With Moore At Corunna by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV. The First Skirmish
Soult had spent a month in making his preparations for the invasion of Portugal. The time, however, had not been wasted by him. Vigo, Tuy, and Guardia had all been occupied without opposition. Salvatierra on the Minho had been taken possession of, and thus three roads were open to him by which to cross low down on the river, namely, at Guardia, Tuy, and Salvatierra. These roads afforded the shortest and easiest line to Oporto. Romana and Silveira had both been of opinion that he would march south from Orense, through Monterey, and up the valley of the Tamega, and their plans were all made with a view of opposing his advance in that direction. The night before Terence marched he called upon Romana.
"It seems to me probable, Marquis, as it does to you, that the French will advance by this line, but it is possible that they may follow the north bank of the Minho and cross at Salvatierra or Tuy. By that route they would have several rivers to cross but no mountains or defiles. Were they to throw troops across there they would meet with no opposition until they arrived at Oporto. It seems to me that my best plan would be to march west and endeavour to prevent such a passage being made. If I could do so it would prevent your position being turned. There are no bridges marked on my map, and if I could secure the boats we should, at any rate, cause Soult much difficulty and delay. No doubt there are some local levies there, and we should be able to watch a considerable extent of the river; indeed, so far as I can see, they must cross, if they cross at all there, at one of the three towns on the north side, for it is only by the roads running through these that they could carry their artillery and baggage."
"I think that will be an excellent plan," Romana said, "for although I believe that they will come this way, I have been very uneasy at the thought that they might possibly cross lower down, and so turn our position altogether. But you will have to watch not only the three places through which the roads pass, but other parts of the river, for they may throw a few hundred men across in boats at any point, and these falling suddenly upon your parties on the bank, might drive them away and enable the main body to cross without resistance."
"I will keep as sharp a look-out as I can, Marquis." Marching north from Monterey the troops moved through Villa Real and Gingo, and then, turning west, crossed the river Lima, there a small stream, and then following the valley of that river for some distance, turned off and struck the Minho opposite Salvatierra, having covered fifty miles in two days. Here a considerable number of armed peasants and ordenancas were gathered. They were delighted at the arrival of two well-armed regiments; and hearing from Herrara that Terence was a staff-officer of the British general, and was sent by him to direct the defence of the river, they at once placed themselves under his orders.
Terence found, to his satisfaction, that on the approach of the French most of the boats had been removed to the south side of the river and hauled up the bank. His first order was that anyone acquainted with the position of any boats on the other side of the river should at once inform him of it. It was not long before he heard of some twenty or thirty that had been hidden by their owners on the other side, in order that they might have the means of crossing to escape the French exactions. At nightfall several boats were launched, and parties of men, directed by those who had given information, started to cross the river and bring those boats over. The Minho was at this time in flood and was running with great rapidity, and Terence felt confident that in its present state none of the enemy's cavalry would attempt to cross it by swimming.
He decided on placing the largest part of his force opposite Tuy, as the principal road south passed through this town, and he would here be supported by the guns of the fortress of Valenca. He stationed his first battalion here, with orders to line the river for six miles above and below this spot. Half of the second battalion he left under Macwitty, and with the other half determined to march down towards the mouth of the river. The next morning all the boats returned, bringing those for which they had been searching, and after closely questioning the guides he felt assured that there could be so few remaining that the French would hardly attempt to cross the river in the face of the crowd of peasants--whom they could not but see--lining the southern bank.
As soon as the boats had returned he marched with the three companies. When half-way between Valenca and Caminha he met a peasant, who had crossed from the northern bank in a boat that had escaped the search of the French. He reported that some days before some 10,000 of the French had arrived in the neighbourhood of the village Campo Sancos, and that a division had been hard at work since their arrival transporting some large fishing-boats and heavy guns from the harbour of Guardia to Campo Sancos. The guns had been placed in a battery on a height, and the boats launched in a little river that ran into the Minho village. Terence learned that the work was now nearly completed, and the peasant had risked his life in coming across to give information.
Terence at once sent off a mounted man to Valenca to request Herrara to march down with the first battalion and to send on to Macwitty to leave one company to assist the ordenancas to guard the river between Salvatierra and Valenca, and to take post with the other two in front of the latter town. At nightfall he was joined by Herrara.
After explaining the situation to him, Terence said:
"It will not be necessary to watch the river above Campo Sancos, for it would be impossible to row heavy fishing-boats against this stream, so they must land somewhere between that place and the mouth of the river. Thus we have only some eight miles to guard, and as we have eighteen hundred men, besides the peasants, we ought to be able to do that thoroughly. I expect they will endeavour to make the passage to-night, and they will certainly cross, as nearly as they can, opposite the village. The battery is about a mile below it, and is no doubt intended to cover their landing. I shall post myself with two companies of the first battalion there, and extend another company from that point up to Campos Sancos. You, with the other three companies and the three companies of the second battalion, will watch the river below.
