CAMPAIGN OF 1814: AT GE’E, NEAR AIRE – BATTLE OF TARBES – BATTLE OF TOULOUSE – END OF THE WAR.
ON our advance [9 March, etc.], we were for some days at a village called Gée, near Aire, where the 2nd Division, under Sir W. Stewart, had a brilliant little affair.
But I must first interpose an anecdote. One of his A.D.C.’s, his nephew, Lord Charles Spencer, a Lieutenant of the 95th Regiment, was mounted on a very valuable horse which he had paid more for than he could afford, contrary to the advice of Sir William. In driving the French through the town, Lord Charles’s horse was shot on the bank of a large pond, into which he himself was thrown head foremost. (The fire at this moment was very heavy, and in a street more balls take effect than in the open.) Sir William very quietly says, “Ha, there goes my poor nephew and all his fortune,” alluding to the price he paid for his horse.
I have often heard Colonel Colborne (Lord Seaton) affirm that if he were asked to name the bravest man he had ever seen (and no one was a better judge), he should name Sir William Stewart. Although he gave me my commission, I never saw him under fire. If he exceeded in bravery my dear friend, Sir Edward Pakenham, he was gallant indeed. Pakenham’s bravery was of that animated, intrepid cast that he applied his mind vigorously at the moment to the position of his own troops as well as to that of the enemy, and by judicious foresight ensured success, but he never avoided a fight any sort.
The village of Gée was to the right of the high-road to Toulouse, the River [Adour] running to our right. The Cavalry were posted on the main road, their advance vedettes looking on to the village of [Tarsac?] where the enemy were very alert and obstinate in resisting our approach.
On the day the army advanced, the French Cavalry made a fierce resistance in the village, and when driven out, made some desperate charges on the chaussée, in one of which the officer in command was cut down while gallantly leading his Squadron. An officer of our 15th Hussars (I think Booth), having admired his gallant bearing, dismounted to his assistance. He said he believed he was not mortally wounded, and he requested to be carried to the Chateau in the village he had so gallantly fought for, where his father and family resided.
This peculiar tale may be relied on, like everything else, as I hope, which I have asserted. For several days it was the usual topic of conversation, and when any one came from the rear, inquiry was always made if the French Captain who was wounded and in his father’s house, (we never knew his name), was doing well. We learnt afterwards that he perfectly recovered, but the sword wound had stamped him with a deep scar.
At Gee we had several alerts, and our baggage for some successive days was loaded for hours. On one of these occasions the old housekeeper of a large house which Barnard occupied, and whom he had paid for many a fat fowl and fish out of tanks, etc., came into the room where my wife remained waiting to join the troops, seized my wife and vowed she would put her to death, grasping her with a fiend-like strength. Fortunately, at this moment my servant returned to say the Division were not to march, and rescued my poor affrighted and delicate wife. We afterwards learnt that this violent woman, if anything excited her, was afflicted with temporary insanity, and she had been put in a rage below, and came up to vent her spleen on my poor wife. We were in this house for two or three days after, but my wife had been so alarmed she would never allow her servant to quit her. The latter was a powerful woman of the 52nd, rejoicing in the name of Jenny Bates.
While in this village, Charlie Beckwith, the Q.M.G., came to me and said, “Harry, I want a Company for picquet immediately.” I named the Corps, 1st Battalion 95th, who had one ready accoutred in waiting, as we always had in positions subject to alerts. It was out in five minutes, and Charlie Beckwith marched to point out where the officer commanding was to post it. I invariably went out with every picquet when possible. On this Occasion I had other duty. In the afternoon I got on my horse to look for my picquet. I met Charlie Beckwith in the village. He said, “I will ride with you.” We did not find the picquet where we expected – on our side of a bridge (beyond which was a comfortable village). Having heard no firing, we were not alarmed for the safety of the Company, still we could not find it. We rode to the bridge, the object of the officer’s watch, saying, “There will surely be a sentry upon it.” We rode up and found one certainly, but on the enemy’s side. We asked where the Company was. The vedette was an Irishman. “By Jasus, the Captain’s the boy. It was so rainy and cold on the plain, he harboured us all comfortably, like the man that he is, in the village.” The French were in the habit of patrolling into this village in force, and, although the Captain had so posted himself as I do believe he would have been able to hold his own until the Division came up, it could have cost us a fight to rescue him from the far side of the bridge, which he ought never to have crossed. So the Captain got a blowing-up, and the Company had to make their fires in a cold, wet, and miserable bivouac. I never had a picquet out from the Brigade without visiting it so as to judge how it was posted, and how to withdraw it either at night or in case of abrupt necessity.
