CAMPAIGN OF 1810 – THE BATTLE OF THE COA
SOON after this the French invested Ciudad Rodrigo, and regularly commenced the siege. The Light Division (into which fell the three regiments 43rd, 52nd and two Battalions of Rifles, 1st and 3rd Portuguese Caçadores, the latter under Elder, a most brilliant Rifle officer), 1st Hussars, 14th Light Dragoons, 16th Light Dragoons occupied Gallegos, Exejo, etc., our advanced post being at Marialva, on the road to Ciudad Rodrigo. During the whole siege our alerts were innumerable, and at Marialva we had several very smart skirmishes, but so able were Craufurd’s dispositions, we never lost even a vedette.
The French were in the habit of patrolling over the Agueda with cavalry and infantry, about 30 Dragoons and 200 foot. General Craufurd determined to intercept one of these patrols [10 July], and [moved out with] the cavalry, 1st Hussars, 14th and 16th Light Dragoons, and Light Division. It may now be asked , Was it necessary to take out such a force to intercept so small a party? Certainly. Because the enemy might have crossed the Agueda to support the patrols. We were all moved to where directed, the infantry were halted, some of the cavalry moved on. At grey daylight the patrols of the enemy appeared, their Dragoons some way in advance of the infantry. The patrol was very incautiously conducted (not like our 1st Hussars), and the Dragoons were taken in a moment. The infantry speedily retired to an eminence above the ford and formed square. Craufurd ordered them to be attacked by the cavalry, and several right good charges were made; but the French were steady, the dead horses in their front became a defence, and our cavalry never made the slightest impression. Craufurd never moved one of us. The charges of cavalry ceased for a few seconds- the fields around were high-standing corn. The gallant fellow in command gave the word, “Sauve qui peut.” In a moment all dispersed, ran through the standing corn down to the banks of the river, and were saved without the loss of a man. The officer was promoted on his arrival in his camp.
Our loss was very considerable. Poor Colonel Talbot of the 14th (commanding) killed, and a lot of men. I and Stewart, Adjutant of the Rifle Brigade, asked leave to go ahead, and we saw it all. Indeed, it was in sight of the whole division. Had two Companies of ours only been moved to threaten the ford, the enemy would have laid down their arms. Such a piece of soldiering as that morning presented the annals of war cannot produce.’
While we were at a village called Valde Mula, in the neighbourhood of Fort Concepcion, that most perfect little work was blown Up [21 July]. It was the neatest fortification I ever saw (except the Moro in the Havana subsequently), and the masonry was beautifully executed.
After the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo, which made a brilliant defence, our advanced line fell back to the Dos Casas, and in front of Alameda we had a brilliant affair with the French, in which Krauchenberg 1st Hussars and McDonald Royal Artillery greatly distinguished themselves. The 3rd Caçadores were this day first under fire, and behaved nobly. After this our advanced posts were retired behind the Dos Casas to cover Almeida. While Massena prepared his army to invade Portugal and besiege Almeida, we were daily on the alert and had frequent skirmishes. General Craufurd, too, by a variety of ruses frequently made the whole French army turn out.
In the early morning of the 24th of July (I was on picquet with Leach and my Company that night) the enemy moved forward with 40,000 men. Our force, one Brigade of Horse Artillery, three Regi ments of cavalry, five of infantry, were ordered by the Duke to remain as long as possible on the right bank of the Coa, where there was a bridge over the river on the road from Almeida into Portugal to Celerico and Pinhel, posting ourselves between the fortress and the bridge, so as to pass over so soon as the enemy advanced in force. In place of doing this, Craufurd took up a position to our right of Almeida, and but for Colonel Beckwith our whole force would have been sacrificed. Fortunately a heavy rain had fallen, which made the Coa impassable except by the bridge, which was in our possession, and the enemy concentrated his force in one rush for the bridge [24 July].
