Volume 6 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.
By the afternoon of the 30th the south face of the eastern bastion of the hornwork had been laid open for half its length; the bastion of St. Jean had been completely swept away; and from that point for over two hundred and fifty yards northward the eastern front of the place presented almost one continuous breach, the larger part of which lay between the two towers, with a smaller gap some eighty yards farther to the north. At two o’clock in the morning of the 31st the besiegers sprang three mines, which overthrew the sea-wall along the eastern face of the hornwork’s eastern bastion; and the craters formed by the explosion, being connected by gabions, made a convenient passage for the storming columns to issue from the trenches. Accordingly at eleven o’clock the order was given for the assault.
Upon the renewal of the siege the spirit of discontent which had animated the Fifth Division since the failure of the first attack had by no means disappeared; and Wellington wrote both to Graham and to Bathurst in strong condemnation of it. He expressed himself to Bathurst so:—
I am afraid that I shall be obliged to disgrace the Fifth Division. I understand that the general and superior officers were so indiscreet as to talk before their men of the impossibility of success, and that they still continue the conversation. But I have hinted to them that I shall make them continue the operations of the siege, and bring other troops to storm the place when it is ready to be stormed, who will not find success impossible.
In fulfilment of this threat Wellington called for forty volunteers from each battalion of the First, Fourth and Light Divisions “to show the Fifth Division how to mount a breach”; and seven hundred and fifty men thus obtained were sent down to San Sebastian. Leith, who had just resumed command of the Fifth Division, was naturally furious. He would not let the newcomers lead the assault; but, extending part of them along the trenches to keep down the fire of the hornwork, and massing the rest in reserve, committed the dangerous duty to a thousand men of Robinson’s brigade, consisting of the Fourth, Forty-Seventh and Fifty-Ninth. These were divided into two columns, of which the right column was to ascend the old breach between the two towers, and the left that of the bastion of St. Jean.
It was obvious that such an arrangement would expose the stormers to a shower of musketry from the hornwork, as they passed along the strand; but Rey, not content with retrenching the original breaches, had built of ruined masonry and paving stones a very thick wall, fifteen feet high, extending along the first street parallel to the strand, from the northern end or the lesser breach to the landward front of the main fortress; and it was apparently in the hope of turning this new line of defence that Graham’s plan had been designed.
The batteries of the besiegers were unable to open fire before eight o’clock owing to dense fog, but from that hour until eleven they rained projectiles upon the dilapidated city. The French gunners were all standing by their pieces; the extremities of the breaches were held by the voltigeur and grenadier companies; the interior wall was lined by other troops; and in the hornwork the defenders were drawn up to repel any attack upon the eastern demi-bastion. At eleven o’clock the signal was given. The forlorn hope, under Lieutenant Macguire of the Fourth, ran at the top of their speed down the strand; and immediately after them a sergeant and twelve men leaped upon the covered way to cut the saucisson of a mine under the sea-wall of the eastern demi-bastion. Startled by their unexpected appearance, the French fired the mine prematurely and brought down the wall with a crash, burying the sergeant and his heroic little party, though doing little damage to the main column, the bulk of which had not reached the area of explosion.
But the French on the landward front of the demi-bastion, seeing the stormers pass by them, hastened to the eastern front and poured a hail of musketry into their rear; while the batteries on Monte Orgullo and the bastion of St. Elmo showered grape and shell upon their front. None the less the forlorn hope rushed on, swept over the body of Macguire, who had fallen at the foot of the great breach, up to the summit, and there stopped. Below them was a sheer drop of sixteen feet, then a mass of obstacles of every conceivable nature, and beyond these the retrenchment wall, belching bullets from a hundred loopholes. In vain the stormers sought means to pass the gulf before them. They were shot down by scores; and at last they fell back to the foot of the breach, where they were sheltered indeed from the musketry of the internal wall, but were still tormented by sharpshooters from various points of vantage.
At the bastion of St. Jean the assailants fared no better. Two guns in the cavalier bastion of the landward front and a line of grenadiers behind a traverse, not more than fifteen yards from the breach, scourged their left flank; while other infantry and a four-pounder in the hornwork wrought havoc in their rear. Graham continued to feed both attacks steadily from the trenches, sending first the reserve of Robinson’s brigade, then Hay’s brigade, excepting one wing of the Ninth, and finally the volunteers of the First and Light Divisions, who had from the beginning been clamouring to be let loose. (Graham’s account is that Hay’s brigade did not move out of the trenches until after the cannonade mentioned below; but I have preferred that of Napier, which is confirmed, for what they are worth, by the historians of the 43rd and 52nd).
But for all their efforts these last could accomplish no more than their despised comrades; and, after over an hour of desperate endeavour and the fall of many hundreds of brave men, the capture of San Sebastian seemed to be as remote as ever. (Such is the account of Jones. Belmas gives the time at three hours, which is implicitly accepted by Napier. Cooke, who was a cool spectator, and may have had his watch in hand, allows no more than one hour; and Graham in effect confirms him by saying that the troops broke into the town after the assault had lasted two hours).
Unmoved by the carnage, Graham decided to transfer the attack to the hornwork, and turned every one of the fifty guns mounted on the Chofre Hills upon the high curtain that divided it from the body of the fortress. The storm of shot, passing over the heads of the British at the foot of the breach, caused at first a cry to retire; but this was soon stilled, and some of the Light Division seized the opportunity to effect a lodgement in some ruined houses to the right of the great breach. Meanwhile the effect of the concentration of fire was terrific, the traverses being broken down, and the French troops, who lined the parapet, torn to pieces. For half an hour the cannonade continued; when the assailants again mounted the two southern breaches, while the 13th and part of the 24th Portuguese forded the Urumea and advanced upon the most northerly breach. The water was waist-deep and the guns of the Castle and of St. Elmo ploughed great gaps in the column as it advanced; but these brave men pressed on undismayed, and on reaching the shore parted right and left, the 13th to the northern breach and the 24th to the great breach between the two towers.
Thus reinforced the British renewed their attack with undiminished fury; while a party of the Eighty-Fifth regiment embarked in boats and hovered around Monte Orgullo as if threatening an assault at that point. But neither this diversion nor the heroic constancy of the assailants at the breaches were of avail. The tide was rising and the failure of the attack seemed to be certain when, by some accident, a quantity of ammunition accumulated by the French behind the southern end of the great breach became kindled and, blowing up with a succession of loud explosions, sent scores of French grenadiers flying into the air.