The last Spanish town towards the Portuguese frontier is Ciudad Rodrigo, a fortress, if the strength of its works alone be considered, of the third class, but having great importance owing to its position between Spain and Portugal, in a district with few roads, and those very difficult for large guns and the apparatus of a siege train. It was, however, absolutely necessary that the French should get possession of the place. With this resolve, Masséna left Salamanca about the middle of June, and caused Rodrigo to be invested by Ney's corps, while Junot covered the operations from the attacks of an Anglo-Portuguese army, which was encamped a few leagues from us, near the Portuguese fortress of Almeida, under Lord Wellington. Ciudad Rodrigo was defended by a brave old Spanish general of Irish origin, Andrew Herrasti.
The French, unable to believe that the English would have come so near the place just to see it captured under their eyes, expected a battle. None took place; and on July 10, the Spanish guns having been silenced, a part of the town being on fire, and the counterscarp overthrown by the explosion of a powder magazine for a space of thirty-six feet, while the ditch was filled with the ruins and the breach widely opened, Masséna resolved to give the signal for the assault. To this end Marshal Ney formed a column of 1,500 volunteers, who were to mount the breach first. Assembled at the foot of the rampart, these brave men were awaiting the signal to attack, when an officer expressed his fear that the breach was not yet practicable. Thereupon three of our soldiers mounted to the top of it, looked into the town, made such examination as was useful, and fired their muskets, rejoining their comrades without being wounded, although this bold feat was performed in broad daylight. Kindled by this example, the assaulting column advanced at a run and was on the point of dashing into the town when General Herrasti capitulated. The defence of the garrison had been very fine, but the Spanish troops composing it had good reason to complain of their desertion by the English, who had merely sent reconnoitring parties towards our camp, without attempting any serious diversion. The skirmishes resulting from these nearly always turned out to our advantage. One of them was so creditable to our infantry, that the English historian Napier has been unable to refrain from doing homage to the valour of the men who took part in it. On July 11 the English General Craufurd, who was operating in the country between Ciudad Rodrigo and Villa de Puerco, at the head of six squadrons, having perceived at day-break a company of French grenadiers, about 120 strong, marching in the open, ordered two squadrons to attack them. But the French had time to form square, and were so cool that the enemy's officers could hear Captain Gouache and his sergeant exhorting their people to take good aim. The cavalry charged with ardour, but received such a terrible volley that they left the ground piled with dead, and had to retire. Seeing two English squadrons repulsed by a handful of French, Colonel Talbot advanced furiously with four squadrons of the 14th Dragoons and attacked Captain Gouache. Firmly awaiting the charge, he ordered a volley at point-blank range, which killed Colonel Talbot and some thirty of his men; after which the brave Gouache retired in good order towards the French camp without the English general venturing to attack again. This brilliant affair was much talked of in the two armies. 1When the Emperor heard of it he raised Captain Gouache to major, promoted the other officers, and gave eight decorations in the company.
After having mentioned a fact so glorious for the French arms, I ought to report one no less creditable to the Spaniards. The guerrillero Don Julian Sanchez, having voluntarily shut himself in Ciudad Rodrigo with his two hundred horsemen, did good service by making frequent attacks on our trenches. At length, when the want of forage caused the presence of 200 horses to be a trouble to the garrison, Sanchez left the town with his men one dark night, and, crossing the bridge over the Agreda, the approaches to which Ney had omitted to block, fell on our outposts, killed several men, pierced our lines, and went off to join the English army.
