CAMPAIGN OF 1813: COLONEL COLBORNE – SECOND COMBAT OF VERA.
IN our Division, generally speaking, the officers of each Company had a little mess of their own, an arrangement indispensable, so much detached were we on picquets, etc. Some of us lived most comfortably, and great interchange of hospitality existed. We all had goats, and every mess had a boy, who was in charge of them on the march and in quarters, and milked them. On the march the flock of each regiment and Brigade assembled and moved with their goat-herds, when each drove his master’s goats to his quarters. We observed extraordinary regularity with these goats, and upon inquiry we found out the little fellows organized themselves into regular guards. They had a captain, quite a little fellow of dear old Billy Mein’s (52nd Regiment); their time of duty was as regular as our soldiers’: They had sentries with long white sticks in their hands, and Mein’s little boy held a sort of court-martial, and would lick a boy awfully who neglected his charge. My little boy’s name was Antonio, and when he was for guard, I have seen him turn out unusually smart, with his face and hands washed. This little republic was very extraordinary, and quite true to the letter as I have drawn it. Mein’s little captain told it all to my wife, who took great interest in them after she was acquainted with their organization, and the captain often consulted her. When our army was broken up after Toulouse, and all the Portuguese Corps of course marched back into Portugal, and the followers with them, we all of us gave our goats to the poor little boys to whom we had been so much indebted. My little fellow had a flock of fifteen. Many are probably great goat-proprietors now from this basis for future fortune.
Our Brigade was now commanded by Colonel Colborne, in whom we all had the most implicit confidence. I looked up to him as a man whose regard I hoped to deserve, and by whose knowledge and experience I desired to profit. He had more knowledge of ground, better understood the posting of picquets, consequently required fewer men on duty (he always strengthened every post by throwing obstacles-trees, stones, carts, etc.-on the road, to prevent a rush at night), knew better what the enemy were going to do, and more quickly anticipated his design than any officer; with that coolness and animation, under fire, no matter how hot, which marks a good huntsman when he finds his fox in his best country.
The French were now erecting works, upon a position by nature strong as one could well devise, for the purpose of defending the Pass of Vera, and every day Colonel Colborne and I took rides to look at them, with a pleasant reflexion that the stronger the works were, the greater the difficulty we should have in turning them out – an achievement we well knew in store for us. On Oct. 7, the Duke resolved to cross the Bidassoa, and push the enerny at Once into his own country, San Sebastian having been taken. Now had arrived the time we long had anticipated of a regular tussle with our fortified friends on the heights of Vera. The Duke’s dispatch, Oct 9, 1813, No.837, tells the military glory of the exploit. My object is the record of anecdotes of myself and my friends. On the afternoon of the 7th, about two o’clock, we were formed for the attack, and so soon as the head of the 4th Division under that noble fellow, Sir Lowry Cole, appeared in sight, we received the command to move forward. We attacked on three different points. Advancing to the attack, Colborne, who had taken a liking to me as an active fellow, says, “Now, Smith, you see the heights above us ?” “Well,” I said, “I wish we were there.” He laughed. “When we are,” he says, “and you are not knocked over, you shall be a Brevet~Major, if my recommendation has any weight at head-quarters.” Backed by the performance of our Brigade, next day off he posted to Lord Fitzroy Somerset, and came back as happy as a soldier ever is who serves his comrade. “Well, Major Smith, give me your hand.” I did, and my heart too (although not as a blushing bride). Kind-hearted Colonel Barnard heard of this, went to Lord Fitzroy Somerset, asking for the Brevet for one of his Captains, remarking that I should be made a Major over the heads of twenty in my own Regiment.
This startling fact obliged Lord Fitzroy to lay the matter before the Duke, who, I am told, said, “A pity, by G-! Colborne and the Brigade are so anxious about it, and he deserves anything. If Smith will go and serve as Brigade-Major to another Brigade, I will give him the rank after the next battle.” Colborne’s mortification was so great that I banished mine altogether by way of alleviating his disappointment. There was such a demonstration of justice on the part of his Grace, and so did I love the fellows whose heads I should have jumped over, that, honestly and truly, I soon forgot the affair. Colborne said, “Go and serve with another Brigade.” “No,” says I, “dear Colonel, not to be made of your rank. Here I will fight on happily, daily acquiring knowledge from your ability.”
