and lead him up and down.
"Come on, Terence, most of the boys are in that tent over there. We have just been dismissed from parade."
A shout of welcome rose as they entered the tent, where a dozen officers were sitting on the ground, or on empty boxes.
"Sit down if you can find room, Terence," Colonel Corcoran said. "Wouldn't you like to be back with us again, for the shindy that we are likely to have, tomorrow?"
"That I should, but I hope to have my share in it, in my own way."
"Where are your men, O'Connor?"
"They will be, in another hour, at the foot of the mountains over there to the left. Our business will be to prevent any of the French moving along there, and coming down on your rear."
"I am pleased to hear it. I believe that there is a Spanish division there, but I am glad to know that the business is not to be left entirely to them. Now, what have you been doing since you left us, a month ago?"
"I have been doing nothing, Colonel, but watching the defiles and, as no one has come up them, we have not fired a shot."
"No doubt they got news that you were there, Terence," O'Grady said, "and not likely would they be to come up to be destroyed by you."
"Perhaps that was it," Terence said, when the laughter had subsided; "at any rate they didn't show up, and I was very pleased when orders came, at ten o'clock yesterday, for us to leave Banos and march to join the army. We did the forty miles in fourteen hours."
"Good marching," Colonel Corcoran said. "Then where did you halt?"
"About three miles farther off, at the foot of the hills. We saw a lot of campfires to our right, and thought that we were in a line with the army, but of course they were only those of Mackenzie's division; but I sent off an orderly, an hour ago, to tell them to fall back to the slopes facing those hills, where our left is to be posted."
"You are a lucky fellow to have been away from us, Terence, for it is downright starving we have been. The soldiers have only had a mouthful of meat served out to them as rations, most days; and they have got so thin that their clothes are hanging loose about them. If it hadn't been for my man Doolan and two or three others, who always manage, by hook or by crook, to get hold of anything there is within two or three miles round, we should have been as badly off as they are. Be jabers, I have had to take in my sword belt a good two inches; and to think that, while our fellows are well-nigh starving, these Spaniards we came to help, and who will do no fighting themselves, had more food than they could eat, is enough to enrage a saint.
"I wonder Sir Arthur puts up with it. I would have seized that stuck-up old fool Cuesta, and popped him into the guard tent, and kept him there until provisions were handed over for us."
"His whole army might come to rescue him, O'Grady."
"What if they had? I would have turned out a corporal's guard, and sent the whole of them trotting off in no time. Did you hear what took place two days ago?"
"Yes, I heard that they behaved shamefully, O'Grady; still, I think a corporal's guard would hardly be sufficient to turn them, but I do believe that a regiment might answer the purpose."
"I can tell you that there is nothing would please the troops more than to attack the Spaniards. If this goes on many more days, our men will be too weak to march; but I believe that, before they lie down and give it up altogether, they will pitch into the Spaniards, in spite of what we may try to do to prevent them," the Colonel said. "Here we are in a country abounding with food, and we are starving, while the Spaniards are feasting in plenty; and by Saint Patrick's beard, Terence, it is mighty little we should do to prevent our men from pitching into them. There is one thing, you may be sure. We shall never cooperate with them in the future and, as to relying upon their promises, faith, they are not worth the breath it takes to make them."
As everything was profoundly quiet, Terence had no hesitation in stopping to lunch with his old friends and, as there was no difficulty in buying whatever was required in Talavera, the table was well supplied, and the officers made up for their enforced privation during the past three weeks.
At three o'clock Terence left them and rode across to his command, which he found posted exactly where he had directed it.
"It is lucky that we filled up with flour at Banos, before starting, Colonel," Bull said, "for from what we hear, the soldiers are getting next to nothing to eat; and those cattle you bought at the village halfway, yesterday, will come in very handy. At any rate, with them and the flour we can hold out for a week, if need be."
"Still, you had better begin at once to be economical, Bull. There is no saying what may happen after this battle has been fought."
While they were talking, a sudden burst of firing, at a distance, was heard.
"Mackenzie's brigade is engaged!" Terence exclaimed. "You had better get the men under arms, at once. If the whole of Victor's command is upon them, they will have to fall back.
"When the men are ready, you may as well come a few hundred feet higher up the hill, with me. Then you will see all over the country, and be in readiness to do anything that is wanted. But it is not likely the French will attempt anything serious, today. They will probably content themselves with driving Mackenzie in."
