With Moore At Corunna by G. A. Henty
Chapter XXI. Portugal Freed
On the 9th of May Terence was directing the movements of his men, who were practising skirmishing among some rough ground at the bottom of the hill upon which he had taken up his position, to defend, if necessary, the road that crossed if. His men had thrown up several lines of breast-works along the face of the hill to a point where steep ravines protected the flank of his position. Presently he saw a party of horsemen riding down the hill behind him. They reined up suddenly when half-way down the hill and paused to watch what was being done; then they came on again. As they approached, Terence recognized the erect figure of the officer who rode at the head of the party. He cantered up and saluted.
"Who are you, sir, and what troops are these?" Sir Arthur asked, sharply.
"My name is O'Connor, sir. These men constitute the corps that I have the honour to command."
"Form them up in line," the general said, briefly.
Terence rode away at a gallop, and as soon as he reached the spot where his bugler was standing--for bugles had now taken the place of the horns that had before served the purpose--the latter at once blew the assembly, and then the order to form line. The men dashed down at the top of their speed, and in a very short time formed up in a long line with their officers in front.
"Break them into columns of companies," the general, who had now ridden with the staff to the front, said.
The manoeuvre was performed steadily and well.
"Send out the alternate companies as skirmishers, while the other companies form line and move forward in support." When this had been done the order came: "Skirmishers, form into company squares to resist enemy's cavalry."
This had been so frequently practised that in a few seconds the six squares were formed up in an attitude to receive cavalry.
"That is very well done, Colonel O'Connor," Sir Arthur said, with more warmth than was usual with him. "Your men are well in hand and know their business. It is a very creditable display, indeed; you have proved your capacity for command. I have not forgotten what I have heard of you, sir, and it will not be long before your services are utilized."
So saying he rode on. Captain Nelson lingered behind for a moment to shake hands with Terence.
"You may feel proud of that, O'Connor," he said; "Sir Arthur is not given to praise, I can assure you. Good-bye, I must catch them up;" and, turning, he soon overtook the general's staff.
That the general was well satisfied was proved by the fact that three days later the following appeared in general orders:
"The officer commanding-in-chief on Thursday inspected the corps under the command of Lieutenant (with the rank of colonel in the Portuguese army) O'Connor. He was much pleased with the discipline and quickness with which the corps went through certain movements ordered by him. This corps has already greatly distinguished itself, and Sir Arthur would point to it as an example to be imitated by all officers having command of Portuguese troops."
Soult's position had now become very dangerous. The Spanish and Portuguese insurgents were upon the Lima, and the principal portion of his own force was south of the Douro.
Franceschi's cavalry, supported by infantry and artillery, and by Mermet's division, occupied the country between that river and the Vouga, and was without communication with the centre at Oporto, except by the bridge of boats.
Although aware that there was a considerable force gathering at Coimbra, the French general had no idea that the whole of the British army was assembling there. Confident that success would attend his operations, Sir Arthur directed the Portuguese corps to be in readiness to harass Soult's retreat through the mountain denies and up the valley of the Tamega, and so to force him to march north instead of making for Salamanca, where he could unite with the French army there.
A mounted officer brought similar orders to Terence. Half an hour after receiving them the corps was on the march. The instructions were brief and simple:
"You will endeavour to harass Soult as he retreats across the Tras-os-Montes, and try to head him off to the north. Act as circumstances may dictate."
The service was a dangerous one, and Terence felt that it was a high honour that the general should have appointed him to undertake it, for he assuredly would not have sent the corps on such a mission had he not considered that they could be relied upon to take care of themselves. They would be wholly unsupported save by parties of peasants and ordenancas; they would have to operate against an army broken, doubtless, by defeat, but all the more determined to push on, as delay might mean total loss.
He followed the line of the Vouga to the point where it emerged from the hills, crossed these, and came down upon the Douro some ten miles above San Joao, at nearly the same spot where he had before made the passage when on his way to join Romana.
