The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter XII: Irregular Warfare
From the moment that the news of the loss of Barcelona had reached Madrid, Philip of Anjou had labored strenuously to collect a force sufficient to overwhelm his enemies. He had, moreover, written urgently to Louis XIV for assistance, and although France was at the moment obliged to make strenuous efforts to show a front to Marlborough and his allies, who had already at Blenheim inflicted a disastrous defeat upon her, Louis responded to the appeal. Formidable French armies were assembled at Saragossa and Roussillon, while a fleet of twelve ships of the line, under the command of the Count of Toulouse, sailed to blockade Barcelona, and the Duke of Berwick, one of the ablest generals of the day, was sent to head the southern army.
In January the French army of Catalonia, under Marshal Tesse, reached Saragossa, where the arrogance and brutality of the marshal soon excited a storm of hatred among the Aragonese. The towns resisted desperately the entry of the French troops; assassinations of officers and men were matters of daily occurrence, and the savage reprisals adopted by the marshal, instead of subduing, excited the Spaniards to still fiercer resistance. But savage and cruel as was the marshal, he was in no haste to meet the enemy in the field, and Philip, who was with him, had the greatest difficulty in getting him to move forward.
It was in the last week of February that the news reached the Earl of Peterborough that Marshal Tesse had left Saragossa, and was marching toward Lerida. This was two days after the unsuccessful attempt to surprise the enemy's camp near Alcira; and, menaced as Valencia was by a force greatly superior to his own, he could not leave the city, which in his absence would speedily have succumbed to the attack of Las Torres. He walked quickly up and down his room for some minutes and then said:
"Captain Stilwell, I cannot leave here myself, but I will send you to the Marquis of Cifuentes. You have shown the greatest activity and energy with me, and I do not doubt that you will do equally well when acting independently. I will give you a letter to the marquis, saying that you are one of my most trusted and valued officers, and begging him to avail himself to the fullest of your energy and skill. I shall tell him that at present I am tied here, but that when the enemy reach Barcelona, I shall at all hazards march hence and take post in their rear and do what I can to prevent their carrying on the siege. In the mean time I beg him to throw every obstacle in the way of their advance, to hold every pass to the last, to hang on their rear, attack baggage trains, and cut off stragglers. He cannot hope to defeat Tesse, but he may wear out and dispirit his men by constant attacks. You speak Spanish fluently enough now, and will be able to advise and suggest. Remember, every day that Tesse is delayed gives so much time to the king to put Barcelona in a state of defense. With my little force I cannot do much even when I come. The sole hope of Barcelona is to hold out until a fleet arrives from England. If the king would take my advice I will guarantee that he shall be crowned in Madrid in two months; but those pig headed Germans who surround him set him against every proposition I make. You had better start tonight as soon as it gets dark, and take a mounted guide with you who knows the country thoroughly.
"It will be a change for you, from the pleasures of Valencia to a guerrilla warfare in the mountains in this inclement season, Stilwell," Graham said as they left the general. "I don't think I should care about your mission. I own I have enjoyed myself in Valencia, and I have lost my heart a dozen times since we arrived."
"I have not lost mine at all," Jack said laughing, "and I am sick of all these balls and festivities. I was not brought up to it, you know, and rough as the work may be I shall prefer it to a long stay here."
"Yes," Graham agreed, "I should not care for a long stay, but you may be quite certain the earl will not remain inactive here many weeks. He is waiting to see how things go, and the moment the game is fairly opened you may be sure he will be on the move."
"Yes, I don't suppose you will be very long after me," Jack said; "still, I am not sorry to go."
At seven o'clock in the evening Jack set out, taking with him two dragoons as orderlies, the earl having suggested that he should do so.
"Always do a thing yourself if it is possible, Captain Stilwell; but there are times when you must be doing something else, and it is as well to have some one that you can rely upon; besides, the orderlies will give you additional importance in the eyes of the peasants. Most of the men have picked up some Spanish, but you had better pick out two of my orderlies who are best up in it."
Jack had spent the afternoon in making a round of calls at the houses where he had been entertained, and after the exchange of adieus, ceremonial speeches, and compliments, he was heartily glad when the gates closed behind him and he set out on his journey. As the road did not pass anywhere near the Spanish camp there was little fear of interruption in the way. The guide led them by little frequented tracks across the hills, and by morning they were far on their road.
