WE RETREAT WITH SIR JOHN MOORE

We were now in active preparation for a march, but whether to be led
back to Portugal or forward to Valladolid not a soul in the army could
tell. All our movements depended on the information received from the
Spaniards, which to a tittle always proved to be false; and if we had
been guided by it, although it frequently passed through official
English authorities, the British forces in Spain must have been lost.

The army now underwent a partial remodelling. A corps of reserve were
formed, composed of select troops. They consisted of the 20th, 28th,
52nd, 91st, and 95th (Rifles) Regiments. The 20th and 52nd Regiments
formed the 1st Brigade, commanded by General Anstruther; the 2nd
Brigade consisted of the 28th, 91st, and 95th Regiments, commanded by
General Disney; the whole were under the orders of General Paget.

All being prepared for a move, the British army commenced their advance
from Salamanca on December 11th, with intention of marching direct to
Valladolid; but on the arrival at headquarters at Alaejos, on the 13th,
an intercepted despatch from the Prince of Neufchâtel to the Duke of
Dalmatia was brought to the general. These despatches were of such a
nature as to induce our general to deviate somewhat from the route
intended. Leaving Valladolid more to our right, our headquarters were
removed to Toro.

On the night of the 14th General Charles Stuart, with a detachment of
the 18th Dragoons, surprised a detachment of the enemy, consisting of
fifty infantry and thirty cavalry, cutting down or taking prisoners
almost all of them. One dragoon who escaped carried the report of the
destruction of the detachment, and was scarcely credited by General
Franceschi, who commanded about four hundred cavalry at Valladolid;
for previous to this surprise the French were fortunately in total
ignorance of our vicinity, reasonably concluding that by all the rules
of war we were in full retreat towards Portugal.

The reserve, in the meantime, arrived at Toro, where the advanced guard
of General Baird’s corps, consisting of the cavalry under the command
of Lord Paget, joined Sir John Moore’s army.

It now being evident that after the surprise of their outpost at Rueda
the enemy could no longer be ignorant of our advanced movements, Sir
John Moore pushed on his columns as fast as the severity of the weather
would permit. On the 16th the reserve were at Puebla, on the 17th at
Villapando. On the 18th headquarters were at Castro Nuevo. On the 19th
the reserve continued their march, and on the 20th reached Santarbas.
On this day the whole of the army were united, and so far concentrated
as shelter and deep snow would permit. The weather was excessively
severe, and the flat bleak country could furnish but little fuel.

[Sidenote: COMBAT OF CAVALRY.]

Lord Paget, being informed that General Debelle, with from six to seven
hundred dragoons, was in the town of Sahagun, marched on the night of
the 20th, with the 10th and 15th Hussars, from the different small
villages where they were posted in front of the army at Mayorga. The
10th marched directly for the town, and the 15th led by Lord Paget
endeavoured to turn it by the right and thus cut off the enemy’s
retreat; but his advance was unfortunately discovered by a patrol, and
the French had time to form on the outside of the town before the 15th
could get round. When therefore his lordship arrived at the rear of
the town about daybreak, with four hundred of the 15th (the 10th not
being as yet come up), he discovered a line of six hundred cavalry in
a field close to the town and prepared to oppose him. They were drawn
up in rear of a ravine which protected their front from being charged.
But in those days the superior numbers or strength of position of the
French cavalry had very little influence over our dragoons. After
manœuvring a very short time, each party endeavouring to gain the flank
of their opponent, Lord Paget charged with his wonted vigour, broke
the enemy’s line, and chased them off the field. The result of this
gallant affair was a loss on the enemy’s side of twenty men killed, two
lieutenant-colonels, eleven other officers, and one hundred and fifty
troopers prisoners; while the loss on our side amounted only to six men
killed and from fifteen to twenty wounded.

Continuing our advance, headquarters were established at Sahagun on
the 21st, and on the same day the reserve marched to Grajal del Campo.
In our present cantonments the British army were within a day’s march
of the enemy posted at Saldaña and along the Carrion. Such close
neighbourhood braced every nerve for deeds of arms. Our thoughts,
which heretofore dwelt upon the sparkling eyes, beautiful faces and
splendid figures of the Spanish fair were now totally engrossed by the
veteran soldiers of Napoleon. Love yielded to war; yet the flame which
animated our breasts remained, its ardour ever increasing as the object
in view became more glorious.

