Chapter X. Corunna

As the confusion in the streets increased from the pouring out from the houses and cellars of the camp-followers--women and children, together with men less drunk than their comrades, but still unable to walk steadily--who filled the air with shouts and drunken execrations, Colonel Corcoran rode along the line.

"Just look at that, boys," he said. "Isn't it better for you to be standing here like dacent men, ready to do your duty, than to be rolling about in a state like those drunken blackguards, for the sake of half an hour's pleasure? Sure it is enough to make every mother's son of you swear off liquor till ye get home again. When the French get inside the town there is not one of the drunken bastes that won't be either killed or marched away a thousand miles to a French prison, and all for half an hour's drink."

The lesson was indeed a striking one, and careless as many of the men were, it brought home to them with greater force than ever before in their lives, not only the folly but the degradation of drunkenness. A few minutes later, General Moore, who was riding up and down the line, inspecting the condition of the men in each regiment, came along.

"Your men look very well, Colonel," he said, as he reached the Fusiliers. "How many are you short of your number?"

"Not a man, General; I am happy to say that there was not a single one that did not answer when his name was called."

"That is good, indeed," the general said, warmly. "I am happy to say that all the regiments of the rear-guard have turned out well, and shown themselves worthy of the trust reposed in them; none, however, can give so good a report as you have done. I selected your regiment to strengthen this division from the excellent order that I observed you kept along the line of march, and I am glad indeed that it has shown itself so worthy of the honour. March your regiment across to the side of the street, let the others pass you, and fall in at the rear of the column. I shall give the Mayo Fusiliers the post of honour, as a mark of my warm approbation for the manner in which they have turned out."

Scarcely had the troops left the town when the French cavalry poured in. Now that it was too late, the sense of danger penetrated the brains of the revellers, and the mob of disbanded Spanish and British soldiers and camp-followers poured out from the cellars. Few of the soldiers had the sense even to bring up their muskets. Most of those who did so were too drunk to use them, and the French troopers rode through the mob, sabring them right and left, and trampling them under foot, and then, riding forward without a pause, set out in pursuit of the retiring columns. As they came clattering along the road the colonel ordered the last two companies to halt, and when the head of the squadron was within fifty yards of them, and the troopers were beginning to check their horses, a heavy volley was poured in, which sent them to the right-about as fast as they had come, and emptied a score of saddles. Then the two companies formed fours again, and went on at the double until they reached the rear of the column.

All day the French cavalry menaced the retreat, until Lord Paget came back with a regiment of hussars and drove them back in confusion, pursuing them a couple of miles, with the view of discovering whether they were followed by infantry. Such, however, was not the case, and the column was not further molested until they reached Cacabolos, where they were halted. The rest of the army had moved on, the troops committing excesses similar to those that had taken place at Bembibre, and plundering the shops and houses.

The division marched over a deep stream crossed by a stone bridge, and took up their ground on a lofty ridge, the ascent being broken by vineyards and stone walls. Four hundred men of the rifles and as many cavalry were posted on a hill two miles beyond the river to watch the roads. They had scarcely taken their post when the enemy were seen approaching, preceded by six or eight squadrons of cavalry. The rifles were at once withdrawn, and the cavalry, believing that the whole French army was advancing, presently followed them, and, riding fast, came up to the infantry just as they were crossing the bridge.

Before all the infantry were over the French cavalry came down at a furious gallop, and for a time all was confusion. Then the rifles, throwing themselves among the vineyards and behind the walls, opened a heavy fire. The French general in command of the cavalry was killed, with a number of his troops, and the rest of the cavalry fell back. A regiment of light infantry had followed them across the bridge, and two companies of the 52d and as many of the Mayo regiment went down the hill and reinforced the rifles. A sharp fight ensued until the main body of the French infantry approached the bridge. A battery of artillery opened upon them, and seeing the strength of the British division, and believing that the whole army was before him, Soult called back his troops. The voltigeurs retired across the bridge again, and the fight came to an end. Between two and three hundred men had been killed or wounded.

