At war against Napoleon’s army with the famous duke
This is an invaluable first hand account of a British officer who served under both Moore and Wellington against Napoleon’s invading French forces in the Iberian peninsula. A Scot, he joined the army as an ensign in the 72nd Foot and but went to the peninsula as an aide-de-camp to his uncle, General Sir James Leith. He also spent a considerable period gathering intelligence and communicating with other commanders in the British, Portuguese and Spanish armies. As he travelled Leith Hay made sketches of the terrain through which he passed and these were incorporated into the two volume account of his Peninsular War experiences which have been gathered together in this special single volume Leonaur edition. In 1808, he joined the 29th Regiment of Foot and as a lieutenant in he saw much action at the sharpest end of war. An exceptional observer he combined this with the talent to communicate well in both images and words. In this respect his activities as a gatherer of military intelligence would have made him an asset. Fortunately for modern readers he brought those same talents to his literary endeavours and all manner of detail is more finely and intimately described here than might be expected in memoirs of this kind. Leith Hay’s descriptions of the engagements in which he took part—particularly as a regimental officer—are particularly finely crafted. His depiction of the Battle of Talavera is particularly noteworthy as are his observations on the storming of San Sebastian. Leith Hay served with Charles Leslie in the 29th Foot and Leslie’s book, ‘With the 29th Regiment in the Peninsula,’ is also published by Leonaur—the two volumes are ideal companions for historical researchers.
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After the Spanish Army had ceased to march past us, we returned to the quiet of the olive grove. Cannon and musketry were heard at intervals, but no order to move had yet arrived. Several officers of the 29th were assembled, when the Spanish General O’Donahue rode up from the direction of the Alberche. He appeared in a state of considerable excitement, stating we probably were not aware of the enemy having crossed the river, and that he would be upon us without delay. This information was received in a manner little according with his own apparent feelings on the occasion. We merely thanked him, adding, that when it was necessary to get under arms, orders to that effect would of course be communicated. Another hour elapsed,—when the firing became so close and constant, that we began to consider it extraordinary that orders were not received.<br>
At last, however, the brigade got under arms, and marched to the left, passing both Spanish and British troops in line, who already occupied the position defended by them on the following day. As we moved left in front, the 29th, being the senior regiment, was in rear of the column,—the 48th leading. In this formation we advanced about half way between the town of Talavera and the eminence then unoccupied, but which was evidently, from its locality and importance, destined to become the left, as also the strongest part of the position.<br>
The brigade halted for a short time near to the division of Brigadier-General Alexander Campbell, in rear of an unfinished Spanish redoubt. The evening was far advanced when we again moved towards the hill. The firing, as we pressed forward, appeared heavy and incessant in the direction of the Alberche. Regiments of General M’Kenzie’s division, retiring, passed us diagonally, falling into the line. It was now nearly dark. We were approaching the base of the hill, when a sharp fire issued from the leading regiment, which, although assailed in its progress, continued to advance.<br>
The 29th was formed in column of companies, at quarter distance. The 48th and battalion of detachments met with a formidable resistance, and were driven back at this critical moment, upon which the safety of the army depended. The 29th was ordered to advance at double quick time. The leading company crowned the summit previously to receiving the enemy’s fire. A considerable body of French were now in possession of the height. Their numbers rapidly increasing, the drums beat the pas de charge; while at intervals voices were heard, some calling out they were the German Legion, others not to fire. It was so dark that the blaze of musketry alone displayed the forms of the assailants.<br>
The leading company of the 29th poured in a volley when close to the bayonets of the enemy. The glorious cheer of British infantry accompanied the charge which succeeded. The rest of the regiment arrived in quick succession, forming on the summit a close column, which speedily drove everything before it. The enemy was pushed down the hill, abandoning the level ground on its top, thickly strewed with dead bodies or wounded men. No second attempt was for some time made to carry this most important point. The 29th remained in possession of the ground, lying on their arms in the midst of fallen enemies. The furred schakos of a dead French soldier became my pillow for the night.<br>
The heavy fire of musketry, the darkness, the apparently obstinate nature of the dispute for the possession of the hill, the uncertainty of the result, all occasioned great anxiety at head-quarters. Sir Arthur Wellesley himself rode to the spot, to which he immediately ordered up artillery; and the early part of the night was employed in drawing cannon to the height. After they had been placed in battery, a stillness for some time prevailed. About midnight this was suddenly interrupted, by firing towards Talavera;—not the straggling, desultory, yet distinct reports of light troops, but a roll of musketry that illuminated the whole extent of the Spanish line. It was one discharge; but of such a nature that I have never heard it equalled. It appeared not to be returned, nor was it repeated. All again became silent. A false alarm had occasioned this tremendous volley; but we were too distant to ascertain what had produced the violent irruption, or how many of our allies had thrown away their arms, and fled, after having delivered a fire sufficiently formidable to have shaken the best and bravest troops.