of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 42 - The Block-House -
Hill's division from the
Pyrenees arrived at Pampeluna in time to share the fighting which ensued
when Soult endeavoured to dislodge the allies on the 28th, but was
repulsed with immense loss. Along the heights of Huarte the contest was
very severe, and the bravery of the British was only equalled by that of
their enemies. Every regiment charged with the bayonet; and the
Highlanders,ever at home at close quarters, more than once. Both armies
remained quiet, during the 29th; but Wellington, having completed all his
arrangements, attacked the left and centre of Soult's forces next morning,
and defeated them with great slaughter. Upon this discomfiture, the
marshal's only object was to secure a safe retreat into France. After a
fruitless attempt to turn Sir Rowland Hill's position at La Zarza, and
fighting until compelled to cease firing by night coming on, they
abandoned their ground under the favouring shadow of the darkness, and on
the morrow were discovered in full retreat for France by the pass of Donna
Maria. The allies 'followed them up' in hot pursuit, fighting and
capturing at every yard of the way, and on the 1st of August again took
possession of those hard-contested passes, while the French retired into
their own country completely thrashed, but certainly not to their hearts'
content. With the exception of a slight bayonet-wound in a charge at La
Zarza, Ronald Stuart had escaped with a whole skin during all these hard
conflicts, known generally as the battles of the Pyrenees. But how much
the regiment had suffered may be inferred from the fact, that of the
thousand men who had landed in Spain under its colours, about eighty only
were in the ranks.
The aspect of the passes of
Maya and Roncesvalles, when reoccupied, was at once revolting and
humiliating. The corses of friends and foes lay yet unburied there; but
the death-hunters, the guerillas, and those ferocious banditti who
infested every part of Spain, had been there at work; and most of the
bodies were lying naked as when they came into the world. Ronald found
Captain Maclvor in this condition, with his broadsword so glued and
encrusted with gore to his stiffened fingers, that it could not be
removed, and so was buried with him. For many days the soldiers were
busied in burying the dead. Deep holes were dug, wherein friends and foes
were interred together,thrown in just as they were found; and when the
pit was brim full, the earth was heaped over it. These mounds of
death,fragments of uniform, tatters of tartan and plumage, shakoes and
grenadier-caps, scattered about in thousands where the troops were
encamped, served very disagreeably to remind them of what might be their
own fate on some future day. With the exception of his sash and
epaulettes, ring and watch, etc., the body of poor Alister lay untouched,
and Stuart was deeply moved, at least as much as a hard-hearted campaigner
could well be, at the sight of his once merry and brave young comrade's
remains. His claymore was grasped in one hand, and his bonnet in the
other. The death-shot had passed through his brain, and he had fallen in
the act of cheering on his men. His dark locks were damp with the midnight
dew, and a formidable frown contracted his fine bold forehead. He had lain
for seven days uninterred, and Ronald prepared to commit his body to the
earth. It was rolled in a blanket, while Evan dug a pit three feet deep
and six long, in which the corse was deposited.
'Puir Maister Macdonald!'
said Evan, as he smoothed down the green sods. 'He was a leal true
Scotsman and a gallant gentleman: lang it may be ere we see his maik
again. He was a gude officer, and well was he loed by everyane.'
The other officers were all
placed in one grave by the Highlanders, who, according to the ancient
Scottish custom, piled a large cairn of loose stones over it. It was
situated on the left of the road leading from Maya to France, and probably
is yet to be seen. So great was the slaughter among the officers, that
Stuart, although a very junior lieutenant, obtained a company, and
succeeded his friend Seaton in command of the 'light bobs.' While the
troops lay encamped on the Pyrenees, the different corps were soon made up
to their proper strength by the return of the convalescents from Vittoria,
and the arrival of recruits from the depots or second battalions at home.
In about two months the Highlanders began once more to assume the
appearance of a regiment; and Fassifern, and other officers who had been
wounded in the fatal action of the 25th July, rejoined as soon as their
scars were closed.