They were frequently obliged to make detours to avoid towns and villages favorable to King Philip. Why one town or village should take one side, and the next the other, was inexplicable to Jack, but it was so, and throughout the country this singular anomaly existed. It could be accounted for by a variety of causes. A popular mayor or a powerful landed proprietor, whose sympathies were strong with one side or the other, would probably be followed by the townspeople or peasants. The influence of the priests, too, was great, and this also was divided. However it was, the fact remained that, as with Villa Real and Nules, neighboring towns were frequently enthusiastically in favor of opposite parties. As Jack had seen all the dispatches and letters which poured in to the earl, he knew what were the circumstances which prevailed in every town and village. He knew to what residences of large proprietors he could ride up with an assurance of welcome, and those which must be carefully avoided.
In some parts of the journey, where the general feeling was hostile, Jack adopted the tactics of his general, riding boldly into the village with his two dragoons clattering behind him, summoning the head men before him, and peremptorily ordering that provisions and forage should be got together for the five hundred horsemen who might be expected to come in half an hour. The terror caused by Peterborough's raids was so great that the mere sight of the English uniform was sufficient to insure obedience, and without any adventure of importance Jack and his companions rode on, until, on the third day after leaving Valencia, they approached Lerida. Groups of armed peasants hurrying in the same direction were now overtaken. These saluted Jack with shouts of welcome, and he learned that, on the previous day, Marshal Tesse with his army had crossed from Arragon into Catalonia, and that the alarm bells had been rung throughout the district.
From the peasants Jack learned where the Count of Cifuentes would be found. It was in a village among the hills, to the left of the line by which the enemy were advancing. It was toward this place that the peasants were hastening. Jack had frequently met the count at the siege of Barcelona, and had taken a strong liking for the gallant and dashing Spanish nobleman. The village was crowded with peasants armed with all sorts of weapons--rough, hardy, resolute men, determined to defend their country to the last against the invaders. A shout of satisfaction arose as Jack and his two troopers rode in, and at the sound the count himself appeared at the door of the principal house in the village.
"Ah, Senor Stilwell," he said, "this in an unexpected pleasure. I thought that you were with the earl in Valencia."
"So I have been, count, but he has sent me hither with a dispatch for you, and, as you will see by its contents, places me for awhile at your disposal."
"I am pleased indeed to hear it," the count said; "but pray, senor --"
"Captain, count," Jack said with a smile, "for to such rank the earl has been pleased to promote me as a recognition for such services as I was able to perform in his campaign against Valencia."
"Ah," the count said, "you earned it well. Every man in that wonderful force deserved promotion. It was an almost miraculous adventure, and recalled the feats of the Cid. Truly the days of chivalry are not passed; your great earl has proved the contrary."
They had now entered the house, and, after pouring out a cup of wine for Jack after the fatigue of his ride, the count opened the dispatch of which Jack was the bearer.
"It is well." he said when he had read it. "As you see for yourself I am already preparing to carry out the first part, for the alarm bells have been ringing out from every church tower in this part of Catalonia, and in another twenty-four hours I expect six thousand peasants will be out. But, as the earl says, I have no hope with such levies as these of offering any effectual opposition to the advance of the enemy.
"The Miquelets cannot stand against disciplined troops. They have no confidence in themselves, and a thousand Frenchmen could rout six thousand of them; but as irregulars they can be trusted to fight. You shall give me the advantage of your experience and wide knowledge, and we will dispute every pass, cut off their convoys, and harass them. I warrant that they will have to move as a body, for it will go hard with any party who may be detached from the rest."
"I fear, count, you must not rely in any way upon my knowledge," Jack said. "I am a very young officer, though I have had the good fortune to be promoted to the rank of captain."
"Age goes for nothing in this warfare," the count said. "The man of seventy and the boy of fifteen who can aim straight from behind a rock are equally welcome. It is not a deep knowledge of military science that will be of any use to us here. What is wanted is a quick eye, a keen spirit, and courage. These I know that you have, or you would never have won the approbation of the Earl of Peterborough, who is, of all men, the best judge on such matters. Now I will order supper to be got ready soon, as it must, I am sure, be long since you had food. While it is being prepared I will, with your permission, go out and inspect the new arrivals. Fortunately, ten days ago, foreseeing that Tesse would probably advance by this line, I sent several wagon loads of provisions to this village, and a store of ammunition."
