May–June 1813

The scene which greeted the marchers on 23 May 1813 was familiar enough. It was the same bit of godforsaken ridge overlooking the Huebra where they had reached their lowest ebb in the driving rain the previous November. It was very different now, though. The sun was shining and every man’s countenance had that well-fed look. ‘We encamped today in a most heavenly May morning with a very luxuriant vegetation all around on the very identical spot where the Light Division passed the dreary dismal night of 17th November last,’ wrote one officer.

Many of the riflemen felt glad to be campaigning again. There would be privations of course, but the months on the Beira frontier had dragged terribly. They did not see the point in sitting about while the job of kicking Johnny François out of Spain remained to be done. They trusted their luck in battle and hoped that the coming campaign would deliver plenty of plunder as well as some hard fighting.

The Light Division made its way down the slope to the Huebra ford, a long snake of marching men that stretched for a mile. At the rear were dozens of mules and other pack animals, the Portuguese boys who looked after the officers’ personal beasts of burden, and the ‘wives’ who had been acquired that winter. Riding at the head of the 43rd, Lieutenant Colonel William Napier, refreshed by a leave in London, found it hard to believe that the campaign of 1813 would see the French thrown out of Spain. They had already been trying for years and there were plenty of naysayers in England who felt that Wellington had been too cautious a general. Napier turned to one of his friends in the 95th and said, ‘Well, here we go again. We shall go so far and then have our arses kicked and come back again.’

Wellington’s successes had been such, though, that the ministry had poured additional troops into his army. The war band marching forward that May consisted of 81,000 troops, over 52,000 of whom were British, the remainder Portuguese.

Once this force was striking out to the north-east, heading for the French defensive line on the Duero, the Rifles were able to catch sight of the various battalions who were old campaigners and those who were the Johnny Newcomes. The 95th had become soldiers for whom personal appearance or regulation dress counted far less than prowess in combat. They were very struck, therefore, to see the two smart brigades of cavalry sent out to Wellington shortly before the campaign: one of hussars, three fine regiments of more than five hundred sabres each, the men resplendent in their pelisses and tall hats; the other new brigade of heavy Household Cavalry. The hussars had not seen any action since early 1809, when they had covered the retreat to Corunna skilfully. As for the Blues and Life Guards of the Household Cavalry, they had not campaigned for fifteen years. The contempt of the old sweats for these parade-ground soldiers showed itself in Leach’s private journal:

We cannot allow these gentry who have during the last five years been luxuriating in London to come under the head of ‘old Peninsular soldiers’ nor can we either consider the Dandy Hussar Regiments just arrived from campaigning at Brighton, Hampton Court, Weymouth and those places ever since the month of January 1809 (a period of four years and four months) to be entitled ‘old Peninsular men’. I dare venture nevertheless to prognosticate that any of us who may be so fated as to live to revisit England and to see the termination of this protracted war in the Peninsula [will] hear these gentry newly arrived talk louder and with greater self-sufficiency than the troops who have been through the whole business.

The Army moved ahead in three great columns, forcing back the French in a great movement across the north of Spain towards the Ebro and the Pyrenean frontier. Three times the French, trying desperately to regroup their forces, attempted to block the British on a river line in their path, but three times the right of the French line was turned by Wellington, sending his men through inhospitable mountain country which many had thought impracticable for an advance. During one of these outflanking movements the hussars distinguished themselves in a combat with the enemy rearguard and this was enough to silence most of the Light Bobs. As for the Household regiments, they continued to excite the contempt and, it must be said, the envy of the veterans, if for no other reason than because of the absurdly well-fed appearance of their huge mounts, the average Rifles officer having become used to his $40 nag with its scrawny neck and sagging back.

On 7 June, in Palencia, matters reached the point of open abuse. Here, the Household Cavalry enjoyed the acclamations and cheering of the liberated populace so much that they held up the rest of the Army. ‘The Household Troops’, wrote George Hennell of the 43rd, ‘paraded the streets such as they did Piccadilly for they went up one, down another, up again, so whether it was a mistake or not I do not know, but this I know, they kept our baggage an hour in the streets and we were waiting for breakfast all the time very impatiently.’

