Napoleonic Literature
Kincaid: Adventures in the Rifle Brigade
Chapter VIII

March to Estremadura. A Deserter shot. Riding for an Appetite. Effect the Cure of a sick Lady. Siege of Badajoz. Trench-Work. Varieties during the Siege. Taste of the Times. Storming of the Town. Its Fall. Officers of a French Battalion. Not shot by Accident. Military Shopkeepers. Lost Legs and cold Hearts. Affecting Anecdote. My Servant. A Consignment to Satan. March again for the North. Sir Sidney Beckwith.

WE remained about six weeks in cantonments after the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo and about the end of February were again put in motion towards Estremadura.
    March 7th. Arrived near Castello de Vide and quartered in the neighbouring villages. Another deserter, who had also been taken at the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo, was here shot, under the sentence of a court martial. When he was paraded for that purpose, he protested against their right to shoot him until he first received the arrears of pay which was due at the time of his desertion.
    March 14th. Two of us rode out this afternoon to kill time until dinner hour (six); but when we returned to our quarters there was not a vestige of the regiment remaining and our appetites were considerably whetted by having an additional distance of fourteen miles to ride in the dark over roads on which we could not trust our horses out of a walk. We joined them at about eleven at night in the town of Portalegre.
    March 16th. Quartered in the town of Elvas.
    I received a billet on a neat little house occupied by an old lady and her daughter, who were very desirous of evading such an incumbrance. For, after resisting my entrance until successive applications of my foot had reduced the door to a condition which would no longer second their efforts, the old lady resolved to try me on another tack; and, opening the door and making a sign for me to make no noise, she told me in a whisper that her daughter was lying dangerously ill of a fever in the only bed in the house, and that she was, therefore, excessively sorry that she could not accommodate me. As this information did not at all accord with my notions of consistency, after their having suffered the preceding half hour's bombardment, I requested to be shewn to the chamber of the invalid, saying that I was a medico and might be of service to her. When she found remonstrance unavailing, she at length shewed me into a room upstairs where there was a very genteel-looking young girl, the very picture of Portuguese health, lying with her eyes shut in full dress on the top of the bed-clothes, where she had hurriedly thrown herself.
    Seeing at once how matters stood, I walked up to the bedside, and hit her a slap on the thigh with my hand, asking her at the same time how she felt herself and never did Prince Hohenloe himself perform a miracle more cleverly for she bounced almost as high as the ceiling and flounced about the room as well and as actively as ever she did, with a countenance in which shame, anger and a great portion of natural humour were so amusingly blended that I was tempted to provoke her still further by a salute. Having thus satisfied the mother that I had been the means of restoring her daughter to her usual state of health, she thought it prudent to put the best face upon it and therefore invited me to partake of their family dinner in the course of which I succeeded so well in eating my way into their affections that we parted next morning with mutual regret; they told me that I was the best officer they had ever seen and begged that I would always make their house my home; but I was never fated to see them again. We marched in the morning for Badajoz.


