The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter IX: The Advance Into Valencia
The Earl of Peterborough had not satisfied himself with depriving the enemy of all information as to his advance. He took steps to confuse and alarm them by false news. By means of large bribes he prevailed upon two peasants to carry each a copy of the same letter to Colonel Jones, who commanded in San Matteo. He took the further step of insuring their loyalty by arresting their families as hostages, and, moreover, took care that they should know nothing as to the real state of things that they could report if treacherously inclined.
He arranged that one of them should go in first and, passing through the besiegers' lines, should arouse their suspicions, and should then, when arrested, give up the letter concealed upon him, and should also betray the route by which his companion was endeavoring to reach the city, so that the second messenger would also be captured and his letter be taken. The letters were as follows:
"To COLONEL JONES: You will hardly believe yourself what this letter informs you of, if it come safe to you; and though I have taken the best precaution, it will do little prejudice if it falls into the enemy's hands, since they shall see and feel my troops almost as soon as they can receive intelligence, should it be betrayed to them. The end for which I venture it to you is that you may prepare to open the furthest gate toward Valencia, and have four thousand Miquelets ready, who will have the employment they love and are fit for, the pursuing and pillaging a flying enemy. The country is as one can wish for their entire destruction. Be sure, upon the first appearance of our troops and the first discharge of our artillery, you answer with an English halloo, and take to the mountains on the heights with all your men. The Conde de las Torres must take the plains, the hills on the left being almost impassable, and secured by five or six thousand of the country people. But what will gall him most will be the whole regiment of Nebot, which revolted to us near Valencia, is likewise among us.
"I was eight days ago myself in Barcelona, and I believe the Conde de las Torres must have so good intelligence from thence that he cannot be ignorant of it. What belongs to my own troops and my own resolutions I can easily keep from them, though nothing else. You know the force I have, and the multitudes that are gathering from all parts against us, so I am forced to put the whole into this action, which must be decided to give any hopes to our desperate game. By nine or ten, within an hour after you can receive this, you will discover us on the tops of the hills, not two cannon shot from their camp.
"The advantages of the sea are inconceivable, and have contributed to bring about what you could never expect to see, a force almost equal to the enemy in number, and you know that less would do our business. Besides, never men were so transported as to be brought in such secrecy so near an enemy. I have near six thousand men locked up this night within the walls of Traguera. I do not expect you will believe it till you see them.
"You know we had a thousand foot and two hundred dragoons in Tortosa. Wills and a thousand foot English and Dutch came down the Ebro in boats, and I embarked a thousand more at Tarragona when I landed at Vinaroz, and the artillery from thence I brought in country carts. It was easy to assemble the horse. Zinzendorf and Moras are as good as our own, and with our English dragoons make up in all near two thousand. But the whole depends upon leaving them a retreat without interruption.
"Dear Jones, prove a good dragoon, be diligent and alert, and preach the welcome doctrine to your Miquelets, plunder without danger.
"Your friend, PETERBOROUGH."
The two letters fell into the hands of Las Torres, and so artfully had the capture been contrived, that it never occurred to him to doubt the truth of these mendacious documents. Orders were instantly given to prepare for a march, and almost at the same time two events occurred in the siege works which caused confusion of the troops. Several mines had been unskillfully sunk and charged; one of these prematurely exploded and destroyed forty of the workmen. The remaining mines Colonel Jones contrived to swamp by turning the course of a brook into them, thus rendering them harmless. While the troops were confused with these disasters, the news of the contents of the intercepted letters spread through the camp, causing a general panic; and almost immediately afterward the advance guard of Peterborough's force were seen, according to the promise contained in the letters, on the crests of the hills.
By able management the twelve hundred men were made to appear vastly more numerous than they were. The dragoons showed in various parties at different points of the hilltops, and, after pausing as if to reconnoiter the camp, galloped back as if to carry information to a main body behind; while the infantry availed themselves of the wooded and uneven ground to conceal their weakness. It seemed, indeed, to the enemy that the tops of all the hills and the avenues of approach were covered by advancing columns. Las Torres, unsuspicious of stratagem, was now convinced that his position was one of extreme danger, while confusion reigned in the camp. The tents were hastily struck, the guns spiked, and in a few minutes the Spanish army started along the Valencia road in a retreat which might almost be called a flight.