"It is unlucky that there is no moon at present. I do not expect, however, that the attack will take place till morning, for, in the first place, the peasant said that although the guns had been got up to the height they had not yet been placed in position, and as we have noticed no movement there all day, nor seen a French soldier anywhere near the river, they will only be beginning work now, and can hardly have finished it until well on in the night. Besides, when the first party who crossed have obtained a footing here, the boats will have to go backwards and forwards. No doubt the cavalry will be among the first to cross, and they would hardly get the horses on board in the dark. It is of vital importance to repel this attack, for if the French got across they would be at Vianna to-morrow evening, and at Oporto three days later. I don't suppose that place will resist for a day; and if, as is probable, Victor moves up from the south, he and Soult may be in front of Lisbon in ten days' time.
"You had better tell your captains this, in order that they may understand how vital it is to prevent the passage. From what I hear from the peasants, the boats will not be able to carry more than three or four hundred men, and wherever they land we ought to be able to crush them before the boats can cross again and bring over reinforcements."
"Well, Bull, I think we are likely to have fighting tonight," Terence said, as Herrara marched off with his men.
"I hope so, sir. I don't think they will be able to cross in our face, and it will do the men a lot of good to win the first fight."
"If Romana's troops were worth anything, Soult would find himself in an awkward position. He has got his whole army jammed up in the corner here, and if he cannot cross there is nothing for him to do but to march along the river to Orense, and then come down by the road through Monterey. There are several streams to cross as he marches up the bank. Romana is sure to have heard of his concentrating somewhere down near the mouth of the river, and I should think that by this time he will have crossed near Orense, and will arrive in time to dispute the passage of these streams. He told me that the Galician peasants have been so enraged by their cattle being carried off for the use of the French army that they will rise in insurrection the instant the French march, and if that is the case, they and Romana ought to be able to give Soult a lot of trouble before he reaches Orense."
"I don't think those fellows with Romana are likely to do much, sir. The French will just sweep them before them."
"I am afraid so, Bull; still, if we can prevent the French from crossing here and compel them to follow the long road through Monterey, we shall have done good service. It would give Portugal another seven or eight days to prepare, and will send the enemy through a country where undisciplined troops ought to be able to make a stand even against soldiers like the French."
All through the night Terence and his major patrolled the bank from the point facing Campo Sancos to a mile below that on which the French were placing their guns. Everything went on quietly, sentries at intervals kept watch, and the men, wrapped in their blankets, lay down in parties of fifty at short intervals.
"The day is beginning to break," Terence said, as he met Bull coming back from the lower end of the line. "I am not afraid now, for if we can but see them coming we can gather two or three hundred men at any point they may be making for. Besides, our shooting would be very wild in the dark."
"That it would, sir; not one shot in fifty would hit the boats, let alone the men; and when the Portuguese saw the boats come on without pause in spite of their fire, they would be likely to lose heart and to get unsteady."
"We may as well stop here, Bull. It will be light enough to see across the river in another quarter of an hour, and if there are no boats coming then, I think it is pretty certain that they will not begin until to-morrow night. The peasant said that they have only got 10,000 troops there as yet, and we know that Soult has more than double that, and he may wait another day for them all to come up."
Ten minutes later one of the sentries close to them shouted out that he could see boats. Terence ran up to him.
"Where are they, my man?"
"Nearly opposite, sir."
Terence gazed fixedly for a moment, and then said: "I see them; they are heading straight across." Then he gave the order to the man who always accompanied him with a horn, to blow the alarm.
At the sound, the troops sprang to their feet, and some hundreds of peasants, who were lying down a short distance behind, ran up. The horn was evidently heard on the other side of the river, for immediately the guns of the battery opposite opened fire, and their shot whizzed overhead. The boats plied their oars vigorously, and the French soldiers cheered; they were but some three hundred yards away when first discovered. The Portuguese were coming rapidly up at the double. Terence shouted that not a shot was to be fired until he gave the order. He was obeyed by his own men, but the peasants at once began a wild fire at the boats. By the time these were within fifty yards of the shore Terence saw with satisfaction that fully a company had come up. The men stood firmly, although the balls from the French battery ploughed up the ground around them.
