SIEGE OF CIUDAD RODRIGO,
January 8th, 1812.
The campaign of 1812 commenced with the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, which was invested by our division on the 8th of January.
There was a smartish frost, with some snow on the ground; and when we arrived opposite the fortress about midday the garrison did not appear to think that we were in earnest, for a number of their officers came out under the shelter of a stone wall, within half musket-shot, and amused themselves in saluting and bowing to us in ridicule; but, ere the day was done, some of them had occasion to wear the laugh on the opposite side of the countenance.
We lay by our arms until dark, when a party consisting of a hundred volunteers from each regiment, under Colonel Colborne of the fifty-second, stormed and carried the Fort of St Francisco, after a short sharp action in which the whole of its garrison were taken or destroyed. The officer who commanded it was a chattering little fellow, and acknowledged himself to have been one of our saluting friends of the morning. He kept incessantly repeating a few words of English which he had picked up during the assault, and the only ones, I fancy, that were spoken, viz. "dem eyes, b - t eyes!" and, in demanding the meaning of them, he required that we should also explain why we stormed a place without first besieging it; for, he said, that another officer would have relieved him of his charge at daylight, had we not relieved him of it sooner.
The enemy had calculated that this outwork would have kept us at bay for a fortnight or three weeks; whereas its capture the first night enabled us to break ground at once, within breaching distance of the walls of the town. They kept up a very heavy fire the whole night on the working parties; but, as they aimed at random, we did not suffer much and made such good use of our time that, when daylight enabled them to see what we were doing, we had dug ourselves under tolerable cover.
In addition to ours, the first, third and fourth divisions were employed in the siege. Each took the duties for twenty-four hours alternately, and returned to their cantonments during the interval.
We were relieved by the first division, under Sir Thomas Graham, on the morning of the 9th, and marched to our quarters.
Jan. 12th. — At ten o'clock this morning we resumed the duties of the siege. It still continued to be dry frosty weather; and, as we were obliged to ford the Agueda up to the middle every man carried a pair of iced breeches into the trenches with him.
My turn of duty did not arrive until eight in the evening, when I was ordered to take thirty men with shovels to dig holes for ourselves, as near as possible to the walls, for the delectable amusement of firing at the embrasures for the remainder of the night. The enemy threw frequent fire balls among us to see where we were; but, as we always lay snug until their blaze was extinguished, they were not much the wiser, except by finding, from having some one popt off from their guns every instant, that they had got some neighbours whom they would have been glad to get rid of.
We were relieved as usual at ten next morning, and returned to our cantonments.
January 16th. — Entered on our third day's duty, and found the breaching batteries in full operation and our approaches close to the walls on every side. When we arrived on the ground I was sent to take command of the highland company, which we had at that time in the regiment, and which was with the left wing under Colonel Cameron. I found them on piquet, between the right of the trenches and the river, half of them posted at a mud cottage, and the other half in a ruined convent close under the walls. It was a very tolerable post when at it; but it is no joke travelling by daylight up to within a stone's throw of a wall, on which there is a parcel of fellows who have no other amusement but to fire at everybody they see.
We could not show our noses at any point without being fired at; but, as we were merely posted there to protect the right flank of the trenches from any sortie, we did not fire at them, and kept as quiet as could be, considering the deadly blast that was blowing around us. There are few situations in life where something cannot be learnt, and I, myself, stand indebted to my twenty-four hours' residence there for a more correct knowledge of martial sounds than in the study of my whole lifetime besides. They must be an unmusical pair of ears that cannot inform the wearer whither a cannon or a musket played last, but the various notes emanating from their respective mouths admit of nice distinctions. My party was too small and too well sheltered to repay the enemy for the expense of shells and round shot; but the quantity of grape and musketry aimed at our particular heads made a good concert of first and second whistles, while the more sonorous voice of the round shot, travelling to our friends on the left, acted as a thorough bass; and there was not a shell that passed over us to the trenches that did not send back a fragment among us as soon as it burst, as if to gratify a curiosity that I was far from expressing.
We went into the cottage soon after dark to partake of something that had been prepared for dinner; and, when in the middle of it, a round shot passed through both walls immediately over our heads and garnished the soup with a greater quantity of our parent earth than was quite palatable.
We were relieved as usual by the first division at ten next morning; and, to avoid as much as possible the destructive fire from the walls, they sent forward only three or four men at a time, and we sent ours away in the same proportions.
Everything is by comparison in this world, and it is curious to observe how men's feelings change with circumstances. In cool blood a man would rather go a little out of his way than expose himself to unnecessary danger; but we found this morning that by crossing the river where we then were and running the gauntlet for a mile exposed to the fire of two pieces of artillery, that we should be saved the distance of two or three miles in returning to our quarters. After coming out of such a furnace as we had been frying in, the other fire was not considered a fire at all, and passed without a moment's hesitation.
STORMING OF CIUDAD RODRIGO.