The 1st Caçadores, under poor Colonel Algeo, moved so as to threaten the enemy’s left, and intercept or harass the retreat of the troops in the redoubt (which the noble 52nd were destined to carry at the point of the bayonet without one check), and the 2nd Battalion of the 95th and the 3rd Caçadores moved to the enemy’s right of this redoubt for a similar purpose. This Battalion was fiercely opposed, but so soon as it succeeded in putting back the enemy, Colonel Colborne, at the head of the 52nd, with an eye like a hawk’s, saw the moment had arrived, and he gave the word “Forward.” One rush put us in possession of the redoubt, and the Caçadores and 2nd Battalion 95th caused the enemy great loss in his retreat to the top of the pass where his great defence was made. The redoubt just carried was placed on the ridge of the ravine, and must be carried ere any advance could be made on the actual [position].
In this attack poor Algeo was killed. He rode a chestnut horse marked precisely as my celebrated hunter and war-horse, “Old Chap,” which I rode on that day. My wife was looking on the fight from the very cottage window we had occupied so long, barely without the range of musketry, and saw this horse gallop to the rear, dragging for some distance the body by the stirrup. The impulse of the moment caused her with one shriek to rush towards it, and so did anxiety and fright add to her speed that my servant for some time could not overtake her. The horse came on, when she soon recognized it was poor Algeo’s charger, not mine, and fell senseless from emotion, but soon recovered, to express her gratitude to Almighty God.
After this attack – and there never was a more brilliant one – the 4th Division was well pushed up the hill, and, so soon as our Brigade was reformed, we prepared for the great struggle on the top of the Pass of Vera. Colborne sent me to Sir Lowry to tell him what he was about to attempt, and to express his hope of a support to what he had just so vigorously commenced. General Cole was all animation, and said, “Rely on my support, and you will need it, for you have a tough struggle before you.” On my return, we again advanced with a swarm of Riflemen in skirmishing order keeping up a murderous fire. Firing up a hill is far more destructive than firing down, as the balls in the latter case fly over. The 52nd Regiment, well in hand, with their bayonets sharp and glistening in the sun (for the afternoon was beautiful), were advanced under a most heavy fire, but, from the cause mentioned, it was not near so destructive as we expected. Still more to our astonishment, the enemy did not defend their well-constructed work as determinedly as we anticipated. Although they stood behind their parapets until we were in the act of leaping on them, they then gave way, and we were almost mixed together, till they precipitated themselves into a ravine, and fled down almost out of sight as if by magic.
On the opposite side of this ravine, a few of the Riflemen of General Kempt’s Brigade were pushing forward with a noble fellow, Reid, of the Engineers, at their head. At the moment he did not know how full of the enemy the ravine was. Colonel Colborne and I were on horseback. We pushed on, a little madly, I admit, followed by those who could run fastest, until the ravine expanded and a whole column of French were visible, but we and Reid on the opposite side were rather ahead, while the enemy could not see from out the ravine. The few men who were there could not have resisted them, and certainly could not have cut them off; had they been aware. Colonel Colborne, however, galloped up to the officer at the head of the column with the bearing of a man supported by 10,000, and said to the officer in French, “You are cut off. Lay down your arms.” The officer, a fine soldier-like looking fellow, as cool as possible, says, presenting his sword to Colonel Colborne, “There, Monsieur, is a sword which has ever done its duty,” and then ordered his men to lay down their arms. Colborne, with the presence of mind which stamps the character of a soldier, said, “Face your men to the left, and move out of the ravine.” By this means the French Soldiers were separated from their arms. At this moment there were up with Colborne myself; Winterbottom, Adjutant of the 52nd Regiment, my brother Tom, Adjutant of the 95th, and probably ten soldiers, and about as many with Reid on the opposite ridge. Reid wisely did not halt, but pushed forward, which added to the Frenchman’s impression of our numbers, and Colborne turns to me, “Quick, Smith; what do you here? Get a few men together, or we are yet in a scrape.” The French having moved from their arms, Colborne desired the officer commanding to order them to sit down. Our men were rapidly coming up and forming, and, when our strength permitted, we ordered the enemy to march out of the ravine, and there were 22 officers and 400 men. Three pieces of cannon we had previously carried (vide the Duke’s dispatch, Oct. 9, 1813, No. 837). Colonel Colborne, myself, and others were called madmen for our audacity. I never witnessed such presence of mind as Colborne evinced on this occasion, and when, like a man as he is, he returned the poor Frenchman’s sword, “There,” he says, “wear the sword, your pride; it is not yet disgraced.” The fortune of war gave us the advantage over equal bravery.