"Wait until the first boat grounds," Terence shouted again. Another minute and the first fishing-boat touched the shore. Then the horn sounded, and the front line of the Portuguese poured a terrible volley into it. A few of the French soldiers only succeeded in gaining the land, and these were at once shot down. Then the troops opened a rolling fire upon the other boats. The French replied with their musketry, but their fire was feeble. They had expected to have effected a landing with but slight opposition, and the concentrated fire of the troops and the peasantry convinced them that, even should they gain the shore, they would be greatly outnumbered, and would be shot down before they could gather in any regular formation. Many of the rowers, who were Spanish peasants forced into the work, had fallen. Most of their comrades left the oars and threw themselves into the bottom of the boats, and the craft drifted down the stream.
Shouts of triumph rose from the Portuguese, who obeyed the signal to form fours, and marched along parallel with the boats, forming line occasionally and firing heavy volleys. The French soldiers now seized the oars and rowed the craft into the middle of the river, and then slowly and painfully made their way to Campo Sancos, having lost more than half of the three hundred men who had left there. The French battery ceased to fire, and the din of battle was succeeded by a dead silence. Once convinced that the French had abandoned the attempt to land, the Portuguese broke into loud shouts of triumph, which were only checked when Terence ordered them to form up in close order. When they did so he addressed a few words to them, complimenting them upon the steadiness that they had shown, and upon their obeying his order to reserve their fire till the French were close at hand.
"I was convinced that you would behave well," he said, "and in future I shall have no hesitation in meeting a body of French equal in numbers to yourselves."
Messengers were at once despatched to order up all the troops that had been posted below, and in two hours the whole force, with the exception of the three companies, between them and Salvatierra, were assembled.
"The question is, Herrara," Terence said, when he and his colonel had exchanged congratulations on the repulse of the French, "what will Soult do next?
"That is a question upon which everything depends. I don't think he will try again here. He has been eight days in preparing those boats to cross, and now that he knows there is a very strong force here, and that even if he got three or four times as many boats he would scarcely be able to force a passage, my idea is that he will abandon the attack and march at once for Orense. In that case the question is, shall we wait until we have assured ourselves that he has gone, and then follow and harass his rear? or shall we march up the river and then cross to help Romana to bar his passage?"
"I think the latter will be the best plan. You see, we should not be cutting his communication were we to march now, because when he has crossed the river Avia he will have direct communication with Ney, and will of course draw all his supplies from the north, so I think that we had better lose no time in pushing up along the river."
The troops were ordered to light fires and cook their breakfast. While this was going on Terence assembled the peasant bands, and told them that he thought the French would not make another attempt to cross, but that they must remain in a state of watchfulness until they received certain news from the other side that they had marched for Orense.
As soon as breakfast was over and the cooking-pots packed in the cart, the two regiments started on their march. They were in high spirits, and laughed and sang as they tramped along. They had lost but two killed by the French musketry fire, and there were but five so severely wounded as to be unable to take their places in the ranks. These Terence ordered to be taken in a country cart to Pontelima, and he provided them with money for their support there until cured.
The men having been on foot all night, Terence halted them after doing fifteen miles. On the following morning, soon after they had started, they saw a large body of French cavalry following the road by the river. These were La Houssaye's, who had been quartered at Salvatierra, The river here was narrower than it had been below, and halting the troops and forming them in line, two or three volleys were fired across the river. These did some execution, and caused much confusion in the French ranks. The horsemen, however, galloped rapidly up the river, and were soon out of range.
"That settles the question, Herrara. The French are retracing their steps, and bound for Orense. Soult has not let the grass grow under his feet, and the cavalry are evidently sent on to clear out any bands of peasants that may be gathering at the rivers."
La Houssaye, indeed, twice in the course of the day broke up irregular bands, and burned two villages. The infantry and artillery, after passing through Salvatierra, moved by the main road. This, however, was found to be so bad that the artillery were, with ten of the sixteen light guns, and six howitzers, left behind at Tuy, with a great ammunition and baggage train, together with 900 sick. A garrison of 500 men were left in the fort. Orders were given that all stragglers were to be retained at that place.
The march of the French was not unopposed. When they arrived at the river Morenta they found 800 Spaniards had barricaded the bridges and repulsed the advance parties of cavalry. On the 17th, at daybreak, the leading division attacked them fiercely, carried the bridge, and pursued them hotly, until at a short distance from Ribadavia the Spaniards rallied upon some 10,000 irregulars arrayed in order of battle in a strong position covering the town. The rest of the division and a brigade of cavalry came up, and, directed by Soult himself, attacked the Spaniards, drove them through the town and across the Avia with great loss. Twenty priests were found among the slain. The next day three or four thousand other irregulars from the valley of Avia were attacked and scattered, and on the 18th the French cavalry, with three brigades of infantry, entered Orense.
