A view of the campaigns of Wellington's famous German troops
In the ranks of the red-coated soldiery of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars there were none more highly regarded by all than the men of the King's German Legion. These were men—many of them Hanoverians—whose motherlands had been over run by Napoleon's French forces in their domination of Europe and the smaller German states in particular. These were fine troops, well disciplined and highly motivated by their enmity towards the French and their desire to liberate and return to their homes. This book, originally published anonymously, but now known to have been written by John Hering, reveals the King's German Legion through his eyewitness experiences on campaign in Denmark, in Portugal and Spain and on the battlefield including the decisive conflict at Talavera.
On the 15th of the same month, Massena had retired from before Lord Wellington’s entrenchment, and proceeded to Santarem. The difficulties which surrounded him, from want of provision, sickness among his troops, and other adventitious causes, compelled him to take this measure. On the discovery of the French Marshal’s retrograde movement, Lord Wellington, without loss of time, commenced a pursuit; and that same day the advanced guard of the allies entered Alenquer, which had been the enemy’s head-quarters. Hence it was, that on arriving at the lines, I found them partly vacated, and our regiment, amongst others, on the advance. <br>
Alenquer, it was obvious, had been a pretty place, and situated in a fruitful country; but its spoliation during the period it was occupied by the French troops was dreadful in the extreme. It is scarcely to be expected that habits of cleanliness should obtain amongst a mass of rude soldiery; but really the French carried the contrary principle to an unexampled extent. The pollution of the houses at Alenquer was unnameable, almost inconceivable, and the destruction of the furniture altogether wanton—it is true, there was no great deal of this to destroy, for the Portuguese are not apt to overburthen their rooms with luxuries of even comforts; but it should seem that, for the sake of their own convenience, what accommodations they found should have been preserved by the invaders.<br>
On the 21st I pursued my course towards Cartaxo, the road to which place was abundantly strewn with the carcases of horses, oxen, &c. mingled every here and there with dead bodies of the enemy. At Cartaxo, Lord Wellington had fixed his head-quarters, and it was consequently no easy matter to obtain lodgement—the rather as the French had practised here the same Vandalic system which I have hinted at in speaking of Alenquer. From Cartaxo, a distance of four leagues further enabled me to come up with the army, the left wing of which was actually engaged with the enemy, and from the adjacent high hills the scene of action was commanded, and both armies lay in full view. Towards afternoon, the firing ceased.<br>
It was curious to observe the number of nuns, and other women of the country, who followed in the train of our army—thus violating that kind of reserve, and in fact (as relates to the former) that solemn oath which prohibited them from such contact. The monks, too, no longer revelling in the possession of rich acres and rosy wine, trailed along timidly and despondingly, as if hopeless of the least tranquillity except in the boisterous companionship of a large army.<br>
The 16th of December, I marched with a party of the regiment from St. Joan de Ribeira, two leagues to Rio Mayor. The French, in their retreat, (whether actuated by vexation or in the mere spirit of wantonness, I know not,) had committed a thousand enormities unheard of in civilized warfare. Even the graves of the dead were not held sacred; and the bodies which had been quietly and hopefully committed to them, were exhumated and left to infest the surrounding atmosphere with their pestilential effluvia.<br>
Hence, we were frequently obliged, from motives of security, to halt, and seek the breeze stimulated by a clump of trees, until the space before us had been cleared from heaps of these pernicious objects. Occasionally, encouraged by our presence, some of the inhabitants of the several villages returned to their abandoned dwelling-places, but fled again, with loud and desperate outcries, on perceiving the desolation and horror which had been introduced in and about their household asylums. The vintage and olive-harvest were altogether neglected. The fruits rotted upon the trees, or lay underneath in putrid masses. Many deserters almost daily came in from the enemy’s camp, so gaunt, emaciated, and woebegone, that they scarcely retained the semblance of human beings—and telling a tale of distress and privation most afflicting to the compassionate hearer.