On the 22nd the whole army halted to refresh the troops, to put the
guns in proper order, and, what was of still greater consequence, to
repair the men’s shoes, which were seriously damaged during our eleven
days’ march over rugged roads covered with frost and snow. Our reserve
supplies had not yet come up. These preparations were diligently
carried on during the day and early part of the ensuing night, it being
intended that on the next day we should march against the enemy. The
Commander of the forces, however, calculated that by commencing his
march in the morning we should approach the enemy early enough to be
discovered, but too late to attack; and that consequently we should be
compelled to halt in the snow until daybreak enabled us to see what we
had to do. A night attack may perhaps succeed; but the exact position
of the party to be assaulted must be thoroughly ascertained previous
to making the attack. We possessed no such information; no two reports
ever agreed as to the enemy’s position or strength. For these reasons
the march of the troops was deferred until the evening. Marching during
the night, however severe the weather, was far preferable to a freezing
halt in the snow, and the men would be in much better plight to attack
the enemy at daybreak on the morning of the 24th; and, in fact, no time
would be lost, for had we marched on the morning of the 23rd instead
of the evening, still the attack could not have taken place before the
morning of the 24th.

In pursuance of this plan, orders were received at Grajal del Campo
early on the morning of the 23rd directing that the reserve should
march that evening on the road towards the Carrion, indicating the
point of junction with the rest of the army, and there halt until the
headquarters should arrive. On receipt of these instructions, General
Paget used every endeavour to induce the men to lie down and take
repose, exhorting the officers to keep the soldiers as much as possible
in their billets, but, without issuing any orders on the subject, to
tell them that the general’s anxiety arose in consequence of a long
march which was to take place that night. We (the reserve) therefore
moved forward that evening about four o’clock from Grajal del Campo in
light marching order, on our way towards the Carrion.

[Sidenote: A CHRISTMAS MARCH.]

After proceeding some hours, we halted not long after dark. The whole
country was deeply covered with snow, and the sprightly national carols
customary on the approach of Christmas were changed for a cold and
silent night march to meet our national foes; yet no hearts ever beat
lighter in the social enjoyment of the former than ours did at what we
confidently anticipated would be the result of the latter. But cruel
necessity required that we should be grievously disappointed. After our
halt, which took place at the point destined for our junction with the
other column, had continued for two hours, conjecture became various
as to the cause of their delay. We were first told that it was to
give the artillery, which rolled heavily over the snow, time to come
up; subsequently we were informed that the Marquis of Romana either
mistook or wilfully failed in his engagements to co-operate, and that
the attack must consequently be postponed. Thenceforward a hatred and
contempt of the Spaniards in arms filled the breast of every British
soldier. This feeling was renewed at Talavera and confirmed at Barossa,
and for similar causes was kept alive so long as a British soldier
remained in the Peninsula.

The report relative to Romana was not, however, in this instance
strictly a fact; for he actually did move forward from Leon to
Mancilla with six or seven thousand half-starved and half-naked,
wretched troops, having previously left his artillery in the rear.
The true cause of our halt and subsequent retreat was Sir John Moore
having received information from Romana, as well as from others in
whose accuracy he placed more reliance, that two hundred thousand
enemies were put in motion against him. The British general that night
commanded twenty-three thousand men; Soult, within a day’s march of his
front, commanded twenty thousand men; Napoleon, with fifty thousand
of the Imperial Guards marching or rather flying from Madrid, was
fast closing upon him and making rapid strides to cut off his only
line of retreat: thus he was placed in the immediate vicinity of
seventy thousand hardy veterans–more than triple his numbers. In this
statement Ney’s corps are not included, although within two marches of
Soult, with orders to press forward. Under such circumstances there
could be no hesitation how to act. A movement on Corunna was decided
upon.

The information just mentioned relative to the movements of the enemy
against the British army was received at headquarters (Sahagun)
about six o’clock in the evening of the 23rd, in time to enable the
Commander of the forces to countermand the forward march of the troops
stationed there; but as it was too late to prevent the forward march
of the reserve, orders were sent to the place intended as the point
of rendezvous directing their return to Grajal del Campo, where we
arrived on the morning of the 24th. There we halted the remainder of
that day to get ready our heavy baggage (for we had moved in light
marching order the previous night) and to give a day’s start to the
leading columns, Sir David Baird’s and General Hope’s divisions which
had marched that morning, the former for Valencia, the latter towards
Benevente.