The Army of 1813 was very different to that of 1809. It was not just that the soi-disant elite had finally deigned to join the fray, but the doctrines of using light troops and riflemen extensively for every type of demanding task had gained supremacy. When Craufurd disembarked his brigade four years before, his reinforcement meant the Army had two battalions of riflemen (the 1st of the 95th as well as the 5th/60th) and two of light infantry. The reinforcements sought by Wellington over the years meant that in May 1813, it had three battalions of 95th, three of foreign riflemen, six battalions of light infantry, and eleven of Portuguese Cacadores (most of whom carried rifles). Although Wellington remained a military conservative in many respects, his experience in command of the 95th since the Baltic expedition of 1807 and Portuguese campaign of 1808 had convinced him of the intrepidity and fighting qualities of such forces.

With its phalanxes of light troops (infantry and cavalry) the British Army moved across northern Spain with unparalleled speed. The French had derided them, in the spring of 1811 and at other times, for timidity or slowness, but by mid-June 1813 they were being pursued back, harassed all the way, to a defensive line which would mark their final chance to hold any part of Iberia.

On 18 June, the Light Division, having outmarched the French stragglers, emerged into a deeply incised valley – a gorge almost – called San Millan. The terrain nearly formed a ‘Y’, with the British and French on the converging forks. A small river, the Boveda, was bridged just after the valleys’ junction. As the first men at the head of the British column came over a rise and saw San Millan and the Boveda, they realised that several French battalions were standing about near the village without having posted pickets or seeming at all on their mettle. Wellington, wrote one company commander, ‘suddenly appeared amongst us and directed the first and third battalions of the 95th riflemen instantly to make an attack on the French infantry brigade which was in Millan and who, to judge from appearances did not dream that that a British soldier was within a day’s march of them’.

Four companies trotted up the road and began extending into skirmish order. The alarm had been given among the French now and they tried to get some of their battalions moving while others sent out skirmishers to meet the British. The French began firing ineffectively, but the Rifle company commanders knew their business well enough to ignore them and keep pressing forward until they were very close: ‘The 1st Batt 95th extended over their flanks within pistol shot of them, rattling away as fast as they could.’ Two Rifle companies kept going for the French centre and one around each flank. The French, seeing riflemen streaming past them on the slopes of the hills on each side, began running, fearing their retreat would be cut off. George Simmons, who had been with the 7th Company – turning one of the French flanks – watched his brother Joseph in action for the first time and saw that he acquitted himself well.

There was panic now in the narrow main street of San Millan, drivers fleeing their wagons and men running back through the village and out its other side. There the French commander managed to form one battalion in line, ready to check the advance of the British skirmishers as they issued from the San Millan. The British would get a crashing volley of musketry and that would buy him time to try to turn the situation. For the French general Antoine-Louis Maucune knew something that the riflemen jogging through San Millan did not: that his division’s second brigade was somewhere further back on the same road, cut off by the British surprise attack.

Wellington had by now ridden into the village – with the very spearhead of his Army – and was no further than a couple of hundred yards from that one formed French battalion. One of the 95th’s captains recorded, ‘Lord Wellington ordered four of the companies of our first battalion to attack.’ The riflemen came running towards the French firing line, dropping to one knee or to a prone position to squeeze off a shot now and then, but hardly slackening their pace. A few hundred skirmishers were not meant to be able to drive off a similar number of men in a formed line, but the French were already shaken and as the 95th came straight towards them, their volleys, aimed at men who were partially dispersed with some in cover, had no appreciable effect. The 95th maintained its progress and the French ranks broke and began fleeing before the British bayonets connected.

The riflemen did not let up, even as they reached Val Puesta, the next village along the road. Many enemy soldiers, winded or bewildered, were now running off in all directions or giving themselves up. In the next little hamlet, Villa Nueva, the bugles sounded the recall and Colonel Barnard rallied his men before they dispersed too far. By this time they could hear the heavy firing behind them that announced that Vandeleur’s 2nd or Left Brigade of the Light Division had discovered Maucune’s lagging formation, and was giving it the same treatment. There the French troops had the choice of fighting to the death or fleeing up the steep hillsides: most opted for the latter course, leaving fourgons and caissons behind them.

