It would perhaps have been better if Captain Hobkirk of the 43rd had confined his flamboyance to the stage. But on 23 November the Mrs Malaprop of February’s Light Division theatricals opened his mouth and well and truly said the wrong thing. The result this time was not farce but tragedy.
They were skirmishing up towards a little French village called Arcangues in the foothills north of the Pyrenees. It was handsomely made, with a chateau, a tall church spire and woods to both sides. The Light Division’s Right Brigade was advancing to take the village and the French were falling back through it. Behind Arcangues the ground rose up to a feature called the Bassussarry ridge where the French had dug some trenches.
Brigadier Kempt sent Hobkirk with two companies of the 43rd into the trees on the left of Arcangues, with the words ‘Now mind, you are not to go beyond the wood.’ The redcoats moved gingerly forward, ‘to the front of the wood, each man to his tree, and kept up a fire upon their trenches. They did not forget to return it but they did little mischief as we were all covered by the trees. The boughs dropped fast around us and the leaves were knocked up by our sides.’
The 43rd could maintain this position for as long as was necessary, for they were in cover and far enough (120 to 150 yards) from the French positions for their fire to be poorly aimed. But then Hobkirk’s bugler sounded the advance. The soldiers looked at one another for a moment and then the first men began running out of cover and into the open ground. The banging of French muskets suddenly increased, and the redcoats started dropping. Lieutenant Hennell, running forward, saw Baillie, another subaltern in his company, felled with an almighty crack as a bullet smacked into the centre of his forehead.
Having covered about twenty yards, just to a low hedge that offered some slight cover, the companies that had burst out of the wood were pinned down. They lay with their faces pressed to the wet earth, musket balls cracking and ricocheting around them. Looking about, the British officers could see that they had come into a killing ground raked by fire on three sides. A regiment of Frenchmen was loading and firing their pieces – the cacophony was intense. Hennell, who survived these desperate moments, would write, ‘I have passed, as you will see, the hottest fire I ever saw, Badajoz not excepted.’ The lieutenant shouted to his men to stop firing since, ‘for every shot we gave them they sent five or six in return’. He knew they could not just lie there, for the ground afforded them almost no cover – a man lying next to Hennell suddenly had his jaw shot off. Looking off to his right, the officer spotted a small ditch, to which he led his men, crawling on their bellies.
When the bugler finally sounded the retire, the soldiers knew they would have to stand up into this withering fire again to make their escape. But they went all the same, several more men falling. Seeing the retreat commence, the French launched a bayonet charge which captured Hobkirk and a dozen of his men. The remainder rallied in the woods and considered the cost of their little sally: the two companies had suffered seventy-six men killed, wounded or missing.
The 43rd’s mistake at Arcangues had resulted primarily from wanting to cut a dash. The battalion’s commanding officer told his wife in a letter home, ‘Some young sanguine officers who are more vain than good, concluded that with three or four companies they could drive the whole French army before them.’
Hobkirk, perhaps, had fallen victim to the desire to get written up in a dispatch for a daring act, and a great many men had paid for it. There was a feeling among the officers of the Light Division that peace could be close, a sense that changed the atmosphere. Latecomers felt that there might not be much more time to distinguish themselves. Even some of the poorer veterans in the 43rd or 95th realised that further laurels won in combat might be the only way to avoid being put on the half-pay list when the eventual disbandments or amalgamations happened. Others, though, having been through so much, just felt that they did not want to get killed in the last battle of a war whose outcome was becoming a foregone conclusion. Lieutenant George Simmons, for example, remained with the recuperating Barnard, having decided that he had already shown a great deal of pluck in battle and his advancement now required him to ingratiate himself with a man of influence.
Barnard’s convalescence robbed the battalion of his energy and diligence at the very moment that its men faced a new challenge. There was an erosion of discipline on both sides, arising from the feeling of impending peace. Some Light Division officers had received The Times of 8 November and read of Napoleon’s complete defeat at Leipzig, the greatest battle of this epoch. They showed it to some French officers who had come down to inspect their own pickets, the two parties approaching each other with a friendly wave.
