The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV: The Relief of Barcelona
Although for months it was evident that the French were preparing to make a great effort to recapture Barcelona, Charles and his German advisers had done nothing whatever to place the city in the position to resist a siege. The fortifications remained just as they had been when Peterborough had captured the city. The breaches which had been made by the English cannon were still open, and even that in the all important citadel of Montjuich remained as it had been left by the explosion of the magazine.
Not until Tesse was pressing down from Lerida and de Noailles from Roussillon did the king awake to his danger. Orders were sent out to recall all the troops who were within reach, the country people were set to work collecting provisions, and the king made an urgent appeal to the citizens to aid in repairing the fortifications. The appeal was responded to; the whole male population took up arms, even priests and friars enrolling themselves in the ranks. The women and children were formed into companies, and all Barcelona labored in carrying materials and in repairing the breaches. The king had received a letter from Peterborough proposing the plan of which he had spoken to his aides de camp, and which, had it been carried out, would have changed the fate of Spain. His suggestion was that Charles should at once make his way by sea to Portugal, which, as the blockade had not then commenced, he could have easily done, there to put himself at the head of the allied army, twenty-six thousand strong, and march straight upon Madrid. This could have been done with a certainty of success, for the west of Spain and the capital had been denuded of troops for the invasion of Catalonia and Valencia, and no more than two thousand men could have been collected to oppose the invaders.
"If your majesty will undertake to do this," wrote the earl, "I will undertake to maintain the province here, and perhaps to open a way to Madrid."
But now, as before, this bold but really safe counsel was overruled by Charles' German courtiers and he resolved to remain in Barcelona and wait a siege.
As soon as Peterborough received the answer, he left a small garrison in Valencia, and marched away with all the force he could collect, which, however, numbered only two thousand foot and six hundred horse, while de Noailles had no less than twenty thousand gathered round Barcelona. Peterborough moved rapidly across the country, pushing forward at the utmost speed of the troops till he arrived within two leagues of Barcelona, and took up a strong position among the mountains, where he was at once joined by the Count of Cifuentes and his peasant army.
"Ah, count," the earl said as he rode into his camp, "I am glad to see you again. You did not succeed in stopping Tesse, but by all accounts you mauled him handsomely. And now, what are our prospects?"
"Indeed, sir, they are not over bright, and I do not see that we can effect much to aid the king. My men will fight well enough, as Captain Stilwell has witnessed, when they choose their position and shoot behind shelter, but they would be of no use whatever in a regular action; and as to advancing into the plain to give battle with you against twenty thousand regular troops, they would not attempt it, even if you were to join your orders to mine."
"We will not ask them, count," Peterborough said. "I know the Miquelets by this time. They are admirable for irregular war, but worse than useless for anything else. All we will ask of them, count, is to scatter in strong bodies over the hills, to guard every road, and cut off any parties of the enemy who may venture to go out to gather provisions or forage. If they can manage occasionally to threaten an attack upon the French camp, so much the better."
The next morning a strong body of the French took post round Montjuich, and at nine o'clock a force of infantry, supported by two squadrons of horse, attempted to carry the western outworks by storm. This was the weakest part of the citadel, and was manned by only a hundred men of Colonel Hamilton's regiment, who had arrived the night before, having in two days ridden seventy miles on mules.
As the French advanced they received them with great determination, and poured in so sharp a fire that the assailants speedily retired with considerable loss. As they fell back the English threw up their caps and raised loud shouts, which so exasperated the enemy that they reformed and returned several times to the assault, but only to be repulsed as on their first attempt. This was a sharp check to the French, who had expected to find the place guarded only by the usual garrison of forty Spaniards.
When the sound of firing was heard in the town the whole garrison turned out and marched to support Montjuich, only twelve men being left behind for a guard to the king. This repulse of the first attempt of the enemy raised the spirits of the townsmen, and bands of them ventured beyond the walls, and, sheltering in the gardens and groves, maintained a strong fire upon the French.
Finding that Barcelona was not to be taken as easily as they had expected, the French generals extended their camp so as to completely surround the town. On their side the citizens were not inactive, and, sallying out, managed to cut off and drive in a flock of seven hundred of the enemy's sheep and twelve of their mules.
The following night the besieged sustained a severe loss by the treacherous surrender, by its commander, of Fort Redonda, which stood on the seashore and commanded the landing. The enemy at once profited by this advantage and began landing their provisions, guns, and ammunition. This misfortune was, however, balanced by the enterprise of Brigadier Generals Lord Donegal and Sentiman, with two English and two newly raised Catalan battalions. They received the king's orders to return to Barcelona too late to reach the town before its investment, but now managed, under cover of night, to elude the enemy and enter the city in safety.