He was now well beyond the district held by the French south of the Douro, and, obtaining a number of boats, crossed the river, and then made for Mirandella on the river Tua, and halted some distance from the town, having made a march of over seventy miles in two days. Learning from the peasants that there were no French troops west of the Tamega, he marched the next day to the crest looking down into the valley, and here halted until he could learn that Soult was retreating, and what road he was following. He had not long to wait for news, for, on the night of the 9th, while he was on his march by the Vouga, the British force had moved forward to Aveiro. Hill's division had there taken boats, and proceeding up the lake to Ovar, had landed at sunrise on the 10th, and placed himself on Franceschi's right.
In the meantime Paget's division had marched to Albergaria, while Cotton's division and Trant's command moved to turn Franceschi's position on its right. The darkness and their ignorance of the roads prevented the movement being attended with the hoped-for success. Had the operation been carried out without a hitch, Franceschi and Mermet would both have been driven off the line of retreat to the bridge of Oporto, and must have been captured or destroyed. As it was, Franceschi fell back fighting, joined Mermet's division at Crijo, a day's march in the rear, and although the whole were driven on the following day from this position, they retired in good order, and that night effected their retreat across the bridge of boats, which was then destroyed.
As Franceschi's report informed Soult that the whole force of the allies was now upon him, he at once sent off his heavy artillery and baggage by the road to Amarante. Mermet was posted at Valongo, with orders to patrol the river and to seize every boat. Those at Oporto were also secured. On the morning of the 12th the British force was concentrated behind the hill of Villa Nova, and Sir Arthur took his place on the top of the Serra Convent, from whence he commanded a view of the city and opposite bank. He saw that the French force was stationed for the most part below Oporto. Franceschi's report had led Soult to believe that Hill's division had come by sea, and he expected that the transports would go up to the mouth of the Douro, and that the British would attempt to effect a landing there.
The river took a sharp turn round the Serra Convent, and Sir Arthur saw that another large convent on the opposite bank, known as the Seminary, was concealed by the hill from Soult's position, and that it might be occupied without attracting the attention of the French. After much search a little boat was found; in this a few men crossed and brought back two large boats from the opposite side of the river. In these the troops at once began to cross, and two companies had taken possession of the convent before Soult was aware of what was going on. Then a prodigious din arose. Troops were hurried through the town, the bugles and trumpets sounded the alarm, while the populace thronged to the roofs of their houses wildly cheering and waving handkerchiefs and scarves, and the church bells added to the clamour.
Three batteries of artillery had been brought up close to the Serra Convent, and now that there was no longer need of concealment these were brought forward, and--as the French issued from the town and hurried towards the post held by the two companies that had crossed--opened a heavy fire upon them. The French pushed on gallantly in spite of this fire and the musketry of the soldiers, but the wall of the convent was strong, more boats had been obtained, and every minute added to the number of the defenders. The attack was, nevertheless, obstinately continued. The French artillery endeavoured to blow in the gate, and for a time the position of the defenders was serious, but the enemy's troops were now evacuating the lower part of the town, and immediately they did so the inhabitants brought boats over, and a brigade under Sherwood crossed there.
In the meantime General Murray had been sent with the German division to effect a passage of the river two miles farther up. Soult's orders to take possession of all the boats had been neglected, and it was not long before Murray crossed with his force. The confusion in the French line of retreat was now terrible. A battery of artillery, who brought up the rear, were smitten by the fire of Sherwood's men; many were killed, and the rest cut their traces and galloped on to join the retreating army. Sherwood's men pressed these in the rear, the infantry on the roof of the Seminary poured their fire on the retiring masses, and the guns on the Serra rock swept the long line.
Had Murray now fallen upon the disordered crowd their discomfiture would have been complete, but he held his force inactive, afraid that the French might turn upon him and drive him into the river. General Stewart and Major Harvey, furious at his inactivity, charged the French at the head of two squadrons of cavalry only, dashed through the enemy's column, unhorsed General Laborde and wounded General Foy. Receiving, however, no support whatever from Murray, the gallant little band of cavalry were forced to fight their way back with loss. Thus, as Franceschi had been saved from destruction from an error as to the road, Soult was saved the loss of this army by Murray's timidity, and in both cases Sir Arthur's masterly plans failed in attaining the complete success they deserved.