Fraternisation was taking over among the outposts. When the division set up a new line of pickets on top of the Bassussarry ridge (the French having fallen back of their own accord), the enemy placed theirs close by, just thirty or forty yards in front. Officers would approach with a waved newspaper or a flask of alcohol prominently displayed, in order to signal their peaceful intent. It was understood that if one side were ordered to attack the other, the pickets would approach tapping the stocks of their weapons. This meant ‘We are in earnest’ and the other side would have the choice to fight or retire.
So intimate were these understandings that only the most ardent fire-eater on the British side, or dyed-in-the-wool Jacobin on the other, would violate them. One morning Lieutenant James Gairdner (returned after his Vitoria wound) was with his company’s pickets when a French officer was seen approaching far closer than the agreed spot. The American-born officer and Kincaid, who was inspecting the outposts, watched this advance, before Gairdner concluded, ‘Well, I won’t kill these unfortunate rascals at all events, but shall tell them to go in and join their picket.’ Gairdner walked forward to point out the mistake only to be saluted with gunfire. ‘The balls all fell near, without touching him,’ according to Kincaid, ‘and, for the honour of the French army, I was glad to hear afterwards that the officer alluded to was a militia-man.’ It was this sort of fellow, having imbibed too much Bonapartist propaganda or just being a raw civilian, who violated the rules adopted by the chivalrous professionals.
Among the rank and file, these arrangements went rather further. A roaring contraband trade grew up, with deals being done almost nightly at the outposts: the French bought cheap but delicious brandy on behalf of les Goddams whereas the riflemen provided food and tobacco for Johnny. ‘We frequently went into each other’s picket houses,’ Costello recollected. ‘This state of things at our outposts was too subversive of discipline to be tolerated by those in command, and it was only done on the sly, upon a reliance of mutual honour.’ In the soldiers’ case, this code of behaviour meant keeping the officers in the dark, and Costello himself cheerfully admitted to deceiving Gairdner on these occasions.
Sergeant Robert Fairfoot was able to join in these barters because Costello had managed to stop him deserting. Taking some of his Vitoria windfall, Costello gave Fairfoot £31 to replace the stolen pay. Such were the bonds between old comrades.
Arcangues, just behind the Bassussarry ridge, was turned into a kind of strongpoint during the last week of November and first of December. The chateau, church and surrounding walled enclosures had been barricaded and put into a state of defence by the 43rd and 95th. The officers made their mess in the chateau, where their host was happy to sell them many a fine bottle from the cellars.
Although the French footslogger anticipated the end of the Napoleonic system, there were still plenty, from Marshal Soult downwards, who insisted that they should do their duty in defending the sacred soil of their country. To this end, he was determined to launch an offensive against the new British lines, and it began on 9 December. An attack by General Clausel, leading two divisions onto the Bassussarry ridge and Arcangues, was ordered for the next day.
The night before the French attack there had been heavy, driving rain. It was still coming down early the following morning as the French columns were mustered and moved forwards. Everything was slowing down in the mud, particularly the artillery, which, in places, was sinking up to its axles on the tracks. The French general ordered his men to press on in any case and a first wave of skirmishers was within a hundred yards of the British pickets by 9 a.m.
On the ridge some of the mounted Light Division staff officers were trotting along with their brigadiers. The fighting elsewhere the previous day made them alive to the possibility of an attack and their battalions had been stood to arms in the valley behind them at dawn, but the day was wearing on and nothing seemed imminent. Both brigadiers – Kempt and Colborne – stood their men down. The formed regiments began returning to their billets, the pickets remaining on the ridge, hunched under their coats, trying to stay dry. Colborne’s brigade major, Smith, and the divisional staff officer, Charlie Beckwith (another Rifles officer, and nephew of Colonel Sidney Beckwith), were both worried, though. They could see parties of Frenchmen moving about in the woods to their front. ‘The enemy are going to attack us,’ said Smith. Colborne replied, ‘No, they are only going to resume their ordinary posts in our front.’ Smith became agitated: ‘I prayed him to allow me to order my Brigade under arms. At last he consented.’
Some Frenchers, led by officers, walked right up to some pickets of the 43rd: ‘The French soldiers witnessing our civility to their small party, were determined not to be outdone in politeness, and called out to our sentinels, in French and Spanish, to retire.’ A few minutes later, at around 9.30 a.m., hundreds of French troops began appearing out of the woods in front of the Bassussarry ridge. The British pickets started firing but could see immediately that they would be driven in. On one part of the ridge, where the Highland Company had made its outposts, fourteen riflemen swiftly fell as prisoners into enemy hands.