The siege of Rodrigo nearly cost me my life; not by the enemy's fire, but by reason of an illness which I contracted in the following manner. The neighbourhood of the town, being infertile, is thickly inhabited, and there had been much difficulty in finding quarters for the marshal near the trenches. Finally he was put into an isolated building situated in a spot commanding the town and suburbs. As the siege promised to last long, and there was no lodging for the staff close by, we hired, at our own cost, some planks and; beams, and erected a large room, where we were sheltered from sun and rain, and slept on boards, which, though rough, kept us clear of the damp rising from the soil. But the marshal was inconvenienced from the outset in his stone building by an intolerable stench, and on inquiry it was found that the building had been used to keep sheep in. Masséna proceeded to set his affections on our extempore house; but, not liking to use his authority to eject us, came to see us on some pretext or other, and exclaimed as he entered: 'Well, my lads, you have a nice place here! May I beg for a corner to put my bed and desk in?' This, as we saw, was sharing with the lion, and we left our excellent abode in haste, to take up our quarters in the old sheep-stall. It was paved with small stones, their interstices clogged with filth, and highly uncomfortable to lie on, from the want of long straw in Spain. 2Forced thus to lie on the bare ground and inhale the fetid exhalations rising from it, we all became more or less unwell before long. I was much the worst; for in these warm countries fever always tries most those who have already suffered from it, and my Valladolid attack returned in an aggravated form. Still I resolved to take my share in the siege, and remained on duty. Duty was often pretty laborious, especially when we had to carry orders in the night to our division on the left bank of the Agreda, which was carrying out the necessary works for the reduction of the Franciscan convent, used by the enemy as a bastion. In order to reach this point from the headquarters without coming under the fire of the place, it was necessary to make a long wind to a bridge which our troops had constructed, or else cross by a ford. One night, when all was ready for the assault and Ney only awaited Masséna's order to give the signal, it happened to be my turn for duty, and I had to take the order. It was a dark, hot night; I was in a high fever, and streaming with perspiration when I reached the ford. I had only once crossed it in daylight, but the dragoon orderly who was with me had crossed it several times, and offered to guide me. This he did very well till he got to the middle, where it was not more than two or three feet deep; but then he went wrong in the darkness, and our horses, stepping on big slippery stones, fell and we were in the water. There was no fear of drowning; we scrambled on to the bank with ease; but we were wet through. In any other circumstances I should only have laughed at this involuntary bath; but, though not cold, the water checked the perspiration, and I was seized with a shivering fit. I reached the convent and passed the night in the open air beside Marshal Ney. The attacking column was commanded by a major named Lefrançois, whom I knew well. The day before he had shown me a letter from his sweetheart announcing that her father agreed to their marriage as soon as Lefrançois was lieutenant-colonel. It was with this object that he had asked permission to lead the storming party. The attack was brisk, the defence stubborn. After three hours' fighting our troops remained in possession of the convent, but poor Lefrançois was slain. His loss was much felt in the army, and grieved me deeply.
In hot countries sunrise is usually preceded by piercing cold. I was the more sensitive to it that day for having passed the night in wet clothes, so that when I returned to headquarters I was much out of sorts. Still I had to report the result of the attack to Masséna before getting into dry things. He was at that moment taking his morning walk with General Fririon, his chief of staff. In their interest in my story, or wishing to get a closer view, they gradually drew near the town, and we were not more than a cannon-shot away when the marshal let me go and rest. Hardly had I gone fifty paces from them when a gigantic shell, launched from the ramparts, fell close to them. At the fearful noise of its explosion I turned round, and, seeing nothing of the marshal and the general, who were concealed by a cloud of dust and smoke, I thought they were killed, and ran to the place. To my astonishment I found them alive and none the worse, save for some contusions from the stones which the bursting shell had thrown up. They were, however, both covered with earth, especially Masséna. He had lost an eye shooting 3some years before, and his remaining eye was so full of sand that he could not see his way, while the bruises he had received from the stones prevented his walking. It was necessary to get him out of range, however, and, as he was small and thin, I managed, ill as I was, to take him on my shoulders and carry him out of reach of the enemy's shot. I went on and told my comrades, and they brought the marshal in without the men finding out the danger which their commander-in-chief had run.