When the enemy received news of the success of this attempt they closed in their left wing to the eastward, in hopes of preventing further reinforcements from entering the town. But they had not reckoned upon the Earl of Peterborough, who had received news that the garrison of Gerona, after evacuating that town on the approach of the army of the Duke de Noailles, had embarked in small boats and were about to attempt a landing near Barcelona, on the north side. On the receipt of the news he started as night fell with his whole force from his camp in the mountains, and having, after a march of nearly twenty miles, arrived at the spot named for the debarkation just as the boats were nearing the shore, and having escorted the Gerona men past the enemy's outpost and into the town, without the loss of a man, he again retired to the mountains. These accessions of strength raised the force of troops in the besieged town to upward of three thousand.
The next day a case of treason was discovered among the Spaniards in the garrison of Montjuich. A boy confessed that he had been hired by one of these men to put out all the gun matches, and to throw the priming powder out of the matchlocks that night. He was told to do this on the weakest side of the works, where the attack would probably be made.
The discovery of this intended treason, following so closely on that at Fort Redonda, excited suspicions of the loyalty of the Spanish Governor of Montjuich, and he was superseded and the Earl of Donegal appointed to the command. For the next six days the French continued to raise battery after battery around Montjuich. Lord Donegal made some gallant sallies and several times drove the besiegers from their works, but in each case they returned in such overwhelming force that he was obliged to abandon the positions he had won and to fall back into the citadel.
The Miquelets, of whom there were many in the town, aided the besieged by harassing the French. Every night they stole into their camp, murdered officers in their tents, carried off horses, slew sentries, and kept the enemy in a perpetual state of watchfulness.
At eight o'clock on the morning of the 15th of April the besiegers made a furious attack on the western outwork of Montjuich, having ascertained that it was defended only by a party of one of the newly raised Spanish regiments. They captured the post without difficulty, the Spaniards flying at the first assault, but on the inner ramparts they were met by Donegal and his grenadiers, and a desperate struggle took place which lasted for two hours.
The English fought with the greatest obstinacy, and frequently flung back among their assailants the grenades which the latter showered among them, before they had time to explode, Lord Donegal himself setting the men the example. But though able to prevent the French from advancing further, the English could not recover the outpost which the Spaniards had abandoned, and the French formed intrenchments and mounted a battery upon it.
In spite of the continued fire which the besiegers now poured in upon it from all sides, Lord Donegal held out bravely. The little force under his command was much reduced in numbers, and so worn out by constant exertion and loss of sleep that men frequently fell asleep while under arms under the heaviest fire. The besiegers were not idle in other directions. Several mortar vessels moved close in shore and threw shells into the town, while the batteries poured in red hot shot. This spread great alarm throughout the town. The people could he hardly induced to continue working on the defenses, and many took refuge in cellars or in the churches. Ammunition began to fail, and despair was taking possession of the defenders, when, at two o'clock in the morning of the 21st, a galley ran safely into the harbor bearing a supply of powder and encouraging messages from Lord Peterborough.
Three days later he managed to throw a body of Neapolitan troops into the town, embarking them in boats at Matero, a small port a few miles to the northeast of the town. He sent them close along the shore in order to pass the enemy's fleet, if possible, unobserved. They found, however, that a line of boats had been drawn across the harbor to blockade the entrance. They attacked the boats, and after a sharp fight, which lasted over an hour, four hundred men succeeded in forcing their way through, and the rest returned to Matero in safety.
Peterborough now determined to endeavor to relieve the town by the desperate expedient of attacking the enemy's camp with his little force. In order to do this with any prospect of success it was necessary to warn the king of his intentions, so that the garrison of the town could issue out and attack the enemy at the same moment from their side. He committed the dispatch to Captain Graham, who succeeded in making his way through the enemy's lines to the city. The king agreed to join in a combined attack, and, having arranged all his plans, gave the dispatch to Graham to carry back to the earl.
On the way out he was less successful than he had been in entering. He was seized upon by a body of French before he could destroy the paper. Tesse was accordingly warned of the earl's plans, and at the hour appointed for the attack drew up his army in order of battle. Peterborough was ready to advance, and the besieged were all in arms on the ramparts, but seeing that the enemy were fully prepared the project was abandoned, and the troops returned to their quarters.
But the fall of Montjuich was at hand. The besiegers secretly massed a large force in the trenches. At midday on the 22d a salvo of four mortars gave the signal. The French rushed in with loud shouts and effected a complete surprise. Before the troops could get under arms two bastions were captured.