Hearing the alarm back in Arcangues, Lieutenant Gairdner was mustered along with the reserve for the outlying picket and ordered by Lieutenant Colonel Gilmour, who was in acting command of the 1st/95th (in Barnard’s absence), to go onto the ridge and reinforce the picket. Gairdner discussed this briefly with Hopwood, another subaltern of the 2nd Company, to which they both belonged, and could see no sense to it. If the might of the French Army was falling on their front, there was no point in reinforcing a hopeless situation. Best to withdraw the pickets and fight at Arcangues, where a strong defensive position had been prepared. They looked up to the source of the firing, the ridge, and could see some British soldiers running back. Gilmour was insistent. Gairdner recorded his feelings:
Our company was sent out from the Chateau … in order to support the 3rd Batt who were actually retiring from the ridge when we received the order to occupy it to support them. This was mentioned to the commandant who however had not sense to comprehend that it was not only useless but dangerous to send one company up to occupy a ridge on which we were not able to communicate right or left. However we were ordered to go.
Gairdner and Hopwood went forward, taking Corporal William Brotherwood and a platoon of men. When they reached the top of the ridge, there were French just a few dozen yards in front and musket balls flying all around. They began moving about, directing their men where to take up firing positions. Corporal Brotherwood was talking to Hopwood when a crack and a puff of red mist signalled that both men had been hit. Gairdner crawled across to them. Brotherwood was twitching and breathing his last. Lieutenant Gairdner reached out and held Hopwood’s hand. The back of his skull had been blown away, and Gairdner saw the grey flecks of his brain matter on the wet grass. A single bullet had gone straight through Brotherwood’s head before taking off the back of Hopwood’s – ‘Thus died uselessly two as brave soldiers as ever stepped.’
Costello, with the same party, was firing away like a man possessed, a little way along the ridge: ‘We received them with a fierce and deadly fire. They replied with spirit.’ Gairdner could see the French battalions forming up now in front of him and beginning their advance, with a beating of drums and the customary cries, ‘En avant, en avant Français, vive L’Empereur!’ To their left and right, enemy skirmishers were working around them. The position was quite untenable. Gairdner ordered a retreat back down to Arcangues: ‘I certainly never ran quicker in my life.’
Although the remainder of 2nd Company saved itself, a good many men of the outlying picket had been killed or captured. The 2nd Battalion baggage was also taken: a financial loss and a blow to their professional pride. Gairdner, puffing and panting, fell in with the remainder of his company, fuming at what had happened.
The French footsloggers pursued their advantage, coming marching down the slope, inspired by their officers as men began falling to well-aimed British shots. The forward French battalions were able to get right up to the outskirts of the village and throw themselves into a charge, but as the shouting men came forward, fusils and rifles were directed at them from every firing point. One French officer reported: ‘Although Clausel … got to the base of the church walls … the Anglo-Portuguese, in cover, poured a murderous fire on the attackers, while our weapons, soaked with rain gave only mediocre service.’ After an hour of this punishment, the French pulled back, carrying their wounded and leaving dozens of dead around the village. The day was decided once again, for the British had been rained upon just as much, by superior skill at arms.
Having taken the ridge, but failed to make any progress into Arcangues, the French wheeled up twelve cannon. This powerful battery would support a general attack on Arcangues by thousands of infantry. It took until midday for the French to place their battery, the gunners sliding and falling many times as they wheeled their pieces through the boggy fields.
Seeing the guns about 350 yards away on the ridge, the British knew that effective artillery fire could cost them dear. The 95th’s officers had been trained in a technique for shooting gunners at these extreme ranges: ‘Riflemen may be employed also with great success against field artillery … keeping up a steady fire, the enemy’s guns, if unsupported will soon be obliged to withdraw.’ This tactic had been rarely practised, even during the long years of the Peninsular War, and it required a remarkable degree of skill on the part of the shooters, for firing was rarely considered effective – even with rifles – beyond 100 or 150 yards. Some of the soldiers had done it before, though, against the batteries near Badajoz, for example, and the 43rd’s men were up for it too.