[Sidenote: BRIDGE OF CASTRO GONZOLO.]

On the 25th the reserve, accompanied by the light brigade, and
covered by the cavalry, marched under the immediate orders of Sir
John Moore, and, following the track of Hope’s division, crossed the
Esla by the bridge of Castro Gonzolo on the 27th. Thence we moved on
to Benevente, distant about four miles. After passing Mayorga on the
26th, Lord Paget, with two squadrons of the 10th Hussars, charged a
large detachment of the enemy’s dragoons, strongly posted on a rising
ground, and, notwithstanding the strength of their position and great
superiority of numbers, he killed twenty and took a hundred prisoners.

The destruction of the bridge having commenced, and to favour this
arduous undertaking, as well as to cover the passage of the cavalry,
who had not as yet come up, General Robert Craufurd, with the 2nd
Light Brigade and two guns, took up a position on the left bank, which
from its boldness commanded the bridge and both banks, being thus from
necessity left on the enemy’s side of the stream, the right bank flat
and low offering no vantage ground. The cavalry having crossed on the
afternoon of the 27th, the destruction of the bridge commenced, which
occupied half the light brigade until late on the night of the 28th,
the other half being in constant skirmish with the advancing enemy. The
bridge being constructed of such solid material, the greatest exertions
were required to penetrate the masonry; and from the hurried manner
and sudden necessity of the march from Sahagun, there had been no time
to send an engineer forward to prepare for the undertaking. These
circumstances much retarded the work, and an incessant fall of heavy
rain and sleet rendered the whole operation excessively laborious
and fatiguing. To add to this, Napoleon, having been informed of our
movement towards Valladolid, was determined to crush us for daring
to advance; while Soult, now aware of our retiring, was resolved to
punish us, elate at our not having previously punished him, which we
most certainly should have done on Christmas eve had it not been for
the astounding information received by Sir John Moore late on the
evening of the 23rd, to the effect that his little army were then the
focus upon which two hundred thousand French troops were directing
their hasty strides. Those two consummate generals, Napoleon and Soult,
pushed on their advanced guards with such celerity that Soult’s light
troops and the chasseurs of the Imperial Guard came in sight whilst our
rearguard were crossing the Esla.

During the evening of the 27th and the whole of the 28th continued
skirmishes took place in the vicinity of the bridge, and the enemy kept
up a desultory fire along the banks. The Imperial chasseurs, flushed
with the capture of a few women and stragglers, whom they picked up
in the plain, had the hardihood more than once to gallop up close to
the bridge, with the intention no doubt of disturbing the men employed
there; but they always retired with increased celerity, leaving not a
few behind to serve as a warning-off to others.

On the night of the 28th, the preparations at the bridge being
completed, the troops retired. Fortunately it was dark rainy and
tempestuous; and so the light brigade passed unobserved over the bridge
to the friendly side in profound silence, except for the roaring of
the waters and the tempest, and without the slightest opposition.
Immediately on our gaining the right bank the mine was sprung with
fullest effect, blowing up two arches, together with the buttress by
which they had been supported, and awakening the French to a sense of
their shameful want of vigilance and enterprise. Had they kept a strict
watch, and risked an assault during the passage, which they would have
been fully borne out in doing from the number of their troops already
in the plain, and which were hourly increasing, the light division
would have been perilously situated; for Craufurd had passed over the
guns some time previously, and had immediately after cut one of the
arches completely through, so that the men were obliged to cross over a
narrow strip formed of planks not very firmly laid, while the impetuous
torrent, now swollen above its banks from the constant heavy rain and
snow, roaring rather through than beneath the bridge, threatened to
carry away both men and planks. All being thus happily terminated, the
troops moved into Benevente; but Craufurd’s brigade were so excessively
fatigued, having worked incessantly and laboured severely for nearly
two days and two nights, their clothes drenched through the whole time,
that they could scarcely keep their eyes open.

