The Bravest of the Brave by G. A. Henty
Chapter VII: Barcelona
The city of Barcelona, one of the most populous and important in Spain, is not naturally a place of great strength. It is situated on a plain close to the sea, and its defenses, although extensive, were not very formidable against a strong army provided with a siege train. To hold them fully required a much larger force than was disposable for the defense. The garrison was, however, fully equal in strength to the force of Peterborough, and should have been able to defend the city against an army vastly exceeding their own numbers. Ten bastions and some old towers protected the town toward the north and east; between the city and the sea was a long rampart with an unfinished ditch and covered way; while to the west, standing on a lofty elevation, the castle of Montjuich overlooked and guarded the walls of the city.
From the center of the sea face a mole projected into the water, guarding a small harbor. The country round the town was fertile and beautiful, carefully cultivated and watered by streams flowing from the neighboring mountains. At the distance of about a league from the shore the land rises into an amphitheater of hills thickly dotted with small towns, villages, and country seats.
As soon as the allied fleet had anchored the garrison commenced a cannonade from the mole and from a battery close to the sea upon some of the transports nearest to the shore; but their shot did not reach the vessels, and the fire soon ceased. The east wind, however, proved more troublesome than the enemy's fire, and the ships rolled heavily from the sea which came in from the east.
The Prince of Hesse Darmstadt with two frigates put into the harbor of Mataro for the purpose of obtaining intelligence. He found that in the neighboring town of Vich the people had risen for King Charles, and putting himself in communication with their leaders he advised them to march upon the coast and cooperate with the forces about to land. On his way to rejoin the fleet the prince chased two Neapolitan galleys, which managed to get safely into Barcelona.
They had on board the Duke and Duchess of Popoli, M. d'Abary, a French officer of distinction, and forty other young gentlemen, partisans of the Duke d'Anjou, and destined for employment in different parts of Spain. They were now, however, detained in the city by the governor to assist in its defense.
The first glance into the state of affairs gave the Earl of Peterborough such an unfavorable impression that he at once objected to the proposed attack.
The governor, Don Francisco Velasco, was a brave and distinguished officer, the garrison equaled his own force in numbers, the town was well supplied with provisions and stores, and, in order to add to the difficulties of the besiegers, orders had been given to destroy all the forage in the surrounding country which could not be conveyed within the walls. Any Austrian sympathies the inhabitants might possess were effectually suppressed by the power and vigilance of the governor. The besieging army was far too small to attempt a blockade, while the chances of an assault upon an equal force behind well armed defenses seemed almost desperate.
The engineers declared that the difficulties of a regular siege were enormous, if not insurmountable, and that the only vulnerable point was covered by a bog, where the transport of cannon or the formation of works would be impossible. Above all, the principal hope of the expedition had failed. The adherents of Charles had assured him that the whole country would rise in his favor on the arrival of the fleet, and that the town itself would probably open its gates to receive him. These promises had, like all others he had received from his Spanish friends, proved delusive. Few of the peasantry appeared to receive them on the coast, and these were unarmed and without officers.
The earl's instructions, although generally quite indefinite, were stringent upon one point. He was on no account to make the slightest alteration in the plans of the expedition, or to take any decisive step for their accomplishment, without the advice of the council of war. This would have been in any case embarrassing for a general; in the present instance it was calculated altogether to cripple him. There was but little harmony among the chief officers. The English military officers were by no means on good terms with each other, while the naval officers regarded almost as an insult Lord Peterborough's being placed in command of them. The English hated the German officers and despised the Dutch. Lord Peterborough himself disliked almost all his associates, and entertained a profound contempt for any one whose opinion might differ from that which he at the moment might happen to hold.
It was impossible that good could come from a council of war composed of such jarring elements as these. However, Lord Peterborough's instructions were positive, and on the 16th of August, 1705, he convened a council of war on board the Britannia, consisting of nine generals and a brigadier, with two colonels on the staff. The king and the Prince of Hesse Darmstadt were present, but took no part in the deliberations. Singularly enough the council proved unanimous in their opinion that Barcelona should not be attacked. The reasons for the decision were drawn up and put on record. The council pointed out all the difficulties which existed, and declared the strength of the allied army to be only nineteen battalions of foot and two cavalry regiments, of whom no more than seven thousand men were fit for action, and only one hundred and twenty dragoon horses had survived the voyage in serviceable condition.
