An ordinary young soldier's view of both sides of a great conflict
This a companion book the Leonaur title 'A conscript for Empire’. Like young Philippe Schwein the author of that book, Johan Christian Maempel was a Rhinelander who found himself in the service of Napoleon's French Empire. Maempel joined the Light Infantry and began a tough life of campaigning that took him to Spain where he fought and suffered at Cuidad Rodrigo, before the lines at Torres Vedras and ultimately as one of those besieged behind the walls of Almeida before it finally succumbed to attacking British forces. Good fortune spared his life and where many of his comrades fell he was taken prisoner. As a German he was offered freedom upon joining the King’s German Legion and carrying its rifle. He accepted and found himself once more despatched to the Iberian Peninsula to oppose Suchet and his former comrades in the campaign for the eastern flank. This is a highly entertaining and readable account of army life on both sides of the same conflict and will be certain to please all those interested in the Napoleonic Wars.
About midday I was sitting with one of my comrades at a little distance from the regiment, and we were very quietly eating our pork, when a musket-ball passed between us. This unwelcome visitation disturbed us a little; but, without being much alarmed, we moved farther on, and were sitting down again, when a second ball came, which passed through my schako and my companion’s head. This was too much for me, and I was terribly frightened: this may be excused in a young man, only seventeen years of age, making his first campaign. Quite confounded, I left this dangerous place, and made all the haste I could back to the main body, where, however, I was not a jot more safe than in my former situation.<br>
The artillery was brought up—but this amounted to nothing, as we had no battering-train, but only twelve-pounders, and no more ammunition in reserve than was sufficient to fill the tumbrils belonging to the guns. The infantry was advanced within musket shot; the light troops, to which I belonged, pressed forward to the charge; the Spanish cavalry, which lined the road, was overthrown, and we reached as far as the gates. Here we were received by a tremendous fire of musketry and artillery, and the grenades made terrible havoc. The soldier in front of me, a Brunswicker, named Görz, received a ball through his head, and I was obliged to supply his place. What my feelings were, can only be imagined by those who have been in a similar situation. As we were able to effect nothing, we turned about at double quick time, and at every step we took, had to pass over the bodies of the dead and dying; the cries and entreaties of the wounded were heart-rending, and every moment, death acquired fresh victims—for the Spaniards could not miss, if they fired upon the main body: those who had the misfortune to be precipitated out of the road into the ditches by the retreating crowd, were all massacred by the Spanish cavalry which pursued us.<br>
In this retreat our regiment came to a stand, behind a church in the suburbs. As soon as this was perceived in the city, the heavy artillery was directed at the tower; but as the church towers in Spain are built of large stones, and not covered with slate, this served to protect us, and the enemy did us no mischief.<br>
From our place of shelter we could plainly see the people on the wall, for we were not above fifty paces distant. This was a most singular sight: there were mixed together, half-naked inhabitants of the lowest classes; peasants, citizens, people of rank, soldiers, and friars—even the women brought up ammunition, and carried away the wounded; and priests were seen passing to and fro’ through the ranks with the crucifix in their hands, encouraging them to resistance.<br>
Amidst a shower of balls, Marshal Brune came galloping up to give some verbal orders to our colonel. While they were speaking, he desired a soldier, Faupel, from Erfurth, who had an empty grenade-case hanging at his side for a drinking-cup, to fill it for him, at a small brook which was close by. While Faupel was in the act of doing this, a ball struck the vessel out of his hand, and wounded his fingers; another ball struck the general’s horse.
Our artillery was not idle, and the howitzers set the city, on fire in several places.<br>
Owing to want of ammunition, we were not able to keep up a sufficient fire to make any considerable impression. The houses were all built of stone, and contained but little wood, so that the fire did not do much damage. We remained a considerable time at our post; small detachments were sent out from time to time, to see if the enemy showed himself upon any other point, in order to disturb, or take us in the rear. But these detachments always sustained more or less loss, and never returned with their full complement.<br>
At last night came on, and hostilities ceased on both sides; we quitted our position, and rejoined the brigade.