During the Peninsular War there never was a more severe contest. The 43rd lost 17 officers and 150 men, my Regiment 10 officers and 140 men. When we passed the bridge my section was the rear-guard of the whole, and in a rush to drive back the enemy (with whom we were frequently absolutely mixed), my brother Tom and I were both severely wounded, and a Major Macleod, a noble fellow, afterwards killed at Badajos, put me on his horse, or I should have been taken. The enemy made several attempts to cross, but old Alister Cameron, Captain in the Rifle Brigade, had posted his Company in a ruined house which commanded the bridge, and mainly contributed to prevent the passage of the enemy, who made some brilliant attempts. The bridge was literally piled with their dead and they made breastworks of the bodies. On this day, on going to the rear wounded, I first made the acquaintance of my dear friend Will Havelock, afterwards my whipper-in, who was joining the 43rd fresh from England, with smart shako and jacket. I had a ball lodged in my ankle-joint, a most painful wound. We were sent to Pinhel, where the 3rd Division was seven leagues from the action, the nearest support (?). Sir Thomas Picton treated us wounded en princes.
The wounded were ordered to the rear, so as to embark on the Mondego at Pinhel. In collecting transport for the wounded, a sedan chair between two mules was brought, the property of some gentleman in the neighbourhood, and, fortunately for me, I was the only person who could ride in it, and by laying my leg on the one seat and sitting on the other, I rode comparatively easy to the poor fellows in the wretched bullock-cars, who suffered excruciating agony, poor brother Tom (who was very severely wounded above the knee) among the rest. This little story will show what wild fellows we were in those days. George Simmons’ (1st Rifles) bullocks at one stage had run away. As I was the spokesman, the surgeon in charge came to me in great distress. I sent for the village magistrate, and actually fixed a rope in my room to hang him if he did not get a pair of bullocks (if the Duke of W. had known he would have hung me). However, the bullocks were got, and off we started. The bullocks were not broken, and they ran away with poor George and nearly jolted him to death, for he was awfully wounded through the thick of the thigh. However, we all got down to Pinhel [3′ July], and thence descended the Mondego by boats, landing every night. At one house a landlord was most insolent to us, and Lieut. Pratt of the Rifles, shot through the neck, got very angry. The carotid artery must have been wounded, for it burst out in a torrent of blood, and he was dead in a few seconds, to our horror, for he was a most excellent fellow. On the same bed with me was a Captain Hull of the 43rd Regiment with a similar wound. I never saw any man in such a funk.
On our reaching the mouth of the Mondego, we were put on board a transport. In the ship with me was a stout little officer, 14th Light Dragoons, severely wounded, whose thigh afterwards disgorged a French 6-lb. shot. On arrival in Lisbon [7 Aug.] we were billeted in Buenos Ayres, poor Tom and I in awful agony in our miserable empty house. However, we got books, and I, although suffering, got on well enough. But poor Tom’s leg was in such an awful state he was sent home. George Simmons’s wound healed. My ball was lodged on my ankle- joint, having partially divided the tendo Achilllis. However, we heard of the army having retired into the celebrated lines of Torres Vedras, and nothing would serve us but join the Regiment So our medical heroes very unwillingly sent us off to Belem, the convalescent department under Colonel Tucker, 29th Regiment, a sharp fellow enough. When I, George Simmons, and Charlie Eeles, 3rd Battalion, just arrived sick from Cadiz, waited on him to express our desire to join, he said, “Oh, certainly; but you must be posted to do duty with convalescents going up the country.” I was lame and could not walk. George Simmons cantered on crutches, and Charlie Eeles was very sick. However, go or – no go, and so we were posted to 600 villains of every Regiment in the army under a long Major Ironmonger of the 88th (afterwards of Almeida celebrity, when the garrison escaped). We marched in a day [7 Oct.]. On the first day’s march he pretended to faint. George Simmons, educated a surgeon, literally threw a bucket of water over him. He recovered the faint, but not the desire to return; and the devil would have it, the command devolved on me, a subaltern, for whom the soldiers of other corps have no great respect, and such a task I never had as to keep these six hundred rascals together. However, I had a capital English horse, good at over an insubordinate fellow, and a voice like thunder. The first bivouac I came to was the guards (these men were very orderly). The commanding officer had a cottage. I reported myself. It was raining like the devil. He put his head out of the window, and I said, “Sir, I have 150 men of your Regiment convalescent from Belem.” “Oh, send for the Sergeant-major,” he very quietly said;- no ³walk in out of the rain.” So I roared out, “We Light Division men don’t do duty with Sergeant-majors, nor are we told to wait. There are your men, every one-the only well- conducted men in 600 under my charge – and these are their accounts !” throwing down a bundle of papers, and off I galloped, to the Household man’s astonishment. That day I delivered over, or sent by officers under me, all the vagabonds I had left. Some of my own men and I reached our corps that night at Arruda, when old Sydney Beckwith, dear Colonel, said, “You are a mad fool of a boy, coming here with a ball in your leg. Can you dance?” “No,” says I ; “I can hardly walk but with my toe turned out.” “Can you be my A.D.C. ?” “Yes; I can ride and eat,” I said, at which he laughed, and was kind as a brother as was my dear friend Stewart, or Rutu, as we called him, his Brigade Major, the actual Adjutant of the Regiment.