We had also a sharp skirmish at Vic Begorre, but the brunt of it fell on the 3rd Division, where one of the most able officers got himself killed where he had no business to be – Major Sturgeon, of the Staff. I hold nothing to be more unsoldierlike than for officers well mounted to come galloping in among our skirmishers. The officers of companies have always some little exertion to restrain impetuosity, and your galloping gentlemen set our men wild sometimes. We Light Division, while ever conspicuous for undaunted bravery, prided ourselves upon destroying the enemy and preserving ourselves; for good, light troops, like deer-stalkers, may effect feats of heroism by stratagem, ability, and cool daring.
At Tarbes [20 March] we fell in with the enemy, strongly posted, but evidently Only a rear-guard in force. The Duke made immediate dispositions to attack them, and so mixed up did we appear, that we concluded a large number of the enemy must be cut off. The Light Division, however, alone succeeded in getting up with them. Our three Battalions of the 95th were most sharply engaged. Three successive times the enemy, with greatly superior force, endeavoured to drive them off a hill but the loss of the enemy from the fire of our Rifles was so great that one could not believe one’s eyes. I certainly had never seen the dead lie so thick, nor ever did, except subsequently at Waterloo. Barnard even asked the Duke to ride over the hill and see the sight, which he consented to do, saying, “Well, Barnard, to please you, I will go, but I require no novel proof of the destructive fire of your Rifles.”
At this period we lived capitally. It was delightful to see one of our soldiers with a piece of cold bacon, slicing it over his bread like an English haymaker.
We had at this time exceedingly wet weather. Notwithstanding the fullness of the Garonne, however, after a feint or two and some skilful demonstrations to deceive the enemy, the Duke succeeded [4 April] in throwing over the 3rd, 4th, and 6th Divisions with as much ease as he had previously overcome what seemed to others insurmountable difficulties. These Divisions were strongly posted under Marshal Beresford as a tete du pont. They were barely established on the opposite side when such a torrent of rain fell, our bridge could not stem the flood. It was hauled to the shore, and, of course, our communication cut off. Marshal Beresford had every reason to apprehend an attack, for the enemy, being in his own country, possessed perfect information, and would know the moment the bridge was impassable. The Marshal wrote very strongly to the Duke, who was ferried over in a little boat with one or two of his Staff, while their horses swam across. His Grace quickly but narrowly examined the position, which was excellent, behind a very difficult ravine. “Beresford,” said the Duke, “you are safe enough; two such armies as Soult’s could make no impression on you. Be assured, he is too clever a General to attempt to drive you into the river.” Our Division was immediately opposite the bridge, but on the left, or opposite bank, to the Marshal. The river soon subsided sufficiently to enable us to relay the bridge, and at daylight on the 10th of April the Light Division crossed, followed by the remainder of the army, except Lord Hill’s corps, which was posted on the Pyrenees side of Toulouse. It was evidently the Duke’s intention to attack Soult’s position this day. Nor were we long on the march before each general officer had his point of rendezvous designated.
The battle of Toulouse [10 April] has been so often fought and refought, I shall only make two or three remarks. Sir Thomas Picton, as usual, attacked when he ought not, and lost men. The Spaniards made three attacks on a very important part of the enemy’s position defended by a strong redoubt. The first was a very courageous though unsuccessful attack; the second, a most gallant, heavy, and persevering one, and had my dear old Light Division been pushed forward on the right of the Spaniards in place of remaining inactive, that attack of the Spaniards would have succeeded. I said so at the moment. The third attempt of the Spaniards was naturally, after two such repulses, a very poor one. At this period, about two o’clock in the afternoon, the Duke’s Staff began to look grave, and all had some little disaster to report to His Grace, who says,” Ha, by God, this won’t do; I must try something else.” We then saw the heads of the 4th and 6th Divisions coming into action immediately on the right flank of the enemy, having been conducted to that particular and vulnerable spot by that gallant, able, and accomplished soldier, my dear friend, John Bell, A.Q.M.G., 4th Division.
I must record an anecdote of John. He was mounted on a noble English hunter, but the most violent and difficult horse to manage I ever rode to hounds, and would of course, in a fight, be equally so. This animal knew by the mode in which she was mounted whether her rider was an artist or not, and in a moment would throw her rider down by way of fun. Colonel Achmuty, a noble fellow, would ride John Bell’s horse awkwardly, and she would then plunge like a devil, but if ridden, she was as quiet as possible. John Bell had on this horse a very large and high-peaked Hussar saddle, with his cloak strapped on the pique before, a favourite mode of General Robert Craufurd, who indeed gave Bell the identical saddle. Over this pique Craufurd’s black muzzle could barely be discovered (he was a short man), so entrenched was he. In conducting their Divisions, the Staff officers moved on small roads through a country intersected by deep and broad ditches full of water. Many of them attempted to ride on the flanks, but no one succeeded but Bell on his fiery horse. At one ditch John Bell was fairly pitched over the pique on to the neck of his horse, a powerful mare six feet high. “Oh,” says John, in telling this story, “Ah, to get there was extraordinary, but wait! The horse tossed up her head, and by some violent exertion pitched me over the pique back again to my saddle.” “Oh, John! ” I exclaimed, “how is that possible?” “With that, Harry, I have nothing to do.”