As soon as night came on the British force resumed its march, leaving two companies of the rifles as piquets at the bridge. The French crossed again in the night, but after some fighting, fell back again without having been able to ascertain whether the main body of the defenders of the position were still there. Later on the rifles fell back, and at daybreak rejoined the main body of the rear-guard, which had reached Becerrea, eighteen miles away. Here General Moore received the report from the engineers he had sent to examine the harbours, and they reported in favour of Corunna, which possessed facilities for defence which were lacking at Vigo. Accordingly he sent off orders to the fleet, which was lying at the latter port, to sail at once for Corunna, and directed the various divisions of the army to move on that town.

The rear-guard passed the day without moving, enjoying a welcome rest after the thirty-six miles they had covered the day before. By this march they had gained a long start of the enemy and had in the evening reached the town the division before them had quitted that morning. The scene as they marched along was a painful one. Every day added to the numbers of the stragglers. The excesses in drink exhausted the strength of the troops far more than did the fatigue of the marches. Their shoes were worn out; many of them limped along with rags tied round their feet. Even more painful than the sight of these dejected and worn-out men was that of the camp-followers. These, in addition to their terrible hardships and fatigue, were worn out with hunger, and almost famished. Numbers of them died by the roadside, others still crawled on in silent misery.

Nothing could be done to aid these poor creatures. The troops themselves were insufficiently fed, for the evil conduct of the soldiers who first marched through the towns defeated all the efforts of the commissariat; for they had broken into the bakers' shops and so maltreated the inhabitants that the people fled in terror, and no bread could be obtained for the use of the divisions in the rear. Towards evening the next day the reserve approached Constantina. The French were now close upon their rear. A bridge over a river had to be crossed to reach the town, and as there was a hill within a pistol-shot of the river, from which the French artillery could sweep the bridge, Sir John Moore placed the riflemen and artillery on it. The enemy, believing that he intended to give battle, halted, and before their preparations could be made the troops were across the bridge, and were joined by the artillery, which had retired at full speed.

The French advanced and endeavoured to take the bridge. General Paget, however, held the post with two regiments of cavalry, and then fell back to Lugo, where the whole army was now assembled. The next day Sir John Moore issued an order strongly condemning the conduct of the troops, and stating that he intended to give battle to the enemy. The news effected an instant transformation. The stragglers who had left their regiments and entered the town by twos and threes at once rejoined their corps. Fifteen hundred men had been lost during the retreat, of whom the number killed formed but a small proportion. But the army still amounted to its former strength, as it was here joined by two fresh battalions, who had been left at Lugo by General Baird on his march from the coast. The force therefore numbered 19,000 men; for it had been weakened by some 4,000 of the light troops having, early in the retreat, been directed towards other ports, in order to lessen as far as possible the strain on the commissariat.

The position was a strong one, and when Soult at mid-day came up at the head of 12,000 men he saw at once that until his whole force arrived he could not venture to attack it. Like the British, his troops had suffered severely from the long marches, and many had dropped behind altogether. Uncertain whether he had the whole of the British before him, he sent a battery of artillery and some cavalry forward; when the former opened fire, they were immediately silenced by a reply from fifteen pieces. Then he made an attack upon the right, but was sharply repulsed with a loss of from three to four hundred men; and, convinced now that Moore was ready to give battle with his whole force, he drew off.

The next day both armies remained in their positions. Soult had been joined by Laborde's division, and had 17,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 50 guns; the English had 16,000 infantry, 1,800 cavalry, and 40 guns. The French made no movement to attack, and the British troops were furious at the delay. Soult, however, was waiting until Ney, who was advancing by another road, should threaten the British flank or cut the line of retreat. Moore, finding that Soult would not fight alone, and knowing that Ney was approaching, gave the order for the army to leave its position after nightfall and march for Corunna. He exhorted them to keep good order, and to make the effort which would be the last demanded from them. It was indeed impossible for him to remain at Lugo, even if Ney had not been close at hand, for there was not another day's supply of bread in the town.