Jack accompanied the count into the street of the village. The latter went about among the peasants with a kindly word of welcome to each, giving them the cheering news that though the great English general was occupied in Valencia, he had promised that, when the time came, he would come with all haste to the defense of Barcelona, and in the mean time he had sent an officer of his own staff to assist him to lead the noble Catalans in the defense of their country. On the steps of the church the priest, with half a dozen willing assistants, was distributing food from the wagons to the peasants.
"Don't open the ammunition wagon tonight," the count said. "The men must not take as much as they like, but the ammunition must be served out regularly, for a Catalan will never believe that he has too much powder, and if left alone the first comers would load themselves with it, and the supply would run short before all are provided."
The count then entered the church, where a party of men were occupied in putting down a thick layer of straw. Here as many as could find room were to sleep, the others sheltering in the houses and barns, for the nights were still very cold among the hills. Having seen that all was going on well, the count returned to his quarters, where a room had been assigned to Jack's two dragoons, and the sound of loud laughter from within showed that they were making themselves at home with the inmates.
A well cooked repast was soon on the table, and to this Jack and his host did full justice.
"This wine is excellent; surely it does not grow on these hills!"
"No," the count said, laughing. "I am ready to run the risk of being killed, but I do not want to be poisoned, so I sent up a score or two of flasks from my own cellars. The vineyards of Cifuentes are reckoned among the first in this part of Spain. And now," he said, when they had finished and the table had been cleared, "we will take a look at the map and talk over our plans. The enemy leave Lerida tomorrow. I have already ordered that the whole country along their line of march shall be wasted, that all stores of corn, wine, and forage which cannot be carried off shall be destroyed, and that every horse and every head of cattle shall be driven away. I have also ordered the wells to be poisoned."
Jack looked grave. "I own that I don't like that," he said.
"I do not like it myself," the count replied; "but if an enemy invades your country you must oppose him by all means. Water is one of the necessaries of life, and as one can't carry off the wells one must render them useless; but I don't wish to kill in this way, and have given strict orders that in every case where poison is used, a placard, with a notice that it has been done, shall be affixed to the wells."
"In that case," Jack said, "I quite approve of what you have done, count; the wells then simply cease to exist as sources of supply."
"I wish I could poison all the running streams too," the count said; "but unfortunately they are beyond us, and there are so many little streams caused by the melting snow on the hills that I fear we shall not be able greatly to straiten the enemy. At daybreak tomorrow I will mount with you, and we will ride some twenty miles along the road and select the spots where a sturdy resistance can best be made. By the time we get back here most of the peasants who are coming will have assembled. These we will form into bands, some to hold the passes and to dispute the advance, others to hang upon the skirts and annoy them incessantly, some to close in behind, cut off wagons that break down or lag by the way, and to prevent, if possible, any convoys from the rear from joining them."
This programme was carried out. Several spots were settled on where an irregular force could oppose a stout resistance to trained troops, and points were fixed upon where breastworks should be thrown up, walls utilized, and houses loopholed and placed in a state of defense.
It was late in the afternoon before they rode again into the village. The gathering of peasants was now very largely increased, and extended over the fields for some distance round the place. The count at once gave orders that all should form up in regular order according to the villages from which they came. When this was done he divided them into four groups.
The first, two thousand strong, was intended to hold the passes; two others, each one thousand strong, were to operate upon the flanks of the enemy; and a fourth, of the same strength, to act in its rear.
"Now, Captain Stilwell," he said, "will you take the command of whichever of these bodies you choose?"
"I thank you, count, for the offer," Jack said, "but I will take no command whatever. In the first place, your Catalans would very strongly object to being led by a foreigner, especially by one so young and unknown as myself. In the second place, I would rather, with your permission, remain by your side. You will naturally command the force that opposes the direct attack, and, as the bulk of the fighting will fall on them, I should prefer being there. I will act as your lieutenant."
"Well, since you choose it, perhaps it is best so," the count said. "These peasants fight best their own way. They are given to sudden retreats, but they rally quickly and return again to the fight, and they will probably fight better under their own local leaders than under a stranger. You will see they have no idea of fighting in a body; the men of each village will fight together and act independently of the rest. Many of them, you see, are headed by priests, not a few of whom have brought rifles with them. These will generally lead their own villagers, and their authority is far greater than that which any layman could obtain over them. I must appoint a leader to each body to direct their general movements; the village chiefs will do the rest."
