COMBAT OF THE 10TH DECEMBER – HARRY SMITH¹S DREAM AND THE DEATH OF HIS MOTHER.
THE following day we moved into a most beautiful country, intersected with hedgerows, and the finest and sweetest second crop of hay I ever saw, which our horses rejoiced in. We took up our posts in front of Arbonne [15 Nov.], and the following day had a sharp skirmish at our advanced posts. We halted here a day or two, and then moved on to a line more approaching Bayonne. The first Brigade occupied the Chateau d’Arcangues [17 Nov.], of which Johnny Kincaid recounts some anecdotes; the second the Chateau of Castilleur, where Colonel Colborne packed the 52nd Regiment as close as cards; and the 2nd Battalion, 95th Regiment, and the 1st and 3rd Caçdores also had cover. Our posts were here very close upon each other, and we had far more skirmishing and alarms than usual.
Upon the morning of the 9th December, the 1st and 7th Divisions came close up to our rear, which led us to suppose something was going on. The enemy in our front were alarmed, and stood to their arms. Shortly after these Divisions moved to our right, for the purpose of crossing the river [Nive], and our Division moved on to drive back the enemy’s picquets in the direction of Bayonne. To occupy his attention, our Riflemen formed up before the firing commenced close to the enemy’s strongest post, on the high-road to Bayonne, where we had been watching each other for several days. When I and Beckwith, the A.Q.M.G., rode up and ordered our people to advance, not a shot was fired. The French saw we were going to attack, but did not withdraw their picquet. We beckoned to them to do so, but they would not take the hint. We then actually fired some shots over their heads. There was positively a reluctance on our part to shoot any man in so cold-blooded a manner. The moment a shot was fired the affair became general, and we drove in the French picquets, who rapidly retired, and we had little fighting all day. In the evening, having effected the demonstration required, the Division retired to its old ground, and we resumed our usual line of picquets.
On the following morning [10 Dec.], having a presentiment the enemy would create a considerable diversion upon the left of our army, I was with our most advanced picquets before daylight. I had not been there many minutes, when I was joined by Beckwith, and soon after up came Colborne. We said, “The enemy are going to attack us.” Colborne said, “No; they are only going to resume their ordinary posts in our front.” I said, “But look at the body in our immediate front, and a column far off; evidently moving on the 1st Division,” which was on the extreme left. It was evident we should be attacked immediately, and I said so, but Colborne asserted it was no such thing. I prayed him to allow me to order my Brigade under arms. At last he consented, and, although I rode at the utmost speed, our troops were barely out in time, so furiously did the French drive us back. They took the Chateau of Castilleur from us, making at the same time a heavy attack on that of Arcangues. Much of our baggage fell into the enemy¹s hands, although they could not carry it off. My wife had barely time to slip on her habit and jump upon her horse; her Vittoria pug-dog in the scuffle was left behind, so sharp was the fire on the Chateau. A bugler of the 52nd Regiment, however, knew pug, whipped him up, and put him in his haversack. This was nearer a surprise than anything we had ever experienced. For some time the enemy possessed our quarters and bivouac, and-what was of great importance to Tom Fane – rifled his portmanteau. They also carried off a goose which was fattening for our Christmas dinner. We soon repaid our friends with interest and retook our position, but it was one of as heavy attacks as I have ever witnessed.
In the afternoon of that day, the enemy made a most vigorous attack on Sir J. Hope, particularly at the Mayor’s House of Biaritz, sharply skirmishing with us at the same time to occupy our attention. I thought then, and I think now, if my Brigade had been moved on the left of the attack on Sir J. Hope, it would have caused the enemy great loss, as his flank was exposed, but the Duke of Wellington knew better, and never attempted hazardous and little affairs, but ever played a great and safe game.
That evening the Regiments of Nassau and Frankfort walked over to us from the French lines into those of the 7th Division at Arbonne. Colonel Beyring, Count Alten’s A.D.C., was said to have been for some time with them, and it was evident the Duke knew about their intention.
