Passage of the Bidassoa

In Navarre the _quintas_ are constructed with projecting roofs, and are
two stories high: the second floors are encircled by wooden galleries,
adorned with creeping vines, hanging over in festoons, which give
these dwellings a most picturesque appearance. The numerous fertile
valleys produce wheat, rye, barley, maize, pulse, and apples which make
very tolerable cider.

When on picquet, we passed whole days in the houses of the small
farmers, (who speak the Basque language;) and although these dwellings
lay between the hostile armies, they were not damaged, nor the corn or
orchards cut down; yet, for leagues in every other direction, all the
small fields of Indian corn had been torn up by the very roots, and
carried off.

Owing to this latter circumstance, many of the peasantry became
impoverished, and were obliged to content themselves with very scanty
fare; their bread was made of Indian corn, which they mixed up into
a cake, an inch thick, and then put it into a frying pan, which was
repeatedly turned, until its contents were about half baked; this
operation being completed, the whole family formed a circle; the cake
was then broken into pieces, and handed to each individual, so hot
that they would shift it from hand to hand, making all sorts of wry
faces; this frugal supper being concluded, a large brass cauldron was
filled with tepid water, in which the elder of the family first bathed
his feet, and then the others, according to seniority, until all, in
rotation, performed the same cleanly ablution, which was never omitted
before retiring to rest.

While on the position of Santa Barbara, or whenever in the vicinity
of the enemy, it was customary to turn out an hour before daybreak,
and for the troops to stand to their arms until objects at a short
distance became visible. On these mountains we were terribly annoyed by
the toads. Many officers possessed mattresses or covers, (the latter
being usually stuffed with dried fern,) but if they happened to be left
in the tent two or three days without removing, or taken out to dry,
which was often the case, owing to heavy rains or dense fogs, we were
sure to find one or two bloated speckled toads under them, as large in
circumference as a small dessert plate.

Towards the end of the month, we could distinctly hear the heavy
thundering of the battery cannon at St. Sebastian, and an order was
issued for the first, fourth, and light divisions to send a certain
number of volunteers, to assist the fifth division in storming
the breaches at that place, as soon as they should be considered

By some mistake, we were informed that two officers were to proceed from
our regiment with the volunteers; accordingly Lieut. John O’Connell and
myself offered our services, and marched off and formed with the rest of
the volunteers of the division, in front of General Alten’s quarters,
which was about a league in rear of our encampment; but as more officers
had proffered their services than the proper quota, I, amongst the rest,
made a surplus, and Lieut. O’Connell, being my senior, remained. This
officer had formed one of the storming party at Ciudad Rodrigo, and at
Badajoz, where he was badly wounded, a ball having passed in at the top
of his shoulder and came out at the elbow joint: he was ultimately
killed on the sanguinary breach of St. Sebastian. Lieut.-Col. Hunt, of
the 52nd, took the command of the volunteers of the division. Major W.
Napier had also volunteered, but not being required on this occasion,
both he and myself returned to camp.

On the following day, myself and three other officers obtained
permission to proceed across the mountain to be _spectators_ of the
assault. The weather was extremely fine, and we enjoyed a tranquil ride
over the mountains, many of which were entirely covered with oak trees,
aromatic plants, fern, and evergreens. For more than two leagues there
was scarcely a house to be seen. The day being far advanced before we
left our camp, darkness overtook us, and, on making enquiries at a
cottage, we were informed, by a peasant, that there was an encampment
at a short distance, which we soon discovered to the right of the
road, and found it to be the 85th light infantry, just arrived from
England. We received a hearty welcome, besides _aguardiénte y vino
tinto_, and then wrapping our cloaks around about us, we enjoyed a few
hours repose in Major Ferguson’s tent.

At daybreak we went on our way through an open, hilly, and sandy
country, towards St. Sebastian, and in a few hours took post in the
trenches cut through the sand banks, on the right bank of the river
Urumea, and within six hundred yards of the town, which stands near the
river, or rather on a small peninsula, between two arms of the sea.
The place consisted of twenty streets, besides churches, convents, and
monasteries; and is enclosed on three sides by ramparts, bastions,
and half-moons. The castle is built on the top of a bare rock, and
overlooking the sea; the entrance of the harbour, on the west side, is
between two moles, and is capable of containing a few small vessels.

During our stay in the trenches, just below a mortar battery, the
enemy hardly fired a shot from the fortress, in the walls of which
were two breaches eighty yards asunder. The principal and wide-mouthed
breach had crumbled into a vast mound of sand, rubbish, and broken
masonry. A breach is indeed an awful mound of dilapidation to
look on, or rather a heap of disagreeable rubbish, particles of
which sparkle brightly in the sun beams, while the whole seems to
the amateur easy of ascent, but the wary veteran knows it to be a
deceitful slope, re-entrenched from behind, and most probably cut off
from all communication with the interior of the town. Well may it be
called “the deadly breach:” all fighting is bad enough, but when the
valiant soldier sees insurmountable obstacles before him, and finds
all his efforts unavailing, and death jostling him on every side,
his foot, perhaps, planted on the body of an expiring comrade, whose
bleeding mouth is filled with dust, and whose trampled uniform at last
becomes identified with the rubbish, and the human form no longer
distinguishable; and every instant the heap of the slain accumulating,
without any possibility of carrying the place,—then, indeed, comes the
“tug of war;” for, as a distinguished officer very justly observed, “A
breach may be made the strongest part of a fortification, since every
combustible, and power of defence, are brought to a known focus.”