Some three hundred French prisoners were taken, along with many wagons and baggage animals. The Rifles and some Portuguese Cacadores soon set about breaking open the trunks and boxes, helping themselves to the plunder. The 43rd, who had been left behind by the rapidity of the attack, were miffed to miss out on the spoils: ‘Our men became outrageous, swearing they were never employed when there was anything to be got by it.’

On occasions like this, it was first come, first served for food, drink and anything else easily portable in the baggage. The victorious regiments, however, would auction the animals, wagons and other large items, with the prize money being divided among the soldiers. The sale took place two days later, with those officers who still had a little money in their pockets able to pick up various bargains. There had been many ladies’ dresses in the baggage, intended presumably as gifts for the French officers’ sweethearts or mothers and now destined to serve the same purpose for the British: ‘They were purchased by some of the officers either as momentos of the fight … or very possibly intended as presents to their fair friends in England should the purchasers be fated to survive [emphasis in original].’

As for Lord Wellington, he was already preoccupied that day with formulating a battle plan for a general action against the French on the plain of Vitoria. He intended to fall upon the combined armies of King Joseph, Napoleon’s brother, the following day, 21 June.

At daybreak on the 21st the Light Division marched almost due north through a narrow gorge, emerging into an open valley surrounded by peaks. They followed the line of the River Zadorra for about two miles, keeping to its left bank, and then allowed the curve of the river and hill spur they were marching along to bring them around until they were facing due east. The entire French deployment of 57,000 troops was laid out in front of them. To the Rifles’ right, on a great ridge called the Heights of Puebla, action had already been joined by General Hill’s 2nd Division and one of Spanish troops. Smoke, musket fire, drumbeats and perhaps even the odd bagpipe announced that the battle for this lofty eminence had begun an hour or two earlier. It was Wellington’s aim to draw off French reserves to Puebla while he hit them in the centre and on the other flank.

Looking from the riflemen’s vantage point, the centre of the French deployment was an impressive array of infantry and cannon in two lines. Not all of it was visible, since there were vineyards, orchards and undulations of the ground. On the British left of this position, the Zadorra snaked around the plain, along the flanks of the main French deployment. A right-angled bend in this stream meant that it marked not only the front of the enemy position (where the Rifles were) but its right flank too. Further to the British left of that stream were the mountains that marked the northern limit of the Vitoria plain, through which were several passes. Wellington had sent other columns on a wide-flanking march through the valleys, with the idea that they should burst out of these defiles, into the French flank and rear.

Downhill in front of the 95th was a small village, Villodas, and its bridge across the Zadorra. This would be the objective for the Light Division’s 1st Brigade, but Wellington did not want to throw them forward too soon. He was just by the 1st Battalion of Rifles, looking now and then up and to his right, then over to the left, squinting into the distance for any sign that his columns were coming through the mountains. The French would have to be hit at several key points simultaneously, or the British general’s men would be defeated in turn.

One officer of the 43rd looked down at Villodas, seeing its defenders, and said, ‘I do not like the idea of forcing the bridge. How the grape will rattle around us!’ Others thought the Rifles would soon be able to pick off the French gunners. Second Lieutenant Hennell looked along the line to see how the soldiers were dealing with this waiting game and was struck by their calm: ‘More jokes pass then than at a halt on a wet day and when we move forward every officer is more on the alert than usual. The men wipe their pans and see that the flint and steel are right as coolly as you would go shooting sparrows.’

Seeing the British on the high ground behind Villodas, the local French commander did not intend to sit passively. He sent some companies of voltigeurs across the bridge and into the village, from where they opened fire. Since French balls began whistling around the ears of Wellington and his staff, Colonel Barnard led several companies of riflemen down to flush them out. Half an hour later the little French sally was over and they retired back across the stream.

Wellington looked off to the left again and asked Lieutenant Simmons whether he could see anything. Simmons replied, ‘Yes my Lord, I see smoke and dust in that direction.’ It was time. Wellington looked across to the Rifles’ commanding officer and said, ‘All right; get along Barnard.’