While the count had been absent several other gentlemen of good family had arrived in the village, some marching in with the peasants on their estates. Three of these were appointed to lead the three bands destined for the flank and rear attacks. The next three hours were devoted to the distribution of provisions and ammunition, each man taking four days' supply of the former, and receiving sufficient powder and bullets for forty rounds of the latter. All were ordered to be in readiness to march two hours before daybreak.
The count then retired to his quarters, and there pointed out on the map to the three divisional leaders the spots where he intended to make a stand, and gave them instructions as to their respective shares of the operations. Their orders were very general. They were to post their men on the side hills, and as much behind cover as possible, to keep up a galling fire at the column, occasionally to show in threatening masses as if about to charge down, so as to cause as much alarm and confusion as possible, and, should at any point the nature of the ground favor it, they were to dash down upon the baggage train and to hamstring the horses, smash the wheels, and create as much damage as they could, and to fall back upon the approach of a strong body of the enemy. Those in the rear were to press closely up so as to necessitate a strong force being kept there to oppose them. But their principal duties were to hold the passes, and to prevent any convoys, unless very strongly guarded, from reaching the enemy from his base at Saragossa.
After these instructions had been given supper was spread, and some fifteen or twenty of the principal persons who had joined were invited by the count, and a pleasant evening was spent.
It was interesting to Jack to observe the difference between this gathering and that which had taken place in the Earl of Peterborough's quarters on the evening before the attack on San Matteo. There, although many considered that the prospects of success on the following day were slight indeed, all was merriment and mirth. The whole party were in the highest spirits, and the brilliant wit of the earl, and his reckless spirit of fun, had kept the party in continual laughter.
The tone on the contrary at the present gathering was quiet and almost stiff. These grave Catalan nobles, fresh from their country estates, contrasted strongly with the more lively and joyous inhabitants of Valencia. Each addressed the other with ceremony, and listened with grave attention to the remarks of each speaker in turn.
During the whole evening nothing approaching to a joke was made, there was scarcely a smile upon the countenance of any present; and yet the tone of courtliness and deference to the opinions of each other, the grave politeness, the pride with which each spoke of his country, their enthusiasm in the cause, and the hatred with which they spoke of the enemy, impressed Jack very favorably; and though, as he said to himself when thinking it over, the evening had certainly not been a lively one, it had by no means been unpleasant.
Two hours before daybreak the bell of the church gave the signal. As the men had only to rise to their feet, shake themselves, take up their arms, and sling their bags of provisions round their necks, it was but a few minutes before they were formed up in order. The count saw the three divisions file off silently in the darkness, and then, placing himself at the head of the main body, led the way toward the spot which he and Jack had selected for opposing the march of Tesse's invading column.
Daylight was just breaking when they reached it, and the count ordered the men to pile their arms and at once to set to work. The road, which had been winding along in a valley, here mounted a sharp rise, on the very brow of which stood a hamlet of some twenty houses. It had already been deserted by the inhabitants, and the houses were taken possession of by the workers. Those facing the brow of the hill were loopholed, as were the walls along the same line. Men were set to work to build a great barricade across the road, and to run breastworks of stones right and left from the points where the walls ended along the brow. Other parties loopholed the houses and walls of the village, and formed another barricade across the road at the other end. With two thousand men at work these tasks were soon carried out; and the count then led the men down the hill, whose face was covered with loose stones, and set them to work piling these in lines one above another.
At ten o'clock in the morning the work was complete. The count told the men off by parties, each of which were to hold one of the lines of stones; each party was, as the French charged, to retire up the hill and join that at the line above, so that their resistance would become more and more obstinate till the village itself was reached. Here a stand was to be made as long as possible. If the column advanced only by the road, every house was to be held; if they spread out in line so as to overlap the village on both sides, a rapid retreat was to be made when the bugler by the count's side gave the signal.
The men sat down to breakfast in their allotted places, quiet, grave, and stern; and again the contrast with the laughter and high spirits which prevail among English soldiers, when fighting is expected, struck Jack very forcibly.