Terence had engaged several peasants to watch the roads leading from Oporto, and as soon as he learned that a long train of baggage and heavy guns was leaving the city by the road to Amarante, he crossed the valley, took up a position on the Catalena hill flanking the road, and as the waggons came along opened a sudden and heavy fire upon them. Although protected by a strong guard the convoy fell into confusion, many of the horses being killed by the first volley. Some of the drivers leapt from their seats and deserted their charges, others flogged their horses, and tried to push through the struggling mass. An incessant fire was kept up, but just as Terence was about to order the whole corps to charge down and complete the work, a large body of cavalry, followed by a heavy body of infantry, appeared on the scene.
This was Merle's division, that had hastened up from Valonga on hearing the firing. The advance of the cavalry was checked by the musketry fire, but Merle at once ordered his infantry to mount the hill and drive the Portuguese off. The latter stood their ground gallantly for some time, inflicting heavy loss upon their assailants. Terence saw, however, that he could not hope to withstand long the attack of a whole French division, and leaving two companies behind to check the enemy's advance, he marched along the crest of the hill until he came upon the road crossing from Amarante to the Ave river.
By this time he had been joined by the rear-guard, who had retired in time to make their escape before the French reached the top of the hill. Merle posted a brigade along the crest of the ridge to prevent a repetition of the attack, and to cover Soult's line of retreat, if he were forced to fall back; while Terence took up his position near Pombeiro, whence he presently saw the convoy enter Amarante. He had the satisfaction, however, of noticing that it was greatly diminished in length, a great many of the waggons having been left behind owing to the number of horses that had been killed. His attack had had another advantage of which he was unaware, for it had so occupied Merle's attention that he had neglected to have all the boats taken across the river, which enabled Murray's command to cross the next day, an error which, had Murray been possessed of any dash and energy, would have proved fatal to the French army.
The next day Terence heard the sound of the guns on the Serra height, but the distance was too great for the crack of musketry to reach him, and he had no idea that the British were crossing the river until he saw the French marching across the mouth of the valley towards Amarante. Among such veteran troops discipline was speedly recovered, and they encamped in good order in the valley. That town was, however, in the hands of the Portuguese, Loison, either from treachery or incapacity, having disobeyed Soult's orders and retired before the advance of the Portuguese force under Lord Beresford, and, evacuating Amarante, taken the road to Guimaraens, passing by Pombeiro.
He had sent no news to Soult, and the latter general was altogether ignorant that he had left Amarante. Upon receiving the news from the head of the column he at once saw that the position had now become a desperate one. Beresford, he learned at the same time, had marched up the Tamega valley to take post at Chaves, where Silveira had joined him. A retreat in that direction, therefore, was impossible, and he at once destroyed his baggage, spiked his guns, and at nightfall, guided by a peasant, ascended a path up the Serra Catalena, and, marching all night, rejoined Loison at Guimaraens, passing on his way through Pombeiro. Terence had left the place a few hours before, believing that Soult must return up the valley of the Tamega, and, ignorant that Beresford and Silveira barred the way, he marched after nightfall towards Chaves and took up a position where he could arrest, for a time, the retreat of the French army.
He had left two of his men at Pombeiro, and had halted but a short time after completing his long and arduous march when his two men came up with the news that Soult had passed by the very place he had a few hours before left. As there was more than one route open to Soult, Terence was unable to decide which he had best take. His men had already performed a very long march, and it was absolutely necessary to give them a rest; he therefore allowed them to sleep during the day. Towards evening he crossed the Serra de Cabrierra and came down upon Salamende, and sent out scouts for news. Destroying the guns, ammunition, and baggage of Loison's division, Soult reached the Carvalho on the evening of the 14th, drew up his army on the position that he had occupied two months before at the battle of Braga, reorganized his forces, and ordering Loison to lead the advance, while he himself took command of the rear, continued his march. The next day Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had been obliged to halt at Oporto until the whole army, with its artillery and train, had passed the river, reached Braga, having marched by a much shorter road.
Terence's scouts brought news that the whole of the French army were marching towards Salamende. Wholly unsupported as he was, ignorant of the position of Beresford and Silveira, and knowing nothing of Sir Arthur's march towards Braga, he decided not to attempt with his force to bar the way to Soult's twenty thousand men, but to hold Salamende for a time and then fall back up the mountains. Before doing so he sent a party to blow up the bridge at Ponte Nova across the Cavado, and also sent his second regiment to defend the passage at Riuvaens.