Colonel Jones, seeing the confusion that reigned, instantly sallied from the town with his whole force in pursuit, and followed Las Torres for nearly two leagues to Penasol, inflicting a loss of nearly three hundred men upon the Spaniards; while Peterborough on the other side marched his force through the abandoned intrenchments and into the town. Scarcely halting, however, he made a show of pursuit as far as Albocazer, but always keeping to the hills with such caution that in case the enemy should learn his weakness, his retreat would still be secured. While on the march a courier overtook him with two dispatches--the one from King Charles, the other from the English resident with the court at Barcelona.
The king told him that he would be obliged to countermand the reinforcements he had promised him for the relief of San Matteo, in consequence of the unfavorable state of affairs elsewhere. It, however, conveyed to Peterborough something which he valued more than reinforcements, namely, full power to act in accordance with his own discretion. The dispatch from the British resident told him that news had come that the Duke of Berwick, with the main army of France, freed by the retreat of Lord Galway from all trouble on the western side of Spain, was in full march for Catalonia.
The Prince of Serclaes, with four thousand men, watched the small garrison at Lerida; the Duke of Noailles, with eight thousand French troops from Roussillon, threatened Catalonia on a third side; while Philip and Marshal Tesse had collected ten thousand men at Madrid. The letter concluded with the words: "There is nothing here but distrust, discontent, and despair."
The responsibility left by the king's letter upon Peterborough was great indeed. On the one hand, if he did not return to the defense of Catalonia, the king might be exposed to imminent danger; and, on the other, if he repassed the Ebro he might be accused of having left Valencia and its loyal inhabitants to their fate, and would have forfeited all the advantages that his audacity and skill had already gained.
His difficulties in any case were enormous. His infantry were marching almost barefooted; they were clothed in rags. The season was inclement, the country mountainous and rough, and the horses of the dragoons so exhausted that they could scarcely carry their riders. In obedience to his instructions, here, as at Tortosa, he assembled his officers in a council of war and asked their opinion. They were unanimous in saying that, with the small and exhausted force under his orders, no further operation could be undertaken for the conquest of Valencia, but that the little army should post itself in such a position as might afford the greatest facility for protecting the king.
Peterborough had thus on one side not only the difficulty of the position, but the opinion of the council of war against a further advance; but on the other hand he knew the anxiety of the king that help should be given to the Valencians. He therefore announced to his officers a resolution as desperate as that ever formed by a sane man. He had listened gravely and in silence while the officers gave their opinion, and then ordered that the footsore infantry, with a few of the horse, should march back to Vinaroz, a little town on the seaside a day's journey from Tortosa, where in case of necessity they might embark in boats and be taken off to the ships. Then, to the stupefaction of his officers, he announced his intention of himself proceeding with the remaining dragoons, about a hundred and fifty in number, to conquer the province of Valencia!
In vain the officers remonstrated, the earl was firm. The council then broke up, and the troops prepared for their march in opposite directions.
The parting of Peterborough and his officers was very sad, for they doubted not it was a final one.
"I will yet endeavor," he said, "however our circumstances seem desperate, to secure the kingdom of Valencia; and since the king has thought conquest possible in this present case, he cannot complain of my motions, however rash they might appear. I am resolved, therefore, never to repass the Ebro without positive orders from him."
Before starting the earl wrote to Charles and explained fully his intentions. It is evident from the tone of his letter that Peterborough did not expect to survive this extraordinary expedition. The language is grave and firm, and, though respectful, full of stronger remonstrance and more homely advice than often reaches kings. It concluded:
"I have had but little share in your councils. If our advance had been approved, if your majesty had trusted us . . . if your majesty had permitted me to march into the kingdom of Valencia, when I so earnestly desired it, without making me stay under pretense of the march of imaginary troops; if your majesty would have believed me on that occasion, your majesty would have had this time not only a viceroy of Valencia but the kingdom. With what force I have I am going to march straight to Valencia. I can take no other measures, leaving the rest to Providence. The time lost (so much against my inclination) exposes me to a sacrifice, at least I will perish with honor, and as a man deserving a better fate."
The earl now again sent orders to one thousand Spanish foot and three hundred horse, which had before been nominally placed at his disposal, but had never moved from the town in which they were garrisoned, to follow him into Valencia; and at the same time he wrote to Colonel Wills to march immediately with a like number of English horse and foot to his assistance.