Having remained in the trenches a considerable time, we made for the
small town of Renteria, where we put up, with two convalescent officers
of our own corps, until the next day.

On the 31st the morning broke hazy. Meanwhile before starting for St.
Sebastian, we were introduced to Lieutenant Folliet, a young officer
of our regiment, who had just come from England for the first time;
he expressed much regret at not being able to witness the assault,
as he very properly considered it incorrect to leave his detachment,
which was ordered to march that morning for Bera. This circumstance I
mention, owing to the premature death of this officer.

At half-past ten o’clock, A. M., we took post within cannon range
of the ramparts of St. Sebastian, immediately overlooking the river
Urumea. The troops of the fifth division were already formed in the
trenches cut across the isthmus, within a short distance of the body
of the place, ready to move forward as soon as the tide should be
sufficiently low to admit of a passage. It was so well known that the
assault was to take place, that numerous inhabitants had flocked from
the adjacent towns and villages, dressed in their holiday attire, and
were already seated on the hill which commanded a panoramic view of the
town. Many of the women were clothed in dresses of English calico, and
in fact composed a motley group and mixture in dress and appearance,
such as I had never before seen in Spain. Two pretty Spanish girls
were seated on the slope of the hill, and offered us some of their
sugar drops, whereupon we thought we might as well place ourselves
beside them as elsewhere. A few minutes before the troops moved to the
assault, all within the town seemed tranquil; no noise issued from its
walls, nor was a single French soldier visible on the ramparts.

Soon after eleven o’clock, the “forlorn hope,” headed by Lieut. Mac
Guire of the 4th regiment, sprang out of the trenches, followed by
the storming party, and a brigade of the fifth division;[1] but,
owing to the difficulty of extricating themselves from the trenches,
and to their _extreme_ ardour, they ran towards the _great breach_,
discharging their fire arms to the left, to keep down the musketry of
the enemy, who galled them by a terrible flanking fire from a bastion
which projected nearly parallel, and enfiladed their left flank while
moving towards the breach.

Lieut. Mac Guire wore a cocked-hat, with a _long white feather_, to
make himself conspicuous. He was a remarkably handsome young man,
active of limb, well-made, and possessing a robust frame. He ran
forward, amid projectiles and a shower of bullets, with such speed that
only _two_ soldiers could manage to keep within five or six yards
behind him; and he actually jumped over the broken masonry, at the
foot of the breach, before he fell. In a moment afterwards he was hid
from our view by the column bounding over his body,[2] to climb the
breach. They had no sooner gained the crest of the breach, than they
found the enemy strongly entrenched at each flank of the TERRE-PLEIN of
the rampart and the interior slope, composed of a scarped wall, nearly
thirty feet deep, so that the brave soldiers who mounted the breach
fell a sacrifice to their valour, by an overwhelming cross-fire.

The enemy had cleared away the rubbish some feet from a _round tower_,
nearly in the centre, and on the crest of the great breach, which they
maintained, and it was from this apparently trifling and _unbreached
spot_ that the troops sustained their principal loss—standing up to
their knees in rubbish, and losing their lives without any probability
of success. As the French, however, could not well fire on their left
flank without hanging over the parapet, our soldiers were enabled to
keep their station on the slope of the breach, at the expense of a
great number of officers and men. Had the enemy been able to flank
the slope of the breach, all the troops must have been annihilated.
The slaughter, however, was so great, as to cause the most serious
apprehension, and the wounded and dying were suffering dreadfully, and
languishing in the most horrible torments, for want of water, without
being again able to regain the trenches, owing to the cross-fire of
musketry through which they had to run the gauntlet while advancing
to the assault. With the exception of the guns in the castle, the
enemy hardly fired any artillery from the walls, either from their
being principally dismounted, or that they were unable to depress them
sufficiently to do much execution. At this time hardly a word escaped
the lips of the astonished spectators; and many of the women were
drowned in tears at so doleful a spectacle.

At twelve o’clock General Graham, seeing affairs in this desperate
state, ordered the guns from the batteries to open, to oblige the
enemy to keep down, and to shield the troops for a short time, from
their fatal bullets, and to give them a little breathing time, so as
to enable the wounded who could yet walk to regain the trenches. The
fire from the batteries was terrific, and the troops retired four or
five yards down the slope of the breach, while the heavy shot passed
over their heads, skimming the round tower, the ramparts and the crest
of the breach with a precision truly astonishing, so that the enemy
could not show their heads, or discharge a single firelock. Never
was artillery better served, or opened at a more seasonable moment;
and without doubt this was one of the principal causes of carrying
the day; for indeed, had it not been for this seasonable relief, the
troops must have been inevitably sacrificed by piecemeal. The volumes
of smoke arose in dense clouds, and the reverberation was amazing.
The iron balls rattled into the devoted town, unroofing the houses,
knocking up the dust and rubbish, and thundering against the walls with
a tremendous crash, as if the ramparts were cracking and every stone
broken, and the whole tumbling into a mass of ruins. All the edifices
seemed tottering to the very foundations, and it was as though every
living creature within were about to be swallowed up in the vortex and
buried amid the utter desolation.