He took every precaution for securing that no errors should take place as to the route to be followed in the dark, for the ground behind the position was intersected by stone walls and a number of intricate lanes. To mark the right tracks, bundles of straw were placed at intervals along the line, and officers appointed to guide the columns. All these precautions, however, were brought to naught by the ill-fortune that had dogged the general along the whole line of retreat. A tremendous storm of wind and rain set in, the night was pitch dark, the bundles of straw were whirled away by the wind, and when the army silently left their post at ten o'clock at night, the task before them was a difficult one indeed. All the columns lost their way, and one division alone recovered the main road; the other two wandered about all night, buffeted by the wind, drenched by the rain, disheartened and weary.

Some regiments entered what shelters they could find, the men soon scattered to plunder, stragglers fell out in hundreds, and at daybreak the remnants of the two divisions were still in Lugo. The moment the light afforded means of recovering their position, the columns resumed their march, the road behind them being thickly dotted by stragglers. The rearguard, commanded by the general himself, covered the rear, but fortunately the enemy did not come up until evening; but so numerous were the stragglers that when the French cavalry charged, they mustered in sufficient force to repel their attack, a proof that it was not so much fatigue as insubordination that caused them to lag behind. The rear-guard halted a few miles short of Friol and passed the night there, which enabled the disorganized army to rest and re-form. The loss during this unfortunate march was greater than that of all the former part of the retreat, added to all the losses in action and during the advance.

The next day the army halted, as the French had not come up in sufficient numbers to give battle, and on the following day marched in good order into Corunna, where, to the bitter disappointment of the general, the fleet had not yet arrived. At the time, Sir John Moore was blamed by the ignorant for having worn out his troops by the length of the marches; but the accusation was altogether unfounded, as is proved by the fact that the rear-guard--upon whom the full brunt of the fighting had fallen, who had frequently been under arms all night in the snow, had always to throw out very strong outposts to prevent surprises, and had marched eighty miles in two days, had suffered far more than the other troops, owing to the fact that the food supply intended for all had been several times wasted and destroyed by the excesses of those who had preceded them--yet who, when they reached Corunna, had a much smaller number missing from their ranks than was the case with the three other divisions.

After all the exertions that had been made, and the extraordinary success with which the general had carried his force through a host of enemies, all his calculations were baffled by the contrary winds that delayed the arrival of the fleet, and it remained but to surrender or fight a battle, which, if won, might yet enable the army to embark. Sir John did not even for a moment contemplate the former alternative. The troops on arriving were at once quartered in the town. The inhabitants here, who had so sullenly held aloof from Baird's force on its arrival, and had refused to give him the slightest aid, now evinced a spirit of patriotism seldom exhibited by the Spaniards, save in their defence of Saragossa, and on a few other occasions.

Although aware that the army intended, if possible, to embark, and that the French on entering might punish them for any aid given to it, they cheerfully aided the troops in removing the cannon from the sea-face and in strengthening the defences on the land side. Provisions in ample quantity were forthcoming, and in twenty-four hours the army, knowing that at last they were to engage the foe who had for the last fortnight hunted them so perseveringly, recovered its confidence and discipline. This was aided by the fact that Corunna had large magazines of arms and ammunition, which had been sent out fifteen months before, from England, and were still lying there, although Spain was clamouring for arms for its newly raised levies.

To the soldiers this supply was invaluable. Their muskets were so rusted with the almost constant downfall of rain and snow of the past month as to be almost unserviceable, and these were at once exchanged for new arms. The cartridge-boxes were re-filled with fresh ammunition, an abundant store served out for the guns, and, after all this, two magazines containing four thousand barrels of powder remained. These had been erected on a hill, three miles from the town, and were blown up so that they should not fall into the hands of the enemy. The explosion was a terrible one, and was felt for many miles round. The water in the harbour was so agitated that the shipping rolled as if in a storm, and many persons who had gone out to witness the explosion were killed by falling fragments.

The ground on which the battle was to take place was unfit for the operations of cavalry. The greater portion of the horses were hopelessly foundered, partly from the effects of fatigue, partly from want of shoes; for although a supply of these had been issued on starting, no hammers or nails had been sent, and the shoes were therefore useless. It would in any case have been impossible to ship all these animals, and accordingly, as a measure of mercy, the greater portion of them were shot. Three days were permitted Moore to make his arrangements, for it took that time for Soult to bring up his weary troops and place them in a position to give battle. Their position was a lofty ridge which commanded that upon which Sir John Moore now placed his troops, covering the town. On the right of the French ridge there was another eminence upon which Soult had placed eleven heavy guns.

