Volume 4 of the 6 volume history of the Peninsular War
Fortescue is rightly renowned for his multi-volume magnum opus, ‘The History of the British Army’, which, since it was written in the early decades of the twentieth century, feature the struggles with Napoleonic France, as a substantial part of the whole. These campaigns took place across the world but, for the British, most notably in Spain, Portugal and the South of France following the French invasion of Iberia. The numerous disconnected sections, within Fortescue’s larger work, concerning the Peninsular War, have been extracted for the first time and carefully edited to create this six volume history. There can be no doubt that in Fortescue the British Army found one of its finest historians. His scholarship is superb, but is balanced by outstanding and fearless academic analysis. What makes this history incomparable and essential is that Fortescue was a contemporary of the other great British military historian of the modern age, Charles Oman, who wrote his own history of the Peninsular War. Fortescue conferred and collaborated with Oman to produce this work and within these pages the reader will discover both confirmations and qualified corrections to some of Oman’s assertions on points of detail. Fortescue was extraordinarily thorough in his use of primary source material (which is annotated) and he additionally walked the ground of the campaign himself. The magnitude of the joint scholarship which brought this history into being cannot be overstated. This analysis of the Peninsular War differs significantly from Fortescue’s other writings on the British Army, in that in embraces the activities of the French and the Spanish in some depth, thus creating a total view. This is a serious, academic, and thoroughly readable, history and no library of the subject can be truly said to be complete without it. The text has been complemented in this Leonaur edition by battlefield maps not present in the original publication.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Under the guidance of an acting engineer, Lieutenant McCarthy of the Fiftieth, the column stole forward in perfect silence, Colonel Williams of the Sixtieth leading with three companies of his own regiment and the light companies of the division; after which followed in succession Kempt’s three battalions, Campbell’s brigade, and the two Portuguese regiments of Champalimaud. Hearing the fire at San Roque, Picton began to suspect that he had been led astray. He drew his sword, and was only with difficulty prevented from cutting down the unfortunate McCarthy; but was appeased when he found that he had reached the first parallel, where Major Burgoyne of the Engineers was awaiting him.
The advanced party under Williams then passed on quietly to the Rivillas, and some at least of them had crossed the water by a mill-dam and lain down on the further bank, when a French sentinel in the covered way discharged his musket. Not realising that they were so close to the enemy, and thinking that they had been discovered, the leading men of the Sixtieth began firing; and the alarm was promptly given. A blast of grape and musketry was instantly turned upon the division and was presently concentrated upon the mill-dam, which was so narrow that the men could only cross it in single file. Confusion arose at once, for nine battalions were huddled together at this narrow causeway, with shot and shell tearing through them.
Picton was struck down for a time by a painful wound before he reached the passage; Kempt, who took over the command from him, was severely wounded in the act of passing, (So says Wellington’s despatch. McCarthy would make this happen later, but his narrative is extremely confused); several soldiers had slipped off the dam, which was knee-deep in water, and were drowning; while the bearers of ladders and axes were overwhelmed by the press of the crowd behind them.
McCarthy, however, struggling forward, with the help of a few men broke down a paling which blocked the way, and hurried on with the ladders to the front between the bastions of San Pedro and San Antonio. (Belmas’s account (iv.), and it explains why the first escalade failed). This was a mistake, for Wellington had expressly ordered the escalade to take place at the actual wall of the castle; and the consequences were soon apparent. Caught under the cross-fire from the two bastions, and overwhelmed by a deluge of shells, logs, heavy stones, cold shot, and other missiles from the top of the wall, the men were swept away as fast as they came to the ladders. Five of these with great difficulty were eventually manned, but four out of the five were soon broken at the top and slid away into the angle of the abutment; and the few brave soldiers who mounted the fifth were killed as soon as they reached the summit. For nearly three-quarters of an hour, it should seem, the Third Division struggled vainly to scale the wall, when at last they fell back baffled and took shelter behind a mound off the south-eastern angle of the castle.
Meanwhile the Fourth and Light Divisions had also opened their attack upon the breaches, their storming parties advancing from the quarries close to the foot of the glacis very soon after ten o’clock. Just before they moved off, the enemy threw out two or three fire-balls in their direction; and shortly afterwards a single musket-shot was fired, evidently as a signal, from the ramparts. In unbroken silence the British stole up the glacis to the edge of the ditch, planted their ladders and descended, the enemy observing their every motion but quietly biding their time.
Then suddenly, when the ditch was crowded, the French kindled the train of shells which had been laid in the breach; and with an appalling explosion most of the storming party of the Light Division were blown into the air. The ditch had been filled with overturned carts, barrows, damaged gabions and other obstacles; and these catching fire blazed up to light the defenders to their work. Philippon had reckoned that so terrible a slaughter would have daunted the comrades of the fallen; but on the contrary the main bodies of both divisions flew the more eagerly to the assault, neither knowing nor caring what dangers lay before them.
The excavation dug at the foot of the counterscarp made the descent into the ditch twice as high as the engineers had supposed, and being full of water caused the death of many by drowning. Moreover, by some unfortunate error, both divisions made for the same point instead of for two distinct openings, and, meeting opposite the unfinished ravelin outside the appointed bastion, mistook it for the breach. Swarming up the rude earthwork they came into full view of the enemy on the ramparts, and were swept away in scores and hundreds by a concentric fire of grape and musketry. The sharpshooters left on the glacis to keep down the fusillade of the defenders had been driven off by a raking fire from the bastions, and the French could mow down their assailants at their ease. Crowded together, blinded and bewildered, the stormers exhausted themselves in a series of gallant but futile rushes at the right and left breaches amid a very hell of bursting grenades and powder-barrels, and neglected, in the confusion, the centre breach which was the easiest of all.
Many brave men reached the summit, but were there stopped by sword-blades set deep in trunks of trees, and fell pierced by a score of bullets. One rifleman tried to creep beneath this obstacle, and was found next day with his head battered to pieces and his arms and shoulders riddled with bayonet thrusts, having given way not an inch but struggled forward to the last. And amid the wild yells and curses of the British rose the loud laughter of the French as they stood gallantly to their work and shouted the taunt, “Why don’t you come into Badajoz?”
After vain endurance of a terrific fire for an hour the survivors of the two divisions fell back, and climbed up the ladders to the glacis; but here they met the Portuguese Reserve of the Fourth Division; and the whole rushed down once more into the ditch to snatch victory, if they could, from the mouth of the pit. All that impetuous valour could do was done. Officers exerted themselves again and again to lead parties up the breaches; and one of them, Lieutenant Shaw, stood up for some time alone after all who followed him had been struck down. Messenger after messenger came to Wellington in the quarries, bringing ever worse news; until at last as a climax arrived the report that no progress had been made, nor could be made, since nearly all the officers and vast numbers of the men were fallen. Thereupon the recall was sounded, and in sullen rage the survivors trooped back to the quarries. As the last stragglers came in, the clock in the cathedral tower peacefully tolled out the hour of twelve.