When first the assault took place, the sun shone forth brilliantly; it
was now twelve o’clock, and the clouds blackened and gathered together,
foreboding the coming storm.

The blazing of the heavy artillery lasted more than half an hour,
during which time General Graham let loose the volunteers and the
reserve of the fifth division against the large breach and _adamantine
round tower_. The Spanish girls near us ejaculated (while shedding a
few pearly tears, and unfolding the little papers containing their
sugar-drops,) “_pobre Sebastiano! pobre Sebastiano!_” We asked them
why they did not say, _poor soldiers_,—”_Oh si, si_,” answered they,
“_pobres soldados tambien!_”

As soon as the fire of the heavy calibre had ceased, fresh efforts were
made against the breach, and the sharp fire of the deadly small arms
was resumed. At half past twelve o’clock a Portuguese regiment led on
by Lieutenant Colonel Snodgrass[3] moved along the sands and began to
ford the river Urumea, the water at low tide being at this spot about
two hundred yards in width. As soon as they reached the middle of the
stream, a gun from an embrasure exactly opposite to them discharged
a round of grape shot, which fell into the middle of the column, and
knocked the men down in every direction: some of them sank to rise no
more, others floundered in the water, and called out for help in the
most pitiable manner. The enemy fired a second discharge before the
Portuguese could extricate themselves from the stream, (which reached
up to the hips), and again inflicted dreadful havoc in their ranks.
The smoke of the last round created considerable surprise among us,
as it was of a reddish colour, as if red ochre had been mixed up with
the powder. The excellent and steady conduct of the 13th regiment of
Portuguese was beyond all praise. Having cleared the river they closed
up, moved forward and ascended the small breach, eighty yards from the
larger one.

At this time we also observed part of the 85th regiment a short
distance out at sea (in large boats) apparently threatening the back
of the rock, on which stands the Castle of La Motta, but this threat
of escalading the rocks was relinquished owing to the impracticability
of such an enterprise; the troops in the breaches became fixtures as
before, and no further progress towards the capturing of the fortress
appeared to be made. At last I saw several soldiers quitting the large
breach and running to the right to assist the Portuguese at the small
one; and a brave bugler sounded the advance several times. Confused
cries of assembled voices echoed from the ramparts at that point, and
we could hear sounds like the battering of firelocks against doors or
barricades, intermingled with occasional firing of musketry. Still, no
very serious impression was visible to us.

At one o’clock a violent explosion took place on the rampart behind
the French traverse to the right of the large breach, and, before the
fragments blown into the air had fallen, or the smoke cleared away,
the troops nobly pushed forward, and, at the same time, the crowd of
spectators on the hill rose simultaneously with joy beaming on every
countenance; and when the hollow sounds of the firing were heard
within the interior of the town, we became satisfied that the place
was taken.—The explosion was supposed to be caused by accidental
sparks, or loose cartridge paper falling on the train. Probably no one
living knows the real cause. However, all the French soldiers near the
spot were blown into the air, and fell singed and blackened in all
directions; and the dead soldiers lay so thick on the slope of the
breach that it looked, to the naked eye, as if the mass of troops were
still stationary.

Soon after, we saw the French issuing from the town, and firing down
upon the British troops from behind some old walls running in zig
zags up the castle hill. There cannot be a shadow of doubt that the
place would not have been carried, had it not been for the decision
of General Graham, who, persisting in a constant attack to the last,
kept the troops in that honorable post to take advantage of any
contingencies that might chance to throw open the door to victory.

The enemy lost seven hundred men, prisoners taken in the town, who were
unable to reach the castle. The fifth division and the volunteers from
the British army lost two thousand men and officers killed and wounded;
amongst the latter Generals Leith, Oswald and Robinson were wounded,
and Colonel Fletcher commanding the engineers was killed by a musket
ball, just before the assault took place.

At half past one P.M. a heavy mist began to fall, which caused us to
bend our course towards Renteria, and, before we reached half a league,
the rain descended in torrents; but none had fallen during the storming
of the breaches.

[Footnote 1: The fifth division led the attack, _not the volunteers
from the army_.]

[Footnote 2: He was killed. I knew him intimately; he possessed
naturally gentle manners, with a soldier-like deportment.]

[Footnote 3: The Portuguese troops forded the river Urumea directly
after the firing of the cannon ceased from the English batteries; and
the great explosion to the right of the large breach, (to the left of
the breach as we looked towards it,) did not happen until half an hour
after this event. It cannot, therefore, be said that our artillery
caused that explosion.]

