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One battalion was ordered to remain and occupy this hill, which dreadfully alarmed me, lest it should be ours, for it was bitter, bleak, and cold. Luckily a Portuguese battalion was ordered up, and we returned to our snug camp by the river side; and here, as if to crown our good fortune, one of our men, who had been left behind in charge of the tents, had got some meat roasted for our mess, of which we all partook with great delight and thankfulness.
A friend of mine of our 1st battalion, during the advance the French had made upon that battalion, was nigh falling into their hands. They rushed at him, but he perceiving, and endeavouring to avoid them, fell into a bush, which scratched him most wofully, and in the fray lost his cap and sword. They grasped at the latter, (which was not drawn,) but which luckily broke loose from the belt, or they would have had him. This hill was always known afterwards by the name of Barnard's Hill, in honour of Colonel Barnard, who commanded on the occasion.
The Author, from a mistake, loses his Servants for a few days--A Feast of Death--A Feast of Life--Fighting near St Sebastian--Singular instance of Spanish Bravery--St Sebastian is captured, but no Details given, the Author not having been present--Attack of the Pass of Vera.
We remained at rest here for some time, during which I, as acting paymaster, had several trips to Tolosa, a considerable town on the great road from Bayonne to Madrid, where the paymaster-general had taken up his residence with the military chest. In one of them I went and had a peep at St Sebastian, the siege of which was then going on. While here, I received directions from General Sir William Stewart to attend him at Villaba, where he lay wounded, he having received two balls in the late actions. I set off, directing my servants with my baggage to follow close after me: by some means they were delayed a few minutes, and, supposing I was going again to the paymaster-general at Tolosa, went off in that direction, without asking any questions. I imagined they knew very well where I was going, and still went on slowly, every now and then looking back to see if I could descry them coming; but although there was no appearance of them, I simply enough continued my route till I reached St Estevan; and here I put up for the night, thinking, of course, they would come by and by. In the morning, I was fully convinced they must have gone some other road, and as all my books, &c., from which I wanted information, were in my baggage, I thought it useless to proceed any farther. In retracing my steps, which I did leisurely, I had an opportunity of seeing the great number of bodies which the French had thrown into the river, the road running close by its brink nearly all the way. It was really shocking to behold such numerous wrecks of mortality, with the disgusting appearance which most of them had assumed; many of them were half eaten by the fish, and of others the flesh was hanging in rags, and bleaching in the stream. Of course I returned home, but did not see my servants again for several days, as it took three or four to accomplish the journey to Tolosa and back, and they had waited there a day for me.
On the day that I was absent, all the officers of my corps had had a sumptuous and splendid entertainment, it being the 25th August, the anniversary of the regiment's first formation. They had dug a ditch in an oblong shape in the middle of a field, the centre of which served for a table, while they sat with their feet in the ditch. I am told the French, who were just above, and overlooked them from the heights behind the town, assembled and viewed them, as if in astonishment to see them regaling themselves with so much glee in the midst of the wild Pyrenean mountains. No doubt the wine went merrily round, and many were the toasts which were drunk with three-times-three.
During this interval, I often amused myself with fishing in the Bidassoa, in which there were many excellent trout, and I was pretty successful, for I had got some tackle from one of our captains, which he had brought from England. On one of these occasions, while I was wading in a pool, I spied a fine salmon laying just below me; I threw in and brought my flies right over him, at which he instantly rose, but I missed him. I tried again, and hooked him, but in a moment he plunged right across the river, carrying with him all my flies and part of my line, for I had no reel. I might have calculated upon this, if I had thought for a moment; but the opportunity was so tempting, that I could not resist it.