The king, on the receipt of Peterborough's letter, issued positive and peremptory orders that the Spanish troops were at once to be set in motion. Colonel Wills wrote in reply that an important action had taken place at San Esteban de Litera on the 26th and 27th of January, between General Conyngham with his brigade and the Chevalier d'Asfeldt, in which, after a bloody contest, the French were driven from the field with a heavy loss of killed, wounded, and prisoners, the allies had also suffered serious loss, and General Conyngham had received a mortal wound. The command, therefore, had devolved upon himself.
Having seen the infantry march off, Peterborough, attended only by his two aides de camp, took his place at the head of his handful of cavalry and proceeded on his desperate enterprise--an enterprise the most extraordinary that has ever taken place between enemies of an equal degree of civilization. It was a war of a general with a small escort, but literally without an army, against able officers with thousands of disciplined troops and numerous defensible towns and positions, against enormous difficulties of country, against want and fatigue in every shape, and above all, against hope itself.
And yet no one who had witnessed that little body march off would have supposed that they were entering upon what seemed an impossible expedition--an expedition from which none could come back alive. Worn out and sorry as was the appearance of the horses, ragged and dirty that of their riders, the latter were in high spirits. The contagion of the extraordinary energy and audacity of their chief had spread among them; they had an absolute confidence in his genius, and they entered upon the romantic enterprise with the ardor of schoolboys.
Not less was the spirit of the two young aides de camp. Before starting the earl had offered them the option of marching away with the infantry.
"It is not that I doubt your courage, lads, for I marked you both under fire at Montjuich, but the fatigues will be terrible. You have already supported, in a manner which has surprised me, the work which you have undergone. You have already borne far more than your full share of the hardships of the campaign, and I have, in my dispatches, expressed a very strong opinion to the government as to the value of the services you have rendered. You are both very young, and I should be sorry to see your lives sacrificed in such an enterprise as that I am undertaking, and shall think no less of you if you elect now to have a period of rest."
The young men had, however, so firmly and emphatically declined to leave him that the earl had accepted their continued service.
The cavalry, instead of keeping in a compact body, were broken up into parties of ten, all of whom followed different roads, spreading, through every hamlet they passed, the news that a great army, of which they were the forerunners, was following hotly behind. So that should any peasants favorable to Philip's cause carry the news to Las Torres, that general would be forced to believe that he was being pursued by a veritable army. Many stragglers of the retreating force were picked up and handed over to the peasantry to be sent as prisoners into Catalonia.
For the most part the little parties of cavalry were well received by the populace; the majority of Valencians were in favor of King Charles, and that night, when they halted, the weary horses obtained ample supplies of grain and forage, and the troopers were made welcome to the best the villages afforded.
A few extra horses were purchased by Peterborough during the day, and it was well for his aides de camp that it was so, for scarcely had they finished their meal than Peterborough ordered them again into the saddle. They were to ride by crossroads right and left to the villages where the different detachments had been ordered to halt, and to tell them the routes marked out for them by which they would again concentrate at midday, so as to ride in comparatively strong force through a small town on the main road, whence news might, not improbably, be sent on to Las Torres. After that they were again to disperse and pervade the country.
Jack and Graham carried out these orders, taking guides from each village through which they passed to the next, and it was near midnight before they had finished their work. At four in the morning every detachment was in motion, and at noon the troop was again concentrated. Here the earl learned that a detachment of the enemy had remained behind at Alcala, and, instead of carrying out his previous plan, he rode straight with the whole of his dragoons to that town. When he approached it he divided his force into three bodies, which entered the place simultaneously by different gates, and the Spanish detachment, two hundred strong, at once laid down their arms.
Evening was now approaching, and as the horses and dragoons were utterly worn out, Peterborough halted for the night. He at once called together the principal inhabitants, and informed them that he required all the horses in the town, with such saddlery as they could obtain, to be collected and forwarded for his use to a point he named.
The next morning the march was continued. Las Torres had continued his flight, and this was hastened when he heard of the capture of Alcala. He pushed through the town of Borriol and hastened on to Villa Real, a town strongly favorable to King Charles. It opened its gates, however, on the solemn promise of Las Torres to respect the life and property of the inhabitants; but no sooner had his troops entered than he gave the order for a general massacre and the sack of the town. This ferocious order was executed, and very few of the inhabitants escaped with their lives.