The decision of the council was most opposed to the hopes and wishes of Charles and the Prince of Hesse Darmstadt, and they addressed letters of strong remonstrance to Lord Peterborough, urging that to abandon the expedition at this juncture would be alike fatal to the common cause and discreditable to the British arms.
Meanwhile, however, the greater part of the troops had landed without opposition; but the sea broke with such force on the beach that much difficulty had been experienced in getting ashore. The landing place had been well chosen by Lord Peterborough and Sir Cloudesley Shovel. It was about two miles east of the city, near a place called Badalona, and close to the mouth of the little river Basoz. The transports were moored in as close as possible, and the boats of the fleet carried three thousand men ashore each trip.
In five hours fifteen battalions were landed without the loss of a man. A strong natural position about a mile from the city was chosen for the encampment; its left rested on the sea, its right was covered by several abrupt hills and defiles through which the river Basoz flowed. The front was, however, much extended, but this mattered the less, as the people from the neighboring villages began to assemble when the landing took place, and welcomed the allies of King Charles with joy. A number of these were employed by Lord Peterborough in guarding the advanced posts and covering the numerous roads leading from the city toward the camp.
On the 22d another council of war was held at the Dutch General Schratenbach's quarters in the camp to consider two letters of the king, in which he again urged the allied generals to attack the city. He proposed that a battery of fifty guns should be erected to breach the wall between two of the bastions, and that the whole strength of the army should be thrown upon an assault. He acknowledged the force of the several objections to the attack, but urged that in such a case vigorous action was the safest. He dwelt upon the ruin that must fall upon such of his subjects as had declared for him if abandoned to their fate, and concluded by declaring that he at least would not desert them.
The appeal failed to move any of the council with the exception of Peterborough himself, and he alone voted, although in opposition to his own judgment, in compliance with the king's plan. Notwithstanding the adverse decision of the council the horses and dragoons were landed on the 24th.
On the 25th, the 26th, and the 28th the council again assembled to deliberate upon an earnest request of the king that they should attempt the siege for a period of eighteen days. The first decision was adverse, two only voting with Lord Peterborough for the siege. At the second council, his influence succeeded in obtaining a majority; but at the third, they agreed to abandon the attempt, even the commander in chief concurring.
The cause of this sudden reversal of their opinion was that none of the workmen whom they had demanded from the leaders of the Catalan peasantry had appeared, and they felt it impossible to carry on the works and erect the siege batteries without such assistance. Nevertheless the peasantry gave effectual aid in landing the artillery, tents, ammunition, and stores. On the 28th the king landed amid a great concourse of people, who received him with every demonstration of enthusiasm, and he could with difficulty make his way through them to the camp prepared for him near San Martino.
The presence of the king on shore added to the difficulties of the situation. He and his following of German courtiers complained bitterly of the disinclination of the allies to undertake the siege, while the allies were incensed against those who reproached them for not undertaking impossibilities. Dissension spread between the allies themselves, and the Dutch general declared that he would disobey the orders of the commander in chief rather than vainly sacrifice his men.
Peterborough was driven nearly out of his mind by the reproaches and recrimination to which he was exposed, and the quarrels which took place around him. He was most anxious to carry out his instructions, and as far as possible to defer to the opinion of Charles, but he was also bound by the decisions of the councils of war, which were exactly opposite to the wishes of the king.
The Prince of Hesse Darmstadt enraged him by insisting that fifteen hundred disorderly peasants whom he had raised were an army, and should be paid as regular soldiers from the military chest, while they would submit to no discipline and refused to labor in the trenches, and an open rupture took place, when the prince, in his vexation at the results of the councils of war, even went so far as to accuse the earl of having used secret influence to thwart the enterprise.
To add to the difficulties of the commander in chief the English troops were loud in their complaints against him for having landed and committed them to this apparently hopeless enterprise; but they nevertheless clamored to be led against the town, that they might not be said to have "come like fools and gone like cowards."
Lord Peterborough confided his trouble and vexation freely to his young secretary. Jack was sincerely attached to his generous and eccentric chief, and the general was gratified by the young officer's readiness at all times and hours to come to him and write from his dictation the long letters and dispatches which he sent home. He saw, too, that he was thoroughly trustworthy, and could be relied upon to keep absolute silence as to the confidences which he made him.