At length the 31st of August arrived, the day on which St Sebastian was to be stormed. We knew this, for we had furnished a number of volunteers, both officers and men, to take part in the assault; many of our higher officers had gone to witness the glorious spectacle. But early in the morning, we were all astonished at the bugle sounding through the camp the alarm, or assembly, and instantly orders were given for the tents to be struck, the baggage to be packed, and to set off with it to the rear without a moment's delay, for the French were advancing; of course all this was done in as short a time as possible, and the troops were ordered to move on to a hill just over the bridge of Vera. A detachment of ours had joined the evening before, and it cannot easily be conceived the strange effect this sudden alarm had on some of them. One of them, a lieutenant, was all in a bustle getting his pistols put in fighting order, and came to me begging I would take some money to keep for him. I told him that it was likely to be in as much danger with me as with himself, and of course declined. The old hands, on the contrary, were as cool and quiet about it as if it was an everyday occurrence. We moved to the height before mentioned, and saw a cloud of fellows with white caps coming down to the left of the town, and of course prepared to give them the best reception we could. I was sent with orders to my commanding-officer from the General, 'that he was, when pressed, to retire till he got on the ridge just over his house, (which was on the road a little to the rear of where we then were,) and that he was to stand there as long as it was possible.' I thought something very warm was going to occur, seeing such a cloud of Frenchmen were then approaching us, but we were all disappointed; they went quickly to their right after descending from the heights, and forded the river below the town, setting their faces towards St Sebastian. All this was effected under a cannonade from the heights.
Our 1st brigade (except my battalion) was then ordered to cross the river by the Lezacca bridge a little behind us, and to move parallel to the enemy along the ridge above that town, which had all along been Lord Wellington's head-quarters. As soon as they got across, they sent a body of troops to the bridge of Vera, close to which some of our people were stationed, and from thence they kept firing on us all day from some small mountain guns, which they had brought down with them, and occasionally with musketry. We were now somewhat curiously situated. The French position was on the side we occupied, while the other side of the bridge had been fortified by the Spanish General Longa, to protect himself during the last excursion of the French towards Pamplona; but now they occupied the side on which the intrenchments had been thrown up, and turned them against us of course; they did little execution by their fire. Lord Wellington, seeing the intention of the enemy, assembled all the British troops he could easily collect, and brought them in rear of a corps of Spaniards, which met the French in this direction; and finding this a fair opportunity of seeing what the Don could do, withheld the British, and let the Spaniards attack them by themselves. They had now the best chance of showing their valour that ever had or might present itself; they had the high ground, and the enemy had to climb up on their hands and knees to get at them; besides, they had behind them backers that would not see them get foul play. So away they set at them, and indeed they did tumble the French down in good style, upsetting them in all directions; so that our English division had nothing to do but to look on. This was the only time I ever knew the Spaniards act in a body like good soldiers.
The enemy, being beaten, were obliged of course to retrograde; but it came on one of the bitterest nights I have almost ever witnessed; the rain fell in torrents, and the lightning was very vivid. The French endeavoured to retrace their steps during the night, fording the river where they had crossed it in the morning; but the heavy rain had so swoln the river by midnight, that they could not continue any longer to wade it. A considerable number of them still remained on the other side, and no way presented itself of extricating themselves, but by forcing their passage across the bridge, near which a company of our 2d battalion, under Captain Cadoux, was posted, with one of ours, a short distance in the rear, to support him. Captain Cadoux's people were stationed in houses about thirty yards from the bridge, and had a double sentry on the bridge. The enemy's column approached very quietly, and then made a rush; but the rain having wet the priming of the sentries'
rifles, they could not get them to go off to give the necessary alarm, and were in a moment driven from their post. The French then, seeing they had effected a passage, set up a shout, and rushed towards the houses where Cadoux's people were, who turned out at once, and with the supporting company, opened a deadly fire upon the enemy's column; but poor Cadoux fell instantly almost, as he had imprudently mounted his horse on the first alarm; his lieutenant also was severely wounded. The firing of course soon brought the whole brigade to the spot, which kept up a constant and well-directed fire during the whole of their progress along the little plain towards Vera.
The enemy suffered dreadfully on this occasion, leaving the ground literally strewed with their dead, who, like the others before mentioned, were next morning thrown into the river; so that the fish had ample feeding for some time after. Some people afterwards reflected upon General Skerrott, who commanded here, for not posting a stronger force at the bridge, and for not blocking it up with an abbatis; the former he might and ought to have done; but the latter was impracticable, from the enemy holding the breastwork at the other end of the bridge, which was not more than about thirty yards long. Had a battalion been posted there, it is probable the French, who were compelled to have recourse to this daring attempt, might have been induced to surrender; but I believe the General never imagined they had need to make such an attempt. Our loss on this occasion was rather severe also. A great many of Captain Cadoux's men fell; Lieutenant Travers, who commanded the company of my battalion, was wounded, and a considerable number of men were killed and wounded; among the former, some of the poor fellows who had joined from England only the day before.