Terence went at once up the hill, to a point whence he could look well over the round hills on the other side of the valley, and make out the British and Spanish lines, stretching to Talavera. The troops were already formed up, in readiness for action. Away to his left came the roll of heavy firing from the cork woods near the Alberche and, just as his three officers joined him, the British troops issued pell mell from the woods. They had, in fact, been taken entirely by surprise; and had been attacked so suddenly and vigorously that, for a time, the young soldiers of some of the regiments fell into confusion; and Sir Arthur himself, who was at a large house named the Casa, narrowly escaped capture. The 45th, however, a regiment that had seen much service, and some companies of the 60th Rifles presented a stout front to the enemy.
Sir Arthur speedily restored order among the rest of the troops, and the enemy's advance was checked. The division then fell back in good order, each of its flanks being covered by a brigade of cavalry. From the height at which Terence and his officers stood, they could plainly make out the retiring division, and could see heavy masses of French troops descending from the high ground beyond the Alberche.
"The whole French army is on us!" Macwitty said. "If their advance guard had not been in such a hurry to attack, and had waited until the others came up, not many of Mackenzie's division would have got back to our lines."
It was not long before the French debouched from the woods and, as soon as they did so, a division rapidly crossed the plain towards the allies' left, seized an isolated hill facing the spur on to which Donkin had just hurried up his brigade, and at once opened a heavy cannonade. At the same time another division moved towards the right, and some squadrons of light cavalry could be seen, riding along the road from Madrid towards the Spanish division.
"They won't do much good there," Terence said, "for the country is so swampy that they cannot leave the road. Still, I suppose they want to reconnoitre our position, and draw the fire of the Spaniards to ascertain their whereabouts. They are getting very close to them and, when the Spaniards begin, they ought to wipe them out completely."
At this moment a heavy rattle of distant musketry was heard, and a light wreath of smoke rose from the Spanish lines. The French cavalry had, in fact, ridden up so close to the Spaniards that they discharged their pistols in bravado at them. To this the Spaniards had replied by a general wild discharge of their muskets. A moment later the party on the hill saw the right of the Spanish line break up as if by magic and, to their astonishment and rage, they made out that the whole plain behind was thickly dotted by fugitives.
"Why, the whole lot have bolted, sir!" Bull exclaimed. "Horse and foot are making off. Did anyone ever hear of such a thing!"
That portion of the Spanish line nearest to Talavera had indeed broken and fled in the wildest panic, 10,000 infantry having taken to their heels the instant they discharged their muskets; while the artillery cut their traces and, leaving their guns behind them, followed their example. The French cavalry charged along the road, but Sir Arthur opposed them with some British squadrons. The Spanish who still held their ground opened fire, and the French drew back. The fugitives continued their flight to Oropesa, spreading panic and alarm everywhere with the news that the allies were totally defeated, Sir Arthur Wellesley killed, and all lost.
Cuesta himself had for some time accompanied them, but he soon recovered from his panic, and sent several cavalry regiments to bring back the fugitives. Part of the artillery and some thousands of the infantry were collected before morning, but 6000 men were still absent at the battle, and the great redoubt on their left was silent, from want of guns.
In point of numbers there had been but little difference between the two armies. Prior to the loss of these 6000 men, Cuesta's army had been 34,000 strong, with seventy guns. The British, with the German Legion, numbered 19,000, with thirty guns. The French were 50,000 strong, with eighty guns. These were all veteran troops, while on the side of the allies there were but 19,000 who could be called fighting men.
"That is what comes of putting faith in the Spaniards!" Bull said savagely. "If I had been Sir Arthur, I would have turned my guns on them and given them something to run for. We should do a thousand times better, by ourselves; then we should know what we had to expect."
"It is evident that there won't be any fighting until tomorrow, Macwitty. You will place half your battalion on the hillside, from this point to the bottom of the slope. I don't think that they will come so high up the hill as this; but you will, of course, throw some pickets out above. The other wing of your battalion you will hold in reserve, a couple of hundred yards behind the centre of the line; but choose a sheltered spot for them, for those guns Victor is placing on his heights will sweep the face of this hill.
"This little watercourse will give capital cover to your advanced line, and they cannot do better than occupy it. Lying down, they would be completely sheltered from the French artillery and, if attacked, they could line the bank and fire without showing more than their heads. Of course, you will throw out pickets along the face of the slope in front of you.
