The Young Buglers by G. A. Henty
Chapter XII. Busaco and Torres Vedras.
Instead of pressing forward upon his invasion of Portugal, Massena prepared to besiege Almeida, and for a month the British and Portuguese army remained in their position within a few hours' march of that town. Wellington expected that Almeida would be able to resist for two months, and hoped to find some opportunity for falling suddenly upon the besiegers; but even a resistance of two months would have made it so late in the season that Massena must have postponed his invasion until the next spring.
Upon the morning of the 26th of August the French batteries opened fire, and from Guarda the dull, heavy roar of artillery could be heard all day. As darkness fell, the officers of the Rangers were, as usual, assembling round their fire, when the earth seemed to shake beneath their feet, and a flash like that of summer lightning lit the eastern sky. "What can that be?" was the general exclamation. A minute later, and a deep, heavy, prolonged roar sounded in their ears--then all was quiet.
"That is a big magazine," Captain Manley said, "and I'm afraid it's the town, for it sounded too heavy for a mere field magazine. If it be the town, you'll see it won't hold out much longer; even if the actual damage is not very great, a great explosion always damages the morale of a defense, and in that case we shall have Massena upon us, and there will be wigs on the green ere many days are over."
Captain Manley's conclusions were correct. The magazine of Almeida had exploded with terrific effect. Only six houses were left standing in the town, a considerable portion of the ramparts was thrown down, and five hundred people killed on the spot. The stones were hurled in all directions with such force that forty of the besiegers were hurt in the trenches.
Colonel Cox, who commanded, endeavored to rally the panic-stricken garrison, and upon the following morning attempted to negotiate with Massena, who sent an officer to demand instant surrender.
Defense was, in fact, impossible, but Colonel Cox attempted to negotiate, because he hoped that Wellington would at once advance to his rescue. His intentions were frustrated, however, by the treachery and mutiny of the principal Portuguese officers under him, and the French at once took possession of the ruins.
The British army fell back a short distance when the news of the disaster arrived, and a fortnight of great anxiety and watchfulness passed, as it was not certain by which road or roads Massena would advance.
It was not until the 18th of September that Massena fairly commenced his march, having chosen the road from Visen through Martagoa, and the next day the news reached the Rangers that the British army was to concentrate on the heights of Busaco.
"So we are going to have a fight for it," Carruthers said to the boys, as the officers assembled in readiness to take their places when the troops had fallen in. "What will be the end of it?"
"We shall lick them," an old captain said, "though they are two to one, and then they will march round us somehow, and then we shall have to fall back in all haste on Lisbon, and embark there, and we shall eat our Christmas dinner in England."
There was a general murmur of assent, for at that time the belief was almost universal in the British army that they would be forced to abandon Portugal.
"I do not know," Major Fanshawe said. "I heard last night, from a man who has just returned from sick leave at Lisbon, that there are thousands of peasants employed under our engineers in getting up some tremendous works some fifteen miles this side of Lisbon. I should not be surprised yet if Massena finds the chief a nut too hard to crack, with all his force."
"I have heard something about these works at Torres Vedras," Captain Manley said, "a mere rumor; still I believe there must be something in it. Wellington has only some twenty-five thousand British troops, and as many Portuguese, while Massena has over a hundred thousand veterans at his command. Our game would be hopeless unless we have something to fall back on. No; I have every faith in our general. But there goes the bugle."
On the 24th the Rangers, with the rest of Picton's division, arrived on the crest of Busaco, where Cole's and Craufurd's divisions arrived on the same day. This position was one of immense strength, being a long ridge, with a very deep valley in front. Upon the opposite side of this ravine the slope was as steep and sharp as that of Busaco itself, so that the opposite crest was within easy cannon shot. The enemy, in order to attack the British position, would have to descend into the bottom of this steep ravine, and then climb up the precipitous ascent, to meet the British soldiers awaiting them, fresh and unshaken, at the top. So strong, indeed, was the position that the English generals were doubtful whether Massena would venture to attack.
Upon the 25th Craufurd moved his division forward, and would have repeated his mistake of the Coa had not Wellington himself gone forward and recalled the troops, bringing them off with difficulty in the face of the advancing masses of the French. By three in the afternoon, 40,000 French infantry were on the ridge opposite Busaco, and it appeared probable that the battle would take place that afternoon, in which case the British position would have been precarious, for neither Spencer's, Hill's, nor Leith's divisions were up.