On the same day that the assault of St. Sebastian took place, the Duke
of Dalmatia, with the right wing of his army, crossed the Bidassoa,
opposite to the heights of St. Marzial, and another division forded the
river two hundred yards below Bera (under cover of the high rock, which
rises abruptly over the west end of the town) and immediately moved
forward to attack the heights above the village of Salines, occupied
by part of the seventh division, with whom and the Portuguese the
enemy were engaged the greater part of the day. The French repeatedly
endeavoured to climb the heights of St. Marzial without effect. The
ascent was so difficult, that the Spaniards had little more to do
than to deliver their fire, by which they managed, in the presence of
Field-marshal the Marquis of Wellington, to beat the enemy.

The French marshal, when he saw his soldiers giving way and plunging
into the Bidassoa, became perfectly furious, for, owing to this
unsuccessful attack, the French above Salines were obliged to grope
their way down the uneven and slippery mountain, in search of the ford
which they had previously crossed (in the morning) in good order, and
in the highest spirits. When, however, they now reached the river after
exceeding toil and in total darkness, they found it so swollen, owing
to the floods from the mountains, that they could not attempt to cross
it. The wind howled fiercely; the roaring torrents, and vast bodies of
water, poured down the sides of the mountains, rocks and water courses,
swelling the river into an overwelming flood, which rushed through the
narrow arches of the bridge of Bera, with irresistible fury. In short,
a perfect hurricane raged over the mountains, and swept throughout the
valleys, in boisterous whirlwinds, that carried away in their fearful
blasts branches of trees, and bellowed furiously over the tops of the

During this awful convulsion of the elements, a few stragglers of the
French division succeeded in overpowering a corporal’s picquet, and
rushed over the bridge of Bera; but a company of the second battalion
of rifle corps, which occupied the shell of a house, immediately forced
them to recross the bridge. Again the enemy several times attempted to
cross the bridge at the _pas de charge_, but were as often beaten back
by the well-plied bullets of the rifles; and, strange to relate, this
picquet and the French division continued engaged within five hundred
yards of the French post above Bera, and not more than twice the
distance from the second brigade of the light division which occupied
the rising ground in front of the _debouché_ of San Estevan,—the first
brigade having crossed to the left bank of Bidassoa on the previous
day, in support of the seventh division. When too late, another company
arrived to their assistance; but morning dawned and the odds were too
great; the captain commanding, when in the act of mounting his horse,
was shot through the body, and the French rushed across the bridge.
This was a most extraordinary fight, while the storm was so tremendous
that the musketry could hardly be heard; and neither the French nor
the English army gave an effectual helping hand to their comrades
during this wild contest.

On the morning of the 1st of September we started from Renteria, to
return to our division, and had only travelled a short distance when
we met and questioned some wounded Spaniards, who gave a very vague
account of the fighting on the preceding day, and all that we could
extract from them was “_Oh! señores mucho combate ayer._” We pursued
the rugged road, and met an English soldier, who told us that there
had been some sharp fighting all along the ridge of the mountains on
the left of the Bidassoa; but he could not inform us whether the enemy
had advanced or retired. This piece of intelligence made it advisable
to keep a sharp look-out. We soon, however, met Lieutenant-Colonel
Gordon, one of the General-in-Chiefs aides-de-camp, who gave us every
information, and told us that the road of communication was now quite
open to Bera.

Having travelled another league, we arrived, by a wild and crooked
road, at the summit of a mountain covered with oak trees, where we saw
a soldier of our regiment standing by the side of a goatherd’s roofless
hut, who told us that his master, Lieut. Folliet, had been mortally
wounded four hours after we had taken leave of him on the previous
day. A body of the enemy had pushed through the forest beyond the left
flank of a brigade of the seventh division, and, rushing furiously
through the wood towards the little detachment with loud shouts, and a
rattling fusillade, had succeeded in scattering these young soldiers.
On entering the hut, we saw the youthful sufferer, deadly pale, lying
on his back, with his uniform, sash, sword and cap, died in blood and
strewed about on the loose stones or rock, which formed the floor of
the miserable hut. On seeing us, he extended his hand, and a momentary
gleam of joy passed across his pallid features, as he mildly informed
us that he was dying from a wound in the abdomen, which had caused
him excruciating torture until mortification had ensued. He was
quite resigned to his fate, and begged that we would not give way to
melancholy, for that he was quite happy, and only hoped we thought he
had done his duty; that the only grief he felt was from not having seen
the regiment, the summit of all his ambition—before he expired. In a
few hours he was no more; and having been enveloped in a blanket, he
was interred under the wide-spreading branches of an oak tree, by the
side of the ruined hut.

Little at that time did my _three companions_ anticipate that,
before the expiration of three months, two of them would be _buried_
in regions equally inhospitable. Lieut. Baillie was shot through the
head, Captain Murchison in the groin, and Lieut. James Considine was
dangerously wounded.

In the evening we rejoined our brigade, which had returned to Santa
Barbara, when we felt considerable pleasure in hearing they had not
been engaged during our five days’ absence.

