CAMPAIGN OF 1812: RETREAT TO THE LINES OF TORRES VEDRAS-WINTER OF 1812-13.
THE army concentrated again under the dear Duke of Wellington, and took up its old victorious position on the Arapiles [14 Nov.], but not with the same prospects. Soult, an able fellow, had nearly double our force, and so soon as our rear was open the army was in full march on Ciudad Rodrigo. It rained in torrents, and the roads rose above the soldiers’ ankles. Our supplies were nil and the sufferings of the soldiers were considerable. Many compared this retreat with that of Coruna, at which I then laughed, and do now. The whole distance from Ciudad Rodrigo is only forty-four miles. On one day to Coruna we marched thirty-seven miles, fighting every yard, and the cold was intense; on this retreat it was cold, but no frost in the atmosphere.
In crossing the Huebra [17 Nov.], at San Munos, the enemy pressed our rear-guard very sharply, and we had some very heavy skirmishing. Sir E. Paget, by his own obstinacy in not believing the French Dragoons had intervened upon our line of march, was taken prisoner, and our rear-guard (my Brigade) driven from the ford. They had to take to the river as well as they were able, the soldiers leaping from a steep bank into it.
The sense and strength of my wife’s Spanish horse were this day put to the test, for she had nothing for it but to make him leap into the river from the high bank, which the noble animal did, all fours like a dog. The poor Padre attempted the same, with the result that he and pony floated down the stream, and the pony was drowned, but his large Spanish capa or cloak kept him afloat, and he was dragged out by some of our soldiers. His holiness began now to think I had not exaggerated the hardships of a soldier’s life. When well out of the river, he quietly asked my poor old West for a horse I always had ready to jump on in case my own were killed. West very quietly said, “Never lend master’s other fighting horse, not to nobody.” My wife interceded for the poor Padre, but had the same refusal. Old West says, “We shan’t march far; the river bothered us, it will stop the French. Our Riflemen don’t mean to let those fellows over. Night and the walk will warm you.”
I, seeing the distress my poor wife was likely to be in, had told her particularly to stay with the 52nd, thinking they would move into bivouac, while the Riflemen held the bed of the river where we had crossed, to which alone my attention was drawn. There was a ford, however, lower down the river, to which the 52nd were suddenly ordered. It was impassable, but in the enemy’s attempt to cross, a heavy skirmish ensued, in which poor Captain Dawson was killed and forty or fifty men wounded; my wife in the thick of it, and the friar.
As soon as the ford was ascertained impassable, I was sent to bring back the 52nd, when, to my astonishment and alarm, I found my young wife drenched with leaping in the river, as much as from the torrents of rain above. The poor Padre might have been drawn for “the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” I brought the whole into our wet and miserable bivouac, and gave some Portuguese of my Brigade a dollar for a large fire, when, cold and shivery as she was, she laughed at the Padre. We had nothing to eat that night, as our mules were sent on, and there was this young and delicate creature, in the month of November in the north of Spain, wet as a drowned rat, with nothing to eat, and no cover from the falling deluge. Not a murmur escaped her but once. I had had no sleep for three nights, our rear being in a very ticklish position. In sitting by the fire I had fallen asleep, and fell between the fire and her. She had previously been roasted on one side, a cold mud on the other. This change of temperature awoke her, and for the only time in her life did she cry and say I might have avoided it. She had just woke out of her sleep, and when cold and shivery our feelings are acute. In a moment she exclaimed, “How foolish! you must have been nice and warm, and to know that is enough for me.”
I took the Padre a mule; the rain broke, the little rivulet would soon be fordable, and at daylight the next morning we expected a regular squeeze from the enemy. To amend matters, too, in place of our moving off before daylight and getting a start, we were to follow the 1st Division, and this did not move. General Alten sent repeatedly to poor dear Sir William Stewart (who gave me my commission), to represent the prospect he had of a brush which ought to be avoided, when up rides to Charlie Beckwith, our A.Q.M.G., the
Honourable Arthur Upton, saying, ” My dear-e Beckwith, you could not inform me where I could get a paysano (a peasant)? The 1st Division can’t move; we have no guide.” “Oh, d— ,” says Charlie, “is that it? We will do anything to get out of [your?] our way. Come to Harry Smith. He has a paysano, I know.” I always – had three or four poor fellows in charge of a guard, so requisite are guides with light troops. I gave him his paysano, and by this time the sun was an hour high at least. To our delight, in place of a fight retreating, which partakes neither of the pomp nor majesty of war, but of nothing but hard and often inglorious losses, we saw the French army dismissed, all drying their clothes and as little in a state to attack as we were desirous of their company. We had a clear, cold, but unmolested long march, and fell in with some stores coming. Yesterday the soldier’s life was one of misery, today all joy and elasticity!
Just as the rear-guard had moved off the ground, I heard the voice of a soldier familiar to me calling out, “Oh, Mr. Smith!” (The Rifle soldiers ever called me “Mr. Smith.”) ” Don’t leave me here.’ I rode up. As gallant a Rifleman as ever breathed, by name O’Donnell, lay there with his thigh fractured the day before by a cannon-shot. I was grieved __ for him. I had no means to assist him but one which I deemed it impossible he could avail himself of – the tumbril of a gun. He said, “Oh, I can ride.” I galloped to Ross, who literally sent back with me a six-pounder, and took the poor fellow on the tumbril, the gunner cheerfully giving him his place. It was grievous to see poor O’Donnell hoisted up with his thigh smashed. We got him there, though, and he said, “I shall do now.” He died in two hours. I shall ever feel grateful to Ross; few men could have done it, but his guns were drawn by noble horses, and he was, and is, a soldier.