Upon the 11th [Dec.] we had some partial skirmishing. The 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade struck their tents for the purpose of moving their ground. The enemy were most alarmed, and took up their ground to receive us. That night, when our armies were dismissed, rations were served out. In my life I never heard such a row as among the French when preparing to cook. I was posting the night’s sentries, when I saw a French officer doing the same. I went towards him, and we civilly greeted each other. I said I wished to speak to him. He came up with the greatest confidence and good humour. I showed him my vedette, and then remarked that his was too far in advance and might create an alarm at night when relieving. He said he did not see that, but to please me, if I would point out where I wished he should be, he would immediately move him – which he did. He presented his little flask of excellent French brandy, of which I took a sup, and we parted in perfect amity.
When I returned to Colborne, who was in the Chateau, I found him lying asleep before a fire just as he had got off his horse. I did not awake him, nor had I anything to eat. Sleep at night readily supplies the place of food, and hunger at night on that account is not nearly so acute and painful as in the morning, when your day’s work is before you. Down I lay, without one thought in the world, from exhaustion. I had a long dream, its purport that the enemy had attacked my father’s house (the front of which opened to the street, the back into a beautiful garden, by what we children called “The Black Door”). My father had my mother in his arms; I saw them as plainly as ever I did in my life, he carrying her through the Black Door, at the moment calling out, “Now, some one shut the door; she is safe and rescued.” At the instant I sprang on my feet, and in our usual military words in cases of alarm, roared out in a voice of thunder, “Stand to your arms.” Colborne was on his feet like a shot, the light of the fire showed me the room and – my delusion, and I said, “Oh, sir, I beg your pardon; I have been dreaming.” He said, in his noble way, “Never mind, it is near daylight, and it shows that asleep or awake, you are intent on your duty.” He lay down, and was asleep in a moment. I never felt so oppressed in my life, so vividly was depicted to my mind the scene described, and I took out of my pocket a little roster of duties and picquets bound in calf-skin, and noted down the hour and particulars of my dream. In a few days I received a letter from my afflicted father, telling me my mother died on Sunday morning, Dec. 12, at one o’clock, at the very moment I cried out, “Stand to your arms.” Such is the fact. When I lay down, I was tired and exhausted, as before expressed. I had not a thought in the world of home or anything, nor was I prepared for the probability of the event. I presume to make no remarks on such intimations from God alone, but the whole day I was heavy and oppressed, nor did I ever shake off the vivid impression until the receipt of the letter put me in possession of the loss I had sustained.
Her dying moments were perfectly composed; to the last she blessed her two sons engaged in the wars of their country, and died saying, “Would I could have seen them after their dangers and good conduct!” Among all our relations and friends we receive kindness and attention and unbounded love, but the love of a mother is distinct in character; youth in distress turns to the mother for sympathy and pardon; in joy it desires to impart its feeling to the mother, who participates in it with the warmth of a mother’s heart. The mother is the friend, the counsellor, the pardoner of offences, and, happen what may, the mother ever clings to her offspring. When I first parted from my mother to join my Regiment, the French Army was assembled at Boulogne, and every day was full of news that the French were coming. We dined early that day, I and my father, who was kindly to accompany me to Brabourne Lees, in Kent. At dinner I held up manfully. Then I ran to the stable to part with a beautiful little horse I had reared almost from a foal – he was thoroughbred, and carried me hunting in such a style that no one could beat me. I threw my arms round Jack’s neck, and had a good cry. I saw my poor mother observed what I had been doing, and a smile of approbation curled upon her placid lip. The awful moment now approached: the buggy was at the door. I parted with my dear brothers and sisters (five boys and five girls) tolerably well, my poor mother glad to observe in me a force of character which she hoped in greater and more eventful scenes I might evince. It came next to her turn. She seized me in her arms, and wept