But to the fight. The 4th and 6th Divisions were brought up in most gallant style, carrying redoubt after redoubt, which were ably defended by the enemy. It was the heaviest fighting I ever looked at, slow owing to the redoubts. The ground was gained step by step, and so was the battle of Toulouse. Our Cavalry lost a brilliant opportunity of distinguishing themselves and punishing the rearguard of the French.
This battle appeared to me then, and does the more I reflect on it, the only battle the Duke ever fought without a weight of attack and general support. It was no fault of the Duke’s. There are fortunate days in war as in other things. Our attacks were commenced by that of the 3rd Division; then came those of the Spaniards, in which the Light Division did not support as the 4th Division supported us at the heights of Vera. Thus, until the afternoon, we literally had done rather worse than nothing. The success of this battle is to be attributed mainly to the 4th and 6th Divisions, but I will ever assert that the second attack was most heavy and energetic, and would have succeeded if my dear old Division had been shoved up. As a whole, the French lost a great number of men and were thoroughly defeated. The French have now agitated a claim to the victory, which they are as much borne out in as they would be in claiming the victory at Waterloo.
The next day [11 March] various were the reports flying about camp as to peace, etc. In the afternoon I was posting a picquet, and in riding forward no nearer than usual to a French sentry, the fellow most deliberately fired at me. I took off my cocked hat and made him a low bow. The fellow, in place of reloading his musket, presented arms to me, evidently ashamed of what he had done.
Peace was soon made known. The French moved out of Toulouse, and we occupied it. (The most slippery pavement to ride over in Europe is that of the streets of Toulouse.) My Division was most comfortably cantoned in the suburbs. I and my wife, and two or three of my dear old Rifle comrades – Jack Molloy and young Johnstone (not the Rifle hero of Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo, Old Willie) – had a delightfully furnished chateau. We got a French cook, and were as extravagant and wanton in our ideas as lawless sailors just Ianded from a long cruise. The feeling of no war, no picquets, no alerts, no apprehension of being turned out, was so novel after six years perpetual and vigilant war, it is impossible to describe the sensation. Still, it was one of momentary anxiety, seeing around us the promptitude, the watchfulness, the readiness with which we could move and be in a state of defence or attack. It was so novel that at first it was positively painful – at least, I can answer for myself in this feeling. I frequently deemed the old Division in danger, who had never even lost a picquet, or, to my recollection, a sentry, after so many years’ outpost duty.
We had one melancholy duty to wind up our period of war – the funeral of poor Colonel Coghlan, 61st Regiment. The officers of the army attended, the Duke himself as chief mourner. Many is the gallant fellow we had all seen left on the field or with some trifling ceremony consigned to his long home; but this funeral, in the midst of a populous city, in a graveyard, after a ceremony in a Protestant chapel, where the corpse was placed, in the custom of our home and infancy, while the service was read by a clergyman, after death in the last battle, and nearly at the end of it, too – all so tended to excite our comrade-like feelings, it positively depressed us all, for the love a soldier bears another tried and gallant soldier is more than fraternal.
Toulouse, a royalist city, soon rushed into the extravagant and vivacious joy of France. We had theatres, balls, fetes, etc., until the army moved into regular cantonments. There we had plenty of room and quarters, no squabbling about the shade of a tree in bivouac, or your stable being previously occupied by cavalry or artillery horses. Abundance of food, drink, and raiment, and the indolence of repose, succeeded the energetic and exciting occupation of relentless and cruel war. I had a safeguard in a lovely young wife; but most of our gallant fellows were really in love, or fancied themselves so, and such had been the drain by conscription of the male population, you never saw a young Frenchman. The rich and fertile fields in this part of France were cultivated by female exertion.
My Division went to Castel Sarrasin [towards the end of April]. This place is situated on the Tarne, which divides it from Marsac, where were a body of French troops; but, as they seldom came to visit us, we seldom encroached upon them, for the Napoleonist officers were brutally sulky and so uncivil, John Bull could not put up with it with impunity. This part of France is a garden, and the views, trees, beautiful rivers, and the idleness rendered it a perfect Elysium. I say “idleness; ” – because it was so totally novel, it was amusing. Fortunately, for we were nine months in arrear of pay, money was so scarce that a trifle of ready money produced a great deal. Among the rich inhabitants money was never seen, any more than young men. Rents were paid in produce, wages in kind, purchases made by barter. Oh, dear John Bull, grumbling, still liberal John Bull, had you witnessed, felt, and suffered all this, and then had the best rooms in your house occupied by soldiers (for, however orderly, there is much riot and fun ever going on amongst them), you would now wear the yoke of the national debt as a light burden.
Footnote 1 – According to G. Simmons’ diary (p.340), this attack on the French Cavalry took place on 16th March, two days before the advance of the Division. Simmons says the French Captain “died soon after.”