"They would make grand soldiers if properly trained, these grave, earnest looking men," he said to himself. "They look as if they could endure any amount of fatigue and hardship; and although they don't take things in the same cheerful light our men do, no one can doubt their courage. I can quite understand now the fact that the Spanish infantry was once considered the finest in Europe. If they only had leaders and discipline Spain would not want any foreign aid; her own people would be more than a match for any army the French could send across the northern frontier."
The meal was scarcely finished when, at the end of the valley, some three miles away, a cloud of dust was seen to rise with the sparkle of the sun on arms and accouterments.
"There are Tesse's cavalry!" the count exclaimed. "Another half hour will cause a transformation in this quiet valley."
The head of the column came on but slowly, the cavalry regiment forming it accommodating their pace to that of the infantry and baggage wagons in the rear. Slowly they moved on, until the bottom of the valley appeared covered with a moving mass extending from the end, three miles away, to within half a mile of the foot of the hill on which the Spaniards were posted. Suddenly from the hillsides on the left puffs of smoke darted out, and instantly a similar fire was opened on the right.
"They are at work at last," Jack exclaimed as the rattle of musketry sounded loud and continuous. "I wondered when they were going to begin."
"I told them to let the column pass nearly to the head of the valley before they opened fire," the count said. "Had they begun soon after the enemy entered the valley, they would have left all their baggage behind under a guard, and the infantry would have been free to attack the hills at once. Now they are all crowded up in the valley--horse, foot, and baggage. The wounded horses will become unmanageable, and there is sure to be confusion, though perhaps not panic. See, they are answering our fire! They might as well save their powder, for they are only throwing away ammunition by firing away at the hillside."
This indeed was the case; for Jack, although in the course of the morning he had frequently watched the hillside for signs of the other parties, had not made out the slightest movement, so completely were the men hidden behind rocks and bushes.
Strong bodies of infantry were thrown out by Tesse on both flanks, and these began to climb the hills, keeping up a heavy fire at their concealed foe, while the main column continued its way.
Not a shot was fired by the Spanish until the head of the column was within a hundred yards of the foot of the rise, and then from the whole face of the hill a heavy fire was opened. The enemy recoiled, and for a time there was great confusion near the head of the column; an officer of high rank dashed up, and the troops formed out into a line across the whole width of the valley and then moved forward steadily; so heavy were their losses, however, that they presently came to a standstill. But reinforcements coming up, they again pressed forward, firing as they went.
Not until they were within twenty yards did the Miquelets lining the lower wall of rocks leave their post, and, covered by the smoke, gain with little loss the line next above them. Slowly the enemy won their way uphill, suffering heavily as they did so, and continually being reinforced from the rear. At the last wall the peasants, gathered now together, maintained a long resistance; and it was not until fully four thousand of the enemy were brought up that the position was seriously threatened. Then their leader, seeing that they would sustain very heavy loss if the enemy carried the wall by assault, ordered his trumpeter to sound the retreat. It was at once obeyed, and by the time the French had crossed the wall the peasants had already passed out at the other end of the village.
As the French cavalry had not been able to pass the lower walls there was no pursuit. The peasants rallied after a rapid flight of a mile. Their loss had been small, while that of the French had been very considerable; and the marshal halted his troops round the village for the day.
The result of the fighting added to the resolution of the peasants, and as soon as the French continued their route the next morning the fighting began again. It was a repetition of that of the preceding day. The enemy had to contest every foot of the ground, and were exposed to a galling fire along the whole line of their march. Many times they made desperate efforts to drive the peasants from the hillsides; sometimes they were beaten back with heavy loss, and when they succeeded it was only to find the positions they attacked deserted and their active defenders already beyond musket fire. At night they had no respite; the enemy swarmed round their camp, shot down the sentries, and attacked with such boldness that the marshal was obliged to keep a large number of his men constantly under arms.
At last, worn out by fatigue and fighting, the weary army emerged from the hills into the wide valleys, where their cavalry were able to act, and the ground no longer offered favorable positions of defense to the peasantry. Seeing the uselessness of further attacks, the Count of Cifuentes drew off his peasants; and Tesse marched on to Barcelona and effected a junction with the troops from Roussillon under the Duke de Noailles, who had come down by the way of Gerona. The town was at once invested on the land side; while the Count of Toulouse, with thirty French ships, blockaded it from the sea.