On the 17th of March, 1812, the third, fourth, and light divisions, encamped around Badajoz, embracing the whole of the inland side of the town on the left bank of the Guadiana, and commenced breaking ground before it immediately after dark the same night.
    The elements on this occasion adopted the cause of the besieged; for we had scarcely taken up our ground when a heavy rain commenced and continued, almost without intermission, for a fortnight; in consequence thereof the pontoon-bridge connecting us with our supplies from Elvas was carried away by the rapid increase of the river, and the duties of the trenches were otherwise rendered extremely harassing. We had a smaller force employed than at Rodrigo and the scale of operations was so much greater that it required every man to be actually in the trenches six hours every day, and the same length of time every night, which, with the time required to march to and from them, through fields more than ankle deep in a stiff mud, left us never more than eight hours out of the twenty-four in camp, and we never were dry the whole time.
    One day's trench-work is as like another as the days themselves and like nothing better than serving an apprenticeship to the double calling of grave-digger and game-keeper, for we found ample employment both for the spade and the rifle.
    The only varieties during the siege were, First the storming of Picuvina, a formidable outwork occupying the centre of our operations. It was carried one evening in the most gallant style by Major-General Sir James Kempt at the head of the covering parties. Secondly a sortie made by the garrison, which they got the worst of, although they succeeded in stealing some of our pickaxes and shovels. Thirdly a circumbendibus* described by a few daring French dragoons who succeeded in getting into the rear of our engineers' camp, at that time unguarded, and lightened some of the officers of their epaulettes. Lastly two field-pieces taken by the enemy to the opposite side of the river, enfilading one of our parallels and materially disturbing the harmony within, as a cannon-shot is no very welcome guest among gentlemen who happen to be lodged in a straight ditch, without the power of cutting it.
    Our batteries were supplied with ammunition by the Portuguese militia from Elvas, a string of whom used to arrive every day, reaching nearly from the one place to the other (twelve miles), each man carrying a twenty-four pound shot and cursing all the way and back again.
    The Portuguese artillery, under British officers, was uncommonly good. I used to be much amused in looking at a twelve-gun breaching-battery of theirs.
    They knew the position of all the enemy's guns which could bear upon them, and had one man posted to watch them, to give notice of what was coming, whether a shot or a shell, who, accordingly, kept calling out, "bomba, balla, balla, bomba," and they ducked their heads until the missile past: but sometimes he would see a general discharge from all arms, when he threw himself down, screaming out "Jesus, todos, todos!" meaning "everything."
    An officer of ours was sent one morning before daylight, with ten men, to dig holes for themselves opposite to one of the enemy's guns which had been doing a great deal of mischief the day before, and he had soon the satisfaction of knowing the effect of his practice by seeing them stopping up the embrasure with sandbags. After waiting a little he saw them beginning to remove the bags, when he made his men open upon it again, and they were instantly replaced without the guns being fired; presently he saw the huge cocked hat of a French officer make its appearance on the rampart, near to the embrasure; but knowing, by experience, that the head was somewhere in the neighbourhood, he watched until the flash of a musket, through the long grass, showed the position of the owner, and, calling one of his best shots, he desired him to take deliberate aim at the spot and lent his shoulder as a rest, to give it more elevation. Bang went the shot, and it was the finishing flash for the Frenchman, for they saw no more of him, although his cocked hat maintained its post until dark.
    In proportion as the grand crisis approached, the anxiety of the soldiers increased not on account of any doubt or dread as to the result, but for fear that the place should be surrendered without standing an assault; for, singular as it may appear, although there was a certainty of about one man out of every three being knocked down, there were, perhaps, not three men in the three divisions who would not rather have braved all the chances than receive it tamely from the hands of the enemy. So great was the rage for passports into eternity in our battalion on that occasion that even the officers' servants insisted on taking their places in the ranks and I was obliged to leave my baggage in charge of a man who had been wounded some days before.
On the 6th April three practicable breaches had been effected and arrangements were made for assaulting the town that night: the third division, by escalade, at the castle; a brigade of the fifth division, by escalade, at the opposite side of the town; while the fourth and light divisions were to storm the breaches. The whole were ordered to be formed for the attack at eight o'clock.


April 6th, 1812.