Riflemen moved down towards the old bridge but then, in one of those chances of war, Barnard met a local peasant who told them that a crossing further up the Zadorra was unguarded. The Rifles’ commander had been itching for a chance to distinguish himself and it could not have been offered more plainly to him. Barnard and his riflemen followed their guide to the left, up the river bank, as the slope became steeper and steeper. This little path, clinging to the craggy rock face, led them around the right-angled bend in the river and over one of the little bridges at a village appropriately named Tres Puentes. There, the riflemen, followed by the 43rd, crossed unopposed and went up a great hillock, the site of an ancient earthwork, from where they could see a few dozen French light roops by Tres Puentes’ main crossing, and Picton’s 3rd Division coming down from the north towards it. There were just a few French voltigeurs and dragoons guarding this point and Barnard resolved instantly to attack them with rifle fire, driving them away. A few dozen rounds sufficed to throw back the enemy. The Rifles’ unexpected appearance in this quarter earned them a few cannon shot from British guns on the opposite bank, and several men were cut down by their own side’s artillery before the firing could be halted. ‘The 3rd Division, at a run, crossed the bridge of Trespuentes, cheering but unopposed.’ Barnard’s gamble in bypassing the bridge at Villodas had succeeded beautifully. Realising they might soon be cut off by British troops who were almost behind them, the French defenders quit that point on the river bank, allowing the Light Division’s 2nd Brigade to cross at Villodas unopposed.

With much of the Light and 3rd Divisions now across the river and somewhat to the rear of the foremost French line, the rest of this advanced defensive cordon had to fall back. These enemy redeployments gave the Rifles half an hour of calm, which made everyone a little uneasy, in case a counter-attack was about to be launched. Soon enough, though, it was the British who were moving forward again, onto a tree-covered knoll about half a mile east of the Villodas bridge. Behind this feature was a village called Arinez, which the French were barricading and preparing to defend.

On emerging from the trees on top of the knoll of Arinez, the 43rd and 95th were, for the first time, visible to a great many French defenders. An ear-splitting barrage of cannon began. The first rounds roared overhead and then others started skipping across the ground, smashing whoever got in the way. One British officer estimated that they had come under the fire of thirty pieces. The 43rd were quickly ordered to lie down. They could see, though, that quite a bit of the firing was coming from some artillery in and around Arinez itself. To their left one of Picton’s brigades began to form up, ready to assault the village. ‘During the few minutes that we stopped there,’ wrote Kincaid, ‘while a brigade of the 3rd division was deploying into line, two of our companies lost two officers and thirty men, chiefly from the fire of artillery.’

Into this maelstrom rode Wellington, placing himself in great danger. The battle had reached a decisive moment and the British commander knew that if the French could be driven out of Arinez, their centre would be broken. ‘I heard a voice behind me, which I knew to be Lord Wellington’s,’ wrote Kincaid, ‘calling out, in a tone of reproof, “Look to keeping your men together, sir.”’

Leach’s company was one of those pinned under this heavy fire. Lieutenant Gairdner, Corporal Brotherwood and Private Costello were all serving in it. Gairdner was one of those who soon became a casualty. Costello was hit too: ‘A grape or round shot struck my pouch with such violence that I was hurled several yards along the ground. From this sudden shock, I imagined myself mortally wounded but, on being picked up, I found the only damage I had sustained was to my pouch, which was nearly torn off.’ Private Miles Hodgson, the pardoned Rodrigo deserter, ran up to help Costello, only to get a bullet in the face. Leach’s company, and the 6th Company under Lieutenant FitzMaurice, went charging down the hill towards Arinez.

The walls and hedges on the village’s outskirts were now lined with French defenders. Wellington rode across the short distance to Picton’s men where he personally formed up the 88th, the Connaught Rangers, for the advance. With a beating of drums, they marched forward in line, presented their pieces only thirty or forty yards from the enemy and game them a thumping volley, a cheer and the bayonet. The French fled back through the village. One battery of guns which had been firing in support of them was quickly limbered up by its commander, for in his trade losing your cannon was the ultimate disgrace. At this moment the artillery men got help: a counter-attack by the French infantry briefly reclaimed the village, allowing this battery to pull out. Seeing the track that the horses towing the cannon were taking, Lieutenant FitzMaurice called his men to follow him and raced across an open field to intercept them.