Thus was Soult's second attempt frustrated, and St Sebastian fell into our hands. As I was not present at that glorious exhibition of British valour and prowess, I cannot take upon me to give any account of its capture. The volunteers who went from our division to assist in the storm or assault, sustained their full share in the casualties attendant thereon. The field-officer, Colonel Hunt of the 52d, was severely wounded; a lieutenant of the 43d, brother to Mr O'Connell, the famous Roman Catholic advocate, was killed; two lieutenants of our first battalion, named Percival and Hamilton, were severely wounded. The latter, I believe, was a volunteer on the occasion, not being entitled, from his standing, to take it as a tour of duty. He was conspicuously brave, and received two severe wounds, from which it would scarcely be imagined possible any one could recover.
A few days after the surrender of St Sebastian, I had again occasion to go to Tolosa for money, and took the road by Passages, the port where we now received all our supplies from England; and also to see the ruins of that late formidable fortress. When I reached it, the houses were still on fire, and not I believe half-a-dozen in the whole town that remained habitable, or the inhabitants had quite deserted it. I went up to the citadel and examined it, and I believe this, with proper casemates or bomb-proofs, might be rendered one of the strongest places in Spain, next to Gibraltar; but the French had suffered dreadfully from our shells, which had literally ploughed the ground on the top of this naturally strong height, and from which cause they had been compelled to surrender.
St Sebastian was indeed a melancholy spectacle at this time. I returned from Tolosa by a part of the road which we had traversed in our late retreat and advance again, as I now began to hope I might perhaps recover my little horse, for I suspected from some cause that my servant, instead of having been obliged to abandon him, because of his lameness, as he told me, had sold him at that time; and this I actually found had been the case. I compelled him to tell me where he had disposed of him, and, with my broken Spanish, traced him from thence for near twenty miles farther into the mountains, where I found him in a village, the name of which I do not recollect, but where a squadron of our German hussars were quartered. I of course claimed and took possession of the horse, giving the person the amount he had paid for him; but he being still lame, the commanding-officer of the hussars kindly permitted me to leave him with his farrier till he got well. He afterwards sent him to me, and would not even allow the farrier to receive any remuneration for his trouble, so kindly and politely did he behave.
September passed away without any thing remarkable occurring. My friend Captain (now Major) Perceval had been obliged to return to England, and Captain Balvaird succeeded him as senior captain of my battalion. I still continued in that company's mess. At length it was determined to attack the Puerta, or Pass of Vera, which the enemy had rendered exceedingly strong. The left of our army, under Sir Thomas Graham, were ordered to attack in their front, and force the passage of the Bidassoa, and establish themselves in France. We were merely to drive them from the heights above the town of Vera, taking possession of all the strong ground between that and France. The fourth division was brought up to support our attack, and formed immediately in rear of the town. One of the captains who formed the Committee of Paymastership, and who, it may be remembered, were held responsible for my accounts, and the due appropriation of all public money which might come into my hands, took a fancy that I exposed myself too much, and requested the commanding-officer, Colonel Ross, to prohibit my again entering into action, except for the purpose of bringing ammunition, &c., when my duty required me; in consequence of which the adjutant was sent to me this morning, previous to the operations commencing, with an order for me not to accompany the battalion. It may seem to the reader perhaps like affectation when I tell him I felt hurt at this order, and determined not very strictly to comply with it, for I believed that my respected commanding-officer had no objection that I should accompany him, did not this untoward circumstance interfere with my so doing. Accordingly I remained a looker-on among the fourth division. My battalion was destined to commence this attack by driving the enemy from a high and rugged hill on the right of the Pass, which was a necessary operation before the Pass itself could be attacked. Accordingly he extended the battalion, and encircled its base on the side next to Vera; and I believe, without firing a shot almost, he marched right up to the top of the hill, notwithstanding the sturdy resistance made by the enemy, and in a very short space of time completely cleared this formidable height.
This operation was the admiration of the whole fourth division, (for it was clearly observable by every one,) and they were most lavish of their praises for such a workmanlike movement. When my people approached the top of the hill, I felt alarmed for their safety and their honour, for the French commander closed all his force to one point, and, forming them into line, made them fix bayonets, apparently with a determination to charge them down the hill again; and I saw that my people, for they could not perceive what the French were doing, were likely to be taken by surprise. Whether the Frenchman's heart failed him I know not, but when Colonel Ross reached the top of the hill, the enemy went to the right about, and instantly retired.