There was now a large force suddenly collected in Benevente, which
under any circumstances causes much confusion, but more particularly at
that moment, when our chief employment was the destruction of stores.
Nevertheless the duty was performed with extraordinary forbearance
on the part of the men, particularly when it is considered that the
Spanish authorities, either from disinclination to serve the British
or from a dread of the enemy, who, as they knew, must occupy the town
in a very short time, took no care whatever to supply our troops
regularly with provisions, or indeed with anything which we required.
The same feelings pervaded all ranks of the inhabitants; and although
with payment in our hands we sought for bread, wine, and animals to
convey our baggage, yet nothing could be procured. The magistrates
either hid themselves or retired; the inhabitants denied everything
of which we stood most in need, and whilst all the shops were open in
Madrid and in all other towns through which the French army passed
or which they held, every door was shut against the British army. It
seldom fell to the lot of the reserve to sleep in a house during the
movement to Corunna, but in those which we passed whilst marching along
every article of food was hid with which the enemy were subsequently
supplied in abundance; and in no part of Spain was this want of good
feeling towards the British more apparent than in Benevente, a specimen
of which will be seen in the following anecdote:–

[Sidenote: LOVE AND WINE.]

After the destruction of Gonzolo bridge, when the 52nd Regiment marched
into Benevente, though benumbed with wet and cold, yet they could not
procure a single pint of wine for the men, either for love or money,
or for mere humanity which under such circumstances would have moved
the breast of most men to an act of charitable generosity. During the
anxious pleading to the feelings and the dogged denial, a sergeant of
his company came to Lieutenant Love, of the above-mentioned regiment,
informing him that in an outhouse belonging to the convent in which
they were billeted he discovered a wall recently built up, by which he
conjectured that some wine might have been concealed. Love instantly
waited on the friars, whom he entreated to let the men have some wine,
at the same time offering prompt payment. The holy fat father abbot
constantly declared, by a long catalogue of saints, that there was not
a drop in the convent. Love, although a very young man at the time, was
not easily imposed upon. Reconnoitring the premises, he had a rope tied
round his body, and in this manner got himself lowered through a sort
of skylight down into the outhouse, where the sergeant had discovered
the fresh masonry through a crevice in the strongly barricaded door.
After his landing, the rope was drawn up, and two men of the company
followed in the same manner. They fortunately found a log of wood,
which, aided by the ropes, they converted into a battering ram, and
four or five strong percussions well directed breached the newly built
wall. Now rushing through the breach, they found the inner chamber to
be the very sanctum sanctorum of Bacchus. Wine sufficient was found to
give every man in the company a generous allowance. The racy juice was
contained in a large vat, and while they were issuing it out in perfect
order to the drenched and shivering soldiers, the fat prior suddenly
made his appearance through a trap-door, and laughingly requested that
at least he might have one drink before all was consumed. Upon this one
of the men remarked, “By Jove! when the wine was _his_, he was damned
stingy about it; but now that it is _ours_, we will show him what
British hospitality is, and give him his fill.” So saying, he seized
the holy fat man, and chucked him head foremost into the vat; and had
it not been for Love and some other officers, who by this time had
found their way into the cellar, the Franciscan worshipper of Bacchus
would most probably have shared the fate of George Duke of Clarence,
except that the wine was not Malmsey.

This anecdote was told to me at the time by some officers of
the 52nd. Then it was I had the pleasure of first making the
acquaintance of Lieutenant Calvert of that regiment, long since
lieutenant-colonel. This acquaintance was afterwards renewed under
no ordinary circumstances at the battle of Barossa. The anecdote was
many years later confirmed by Love himself in the Island of Zante,
where in 1836 he was quartered with the 73rd Regiment, of which he was
lieutenant-colonel at the time when I was writing these Memoirs. I
read him the whole of these Memoirs, and found his recollection of the
campaign very interesting. The dates of his commissions and mine in the
respective ranks of ensign, lieutenant, and captain were within a few
months of each other; but he became lieutenant-colonel long before I
retired from the service still as captain. Yet he was an old soldier at
the time; and if gallant conduct on all occasions which offered during
a long career, devoted attachment to his profession and ardent zeal to
promote its honour and glory can give a claim to advancement, by none
was it better merited. The only extraordinary circumstance attending
his promotion was that he obtained it through personal merit.

[Sidenote: CHARGE OF LORD PAGET.]