In the midst of all these quarrels and disputes the siege was carried on in a languid manner. A battery of fifty heavy guns, supplied by the ships and manned by seamen, was placed upon a rising ground flanked by two deep ravines, and on several of the adjacent hills batteries of light field guns had been raised. Three weeks were consumed in these comparatively unimportant operations, and no real advance toward the capture of the place had been effected. Something like a blockade, however, had been established, for the Catalan peasants guarded vigilantly every approach to the town.
The officers of the fleet were no less discontented than their brethren on shore at the feeble conduct of the siege, and had they been consulted they would have been in favor of a direct attack upon the city with scaling ladders, as if they had been about to board a hostile ship. But Peterborough and his officers were well aware that such an attack against a city defended by a superior force would be simple madness, and even an attack by regular approaches, with the means and labor at their disposal, would have had no chance of success. But while all on shore and in the fleet were chafing at the slowness and hopelessness of the siege, Jack Stilwell was alone aware that the commander in chief did not share in the general despair of any good arising from the operations.
Lord Peterborough had little communication with the other generals; but, alone in his tent with Jack and an interpreter, he occupied himself from morning till night in examining peasants and spies as to every particular of the fortifications of the city, of the ground near to the walls, and of the habits and proceedings of the garrison. At last he resolved upon an attempt which, in its daring and enterprise, is almost without parallel. Indeed its only hope of success lay in its boldness, for neither friend nor foe could anticipate that it would be attempted. It was no less than the surprise of the citadel of Montjuich.
This formidable stronghold covered the weakest part of the defenses, that toward the southwest, and far exceeded in strength any other part of the lines. It had been most skillfully designed. The ditches were deep, and the walls firm; the outworks skillfully planned; the batteries well armed, and the inner defenses formidable in themselves. It was, in fact, by far the strongest point in the position of the besieged. Standing on a commanding height, it was abundantly capable of defense even against a regular siege, and its reduction was always regarded as a most formidable enterprise, to be undertaken at leisure after the capture of the town. Its only weakness lay in the fact that surrounding it on every side were numerous ravines and hollows, which would afford concealment to an assailant, and that trusting to the extraordinary strength of their position the garrison of Montjuich might neglect proper precautions.
One morning before daybreak the earl, accompanied only by Jack and a native guide, left the camp on foot, having laid aside their uniforms and put on the attire of peasants, so that the glitter of their accouterments might not attract the attention of the enemy's outposts. Making a long detour they approached the castle, and ascending one of the ravines gained a point where, themselves unseen, they could mark all particulars of the fortifications. Having carried out his purpose the earl returned to camp with his companion without his absence having been observed. The observations which Peterborough had made confirmed the reports of the peasants, that the garrison kept but a negligent watch, and he at once resolved upon making the attempt; but to none of his most intimate friends did he give the slightest hint of his intentions.
To disguise his views he called councils of war both in the camp and fleet, wherein it was resolved, with his full consent, that the siege of Barcelona should be abandoned, and that the army should be immediately re-embarked and conveyed to Italy. Accordingly the heavy artillery was conveyed on board ship, the warlike stores collected, and the troops warned to be ready for embarkation. A storm of reproaches was poured upon the earl by Charles and his courtiers. The officers of the fleet protested openly, declaring that an assault ought to be attempted, and that it was too late in the season to attempt operations elsewhere.
To Jack's surprise his commander, usually so hasty, irritable, and passionate, bore with the greatest calmness and patience the reproaches and accusations to which he was exposed. No one dreamed that behind these preparations for embarkation any plan of attack was hidden.
On the 13th of September the army received orders to embark on the morrow, while within the town the garrison and the inhabitants, who were, or pretended to be, well affected to the Bourbons held high rejoicing at the approaching departure.
On the afternoon of that day a detachment of English and Dutch troops twelve hundred strong was ordered to assemble in the allied camp for the purpose, as was supposed, of covering the embarkation. Scaling ladders and everything necessary for an assault had already been privately prepared by the Catalan peasants under Peterborough's instructions.
About six o'clock in the evening four hundred grenadiers of the party assembled under the command of Hon. Colonel Southwell, and were ordered to march by the Serria road, as if en route to Taragona to meet the fleet and embark in that harbor. The remainder of the detachment followed in support at some little distance. At nightfall the Prince of Hesse Darmstadt was surprised by Lord Peterborough's entrance into his quarters. Since their rupture all intercourse had ceased between them.