"Do you, Bull, march your battalion down to the foot of the hill and take up your post there. The ground is very uneven and broken, and you should be able to find some spot where the men would be in shelter; move a couple of hundred yards back, then Macwitty would flank any force advancing against you. The sun will set in a few minutes, so you had better lose no time in taking up your ground.
"As soon as you have chosen a place go on, with the captains of your companies, across the valley. Make yourselves thoroughly acquainted with the ground, and mark the best spots at which to post the men to resist any force that may come along the valley. It is quite possible that Victor may make an attempt to turn the general's flank tonight. I will reconnoitre all the ground in front of you, and will then, with the colonel, join you."
The position Terence had chosen was a quarter of a mile west of the spur held by Donkin's brigade. He had selected it in order that, if attacked in force, he might have the assistance of the guns there; which would thus be able to play on the advancing French, without risk of his own men being injured by their fire.
Bull marched his battalion down the hill and, as Terence and Herrara were about to mount, a sudden burst of musketry fire, from the crest of the opposite hill, showed that the French were attempting to carry that position. Victor, indeed, seeing the force stationed there to be a small one; and that, from the confusion among the Spaniards on the British right, the moment was very favourable; had ordered one division to attack, another to move to its support, while a third was to engage the German division posted on the plain to the right of the hill, and thus prevent succour being sent to Donkin.
From the position where Terence was standing, the front of the steep slope that the French were climbing could not be seen but, almost at the same moment, a dense mass of men began to swarm up the hill on Donkin's flank; having, unperceived, made their way in at the mouth of the valley.
"Form up your battalion, Macwitty," he shouted, "and double down the hill."
Then he rode after Bull, whose battalion had now reached the valley and halted there.
"We must go to the assistance of the brigade on the hill, Bull, or they will be overpowered before reinforcements can reach them.
"Herrara, bring on Macwitty after us, as soon as he gets down.
"Take the battalion forward at the double, Bull."
The order was given and, with a cheer, the battalion set out across the valley and, on reaching the other side, began to climb the steep ascent; bearing towards their left, so as to reach the summit near the spot where the French were ascending. Twilight was already closing in, and the approach of the Portuguese was unobserved by the French, whose leading battalions had reached the top of the hill, and were pressing heavily on Donkin's weak brigade; which had, however, checked the advance of the French on their front. Macwitty's battalion was but a short distance behind when, marching straight along on the face of the hill, Bull arrived within a hundred yards of the French. Here Terence halted them for a minute, while they hastily formed up in line, and Macwitty came up.
The din on the top of the hill, just above Bull's right company, was prodigious, the rattle of musketry incessant, the exulting shouts of the French could be plainly heard; and their comrades behind were pressing hotly up the hill to join in the strife. There was plainly not a moment to be lost and, advancing to within fifty yards of the French battalions, struggling up the hill in confused masses, a tremendous volley was poured in.
The French, astonished at this sudden attack upon their flank, paused and endeavoured to form up, and wheel round to oppose a front to it; but the heavy fire of the Portuguese, and the broken nature of the ground, prevented their doing this and, ignorant of the strength of the force that had thus suddenly attacked them, they recoiled, keeping up an irregular fire; while the Portuguese, pouring in steady volleys, pressed upon them. In five minutes they gave way, and retired rapidly down the hill.
The leading battalions had gained the crest where, joining those who had ascended by the other face of the hill, they fell upon the already outnumbered defenders. Donkin's men, though fighting fiercely, were pressed back, and would have been driven from their position had not General Hill brought up the 29th and 48th, with a battalion of detachments composed of Sir John Moore's stragglers. These charged the French so furiously that they were unable to withstand the assault, although aided by fresh battalions ascending the front of the hill.
In their retreat the French, instead of going straight down the hill, bore away to their right and, although some fell to the fire of the Portuguese, the greater portion passed unseen in the darkness.
The firing now ceased, and Terence ordered Bull and Macwitty to take their troops back to the ground originally selected, while he himself ascended to the crest. With some difficulty he discovered the whereabouts of General Hill, to whom he was well known. He found him in the act of having a wound temporarily dressed, by the light of a fire which had just been replenished; he having ridden, in the dark, into the midst of a French battalion, believing it to be one of his own regiments. Colonel Donkin was in conversation with him.