By this time our men had got well out of the Pyrenees into the plain of France below, and as night was rapidly approaching, I was sent on to halt them, ready for Colonel Colborne to take up his position. The prisoners were sent to the rear (what became of their arms I never knew) under charge of a Lieutenant Cargill, of the 52nd Regiment, a manly, rough young subaltern, who on his march, just at dusk, met the Duke, who says, “Halloa, sir, where did you get those fellows?” “In France. Colonel Colborne’s Brigade took them.” “How the devil do you know it was France?” “Because I saw a lot of our fellows coming into the column just before I left with pigs and poultry, which we had not on the Spanish side.” The Duke turned hastily away without saying a word. The next morning Mr. Cargill reported this to Colonel Colborne, whom I hardly ever saw so angry. “Why, Mr. Cargill, you were not such a blockhead as to tell the Duke that were you?” In very broad Scotch, “What for no? It was fact as death.” It did not escape the Duke, who spoke to Colborne, saying, “Though your Brigade have even more than usually distinguished themselves, we must respect the property of the country.” “I am fully aware of it, my lord, and can rely upon the discipline of my soldiers, but your lordship well knows in the very heat of action a little irregularity will occur.” “Ah, ah!” says my lord, “stop it in future, Colborne.” Nor had his Grace cause to complain of us.
This night we slept on our arms, and cold and miserable we were, for no baggage had been permitted to come to us. The next day we occupied the heights of Vera, our Outposts remaining pushed forward, and head-quarters and our general hospital were established at Vera. My wife joined me very early, and I never before had seen her under such excitement, the effect of the previous day, when, as she conceived at the moment, she had seen me killed. She did not recover her usual vivacity for several days, and the report of a musket acted on her like an electric shock. We remained in this position several days.
One day I dressed myself in all my best to do a little dandy at head-quarters, to see some of my wounded comrades and officers, and to look into our hospitals. In galloping through the country, I heard a very melancholy and faint call, repeated once or twice without attracting my attention. When I turned towards it, it was repeated. I rode up and among several dead bodies of the enemy, I found he poor fellow who had called to me greatly exhausted. Four days had elapsed since the action, and he had both legs shot off high up. I dismounted and felt his pulse, which was still far from faint. Of course he prayed me to send succour. I promised to do so, and I proceeded to tie some of the bushes of the underwood to mark the spot, and continued to do so until I reached a mountain track leading to Vera. I now even hear the hideous moans he uttered when I turned from him, although I earnestly assured him of help. Away I galloped to the hospital, not to visit my own poor fellows, but to get a fatigue party and a stretcher, and off I set for my poor wounded enemy, whom, from the precautions taken, I easily found. Poor thing, from the belief that I had abandoned him, he was nearly exhausted. We got him on the stretcher, the party set off to the hospital, and I to my bivouac, for it was late and I was well aware the poor thing would be treated just as one of our own soldiers. I had literally forgotten the circumstance, when one day after we had advanced considerably into France, a month or five weeks after the man was picked up, a large convoy of disabled men, as an act of humanity, were sent to their own country from the rear. My Brigade was of course on the outpost, and it became my duty to go to the enemy’s advanced post close to, with a letter and flag of truce. I was received as usual with great civility, and the convoy passed on. While I was talking to the French officers, a poor fellow on one of the stretchers called to me and the officer, and began a volley of thanks, which, if it had been of musquetry, would have been difficult to resist. I said, “I know nothing about you, poor fellow; that will do.” “I know you; I owe my life to you; you fetched the party who carried me to hospital. Both stumps were amputated ; I am now doing perfectly well, and I was treated like one of your own soldiers.” I never saw gratitude so forcibly expressed in my life.
Footnote 1 – Kincaid (Randam Shots, p.273) tells the story at second hand with his usual esprit