So sudden was the affair that many of the English officers, hearing the firing, ran out from the keep, and seeing some foreign troops drawn up in the works joined them, concluding that they were Dutch, and were only undeceived by finding themselves taken prisoners. The men were so confused by the loss of many of the officers that, had the French pushed in at once, they would have been able to carry the main body of the works with but little resistance. They halted, however, in the bastions they had won. The next morning the people of Barcelona, headed by their priests, sallied out to effect the relief of Montjuich, but were easily driven back by the besiegers. The little garrison of the castle sallied out to meet their friends, but when these retreated to the town they had to fight their way back to the castle, which they regained with great difficulty, the gallant Earl of Donegal and many of his officers being killed.
Finding that their position was now desperate, the remnant of the British troops abandoned the castle they had so stoutly defended, and succeeded in making their way safely into the city. Tesse now pushed on the siege of the town with vigor. Batteries of heavy guns were raised opposite the newly mended breaches, and so close did he plant his guns to the walls that the artillery of the besieged could not be depressed sufficiently to play upon them, while so heavy a fire of infantry was kept up upon the walls that their defenders were unable to reply effectively with their musketry.
The walls crumbled rapidly, and the defenders busied themselves in raising inner defenses behind the breaches. Had the French been commanded by an enterprising general there is little doubt that they could have carried the town by assault, but Tesse, in his over caution, waited until success was a certainty. The alarm in Barcelona was great, and the king sent messenger after messenger to Peterborough to urge him to come to his relief; but, daring as was the earl when he considered success to be possible, he would not venture his little force upon an enterprise which was, he felt, hopeless, and he knew that the only possible relief for the city was the arrival of the English fleet.
Early in March Admiral Sir John Leake and Baron Wassenaer had sailed from Lisbon with the combined fleet in accordance with Peterborough's orders; but the wind was contrary, and it was fully six weeks after starting that they reached the Straits, where they were joined by Captain Price with a small squadron, on board of which were two English regiments. It was not until the 24th of April that they sailed from Gibraltar.
On reaching Altea they received news that another squadron had sailed from Lisbon to join them, and in spite of the warm remonstrances of General Stanhope, who commanded the troops on board, the Dutch and English admirals determined to await the arrival of the reinforcements before sailing to give battle to the fleet of the Count of Toulouse before Barcelona.
On the 3d of April Sir George Byng arrived at Altea with some ships from Ireland, and the next day Commodore Walker, with the squadron from Lisbon, also arrived; but the wind was now contrary, and although the fleet set sail, for three days they made no progress whatever, and each hour so wasted rendered the position of the besieged at Barcelona more and more desperate. While lying at Altea General Stanhope had sent a message to Lord Peterborough telling him that he would use every means in his power to hasten Sir John Leake's movements, and that he would give him timely notice of the approach of the fleet.
He said that as it was of the utmost importance that the enemy should remain in ignorance of the approaching succors, his messenger should carry only a half sheet of blank paper, so that if he were taken by the enemy they would learn nothing from his dispatch. When the fleet sailed he sent off a second messenger, who got safely to the earl, and delivered his blank dispatch. With the exception of his aide de camp, who was always in his confidence, he told no one the meaning of this blank dispatch, and his officers were surprised when orders were issued for the little army at once to prepare for a night march. Officers and men had, however, most implicit confidence in their general, and, doubting not that some daring enterprise was at hand, they started in high spirits.
All through the night they marched in a southwesterly direction over the hills, and at daybreak reached the little seaport of Sitjes, some seven leagues from Barcelona. Ordering the wearied soldiers to encamp behind some low hills, the indefatigable general rode with Jack Stilwell into the little port, and at once, by offering large rewards, set the sailors and fishermen at work to collect the boats, barges, and fishing smacks along the neighboring coast, and to bring them to Sitjes.
In two days he had succeeded in collecting a sufficient number to carry the whole force. The news of the work upon which the general was engaged soon spread among the force and caused the greatest astonishment. Jack Stilwell was overwhelmed with questions as to the intentions of the general.
"What on earth are we going to do next, Stilwell?" one of the colonels said to him. "We are all ready, you know, to do anything that the chief bids us, but for the life of us no one can make this business out. The only possible thing seems to be that the chief intends to attack the French fleet, and desperate as many of his exploits have been, they would be as nothing to that. Even the earl could surely not expect that fifteen hundred men in fishing boats and barges could attack a fleet of some thirty men of war. The idea seems preposterous, and yet one does not see what else he can have got in his head."
