Accounts of battle and daring under the ‘Iron Duke’
The author of this book, Edward Fraser, specialised in histories concerning the soldiers and sailors of the Napoleonic Age. Originally titled, in the style of its day, Soldiers Whom Wellington Led, this volume contains almost twenty vignettes—some describing personalities and events that may not be familiar to modern readers—about the soldiers of all ranks who were Wellington’s ‘old peninsular army which could go anywhere and do anything.’ Included are ‘The Charge of the Light Dragoons at Talavera’ and ‘The Men Who Took the Eagle at Barrosa’ and other accounts of the battlefield and campaign, together with essays on some notable figures who served under Wellington’s command including his chief scout Colquhoun Grant, Colonel John Waters another remarkable gatherer of intelligence and the exploits of Ensign Dyas. Leonaur also publish Fraser’s excellent history on the fortunes of Napoleon’s famous eagle standards, The War Drama of the Eagles, a companion book to this present volume Nelson’s Sailors and an unusual account of the Battle of Trafalgar from the perspective of the French and Spanish naval forces The Enemy at Trafalgar. All are excellent ‘readers’ for students of the Napoleonic Wars.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The “Prince’s Irish” were with Graham’s second brigade, led by Colonel Wheatley, forming the left of the British battle-line, whose task was to beat back the French troops advancing across the plain. At that moment the French were coming on at the charging step, with drums beating and shouting “En avant!” “Vive l’Empereur!” as they pushed back Barnard’s skirmishers in their front. Graham sent forward his other brigade, forming the right wing of his line, under General Dilkes, to relieve Browne’s heroes and storm Barrosa ridge.<br>
So the general battle opened.<br>
Wheatley’s men went at the enemy in two lines, firing rapid volleys as they advanced. The 87th were in the centre of the leading line. Ahead of all the heroic old General rode into the fight, his cocked hat in hand waving them on. Two bullets cut through the breast of Graham’s coat; fortunately, they came sideways, and did not harm the fine old warrior. “Now, my lads, there they are!” shouted Graham to the men nearest him, as they closed on the enemy. “Spare your powder; give them steel!”<br>
The 87th did so, and, dashing at the enemy, charged right into them.<br>
Rushing forward impetuously, with the war-cry of the old Irish clans from among whom the regiment had been raised, “Faugh-a-Ballagh!” (Clear the way!), they smashed through and routed the first French line, sending it back in confusion on the second. Then they went full tilt at the second French line. In front of that was the First Battalion of Napoleon’s 8th of the Line, with their “golden-wreathed” Eagle standard proudly displayed.<br>
Ensign Edward Keogh, of the 87th, caught sight of the Eagle first of all, borne gallantly in the centre of its line on high above the fray. “See that Eagle, sergeant,” he called to Sergeant Masterson, a non-commissioned officer of his company. Dashing instantly into the thick of the group of Frenchmen round the Eagle, sword in hand, the heroic lad cut his way through with Masterson and four or five privates close behind him, until he got close up to the French ensign, or porte-aiglé. At once he closed with the Frenchman, and crossed swords, with his left hand making a grab at the Eagle pole. Keogh got hold of it and tried to pull it away, but he could not wrench it free before the brave ensign went down with half a dozen musket-bullets and two bayonet-stabs in his body.<br>
According to French accounts, Porte-Aiglé Guillemin, as the Eagle-bearer of the 8th was named, fell dead at the same moment as Ensign Keogh, shot through the head by one of the British privates. Other Frenchmen rushed up then to rescue the Eagle, and formed round it hastily. One of the British privates who had seized hold of the staff as Keogh fell was slashed to death, and once more the French recovered it. But they were not to keep it unchallenged. A close and desperately furious tussle followed. Seven French officers and sub-officers—the records of the regiment state—fell dead in gallantly defending the Eagle. An eighth, Lieutenant Gazan, clung to the pole desperately with both hands, regardless of wounds that nearly hacked him to pieces. Finally, the Eagle was torn from his grasp by Sergeant Masterson, who remained at the end the sole unwounded survivor of the attacking British party. Gazan “survived miraculously,” we are told, and lived to be decorated by Napoleon for his devoted courage. Sergeant Masterson carried the Eagle off and kept it.<br>
On the other hand, as described by Major Hugh Gough, who was in command of the 87th at Barrosa, “Ensign Keogh was killed in the act of grasping at it, and the French officer who held it was run through by Sergeant Masterson in the midst of our officers and men. The sergeant,” adds Major Gough, “never let it out of his hand until he delivered it to me, and afterwards carried it for the rest of the day between our colours.”<br>
In a letter to his wife after the battle the major gives this description of the Eagle.<br>
It is brass, well gilt; the wreath is pure gold. The Eagle is on a pole, something stronger, but very similar, to the pole of a sergeant’s halberd. It is much heavier than the colours of a regiment, and from the weight being all at the top is very unwieldy.<br>
“The French,” says the major, in relating his own experiences, “waited until we came within about twenty-five paces of them before they broke, and as they were in column when they did they could not get away. It was therefore a scene of most dreadful carnage. . . . As, of course, I was in front of the regiment, therefore in the middle of them, I could not, confused and flying as they were, cut down one, although I might have twenty, they seemed so confounded and so frightened. They made, while we were amongst them (about a quarter of an hour), little or no opposition.<br>
“We would have taken or destroyed the whole regiment,” continues Major Gough, “but at this moment the 47th French Regiment came down on our right, and General Graham, who was during the whole of the action in the midst of it, pointed them out and begged I would call off my men. I will not say ‘Halt!’ as we were in the midst of the French. With the greatest difficulty, by almost cutting them down, I got the right wing collected, with which we charged the 47th, but, after firing until we came to within about fifty paces of them, they (for us fortunately) broke and fled. Had they done their duty, fatigued as my men were at the moment, they must have cut us to pieces. We were therefore, after they broke, unable to follow them, but took the howitzer attached to them.”<br>
A second Eagle, according to another officer of the 87th—the Eagle of the French 47th—was taken by the regiment. It was not, however, kept. “The man who had charge of it was obliged to throw it away from excessive fatigue and a wound. We had been under arms thirty-two hours and sixteen on the march before the action began.”