Our division formed for the attack of the left breach in the same order as at Ciudad Rodrigo; the command of it had now devolved upon our commandant, Colonel Barnard. I was then the acting adjutant of four companies, under Colonel Cameron, who were to line the crest of the glacis and to fire at the ramparts and the top of the left breach.
    The enemy seemed aware of our intentions. The fire of artillery and musketry, which, for three weeks before, had been incessant, both from the town and trenches, had now entirely ceased, as if by mutual consent, and a death-like silence, of nearly an hour, preceded the awful scene of carnage.
    The signal to advance was made about nine o'clock and our four companies led the way. Colonel Cameron and myself had reconnoitred the ground so accurately by daylight that we succeeded in bringing the head of our column to the very spot agreed on, opposite to the left breach, and then formed line to the left without a word being spoken, each man lying down as he got into line, with the muzzle of his rifle over the edge of the ditch between the pallisades, all ready to open. It was tolerably clear above, and we distinctly saw their heads lining the ramparts; but there was a sort of haze on the ground which, with the colour of our dress, prevented them from seeing us, although only a few yards asunder. One of their sentries, however, challenged us twice, "qui vive," and, receiving no reply, he fired off his musket, which was followed by their drums beating to arms; but we still remained perfectly quiet, and all was silence again for the space of five or ten minutes, when the head of the forlorn hope at length came up and we took advantage of the first fire while the enemy's heads were yet visible.
    The scene that ensued furnished as respectable a representation of hell itself as fire and sword and human sacrifices could make it; for in one instant every engine of destruction was in full operation.
    It is in vain to attempt a description of it. We were entirely excluded from the right breach by an inundation which the heavy rains had enabled the enemy to form and the two others were rendered totally impracticable by their interior defences.
    The five succeeding hours were therefore passed in the most gallant and hopeless attempts on the part of individual officers forming up fifty or a hundred men at a time at the foot of the breach and endeavouring to carry it by desperate bravery; and, fatal as it proved to each gallant band in succession, yet, fast as one dissolved, another was formed. We were informed, about twelve at night, that the third division had established themselves in the castle; but, as its situation and construction did not permit them to extend their operations beyond it at the moment, it did not in the least affect our opponents at the breach, whose defence continued as obstinate as ever.
    I was near Colonel Barnard after midnight, when he received repeated messages from Lord Wellington to withdraw from the breach and to form the division for a renewal of the attack at daylight; but, as fresh attempts continued to be made, and the troops were still pressing forward into the ditch, it went against his gallant soul to order a retreat while yet a chance remained; but, after heading repeated attempts himself, he saw that it was hopeless and the order was reluctantly given about two o'clock in the morning. We fell back about three hundred yards and re-formed all that remained to us.
    Our regiment alone had to lament the loss of twenty-two officers killed and wounded, ten of whom were killed, or afterwards died of their wounds. We had scarcely got our men together when we were informed of the success of the fifth division in their escalade and that the enemy were, in consequence, abandoning the breaches and we were immediately ordered forward to take possession of them. On our arrival we found them entirely evacuated, and had not occasion to fire another shot; but we found the utmost difficulty, and even danger, in getting in in the dark, even without opposition. As soon as we succeeded in establishing our battalion inside, we sent piquets into the different streets and lanes leading from the breach and kept the remainder in hand until day should throw some light on our situation.
    When I was in the act of posting one of the piquets, a man of ours brought me a prisoner, telling me that he was the governor; but the other immediately said that he had only called himself so the better to ensure his protection; and then added that he was the colonel of one of the French regiments, and that all his surviving officers were assembled at his quarters in a street close by and would surrender themselves to any officer who would go with him for that purpose. I accordingly took two or three men with me, and, accompanying him there, found fifteen or sixteen of them assembled, and all seeming very much surprised at the unexpected termination of the siege. They could not comprehend under what circumstances the town had been lost, and repeatedly asked me how I had got in; but I did not choose to explain further than simply telling them that I had entered at the breach, coupling the information with a look which was calculated to convey somewhat more than I knew myself; for, in truth, when I began to recollect that a few minutes before had seen me retiring from the breach under a fanciful overload of degradation, I thought that I had now as good a right as any man to be astonished at finding myself lording it over the officers of a French battalion; nor was I much wiser than they were as to the manner of its accomplishment. They were all very much dejected, excepting their major, who was a big jolly-looking Dutchman, with medals enough on his left breast to have furnished the window of a tolerable toy-shop. His accomplishments were after the manner of Captain Dugald Dalgetty** and, while he cracked his joke, he was not inattentive to the cracking of the corks from the many wine-bottles which his colonel placed on the table successively, along with some cold meat, for general refreshment, prior to marching into captivity, and which I, though a free man, was not too proud to join them in.