"Of course, colonel," Jack said, laughing, "you do not expect me to tell you what are the general's plans. You may be quite sure that, whatever they are, there is nothing absolutely impossible about them, for you know that although the general may undertake desperate things, he never attempts anything that has not at least a possibility of success; in fact, as you know, he has never yet failed in any enterprise that he has undertaken."
"That is true enough," the colonel said; "and yet for the life of me I cannot make out what else he can be thinking of. Certainly to attack Toulouse would be madness, and yet there is no one else to attack."
"Well, colonel, I can only say that time will show, and I don't think you will have to wait very long before you know as much about it as I do."
Jack was right in this, for on the night of the second day the earl called his officers together, and informed them that he was waiting to join the English fleet, which might at any moment come in sight. As hitherto nothing had been known about the arrival of reinforcements, the news excited the greatest joy. The earl had hoped that at daybreak the fleet would be in sight, and as soon as it was light he mounted a hill which gave him a wide view over the sea, but to his deep disappointment not a sail appeared above the horizon. Knowing the desperate state of the garrison at Barcelona, and that at any hour he might receive news that an assault had been delivered and the city captured, his disappointment at the delay in the appearance of the fleet was unbounded.
The roar of the distant guns around Barcelona came distinctly to his ears, and he was almost wild with impatience and anxiety. On reaching the shore again he found that a fast sailing felucca had just come in from Barcelona. She had managed to evade the blockading fleet, and bore an urgent letter from the king, praying Peterborough to come to his assistance. The earl did not hesitate a moment, but determined to set sail at once to find the fleet, and to bring it on to Barcelona with all speed.
The astonishment and dismay of his officers at the news that their general was about to leave them and embark on such an enterprise were very great, but the earl explained to the leaders the reasons for his anxiety to gain the fleet. His commission appointed him to the command at sea as well as on land, and on joining the fleet he would be its admiral in chief. He feared that at the sight of so powerful an armament the Count of Toulouse would at once decline battle and make for France. He determined, therefore, to advance only with a force considerably inferior to that of the French, in which case Toulouse, rather than abandon the siege of Barcelona just when success seemed assured, would sail out and give battle.
Should he do so the earl, however inferior his force, had no doubts as to obtaining victory. Accompanied only by Jack Stillwell and by Captain Humphrey, who had taken the place of Graham, he embarked on board the little felucca and put to sea. The weather was cold and stormy, and the master of the boat did not like putting out far from shore; but the earl was peremptory, and the felucca stood well out to sea. Night came on without any signs of the fleet being discovered. The hours of darkness passed slowly, for the boat was undecked and afforded no shelter, and the heavy seas which broke over her kept all on board wetted to the skin.
At daybreak, to their great joy, they perceived a British man of war approaching. They at once made for her, and found she was the Leopard, commanded by Captain Price. The astonishment of that officer, and of all on board, was unbounded at being boarded at break of day almost out of sight of land from an open boat by the admiral of all the fleets. The earl's stay on board was but a short one. As soon as he had learned the whereabout of the rest of the fleet, and given instructions to Captain Price, he again embarked in the felucca, and sailed for Sitjes.
The joy of the troops was great at the return of their general, for the night had been so stormy that there were great fears for his safety; but he was not to remain with them long, for, having given orders that the whole disposable force, about fourteen hundred men, should embark in the boats before daybreak next morning, and follow the fleet to Barcelona, he again with his aides de camp took his place in the felucca and sailed for the fleet.
In the middle of the night he came across them, and boarding the Prince George, hoisted his flag as admiral of the fleet on the maintop, and took the command. He then sent a boat to Sir John Leake to acquaint him with his orders and intentions, and another boat to advise General Stanhope of his arrival; but the darkness delayed the delivery of these messages till nearly morning, and when day appeared the whole fleet was amazed at seeing the flag of the admiral in chief flying on the Prince George. The wind was strong and favorable, and the fleet crowded on all sail; but when within about eighteen miles of Barcelona one of the French lookout ships sighted them, and made a signal to a consort further along. She in turn passed on the news until it reached the Count of Toulouse, who, without waiting to ascertain the strength of the approaching squadron, at once signaled to his fleet to weigh anchor, and, putting to sea, sailed for France.
The disappointment of the earl was great, as he had fully calculated upon gaining a great naval battle in sight of the city he had come to relieve. On the afternoon of the 8th of May the leading vessels anchored off Barcelona, and preparations were at once made for the landing of the troops. The first to set foot on shore were the earl's veteran troops, who had according to his orders accompanied the fleet from Sitjes. The succor was welcome, indeed; the breaches were no longer defensible, and an assault was hourly expected. The king himself came down to receive the earl and his army; the city went wild with joy.