Thinking it likely that Soult would again cross the mountains to Chaves, he sent Herrara in command of the force at the bridge, while he himself remained at Salamende. Here he had the houses facing the road by which the enemy would approach, loopholed and the road itself barricaded. Late in the afternoon the French cavalry were seen approaching, and a heavy fire was at once opened upon them. The rapidity of the discharges showed Franceschi that the place was held by more than a mere party of peasants, and he drew off his cavalry and allowed the infantry to pass him. For half an hour the Portuguese held their ground and repulsed three determined assaults; then, seeing a strong body of troops ascending the hillside to take the position in flank, Terence ordered his troops to fall back. This they did in good order, and took up a position high up on the hill.
The French made but a short pause; a small body of cavalry that Soult had left near Braga brought him the news that the British army was entering that town. Scouts were sent forward at once, and their report that the bridge of Riuvaens was destroyed, and that 1,200 Portuguese regular troops were on the opposite bank, decided him to take the road by the Ponte Nova. The night was a terrible one; the rain had for two days been continuous, and the troops were drenched to the skin and impatient at the hardship that they had suffered. The scouts reported that the bridge here had also been destroyed, but that one of the parapets was still unbroken, and that the force on the other side consisted only of peasants. Soult ordered Major Doulong, an officer celebrated for his courage, to take a hundred grenadiers and secure the passage.
A violent storm was now raging, and their footsteps being deadened by the roar of the wind, the French crept up, killed the Portuguese sentry on their side of the bridge before he could give the alarm, and then crawled across the narrow line of masonry. Then they rushed up the opposite heights, shouting and firing, and the peasantry, believing that the whole French army were upon them, fled at once. The bridge was hastily repaired, and at four o'clock in the morning the whole of the French army had crossed. Their retreat was opposed at a bridge of a single arch over a torrent, by a party of Portuguese peasantry, but after two repulses the French, led by Major Doulong, carried it.
They were just in time, for in the afternoon the British came upon a strong rear-guard left at Salamende. Some light troops at once turned their flank, while Sherwood attacked them in front, and they fled in confusion to the Ponte Nova. As the general imagined that Soult would take the other road, their retreat in this direction was for some time unperceived, but just as they were crossing, the British artillery opened fire upon the bridge with terrible effect, very many of the enemy being killed before they could effect a passage. Their further retreat was performed without molestation. The British troops had made very long marches in the hopes of cutting Soult's line of retreat, and as the French, unlike the British, carried no provisions for their march, there was now little hope of overtaking them, especially as their main body was far ahead.
Sir Arthur halted for a day at Riuvaens, where Terence's corps was now concentrated, he having marched there the night he was driven out of Salamende. As soon as the British entered the place, the general inquired what corps was holding it, and at once sent for Terence.
"Let me hear what you have been doing, Colonel O'Connor."
Terence had, as soon as he heard that the army had arrived at Salamende, written out a report of his movements from the time that he had marched from Vouga. He now presented it. The general waved it aside.
"Tell me yourself," he said.
Terence related as briefly as possible the course he had followed, and the reasons of his movements.
"Good!" the general said, when he had finished. "Your calculations were all well founded; but, of course, you could not calculate on Soult's night march across the Catalena hills, and, as you knew nothing of the whereabouts of Beresford and Silveira, you had good reason to suppose that Soult would continue his march up the valley of the Tamega to Chaves. That was the only mistake you committed, and an older soldier might well have fallen into the same error. When you had found out your mistake, you acted promptly, and could not have done better than to proceed to Salamende. You did well to destroy both bridges, and to place half your force to defend the passage here, for you naturally supposed, as I supposed myself, that Soult would follow this road down to Chaves.
"You were again deceived, but were in no way to blame. Your position was most judiciously chosen on the Catalena hills on Soult's natural line of retreat, and I heard that the enemy's baggage train had been very severely mauled, and was only saved from destruction by Merle deploying his whole division against the force attacking it. Again I see you made a stout defence at Salamende. We saw a large number of French dead there as we marched in. If everyone else had done as well as you have done, young sir, Soult's army would never have escaped me."