Along the chain of heights,
strong redoubts and block-houses were placed at intervals. The last were
composed of horizontal logs, loop-holed for musketry, and occupied by
strong pickets, who were continually on the alert, in case Marshal Soult
might again pay them some sudden visit from Gascony. One night in October,
Ronald Stuart with his company were on duty in one of these block-houses,
when a sudden attack was made on the position by the enemy. There had been
a great fall of snow, and the intense cold by which it was accompanied
added greatly to the discomfort of the troops encamped on these bleak and
lofty mountains, with no other shelter against the inclemencies of the
weather, day and night, than canvas tents. The hills and valleys were
completely covered to the depth of several feet, and many sentinels were
lost, or found dreadfully frostbitten when dug out. A path had been made
from the Maya camp to the block-house which Stuart was to occupy; and as
his company marched along the slippery and winding roadway, they often saw
Spanish peasants or guerillas lying dead with shovels near them, showing
that they had perished with the intensity of the cold whilst engaged on
some working or fatigue party. In some places a frozen grisly head, or
shrunken hand, clenched and withered, appeared above the smooth white
surface of the snow. Had the view around the block-house been in Greenland
or Newfoundland, it could not have presented a more dreary aspect. The
whole of the Pyrenean chain, and the plains of Beam and Gascony below,
were clad in the same white livery. The sky was of the purest, deepest and
coldest blue, showing the most distant summits of the Pyrenean chain, the
white peaks of which rose in long perspective beyond each other in an
infinity of outlines. The dense smoke from the camp-fires was curling up
from amidst the dingy-coloured tents, where now and then the beat of a
drum rang out sharply into the clear and frosty air.
Although the cold was intense, and the legs of
the Highlanders were as red as their jackets, the sun was shining
brightly, and the whole surface of the earth and the atmosphere were
sparkling and glittering in his radiance. With their muskets slung and a
piper playing before them, the light company trod merrily up the ascent,
many of them singing aloud to the notes of the pipe and the tramp of their
feet, which sounded dull and hollow on the hard and frozen path. A captain
of the 34th Regiment, whom, with his company, they relieved, left Stuart a
flask of brandy, for which he and his two subs (Chisholm and Evan
MacPherson) were very thankful, and they found it a considerable
acquisition during a winter day and night in a log-house, where the wind
went in and out at a hundred chinks and crannies. The picket-house was
internally one large apartment, in the centre of which the soldiers piled
their arms, and huddled close together on the ground for mutual heat, and
to avoid the cold blast which blew through the numerous open loopholes in
the four walls of the edifice.
Towards night, a soldier of the 66th Regiment,
muffled up in his gray great-coat, came toiling up the steep ascent from
the valley below, bringing to Stuart a letter, which had arrived from
Lisbon in the packet for his corps. An officer of the 66th, who was
intimate with Ronald, had despatched it to him forthwith, and he knew in
an instant, by the handwriting and the crest on the seal, that it came
from Alice Lisle. Giving the Englishman a glass of brandy, he desired him
to lose no time in regaining his quarters, in case of a snow-storm setting
in before nightfall.