The fatigue and excitement of the last twenty-four hours increased my fever a good deal; still I braced myself up, and contrived to hold out till the surrender of Ciudad Rodrigo, on July 9. 4But as from this day forward the excitement which kept me up so far had nothing more to feed on, I must needs give in to the fever. This became so alarming that I had to be carried to the one house in the town which the French shells had left intact. It was the only time that I have been seriously ill without being wounded, but this time my life was despaired of, and I was left at Ciudad Rodrigo while the army crossed the Coa and marched on Almeida. This place not being more than four leagues as the crow flies from Ciudad Rodrigo, I could hear from my sick-bed the uproar of the cannon, and every report made me writhe with rage. Often did I try to rise, and the fruitlessness of the attempts, by showing me how utterly weak I was, increased my wretchedness. My brother and my comrades, kept by their duty at Almeida, were far away, and my solitude was only broken by the short visits of Dr. Blancheton, who, clever as he was, could only treat me very inefficiently for want of medicaments. The air of the town was tainted by the stench of many thousands of corpses which lay unburied among the rubbish of the ruined houses. A temperature of more than eighty-five degrees, aggravating these causes of unhealthiness, soon brought typhus. Both the garrison and such of the inhabitants as had remained in the place to look after what was left of their property suffered terribly. I was left to the care of my servant, and, with all his zeal, he could not get me what I required. My illness increased and I became delirious. I remember that there were in my room some large pictures representing the four quarters of the earth. Africa, which was right in front of my bed, had at her feet a huge lion, the eyes of which seemed to be fixed on me, while I could not take mine from them. At last one day I thought I saw him move, and wishing to anticipate his attack, I tottered up, took my sword, and, striking with edge and point, I hewed the lion to pieces. After this truly Quixotic feat I fell half-fainting on the floor, where the doctor found me. He had all the pictures removed from the room, after which I grew quieter. My lucid moments were not less terrible; it was painful to think of my melancholy situation and utter loneliness. Death on the battlefield seemed sweet to me compared to that which I expected, and I regretted not to have fallen like a soldier. To die in a bed of fever while there was fighting near me seemed to me a horrible, almost a shameful thing.
I had been in this dreadful position for a month, when on August 26, towards nightfall, a fearful explosion was heard. The earth trembled till I thought the house was coming down. It was the fortress of Almeida which had just blown up through the explosion of a huge powder magazine, and the disturbance was distinctly felt at Rodrigo, from which one may judge the effects which it had produced in Almeida itself. The unlucky place was destroyed from top to bottom; not six houses remained standing. Six hundred of the garrison were killed, and many wounded; some fifty French employed on the siege works were struck by splinters of stone. In pursuance of instructions from his Government, Lord Wellington, with the view of sparing English blood at the cost of that of his allies, after having entrusted the defence of Ciudad Rodrigo to the Spanish troops, who had just surrendered, had left that of Almeida to the Portuguese, Colonel Cox, the governor, being the only Englishman in the place. That brave officer, not suffering himself to be intimidated by the horrible disaster which had just destroyed almost all his means of resistance, proposed to the garrison to continue their defence behind the ruins of the city. But the Portuguese troops, terrified, and led away by their officers, especially by Bernardo Costa, the lieutenant-governor, and José Bareiros, commanding the artillery, refused, and Colonel Cox, being unsupported, was compelled to capitulate.
It has been said that the French commander had tampered with the Portuguese officers, and that the explosion was brought about by their treason; but this is a mistake. The only cause of the fire was neglect on the part of the garrison, who, instead of fetching the powder barrels one by one from the cellars and shutting the door behind each, had been imprudent enough to roll a score of them at a time into the courtyard of the castle. It seems that a French shell falling on one of the barrels exploded it, and that the others forming a train light up to the middle of the magazine, caused the explosion which wrecked the town and injured the fortifications. However that may be, the English brought the two Portuguese officers to trial, Costa being condemned and shot, while Bareiros succeeded in escaping. These two officers were certainly not guilty of treason; at most they could be reproached with not having continued a hopeless defence, the only result of which could have been to preserve the ruins of Almeida for a few days longer, while the English army was tranquilly encamped two leagues from the place without making any movement to aid them.
After having thus got possession of Almeida, Marshal Masséna, not being able to establish himself among the ruins of the town, moved his headquarters to Fort Concepcion, on the Spanish frontier. The French 5had destroyed part of the fortifications, but the buildings were sufficiently intact to afford lodging. There Masséna made preparations for his expedition to Lisbon. My brother and my comrades took advantage of this interval to come and see me. Their presence increased the soothing effect which the capture of Almeida had produced on my spirits. The fever disappeared, and in a few days I was convalescent. I was eager for change of air, and, with the aid of my brother and some of my friends, I contrived to ride the short distance to Fort Concepcion. My comrades, who had feared that they would never see me again, received me most affectionately; but the marshal, whom I had not seen since the day when I had carried him out of range of the guns of Rodrigo, never said a word to me about my illness. After a fortnight in the fort in good air and able to rest, I recovered my full health, and was ready for the campaign in Portugal. Before relating the events of this famous and disastrous campaign I must briefly make you acquainted with what had taken place in the Peninsula since the Emperor left it in 1809.
(If you surfed directly to this page, please go to the Napoleonic Literature Home Page to see the wealth of information that's available on this website.)