Massena, however, was miles behind, and Ney, who commanded the advance, could not attack without orders; thus, the moment favorable for the French passed by. When Massena arrived next day, the British divisions were all up and in their places, and the long crest of Busaco swarmed with troops. Hill occupied the right across the road to Pena Cova, then came Leith's 5th division, then came Picton with the 3d division, with Spencer's division, the 1st, next to him. On a plateau in front of a convent lay Craufurd and Pack, while Cole, with the 4th division, was on the left.
The 27th and 28th were passed in comparative tranquillity, the rival armies surveying each other across the chasm. From the woods far below came up the constant crack of the rifle, as the skirmishers on either side pushed each other backwards; and on the evening of the 28th this fighting increased so much in strength and intensity, that the British troops were some time under arms in expectation of a night attack, for the enemy's riflemen had pressed far up on the hill-side towards the British lines. As the night went on, however, the fire ceased, and the dark ravine between the two long lines of bright watch-fires became hushed and still.
The Rangers were with Picton's division, and were out as an advance half way down the ravine, two companies being down in the bottom as skirmishers. Morning was but just breaking when a heavy fire burst out in front. The regiment sprang to its feet, and prepared for action. It was not long in coming, for the fire rolled rapidly up the hill towards them, and the skirmishing companies came running back, pressed by a heavy column of the enemy. Reynier had formed in two divisions, one of which was now pressing forward against Picton's right, while the object of the other was to gain the crest still farther to the right, and so place themselves between Picton and Leigh. The whole regiment was at once engaged, but the French assault was too powerful to be resisted, and the Rangers and the other regiments of the advanced brigade gave way sullenly, while the French eagerly pressed up the hill, although a battery opened upon them from the crest, while they were unsupported by their own artillery.
"Golly, Massa Peter, dese fellows fight berry hard; look as if dey lick us dis time," the black, who was in Peter's company, said to him as the regiment retreated.
"The battle has only begun yet, Sam. We have plenty of fresh troops at the top of the hill."
"Good ting, dat, Massa Peter. Berry hard work, dis--climb hill, carry kit, fire gun, dodge de bullets, all sam time."
"You didn't dodge that bullet sharp enough, Sam," Peter said with a laugh, as the negro's shako was carried off with a ball.
"Him cum too fast. Dere, you frog-eating thief." he said angrily as he fired his musket at an advancing foe. "Dat serve you right," he went on to himself as the Frenchman fell. "You spoil Sam's hat. Dis colored gentleman catch cold first time him come on to rain."
The French continued their impetuous advance. Picton's right, as they climbed the hill, fell back towards his center, and in half an hour from the first shot being fired the head of the French column had won the crest, and, being between Leigh and Picton's divisions, had cut the British position. Then the column nearest to Picton's division began to wheel to its right, so as to sweep the crest.
"Lie down, the Rangers; every man down," shouted the colonel, and the breathless men threw themselves panting on the ground. A wild Irish shout was heard behind them as they did so, and a tremendous volley of musketry rang over their heads, and then the 88th and a wing of the 45th dashed across them, and, with fierce cheers, charged that portion of the column engaged in wheeling. Breathless and in disorder from their prodigious efforts, the French were unable to resist this fresh attack. In an instant the British were among them, and mixed up in wild confusion, fighting hand to hand, the mass of combatants went mingled together down the hill. Nor was the success of the French column which had gained the crest of long duration, for Leith brought up one of his brigades; Colonel Cameron, with the 9th Regiment, dashed at the enemy with the bayonet, without firing a single shot, while the 38th attacked their flank; and the French, unable to resist the onslaught, relinquished their position and retreated down the hill. Nor upon the French right had Ney's attack proved more successful.