On the 28th the divisions of Generals Hope and Fraser moved out of
Benevente for Astorga; the reserve and light brigade remained until
the 29th. On that morning the enemy’s cavalry, commanded by Napoleon’s
favourite General, Lefèbre Desnouettes, forded the Esla, and as they
were taken for the advance of a large force, the reserve and light
brigades were ordered instantly to retire on the road leading to
Astorga. Although General Stuart, who took command of our cavalry
piquets, gallantly resisted Lefèbre, and every step was met with a
blow, yet the French general sternly moved forward along the plain
which skirted Benevente. Lord Paget, who viewed from a distance what
passed at the extremity of the plain, in courtesy allowed the French
general to advance until it became too dangerous for his troops to
proceed farther; then, at the head of the 10th Hussars, whom he had
previously formed under cover of some houses, he rode furiously at the
enemy, who, wheeling round, were pursued into the very bed of the Esla,
where “many a deadly blow was dealt,” and it was shown once again that
British steel was not to be resisted when wielded by British soldiers
determined to vindicate the superiority of their national productions.

On gaining the opposite bank of the river the enemy immediately formed
on rising ground which overlooked the stream, and displayed symptoms
of returning to the fight; but our artillery having interfered with
some well-directed shrapnel shots, the foe retired in disgust and
pride, leaving their gallant and accomplished general behind to refine
our manners, if not our steel. On his arrival in England he was sent
to Bath, where he showed with what facility a Frenchman can insinuate
himself into society as a man of spirit and gallantry.

Whilst our guns continued to fire upon the retreating enemy, the
rearguard of the reserve were evacuating Benevente. During our march
we were passed on the road by seventy or eighty dragoons of the
Imperial Guard, together with their leader General Lefèbre, who were
made prisoners in the affair of the morning. The general looked fierce
and bloody, from a wound which he received across the forehead while
gallantly defending himself in the stream wherein he was taken. In
this affair our dragoons suffered a loss of fifty men killed and
wounded. The French left fifty-five killed and wounded on the field,
and seventy officers and men prisoners, together with their general. It
cannot be said that there was any disparity of force, for although in
the commencement of the affair the French were far more numerous, yet
towards the close the reverse was the case.

We arrived at Labaneza that night, and next day marched into Astorga.
Here we were crossed by the ragged, half-starved corps of Spaniards
under the partial control of the Marquis of Romana, which circumstance
not a little astonished us, as the marquis repeatedly promised Sir
John Moore that he would retire into the Asturias. This unexpected
interruption to our march was attended with the most serious
consequences to our army, and from it may be dated the straggling which
soon commenced. The Spaniards, shivering from partial nakedness and
voracious from continued hunger, committed the greatest disorders in
search of food and raiment. Their bad example was eagerly followed by
the British soldiers in their insatiable thirst for wine; and all the
exertions, even of the Commander of the forces personally, were not of
much avail. We could not destroy the stores, which had to be abandoned.
The civil authorities rather impeded than assisted us in procuring the
means of transport; nor could rations be regularly served out to the
men sufficient for a two days’ march. The troops of the two nations
seemed envious of each other, lest the depredations of one should give
it what they in their blind excesses considered an advantage over the
other. They prowled about the town the greater part of the night, and
when they attempted to take repose there arose a contention for choice
of quarters; so that our march was commenced next morning without the
men having taken useful nourishment or necessary repose.

[Sidenote: VENTRILOQUISTS CAMPAIGNING.]

It was on that night which we passed at Astorga that I discovered a
circumstance of which I had not been previously aware–namely, that
in the light company of the 28th Regiment there was a complete and
well-organised band of ventriloquists who could imitate any species of
bird or animal so perfectly that it was scarcely possible to discover
the difference between the imitation and the natural tone of the animal
imitated. Soon after we contrived to get into some kind of a quarter,
the men being in the same apartment with the officers owing to the
crowd and confusion, a soldier named Savage, immediately on entering
the room, began to crow like a cock, and then placed his ear close to
the keyhole of a door leading into another apartment, which was locked.
After remaining in this attentive position for some moments, he removed
to another part of the room and repeated his crowing. I began to think
that the man was drunk or insane, never before having perceived in
him the slightest want of proper respect for his superiors. Upon my
asking him what he meant by such extraordinary conduct in the presence
of his officers, he with a smile replied, “I believe we have them,
sir.” This seemingly unconnected reply confirmed me in the opinion I
had formed of his mental derangement, the more particularly as his
incoherent reply was instantly followed by another crow; this was
answered apparently in the same voice, but somewhat fainter. Savage
then jumped up, crying out, “Here they are!” and insisted upon having
the door opened; and when this was reluctantly done by the inhabitants
of the house, a fine cock followed by many hens came strutting into the
room with all the pomp of a sultan attended by his many queens. The
head of the polygamist, together with those of his superfluous wives,
was soon severed from his body, notwithstanding the loud remonstrances
of the former owners, who, failing in their entreaties that the harem
should be spared, demanded remuneration; but whether the men paid for
what they had taken like grovelling citizens, or offered political
reasons as an apology like great monarchs, I now cannot call to mind.
But however the affair may have been arranged, the act was venial,
for had the fowls been spared by our men they must have fallen into
the stomachs of our enemies next day; and it is not one of the least
important duties of a retreating army to carry away or destroy anything
which may be useful to their pursuers, however severely the inhabitants
may suffer.

