Back to the Peninsula under Sir Arthur Wellesley 1809
In two months I rejoined the Regiment at Hythe. From Hythe we marched for Dover, where we embarked for Lisbon [25th May] to join the Duke’s army. Having landed at Lisbon we commenced our march for Talavera.
These orders he enforced with rigour (as it seemed at the moment), but he was in this way the means of establishing the organisation and the discipline of that corps which acquired for it its after-celebrity as the ‘Light Division.’
We had some long, harassing and excessively hot marches. In the last twenty-eight hours we marched from Oropesa to Talavera, a distance of fourteen Spanish leagues (56 miles), our soldiers carrying their heavy packs, the Riflemen eighty rounds of ammunition. But the battle of Talavera was thundering in our ears, and created a spirit in the Brigade which cast away all idea of fatigue.
We reached the sanguinary field at daylight after the battle [29 July], greeted as if we were demi-gods by all the gallant heroes who had gained such a victory. We took up the outposts immediately, and some of us Riflemen sustained some heavy skirmishing. The field was literally covered with dead and dying. The bodies began to putrefy, and the stench was horrible, so that an attempt was made to collect the bodies and burn them.
Then, however, came a stench which literally affected many to sickness. The soldiers were not satisfied with this mode of treating the bodies of their dead comrades, and the prosecution of the attempt was relinquished.
After our stay at Talavera [29 July-3 August], during which we were nearly starved, the army commenced its retreat, passing the bridge of Arzobispo in the most correct and soldier-like manner, our brigade forming the rear-guard.
The army retired on Deleytosa, the Light Brigade remaining in a position so as to watch the bridge of Almaraz. Here for three weeks we were nearly stared [6 Aug.- 20 Aug.], and our position received the name of Doby Hill.
We marched every evening and bivouacked so as to occupy the passage of the Tagus, and at daylight returned to out hill. Honey was plentiful, but it gave dysentery. My mess – Leach’s Company (Leach, Smith, Layton, and Bob Beckwith) – were not as badly off as our neighbours. We had a few dollars, and as I could speak Spanish, I rode into the lines of the Spanish troops, where I could always purchase some loaves of bread at a most exorbitant price.
With this and some horrid starved goats we lived tolerably for soldiers in hard times. The army retired into quarters – the headquarters to Badajos, our Division (which had added to it Sir Rufane Donkin’s Brigade, the 45th, 87th and 88th Regiments) to Campo Mayor [11th Sept.], where sickness and mortality commenced to an awful extent.
On our reaching the frontier of Portugal, Castello de Vidi, wine was plentiful, and every man that evening had his skin full. During the period we were at Campo Mayor [11th Sept. – 12 Dec.], the Hon. Captain James Stewart and I got some excellent greyhounds. We were always out coursing or shooting, and were never sick a day ; our more sedentary comrades many of them distressingly so. The seven right-hand men of Leslie’s Company died in the winter of this year.
While at Campo Mayor the convalescents of my Light Brigade were ordered to our old fortress, called Onguala, on the immediate frontier of Portugal, and opposite to Abuchuchu, the frontier of Spain. They consisted of forty or fifty weakly men. I was first for Brigade duty, and I was sent in command, with a Lieut.
Rentall of the 52nd Regiment and my brother Tom who was sick. I knew this country well, for we had some grand battues there, and shot red deer and wild boars. So soon, therefore, as I was installed in my command, lots of comrades used to come from Campo Mayor to breakfast with me and shoot all day. On one occasion Jack Molloy, Considine, and several fellows came, and while out we fell into the bivouac of a set of banditti and smugglers. We hallooed and bellowed as if an army were near us. The bandits jumped on their horses and left lots of corn-sacks etc., in our hands ; but on discovering our numbers, and that we fired no balls (for we had only some Rifle buttons pulled off my jacket), being well armed, they soon made us retreat.
This, after my friends returned to Campo Mayor, so disconcerted me that I made inquiry about these same rascals, and ascertained there were a body of about twenty under a Catalan, the terror of the country. I immediately sent for my sergeant (a soldier in every sense of the word) to see how many of our convalescents he could pick out who could march at all.
He soon returned. He himself and ten men, myself, Rentall, and my sick brother Tom (who would go) composed my army. I got a guide, and ascertained that there were several haunts of these bandits : so off I started. We moved on a small chapel (many of which lone spots there are in all Roman Catholic countries), at which there was a large stable. On approaching we heard a shot fired, then a great and lawless shouting, which intimated to us our friends of the morning were near at hand. So Pat Nann and I crept on to peep about. We discovered the fellows were all inside a long stable, with a railed gate shut, and a regular sentry with his arms in his hand.
They were all about and had lights, and one very dandy-looking fellow with a smart dagger was cutting tobacco to make a cigar. Pat and I returned to out party and made a disposition of attack, previously ascertaining if the stable had a back door, which it had not. I then fell in our men very silently, Mr Rentall being much opposed to out attack, at which my brother blew him up in no bad style of whispering abuse, and our men went for the gate.
The sentry soon discovered us and let fly, but hit no one. The gate was fast and resisted two attempts to force it, but so amazed were the bandits, they [never] attempted to get away their horses, although their arms were regularly piled against the supports of the roof of the stable, and we took twelve banditti with their captain, a fine handsome fellow, horses, etc. His dagger I sent to my dear father. I sent my prisoners on the next day to Campo Mayor, galloping ahead myself, in an awful funk lest General Craufurd should blow me up.
However, I got great credit for my achievement in thus ridding the neighbourhood of a nest of robbers ; and the captain and five of his men (being Spaniards) were sent to Badajos and sentenced to the galleys for life, being recognised as old offenders.
The remainder received a lesser punishment. My men got forty Spanish dollars each prize money, the amount I sold the horses for. I bought for forty dollars the captains capital horse. The men wanted me to keep him as my share, but I would not. Dr Robb, our surgeon, gave sixty Spanish dollars for a black mare. Thus ended the Battle of the Bandits.
1 The author, writing many years after the events described, does not discriminate the titles borne at different dates by his revered commander, but speaks of his as ‘the duke’, even from the time he was Sir Arthur Wellesley. At the risk of offending the historical sense of some readers, I have made no attempt to remove such a harmless anachronism.Cp. E. Costello, Adventures of a Soldier, p. 36: “For bread we took the corn from the fields, and, having no proper means of winnowing and grinding it, were obliged, as a substitute, to rub out the ears between our hands and then pound them between stones to make it dough, such as it was. From this latter wretched practice, we christened the place ‘Dough Boy Hill’, a name by which it is well remembered by the men of our Division.”