That very night General Craufurd sent for me, and said, “You have come from Sobral, have you not, to-day, and know the road?” I said, “Yesterday.” “Well, get your horse and take this letter to the Duke for me when it is ready.” I did not like the job, but said nothing about balls or pains, which were bad enough. He kept me waiting about an hour, and then said, “You need wait no longer; the letter won’t be ready for some time, and my orderly dragoon shall take it. Is the road difficult to find ?” I said, “No; if he keeps the chaussée, he can’t miss it.” The poor dragoon fell in with the French patrol, and was taken prisoner. When the poor fellow’s fate was known, how Colonel Beckwith did laugh at my escape!
At Arruda we marched every day at daylight into position in the hills behind us, and by the ability of Craufurd they were made impregnable. The whole Division was at work. As Colonel Beckwith and I were standing in the camp one day, it came on to rain, and we saw a Rifleman rolling down a wine-cask, apparently empty, from a house near. He deliberately knocked in one of the heads ; then-for it was on the side of a rapidly shelving hill-propped it up with stones, and crept in out of the rain. Colonel Beckwith says, “Oh, look at the lazy fellow; he has not half supported it. When he falls asleep, if he turns round, down it will come.” Our curiosity was excited, and our time anything but occupied, so we watched our friend, when in about twenty minutes the cask with the man inside came rolling down the hill. He must have rolled over twenty times at least before the rapidity disengaged him from his round-house, and even afterwards, such was the impetus, he rolled over several times.
To refrain from laughing excessively was impossible, though we really thought the noble fellow must be hurt, when up he jumped, looked round, and said “I never had any affection for an empty wine-cask, and may the devil take me if ever I go near another to be whirled round like a water-mill in this manner!” The fellow was in a violent John Bull passion, while we were nearly killed with laughing.
When Massena retired, an order came to the Light Division to move on De Litte, and to Lord Hill to do the same on our right at [Vallada?]. This dispatch I was doomed to carry. It was one of the utmost importance, and required a gallop. By Jove, I had ten miles to go just before dark, and when I got to Colborne’s position, who had a Brigade under Lord Hill, a mouse could not get through his works. (Colborne was afterwards my Brigadier in the Light Division, and is now Lord Seaton.) Such a job I never had. I could not go in front of the works- the French had not retired; so some works I leaped into, and led my noble English horse into others. At last I got to Lord Hill, and he marched immediately, night as it was. How I got back to my Division through the night I hardly know, but horse and rider were both done. The spectacle of hundreds of miserable wretches of French soldiers on the road in a state of starvation is not to be described.
We moved via Caccas to Vallé on the [Rio Mayor], where our Division were Opposite Santarem. The next day [20 Nov.] the Duke came up and ordered our Division to attack Santarem, which was bristling on our right with abattis, three or four lines. We felt the difficulty of carrying such heights, but towards the afternoon we moved on. On the Duke’s staff there was a difference of opinion as to the number of the enemy, whether one corps d armée or two. The Duke, who knew perfectly well there were two, and our move was only a reconnaissance, turned to Colonel Beckwith. “Beckwith, my Staff are disputing whether at Santarem there is one corps d armée or two?” “I’ll be d–d if I know, my Lord, but you may depend on it, a great number were required to make those abattis in one night:’ Lord Wellington laughed, and said, “You are right, Beckwith; there are two corps d armée.” The enemy soon showed themselves. The Duke, as was his wont, satisfied himself by ocular demonstration, and the Division returned to its bivouac. Whilst here, Colonel Beckwith was seized with a violent attack of ague.