    When I had allowed their chief a reasonable time to secure what valuables he wished about his person, he told me that he had two horses in the stable, which, as he would no longer be permitted to keep, he recommended me to take; and, as a horse is the only thing on such occasions that an officer can permit himself to consider a legal prize, I caused one of them to be saddled, and his handsome black mare thereby became my charger during the remainder of the war.
    In proceeding with my prisoners towards the lunch, I took, by mistake, a different road to that I came; and, as numbers of Frenchmen were lurking about for a safe opportunity of surrendering themselves, about a hundred additional ones added themselves to my column as we moved along, jabbering their native dialect as loudly as nearly to occasion a dire catastrophe, as it prevented me from hearing someone challenge in my front; but fortunately it was repeated and I instantly answered; for Colonel Barnard and Sir Colin Campbell had a piquet of our men, drawn across the street, on the point of sending a volley into us, thinking that we were a rallied body of the enemy.
    The whole of the garrison were marched off as prisoners to Elvas about ten o'clock in the morning, and our men were then permitted to fall out to enjoy themselves for the remainder of the day, as a reward for having kept together so long as they were wanted. The whole of the three divisions were, by this time, loose in the town and the usual frightful scene of plunder commenced, which the officers thought it necessary to avoid for the moment by retiring to the camp.
    We went into the town on the morning of the 8th to endeavour to collect our men, but only succeeded in part, as the same extraordinary scene of plunder and rioting still continued. Wherever there was any thing to eat or drink, the only saleable commodities, the soldiers had turned the shopkeepers out of doors and placed themselves regularly behind the counter, selling off the contents of the shop. By and bye another and a stronger party would kick those out in their turn, and there was no end to the succession of self-elected shopkeepers until Lord Wellington found that, to restore order, severe measures must be resorted to. On the third day he caused a Portuguese brigade to be marched in and kept standing to their arms, in the great square, where the provost-martial erected a gallows and proceeded to suspend a few of the delinquents, which very quickly cleared the town of the remainder and enabled us to give a more satisfactory account of our battalion than we had hitherto been able to do.
    It is wonderful how such scenes as these will deaden men's finer feelings, and with what apathy it enables them to look upon the sufferings of their fellow creatures! The third day after the fall of the town, I rode, with Colonel Cameron, to take a bathe in the Guadiana, and in passing the verge of the camp of the 5th division, we saw two soldiers standing at the door of a small shed, or outhouse, shouting, waving their caps and making signs that they wanted to speak to us. We rode up to see what they wanted and found that the poor fellows had each lost a leg. They told us that a surgeon had dressed their wounds on the night of the assault, but that they had ever since been without food or assistance of any kind, although they, each day, had opportunities of soliciting the aid of many of their comrades, from whom they could obtain nothing but promises. In short, surrounded by thousands of their countrymen within call, and not more than three hundred yards from their own regiment, they were unable to interest any one in their behalf, and were literally starving.
    It is unnecessary to say that we instantly galloped back to the camp and had them removed to the hospital.
On the morning of the 7th, when some of our officers were performing the last duties to their fallen comrades, one of them had collected the bodies of four of our young officers who had been slain. He was in the act of digging a grave for them when an officer of the guards arrived on the spot from a distant division of the army and demanded tidings of his brother, who was at that moment lying a naked lifeless corpse under his very eyes. The officer had the presence of mind to see that the corpse was not recognized, and, wishing to spare the other's feelings, told him that his brother was dangerously wounded, but that he would hear more of him by going out to the camp; and thither the other immediately bent his steps, with a seeming presentiment of the sad intelligence that awaited him.
    April 9th. As I had not seen my domestic since the storming of the town, I concluded that he had been killed; but he turned up this morning, with a tremendous gash on his head, and mounted on the top of a horse nearly twenty feet high, carrying under his arm one of those glass cases which usually stand on the counters of jewellers' shops, filled with all manner of trinkets. He looked exactly like the ghost of a horse pedler.
    April 10th. The devil take the man who stole my donkey last night.
    April 11th. Marched again for the neighbourhood of Ciudad Rodrigo, with the long-accustomed sounds of cannon and musketry ringing in my fanciful ears as merrily as if the instruments themselves were still playing.
    Sir Sidney Beckwith, one of the fathers of the rifles, was at this time obliged to proceed to England for the recovery of health, and did not again return to the Peninsula. In his departure that army lost one of the ablest of its outpost generals. Few officers knew so well how to make the most of a small force. His courage, coupled with his thorough knowledge of the soldier's character, was of that cool intrepid kind that would at any time convert a routed rabble into an orderly effective force. A better officer probably never led a brigade into the field!

*  A roundabout process. Return to paragraph text.

**   A character in The Legend of Montrose, Sir Walter Scott,1819.  Return to paragraph text.

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