During the month of September, the enemy worked hard in sawing and
felling timber to form abattis, and in constructing entrenchments. The
right and left of our own army were employed in a similar manner.

Towards the end of the month, I observed one of my messmates winding
along the crest of the mountain, on his way from England, having
recovered from a terrible wound. Our joy at meeting was very great; his
at finding me still in the land of the living, and mine at seeing an
old friend, whom, when last we parted, I never cherished the hope of
meeting again.

The baggage being unpacked, his soldier servant, who had accompanied
him, came up with a good-tempered smile; and, while unfolding a dingy
pocket handkerchief, intimated that he had brought me a present from
England. “Well! what is it?” said I, my curiosity being somewhat
excited; but he continued to unfold his offering, wrapped in layers of
paper, without making any express reply, and at length brought forth a
piece of bread, which he had taken from a dinner table in England. This
he handed to me, certainly in a very mouldy state, owing to the length
of the voyage, but the compliment was equally appreciated. I thanked
him for his kind recollection of me, and ate it on the spot.

On the 6th of October, it was intimated that the enemy were to be
attacked on the following morning; such information, however, made no
difference either in our conversation or reflexions.

This day Lieut. Fry,[4] of the rifle corps, dined with us. The soup
was made with bullocks’ tails; the spiced minced-meat was of bullocks’
heads, and the third course consisted of a bullock’s heart.

Soon after dark an orderly entered the tent, and informed me that
I was ordered to descend into the valley before daylight, with a
reinforcement to the picquet, destined to begin the attack on the
morrow. “Ah, now that is very strange,” ejaculated one of the party;
“for last night I dreamed that you (meaning myself) were killed
skirmishing up the opposite mountain.” I returned thanks to him for
this pleasant piece of intelligence.

On reaching the valley, at the appointed hour, before daybreak, I found
the officers of the company in a profound slumber, stretched on the
floor, and the commander lying on a table in a small farm-house; but,
as I had no inclination to sleep, I stirred up the dying embers of the
wood fire, and purposely made so much noise, that I thoroughly aroused
the sleepers into a conversational mood; and one of them announced the
pleasing information, that he could supply us with coffee,—which was
carefully boiled in a pipkin, and which we partook of with considerable
zest, to fortify our stomachs for the morning combat.

The passage of the river Bidassoa began at daylight, by the extreme
left of the army, personally directed by Field-marshal Wellington.
The fifth division crossed near the mouth of the river, and the first
division began the attack early in the morning. Lord Aylmer’s brigade,
and a corps of Spaniards, also forded the river at various places,
covered by some pieces of cannon stationed on the heights of St.
Marzial. Here a sharp contest took place, particularly against the
fifth division, while ascending the steeps, and difficult mountains.
The enemy, being attacked at so many points at once, by the various
fords, were outflanked right and left, and were finally beaten off
this tremendous range of mountains: the fourth division were in reserve
behind Bera, and also deployed on the heights of Santa Barbara, to
support the light division.

An hour after daylight, the whole of the picquets of the light division
in front of Bera, first began the attack of a detached ridge, called
the Boar’s Back, from its jagged summit. It was necessary to carry
this before the division could debouch through the town of Bera, for
the attack of the main position, covered by forts and abattis. The 3rd
rifles began to skirmish up one end of the Boar’s Back, and we on the
other; it was only defended by a small body of French troops, and was
speedily carried.

The second brigade, under Sir John Colborne, began a sharp attack on a
great tongue of the mountain, which sloped down towards Bera; but the
first effort proved unsuccessful against a square fort, which the enemy
held with great resolution, and not only beat off the attack, but in
their turn sallied from the works, and drove, with the bayonet, numbers
of the assailants over the rugged precipices.

At this critical moment, the 52d regiment, being in reserve, advanced
in column, and bore against the stragglers in such good order, that
they not only pushed them back, but drove them pell-mell into the fort
on one side, and out at the other; in fact, they appeared literally to
walk over the entrenchment. I had an admirable view of this affair from
the top of the rock already carried, and from which it was necessary to
descend before we could ascend the principal ridge.

The second brigade continued to advance; but the ground was so
difficult, that at every step they met with a severe loss, in killed
and wounded. At the end of three hours, when they had nearly gained the
summit of the mountain, the enemy rolled (from a strong entrenchment)
large stones down upon them, and by this mode of warfare, with a
sprinkling of balls, kept them at bay for a considerable time.