On arriving near the guns, FitzMaurice was running at a cracking pace. He shouted to his company, urging them forward, only to make the uncomfortable discovery that just a couple had managed to keep up with him as he ran. The Irish lieutenant threw himself onwards nevertheless, the French gunners and drivers defending themselves with whatever came to hand. There was a short, sharp, close-range fight in which a pistol was discharged almost in FitzMaurice’s face, the ball going through his shako. Soon he and another rifleman had shot one of the draught horses and were cutting the traces that connected it to the howitzer it was pulling. The lieutenant and four riflemen had captured the first French gun of the day, but certainly not the last.

As the 2nd Company burst into Arinez, Costello caught sight of Lazarro Blanco sticking a straggler with his bayonet. The Spanish private plunged the blade in manically, taking out the sufferings of his country on this unfortunate Frenchman, cursing him all the time in the most profane and abusive language.

With their enemy streaming back from Arinez, the Light and 3rd Divisions followed up. There was still heavy firing, but the French Army was disintegrating. Its battalions had broken into clumps of men running across the countryside, heading east. Near the city of Vitoria, hundreds of wagons, containing the treasures plundered by the French during their five-year occupation, fell into British hands.

Wellington had scored an emphatic triumph. The French Army lost 151 artillery pieces – all but one of those weapons that they had brought to the field. Many of the British soldiers felt a determined cavalry pursuit would have annihilated the disordered wreck of Joseph’s army. No such movement by the horse soldiers materialised and one Rifle officer noted, ‘It was impossible to deny ourselves the satisfaction of cursing them all, because a portion of them had not been there at such a critical moment.’ The Household Cavalry regiments were sent into Vitoria to stop the Allied army plundering it, Hennell of the 43rd being unable to resist a dig at these court soldiers, writing home, ‘I do not know what good they did, if any I am sure you would hear of it.’

As for the Light Division, they felt they had more than earned the rewards that might be earned from plundering the French baggage. Their role in assuring the passage of the Zadorra and attacking Arinez had been the most important part of any general action they had enjoyed since Busaco almost three years before. Some soldiers, though, were to be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams, for among the chests and cases were millions of gold doubloons and silver dollars.

‘I observed a Spanish muleteer in the French service carrying a small but exceedingly heavy portmanteau towards the town,’ wrote Costello. ‘I compelled him lay it down, which he did, but only after I had given him a few whacks with my rifle.’ These saddlebags contained a breathtaking sum – perhaps as much as £1,000 in Spanish coin. A couple of troopers of the 10th Hussars, seeing Costello staggering along with this load, soon tried to divide it with him. ‘Retiring three or four paces, I brought [my rifle] to my shoulder and swore I would shoot dead the first man to place his hands upon my treasure.’ This persuaded the cavalry to look elsewhere. Costello clapped hands on a mule to carry the bags and headed back to find his company.

One other rifleman was rumoured to have taken £3,000 in coin. He had the added good fortune of a wife following with the regimental baggage. They sewed their gains into a mule saddle, which she kept closely under her supervision, the couple later depositing their money at a bank in Dover. Costello knew there was nobody he could trust in this way. Instead he signed over £300 to the regimental paymaster, who was happy to acquire the coin in order to settle his many accounts and issue a receipt in return. Some the private also loaned to officers. The remainder he and Tom Bandle, a messmate whom he had taken into his confidence, guarded. Bandle had sailed with Costello in the 3rd Company, back in 1809, and upon its demise had also been transferred into Leach’s – they had a long history of fighting and drinking together. He was a little weasel of a man who, in return for a small cut, helped Costello guard the cash. Most of it was to go on ensuring he and his company lived well and were adequately lubricated during the coming months.

Most soldiers did not of course reap quite such rewards, but that did not stop them searching hard. Costello himself put it charmingly: ‘Even if our fellows had been inclined to be honest, their good fortune would not allow them.’