Napier thus describes the combat in this quarter of the field:--"When the light broke, three heavy masses detached from the sixth corps were seen to enter the woods below, and to throw forward a profusion of skirmishers; one of them, under General Marchand, emerging from the dark chasm and following the main road, seemed intent to turn the right of the light division; a second, under Loison, made straight up the mountain against the front; the third remained in reserve. Simon's brigade, leading Loison's attack, ascended with a wonderful alacrity, and though the light troops plied it incessantly with musketry, and the artillery bullets swept through it from the first to the last section, its order was never disturbed, nor its speed in the least abated. Ross's guns were worked with incredible quickness, yet their range was palpably contracted every round; the enemy's shots came ringing up in a sharper key, the English skirmishers, breathless and begrimed with powder, rushed over the edge of the ascent, the artillery drew back, and the victorious cries of the French were heard within a few yards of the summit. Craufurd, standing alone on one of the rocks, had been intently watching the progress of their attack, and now, with a shrill tone, ordered the two regiments in reserve to charge. The next moment a horrid shout startled the French column, and eighteen hundred British bayonets went sparkling over the hill. Yet so brave, so hardy were the leading French, that each man of the first section raised his musket, and two officers and ten men fell before them. Not a Frenchman had missed his mark. They could do no more. The head of their column was violently thrown back upon the rear, both flanks were overlapped at the same time by the English wings, three terrible discharges at five yards' distance shattered the wavering mass, and a long line of broken arms and bleeding carcases marked the line of flight."
Ney did not renew the attack, and with some desultory skirmishing the battle ended at two o'clock, and an hour's truce enabled both parties to carry off their wounded.
Small parties of the French came in contact with the English skirmishers during the afternoon, but the battle of Busaco was over.
"Don't call dat much of battle," Sam said discontentedly. "Just little fierce fight, berry out of bref, and den, just as second wind came, all ober."
The battle of Busaco was indeed one of secondary importance. The losses were not great on either side, although that of the French was fully threefold greater than that of the British, as the former were exposed during their attack to the grape and shell of the British guns, while the French guns afforded no assistance to their infantry. The French loss, in killed and wounded and prisoners, did not exceed 4000, of which only 800 were killed. Nor was any strategical advantage gained by the battle, for the French, upon the following day, found a road across the hills to the British left from Martagoa through Bonzalva.
Throughout the day they made feints of renewing the attack upon the English position, and it was not until late in the afternoon that long columns of men were seen crossing the hill to the left; and Wellington discovered that Busaco had been won in vain, for that his flank was turned, and there was nothing for it but to fall back upon Torres Vedras. Before night the whole British army was in retreat.
"What a horrible scene of confusion," Tom remarked, as they marched into the town of Coimbra next day.
"Confusion!" Captain Manley said; "it is enough to drive a commander-in-chief out of his mind. Here Wellington has for weeks been endeavoring to get the Portuguese Government to compel all the population to retire upon Lisbon, carrying all they can, destroying the mills, and burning all the corn they could not carry off. The Government did issue the order, but it has taken no steps whatever to carry it out, although they knew all along that we could never repel the invasion in the open. As it is, the greater portion of these poor wretches will lose all they possess, which they might have carried off quietly enough during the last two months. Many of them will lose their lives, and they will block the roads so that we shall have the French down on us to a certainty."
Nothing could be more sad than the scene. The streets of Coimbra were crowded with fugitives from the country round, and these, as well as the inhabitants, were all preparing to push onwards towards Lisbon. Bullock carts and carriages, mules, donkeys, and horses were crowded together, all laden with the aged, the children, the sick, and such property as was most portable and valuable. Happily Massena had a circuitous detour to make; the road in the mountain defile was scarcely passable, and throughout the march he displayed but little energy; consequently it was not until the morning of the first of October that his cavalry engaged those of the light division which was covering the retreat. The division fell back through the town, and the inhabitants, who had lingered to the last in some vague hope that the French would not come, now rushed out again. The bridge behind the town was choked, and the troops had to halt for some time. In the rear the pistol shots of the cavalry told of the approach of the French, and the din made by the panic-stricken fugitives was increased by the yells of the prisoners shut up and forgotten in the prison hard by. Their cries and supplications were too painful to be resisted, and the British forced the prison doors and let them free. Once across the bridge, the troops found the defile of Condeixa so choked up that it was impossible to effect a passage, and, had the French pressed them the division must have been destroyed.
The French infantry, however, had not arrived, and by night the road was cleared, and the troops passed on.
There was no pursuit, for Massena allowed his troops to halt and plunder Coimbra, and the British by easy marches, fell back to Torres Vedras; but though unpursued, the disorder and relaxation of discipline which always marks a retreat, showed itself, and Wellington was obliged to hang several plunderers, and to resort to other severe measures to restore to discipline that army which, only a week before, had repulsed the best troops of France. Towards the end of the march the French pressed them again, and Craufurd, with his light division, had a narrow escape of being cut off.