"It has been a very close affair, sir," he said; "and I certainly thought that we should be rolled down the hill. I believe that we owe our safety, in no small degree, to a couple of battalions of Spaniards, I fancy, who took up their post on the opposite hill this morning. Just before you brought up your reinforcement, and while things were at their worst, I heard heavy volley firing somewhere just over the crest. I don't know who it could have been, if it was not them; for there were certainly no other troops on my left."
"They were Portuguese battalions, sir," Terence said quietly.
"Oh, is it you, O'Connor?" General Hill exclaimed. "If they were those two battalions of yours, I can quite understand it.
"This is Colonel O'Connor, Donkin, who checked Soult's passage at the mouth of the Minho, and has performed other admirable services."
"You may as well make your report to me, O'Connor, and I will include it in my own to Sir Arthur."
Terence related how, just as he was taking up his position for the night along the slopes of the Sierra, he heard the outbreak of firing on the front of the hill and, seeing a large force mounting its northern slope, and knowing that only one brigade was posted there, he thought it his duty to move to its assistance. Crossing the valley at the double, he had taken them in flank and, being unperceived in the gathering darkness, had checked their advance, and compelled them to retire down the hill.
"At what strength do you estimate the force which so retired, Colonel?"
"I fancy there were eight battalions of them, but three had gained the crest before we arrived. The others were necessarily broken up, and followed so close upon each other that it was difficult to separate them; but I fancy there were eight of them. Being in such confusion and, of course, unaware of my strength, they were unable to form or to offer any effectual resistance; and our volleys, from a distance of fifty yards, must have done heavy execution upon them."
"Then there is no doubt, Donkin, Colonel O'Connor's force did save you; for if those five battalions had gained the crest, you would have been driven off it before the brigade I brought up arrived and, indeed, even with that aid we should have been so outnumbered that we could scarcely have held our ground. It was hot work as it was, but certainly five more battalions would have turned the scale against us.
"Of course, O'Connor, you will send in a written report of your reasons for quitting your position to headquarters; and I shall, myself, do full justice to the service that you have rendered so promptly and efficaciously. Where is your command now?"
"They will by this time have taken up their former position on the opposite slope. One battalion is extended there. The other is at the foot of the hill, prepared to check any force that may attempt to make its way up the valley. Our line is about a quarter of a mile in rear of this spur. I selected the position in order that, should the French make an attempt in any force, the guns here might take them in flank, while I held them in check in front."
The general nodded. "Well thought of," he said.
"And now, Donkin, you had better muster your brigade and ascertain what are your losses. I am afraid they are very heavy."
Terence now returned across the valley and, on joining his command, told Herrara and the two majors how warmly General Hill had commended their action.
"What has been our loss?" he asked.
"Fifteen killed, and five-and-forty wounded, but of these a great proportion are not serious."
Brushwood was now collected and in a short time a number of fires were blazing. The men were in high spirits. They were proud of having overthrown a far superior force of the enemy, and were gratified at the expression of great satisfaction, conveyed to them by their captains by Terence's order, at the steadiness with which they had fought.
At daybreak next morning the enemy was seen to be again in motion, Victor having obtained the king's consent to again try to carry the hills occupied by the British. This time Terence did not leave his position, being able to see that the whole of Hill's division now occupied the heights and, moreover, being himself threatened by two regiments of light troops, which crossed the mouth of the valley, ascended the slopes on his side, and proceeded to work their way along them. The whole of Macwitty's battalion was now placed in line, while Bull's was held in reserve, behind its centre.
It was not long before Macwitty was hotly engaged; and the French, who were coming along in skirmishing order, among the rocks and broken ground, were soon brought to a standstill. For some time a heavy fire was exchanged. Three times the French gathered for a rush; but each time the steady volleys, from their almost invisible foes, drove them back again, with loss, to the shelter they had left.
In the intervals Terence could see how the fight was going on across the valley. The whole hillside was dotted with fire, as the French worked their way up, and the British troops on the crest fired down upon them. Several times parties of the French gained the brow, but only to be hurled back again by the troops held in reserve, in readiness to move to any point where the enemy might gain a footing. For forty minutes the battle continued; and then, having lost 1500 men, the French retreated down the hill again, covered by the fire of their batteries, which opened with fury on the crest, as soon as they were seen to be descending the slope.