Over the bivouac fire this night the Padre became eloquent and sentimental. “When you told me at Madrid what were the hardships and privations of a soldier’s life in retreat, pursued by a vigorous enemy, I considered I had a very correct idea; I now see I had no conception whatever. But what appears to me so extraordinary is that every one acts for himself alone. There you see a poor knocked-up soldier sitting in the mud, unable to move; there come grooms with led horses. No one asks the sick man to ride, no one sympathizes with the other’s feelings – in short, every one appears to struggle against difficulties for himself alone.” I could see the Padre had not forgotten my old man West’s refusal of my second war-horse.
On the day following [19 Nov.], the weather was clear but bitterly cold We reached the suburbs of Ciudad Rodrigo, happy enough to know that for this campaign the fighting was over. Although some of our troops had a long march before them into Portugal, we Light Division gentlemen were close at home. Many of our stoutest officers were sick, John Bell, Charlie Eeles, etc., and we had many wounded to look after. The Padre and my cheerful, light-hearted wife were cooking in a little house all day long. The Padre was a capital cook, and equally good when the food was prepared. I went out coursing every day, and some of our regiment fellows, notwithstanding the “retreat” and its hardships, went out duck-shooting, up to their middles in water, Jonathan Leach among the rest.
My brigade was ordered into our old villages of Alameda, Fuentes d’Onoro, Guinaldo, and to march via San Felices el chico, there to cross the Agueda. The weather was very rainy and cold, but my vivacious little wife was full of animation and happiness, and the Padre usually cooking.
Fuentes d’Onoro was to be the head-quarters of our Brigade. General Vandeleur took up his quarters in the Cure¹s house, around which in the battle had been a sanguinary conflict. I was at the other end of the village for the sake of an excellent stable. It belonged to the father of the beautiful Maria Josefa, who fled from her father’s house with a commissary, was infamously treated by him, returned to her father’s house, and was received by the good old man kindly, although with nearly a broken heart. Songs were sung about her all over Spain, and she was universally condemned, pitied, and pardoned. I put the Padre in this house, told him the tale of woe, and, to his credit, he did everything a Christian clergyman ought, to urge on the parents pardon of the ill-used penitent. Nor did he plead in vain, the poor thing was forgiven by every one but herself. The Padre requested my generous-hearted wife to see her, and this was a consolation to poor Maria Josefa worth a general action to behold.
My billet was some little distance from the stable, and while there my landlord married a second wife. The inhabitants of this part of Spain are very peculiar and primitive in their manners, dress, and customs; they are called Charras. The dress of the women is most costly, and a marriage feast exceeds any feast that I ever saw, or that has been described by Abyssinian Bruce. We had fun and much feasting for three days. One of the ceremonies is that during a dance in which the bride is, of course, the prima donna, her relatives and friends make her presents, which she receives while dancing in the most graceful, though rustic, attitudes. The presents are frequently considerable sums in gold, or gold and silver ornaments of singular workmanship. All relatives and friends give something, or it is regarded as a slight. My wife, who learned to dance the rustic measure on purpose, presented a doubloon in the most elegant and graceful manner, to the delight of her compatriots around, although, being an Estremenha, she was regarded by these primitive, but hospitable and generous, creatures, as half a foreigner. The bride has a knife in her uplifted hand, upon it an apple, and the smaller presents are presented by cutting the apple, and placing in the cut the money ormornament.
In this part of Spain the pigs are fed most delicately; they are driven first into woods of cork trees, which produce beautiful, sweet acorns, then into woods of magnificent chestnut trees, the keeper getting into the trees and flogging down the acorns and chestnuts with an immense long whip. The pigs thus fed yield a meat different from the usual meat of the animal. They are of a beautiful breed, become exceedingly fat, and the season of killing them and making black puddings and sausages for the year’s supply is one of contiual feasting. The peasants also cure the meat along each side of the backbone called loma de puerco. This they do in a very peculiar manner with salt, red pepper, and of course a soupçon of garlic in a thick slice; and, notwithstanding the little garlic, when simply boiled, it is the most delicious food, for breakfast particularly, that even a French cook could boast of.
During our stay at Fuentes, many were the rides my wife took on her horse Tiny to our friends in the different villages. At last, however, an order came to our Brigade head-quarters to vacate Fuentes d’ Onoro, as it was required for a part of the head-quarters establishment not far off at Freneda, and we moved to Guinaldo, to our deep regret. The Padre a few days before had taken his departure for his living at Vicalbaro. Two most magnificent mules, and his servant, came for him. We parted with mutual regret, but I am sorry to say he only wrote to us twice afterwards, and once to ask a favour for some individual.
At this time I was sporting mad. The Duke had a capital pack of fox-hounds. James Stewart, my chum, our A.Q.M.G., had an excellent pack of harriers to which I acted as whipper-in. After a very severe run, swimming two rivers, my Andulasian, which produced the doubloons at Alcala, died soon after he got back to his stable. Mr. Commissary Haines, at head-quarters, had a beautiful pack of little beagles. I was too proud to look at them. I had the best greyhounds in the world, – ” Moro,” and some of his almost equally celebrated sons.