Autobiography of Harry Smith
CAMPAIGN OF I813: IN THE PYRENEES-GENERAL SKERRETT-COMBAT OF VERA-FIGHT AT THE BRIDGE, AND DEATH OF CADOUX.JUST before we reached Vera, my dear friend and General, Vandeleur, was moved to a Cavalry Brigade, and General Skerrett, a very different man, was sent to us, with a capital fellow for an A.D.C.- Captain Fane, or, as usually designated, "Ugly Tom." I, who had been accustomed to go in and out of my Previous Generals' tents and quarters as my own, and either breakfast or dine as I liked, was perfectly thunderstruck when it was intimated to me I was to go only when asked; so Tom the A.D.C. and we lived together, to the great amusement of my wife, who was always playing Tom some trick or other.
During our halt in this Position, the siege of San Sebastian was going on. Soult, an able Officer, who had been appointed to the command of the beaten French force, soon reorganized it, and instilled its old pride of victory, and inspired all again with the ardour and vivacity of French soldiers. The siege of San Sebastian was vigorously prosecuted. Pamplona was closely invested, and, from want of provisions, must inevitably ere long surrender. Soult, therefore, had a brilliant opportunity either to raise the siege of San Sebastian, or to throw supplies in to Pamplona, or to do both, if great success attended his operations. This opportunity he ably availed himself of, by making a rapid movement to our right to the Pass of Roncesvalles of knightly fame, and obliging the Duke of Wellington to concentrate a great part of his army to protect Pamplona, or, rather, to ensure its strict blockade, while the siege of San Sebastian was for the time suspended, awaiting supplies which were on their passage from England. My Division, the Light, was kept between the two, as were Lord Dacre's "horsemen light," to "succour those that need it most," 1 and we had some very harassing marches, when it was discovered Soult had penetrated the Pyrenees and was resolved on a general action. This he fought on the 27th and 28th July, with the Frenchman's usual success, a good thrashing.2
The Light Division made a terrible night march on this occasion, one of the most fatiguing to the soldiers that I ever witnessed. On the Pyrenees, as on other mountains, the darkness is indescribable. We were on a narrow mountain path, frequent1y with room only for one or two men, when a soldier of the Rifle Brigade rolled down a hill as nearly perpendicular as may be. We heard him bumping along, pack, rifle, weight of ammunition, etc., when from the bottom he sang out, "Halloa there! Tell the Captain there's not a bit of me alive at all; but the devil a bone have I broken; and faith I'm thinking no soldier ever came to his ground at such a rate before. Have a care, boys, you don't follow. The breach at Badajos was nothing to the bottomless pit I'm now in."
After the battles of the Pyrenees, our Division was pushed forward with great rapidity to intercept the retreat of one of the corps d'e armée, and General Kempt's - the 1st - Brigade had some very heavy fighting [at Jansi, I Aug.]; while at [Echallar], poor General Barnes, now no more, in command of a Brigade of the 7th Division, made one of the boldest and most successful attacks on five times his number, but one in which bravery and success far exceeded judgment or utility.
We moved on again, and on one of our marches came to some very nice cottages, one of which fell to the lot of myself and Tom Fane, the A. D. C.. The poor peasant was a kind-hearted farmer of the mountains, his fields highly cultivated, his farmyard supplied with poultry; every domestic comfort his situation in life demanded was his - poor fellow, he merited all. He killed some ducks for our supper, his garden supplied beautiful peas, and we had a supper royalty would have envied with our appetites. My wife had spread her cloak on the floor - she was perfectly exhausted - and was fast asleep. I awoke her, she ate a capital supper, but the next morning upbraided me and Tom Fane for not having given her anything to eat; and to this day she is unconscious of sitting at our supper-table. Judge by this anecdote what real fatigue is. The next morning we could hardly induce our host to receive payment for his eggs, his poultry, his bread, bacon, peas, milk, etc., and he would insist on giving my wife a beautiful goat in full milk, which was added to the boy Antonio's herd.3 We marched with mutual feelings of newly-acquired but real friendship. Three days afterwards, we returned to the very same ground, and we again occupied our previous dear little mountain retreat, but the accursed hand of war had stamped devastation upon it. The beautiful fields of Indian corn were all reaped as forage, the poultry yard was void, the produce of our peasant's garden exhausted, his flour all consumed - in a word, he had nothing left of all his previous plenty but a few milch goats, and that night he, poor thing, supped with us from the resources of our rations and biscuit. He said the French had swept off everything the English did not require. The latter paid for everything, and gave him bons or receipts for the Indian corn reaped as forage, which he knew some day our commissary would take up and pay. I never pitied man more, and in the midst of his affliction it was beautiful to observe a pious resignation and a love for his country, when he exclaimed, "Gracias a Dios, you have driven back the villainous French to their own country.""O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint,
Agricolas.....procul discordibus armis."