I felt proud of belonging to that corps, and happy at such a termination of this dangerous operation, and feeling a desire I could no longer resist, I set off to join them. By the time I reached the height just mentioned, the attack of the Puerta was going on, and a most arduous undertaking it was. My brigade attacked the right or strongest pass, which they carried in fine style, without much loss, although the enemy had a breastwork at every available point of ground. Our 2d brigade did not attack the left Pass quite so soon as the other, and when they had got about half way up they encountered the most formidable opposition.
A redoubt which the enemy possessed was filled with men, who waited till our battalion came within a few yards of them, and then poured in the most destructive fire imaginable, making the battalion recoil, and leaving one-third of its numbers on the ensanguined ground. But the 52d regiment being close behind, promptly supported them when rushing on together to the charge, and the French, after some hard fighting, were finally driven from this stronghold. After this they never made any obstinate stand, although there was occasional fighting all the way from the Pass down into the plain below, where some of our people followed them; but it not being intended to quit for the present this high and formidable barrier, they were afterwards recalled. The boundary lines passed along this ridge.
We lost a few men on ascending the first hill, and a few in skirmishing afterwards, but our loss was not severe. But that of the 2d battalion, before noticed, was awful; several of that battalion who fell in this action had only a few days before joined from England, and this was their first action. On looking at the ground on which this affair took place, one would imagine it almost impossible that any army could force a passage through such innumerable difficulties. The hill itself was nearly impassable, and with the numerous redoubts and breastworks, with which it was literally covered, no troops in the world, I think, but British, would have dared to attempt it.
We found that the French, who occupied this station, had rendered themselves extremely comfortable, considering the kind of country and ground where they were posted. They had been at great pains in building very convenient and substantial huts in lines and streets, the same as an encampment, and which were indeed remarkably clean and neat. They had even built arm-racks at the end of each line, where their arms were stowed away most securely, and where they were preserved from the effects of the bad weather. Indeed, from the pains they had taken to render themselves comfortable here, it would appear as if they had not expected to be driven from it so soon.
The left of our army, under Sir Thomas Graham, also established themselves within the French territory. A corps of Spaniards on our left, between us and Sir Thomas, had likewise made a forward movement corresponding with the British. Some Spaniards were on the right of our division also, and were destined to drive the French from La Rhune, an exceeding high rock, which overlooks all the other mountains, as well as the plain below. This they failed to accomplish, the enemy keeping possession all that night, and the skirmishing between the two forces continuing till after dark.
My battalion was sent on the outpost duty in the evening down into the French plain below, and relieved the Spanish General Longa, whose corps, with our 2d brigade, were ordered to assist in the morning in dislodging the enemy from La Rhune. I will not say whether the sight of the red-coats coming against them the next morning had the effect of alarming them, but they certainly evacuated that exceedingly strong post without much farther opposition, and established themselves on a similar rock, but lower, on the French side, and called by them Petit or Little Rhune. But the possession of this lofty peak gave us the power of overlooking all their movements for miles around us, as well as of surveying La Belle France as far as the eye could see, and indeed, compared with the bleak and barren mountains in which we had so long been residing, it did appear a beautiful country, although, in reality, it is far from being such. But we gazed upon it with strange and mingled emotions, hardly believing it possible that we had now reached and entered the territory of that once formidable nation whose victorious armies had penetrated to the farthest confines of Europe, who had overrun and subdued some of the most warlike nations of the continent, and who had so often threatened, and as often alarmed, the inhabitants of England with the invasion of that sacred soil, on which never yet a Frenchman has dared, in hostile array, to set his foot since the days of the Norman William, but who met there either with a prison or a grave.
We now pitched our camps by battalions, each occupying a post more or less important, and the enemy began again to construct their huts, and make themselves as comfortable as their circumstances would admit; Soult, no doubt, being mightily chagrined that we had now fairly beat them out of Spain, when he (as we now learnt) had promised his followers that he would soon lead them again to the plains of Vittoria, where they might again retrieve their lost honours, and at which city they would celebrate the Emperor's birthday. He thus boasted, and no doubt would have effected his purpose, had he not been so promptly met near Pamplona by his never-to-be outmanoeuvred antagonist.