During the night I was awakened by the ventriloquists, who, with
appropriate harmony, were loudly bleating, cackling, crowing, cooing,
lowing–in fact, imitating every species of animal; so that at the
moment I awoke I fancied myself in an extensive menagerie. Indeed, the
powerful effect of their music on many occasions during the retreat
came to my knowledge; and so judiciously did they exert their talents
that animals of all descriptions came frisking to their feet, offering
a practical elucidation of the powers attributed to Orpheus when round
him danced the brutes.

[Sidenote: MISERY OF SPANIARDS.]

On the last day of 1808 we marched from Astorga with more headaches
than full stomachs; and the light brigade having moved on the route
to Vigo, the rearguard fell exclusively to the reserve during the
remainder of the retreat. The distance we had to move on that day
being short, we continued until late to destroy stores and such field
equipments as, for want of animals, could not be carried away; and
after eight or nine miles’ march we arrived in the evening at a small
village called Cambarros. At this place our evil genius, the Spaniards,
again crossed us, and the scenes at Astorga were partially renewed;
but as only the sick and stragglers of the Spanish army were there,
the contention was but little–in fact, their miserable and forlorn
condition called forth compassion rather than other sentiments. Two
or three cartloads of them being put down at an outhouse where I was
on piquet with the light company, we took them in. Such misery I
never beheld, half-naked, half-starved, and deprived of both medicine
and medical attendance. We administered a little of our general
cordial–rum; yet three or four of these wretches expired that night
close to a large fire which we lit in the middle of the floor.

Our stay at Cambarros was but short, for scarcely had the men laid
down to repose, which was much wanted in consequence of the manner in
which they had passed the previous night, when some of our cavalry came
galloping in, reporting that the enemy were advancing in force. We
were immediately ordered to get under arms, and hurried to form outside
the town on that part facing Bembibre. While we were forming a dragoon
rode up, and an officer who being ill was in one of the light carts
which attended the reserve, cried out, “Dragoon, what news?” “News,
sir? The only news I have for you is that unless you step out like
soldiers, and don’t wait to pick your steps like bucks in Bond Street
of a Sunday with shoes and silk stockings, damn it! you’ll be all taken
prisoners.” “Pray, who the devil are you?” came from the cart. “I am
Lord Paget,” said the dragoon; “and pray, sir, may I ask who you are?”
“I am Captain D—-n, of the 28th Regiment, my lord.” “Come out of that
cart directly,” said his lordship; “march with your men, sir, and keep
up their spirits by showing them a good example.” The captain scrambled
out of the cart rear, face foremost, and from slipping along the side
of the cart and off the wheels, and from the sudden jerks which he
made to regain his equilibrium, displayed all the ridiculous motions
of a galvanised frog. Although he had previously suffered a good deal
from both fatigue and illness, yet the circumstance altogether caused
the effect desired by his lordship, for the whole regiment were highly
diverted by the scene until we arrived at Bembibre, and it caused many
a hearty laugh during the remainder of the retreat.

We arrived within a league of Bembibre at daybreak on the morning
of January 1st, 1809, and were there halted at a difficult pass in
the mountains to cut the road. It appeared that some of the leading
divisions had already commenced this work; spades, pickaxes, and
such tools were found on the spot. We had not continued long at this
employment when we were ordered to desist, since Bembibre was turned
by the Foncevadon road, which joined that on which we were, not far
from Calcabellos, and so the work was considered useless. This order
was received with the greatest joy; indeed, there was no duty which we
would not more willingly perform than that of handling the pickaxe,
and that too during a severe frost and after a long night march. We
therefore joyfully moved on to Bembibre.