The 95th’s officers did not benefit in quite the same way. Simmons recorded, ‘I lay down by the fire in a French officer’s cloak, which one of the men gave me; he had that day shot its wearer.’ Leach dropped down in his company’s bivouac, exhausted. ‘The soldiers of my company brought me a large loaf of excellent French bread, some Swiss cheese, cognac brandy and excellent wine they had found in some French general’s covered wagon.’ The men, in sharing their bounty with delicacies for their officers, ensured that they remained free to roam that night. Leach jotted in his journal, ‘Our soldiers did nothing the whole night but eat, drink and smoke, talk over our glorious successes and occassionally steal away from camp to look for plunder which it must be allowed was very excusable.’

Around the 2nd Company campfires there was much discussion about what had happened to them that day and who had been absent from roll-call. Private Dan Kelly piped up, ‘Don’t drink all the wine boys, until we hear something about our absent messmates. Do any of you know where Jack Connor is?’

‘He was shot through the body when we took the first gun in the little village near the main road,’ was the reply.

Bob Roberts spoke next, asking, ‘Where is Will John?’

‘A ball passed through his head,’ said another. ‘I saw him fall.’

Tom Treacy then joined in: ‘Musha, boys! Is there any hope of poor Jemmy Copely getting over his wounds?’

‘Poor Copely, both his legs were knocked off by a round shot.’

Treacy looked down bitterly. ‘By Jasus, they have kilt half our mess. But never mind boys, fill a tot, fill a tot. May I be damned but here’s luck … Poor Jemmy Copely! Poor Jemmy! They have drilled him well with balls before, damn them, now they have finished him. The best comrade I ever had, or ever will have.’ As Treacy said these last words, a tear streaked down his blackened face.

In the days following Vitoria, the Rifles fell in with the French rearguard several times. After the great affair of 21 June, these fights piqued their superstitions, one officer summing it up: ‘After surviving a great day, I always felt I had a right to live to tell the story; and I, therefore did not find the ensuing three days’ fighting half as pleasant as they otherwise would have been.’

Just as the riflemen had begun to think more about their own survival, so their propensity for plunder had grown, as their brigade set off in pursuit of a remnant of the old Army of Portugal. On 29 June in a village called Caseda, quite a few riflemen joined in a stripping of firewood and farm produce so vigorous that it crossed the thin line between foraging and plunder. Wellington got one of his staff to write an angry letter to the commander of the Light Division, exclaiming, ‘This renewed report of disorder committed by soldiers of your division has much dissatisfied the Commander of the Forces, his excellency being of the opinion that such continued irregularity shows evident relaxation of discipline both regimental and divisional.’

The following day, following Headquarters’ complaints, Lieutenant Simmons was put in command of a party of riflemen collecting firewood when General Picton rode up, declaring that the logs had been assigned by the staff to his own 3rd Division. The 95th knew well enough that in former times a feud had built up between Craufurd, in his role of irresistible force, and Picton, acting the part of immovable object. On this occasion, Picton shouted at Simmons to drop the wood, telling him, ‘It is a damned concern to have to follow [the Light Division]. You sweep everything before you.’ General Alten arrived on the scene at this moment, saving the fuel for his own division.

While the soldiers doubtless revelled in the image of the Light Division as peerless scavengers or banditti, it posed no small problem for Lieutenant Colonel Barnard in his command of the Rifles. The last thing he wanted was for the banditry of his wilder soldiers to tarnish the laurels he had won on 21 June. Although some were now beginning to prophesy the end of Bonaparte’s rule, he knew that he would have to use both the carrot and the stick to combat the disorderly tendencies of his men.

At least nobody doubted the Light Division’s marching prowess as it found itself heading in the direction of the River Bidassoa, Spain’s border with France, early in July. General Kempt had been deeply struck by the quality of soldiers under his command, telling Barnard one day on the march, ‘By God I never saw fellows march so well and in such weather and roads too. I will order the Commissary to issue them a double allowance of spirits tonight.’ The Pyrenees loomed ahead of them. French forces remained isolated in two Spanish fortresses: Pampluna inland, at the base of those mountains, and on the coast at San Sebastian. Wellington did not intend to advance into France itself until those places were reduced, and sieges, as he had discovered, could be a tedious and bloody business.

The smoky hovels of the Portuguese frontier were behind them. They knew enough about the French losses against the mighty coalition ranged against Napoleon in Germany to begin hoping that the final battle was under way. The French, though, were determined to exact a high price in blood in the mountain ranges of their southern border.

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