We now began to suffer greatly from the severity of the weather. It became exceedingly wet and stormy; and not infrequently the tents were blown away from over our heads, or the pole was forced up through the top, letting the wet canvass fall comfortably down about our ears while we were perhaps in a sound sleep. I had two streams flowing past my head, one went round the trench outside my tent, while the other I was fain to let pass through it; their murmurs lulled me to sleep, and I do not remember that ever I slept sounder than I did here, having made my couch comfortable by gathering dry fern, and spreading my mattress upon it.
Whilst we remained here, a few officers were appointed to watch the motions of the enemy from an old work which we understood had been constructed by the Spaniards and emigrant French against their revolutionary neighbours, whom they endeavoured to keep from entering Spain; and, of course, this was the daily lounge of those who had no better employment, not only that they might themselves see, but hear also from others what of importance was passing. On one of these occasions, a vessel was descried (for the sea was not more than five or six miles from us) making for the harbour of Bayonne, or St Jean de Luz, with a small schooner following her in chase, and every now and then giving her a shot. The vessel, (which turned out to be a French brig going with provisions for the few Frenchmen who still retained the castle of Santona,) seeing she could not get clear of her unwelcome neighbours, her crew set her on fire, and taking to their boats, abandoned her, and escaped on shore--she soon after blew up with a tremendous explosion.
On the 31st of this month Pamplona surrendered, the garrison, consisting of 4000 men, under Major-general Cassan, the governor, becoming prisoners of war. They had been compelled to adopt this measure from sheer starvation, of which they, I understand, had suffered dreadfully.
I happened to be at Passages on the day they reached that port, where they embarked, on their way to England. The General was a stout, handsome, and intelligent-looking man, and such a one as I should imagine would make a noble officer. The soldiers seemed quite unconcerned about their fate; whether from the change being actually an improvement of their condition, or from the lightness and gaiety of their natural temper, I know not, but they were jesting and making as merry as if nothing had happened.
During the time we lay on these mountains, I regret to state my gallant and respected commanding-officer, Colonel Ross, suffered so much from rheumatism, that he was compelled to leave the regiment, and take up his abode at Rentaria, a village near to Passages.
It was reported that Lord Wellington intended attacking the enemy along his whole line, early in November, but the weather having rendered the roads impassable, it was postponed. On the day previous to the intended attack, the commanding-officers had been taken up to La Rhune, and the post that each corps had to occupy, with the movements they were intended to make, were clearly pointed out to them; an excellent plan, when practicable, as it leaves no one any excuse for mistakes or blunders during the action.
At length, on the 10th of that month, I believe, it was settled to take place; but on the 9th I was ordered to set off with the mules of the battalion, to fetch corn from Passages, a distance of about thirty miles. I suspected this was a scheme of the captain I before mentioned, as one of the committee of paymastership, in order the more effectually to keep me out of danger, for certainly had any thing serious happened me, they would have had some difficulty in rendering their accounts. It was not quite certain the attack was to take place next day, although it had been so rumoured; however, I was determined to try and reach the division as early as possible on that day. I accordingly got my business done in Passages as early as I could get the commissary to work; and having got the corn, and come on to Rentaria, which I reached about mid-day, I took the liberty of leaving the animals in the charge of the non-commissioned officer who had accompanied me; and calling on Colonel Ross, obtained his permission to let the sergeant proceed in charge of them to the regiment, while I might, if I chose, push on at a quicker rate. I had heard by this time, that the action had commenced by daylight that morning. I accordingly set off at as quick a pace as my starved animal could carry me; and passing Irun, and crossing the Bidassoa, and keeping along the great road for a considerable distance, I then inclined to my right, and skirted the Pyrenees along the whole plain. I had thus an opportunity of witnessing the conflict carrying on by the left wing of our army, as I passed along towards La Rhune, but with every exertion of myself and my poor jaded horse, night closed in upon me before I had nearly reached the station of the light division. I was compelled to work my way through a country which I had not hitherto passed, and which having been the scene of a sanguinary combat, presented no very pleasing aspect. At last I heard some strange and foreign voices before me, for it was now quite dark, on which I turned into a field, and waited till they passed, by which I learned they were Spaniards. I was apprehensive I might have kept too far to the left, and had got into the French lines, which would not have been so comfortable; but after finding them to be men of General Frere's Spanish division, I then had hopes of shortly meeting with my own people. Directed by those good Spaniards, I at last reached Petit La Rhune, the late formidable position of the enemy, on which the blazes from a thousand of their huts were rising to the clouds, and enlightening the atmosphere around. But it being now ten o'clock, I found myself incapable of proceeding farther, more particularly as the Portuguese, among whom I now found myself, could not give me any certain directions which way my division had gone. I was fain therefore to take up my abode, and gladly did so, in a cottage with Colonel St Clair and several other officers of the sixth Cacadores. Let it not be supposed that a fighting disposition induced me to use so much exertion to reach my division on this occasion--no; but as I considered that a sort of trick had been played off upon me, I did what I could to render it nugatory; no man liking, as I imagine, to be the dupe of any other party's manoeuvres, with whatever friendly intention these may have been put in operation. I arose next morning early, and hastened to the point where I expected to meet my brave comrades, anxious to learn the fate of all I loved amongst them. I saw them and the third division at a considerable distance, each on a height in front, appearing like flocks of sheep huddled together as close as possible. I soon reached them, and learned with sorrow, that the brave Colonel Barnard was, as they supposed, mortally wounded, the ball having passed through the chest, and that little Lieutenant Doyle was killed.