awfully. Suddenly, with an effort I shall never forget, her tears were dried, she held me at arm’s length, and, gazing at me most intently, said, “I have two favours to ask of you: one is that you never enter a public billiard-room; the next – our country is at war – if ever you meet your enemy, remember you are born a true Englishman. Now, God bless and preserve you, which I hope He will, and listen to the constant, the fervent prayers, I will offer up for your welfare.” I exclaimed, “Dear mother, I promise!” God knows the first request I have honestly fulfilled, the latter I hope I have – at least, my superiors and comrades ever gave me credit for a bold and courageous bearing. I returned to her beloved embrace after South America, and got a commission for my brother Tom, and again to her nearly naked and a skeleton after the retreat to Coruna. I was covered with vermin, and had no clothes but those on my back. To her alone did I impart what, although I felt no disgrace, I did not want to be known. She dressed me, and put me in a hot bath, and we preserved our secret mutually inviolate. I soon again left her for Talavera, restored to health by her care, never to see her again, but our intercourse by letters was constant. The last she received from me was after we had carried the heights of Vera in such a brilliant manner, and it told her that for my conduct I was promised the brevet rank of Major. May every soldier obey the fifth commandment as I did! I never was in a situation of appalling death, mortality, and danger, but my mother’s words rang in my ears, “Remember you were born an Englishman.” My dear wife participated and sympathized in all my grief, for I admit it was excessive, saying ever, “I have lost father and mother, and my brother died in my arms of his wounds. Your home and relatives you have still left, while I live alone for you, – my all, my home, my kindred.”
The morning after my dream [12 Dec.] I was very early at our advanced posts, and I saw some French soldiers coming on in a very unusual manner to attack us, while the mass of their force were dismissed in bivouac. The 1st Caçadores had the advance. I never saw the French so daring since the retreat to Coruna, and they were most excellent shots, and actually astonished our Caçdores. Colborne, hearing a smart firing, rode up, and stopped in the road opposite one of the barricades of our picquets. I said, “I don’t know what the devil we have got in our front to-day. Don’t stand there, you will be shot in a moment!” He laughed, but would not move. In a second a ball went through his cap just above his noble head. He moved then and laughed. “Look at the fellows,” he says, “how viciously they come on; it is evident it is no general attack, for the troops in their bivouac are not under arms. They want this post.” “Which,” says I, “they will have in ten minutes, unless I bring up the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade,” for our Caçadores were evidently not equal to their task. Colborne says, “Fetch them !” In a very short time our Riflemen came up. By this time the enemy had driven in everything beyond the barricade, and were prepared to assault it. Our 95th fellows had a few men wounded as they were coming up the road, before they could be extended, which made them as savage as the enemy, who were capering about the fields in our front as if drunk. Our fellows turned to, and soon brought them to repent any pranks or exposure. We took a few prisoners, and ascertained the Regiment was the 32nd Voltigeurs, a crack corps of Suchet’s army which had joined the night before, when we heard all the noise going on in the bivouac. These gentIemen had ever previously been venturous and laughed at the tales of British prowess; that morning¹s lesson, however, seemed to have made converts of them, for I never after observed any extra feats of dancing; but Colborne and all of us were perfectly astonished when the fact was known, and our 2nd Battalion 95th Regiment were rather elated in having thus shown themselves such able instructors.
We were very much on the alert all day, and a few shots were exchanged. At night our picquets were strengthened, for we were not aware if our friends, the new Voltigeurs, intended a fresh prank. After these three days’ fighting and vigilance, the enemy withdrew close to Bayonne, their and our advanced posts being nearly as before. Notwithstanding the loss of our goose, we had a capital Christmas dinner, at which, of course, we had the Commissary of the Brigade, and induced him to find us champagne, which many commissaries were able to do.
Footnote 1 -So in the Duke’s despatch. But query, Barroulhet? See Napier, Bk. xxiii. ch. ii., and the plan in Sir H. E. Maxwell’s Lift of Wellington, p.358