Two accounts of contrasting perspectives of the British Army in the field
This book is yet another Leonaur 'two for the price of one' volume bringing together two vital accounts of the experiences of British soldiers on campaign within a single great value edition. The first account is based on a journal kept by a captain of HM 14th Light Dragoons and takes the reader to war against Napoleon's Army in the company of the cavalry through the Talavera campaign of 1808 and 1809. William Graham was an officer in the Commissariat and he clearly relished his first opportunity to 'travel' as he gives us great detail of the doings of the army and the countryside through which it campaigned. Graham seems to have been prepared to move closer to the battlefield than his occupation might suggest making this an entertaining account of life in Wellington's Army as it pushed northwards to the Pyrenees and the South of France.
After rejoining the German Legion battalions on the height, we descended to the valley, making a flank movement for some distance parallel to the Douro, with a view of advancing as a reserve in the rear of those engaged.—While General Murray was making a momentary reconnoitre, a staff-officer came up, with the information that one of our regiments was very hard pressed, and that the cavalry must advance immediately for its support. On this, we hastened forward as fast as was possible from the nature of the ground; and, after surmounting many impediments among the stone walls got into the main road, on reaching the outskirts of the town.—Our infantry here extended along the road. We then, forming up in threes, passed all our lines at a full gallop; whilst they greeted us with one continued huzza.<br>
After this, going almost at speed, enveloped in a cloud of dust, for nearly two miles, we cleared our infantry, and that of the French appeared. A strong body was drawn up in close column. With bayonets ready to receive us in front. On each flank of the road was a stone wall, bordered outwardly by trees; with other walls, projecting in various directions; so as to give every advantage to the operations of infantry, and to screen those by whom we were annoyed. On our left, in particular, numbers were posted in a line, with their pieces rested on the wall which flanked the road, ready to give us a running fire as we passed. This could not but be effectual, as our left men by threes were nearly close to the muzzles of the muskets, and barely out of the reach of a coup de sabre. In a few seconds, the ground was covered with men and horses: notwithstanding these obstacles, we penetrated the battalion opposed to us; the men of which, relying on their bayonets, did not give way till we were nearly close upon it, when they fled in great confusion. For some time this contest was kept up, hand to hand; and, for the time it lasted, was severe.<br>
After many efforts, we succeeded in cutting off three hundred, most of whom were secured as prisoners: but our own loss was very considerable. Our squadron consisted of scarcely forty file; and the brunt of the action, of course, fell the heaviest on the troop in front: of the fifty-two men composing it, ten were killed, eleven severely wounded (besides others slightly), and six taken prisoners: of the four officers engaged, three were on the wounded list. For my own part; my horse being shot under me, the moment after a ball had grazed my upper lip, I had to scramble my way on foot, amidst the killed and wounded—among whom the enemy, from the side walls, were continually firing—and thus effected my escape from this agreeable situation. On the approach of our infantry, the French brigade was compelled to retire Our few remaining men, coming threes about, brought with them the prisoners in triumph.<br>
Our commanding officer and squadron had the satisfaction of receiving thanks from the commander in chief. On the merits of our charge, the comment of the French general ought not to be omitted: he sent for our men (who had been his prisoners, and afterwards escaped), and declared to them, that, in his opinion, “we must have all been drunk, or mad; as the brigade we had attacked was nearly two thousand strong.”<br>
The town of Oporto, to which we retired10, exhibited a scene of the greatest confusion: the streets were strewed with dead horses and men, and the gutters dyed with blood.—This night the town was illuminated, in honour of our success. The effect, however, could not be very brilliant, as the late exactions of the French had left the poor inhabitants in a state to testify their joy more by good-will than deed.<br>
We were all night, and half the next day, employed in seeking our wounded, who had been taken into different houses on the road.<br>
So wholly unexpected was our forcing the passage of the Douro on the 12th that the French were totally unprepared for us, and Marshal Soult was roused from his dinner to put his plans, of defence in execution: but of how little avail was this defence, and to how short a time protracted!—In his precipitate retreat, the enemy abandoned a large proportion of artillery, with ordnance stores, ammunition, and baggage.<br>
It is but due, to ascribe the brilliant successes of this day, not only to the determined bravery of British troops, but also to the experienced judgement of the commander in chief, and the rapidity of his movements.