"I have determined," the earl said, "to make this night an attack upon the enemy. You may now, if you please, be a judge of our behavior, and see whether my officers and soldiers really deserve the bad character which you of late have so readily imputed to them." He then explained that the troops were already on their march to Montjuich.
The prince immediately ordered his horse, and the two gallant but impulsive and singular men rode off, followed only by Jack Stillwell and the prince's aide de camp. At ten o'clock they overtook the troops, and Peterborough ordered a total change of route, he himself leading.
The roads were winding, narrow, and difficult. For a great part of the way there was only room for the men to march in single file. The night was very dark, and the detachment many hours on the march, so that daylight was just breaking when they reached the foot of the hill on which the fort of Montjuich stood.
The troops under Peterborough's command now perceived the object of their march, and imagined that they would be led to the attack before the day had fairly broke; but the general had well considered the subject, and had determined to avoid the risk and confusion of a night assault. He called his officers together and explained to them why he did not mean to attack till broad daylight.
His examination of the place had shown him that the ditches could be crossed, no palisades or barriers having been erected. He had noticed, too, that the inner works were not sufficiently high to enable their guns properly to command the outer works should these be carried by an enemy. He had therefore determined to carry the outworks by assault, judging that if he captured them the inner works could not long resist. In case of a reverse, or to enable him to take advantage of success, he told them that he had ordered Brigadier General Stanhope to march during the night with a thousand infantry and the handful of cavalry to a convent lying halfway between the camp and the city, and there to hold himself in reserve.
Peterborough now silently and coolly completed his arrangements for the assault. He divided the body of troops into three parties; the first of these, two hundred and eighty strong, were to attack the bastion facing the town, which was the strongest part of the defense. He himself and the Prince of Hesse accompanied this party. A lieutenant and thirty men formed the advance, a captain and fifty more were the support, and the remaining two hundred men were to form in the rear.
The orders were that they should push forward in spite of the enemy's fire, leap into the ditch, drive the garrison before them, and if possible enter the works with them; but, if not, to obtain at least a firm footing on the outer defenses. The second party, similar in strength and formation, under the command of the Hon. Colonel Southwell, were to attack an unfinished demibastion on the extreme western point of the fort and furthermost from the town. The remainder of the little force, under a Dutch colonel, were to be held in reserve, and to assist wherever they might be most useful. They occupied a position somewhat in rear of and halfway between the two parties who were to make the assault.
Soon after daylight Peterborough gave the order to advance, and in the highest spirits, and in excellent order, the soldiers pushed up the hill toward the fort. Some irregular Spanish troops were the first to perceive them. These fired a hasty volley at the British troops as they ascended the crest and then retreated into the fort. Seizing their arms the garrison rushed to the ramparts and manned them in time to receive the assailants with a sharp fire. The grenadiers who formed the leading party did not hesitate for a moment, but leaped into the unfinished ditch, clambered up the outer rampart, and with pike and bayonet attacked the defenders.
The captain's detachment speedily joined them. The defenders gave way, broke, and fled, and in wild confusion both parties rushed into the bastion. Peterborough and the prince with their two hundred men followed them quickly and in perfect order, and were soon masters of the bastion. The earl at once set his men to work to throw up a breastwork to cover them from the guns of the inner works; and as there was plenty of materials collected just at this spot for the carrying out of some extensive repairs, they were able to put themselves under cover before the enemy opened fire upon them.
The attention of the garrison was wholly occupied by this sudden and unexpected attack, and the Prince della Torrella, a Neapolitan officer in temporary command of the fort, ordered all his force to oppose the assailants. This was what Peterborough had expected. He at once sent orders to Colonel Southwell to commence his attack upon the now almost undefended west bastion. The order was promptly obeyed. At the first rush the ditch was passed, the rampart gained, the outer walls scaled, and three guns taken without the loss of a man.
The defenders hastened at once to meet this new danger. They opened a heavy fire upon the British, and sallying out, endeavored to retake the outer rampart with the bayonet. A desperate contest ensued; but though many of the English officers and soldiers fell, they would not yield a foot of the position they had captured. Colonel Southwell, a man of great personal strength and daring, was in the struggle three times surrounded by the enemy; but each time he cut his way out in safety.
The sally was at last repulsed, and the English intrenched their position and turned their captured guns against the fort. While both the assaulting columns were occupied in intrenching themselves there was a lull in the battle. The besieged could not venture to advance against either, as they would have been exposed to the fire of the other, and to the risk of a flank attack.