For a few days the French made a show of carrying on the siege. They were still enormously superior in force; but the energy and skill of Peterborough counterbalanced the inequality. He worked day and night in superintending the works of defense, and in placing the troops in readiness for the expected assault. Philip and many of his officers were still in favor of an attack upon the city; but Tesse as usual was opposed to anything like vigorous measures, and his views were adopted by a council of war.
At one o'clock on the morning of the 11th of May the besiegers broke up their camp, and in great confusion made their way toward the French frontier, for Tesse preferred even the ignominy of falling back into France with his unsuccessful and dispirited army to retracing his steps toward Saragossa, where his devastations and cruelty had caused the whole population to rise in insurrection as soon as his army had passed into Catalonia. Besides which, he had received news that Peterborough had caused every pass and town on his way to the west to be fortified and held by the Miquelets. Philip accompanied the retreating army to Roussillon. The downfall of his hopes had been utter and complete. But a few weeks before it had seemed that Spain was his, and that the forces at his disposal were ample to crush out the insurrection in Barcelona, and to sweep into the sea the handful of the invaders. But all his plans had been baffled, all his hopes brought to naught by the genius and energy of one man, in spite of that man being thwarted at every turn by the imbecile German coterie who surrounded the king, and by the jealousy and ill will of his fellow generals.
Bad news met the fugitive at Roussillon. There he heard that his countrymen had suffered a disastrous defeat at Ramillies; that nearly all the Netherlands had been wrested from France; that a heavy defeat had been inflicted upon her at Turin, and that Italy was well nigh lost. It needed, indeed, but the smallest amount of unanimity, enterprise, and confidence on the part of the advisers and generals of King Charles to have placed him securely and permanently upon the throne of Spain.
When the flight of the besieging army was discovered after daybreak by the besieged, they poured out from Barcelona into the deserted camp. All the ordnance and stores of the French had been abandoned. Two hundred heavy brass guns, thirty mortars, and a vast quantity of shot, shells, and intrenching tools, three thousand barrels of powder, ten thousand sacks of corn, and a vast quantity of provisions and stores were found left behind in the camp. Tesse had left, too, all his sick and wounded with a letter to the Earl of Peterborough begging him to see that they were well cared for.
The news of the hasty retreat of Marshal Tesse from before Barcelona caused a shock of surprise throughout Europe. In France it had never been doubted that Barcelona would fall, and as to the insurrection, it was believed that it could be trampled out without difficulty by the twenty-five thousand French veterans whom the marshal had at his disposal. As to the handful of British troops whose exploits had occasioned such astonishment, none had supposed for a moment that they would be able to effect anything when opposed to so overwhelming a force of the disciplined troops of France.
Peterborough himself had hardly hoped to save Barcelona, but, unlike his enemies, he had not considered that the fall of that city would necessarily entail the final defeat of the cause for which he fought. While busying himself with the marches and achievements of the troops under his command, he had never ceased to take measures to provide for the future. His marches and counter marches had made him thoroughly acquainted with the country, and he had won the entire confidence of the people.
He had, therefore, taken measures that even if Barcelona fell Philip should not march back again to his capital. From the day Tesse advanced he had had thousands of the country people at work, under the direction of a few of his own officers, rendering each of the three roads by which the French army could march from Barcelona to Madrid impracticable. Gorges were blocked with vast masses of rock rolled down from the mountain side at spots where the road wound along on the face of precipices; and where it had only been made by blasting, it was by similar means entirely destroyed. Bridges were broken down, every castle and town on the lines of retreat placed in a state of defense, and the cattle and provisions driven off to places of safety.
Thus while the earl was himself engaged in the most perilous adventures, he neglected nothing that the most prudent and cautious general could have suggested to insure the success of his plans. Even when affairs looked most unpromising in Barcelona the earl wrote cheerfully to the Duke of Savoy, saying that the circumstances were much better than were generally supposed; and that the French officers, ignorant of the situation of the country, would be astonished at the difficulties that would be opposed to them on advancing even after success; and that if the siege were raised they would be forced to abandon Spain, while all the western frontier would be clear for the progress of Lord Galway and Das Minas to Madrid.
A few days after the retreat of Marshal Tesse, to Jack's great pleasure Graham came into Barcelona. He had, in the confusion of the retreat, had little difficulty in slipping away from his captors. His only danger had been from the peasantry, at whose hands he had narrowly escaped death, as they took him for a French officer; but, upon being convinced by his assurances that he was an Englishman and an aide de camp of the Earl of Peterborough, they had provided him with a horse to make his way back to Barcelona.