When the French battery opened up, its shells ripped through the dank air and smacked into the church tower, showering shards of masonry onto the men below. However, the French had fired barely half a dozen times when a hail of bullets began to fall among them. The defenders of Arcangues had to tip their muzzles up at an angle in order for the balls to carry all the way up to the ridgeline. But they could see their balls arcing through the sky and adjusted their shot. The French gunners were soon falling. ‘We kept up an incessant discharge of small arms, which so annoyed the French gunners that, during the latter part of the day, they ceased to molest us.’ The artillerymen fled back over to the safe side of the ridge. A general French offensive along the line of the River Nive had been defeated with more than four thousand casualties.
From their vantage point near the church, the Rifles could see some of their dead comrades lying on the Bassussarry hill, and at twilight, some French soldiers approached them. These men were saluted with rifle fire, the men of Leach’s company being determined to drill any dog who came to plunder Corporal Brotherwood or the others. Eventually a French officer came forward waving a white handkerchief, followed by men with shovels. Assuming them to be a burial party, the riflemen held their fire.
Gairdner looked back on the day’s events with considerable anger, noting in his journal, ‘Both Hopwood and myself were too aware of the useless danger we were going to meet to have done it without an order … Hopwood lost his life through the ignorance of the commanding officer and if Colonel Barnard had commanded this day Hopwood, Brotherwood and the other sufferers from the company this day would have been spared.’
The next day, the Light Division re-established its line of outposts on the ridge. There they were saddened to discover that Hopwood and Brotherwood had been stripped of all their belongings by the ‘burial party’ and had no more than a sprinkling of earth on them. Among the rank and file there was much close examination of the men and the place where they had fallen, the tale of how one bullet had killed two fine men being told around many a campfire in the following months.
Reports of the action at Arcangues spread quickly in the Army. The capture of the fourteen Highland Company men was an embarrassment to the 95th of a kind it had not experienced since the Coa more than three years before. One officer of the 43rd, finding himself away from the Light Division a few days later, was asked, ‘whether we had been surprised on 10 December? When assured to the contrary, he assured us that it was generally supposed to be the case … before leaving the main road, the same questions were put to us in another quarter, by an officer who had previously been in our own corps; which will give a faint idea how rapidly evil and malicious reports fly.’
There were those who envied the Light Division’s reputation, no doubt, and thought it rather a good tale to spread that they had been humbled. The flying about of these reports, equally, pricked the pride of those who saw themselves as the best soldiers in the Army. Captain Harry Smith later conceded: ‘This was nearer a surprise than anything we had ever experienced.’ These weasel words, however, were in a public work. The private verdict in Gairdner’s journal was quite blunt – the troops on the Bassussarry ridge, including those of a couple of divisions, had been ‘taken completely by surprise’. The cost, apart from the killed and wounded, was that forty men from the 1st/95th and 43rd had been taken prisoner, including Second Lieutenant Church – he of the bayonet in the charge up La Petite Rhune.
The lessons of all this were complex – hard enough to digest for those whose own pride was involved. Peace, looming as it was, had unsettled the usual regularity of the Light Division. Some felt they should make a desperate attempt to garner some personal glory before the fighting was over, hence Hobkirk’s conduct of 23 November. But for many other veterans the prospect of an end to the fighting had softened their usual vigilance and allowed the outposts to exist on terms with the French that were rather too friendly. It was the atmosphere of bonhomie among the pickets that allowed the British to be surprised. Perhaps it might not have happened under the iron grip of a Craufurd, prowling about the outposts day and night, or perhaps it would have made no difference. Such speculation doubtless filled the long nights of officers drinking and dining in the chateau.
Those officers who had felt Colonel Barnard’s absence most keenly during the recent affair were delighted when he reappeared at Arcangues on 24 December, with Simmons in tow. His recovery had been remarkable, considering he had been shot through the chest, with a graze to his lung, the previous month. Despite the efforts of Army surgeons (who bled him prodigiously soon after his wounding), Barnard had been back riding his horse just a fortnight after the injury. He once again became a source of inspiration to officers or soldiers whose spirit might otherwise have been flagging.
Arcangues became remembered by most of them as a place where the division had suffered some costly mishaps, even though its defensive fighting on 10 December had turned back thousands of French troops and was among its most impressive feats of arms. However, the 95th had not yet been through its last great trial of the Peninsular War. This would come in the new year, in the dying days of Bonaparte’s empire.