On the evening of the 14th there was an exchange of artillery fire, but it led to nothing. That afternoon the sails of the long-expected fleet were made out, and just at nightfall it entered the harbour. The dismounted cavalry, the sick, the remaining horses, and fifty guns were embarked, nine guns only being kept on shore for action. On the 15th Soult occupied himself in completing his preparations. Getting his great guns on to the rocks on his left, he attacked and drove from an advanced position some companies of the 5th Regiment, and posted his mass of cavalry so as to threaten the British right, and even menace its retreat to the town from the position it held. Had the battle been delayed another day, Sir John Moore had made every preparation for embarking the rest of his troops rather than await a battle in which even victory would be worthless, for Ney's corps would soon be up. The French, however, did not afford him an opportunity of thus retiring.

Terence O'Connor speedily paid a visit to his regiment at Corunna, for he had, of course, accompanied Fane's brigade during the retreat. He was delighted to find that there had been only a few trifling casualties among the officers, and that the regiment itself, although it had lost some men in the fighting that had taken place, had not left a single straggler behind, a circumstance that was mentioned with the warmest commendation by General Paget in his report of the doings of the rear-guard.

"I was awfully afraid that it would have been quite the other way," Terence said. "I know how all the three other divisions suffered, though they were never pressed by the enemy, and had not a shadow of excuse for their conduct."

"You did not know us, me boy," O'Grady said. "I tell ye, the men were splendid. I expect if we had been with the others we should have behaved just as badly; but being chosen for the rear-guard put our boys all on their mettle, and every man felt that the honour of the regiment depended on his good conduct. Then, too, we were lucky in lighting on a big store of tobacco, and tobacco is as good as food and drink. The men gave a lot away to the other regiments, and yet had enough to last them until we got here."

"Then they were not above doing a little plundering," Terence laughed.

"Plunder is it!" O'Grady repeated, indignantly. "It was a righteous action, for the factory belonged to the Central Junta of the Province, and it was just stripping the French of their booty to carry it away. Faith, it was the most meritorious action of the campaign."

"Have you got a good cigar left, O'Grady?"

"Oh, you have taken to smoking, have you?"

"I was obliged to, to keep my nose warm. On the march, Fane and the major and Errington all smoked, and they looked so comfortable and contented that I felt it was my duty to keep them company."

"I have just two left, Terence, so we will smoke them together, and I have got a bottle of dacent spirits. Think of that, me boy; thirty-two days without spirits! They will never believe me when I go home and tell 'em I went without it for thirty-two mortal days."

"Well, you have had wine, O'Grady."

"It's poor stuff by the side of the cratur, still I am not saying that it wasn't a help. But it was cold comfort, Terence, a mighty cold comfort."

"You are looking well on it, anyhow. And how is the wound?"

"Och, I have nigh forgot I ever had one, save when it comes to ateing. Tim has to cut my food up for me, and I never sit down to a male without wishing bad cess to the French. When we get back I will have a patent machine for holding a fork fixed on somehow. It goes against me grain to have me food cut up as if I was a baby; if it wasn't for that I should not miss my hand one way or the other. In fact, on the march it has been a comfort that I have only had five fingers to freeze, instead of ten. There is a compensation in all things. So we are going to fight them at last? There is no chance of the fleet coming to take us off before that, I hope?" he asked, anxiously, "for we should all break our hearts if we were obliged to go without a fight."

"I don't think there is any chance of that, O'Grady, though I should be very glad if there were. I am not afraid of the fighting, but we certainly sha'n't win without heavy loss, and every life will be thrown away, seeing that we shall, after all, have to embark when the battle is over. Ney, with 50,000 men, is only two or three marches away.

"Well, Dicky, how do you do?" he asked, as Ryan came up.

"I am well enough, Mr. Staff Officer. I needn't ask after yourself, for you have been riding comfortably about, while we have been marched right off our legs. Forty miles a day, Terence, and over such roads as they have in this country; it is just cruelty to animals."