Terence bowed, and retired deeply gratified, for he had been doubtful what his reception would be. He knew that he had done his best, but twice he had been mistaken, and each time the mistake had allowed Soult to pass unmolested; and he was, therefore, all the more pleased on learning that so skilful a general had declared that these mistakes, although unfortunate, were yet natural.
Soult reached Orense on the 20th, without guns, stores, ammunition, or baggage, his men exhausted with fatigue and misery, most of them shoeless, and some without muskets. He had left Orense seventy-six days before with 22,000 men, and had lately been joined by 3,500 from Tuy. He returned with 19,500, having lost 6,000 by sword, sickness, assassination, and capture. Of these 3,600 were taken in the hospitals at Oporto, Chaves, Vianna, and Braga. One thousand were killed in the advance, and the remainder captured or killed within the last eight days.
A day later the news arrived that Victor was at last advancing and a considerable number of the troops assembled at Salamende, among them Terence's corps, were ordered to march to join the force opposed to him. Terence started two hours before the bulk of the force got into motion, and traversing the ground at a high rate of speed, struck the road from Lisbon a day in advance of the British troops. There was, however, no occasion for action, for Victor, who had taken Abrantes, had, on receiving news of the fall of Oporto, at once evacuated that town and fallen back, and for a time all operations ceased on that side.
The British army had suffered but slight loss in battle, but the long marches, the terribly wet weather, and the effect of climate told heavily upon them, and upwards of 4,000 men were, in a short time, in hospital.
Fortunately, however, a reinforcement of equal strength arrived from England, and the fighting strength of the army was therefore maintained. There was still, however, a great want of transport animals; the commissariat were, for the most part, new to their duties, and ignorant of the language. Sir Arthur Wellesley was engaged in the endeavour to get Cuesta to co-operate with him, but the obstinate old man refused to do so unless his plans were adopted; and these were of so wild and impracticable a character that Sir Arthur preferred to act alone, especially as Cuesta's army had already been repeatedly beaten by the French, and the utter worthlessness of his soldiers demonstrated.
The pause of operations in Spain, entailed by the concentration of the commands of Soult, Ney, Victor, and Lapisse on the frontier, had given breathing time to Spain. Large armies had again been raised, and the same confident ideas, the same jealousy between generals, and the same quarrels between the Juntas had been prevalent. Once again Spain was confident that she could alone, and unaided, drive the French across the frontier altogether, forgetful of the easy and crushing defeats that had before been inflicted upon her. Like Moore, Sir Arthur Wellesley was to some extent deceived by these boastings, and believed that he should obtain material assistance in the way of transports and provisions, and that at least valuable diversions might be made by the Spanish army.
He accepted, too, to some extent, the estimate of the Spaniards as to the strength of the French, and believed that their fighting force in the Peninsula did not exceed 130,000 men, whereas in reality it amounted to over 250,000. The greatest impediment to the advance was the want of money, for while the British government continued to pour vast sums into Cadiz and Seville, for the use of the Spaniards, they were unable to find money for the advance of their own army. The soldiers consequently were unpaid, badly fed, almost in rags, and a large proportion of them shoeless; and to meet the most urgent wants, the general was forced to raise loans at exorbitant rates at Lisbon. And yet, while a great general and a victorious army were nearly starving in Portugal, the British government had landed 12,000 troops in Italy and had despatched one of the finest expeditions that ever sailed from England, consisting of 40,000 troops and as many seamen and marines of the fleet, to Walcheren, where no small proportion of them died of fever, and the rest returned home broken in health and unfit for active service, without having performed a single action worthy of merit.
The Mayo Fusiliers were among the regiments stationed at Abrantes, and Terence received orders to take up a position four miles ahead of that town, and hold it unless Victor again advanced in overwhelming strength, and then to fall back on Abrantes. This exactly suited his own wishes. It was pleasant to him to be within a short ride of his old regiment, while at the same time his corps were not encamped with a British division, for his own position was an anomalous one, and among the officers who did not know him he was regarded as a young staff-officer. He could not explain the position he held without constantly repeating the manner in which he had gained a commission as colonel in the Portuguese service.