We returned to our line on this side of Vera, and the siege of San Sebastian was again vigorously resumed. We Light Division, with the 3rd and 4th, were out of that glory, which we did not regret, although the Duke never took the town until he sent to these three Divisions for volunteers for the storming party [3 I Aug.]. Then we soon took it; but in candour I should state that the breaches were rendered more practicable than when first stormed, the defences destroyed, and the enemy's means of defence diminished. It was, however, still a tough piece of work, in which we lost some valuable officers and soldiers. The enemy made a forward movement [the same day, 31 Aug.] for the purpose of reinforcing the garrison, and in the morning put back our picquets, and we anticipated a general action. However, the whole of the enemy moved to the Lower Bidassoa, and crossed in force. The day was very rainy, and the river was so full the French were compelled to retreat rapidly; in fact, so sudden was the rise of the river, many were obliged to retire by the bridge in our possession, as described by Napier.
I have only, therefore, to relate an incident which occurred between me and my new General - who, I soon discovered, was by nature a gallant Grenadier, and no Light Troop officer, which requires the eye of a hawk and the power of anticipating the enemy's intention - who was always to be found off his horse, standing in the most exposed spot under the enemy's fire while our Riflemen were well concealed, as stupidly composed for himself as inactive - for the welfare of his command. 4 When the enemy put back our picquets in the morning, it was evidently their intention to possess themselves of the bridge, which was curiously placed as regarded our line of -picquets. Thus-
We did not occupy Vera, but withdrew on our own side of it, and I saw the enemy preparing to carry the houses near the bridge in the Occupation of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade. I said, "General Skerrett, unless we send down the 52nd Regiment in support, the enemy will drive back the Riflemen. They cannot hold those houses against the numbers prepared to attack. Our men will fight like devils expecting to be supported, and their loss, when driven out, will be very severe." He laughed (we were standing under a heavy fire exposed) and said, "Oh, is that your opinion ?" I said-most impertinently, I admit,-" And it will be yours in five minutes," for I was by no means prepared to see the faith in support, which so many fights had established, destroyed, and our gallant fellows knocked over by a stupidity heretofore not exemplified. We had scarcely time to discuss the matter when down came a thundering French column with swarms of sharpshooters, and, as I predicted, drove our people out of the houses with one fells woop, while my General would move nothing on their flank or rear to aid them. We lost men and some officers, and the enemy possessed the houses, and consequently, for the moment, possessed the passage of the bridge. From its situation, however, it was impossible they could maintain it, unless they put us farther back by a renewed attack on our elevated position. So I said, "You see now what you have permitted, general and we must retake these houses, which we ought never to have lost." He quietly said I believe you are right." I could stand this no longer, and I galloped up to Colonel Colborne, in command of that beautiful 52nd Regiment, now Lord Seaton, who was as angry as he soon saw I was. "Oh, sir, it is melancholy to see this. General Skerrett will do nothing; we must retake those houses. I told him what would happen." "I am glad of it, for I was angry with you." In two seconds we retook the houses, for the enemy, seeing our determination to hold them, was aware the nature of the ground would not enable him to do so unless he occupied the position we intended to defend, and his effort was as much as not to see whether we were in earnest, or whether, when attacked in force, we should retire. The houses were retaken, as I said, and the firing ceased the whole afternoon.
The evening came on very wet. We knew that the enemy had crossed the Bidassoa [31 Aug.], and that his retreat would be impossible from the swollen state of the river. We knew pretty well the Duke would shove him into the river if he could; this very bridge, therefore, was of the utmost importance, and no exertion should have been spared on our part so to occupy it after dark as to prevent the passage being seized. The rain was falling in torrents. I proposed that the whole of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade should be posted in the houses, the bridge should be barricaded, and the 52nd Regiment should be close at hand in support. Skerrett positively laughed outright, ordered the whole Battalion into our position, but said, "You may leave a picquet of one officer and thirty men at the bridge." He was in the house on the heights he had previously occupied. I had a little memorandum-book in my pocket; I took it out for the first time in my life to note my General's orders. I read what he said, asking if that was his order. He said, "Yes, I have already told you so. " I said most wickedly, "We shall repent this before daylight." He was callous to anything. I galloped down to the houses, ordered the Battalion to retire, and told my brother Tom, the Adjutant, to call to me a picquet of an officer and thirty men for the bridge. Every officer and soldier thought I was mad. Tom said, "Cadoux's company is for picquet." Up rode poor Cadoux, a noble soldier, who could scarcely believe what I said, but began to abuse me not supporting them in the morning. I said, "Scold away, all true; but no fault of mine. But come, no time for jaw, the picquet!" Cadoux, noble fellow, says, "My company is so reduced this morning, I will stay with it if I may. There are about fifty men." I gladly consented, for I had great faith in Cadoux's ability and watchfulness, and I told him he might rest assured he would be attacked an hour or two before daylight. He said, "Most certainly I shall, and I will now strengthen myself, and block up the bridge as well as I can, and I will, if possible, hold the bridge until supported; so, when the attack commences, instantly send the whole Battalion to me, and, please God, I will keep the bridge." It was then dark, and I rode as fast as I could to tell Colborne, in whom we had all complete faith and confidence. He was astonished, and read my memorandum. We agreed that, so soon as the attack commenced, his Battalion should move down the heights on the flank of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, which would rush to support Cadoux, and thus we parted, I as sulky as my hot nature would admit, knowing some disaster would befall my dear old Brigade heretofore so judiciously handled.