January 19th, 1812. — We moved to the scene of operations about two o'clock this afternoon; and, as it was a day before our regular turn, we concluded that we were called there to lend a hand in finishing the job we had begun so well; nor were we disappointed, for we found that two practicable breaches had been effected, and that the place was to be stormed in the evening by the third and light divisions, the former by the right breach, and the latter by the left, while some Portuguese troops were to attempt an escalade on the opposite sides of the town.
About eight o'clock in the evening our division was accordingly formed for the assault behind a convent near the left breach in the following order: — viz.
|1st.||Four companies of our battalion, under Colonel Cameron, to line the crest of the glacis and fire upon the ramparts.|
|2d.||Some companies of Portuguese, carrying bags filled with hay and straw for throwing into the ditch, to facilitate the passage of the storming party.|
|3d.||The forlorn hope, consisting of an officer and twenty-five volunteers.|
|4th.||The storming party, consisting of three officers and one hundred volunteers from each regiment, the officers from ours were Captain Mitchell, Mr Johnstone, and myself, and the whole under the command of Major Napier of the fifty-second.|
|5th.||The main body of the division, under General Crawford, with one brigade, under Major-General Vandeleur, and the other under Colonel Barnard.|
At a given signal the different columns advanced to the assault; the night was tolerably clear, and the enemy evidently expected us; for as soon as we turned the corner of the convent-wall the space between us and the breach became one blaze of light with their fire-balls, which, while they lighted us on to glory, lightened not a few of their lives and limbs; for the whole glacis was in consequence swept by a well directed fire of grape and musketry, and they are the devil's own brooms; but our gallant fellows walked through it to the point of attack with the most determined steadiness, excepting the Portuguese sack-bearers, most of whom lay down behind their bags to wait the result, while the few that were thrown into the ditch looked so like dead bodies that, when I leapt into it, I tried to avoid them.
The advantage of being on a storming party is considered as giving the prior claim to be put out of pain, for they receive the first fire, which is generally the best, not to mention that they are also expected to receive the earliest salutation from the beams of timber, hand-grenades and other missiles which the garrison are generally prepared to transfer from the top of the wall to the tops of the heads of their foremost visitors. But I cannot say that I, myself, experienced any such preference, for every ball has a considerable distance to travel, and I have generally found them equally ready to pick up their man at the end as at the beginning of their flight; luckily, too, the other preparations cannot always be accommodated to the moment, so that, on the whole, the odds are pretty even that all concerned come in for an equal share of whatever happens to be going on.
We had some difficulty at first in finding the breach, as we had entered the ditch opposite to a ravelin*, which we mistook for a bastion. I tried first one side of it and then the other, and seeing one corner of it a good deal battered, with a ladder placed against it, I concluded that it must be the breach, and calling to the soldiers near me to follow, I mounted with the most ferocious intent, carrying a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other; but when I got up I found nobody to fight with, except two of our own men, who were already laid dead across the top of the ladder. I saw in a moment that I had got into the wrong box and was about to descend again when I heard a shout from the opposite side that the breach was there; and, moving in that direction, I dropped myself from the ravelin and landed in the ditch opposite to the foot of the breach, where I found the head of the storming party just beginning to fight their way into it. The combat was of short duration, and in less than half an hour from the commencement of the attack the place was in our possession.
After carrying the breach we met with no further opposition, and moved round the ramparts to see that they were perfectly clear of the enemy previous to entering the town. I was fortunate enough to take the left-hand circuit by accident, and thereby escaped the fate which befel a great portion of those who went to the right, and who were blown up, along with some of the third division, by the accidental explosion of a magazine.
I was highly amused, in moving round the ramparts, to find some of the Portuguese troops just commencing their escalade, on the opposite side near the bridge, in ignorance of the place having already fallen. Gallantly headed by their officers, they had got some ladders placed against the wall, while about two thousand voices from the rear were cheering, with all their might, for mutual encouragement; and, like most other troops under similar circumstances, it appeared to me that their feet and their tongues went at a more equal pace after we gave them the hint. On going a little further, we came opposite to the ravelin, which had been my chief annoyance during my last days' piquet. It was still crowded by the enemy, who had now thrown down their arms and endeavoured to excite our pity by virtue of their being ‘Pauvres Italianos"; but our men had somehow imbibed a horrible antipathy to the Italians, and every appeal they made in that name was invariably answered with,-"You're Italians, are you? then, d—n you, here's a shot for you;" and the action instantly followed the word.
A town taken by storm presents a frightful scene of outrage. The soldiers no sooner obtain possession of it than they think themselves at liberty to do what they please. It is enough for them that there had been an enemy on the ramparts; and, without considering that the poor inhabitants may, nevertheless, be friends and allies, they, in the first moment of excitement, all share one common fate; and nothing but the most extraordinary exertions on the part of the officers can bring them back to a sense of their duty.