An hour earlier Terence had arrived on the other side of the river, and had at once made preparations for blowing up the bridge. The men had been but a short time at work when numbers of the townsmen streamed across the bridge and reported that a great body of the French were entering the town. Terence had a hasty consultation with Herrara, and both agreed that they could not hope to hold the bridge long against the whole French army, especially as they had learned two hours before from a peasant who had ridden up, that strong bodies of French troops had crossed the river by the ferries at Ribadavia and Barbibante, and that they might shortly be attacked in flank. The powder-barrels were therefore hastily repacked, and the troops marched off towards the hills on their left.
They were but half-way across the plain when a regiment of French cavalry were seen riding in pursuit. The regiments were at once formed into squares within fifty yards of each other, and Terence and Bull in the centre of one square, and Herrara and Macwitty in the other, exhorted the men to stand steady, assuring them there was nothing whatever to be feared from the cavalry if they did so. The French rode up towards the squares, but were met by heavy volleys, and after riding round them drew off, having suffered considerable loss, being greatly surprised at finding that instead of a mob of armed men, such as they had met at Avia, they were encountered by soldiers possessing the steadiness of trained troops.
The regiments resumed their march until far up the hill, where they proceeded to cut down trees and brushwood and to form an encampment, as their leader had decided to stay here and await events until Soult's intentions were clearly shown. There were two courses open to the French general. He might advance to Allaritz and then march along the Lima, be joined by his artillery and train from Tuy, and then move direct upon Oporto, or he might follow the valley of the Tamega to Chaves, whence he would have the choice of routes, and take either that over the Sierra de Cabrera to Braga, or continue his course down the valley until he reached the Douro.
It was not until the 4th of March that the French again moved forward. In the meantime Terence was forced to remain quiet, except that each day he marched his men farther among the hills and drilled them for some hours perseveringly. The affair on the Minho and the repulse of the French cavalry had given them great confidence in themselves and their leader, and had shown them the value of steadiness, and of maintaining order and discipline in the ranks. They therefore devoted themselves even more willingly and zealously than before to their military exercises, and the ten days taken by Soult in preparing for the advance were well spent in accustoming the Portuguese to rapid movements among the mountains, and to attaining a fair knowledge of what would be required of them in mountain warfare. Two companies always remained in the camp, and these had several skirmishes with bodies of French marauders, and small parties of cavalry making across the country to ascertain the position and strength of the Portuguese.
The advance of the French was rapid, and on the 5th the cavalry and a portion of the infantry reached Villa Real, where, on the evening of the same day, two divisions of infantry arrived. That night Terence with his men having on the 4th marched along the hills parallel to the road, made a forced march, crossed the road and took up a position on the spur of the mountains between Montalegre and the river. Even yet it was doubtful which route Soult intended to follow, as the division at Villa Real might be intended only to prevent Romana and Silveira falling upon his flank. As he marched down the valley of the Lima, he had learned from Romana that he and Silveira had decided to fall back to Chaves, and that he agreed with Terence's opinion that he had better remain in the rear of the French, and intercept their communications with Orense.
On the following morning the French advanced in force to Monterey. Romana abandoned the position as they advanced, drew off to Verin, and then retired along the road towards Sanabria. He thus left it open to himself either to follow the road to Chaves, as agreed upon, or to retire into Spain through the mountains. Franceschi's cavalry and a battalion of French infantry overtook between two and three thousand men forming the rear of Romana's column. The latter drew up in a great square. Franceschi attacked the rear face with his infantry, passed with his cavalry round the sides of the square, and placed himself between it and the rest of the retiring column. He had with him four regiments of cavalry, and now hurled a regiment at each side of the square.
The Spaniards were at once seized with dismay, broke their formation, and in a moment the French cavalry were upon them, cutting and trampling them down. Twelve hundred were killed and the rest made prisoners. As soon as Romana heard of the disaster that had befallen his rearguard, he broke his engagement with Silveira and led his force over the mountains into Spain, where the news of his defeat caused the Spanish insurgent bands to disperse rapidly to their homes, where they delivered up their arms; and even the priests, who had been the main promoters of the rising, seeing the failure of all their plans, advised them to maintain a peaceable attitude in future.
Silveira was not more fortunate, for two thousand of his troops with some guns, issuing from the mountains just as Franceschi returned from the annihilation of Romana's rearguard, the French cavalry charged and captured the Portuguese guns, and drove Silveira down the valley.