In the course of the night, as we were lying before the fire, I far from asleep, General Skerrett received a communication from General Alten to the purport "that the enemy were retiring over the swollen river; it was, therefore, to be apprehended he would before daylight endeavour to possess himself of the bridge; that every precaution must be taken to prevent him." I, now being reinforced in opinion, said, "Now, General, let me do so." As he was still as obstinate as ever, we were discussing the matter (I fear as far as I am concerned, very hotly) when the "En avant, en avant! L'Empereur re'compensera le premier qu'avancera," was screeched into our very ears, and Cadoux's fire was hot as ever fifty men's was on earth. "Now," says I, "General, who is right?" I knew what the troops would do. My only hope was that Cadoux could keep the bridge as he anticipated. The fire of the enemy was very severe, and the rushes of his columns most determined; still Cadoux's fire was from his post Three successive times, with half his gallant band, did he charge and drive back the enemy over the bridge, the other half remaining in the houses as support. His hope and confidence in support and the importance of his position sustained him until a melancholy shot pierced his head, and he fell lifeless from his horse.5 A more gallant soul never left its mortal abode. His company at this critical moment were driven back; the French column and rear-guard crossed, and, by keeping near the bed of the river, succeeded in escaping, although the Riflemen were in support of poor Cadoux with as much rapidity as distance allowed, and daylight saw Colborne where he said he would be.
I was soon at the bridge. Such a scene of mortal strife from the fire of fifty men was never witnessed. The bridge was almost choked with the dead; the enemy's loss was enormous, and many of his men were drowned, and all his guns were left in the river a mile or two below the bridge. The number of dead was so great, the bodies were thrown into the rapid stream in the hope that the current would carry them, but many rocks impeded them, and when the river subsided, we had great cause to lament our precipitancy in hurling the bodies, for the stench soon after was awful. The Duke was awfully annoyed, as well he might be, but, as was his rule, never said anything when disaster could not be amended. I have never told my tale till now. Skerrett was a bilious fellow (a gallant Grenadier, I must readily avow), and I hope his annoyance so affected his liver it precipitated a step he had desired - as his father was just dead, and he was heir to an immense property - to retire home on sick-leave. You may rely on it, I threw no impediment in his way, for when he was gone, Colonel Colborne was my Brigadier, whom we all regarded inferior to no one but the Duke. Many is the conversation he and I have had over the lamentable affair which killed poor Cadoux. I really believe, had he survived, he would have held the bridge, although the enemy attacked it in desperation, and although each time the column was driven back, a few men in the dark succeeded in crossing, and these fellows, all practised soldiers, posted themselves under cover on the banks of the river below the bridge, and caused the loss our people sustained, that of noble Cadoux among the rest, with impunity. Cadoux's manner was effeminate, and, as a boy, I used to quiz him.6 He and I were, therefore, although not enemies, not friends, until the battle of Vittoria, when I saw him most conspicuous. He was ahead of me on his gallant war horse, which he took at Barossa with holsters full of doubloons, as the story went. I was badly mounted that day, and my horse would not cross a brook which his was scrambling over. I leaped from my saddle over my horse's head (I was very active in those days), seized his horse by the tail, and I believe few, if any, were as soon in the middle of the Frenchmen's twelve guns as we were in support of the 7th Division. From that day we were comrades in every sense of the term, and I wept over his gallant remains with a bursting heart, as, with his Company who adored him, I consigned to the grave the last external appearance of Daniel Cadoux. His fame can never die.
The enemy retired into their previous position, we, and San Sebastian was ours. We were in this line for some time, daily watching the enemy making works with extraordinary vigour and diligence which we knew ere long we should have the glory (the pleasure, to most of us) to run our heads against, for such was the ardour and confidence of our army at this moment, that, if Lord Wellington had told us to attempt to carry the moon, we should have done it.