We continued our course round the ramparts until we met the head of the column which had gone by the right, and then descended into the town. At the entrance of the first street a French officer came out of a door and claimed my protection, giving me his sword. He told me that there was another officer in the same house who was afraid to venture out, and entreated that I would go in for him. I accordingly followed him up to the landing-place of a dark stair, and, while he was calling to his friend by name to come down, "as there was an English officer present who would protect him," a violent screaming broke through a door at my elbow. I pushed it open and found the landlady struggling with an English soldier, whom I immediately transferred to the bottom of the stair head foremost. The French officer had followed me in at the door and was so astonished at all he saw that he held up his hands, turned up the whites of his eyes and resolved himself into a state of the most eloquent silence. When he did recover the use of his tongue it was to recommend his landlady to my notice as the most amiable woman in existence. She, on her part, professed the most unbounded gratitude, and entreated that I would make her house my home for ever; but when I called upon her a few days after, she denied having ever seen me before and stuck to it most religiously.
As the other officer could not be found, I descended into the street again with my prisoner; and, finding the current of soldiers setting towards the centre of the town, I followed the stream, which conducted me into the great square, on one side of which the late garrison were drawn up as prisoners and the rest of it was filled with British and Portuguese intermixed without any order or regularity. I had been there but a very short time when they all commenced firing without any ostensible cause; some fired in at the doors and windows, some at the roofs of houses and others at the clouds; and at last some heads began to be blown from their shoulders in the general hurricane when the voice of Sir Thomas Picton, with the power of twenty trumpets, began to proclaim damnation to everybody, while Colonel Barnard, Colonel Cameron, and some other active officers were carrying it into effect with a strong hand; for, seizing the broken barrels of muskets which were lying about in great abundance, they belaboured every fellow most unmercifully about the head who attempted either to load or fire, and finally succeeded in reducing them to order. In the midst of the scuffle, however, three of the houses in the square were set on fire; and the confusion was such that nothing could be done to save them; but, by the extraordinary exertions of Colonel Barnard, during the whole of the night the flames were prevented from communicating to the adjoining buildings.
We succeeded in getting a great portion of our battalion together by one o'clock in the morning and withdrew with them to the ramparts, where we lay by our arms until daylight.
There is nothing in this life half so enviable as the feelings of a soldier after a victory. Previous to a battle, there is a certain sort of something that pervades the mind which is not easily defined; it is neither akin to joy or fear, and probably anxiety may be nearer to it than any other word in the dictionary: but when the battle is over and crowned with victory he finds himself elevated for a while into the regions of absolute bliss! It had ever been the summit of my ambition to attain a post at the head of a storming party: — my wish had now been accomplished and gloriously ended; and I do think that, after all was over and our men laid asleep on the ramparts, that I strutted about as important a personage, in my own opinion, as ever trod the face of the earth; and had the ghost of the renowned Jack-the-giant-killer itself passed that way at the time I'll venture to say that I would have given it a kick in the breech without the smallest ceremony. But as the sun began to rise I began to fall from the heroics; and when he showed his face I took a look at my own and found that I was too unclean a spirit to worship, for I was covered with mud and dirt, with the greater part of my dress torn to rags.
The fifth division, which had not been employed in the siege, marched in and took charge of the town on the morning of the 20th and we prepared to return to our cantonments. Lord Wellington happened to be riding in at the gate at the time that we were marching out and had the curiosity to ask the officer of the leading company what regiment it was, for there was scarcely a vestige of uniform among the men, some of whom were dressed in Frenchmen's coats, some in white breeches and huge jack-boots, some with cocked hats and queues; most of their swords were fixed on the rifles and stuck full of hams, tongues and loaves of bread, and not a few were carrying bird-cages! There never was a better masked corps!
General Crawford fell on the glacis, at the head of our division, and was buried at the foot of the breach which they so gallantly carried. His funeral was attended by Lord Wellington and all the officers of the division, by whom he was, ultimately, much liked. He had introduced a system of discipline into the light division which made them unrivalled. A very rigid exaction of the duties pointed out in his code of regulations made him very unpopular at its commencement, and it was not until a short time before he was lost to us for ever that we were capable of appreciating his merits, and fully sensible of the incalculable advantages we derived from the perfection of his system.
Among other things carried from Ciudad Rodrigo one of our men had the misfortune to carry his death in his hands under the mistaken shape of amusement. He thought that it was a cannon-ball, and took it for the purpose of playing at the game of nine-holes, but it happened to be a live shell. In rolling it along it went over a bed of burning ashes and ignited without his observing it. Just as he had got it between his legs and was in the act of discharging it a second time it exploded and nearly blew him to pieces.
Several men of our division who had deserted while we were blockading Ciudad Rodrigo were taken when it fell and were sentenced to be shot. Lord Wellington extended mercy to every one who could procure anything like a good character from his officers; but six of them, who could not, were paraded and shot in front of the division, near the village of Ituera. Shooting appears to me to be a cruel kind of execution, for twenty balls may pierce a man's body without touching a vital spot. On the occasion alluded to, two of the men remained standing after the first fire, and the Provost Marshal was obliged to put an end to their sufferings by placing the muzzle of a piece at each of their heads.