This was a most stupendous action; the scene of operations extending from right to left, embracing, I imagine, not less than thirty miles of country. The centre had fallen to the share of my division, which, in the eyes of the best judges, was the strongest part of the enemy's line, for it had been fortified with the most consummate skill, and no labour had been spared to render it impregnable, as the enemy had been busily employed in the construction of forts, redoubts, and other field-works of every denomination, from the day we drove them from the Pass of Vera; one in particular, a stone built fort, in the shape of a star, was exceedingly strong, and which was attacked and carried in the finest style possible, I understand, by the 43d regiment; the 52d also surrounded a fort in which the French 88th regiment was posted, the brave commander of which not having received any orders to evacuate it, remained till the retreat of the French left him no other alternative than to surrender at discretion. The part my battalion had to play, was to cross the valley separating the two La Rhunes in double quick time, and attack the French rock by a gorge, which allowed a passage from that valley into their position. This was to be in conjunction with the attack of the Star Fort by the 43d, as it in some measure took that work in reverse. In short, every corps in the division, and I believe in the army, had a most arduous duty to perform, and most nobly did they execute it. The left of our army, under Sir Thomas Graham, did not succeed in driving the enemy from his innumerable works which covered St Jean de Luz, and which he retained possession of till the next morning; when the centre, that is the 3d and light divisions, together with the Spaniards on our right and left centre, made a movement in advance, and crossed the Nivelle river, from which this action derives its name. Our movement, which threatened to separate the wings of the French army, caused the enemy to abandon his strong position in front of St Jean de Luz, as well as that town, on which occasion he attempted, and partly succeeded in destroying the bridge over the Nivelle at that place; but it being soon after repaired, Sir Thomas Graham's corps took up their quarters in the town.
We encamped for the night in front of the village of Serres, or Sarre, or Zarre. It had rained hard all the day of the 11th, and it continued almost without intermission till our camp was literally swimming. I remember perfectly that the water in my tent was several inches deep; and when I awoke in the morning, I found a Portuguese boy (who had followed us, and had attached himself to our mess as a sort of servant) was sitting holding by the tent-pole, that being the only place where he could find rest for the sole of his foot. In short, we were as wet, clothes and beds and all, as if we had been dragged through a river. The evening before, I well remember, we had been highly amused by my Scotch quartermaster-sergeant and his friends, who had taken up their abode close by, singing, till they rather grew tiresome,
"We are nae fou', we're nae that fou', But just a drappie in our e'e."
This of course was done to drive away dull care, and to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.
The next day towards afternoon, a considerable firing was heard on our right, which had continued but a short while, till our gallant and unwearied Chief came galloping up, with some few of his staff following, who could with difficulty keep pace with him, and asking most anxiously whereabouts and what the firing was. We could only point out the direction in which we heard it, but could give him no account as to its cause. Away he galloped in the direction we pointed out, and no doubt soon reached the spot.