During the month that had passed without movement, he continued his efforts to improve his corps, and borrowed a dozen non-commissioned officers from Colonel Corcoran to instruct his sergeants in their duty, and thus enable them to train others and relieve the officers of some of their work. He had in his first report stated that he had kept back L1,000 of the money he carried to Romana for the use of his corps, and as he had never received any comment or instructions as to the portion that had not been expended, he had still some money in hand. This he spent in supplementing the scanty rations served out. Frequently he rode into Abrantes and spent the evening with the Mayo Fusiliers. The first time he did so he requested the officers always to call him, as before, Terence O'Connor.
"It is absurd being addressed as colonel when I am only a lieutenant in the service. Of course when I am with the corps it is a different thing; I am its colonel, and must be called so; but it is really very annoying to be called so here."
"You must be feeling quite rusty," Colonel Corcoran said to him, "sitting here doing nothing, after nine months of incessant moving about."
"I am not rusting, Colonel, I am hard at work sharpening my blade; that is, improving my corps. Your men drill my sergeants four hours a day, and for the other eight each of them is repeating the instructions that he has received to three others. So that by the time we are in movement again I hope to have a sergeant who knows something of his duty to each fifty men. I can assure you that in addition to the great need for such men when the troops are out skirmishing, or otherwise detached in small parties, I felt that their appearance on parade was greatly marred by the fact that the non-commissioned officers did not know their proper places or their proper work, which neither Bull nor Macwitty, nor indeed the company officers, could instruct them in, all being cavalrymen."
"Yes, I noticed that when I saw them at Leirya," the colonel said. "Of course it was of no consequence at all as far as their efficiency went, but to the eye of an English officer, naturally, something seemed wanting."
"I should be glad of at least four more officers to each company, and at one time thought of writing to Lord Beresford to ask him to supply me with some, but I came to the conclusion that we had better leave matters as they were. In the first place young officers would know nothing of their work, and nothing of me; and in the second place, if they were men of good family they would not like serving under officers who have been raised from the ranks; and lastly, if they became discontented, they might render the men so. We have done very fairly at present, and we had better go on as we are; and when I get a sufficient number of trained men to furnish a full supply of non-commissioned officers, I shall do better than with commissioned ones, for the men are of course carefully selected, and I know them to be trustworthy, whereas those they sent me might be idle, or worse than useless."
"You spake like King Solomon, Terence," O'Grady said; "not that he can have known anything whatever about military matters."
A roar of laughter greeted this very doubtful compliment.
"Thank you, O'Grady," Terence said. "That is one of the prettiest speeches I have heard for a long time. I shall know where to come for a character."
"You are right there, Terence; but you may live a good many years before you get a chance of calling a whole British army under arms, as you did at Salamanca."
Terence was at once assailed with a storm of questions, for with the exception of O'Grady, no one had suspected the share that he and Dicky Ryan had had in that affair. Terence knew that the latter had kept the secret, for he had asked him only two or three days before, and he therefore assumed an expression of innocence.
"What on earth do you mean, O'Grady?"
"What do I mane? Why, that somehow or other you were at the bottom of that shindy when all the troops were turned out on a false alarm."
"Really, O'Grady, that is too bad. You know that every trick that was played at Athlone was your suggestion, and as we never could find out how that alarm originated, of course you put it down to me, whereas it is just as likely to have been your own work. Colonel Corcoran knows that Dicky and I were in the mess-room at the convent at the time when the alarm broke out."
"That was so," the colonel agreed, "for I know that you were talking to me when Hoolan ran in and told us that there was a row in the town. On what do you base your suspicions, O'Grady?"
"Just upon me knowledge of the two lads, Colonel. Faith, there never was a piece of mischief afloat that they were not mixed up with."
"If that is all you have to say, O'Grady," Terence replied, "I should advise you not to go hunting for mares' nests again. I know that you can see as far into a brick wall as most people, but you cannot see what is going on on the other side."
"All the same, Terence," O'Grady said, doggedly, "to the end of me life I will always believe that you had a hand in the matter. There is no one else that I know of except you and Ryan who would have had the cheek to do such a thing, and I don't believe that you can deny it yourself."
"I shall not trouble myself to plead not guilty, except before a regularly constituted court," Terence laughed. "At any rate, as when the march begins we shall go on first as scouts, it may be that I shall send in news which will turn out a British army again."
"I will forgive you if you do, for it is likely that we should have some divarsion after turning out, instead of marching out and back again like a regiment of omadhouns."