When Joseph Anderson joined the British Army to fight the French he little realised that his service would find him in action across the globe. The rarely reported expedition to southern Italy found him with his regiment - the 78th - engaged in the brilliant action at Maida. Next came Egypt and the investment of Rosetta. Protracted war in the Iberian Peninsula required many regiments and the 78th was one of them. After some of his greatest challenges he then travelled across the Atlantic to the West Indies. This book recounts Anderson’s experiences in an unusual and varied sequence of campaigns and battles from the Napoleonic period and includes a brief history of each of them to provide historical context.
On the 25th, when our advance was ordered and made, we found the water of the river only knee-deep; so we crossed, guns, cavalry, and infantry, without any difficulty, and heard that the French had actually retreated on reinforcements they expected from Madrid under King Joseph. Our main body was now halted, and in course of the day occupied the position of Talavera de la Reina; the whole of the Spanish army went on pretending to watch the movements of the enemy, while at the same time General Donkin's brigade and ours, consisting of the 87th and 88th Regiments, followed close upon the Spaniards with the intention of watching them!
We halted at Santa Olalla, eight or ten miles in front of Talavera, and there took up a strong position. The Spaniards continued their advance and marched farther. On the following noon we were astounded by seeing the whole Spanish army in confused mobs of hundreds retreating past us without any attempt at order or discipline, shouting that the French army was upon us. Our two brigades immediately got under arms and formed in line ready to receive the enemy, without making any attempt to stop the cowardly fugitives, and we soon lost sight of them. We remained firm in line till the French came well in sight; then we gave them a few volleys and retired in echelon of brigades, each halting occasionally and fronting as the ground favoured us, giving the enemy volley after volley.
This order of retreat was continued for some miles through a thickly wooded country. At last we got upon a most extensive plain, keeping the same order till the enemy affronted and opened a heavy fire, but fortunately their guns fell short, and we returned the fire with more success, and soon we saw our own gallant army drawn up in order on the heights and grounds near Talavera. This cheered us, and we continued our retreat and defence in the most perfect order. It was a most splendid sight; on nearing the main position of our army a considerable body of our cavalry advanced to meet us, and our batteries from the heights opened a heavy and destructive fire at the enemy.
Then commenced in earnest the glorious battle of Talavera, on the 27th July, 1809. The enemy made several deployments of their numerous columns during the action, attacking with desperation almost every part of our extended line, but on every occasion they failed and were driven back; yet fresh troops were brought up, the battle raged furiously, and there was much slaughter on both sides. I was slightly wounded in the thigh just as we got into our own lines.
On the morning of the 28th a heavy and constant cannonade was commenced, and the battle was renewed with more vigour. The French columns came on boldly and tried again and again to walk over us and break our lines, but we defied them, and at every assault they were driven back with fearful slaughter; then they advanced with fresh troops, cheering and shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" The others, disheartened by our determined resistance, faced about with the altered cry "Sauve qui peut." The slaughter on both sides was fearful butchering work, and was continued by both armies the whole of that memorable day. Our loss in men was unusually great, and the French loss was said to be greater than ours. When the morning of the 29th dawned, not a Frenchman was to be seen! Their whole army had retired during the night of the 28th! leaving us the victors and masters of the field of battle.
A fearful and most distressing sight that field presented as we went over it, covered with thousands of the enemy's dead as well as our own, and thousands of wounded, numbers with their clothes entirely or partially burnt off their bodies from the dry grass on which they lay having caught fire from the bursting of shells during the action; there were many of the wounded who could not crawl away and escape. Those who still lived were at once removed, and the dead were buried. We remained on the field of battle three days more, attending to the wounded. Having then received information that Marshal Soult with the French army was at Plasencia and advancing on us, our whole army was put in retreat towards Portugal by Truxhillo, Arzobispo, and Merida, leaving the wounded and many medical officers in hospitals at Talavera. The road taken was across country, and so bad that we were obliged to employ pioneers and strong working parties to enable us to get on. From these unavoidable causes and delays, our marches on many days did not exceed ten miles, and our provisions became very limited. We had much rain, and our men suffered much from sickness, fevers, agues, and dysentery; the latter was much increased by the quantity of raw Indian corn and wild honey which the country produced, and which the soldiers consumed in spite of every threat and order to the contrary.