Soult paused two days at Monterey, the baggage and hospital train, and a great convoy of provisions being brought up from Orense, under the guard of a whole division. This rendered it evident that he intended to cut himself off altogether from Spain, and to subsist entirely upon the country. It was clear then that it was useless to attempt to fall upon his rear, and by a long march through the mountains Terence took his force down to Chaves.
Here he found that Silveira, deserted by Romana and beaten by Franceschi, had fallen back to a mountain immediately behind Chaves. Terence continued his march until he joined him. He found a great tumult going on among his troops; always insubordinate, they were now in a state of mutiny. Many of the officers openly advocated that they should desist from a struggle in which success was altogether hopeless, and should go over and join the French. The troops, however, not only spurned the advice, but fell upon and killed several of those who offered it, and demanded from Silveira that he should lead them down to defend Chaves. This he refused to do, saying that the fortifications were old and useless, the guns worn out, and that were they to shut themselves up there, they would be surrounded and forced to surrender.
This refusal excited the mutineers to the highest pitch, and when Terence arrived they were clamouring for his death. A small party of soldiers who remained faithful to him surrounded him, but they would speedily have been overpowered had it not been for the arrival of Terence's command. As soon as he understood what was happening, he formed his men into a solid body, marched through the excited crowd, and formed up in hollow square round the general. The firm appearance of the force and the fact that they possessed more arms than the whole of Silveira's army, had its effect. The mutineers, however, to the number of 3,500, determined to carry out their intentions, and at once marched away to Chaves. Silveira remained with but a few hundred men, as the 2,000 routed by Franceschi had not rejoined him.
"I owe you my life, senor," he said to Terence, "for those mad fools would certainly have murdered me."
"It is not surprising," Terence said. "A mob of men who are not soldiers cannot be expected to observe discipline, especially when insubordination and anarchy have been absolutely fomented by the authorities, crimes of all sorts perpetrated by their orders, and no efforts whatever made to punish ill-doers."
"Your men seem to be disciplined and obedient," Silveira said.
"They have been taught to be so, General, and I believe that I can rely upon them absolutely. If you had but officers and discipline, I am certain that your soldiers would be excellent; but as it is, with a few exceptions, your officers are worse than useless. They are appointed as a reward for their support of the Junta; they are ignorant of their duties, and many of them favour the French; they regard their soldiers as raised, not for the defense of Portugal, but for the support of the Junta. I have seen enough to know that the peasants are brave, hardy, and ready to fight. But what can they do when they are but half-armed, and no attempt whatever is made to discipline them? Have you heard, since these troubles began, of a single man being shot for insubordination, or of a single officer being punished even for the grossest neglect of orders? It is nothing short of murder to put a mob of half-armed peasants to stand against French troops."
"All that is quite true," Silveira said, heartily. "However, I shall do my best, and shall, I doubt not, soon have another force collected, for now that the French have fairly entered Portugal, and are marching towards the capital, every man will take up arms. And you, senor, what do you mean to do?"
"I shall harass the French as I see an opportunity, but I shall not subject my men to certain disaster by joining any of the new levies. I know what my men can do, and what I can do with them; but if mixed up with thousands of raw peasants they would be swept away by the latter and share in any misfortune that might befall them. What I have seen of your troops to-day, and what I saw of Romana's, is quite enough to show me that to lead peasants into the field is simply to bring misfortune and death upon them. Far better that each leader should collect two or three hundred men and teach them discipline and a little drill instead of taking a mob thousands strong out to battle. Those men that have marched down into Chaves will, you will see, offer no resistance, and will simply be killed or made prisoners to a man. Now, may I ask if you have any stores here, General? We have had great difficulty in buying food up in the mountains, and as it will be useless to you, and certainly cannot be carried off, I should be glad to fill the men's haversacks before we go farther."
"Certainly. I had enough meat and bread for my whole force for a week, and you are welcome to take as much as you require. Which way do you propose marching?"
"I am waiting to see which way the French go after leaving Chaves. Whether they go down the valley or across the mountains to Braga, I shall endeavour to get ahead of them; and as my men are splendid marchers, I have no doubt that I shall succeed in doing so, even if the French have a few hours' start. If I can do nothing else, I can at least make their cavalry keep together instead of riding in small parties all over the country to sweep in food."
Fires were soon lighted, some bullocks killed and cut up, and a hearty meal eaten. They had already made a very long march, and were ordered to lie down until nightfall. Silveira marched away with his men, and Terence and Herrara sat and watched the road, down which bodies of French troops could already be seen advancing from Monterey towards Chaves. As they approached the town, gun after gun was fired. The advance-guard halted and waited until the whole division had come up.