Any student of the military history of Great Britain during the 19th century will be aware of the name Napier. This was a remarkable family. Colonel George Napier married Lady Sarah Lennox who bore him eight children among them three sons who had particularly significant military careers and who during the Napoleonic Wars came to be known as ‘Wellington’s Colonels.’ Charles served in the Peninsular War with the 50th Foot, became a general and is notable for the subjugation of Scinde on the Indian sub-continent. William served under Wellington in the 43rd Foot as part of the Light Division in the Peninsula, but is most remembered for his superlative history of the Peninsular War. This book concerns the Peninsular War experiences of George Napier. Originally titled, Passages in the Early Life of General Sir George Napier,K.C.B., it recounts the life on campaign, march, camp and field of battle not of a senior officer, but a regimental major who served under both Moore and Wellington and who was active at the sharp end of war as part of the famous Light Division. George Napier was a fine, educated and sensitive man who was able to put his experiences into words in the most compelling and literate way, whilst giving the reader insights into his personality which revealed him to be a warrior of the most honourable, courageous but humane kind. Napier led his regiment, the 52nd Foot, in its assault on the fortifications at Ciudad Rodrigo and there lost an arm when he was seriously wounded. It goes without saying that this book is an essential addition to every library of the Peninsular War.
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We were retired a few yards from the brow of the hill, so that our line was concealed from the view of the enemy as they advanced up the heights, and our skirmishers retired, keeping up a constant and well-directed running fire upon them; and the brigade of horse artillery under Captain Hugh Ross threw such a heavy fire of shrapnel-shells, and so quick, that their column, which consisted of about eight thousand men, was put into a good deal of confusion and lost great numbers before it arrived at a ledge of ground just under the brow of the hill, where they halted a few moments to take breath, the head of the column being exactly fronting my company, which was the right company of our brigade, and joining the left company of the 43rd, where my brother William was with his company.<br>
General Craufurd himself stood on the brow of the hill watching every movement of the attacking column, and when all our skirmishers had passed by and joined their respective corps, and the head of the enemy’s column was within a very few yards of him, he turned round, came up to the 52nd, and called out, ‘Now, 52nd, revenge the death of Sir John Moore! Charge, charge! Huzza!’ and waving his hat in the air he was answered by a shout that appalled the enemy, and in one instant the brow of the hill bristled with two thousand British bayonets wielded by steady English hands, which soon buried them in the bodies of the fiery Gaul!<br>
My company met the head of the French column, and immediately calling to my men to form column of sections in order to give more force to our rush, we dashed forward; and as I was by this movement in front of my men a yard or two, a French soldier made a plunge at me with his bayonet, and at the same time his musket going off I received the contents just under my hip and fell. At the same instant the French fired upon my front section, consisting of about nine men in the front rank, all of whom fell, four of them dead, the rest wounded, so that most probably by my being a little advanced in front my life was saved, as the men killed were exactly those nearest to me. Poor Colonel Barclay also received a severe wound (of which he afterwards died in England). I got upon my legs immediately again and pursued the enemy down the hill, for by this time they had been completely repulsed, and were running away as fast as their legs could carry them.<br>
William and his friend Captain Lloyd, who were upon my right, seeing that the French were still in column and in great confusion from the unexpected suddenness of the charge and the shout which accompanied it, had wheeled up their companies by the left, and thus flanked the French column and poured a well-directed fire right into them. Major Arbuthnott, who was on my left, did the same with the remaining companies of the 52nd, so that the enemy was beset on both flanks of his column, and, as you may suppose, the slaughter was great. We kept firing and bayoneting till we reached the bottom, and the enemy passed the brook and fell back upon their main body, which moved down to support them and cover their retreat. All this was done in a very short time—that is, it was not above twenty minutes from the charge till the French were driven from the top to the bottom of the mountain like a parcel of sheep. I really did not think it was possible for such a column to be so completely destroyed in a few minutes as that was, particularly after witnessing how gallantly they moved up under a destructive fire from the artillery and a constant galling one from our sharpshooters.<br>
We took some prisoners, and among them General Simon, a gallant officer, but a bad and a dishonourable man, who afterwards broke his parole of honour. He was horribly wounded in the face, his jaw being broken and almost hanging down on his chest. Just as myself and another officer came to him, a soldier was going to put his bayonet into him, which we prevented, and sent him a prisoner to the general. As I went down the hill following the enemy, I saw seven or eight French officers lying wounded. One of them as I passed caught hold of my little silver canteen and implored me to stop and give him a drink, but, much as it pained me to refuse, I could not do it, being in full pursuit of the enemy, and it was impossible to stop for an instant.<br>
This may be thought hard-hearted, but in war we often do and must do many harsh and unfeeling things. Had I stopped to give him a drink I must have done so for the others, and then I should have been the last at the bottom of the hill instead of one of the first in pursuit of the enemy; and recollect, my boys, that an officer should always be first in advancing against the enemy and last in retreating from him. When we got to the bottom, where a small stream ran between us and the enemy’s position, by general consent we all mingled together searching for the wounded. During this cessation of fighting we spoke to each other as though we were the greatest friends and without the least animosity or angry feeling!<br>
One poor German officer in the French Army came to make inquiries respecting his brother, who was in our service in the 60th Regiment, which was at that time composed principally of foreigners, and upon looking about he found him dead, the poor fellow having been killed. Very soon Lord Wellington, finding we remained as he thought too long below, ordered the bugles to sound the retreat, and the French general having done the same, off scampered the soldiers of each army and returned to their several positions like a parcel of schoolboys called in from play by their master.<br>