At the same time the light troops opposed to Terence also drew off. Seeing the pertinacity with which the French had tried to turn his left, Sir Arthur Wellesley moved his cavalry round to the head of the valley and, obtaining Bassecour's division of Spanish from Cuesta, sent them to take post on the hillside a short distance in rear of Terence's Portuguese.
The previous evening's fighting had cost Victor 1000 men, while 800 British had been killed or wounded; and the want of success then, and the attack on the following morning, tended to depress the spirits of the French and to raise those of the British. It was thought that after these two repulses Victor would not again give battle, and indeed the French generals Jourdan and Sebastiani were opposed to a renewal of hostilities; but Victor was in favour of a general attack. So his opinion was finally adopted by the king, in spite of the fact that he knew that Soult was in full march towards the British rear, and had implored him not to fight a battle till he had cut the British line of retreat; when, in any case, they would be forced to retire at once.
The king was influenced more by his fear for the safety of Madrid than by Victor's arguments. Wilson's force had been greatly exaggerated by rumour. Venegas was known to be at last approaching Toledo, and the king feared that one or both of these forces might fall upon Madrid in his absence, and that all his military stores would fall into their hands. He therefore earnestly desired to force the British to retreat, in order that he might hurry back to protect Madrid.
Doubtless the gross cowardice exhibited by the Spaniards, on the previous day, had shown Victor that he had really only the 19,000 British troops to contend against; and as his force exceeded theirs by two to one, he might well regard victory as certain, and believe he could not fail to beat them.
Up to midday, a perfect quiet reigned along both lines. The British and French soldiers went down alike to the rivulet that separated the two armies, and exchanged jokes as they drank and filled their canteens. Albuquerque, being altogether dissatisfied with Cuesta's arrangements, moved across the plain with his own cavalry and took his post behind the British and German horse; so that no less than 6000 cavalry were now ready to pour down upon any French force attempting to turn the British position by the valley. The day was intensely hot and the soldiers, after eating their scanty rations, for the most part stretched themselves down to sleep; for the night had been a broken one, owing to the fact that the Spaniards, whenever they heard, or thought they heard, anyone moving in their front, poured in a tremendous fire that roused the whole camp; and was so wild and ill directed that several British officers and men, on their left, were killed by it.
Soon after midday the drums were heard to beat along the whole length of the French line, and the troops were seen to be falling in. Then the British were also called to arms, and the soldiers cheerfully took their places in the ranks; glad that the matter was to be brought to an issue at once, as they thought that a victory would, at least, put an end to the state of starvation in which they had for some time been kept. The French had, by this time, learned how impossible it was to surmount the obstacles in front of that portion of the allies' line occupied by the Spaniards. They therefore neglected these altogether, and Sebastiani advanced against the British division in the plains; while Victor, as before, prepared to assail the British left, supported this time by a great mass of cavalry.
The French were soon in readiness for the attack. Ruffin's division were to cross the valley, move along the foot of the mountain, and turn the British left. Villatte was to guard the mouth of the valley with one brigade, to threaten Hill with the other, and to make another attempt to carry it. He was to be aided by half the division of Lapisse, while the other half assisted Sebastiani in his attack on the British centre. Milhaud's dragoons were placed on the main road to Talavera, so as to keep the Spaniards from moving to the assistance of the British.
The battle began with a furious attack on the British right, but the French were withstood by Campbell's division and Mackenzie's brigade, aided by two Spanish columns; and was finally pushed back with great loss, and ten of their guns captured; but as Campbell wisely refused to break his line and pursue, the French rallied on their reserve, and prepared to renew the attack.
In the meantime Lapisse crossed the rivulet and attacked Sherbrooke's division, composed of the Germans and Guards. This brigade was, however, driven back in disorder. The Guards followed hotly in pursuit; but the French reserves came up, and their batteries opened with fury and drove the Guards back, while the Germans were so hotly pressed, by Lapisse, that they fell into confusion. The 48th, however, fell upon the flank of the advancing French; the Guards and the Germans rallied, the British artillery swept the French columns, and they again fell back. Thus the British centre and right had succeeded in finally repelling the attacks made upon them.