The following day, on the news coming in from various points in his rear that the enemy were pressing after him, he marched his dispirited army to Nules, where the inhabitants were well affected. In answer to his appeal a thousand of the citizens enrolled themselves and undertook to defend the town till the last against the English. Having assured himself of their earnestness Las Torres inspected the muster, and, having viewed all the dispositions for defense, continued his flight. Nules was fortified by strong walls flanked with towers, the fortifications were in an excellent state of defense, and the town could have resisted a siege by a considerable army.
On arriving at Villa Real the British were horrified at the hideous massacre which had taken place. They went from house to house and found everywhere the bodies of the slaughtered inhabitants, and the ardor of the dragoons was, if possible, heightened by the sight. They made but a short stay here and then galloped on to Nules. As they neared the town a fire of musketry was opened from the walls, but, wholly disregarding this, the earl at the head of his men dashed up to the gates and demanded, in an imperious tone, that the principal inhabitants should assemble and hold parley with him.
The boldness of the earl's manner and the imperative tone in which he spoke so astonished the citizens on the walls that they ceased firing, and sent for their magistrates and priests. When these assembled on the wall Peterborough told them in an angry tone that he gave them only six minutes for deliberation, and that if they offered the slightest resistance he would repeat at Nules the massacre which Las Torres had carried out at Villa Real. He added that, unless they instantly surrendered, he would blow down their walls the moment his artillery and engineers arrived. The terror stricken magistrates at once summoned the town council, and, upon their repeating Peterborough's terrible threats, it was resolved at once to surrender, and the six minutes had scarcely elapsed when the gates fell back on their hinges, and Peterborough and his dragoons entered the town in triumph.
Here the wearied band enjoyed a rest for some days, Peterborough spreading the alarm, which his presence excited, by giving orders that great quantities of provisions and forage should be brought in from all directions for the supply of the large army which he stated to be following at his heels. As it never occurred to any one that he could be pursuing an army of seven thousand men through a hostile country with only a handful of dragoons, his statements were not doubted. The requisitions were complied with, and provisions and stores poured into the town.
Las Torres at Almenara, where he had again perpetrated a horrible massacre, heard the news of great preparations that Peterborough was making for the supply of his army, and considering his position to be unsafe again retreated hastily.
At Nules two hundred horses were found and at once appropriated for the use of the army. With a portion of his force Peterborough rode out to Castillon de la Plana, an open town of some size, where the people were well affected to the Austrian cause. Here he secured four hundred more horses, at the same time assuring both friends and foes that his army was driving the enemy out of the kingdom. On entering Nules, Peterborough had sent orders for Lord Barrymore's regiment of British infantry, at that time under the command of Colonel Pierce, to march from Vinaroz, where they had been sent with the rest of the infantry from San Matteo to Oropesa, a town about nine miles from Castillon, where he had collected all the horses he had obtained during his march.
When the news reached Nules of the arrival of this regiment at Oropesa, Lord Peterborough at once rode over. The regiment was formed up for his inspection; it had marched with the greatest speed, and the men were worn out and footsore with their long tramp over the stony hills. After inspecting them the earl paid them a high compliment upon their past achievements, and concluded by expressing his wish that they had but horses and accouterments to try whether a corps of so high a character would maintain their reputation in the novelty of mounted service.
The joke of their eccentric general seemed but a poor one to the footsore and almost shoeless men, but they were astonished when Jack rode forward and presented to each of the officers a commission, which he had drawn out in the earl's name, as cavalry officers. Their astonishment was changed to delight when Peterborough marched them to the brow of the hill where they stood, and they saw eight bodies of horses drawn up in order ready for their eight companies. Among these were set apart three good chargers for each captain, two for lieutenants, and one for cornets. He ordered the regiment to mount, and, immensely amused at their sudden elevation to the cavalry service, the troops rode back to the town.
From the moment when he started from San Matteo Peterborough had, in spite of his incessant exertions and multifarious cares, been quietly making preparations for this event. He had sent to Barcelona for the necessary accouterments for these men and for the dismounted British dragoons. The accouterments had been sent from Barcelona to the nearest port on the seacoast, and by continually urging on the local carriers the earl had, in nine days after leaving San Matteo, collected them in readiness at his depot at Castillon, and thus raised his little band of horse to nearly a thousand men. These he dispersed at once among the well affected towns of the neighborhood, whose walls would render them safe from the attack of an enemy unsupported by artillery, moving them constantly from place to place, partly to accustom them to their new duties, partly to confuse the enemy as to their numbers.