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A Staff Officer in the Peninsula

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A Staff Officer in the Peninsula
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Author(s): E. W. Buckham
Date Published: 07/2007
Page Count: 168
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-252-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-251-1

E. W. Buckham was a professional soldier involved in staff duties, who—along with many other gentlemen of the period—was determined to enjoy his war against Napoleon’s French in Spain and Portugal. His duties on the staff enabled Buckham to take advantage of a freedom of movement impossible for regimental officers. As an educated man he pursued his journey through the countryside of the Peninsula, taking detailed account of the people, customs and places of interested that he came across. He recorded his experiences, chiefly for the entertainment of family and friends. This gentle account of Wellington’s army on campaign, published originally in 1827, is an extremely rare book on the antiquarian market; it provides students of the period with invaluable background insights into the personality and times of a participant in momentous events.

In the battle of Vittoria, Picton did not think that such a post was assigned to his troops as their oft-tried valour seemed to chal­lenge. An aide-de-camp of Lord Wellington riding up to him shortly after the engagement was begun, and about the time Lord Dalhousie was expected to debouche, enquired of the General, “ whether he had seen his Lordship?” Picton’s voice was never very musical, and on this occasion it was absolutely hoarse.
“No, sir,” was the reply, “ I have not seen him— but have you any orders for me, sir?”
“None", said the aide-de-camp.
“Then, pray sir, what are the orders you bring?”
“That as soon as Lord Dalhousie shall commence an attack upon that bridge, the fourth and sixth divi­sions are to support him.”
Picton, drawing himself up and putting his arms akimbo, then said, “ You may tell Lord Wellington from me, sir, that the third division, under my com­mand, shall in less than ten minutes attack the bridge and carry it, and the fourth and sixth divisions may support if they choose!”
Upon this the gallant general mounted his horse, and putting himself at the head of his troops, waved his hat, and led them on to the charge with the bland compellations of “Come on ye rascals! Come on ye fighting villains!”
The bridge was carried in a few minutes.
These particulars I had from Colonel ——, who was badly wounded in the battle, and is at present laid up in Vittoria.
At a village in front of the bridge, called either Arinez or Gomacha, the —— regiment, under Major ——, lost, as Picton said, all the honours they had won. They would have been cut to pieces, had not the forty-second come up and relieved them. Major —— is report­ed to have been found skulking in an old house. Here it may be said the battle was gained, although the righting continued all along the high road to Vittoria. The houses in the villages, and the trees by the wayside, still bear testimony to the musket and cannon balls which were expended; while bones of men and horses, fragments of plates, pieces of wad­ding, old caps, relics of jackets, and cartouche-boxes, bits of rags, buttons, and shoes, are speaking mementos of this glorious and bloody day.
This victory, obtained with comparatively small loss on our side, has been the most use­ful as well as most signal one in the Peninsula. It is often the resource of ignorant generals to risk an engagement—when they are at a loss what to do, as Marshal Saxe observed, they fight a battle—but in the present in­stance, the French had their choice of either fighting or relinquishing the Peninsula; and so confident were they of victory, so secure in the fancied strength of their position, that even the probability of a defeat seems never to have occurred to their presumptuous minds.
The plunder on the field was immense. All the spoils of six long years of rapine became concentrated here. Even the wives and mis­tresses of the French officers were present in carriages and on horses, as though they had come out to see a review; and the scene which ensued when they found themselves deserted by the prestige of their fortune, and our ca­valry dashing in amongst them for the purpose of taking tender charge of their persons and property, defies all description.


December 1lth. About six o’clock yesterday morning I was awakened by a train of artillery passing my quarters, and which seemed to indicate that some immediate movement was in con­templation. I hastily got a cup of coffee; but before I had time to reach the river, the picquets had commenced firing, and our light troops had already driven back the enemy’s skirmishers. The engineers laid down the pontoon bridge with admirable expedition, and I passed over it in the rear of the third division about nine o’clock. The French shewed themselves in good force several times on the heights, but always retired in a few minutes, leaving skirmishers to contend with our light troops.
At ten o’clock a heavy firing commenced upon our left, and became, as the fog dispersed, distinctly visible. The first division soon became warmly engaged, when the intention of Lord Wellington was, that it should only have made a demonstra­tion. The third division remaining under arms on the heights which we had first gained on ascending from the Neve, I went forward with the sixth division. In a little time it was understood upon the field that General Hill had succeeded in turning the enemy’s left. This was at about twelve o’clock.
A pause now ensued, the sixth division standing to their arms. I took this opportunity to enter a peasant’s cottage by the roadside. A little boy was the only member of the family who could speak any French; the rest, con­sisting of an old woman, some girls, and two aged men, spoke nothing but the Basque, which is nearly the same as that which is used In Biscay. Their joy was so unbounded at the partial defeat which their countrymen had already sustained, that they capered about the room like a parcel of merry Andrews. One of the aged men impersonated a French sol­dier, and with an agility beyond his years, ran a few yards from the door, in order to convey the idea of a flying enemy; then dis­tending his cheeks, he discharged a bomb! and fell on the ground, as if he had been killed by a ball.
The French now began to retire from a hill which they had occupied as a centre du­ring the morning, and the sixth division imme­diately took possession of it. From this point we had a distinct view of the contest which was going forwards at about 600 yards in front of us. The object on our side was to get possession of the village of Ville Franche, which was obstinately defended by a force of nearly 3000 men. At three o’clock Lord Wellington and his staff arrived on the hill, and some light companies of the sixth divi­sion, supported by a regiment of Cacadores, were immediately ordered to attack it. The fighting now became very desperate; our men and the French being nearly muzzle to muzzle.
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