In the meantime the first brigade, under General Sir James Kempt, had
pushed through Bera to support the skirmishers, who moved parallel,
with the second brigade, or rather branched off by degrees a little to
the right, and engaged the enemy up the mountain leading into France.
The obstacles on each side of the way rendered the mountain fearfully
difficult of ascent; and it was, indeed, so intersected with rocks,
trees, brushwood, and prickly briars, that our hands and limbs were
pierced with thorns, and the trousers were literally torn in shreds
from off our legs. When half way up the mountain, we emerged from the
entangling thicket, fatigued and deluged with perspiration, and found
the enemy plying bullets from a small fort. As soon as a sufficient
number of men could be scraped together, we gained possession of that
post by a charge of the bayonet: from thence we overlooked a very small
field, enclosed by rocks, wherefrom the enemy, consisting of three or
four hundred men, could no longer extricate themselves, and fell into
our hands, or, more properly speaking, were left in a trap, in a valley
between the first and second brigades. These captives may be fairly
ascribed as prisoners to the first brigade, since they were within
point blank of us, and not within a mile of the second brigade, who
did not discharge a single shot at them, but on the contrary had quite
enough to do, independently of that affair, in clearing the ground of
the enemy opposed to them, from whom they took three pieces of cannon,
which were abandoned in the entrenchments.

After three hours’ toil and clambering from rock to rock, we arrived
within two hundred yards of the summit of the _puerta de Bera_, which
was defended by a few hundred of the enemy; the remainder of their
face was extended in order to oppose the second brigade, and to the
right, along the wooded ridge, as far as the rock of la Rhune, distant
about two miles from the extreme right of our division, to oppose the
Spaniards. The rolling of musketry was now incessant on all sides.

It was here I saw the remarkable death of one of the rifle corps, who
had killed a French soldier, and who, before he had taken his rifle
from the level, received a ball through his body, which caused him
such excruciating agony, that his face was all at once distorted, his
eyes rolled, and his lips, blackened with the biting of cartridges,
convulsively opened. His teeth were tightly clenched; his arms and
legs were thrown into an extended position, and he held out his rifle,
grasped at arm’s length, and remained stationary in this extraordinary
attitude for a few moments, until he dropped down dead, as suddenly as
if struck by a flash of lightning.

As soon as the skirmishers had gained the top of the mountain, Sir
James Kempt rode up amongst the flying bullets, and expressed his
approbation of all that had been done; for the skirmishers alone had
grouped into a compact body, and forced the pass at the point of the
bayonet, and the French were now running in all directions. To attempt
to express our boundless delight at the grandeur and extreme beauty
of the surrounding scenery would be impossible. Behind us lay the
prodigious mountains and gloomy fastnesses of the Pyrenees, whose
rocks, cast in nature’s roughest mould, towered one above another as
far as the eye could reach. To the north, the dark blue waters of the
tranquil ocean glittered in the sun beams; and various distant white
sails skirted the remote horizon. Beneath us lay the supposed sacred
fields of France, the towns of Bayonne and St. Jean de Luz, the rivers
Nivelle, Nive, Adour, and innumerable tributary streams, which laced
and meandered near vine-clad hills, through verdant valleys, whose
banks were decorated with a luxuriant foliage; whilst the country was
studded with countless spires of churches and red-topped villages,
chateaux, farm-houses, and rural white cottages, enclosed by gardens,
and shrouded by fruit trees and plantations.

The Spaniards made several attempts to climb the mountain of la Rhune,
crowned by a tremendous bare rock, which rose in frowning majesty above
their heads. They endeavoured to hide beneath the various shelving
rocks, or behind the forest trees, from the dreadful effects of the
fragments of rock, or loose stones, hurled down upon them by the enemy,
and which bounded with a terrific crash into the deep valleys.

The General quitted the skirmishers at the top of the _puerta de
Bera_, to bring up the reserves; but our enthusiasm was so great at
the idea of taking possession of French ground, which seemed more than
a compensation for all our Spanish toils, that three hundred of us
descended the pass of the mountain, and pursued the enemy for a league
and a half into France, where, to the left, we could distinguish the
French columns retreating from Hendaye, and various other points,
whence they were driven by the left of our army in the greatest
confusion, and were countermarching round the unfinished batteries
in front of St. Jean de Luz, and, in a hurried manner, pointing
their cannon towards the various roads, and other debouchés leading
respectively to them.

The various farm-houses were deserted by the inhabitants, who left
their doors wide open, as if to invite the ravenous invaders to help
themselves. Here we spent the day in rural delight, on the top of a
pretty green hill, encircled by orchards, on which we built a hut,
and tied a pocket-handkerchief to a twig by way of a flag, within a
mile of the enemy. A thousand gratifying reflections here arose in our
minds, and enlivened our occupations; while the contented soldiers of
Spain, with arms in their hands, brought us wines, fruits, and other
delicacies, without having committed one outrageous act, or despoiling
the property of the peaceable inhabitants, further than helping
themselves to the excellent rations of goose, turkey and hams, already
cooked, and preserved in hogs’ lard; added to which, there was a
plentiful supply of nice soft bread, which afforded us a most excellent

The day having closed on this _fête champêtre_, we kindled a few extra
fires, re-formed, and re-trod our way to the top of the pass in time
for supper. The first brigade had taken possession of the boarded
and well-roofed huts, constructed by the French with the utmost
regularity, as if they had anticipated the occupation of them during
the approaching winter. My messmates had already made themselves quite
at home in one of them, and the cook was busily employed in roasting a
nice piece of beef, which had been extracted out of a little cavity,
dug by the late occupier, to keep it fresh and cool, no doubt for some
contemplated feast. While partaking of this delicious _morceau_, we
failed not to remember the original provider, the French officer; while
he, less fortunate, most probably spent the night in a cold bivouac, or
under a gun, in the entrenchments near St. Jean de Luz.