On the left, as the French advanced, the 23rd Light Dragoons and the 1st German Hussars charged the head of Ruffin's column. Before they reached them, however, they encountered the ravine through which the rivulet here ran. The Germans checked their horses when they came upon this almost impassable obstacle. The 23rd, however, kept on. Men and horses rolled over each other, but many crossed the chasm and, forming again, dashed in between the squares into which the French infantry had thrown themselves, and charged a brigade of light infantry in their rear. Victor hurled two regiments of cavalry upon them and the 23rd, hopelessly over matched, were driven back with a loss of 207 men and officers, being fully half the number that had ridden forward. The rest galloped back to the shelter of Bassecour's division.
Yet their effort had not been in vain. The French, astonished at their furious charge, and seeing four distinct lines of cavalry still drawn up facing them, made no further movement. Hill easily repulsed the attack upon his position, and the battle ceased as suddenly as it had begun, the French having failed at every point they had attacked.
Terence had, on seeing Ruffin's division marching towards him, advanced along the slope until they reached the entrance to the valley; and then, scattering on the hillside, had opened a heavy and continuous fire upon the French, doing much execution among their columns, and still more when they threw themselves into square to resist the cavalry. He had given orders that, should Ruffin send some of his battalions up the hill against them, they were to retire up the slopes, taking advantage of every shelter, and not to attempt to meet the enemy in close contact. No such attack was, however, made. The French battalion most exposed threw out a large number of skirmishers, and endeavoured to keep down the galling fire maintained from the hillside; but as the Portuguese took advantage of every stone and bush, and scarcely a man was visible to the French, there were but few casualties among them.
The loss of the British was in all, during the two days' fighting, 6200, including 600 taken prisoners. That of the French was 7400. Ten guns were captured by Campbell's division, and seven left in the woods by the French as they drew off, the next morning at daybreak, to take up their position behind the Alberche.
During the day Crauford's brigade came up, after a tremendous march. The three regiments had, after a tramp of twenty miles, encamped near Plasencia, when the alarm spread by the Spanish fugitives reached that place. Crauford allowed his men two hours' rest and then started to join the army, and did not halt until he reached the camp; having in twenty-six hours, during the hottest season of the year, marched sixty-two miles, carrying kit, arms, and ammunition—a weight of from fifty to sixty pounds. Only twenty-five men out of the three regiments fell out and, immediately the brigade arrived, it took up the outpost duty in front of the army.
Terence was much gratified by the appearance, in general orders that day, of the following notice:
"The general commander-in-chief expresses his warm approbation of the conduct of the two battalions of the Minho regiment of Portuguese, commanded by Colonel O'Connor. This officer, on his own discretion, moved from the position assigned to him, on seeing the serious attack made on Colonel Donkin's brigade on the evening of the 27th and, scaling the hill, opened so heavy a fire on the French ascending it that five battalions fell back, without taking part in the attack. This took place at the crisis of the engagement, and had a decisive effect on its result."
At eight o'clock a staff officer rode up, with orders for the Minho regiment to return at once to the pass of Banos, as the news had come in that the enemy beyond the hills were in movement. Terence was to act in concert with the Spanish force there, and hold the pass as long as possible. If the enemy were in too great strength to be withstood, he was given discretion as to his movements; being guided only by the fact that the British army would, probably, march down the valley of the Tagus.
If Soult crossed, "his force," the order added, "was estimated as not exceeding 15,000 men."
Chapter 3: Prisoners.
On the 31st of July Terence reached the neighbourhood of Banos and learned, from the peasantry, that a French army had passed through the town early on the preceding day. No resistance, whatever, had been offered to its passage through the pass of Bejar; and the Spanish at Banos had retreated hastily, after exchanging a few shots with the French advanced guard. The peasantry had all deserted their villages, but had had some skirmishes with small foraging parties of cavalry. Several French stragglers had been killed in the pass.
Hoping to find some of these still alive, and to obtain information from them, Terence continued his march for Banos; sending on two of the best mounted of the Portuguese horsemen, to ascertain if there was any considerable French force left there. He was within half a mile of the town when he saw them returning, at full speed, chased by a party of French dragoons; who, however, fell back when they saw the advancing infantry.
"What is your news?" Terence asked, as the troopers rode up.
"Banos is full of French troops," one of them replied, "and columns are marching down the pass. From what I can see, I should think that there must be 16,000 or 20,000 of them."
In fact, this was Soult's second army corps—the first, which had preceded it, having that morning reached Plasencia, where they captured 400 sick in the hospitals, and a large quantity of stores that had been left there, from want of carriage, when the British army advanced. Terence lost no time in retreating from so dangerous a neighbourhood, and at once made for the mountains he had just left.