Our outposts were perfectly quiet, although sentries, French and English, were at each end of the bridge over the Rio Mayor, and vedettes along each bank. There was most excellent coursing on the plains of Vallé, and James Stewart and I were frequently out. Here I gave him my celebrated Spanish greyhound, Moro, the best the world ever produced, with a pedigree like that of an Arab horse, bred at Zamora by the Conde de Monteron ; but the noble dog’s story is too long to tell here.In one year Stewart gave me him back again to run a match against the Duke of Wellington’s dog. But the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo prevented our Sports of that description. Colonel Beckwith going to Lisbon, and I being his A.D.C., it was voted a capital opportunity for me to go to have the ball cut out from under the tendon Achillis, in the very joint. I was very lame, and the pain often excruciating, so off I cut.
Soon after we reached Lisbon, I was ordered to Buenos Ayres to be near the surgeons. A board was held consisting of the celebrated Staff Surgeon Morell, who had attended me before, Higgins, and Brownrigg. They examined my leg. I was all for the operation. Morell and Higgins recommended me to remain with a stiff leg of my own as better than a wooden one, for the wounds in Lisbon of late had sloughed so, they were dubious of the result. Brownrigg said, “If it were my leg, out should come the ball.” On which I roared out, “Hurrah, Brownrigg, you are the doctor for me.” So Morell says, ” Very well, if you are desirous, we will do it directly.” My pluck was somewhat cooled, but I cocked up my leg, and said, “There it is; slash away.” It was five minutes, most painful indeed, before it was extracted. The ball was jagged, and the tendonous fibres had so grown into it, it was half dissected and half torn out, with most excruciating torture for a moment, the forceps breaking which had hold of the ball. George Simmons was present, whose wound had broken out and obliged him to go to Lisbon. The surgeon wanted some linen during the operation, so I said, “George, tear a shirt,” which my servant gave him. He turned it about, said, “No, it is a pity; it is a good shirt;” at which I did not——-him a few, for my leg was aching and smoking from a wound four or five inches long. Thank God Almighty and a light heart, no sloughing occurred, and before the wound was healed I was with the regiment. Colonel Beckwith’s ague was cured, and he had joined his Brigade before I could move, so when I returned to Vallé he was delighted to see his A.D.C.
Footnote 2 – Elder brother of Sir Henry Havelock. See p.297.
Footnote3- George Simmons Writes in his diary for the 17th of September, I810 “I removed to Pedroso for the convenience of sea-bathing, my thigh being much better, which enabled me, with crutches, to move about. Lieutenant Harry Smith was also with me. I found great benefit from the sea-bathing.” Sir Harry Smith, writing to Major George Simmons on the 16th of June, 1846 (soon after the battle of Aliwal, when he had driven the Sikhs into the Sutlej), refers to their bathing together at this time, though he says at Belem, not at Pedroso (both places are close to Lisbon) “Dear George, – We little thought at Bellam [Belem], when hopping about there, I should become a master of that art we were both ‘girning’ under, or a swimming master for pupils in the Sutledge !”
Footnote4- Simmons states in his diary that the Commandant was Major Murphy (not Ironmonger), and writes that at the end of the second day’s march “another one hundred heroes had disappeared, which made our Commandant raving mad. Smith called upon me to assist him in a medical capacity. I had a bucket of spring water thrown upon him, which did him good ; he had several fits, but this put an end to them” (p. 111). According to the Army Lists, Major Barnaby Murphy, 88th Regiment, was killcd at Salamanca, July, 1812. Lieut.-Colonel W. Iremonger, 2nd Foot, retired 2 May, 1811 (? 12 May). There is no Ironmonger in the Army List. The garrison of Almeida escaped on 11 May, 1811. In his despatch of 15 May, 1811 Wellington censures a Lieutenant-Colonel (name not given), but it is for “imprudence,” not cowardice.
Footnote5-Cp. Kincaid, Random Shots, pp.101, 102.
Footnote6-He was at Lisbon from 3 Dec. to 4 Feb., when he returned to his Regiment with Colonel Beckwith (A British Rifleman, pg. 124, 135).