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A Conscript for Empire

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A Conscript for Empire
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Author(s): Philippe as told to Johann Christian Maempel
Date Published: 2008/05
Page Count: 180
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-445-4
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-446-1

A young soldier thrown to the mercies of total war

This is remarkable story of a young Rhinelander caught up in the whirlwind of war that raged in Europe in the early 19th century. As one of the smaller Germanic states his homeland was always in an ambiguous position between the great powers. His brother was a proud Cuirassier in Napoleon's Army and Philippe himself became—in his turn—a conscript in the French infantry sent to Spain to fight the British and Spaniards. Captured, he suffered privations and dangers until incarcerated on the prison island of Cabrera where he was offered release if he would change his allegiances by joining the Kings German Legion. The end of war found him in service of a military man with whom he travelled to the East in a British East Indiaman which struck a reef, throwing him into a hair-raising experience of shipwreck and the battle for survival.

The Grand Duke of Berg (Murat) was General-in-Chief of the army of Spain. As soon as he arrived with his staff, orders were given to advance. At the close of the year 1807, we set foot for the first time on Spanish ground. We belonged to the second division of the army, commanded by Gen. Dupont. Another division proceeded, through Spain, into Portugal, to occupy and defend it against the English. Although the provisions for the soldiery were none of the best in France, in Spain they were far worse. In the former country every one received the means to furnish his journey with necessary comforts, including a good bed, with blankets and mattresses. However, a soldier should not accustom himself to expect such accommodations; and our first night's lodging in Spain was calculated to put our philosophy to the proof. About four o'clock in the afternoon, Bayonne was behind us; and an hour afterwards night set in. We procured for ourselves flambeaux, which are commonly to be met with; and our column exhibited a regular train of torch-bearers. The march was extremely tedious and inconvenient, from the irregularity of the road: but, in spite of all impediments, we on the same night effected the passage of the Bidassoa, a little river which separates Spain from France. How different were the manners of the inhabitants on either side of this river! Angry and malicious glances were abundantly cast on us by the Spaniards.<br>
A little further on, we came to a small village, at which we halted for the night, the cavalry proceeding a league further, to a somewhat larger place. We received billets for our night's lodging, but they were of no use whatever, since we saw none of the inhabitants, who kept themselves out of the way from want either of courtesy or confidence. At length some of these people were reluctantly dragged forward, and compelled to give the troops both information and assistance. I was fortunate enough, with two of my comrades, to find a comfortable lodging—at least what would be so called in Spain. Our landlord was a wealthy inhabitant of the village, who treated us with the utmost hospitality a Spaniard is capable of showing. Our party consisted of a German, a Spaniard, and two Frenchmen. Each man spoke only his native tongue, and hence our conversation was of the most droll and ridiculous character; since, urged by the social principle, every one was anxious to communicate to his neighbour his own wants and observations; and having discovered that this could not be effected by words, looks, signs, and gestures were resorted to, often of the most grotesque description,—sometimes understood, sometimes not, and almost always giving rise to violent bursts of laughter. Altogether, it was a highly comic scene. Our supper consisted of various Spanish dishes, by no means wanting in oil and pepper,—ingredients used here in an abundance which did not well agree with our taste. But the landlord tempered his repast with a bottle of good Spanish wine, to which we had not the slightest objection. Our bed was of straw, to which our cloaks, &c. formed the blankets and sheets; but our night's rest was dreadfully disturbed by a violent draught of wind; although excessive fatigue made even this uncomfortable dwelling acceptable.<br>
We awoke the next morning with but a slight sense of refreshment, and our limbs were benumbed with cold. We took leave of our landlord, and repaired to the place of rendezvous. Here we were literally stunned by the exclamations and complaints made by our comrades of the manner in which they had passed the night. From this time we no longer received marching money, in lieu of which rations were substituted, consisting of the usual portion of bread, half a pound of meat, and half a pint of wine. Having arrived at the village already mentioned late in the evening, these rations were not distributed until the following morning before we commenced our march. The wine we drank immediately, not indeed as a matter of choice, but owing to the fact of our being destitute of vessels to carry it in. The meat was cut in pieces and stowed into our knapsacks, and the vegetables which accompanied it we gave to the poorer inhabitants of the place. Thus provided, we renewed our march. The road by which we travelled overlooked a country of great beauty, leading us alternately over high mountains and through deep valleys. We were met by a great number of Biscayan carts, the motion of which produced a sound excessively disagreeable to our ears, owing to their wheels not turning round the axis, but with it, and thence occasioning a grinding and rumbling that jarred to the very centre of our auricular organs. These carts are used throughout the whole district of the Pyrenees, being calculated to make way across the very worst roads.