On approaching this village, we discovered Sir David Baird’s division,
who had just left, and were proceeding on the road to Villa Franca.
We now fully anticipated some repose, to which we thought ourselves
entitled by our laborious occupation of destroying stores at Astorga
the whole time we were there, and the long and severe night march which
we had just terminated; but we were sadly disappointed. The leading
columns, well aware of the value and necessity of vigilance, although
it was shamefully neglected by themselves, left sufficient matter
behind to prevent the reserve from sleeping too much; and when we
entered the town of Bembibre and expected to stretch our wearied limbs,
we were ordered to pile arms and clear all the houses of the stragglers
left behind.

[Sidenote: HORRORS OF BEMBIBRE.]

The scenes here presented can only be faintly imagined from the most
faithful description which even the ablest writer could pen; but little
therefore can be expected from any attempt of mine to paint the scandal
here presented by the British troops or the degrading scenes exhibited
through their debauchery. Bembibre exhibited all the appearance of a
place lately stormed and pillaged. Every door and window was broken,
every lock and fastening forced. Rivers of wine ran through the houses
and into the streets, where lay fantastic groups of soldiers (many of
them with their firelocks broken), women, children, runaway Spaniards
and muleteers, all apparently inanimate, except when here and there a
leg or arm was seen to move, while the wine oozing from their lips and
nostrils seemed the effect of gunshot wounds. Every floor contained
the worshippers of Bacchus in all their different stages of devotion;
some lay senseless, others staggered; there were those who prepared the
libation by boring holes with their bayonets into the large wine vats,
regardless of the quantity which flowed through the cellars and was
consequently destroyed. The music was perfectly in character: savage
roars announcing present hilarity were mingled with groans issuing from
fevered lips disgorging the wine of yesterday; obscenity was public
sport. But these scenes are too disgusting to be dwelt upon. We were
employed the greatest part of the day (January 1st, 1809,) in turning
or dragging the drunken stragglers out of the houses into the streets
and sending as many forward as could be moved. Our occupation next
morning was the same; yet little could be effected with men incapable
of standing, much less of marching forward. At length the cavalry
reporting the near approach of the enemy, and Sir John Moore dreading
lest Napoleon’s columns should intersect our line of march by pushing
along the Foncevadon road, which joined our road not many miles in
front of us, the reserve were ordered forward, preceded by the cavalry,
and the stragglers were left to their fate. Here I must say that our
division, imbibing a good deal of the bad example and of the wine left
behind by the preceding columns, did not march out of Bembibre so
strong as when they entered it.

We had proceeded but a short distance when the enemy’s horsemen nearly
approached the place; and then it was that the apparently lifeless
stragglers, whom no exertion of ours was sufficient to rouse from
their torpor, startled at the immediate approach of danger, found
the partial use of their limbs. The road instantly became thronged by
them; they reeled, staggered, and screaming threw down their arms.
Frantic women held forth their babies, suing for mercy by the cries
of defenceless innocence; but all to no purpose. The dragoons of
the polite and civilised nation advanced, and cut right and left,
regardless of intoxication, age or sex. Drunkards, women and children
were indiscriminately hewn down–a dastardly revenge for their defeat
at Benevente; but they dearly paid for their wanton cruelty when
encountered next day at Calcabellos. The foe, rendered presumptuous
by their easy victory gained over the defenceless stragglers, rode so
close to our columns that that distinguished officer, Colonel Ross with
his gallant 20th Regiment was halted and placed in an ambush, formed by
the winding of the road round the slope of a hill which concealed them
until nearly approached. The remainder of the reserve marched on and
halted at a considerable distance. But the French were over cautious,
and after a lapse of more than an hour, during which time many wounded
stragglers joined the main body of the division, Colonel Ross was
recalled, much disappointed by the enemy’s declining to advance. He
reluctantly joined the main body of the reserve, who immediately moved
forward. Thus every means was used compatible with prudence to cover
and protect the unworthy stragglers from Bembibre; and great risk was
run, for we did not feel ourselves secure until we passed the junction
of the roads mentioned, not knowing what force might be pushing forward
along the Foncevadon line.

Continuing our march at a rather accelerated pace until we passed the
junction, we arrived at Calcabellos about an hour before dark.