Peterborough exerted himself to the utmost. He ordered up the thousand men under General Stanhope and made prodigious exertions to get some guns and mortars into position upon the newly won ramparts.
Great was the consternation and astonishment in Barcelona when a loud roar of musketry broke out round the citadel, and Velasco, the governor, was thunderstruck to find himself threatened in this vital point by an enemy whose departure he had, the evening before, been celebrating. The assembly was sounded, and the church bells pealed out the alarm.
The troops ran to their places of assembly, the fortifications round the town were manned, and a body of four hundred mounted grenadiers under the Marquis de Risbourg hurried off to the succor of Montjuich. The earl had been sure that such a movement would be made. He could not spare men from his own scanty force to guard the roads between the city and the castle, but he had posted a number of the armed Spanish peasants who were in the pay of the army in a narrow gorge, where, with hardly any risk to themselves, they might easily have prevented the horsemen from passing. The peasants, however, fired a hurried volley and then fled in all directions.
Lord Peterborough learned a lesson here which he never forgot, namely, that these Spanish irregulars, useful as they might be in harassing an enemy or pursuing a beaten foe, were utterly untrustworthy in any plan of combined action. The succor, therefore, reached Montjuich in safety; two hundred of the men dismounted and entered the fort; the remainder, leading their horses, returned to Barcelona.
The Marquis de Risbourg had no sooner entered the fort and taken the command than he adopted a stratagem which nearly proved fatal to the English hopes of success. He ordered his men to shout "Long live Charles the Third !" and threw open the gates of the fort as if to surrender. The Prince of Hesse Darmstadt, who commanded at this point, was completely deceived, and he ordered Colonel Allen to advance with two hundred and fifty men, while he himself followed with a company in reserve, believing that the Spanish garrison had declared for King Charles.
The British advanced eagerly and in some disorder into the ditch, when a terrible fire of musketry was suddenly opened upon them from the front and flank. In vain they tried to defend themselves; the brave prince was struck down by a mortal wound while endeavoring to encourage them, and was carried to the rear, and Allen and two hundred men were taken prisoners. The prince expired a few minutes later before there was time for a doctor to examine his wound.
Peterborough, who had come up just at the end of the struggle, remained with him till he died, and then hurried off to retrieve the fortune of the day, which, during these few minutes, had greatly changed. Velasco had dispatched three thousand men, as fast as they could be got together, to follow Risbourg's dragoons to the succor of the fort, and these were already in sight. But this was not all. One of the strange panics which occasionally attack even the best troops had seized the British in the bastion.
Without any apparent cause, without a shot being fired at them from the fort, they fell into confusion. Their commander, Lord Charlemont, shared the panic, and gave orders for a retreat. The march soon became a rout, and the men fled in confusion from the position which they had just before so bravely won.
Captain Carleton, a staff officer, disengaged himself from the throng of fugitives and rode off to inform the earl, who was reconnoitering the approaching Spaniards, of what had taken place. Peterborough at once turned his horse, and, followed by Carleton and Jack Stilwell, galloped up the hill. He drew his sword and threw away the scabbard as he met the troops, already halfway down the hill, and, dismounting, shouted to them:
"I am sure all brave men will follow me. Will you bear the infamy of having deserted your post and forsaken your general?"
The appeal was not in vain. Ashamed of their late panic the fugitives halted, faced about, and pressed after him up the hill, and, on reaching the top, found that, strangely enough, the garrison had not discovered that the bastion had been abandoned, for in their retreat the English were hidden from the sight of those in the inner works.
The Marquis de Risbourg, instead of following up his advantage, had at once left Montjuich at the side near the city, taking Colonel Allen and the prisoners with him, and pushed on toward Barcelona. Halfway down he met the reinforcement of three thousand men. The prisoners, on being questioned, informed the Spanish commander that Lord Peterborough and the Prince of Hesse led the attack in person.
Thereupon the officer commanding the reinforcements concluded that the whole of the allied army was round the castle, and that he would be risking destruction if he pushed on. He therefore turned and marched back to the city. Had he continued his way Peterborough's force must have been destroyed, as Stanhope had not yet come up, and he had with him only the little force with which he had marched out from camp, of whom more than a fourth were already captured or slain. Such are the circumstances upon which the fate of battles and campaigns depend.