During the occupation of our present position, I found the Basque inhabitants on the Spanish side, and those on the French side of the Pyrenees, carried on a sort of contraband trade, and that brandy and claret were to be had. One day, therefore, upon General Skerrett's complaining to me he could get no wine or sheep, I told him I could get him both. My smugglers were immediately in requisition. They got me eight sheep and one dozen of claret. I was disappointed at the small supply - accustomed to hospitable old Vandeleur's consumption - and I told my new General. He said he was exceedingly obliged to me; he should be glad of one sheep and two bottles of wine. It did not make a bad story through the Brigade. I and the A.D.C., Tom Fane, however, managed to consume all.
One day (the man may now be conceived) Skerrett gave a great dinner, and the General Barnard and Colborne, commanding Regiments in the Division) were asked to dine. Tom Fane and I were amused, for we knew he had but little to give them to eat and less to 4rink, and where were the materials to come from ? And Barnard loved a good dinner, with at least two bottles of good wine. To my astonishment, when I waited on him, as I usually did every morning, for orders, he was dressed. I said, "Where are you goiing, General?" (To me he was ever a most affable, and rather an amusing, fellow.) He said, "To head-quarters at Lesaca." So Tom and I supposed he would come back laden with supplies. (At Head-quarters there was an excellent sutler, but the prices were, of course, beyond any moderate means.) So Tom, A.D.C., was on the look out for his return. He soon arrived with a bottle of sherry in each pocket of his military blue coat, viz. two, and says, "Fane, tell Smith, as my wine stock is not large, to be cautious of it." Tom did tell me, and, when we met in teh dining-room, the joke wsa too good not to tell such noble and liberal fellows as Barnard and Colborne. Down we sat to, oh! such a dinner; our soldiers in camp lived far better. So Barnard says, "Being so near the French, we shall have plenty of cooks in camp soon; come, Smith, a glass of wine," and I think we drank the pocket two bottles in about as many minutes; when Barnard as funny a fellow and as noble a soldier as ever lived, says, "Now General, some more of this wine. We camp fellows do not get such a treat every day." Barnard had a French cook, taken at the battle of Salamanca, and lived like a gentleman. "Barnard," Skerret says, looking like a fiend at me, "that is the last, I very much regret to say, of an old stock" (Barnard winked at me); "what I must now give you, I fear, won¹t be so good." It was produced ; it was trash of some sort, but not wine. "No," says Barnard, "that won¹t do, but let us have some brandy." We got some execrable coffee, and here ended the only feast he ever gave while in command of my Brigade. Poor Skerrett, he soon inherited £7000 a year, not long to enjoy it. He was killed in the most brilliant, and at the same time the most unfortunate, affair that ever decorated and tarnished British laurels, at Bergen Op Zoom.
"Lord Dacre, with his horsemen light.return
Shall be in rearward of the fight,
And succour those that need it most."
Marmian, vr. xxiv.
Footnote 4 - Sir R. D. Henegan writes thus of Col. Skerrett, in describing the defence of Tarifa: "The commanding-officer of this expedition, although unimpeachable in the courageous bearing of a soldier, was wanting in the bold decision which, in military practice, must often take the lead of science and established rules." - Henegan's Seven Years' campaigning (1846), vd. i. p. 234. Colonel T. Bunbury, Reminiscences of a Veteran, i. p. 116, gives a similar account:"Skerrett as an individual was brave to rashness; but I should have doubted it had I not so frequently witnessed proofs of his cool intrepidity and contempt of danger. At the head of troops, he was the most undecided, timid, and vacillating creature I ever met with."return
Footnote 5 - Cope's account of Cadoux's death (pp.149, 150), derived, he tells, from Colonel Thomas Smith, is rather different. According to Skerrett sent to desire Cadoux to evacuate his post. Cadoux refused, saying that he could hold it. At 2 a.m. the French made a rush but Cadoux, by his fire from the bridge-house, kept the head of the advancing column in check. Skerrett now peremptorily ordered Cadoux to leave the bridge-house. Cadoux could only comply, but remarked that "but few of his party would reach the camp." And as a matter of fact every officer present was either killed or wounded (Cadoux being killed), besides 11 sergeants and 48 rank and file out of a total strength of 100 men. Until the party left the bridge-house, Cadoux had not lost a man except the double sentries on the bridge, who were killed in the rush made by the French. Accordingly, while Harry Smith in the text blames Skerrett for leaving Cadoux in an almost impossible position without support, Thomas Smith's charge against Skerrett is that he recalled Cadoux when he was well able to hold his own. return
Footnote 6 - In the Recollections of Rifleman Harris (1848), we have an Account of Cadoux which tallies closely with that of the text: "I remember there was an officer named, I think, Cardo, with the Rifles. He was a graeat beau, but although rather effeminate and ladylike in manners, so as to be remarked by the whole Regiment at tbat time, was found to be a most gallant officer when we were engaged with the enemy in the field. He was killed whilst fighting bravely in the Pyrenees, and amongst other jewellery he wore, he had a ring on his finger worth one hundred and fifty guineas." return
[previous chapter] [next chapter]
Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28