I forgot to mention, that a man of the Brunswick Oels corps had been hung the day before for plundering by the Provost Marshal, no doubt in compliance with superior orders. It was necessary thus to give the army an example of severity, in order to deter them from committing those acts to which all armies are but too prone. We found indeed very little to plunder, had we been so inclined; for the greater part of the inhabitants had left their houses, taking every thing portable with them. This they had been induced to do from the false statements which Soult had set forth in some proclamations he issued about this time, in which he described the English as savages, nay, even as cannibals, who would not scruple to commit the most monstrous atrocities; so ignorant were the generality of these poor peasants, that many of them implicitly believed his representations. This, no doubt, was done with the view of raising the whole population in arms against us, in order to defend their homes against such a set of wretches as he made it appear we were; but, although many of the natives joined the French army at this time, with which they were incorporated and led to battle, the result of his famous proclamations was not equal to his expectations; for a great part of them declined warlike proceedings, and retired into the interior of the country with their families, leaving only a very small proportion indeed who remained in their houses. As might be expected, the empty houses suffered dreadfully; every piece of furniture almost being destroyed, either for fire-wood, or in seeking for valuables; while the houses of those who remained in general escaped.
General Harispe, being a Basque himself, had the organizing of the new levies now raised; indeed, many of these had taken a part in the irruption into Spain on the 25th July for the relief of Pamplona, and many of them fell on that occasion. We were not so fully aware of the extent of the misrepresentation to which Soult had gone in these proclamations, till some time after we had entered France, and had penetrated considerably into the interior, when some of our officers, either during or after a march, entered the cottage of a peasant who had not left his home, to get a little milk. The poor woman was remarkably civil, offering them any thing the house afforded. They got some milk, for which they offered her money, but which she declined. Her child was running about the house at this time, which, coming near one of the officers, he took it between his knees, and patted it on the head, with which the child seemed very well pleased; but the poor mother, standing at a little distance, and eyeing most intently every motion of the officer, was like to swoon with fear and agitation. But as the mother had declined receiving any thing for the milk, the officer who had the child gave it some small coin, and letting it go, it ran to its mother, who snatched it up into her arms with the utmost joy, and altering her look, began to say, she thought they had been deceived; for that they had been led to believe from the proclamations of Soult, that we were such barbarians that we would not scruple to kill and eat their children, and which was the cause of her late fear and anxiety, as she expected the officer had taken the child for that purpose; but now she found we were not such people as she had been led to believe. Of course the officer laughed most heartily at having been suspected of a man-eating propensity, and soon convinced the poor woman that the English were not quite such barbarians as that, whatever she might have heard to the contrary.
The British Army advance farther into France--Pass the Nive--Soult's Plans baffled--Two or three battalions of the Nassau and Frankfort regiments come over from the French--French Politesse--Threatened Attack by the French--Battle of the Nive--Account of the Basques.
We left our wet camp on the 15th, and advanced to the village of Arbonne, where, for the first time during the campaign, we were quartered in houses, except once or twice. During our stay in the camp at Serres, or Zarre, we sent our baggage animals to Passages for corn, on which occasion I lost another horse, the batman pretending it had been stolen, but which, no doubt, he sold, as that trick had often been resorted to by this time, and there was no detecting it.
On the 17th we left Arbonne, and advanced to Arcangues, sending forward picquets to the village of Bassozari, about half a mile in front. My battalion took up into quarters in some straggling houses in front of the church of Arcangues, while our first battalion occupied the chateau and outhouses of Arcangues, about a quarter of a mile to the right and front of the church. The enemy's picquets were close to Bassozari, so that in some places scarcely a quarter of a mile intervened between our quarters and their outposts. They allowed us to take up our outposts very quietly, they being now established in their intrenched camp in front of Bayonne, and which was not far distant from our advance. There were some houses in the line of posts occupied by the French, which, if in our possession, would add greatly both to our security and convenience, and which it was determined to wrest from them if practicable.
Accordingly, on the 23d the division was put under arms, and our brigade, being in front, had this task assigned to them. The 43d, not having had so much work during the campaign as our two battalions had, was selected for the purpose of driving in the enemy's picquets, whilst we supported them. They accordingly attacked and carried the houses without a moment's delay; but unfortunately, Captain Hobkirk of that regiment, advancing with his company beyond the line at which it was intended to halt, got immediately in front of some of their intrenchments, from which he could not extricate himself, in consequence of which our first battalion was ordered to advance to cover his retreat; but he had by this time fallen into the hands of the enemy, with a considerable number of his men: his lieutenant was killed, and altogether the company suffered great loss. The remainder retreated, our first battalion people holding the houses it was intended to occupy.