Two regiments of French cavalry set out in pursuit, as soon as the party that had chased the Portuguese troopers entered Banos with the news that a body of infantry, some 2000 strong, was close at hand. They came up before the Portuguese had marched more than a mile. The two battalions were halted, and thrown into square. The French rode fearlessly down upon them, but were received with so hot and steady a fire that they speedily drew off, with considerable loss. Then the regiment ascended the hills and, half an hour later, halted.
"The question is, what is to be done?" Terence said to Herrara and his two majors. "It is evident that, for once, the information we obtained from the Spaniards is correct, and that Soult must have at least 30,000 men with him. Possibly his full strength is not up yet. By this time the force that passed yesterday must be at Plasencia, and by tomorrow may be on the Tagus, and Sir Arthur's position must be one of great danger. Putting Cuesta and the Spaniards altogether aside as worthless, he has, even with that brigade we saw marching in soon after we started, only 22,000 or 23,000 men; and on one side of him is Victor, with some 40,000; on the other is Soult, with perhaps as many more. With starving and exhausted troops his chances are small, indeed, unless he can cross the Tagus. He might beat one marshal or the other, but he can hardly beat the two of them.
"The first thing to do is to send two troopers off, with duplicate despatches, telling Sir Arthur of Soult's passage. He might not otherwise hear of it for some time, and then it might be too late. The peasantry and the village authorities will be too busy carrying off their effects, and driving their animals to the hills, to think for a moment of sending information. That is evidently the first thing to be done.
"Until we see what is going to happen, I don't think we can do better than cross the Sierra, and encamp at some spot where we can make out the movements of the French on the plain. At the same time we can keep an eye on the road to Plasencia, and be able to send information to Sir Arthur, if any further bodies of French troops come down into the valley. Our position is evidently a dangerous one. If the news has reached Sir Arthur, he will have fallen back from Talavera at once. Victor will no doubt follow on his heels, and his cavalry and those of Soult will speedily meet each other. Therefore it will be, in all ways, best to see how matters develop themselves before moving down into the plain."
Accordingly two of the troopers were sent off with information that 15,000 French were already in the valley, and that as many more would be there on the following day. Then the regiment marched across the Sierra and took post high up on the slope, with Plasencia ten miles away on the right, and the spires of Oropesa visible across the valley.
On the following day another army corps was seen descending from Banos to Plasencia, while a large body of troops marched from that town to Navalmoral, thus cutting off the retreat of the British by the bridge of boats at Almaraz. Clouds of dust on the distant plain showed that a portion, at least, of the Allied Army had arrived at Oropesa; and bodies of French cavalry were made out, traversing the plain and scattering among the villages. Two more troopers were sent off with reports, and warned, like the others, to take different routes, and make a wide circuit so as to avoid the French, and then to come down upon Oropesa. If the troops there were British, they were to deliver their reports to the general in command. If it was occupied by Spaniards, they were to proceed to Talavera and hand them in at headquarters.
On the following day, still another army corps marched down to Plasencia, raising Soult's force to 54,000. On that day Cuesta, who had undertaken to hold Talavera, retreated suddenly; alarmed by Victor's army making an advance, and leaving to their fate the 1500 British wounded in the hospital. These, however, were benefited by the change. They had been dying of hunger for, although there was an abundance of provisions in Talavera, the inhabitants refused to sell any to the British, and jealously concealed their stores in their houses. Nor would Cuesta do anything to aid them; and thus the men who had fought and suffered for the Spanish cause were left to perish, while there was abundance around them. The conduct of the Spaniards, from the moment the British crossed the frontier to the time of their leaving Spain, was never forgotten or forgiven by the British troops, who had henceforth an absolute hatred for the Spanish, which contributed in no small degree to the excesses perpetrated by them upon the inhabitants of Badajos, and other places, taken subsequently by storm.
The French, on entering Talavera, treated the British wounded with the greatest kindness, and henceforth they were well fed and cared for.