During the whole night the fatigue parties continued to arrive from
Santa Barbara, with their knapsacks, which had been left there;[5]
and also carrying, in blankets or in bearers, the wretched wounded
soldiers, whom they had discovered, by their groans, amongst chasms,
cavities, or beneath the prickly briars on the broken sides of the
mountains. Many unfortunate soldiers had fallen into deep ravines or
hollows; and their dead bodies were subsequently discovered by those
who accidentally wandered off the beaten tracts amongst these difficult

The right wing of the army in their turn demonstrated during the combat
of the 7th, guarding the mountains from Echalar to Roncesvalles; while
the left wing, after the combat, held the ridge from the rock of la
Rhune (which the enemy evacuated on the 8th), to the Bay of Biscay;
which totally dispossessed the right of the French army from the
mountains of Commissari, Mandale, and the height of Hendaye. As soon as
the French had evacuated the mountain of la Rhune, the first brigade of
our division moved to its right, and encamped in a forest within half
a mile of its base. The second brigade took our post at the _puerta de

In the middle of October the weather became cold and dismal, and the
rains poured down in torrents. The Spaniards having seized a fort, in
the French territory, in the valley below the pass of Echalar, the
enemy one night retook it, by a _coup de main_, putting many of the
Spaniards to death before they could recover from their surprise,
or even put on their accoutrements. A desultory skirmish however
continued the whole of the following day by the Spaniards, who seemed
particularly attached to this mode of warfare, although the French
evidently gained ground; which circumstance forced five companies
of our regiment to take post on the rock to prevent the French from
following the Spaniards to the top, and driving them from it. Night put
an end to these _long shots_, and this waste of ammunition.

Every other day it fell to my lot to ascend this rock on duty, with a
huge telescope slung on my back, to report to the General, in writing,
any movements of the enemy. From this pinnacle their bivouacs might
be seen from right to left. This duty was extremely disagreeable: the
custom was to start at daylight from the saturated camp, attended by
an orderly, and a mule loaded on one side with fire wood, and on the
other with a tea kettle, provisions, and a blanket. La Rhune was bare
and comfortless, and often wrapped for whole days in a chilly mist. On
the east and west it was inaccessible, having only one narrow path
way winding up the south; on the north side it sloped down gradually
towards la Petite la Rhune being composed of tremendous overlapping
slabs of rock, presenting the most desolate aspect.

One day, while on this duty, I observed a numerous retinue of French
staff-officers emerge from behind la Petite la Rhune, and from their
motions and gestures it was evident that they were examining the most
commanding eminences for the purpose of constructing works for its
defence. The whole of them were in uniform, with large cocked hats,[6]
blue pantaloons, and boots with brown tops.

Some hundreds of Spaniards[7] were bivouacked round the old ruins of
the hermitage at the top of this mountain, where, for want of good
clothing, and owing to the cold nights, they were in the most miserable
and forlorn state, and had barely a sufficiency of provisions to keep
life and soul together; these necessary comforts were irregularly
served out, and in such small quantities, that the cravings of hunger
were seldom or ever satisfied. When they were fortunate enough to get
a meal, the ceremony of eating it was very curious: the rations for
twenty or thirty men were mixed in a large kettle or cauldron, round
which they formed a circle and approached it, one at a time, from the
right, each dipping in his spoon, and then resuming his original place,
to make the most of it, until it came again to his turn. In this manner
they continued to advance and retire, with the utmost circumspection,
until the whole of it was consumed. Their clothing was ragged and
miserable as their fare: uniforms of all countries and all the colours
of the rainbow, _French chakos_ without peaks, leather and brass
helmets, rusty muskets, and belts which had never been cleaned since in
their possession. Some had old brown cloaks, with empty knapsacks and
hempen sandals, and others were with torn shoes and almost bare-footed.

At the solitary roll of the drum, they sometimes issued from their
burrows, or cavities of the rocks like so many rabbits. One day while
standing on a large slab of rock like a tomb stone, all at once, to my
surprise, I felt it in motion, and on looking down perceived a slight
smoke issuing from the crevices on each side, and, while stepping
aside, the stone nearly gave way with me; several voices then cried out
from below: “_Demónio, demónio, que quiere usted!_” when, springing
off the ricketty foundation, to my astonishment, the slab was slowly
lifted up on the heads of a dozen Spaniards, who were crouching in the
cave, envelopped in the fumes of _cigarras_ which they smoked to keep
themselves warm, to drive away hunger, and to beguile the tedious hours!

Before the troops quitted this chilly region, many of the sentinels
were so benumbed with cold, that they fell down with stiffened limbs,
and were obliged to be carried from their posts.