This occurred on the left of the ridge.
On the right, and adjoining a marsh which separated us from some high ground near the river Nive, and which was occupied by another division of our army, were two or three houses also which it was intended to take, as their possession secured us a passage across this marsh by a causeway, which connected two eminences, that on which we stood, and that occupied by the other division, the principal object upon the latter being a large chateau called Garratt's House. One company of the 43d also took those houses, supported by some more of that regiment and my battalion; but after they were taken, from what cause I know not, an order was sent to evacuate them, on which the 43d retired. Soon after, they were again ordered to be re-occupied, when a company of ours advanced, and took possession, but had not been there many minutes till another order was sent for them to be evacuated. This order, however, had scarcely reached them, when a charge was made on them by a body of French cavalry, supported by a strong column of infantry. The officer who commanded the company, either from the order he had received, or from want of presence of mind, called to his men to run to the rear when the cavalry charged him, by which he did not suffer much in point of losing men, for only one was wounded by the cavalry; but it had a bad appearance to run away from cavalry, a description of force which we had learnt by this time almost to despise, especially as, from his post, he might have knocked down great numbers of them, and finally have repulsed them, had he allowed his men to fire. The houses were, however, eventually taken possession of by another company of our battalion the next day, which retained them in despite of the enemy. The man who was wounded by the cavalry was shot in the head by a pistol ball: he came to the surgeon, where the main body of the battalion was standing, to be dressed; while this was doing, and the orderly man holding a tin-full of water near, from which the surgeon was sponging and cleaning the wound, a ball came, and, striking the tin, carried it right out from between the hands of the orderly. I was standing close by, and shall not easily forget the blank look which, as might be expected, the poor orderly put on. There was a good deal of firing all day, which, except what the 43d suffered, as before noticed, did little damage to the brigade.
On the occasion of our company taking these houses the next day, a very young officer, who happened to command it, evinced great fortitude and presence of mind. He advanced on the enemy, who, being then rather inclined to quietness, retreated gradually before him; but after reaching the hedge, just beyond the principal house, told him (for they were quite near enough to speak) that he must not advance any farther, or they would be compelled to fire on him. The young fellow, solicitous about nothing but obeying his orders, told them that he was determined to have the house, and immediately putting his men under the best cover he could, called out that they might begin to fire whenever they pleased, he was ready for them. This young officer (whose name was Cary, and brother to my friend who fell at Badajos) spoke excellent French, so that the enemy understood him perfectly. The enemy did not contend any longer for the post, but planted their sentries within about thirty yards of ours. These sentries, indeed, were still so posted as to prevent a passage across by the causeway, had they been so inclined; but the next day I went with another officer across by this road, on which occasion we actually passed to the rear of the French sentries.
A disposition had for some time been gaining ground with both armies, to mitigate the miseries of warfare, as much as was consistent with each doing their duty to their country; and it had by this time proceeded to such an extent, as to allow us to place that confidence in them that they would not molest us even if we passed their outposts for the purpose I have mentioned. And this mutual confidence in each other was productive of the most comfortable results to both parties. We could move about at any time, and almost in any place, shooting or otherwise amusing ourselves, without the dread of falling in with an enemy's patrol, or of getting among their sentries. They never molested us from this time, except when we either advanced upon them, or they upon us, in hostile array. Our division had two main picquets; all this took place at the right picquet. A few days after I happened to be at the advanced post on the left, commanded by one of my battalion, when the French officers beckoned to us. We, to show we were peaceably inclined, pulled off our swords, and advanced to meet them. A number of inhabitants, who had left their houses on our first entering the country, having heard that we were not what we had been represented, were desirous of returning to their homes, and the officers wished us to admit them, and see them safe through the advanced posts. This of course we gladly promised, and the poor people were quite overjoyed at being permitted to visit their dwelling-places once again; but, poor creatures, I fear they would find little there except the bare walls, if indeed these remained entire, for, from the reasons before assigned, it could scarcely be expected that houses without inhabitants, in the midst of an invading army, would be much respected. Each individual among them, old and young, carried heavy bundles on their heads, no doubt they having removed every thing that was valuable, if portable.