The first report sent by Terence reached Sir Arthur safely, ten hours after it was sent out, and apprised him for the first time of the serious storm that was gathering in his rear; and he had, without an hour's delay, given orders for the army to march to Oropesa, intending to give battle to Soult before Victor could come up to join his fellow marshal. The second report informed him of the real strength of the army towards which he was marching, and showed him the real extent of his danger. So he at once seized the only plan of escape offered to him, marching with all speed to Arzobispo, and crossing the Tagus by the bridge there, Cuesta's army following him. As soon as the Tagus was passed, Crauford's brigade was hurried on to seize the bridge of boats at Almaraz, and prevent the French from crossing there.
Fortunately, Soult was as ignorant of the position of the Allies as Sir Arthur was of his and, believing that the British were following Victor and pressing forward towards Madrid, he had conducted his operations in a comparatively leisurely manner. Therefore, it was not until the British were safely across the Tagus that he ascertained the real state of affairs, and put himself in communication with Victor.
On the morning following the crossing Terence was apprised, by a note sent back by one of the troopers, of the movement that had taken place. It was written upon a small piece of paper, so that it could be destroyed at once, by the bearer, if he should be threatened with capture, and contained only the following words:
"Your report invaluable. The Allied Army moves to Arzobispo, and will cross the Tagus there. You must act according to your judgment. I can give no advice."
"Thank God the British army has escaped!" Terence said, after reading the despatch to his officers; "now we have only to think of ourselves. As to rejoining Sir Arthur, it is out of the question; the valley is full of French troops. Ney has joined Soult, and there are 100,000 Frenchmen between us and our army. If I had any idea where Wilson is, we might endeavour to join him, for he must be in the same plight as ourselves. Our only chance, so far as I can see, is to cross their line of communications and to endeavour to join Beresford, who is reported as marching down the frontier from Almeida."
"Would you propose to pass through Banos, Colonel?" Herrara asked. "The mountains there are almost, if not quite, impassable; but we might get a peasant to guide us."
"I don't like going near Banos, Herrara. The French are almost sure to have left a strong body there, and the chances are against our finding a peasant; for the inhabitants of all the villages, for ten miles round, have almost certainly fled and taken to the hills.
"I think it would be safer to follow along this side of the Sierra, cross the road a few miles above Plasencia, then make for the mountains, and come down on the head of the river Coa. Beresford is probably in the valley of that river. We are more likely to find a guide, that way, than we are by going through Banos. We shall have tough work of it whichever way we go, even if we are lucky enough to get past without running against a single Frenchman."
"Would it not be better to wait till nightfall, Colonel?" Bull asked.
Terence shook his head.
"There is no moon," he said; "and as to climbing about among these mountains in the dark, it would be worse than running the risk of a fight with the French. Besides, we should have no chance whatever of coming across a peasant. No, I think we must try it as soon as it gets light, tomorrow morning. We had better dress up a score of men in peasant clothes; and send them off, in couples, to search among the hills. Whoever comes across a man must bring him in, whether he likes it or not. The Spaniards are so desperately afraid of the French that they will give us no information, whatever, unless forced to do so; and we shall have even more difficulty than the British. There must have been thousands of peasants, and others, who knew that Soult had come down upon Plasencia; and yet Sir Arthur obtained no news.
"There is one comfort: there can be little doubt that Soult is just as much in the dark as to the position of the British army."
By nightfall three peasants had been brought in. All shook their heads stolidly, when questioned in Portuguese; but upon Terence having them placed against a rock, and twelve men brought up and ordered to load their muskets, one of them said, in Spanish:
"I know where a path across the mountains leaves the road, but I have never been over the hills, and know nothing of how it runs."
"Ah! I thought you could make out my question," Terence said. "Well, you have saved the lives of yourself and your comrades. Take us to the path, tomorrow, and set us fairly on it; and you shall be allowed to go free, and be paid five dollars for your trouble."
Then he turned to Bull.
"Put four men to guard them," he said, "and let the guard be changed once every two hours. Their orders will be to shoot the fellows down, if they endeavour to make their escape. They are quite capable of going down into Plasencia and bringing the French upon us."
At daybreak they were on the march and, two hours later, came down into the valley through which the road from Banos ran down to Plasencia. They had just crossed it when the head of a column of cavalry appeared, coming down the valley. It at once broke into a gallop.
"How far is it to where the path begins to ascend the mountains?" Terence asked, holding a pistol to the peasant's head.
"Four miles," the man replied sullenly, looking with apprehension at the French.
Terence shouted orders to Bull and Macwitty to throw their men into square, and as they had been marching, since they reached level ground, in column of companies, the movement was carried out before the enemy arrived.