One day, being as usual on the look out, I saw the French hard at work
in constructing three forts on la Petite la Rhune, which were built
with pieces of rock and loose stones, with incredible labour; and a
long string of the enemy, by single files, reached into the valley
behind the small mountain, and were traversing backwards and forwards
like a swarm of ants, being employed in handing up the stones from one
to the other.

In the evening another officer and myself were winding beneath the
base of the rock of the great la Rhune, on our return to camp, when a
large stone bounded over our heads, and on looking above, we observed
an officer of our regiment, (who was on picquet,) pushing down the
wall of the old ruin from the summit of the mountain, and calling out
to us, in derision, to keep out of the way. Fortunately we found a
projecting rock, underneath which we screened ourselves from the broken
fragments that came tumbling down with nearly the velocity of cannon
balls, making terrific bounds of two or three hundred yards at a time,
and rolling into the distant valley with a terrible crash. We saw one
piece of rock strike a tree in the forest below, and shiver the trunk
asunder; and in this way our antagonist kept us prisoners until it
was nearly dark, for whenever we made an effort to move, down tumbled
more stones, which obliged us to run back to our hiding place. Having,
at last, effected our escape, we vowed vengeance, and on meeting him
(when relieved from picquet), we got our spears in readiness to put our
threats into execution. These poles or spears we carried in imitation
of the Basque mountaineers, to assist us up the jagged rocks; and,
after long practise, we could throw them twenty or thirty yards with
great velocity, and almost with unerring aim and precision. He reminded
us however, of a circumstance which induced us to let him off, namely,
that a party of us had nearly drowned him in the river Agueda, two
years before. He was a very expert swimmer, but he annoyed those who
went to bathe to such a degree, by splashing them, that one day, when
he was in the middle of the river, we sallied from behind the rocks, on
both banks of the river, encircled him, and gave him such a ducking,
that it was with the utmost difficulty he could reach the shore, after
a lesson which had induced him to behave with more gentleness for the

During the month of October,[8] our days passed tediously, and we
resorted to the most simple pastimes, whenever the weather would admit
of a ramble. Sometimes we fired with ball at the eagles and vultures;
and at others, chased the herds of wild ponies, which browsed in the
sequestered valleys of the Pyrenees. They were hardly beyond the size
of wolf-dogs, and had wiry coats, and long shaggy manes and tails. It
was astonishing to see these sure-footed little animals, with small
heads and wild eyes, capering, prancing, and darting through the
underwood, and up and down the steep acclivities.

One day a Spanish soldier brought to our camp a pretty little fat
pony for sale; and after a good deal of bargaining, he sold it to
our mess for twelve dollars. The following morning a Spanish officer
deliberately walked up to the tree, to which our animals were tied, and
to our surprise demanded _his_ pony. We assured him we had purchased
it; but as he declared it had been stolen from him, and had witnesses
at hand to identify the animal, we were obliged to give it up, with the
loss of our twelve dollars, for we knew not where to search for the
_picaro_, or _dispensero mayór_, who had so completely jockied us. It
behoved us to put up with the loss as philosophically as might be.

While the heavy rains continued, in the beginning of November, we were
obliged to construct wicker-work huts, to save the horses, mules, and
milch goats from perishing during the inclemency of the weather; for
days together our tents were pierced by the heavy rains, and often,
being without candles and other little comforts, in self-defence, we
had to lie down in our damp blankets, to endeavour to pass the tedious
hours of the night.

Two or three evenings before we broke up our camp for the grand
invasion of France, we were much diverted by the doleful cries of an
_owl_, which had perched itself in the deep recess of an adjacent
valley, and, whenever imitated by us, failed not to return our mockery
in her very best and most plaintive screeches!

At this time the weather cleared up, and the three-pounders, mountain
guns, passed through our wooded camp. The carriages, guns, ammunition
boxes, and iron balls, were strapped separately on the backs of a
string of powerful mules; and these guns could be, therefore, conveyed
so as to bear on the enemy from cliffs, or craggy elevations. The
sure-footed mules would ascend or descend steeps, dried water-courses,
or crooked goat-tracks; and would pick their steps from rock to rock,
planting their feet cautiously for a good foundation, or a firm hold.

[Footnote 4: Our friend of the rifle corps was shot through the leg the
next morning.]

[Footnote 5: The troops always fought with their knapsacks on; and this
is the only time I ever knew them left behind, except when storming
breaches of fortresses, or escalading forts.]

[Footnote 6: The French army wore very high cocked hats; the English
quite the reverse; the latter was called the Wellington hat.]

[Footnote 7: General Longa’s corps were by far the most miserable of
any I had ever seen in the Spanish service; but, considering they were
doomed to inhabit a cheerless mass of rocks in such attire, I thought
them worthy of description; some of the other Spanish corps were well
dressed; but the whole of the army suffered more or less, owing to an
indifferent supply of rations;—privations which they seemed to bear
with unexampled patience.]

[Footnote 8: On the 31st of October, the French garrison at Pampeluna
surrendered themselves prisoners of war for want of provisions, which
circumstance now cleared the rear of our army, and enabled it to make
offensive movements.]

You may also like