"I would rather have been with you, Dicky, than see to the horrible confusion that has been going on. Why, as soon as the day's march was over we had to set to work to go about trying to keep order. A dozen times I have been nearly shot by drunken rascals whom I was trying to get to return to their corps. Worse still, it was heartrending to see the misery of the starving women and camp-followers. I would rather have been on outpost duty, with Soult's cavalry hovering round, ready to charge at any moment."

"It is all very well to say that, Terence!" O'Grady exclaimed. "But wait until you try it a bit, my boy. I had five nights of it, and that widout a drop of whisky to cheer me. It was enough to have made Samson weep, let alone a man with only one hand, and a sword to hold in it, and a bad could in his head. It was enough to take the heart out of any man entoirely, and if it hadn't been for the credit of the regiment, I could often have sat down on a stone and blubbered. It is mighty hard for a man to keep up his spirits when he feels the mortal heat in him oozing out all over, and his fingers so cold that it is only by looking that one knows one has got a sword in them, and you don't know whether you are standing on your feet or on your knee-bones, and feel as if your legs don't belong to you, but are the property of some poor chap who has been kilt twenty-four hours before. Och, it was a terrible time! and a captain's pay is too small for it, if it was not for the divarsion of a scrimmage now and then!"

"How about an ensign's pay?" Ryan laughed. "I think that on such work as we have had, O'Grady, the pay of all the officers, from the colonel down, ought to be put together and equally divided."

"I cannot say whether I should approve the plan, Ryan, until I have made an intricate calculation, which, now I am comfortable at last, would be a sin and a shame to ask me brain to go through; but as my present idea is that I should be a loser, I may say that your scheme is a bad one, and not to say grossly disrespectful to the colonel, to put his value down as only equal to that of a slip of a lad like yourself. Boys nowadays have no respect for their supeyrior officers. There is Terence, who is not sixteen yet--"

"Sixteen three months back, O'Grady," Terence put in.

"Yes, I remember now, but a week or two one way or the other makes no difference. Here is Terence, just sixteen, who ought to be at school trying to get a little learning into his head, laying down the law to his supeyrior officers, just because he has had the luck to get onto the brigadier's staff. I think sometimes that the world is coming to an end."

"At any rate, O'Grady," Terence laughed, "I am half a head taller than you are, and could walk you off your legs any day."

"There! And he says this to a man who has gone through all the fatigues of the rear-guard, while he has been riding about the country like a gentleman at aise."

"Well, I cannot stop any longer," Terence said. "I am on my way up to see how they are getting on with the earthworks, and the general may want me at any moment."

"I would not trouble about that," O'Grady said, sarcastically; "perhaps he might make a shift to do widout you, widout detriment to the service."

Terence made no reply, but, mounting, rode off up the hill behind the town. At two o'clock on the 16th a general movement of the French line was observed, and the British infantry, 14,500 strong, drew up in order of battle along the position marked for them. The British were fighting under a serious disadvantage, for not only had Soult over 20,000 infantry, with very powerful artillery and great strength in cavalry, but owing to their position on the crest running somewhat obliquely to the higher one occupied by the French, the heavy battery on the rocks to their right raked the whole line of battle. Hope's division was on the British left, Baird's on the right. Fraser's division was on another ridge some distance from the others, and immediately covering the town of Corunna; and Paget, with his division to which the Mayo regiment was still attached, was posted at the village of Airis, on the height between Hope's division and the harbour, and looking down the valley between the main position and the ridge held by Fraser.

From here he could either reinforce Hope and Baird, or advance down the valley to repel any attack of the French cavalry, and cover the retreat of the main body if forced to fall back. The battle commenced by the French opening fire with their field-guns, which were distributed along the front of their position, and by the heavy battery on their left, while their infantry descended the mountain in three heavy columns, covered by clouds of skirmishers. The British piquets were at once driven in, and the village of Elvina, held by a portion of the 50th, carried. The French column on this side then divided into two portions; one endeavoured to turn Baird's right and enter the valley behind the British position, while the other climbed the hill to attack him in front. The second column moved against the British centre, and the third attacked Hope's left, which rested on the village of Palavia Abaxo.