Great was the satisfaction of the British troops when they took up the position so carefully prepared for them; equally great the surprise of Massena and the French army when they beheld the almost impregnable line of redoubts and fortresses of whose very existence they had only heard a confused rumor two or three days before. And yet formidable as was the chain of forts occupied by the British, this was weak in comparison to the second line, some five or six miles in the rear, to which Wellington would have fallen back if driven from his first position. This second position was indeed that which he had originally intended to have taken up, the redoubts on the exterior range of hills being intended as outposts; but, while Massena delayed his advance, the outside line of fortifications had so grown and increased in strength, that Wellington resolved to hold them in the first place.
There were, therefore, as will be seen by the plan, three lines of defense. The first from Alhandra on the Tagus to Zizandre on the sea-coast. This, following the windings of the hills, was twenty-nine miles long; the second and main line was from Quintella on the Tagus to the mouth of the San Lorenza, twenty-four miles in length; the third, intended to cover an embarkation, in case of necessity, extended from Passo d'Arcos on the Tagus to the town of Junquera on the coast.
Massena spent some days in surveying the British position, and came to the conclusion that it was too strong to be attacked. Had the order of Wellington been carried out, and the whole country wasted of provisions, the French army must have made a precipitate retreat to avoid starvation, for they had no provisions or connection with Spain. Wilson and Trant, with Portuguese levies, hung upon their rear, and captured Coimbra, where Massena had left his sick and wounded, 5000 in number, upon the very day after the main French army advanced from the town. So vast were the supplies, however, left in the country that Massena was able to take up his position, first immediately in front of the British lines, and afterwards at Santarem, within a day's march of them, and to maintain his army in food throughout the winter until the beginning of March.
"Have you seen the Gazette, Scudamore?" Carruthers asked, rushing into the tent one morning about a week after the regiment had settled down in its tents on the heights of Torres Vedras.
"No; what's up?" Tom replied.
"There you are; you have both got your steps. Thomas Scudamore, ensign, Norfolk Rangers, to be lieutenant, for distinguished services in the field. Peter Scudamore, ditto, ditto. I wondered the chief had done nothing for you after your journey through Spain."
"I am sure I did not expect anything," Tom answered, "and was quite content when the colonel told us that Lord Wellington had said he was pleased with the manner we had done our work. However, I am very glad; but it is not pleasant going over five or six fellows' heads."
"Fortune of war," Carruthers said laughing. "Besides, two of them are at the depot, Sankey is away on sick leave, and none of the three who are senior to you here will ever set the Thames on fire. No, no, you have fairly earned your step and no one can say a word against it."
The news soon spread, and the boys were heartily congratulated by all the officers of the regiment on their promotion, which placed them next on the list to Carruthers, who had previously been the junior lieutenant. Promotion in those days was rapid, and after a severe engagement an ensign only joined upon the previous week might find himself a lieutenant, from the number of death vacancies caused in the ranks above him. The Norfolk Rangers had not suffered heavily at Talavera, or the boys might have had their lieutenant's rank before this, without performing any exceptional services.
"I wish we could get two months' leave, Tom," Peter said that night. "Of course it is impossible, but it would be jolly to drop in upon Rhoda. By her letter she seems well and happy, and aunt is very kind to her. It would be nice; and now we are lieutenants, aunt wouldn't tell us to rub our shoes."
"No," Tom laughed, "or be afraid of our pelting her pigeons and Minnie."
"No," Peter said. "Evidently she is coming round. Rhoda said that since she has heard that we have got our commissions she has given up prophesying once or twice a day that we shall come to a bad end--probably hanging."
"Yes, and Rhoda said in her letter yesterday that aunt was quite touched with those lace mantillas we got at Madrid, and sent off the day after we rejoined, and actually remarked that, although we could no longer be looked upon as boys, and seemed really as hair-brained and fond of getting into scrapes as ever, yet it was evident that we were good, kindly lads, and meant well at heart."
"I wish," Tom said, with a sudden burst of laughter, "that we could dress in our old disguises, I as a student of theology you as a mild young novice; what a lark we would have with her!" and the boys went off into such shouts of laughter, that their aunt would have thought them more scatter-brained than ever if she had heard them, while from the tent of Captain Manley on one side, and of Carruthers and another young officer on the other, came indignant expostulations, and entreaties that they would keep quiet, and let other people go to sleep.