The nine English guns were altogether overmatched by those of Soult's heavy battery. Moore, seeing that the half-column advancing by Baird's flank made no movement to penetrate beyond his right, directed him to throw back one regiment and take the French in flank. Paget was ordered to advance up the valley, to drive back the French column, and menace the French battery, uniting himself with a battalion previously posted on a hill to keep the threatening masses of French cavalry in check. He also sent word to Fraser to advance at once and support Paget. Baird launched the 50th and 42d Regiments to meet the enemy issuing from Elvina. The ground round the village was broken by stone walls and hollow roads, but the French were forced back, and the 50th, entering the village with the fleeing enemy, drove them, after a struggle, beyond the houses.

The 42d, misunderstanding orders, retired towards the hill, and the French, being reinforced, again attacked Elvina, which the 50th held stubbornly until again joined by the 42d, which had been sent forward by Moore himself. Paget was now engaged in the valley, the advance of the enemy was arrested, and they suffered very heavily from the fire of the regiments on the height above their flank, while Paget steadily gained ground. The centre and left were now hotly engaged, but held their ground against all the attacks of the enemy, and on the extreme left advanced and drove the French out of the village of Palavia Abaxo, which they had occupied. Elvina was now firmly held, while Paget carried all before him on the right, and, with Fraser's division behind him, menaced the great French battery.

Had this been carried, the two divisions could have swept along the French position, crumpling up the forces as they went, and driving them down towards the river Moro, in which case they would have been lost. Owing, however, to the battle having been begun at so late an hour, darkness now fell. The general himself, while watching the contest at Elvina, had been struck by a cannon-ball and mortally wounded. General Baird had also been struck down. This loss of commanders combined with the darkness to arrest the progress of the victorious troops, and permitted the French, who were already falling back in great confusion, to recover themselves and maintain their position.

The object for which the battle had been fought was gained. Night, which had saved the French from total defeat, afforded the British the opportunity of extricating themselves from their position, and General Hope, who now assumed the command, ordered the troops to abandon their positions and to march down to the port, leaving strong piquets with fires burning to deceive the enemy. All the arrangements for embarkation had been carefully arranged by Sir John Moore, and without the least hitch or confusion the troops marched down to the port, and before morning were all on board with the exception of a rear-guard, under General Beresford, which occupied the citadel.

At daybreak the piquets were withdrawn and also embarked, and a force under General Hill, that had been stationed on the ramparts to cover the movement, then marched down to the citadel, and there took boats for the ships. By this time, however, the French, having discovered that the British position was abandoned, had planted a battery on the heights of San Lucia and opened fire on the shipping. This caused much confusion among the transports. Several of the masters cut their cables, and four vessels ran ashore. The troops, however, were taken on board of other transports by the boats of the men-of-war. The stranded ships were fired, and the fleet got safely out of harbour.

The noble commander, by whose energy, resolution, and talent this wonderful march had been achieved, lived only long enough to know that his soldiers were victorious, and was buried the same night on the ramparts. His memory was for a time assailed with floods of abuse by that portion of the press and public that had all along vilified the action of the British general, had swallowed eagerly every lie promulgated by the Junta of Oporto, and by the whole of the Spanish authorities; but in time his extraordinary merits came to be recognized to their full value, and his name will long live as one of the noblest men and best generals Great Britain has ever produced.

Beresford held the citadel until the 18th, and then embarked with his troops and all the wounded; the people of Corunna, remaining true to their promises, manned the ramparts of the town until the last British soldier was on board.

The British loss in the battle was estimated at 800 men; that of the French was put down at 3,000. Their greater loss was due to the fact that they assumed the offensive, and were much more exposed than the defenders; that the nine little guns of the latter were enabled to sweep them with grape, while the British were so far away from the French batteries that the latter were obliged to fire round shot; and lastly that the new muskets and fresh ammunition gave a great advantage to the British over the rusty muskets and often damaged powder of the French. Paget's division had suffered but slightly, the main loss of the English having occurred in and around Elvina, and from the shot of the heavy battery that swept the crest held by them. Two officers killed and four wounded were the only casualties in that division, while but thirty of the rank and file were put out of action.