If anything would serve to buoy up one's spirits amid all the miseries of
campaigning and the dangers of daily warfare, such letters as those of
Alice Lisle certainly must have had that effect. After expressing her
delight for Stuart's success and safety in a manner and delicacy of style
peculiarly her own, she continued thus:
'And so you are really now a captain, and
knight of a military order? Oh Heaven! I can scarcely believe it, even
when your name appears in the army list. How short a time has elapsed
since you used to harry the nests of the eagle and owl at Tullyisla, among
the dark nooks of the old castle, and gather flowers and berries with
Louis and me in Strathonan! You well know, dear Ronald, that no one
rejoices more than Alice Lisle at your rapid promotion, but indeed I think
it very horrid to owe one's advancement to the death of one's friends, and
I see that a sad alteration has taken place among the officers of the
Gordon Highlanders since the battle of the Pyrenees. The joy I now feel in
the knowledge of youralas! only temporarysafety and good fortune, will
scarcely counterbalance the agony of mind I experienced when the news of
Vittoria arrived, and your name appeared in the list of wounded. Papa
concealed the papers from me for some days, but I heard it from my
foster-sister, Jessie Cavers, and until your letters, dated from the "Maya
camp," reached us, my anxiety and perturbation of spirit were quite
indescribable. What was thought of your danger by the people up the glen
at Lochisla I really know not, but the whole country-side was in an uproar
in honour of the victory. The banner was displayed from the tower, a huge
bonfire blazed on the summit of Craigonan, and the two old cannon on the
bartizan were kept booming away the livelong night, greatly to the terror
of all the old ladies within ten miles, who supposed that Buonaparte in
person had come up the Tay, and landed a host of bewhiskered grenadiers on
the Inches of Perth. The noise of the cannon alarmed others, too. The
militia, the fencibles, and the volunteers got under arms; many of the
chiefs north of this began to muster their people, and the whole country
was in a state of commotion. Your father gave a dinner to his kin and
tenantry, and dancing, drinking, and piping were kept up, I believe, in
the old hall until the morning sun shone down the glen upon them.'
Rolled up in his cloak, Ronald sat sipping his
brandy-and-water, while by the light of a streaming candle he conned. over
the letter, so much absorbed in its contents as to forget everything
around him, until the report of a musket, fired by the sentinel outside
the block-house, caused him to start and leap to his feet as if he had
received an electric shock.
'The French, and in this frosty night!'
exclaimed Macpherson, leaping up from the ground, on which he had been
fast asleep. ' Now the devil confound them, they might have chosen
daylight for their visit. Come, Stuart, leave your love-letter,it can
scarcely be anything else, as you have been reading it all night,leave
it, and attend to your command, or Wellington will be issuing such another
order anent love letters as he gave us about the wild pigs at Alba.
'We receive more reprehensions than rewards
from headquarters, certainly. But where are the French?
'Among the hills?'
'Close by, man!'
'In force, too!' added Chisholm, a smart
little sub, who had been watching them from a loophole. 'There will be
heads broken in ten minutes'
'I believe you, my boy!' answered Evan
Macpherson (a tall fellow, with thick black curly hair and keen dark eye),
as he adjusted his sword belt. 'They are in force enough to put us all to
to your arms, men!' said Ronald; but the order was needless, every man
being at his post. 'Be bold of heart, my lads !' he added, as he watched
the advancing enemy. ' We shall soon be succoured.'
'Not likely,' said Macpherson bluntly, 'with
all due deference to you, Stuart. Mina, the guerilla chief, with his
followers, is far down the mountains, and General Walker's brigade is
scarcely within gunshot; so we may fight till daylight without aid.'
'Or till doomsday,' retorted Stuart, 'if the
logs hold together; and the ammunition lasts. Blow, Macvurich,' said he to
the piper; 'give us "Roderick Mhic Alpain Dubh," and blow till the logs
shake around us.' The night was clear, the moon shone brightly, and from
their loopholes they saw the French advancing in considerable
forceprobably two thousand strong. Their dark figures, enveloped in loose
great-coats, were seen distinctly dotting the pure white covering of the
mountainside, up the slippery ascent of which they were toiling with
infinite labour. 'They are advancing in extended order,' observed Stuart,
'for fear of our sending them a cannon-shot, probably.'
'Which shows they know nothing about our
position.' 'Certes,' said Chisholm, 'they are no economists of their
persons, to advance upon us over such open ground. They are chasseurs,
probably. The moon shines brightly, yet no appointments glitter about
'Soult is a
most indefatigable fool,' said Stuart. 'He causes his soldiers to fight
needlessly. Poor fellows! they must obey their orders; but what benefit is
gained, even if this solitary picket is cut off? The actions at the
Pyrenees and before Pampeluna might have taught the "Lieutenant of the
Emperor" a little experience.'
'I dare say,' said Macpherson, 'they are
within range now.' 'Well, then, we will enjoy some shooting with them,'
replied his captain. 'Line the loopholesaim steadily; every bullet is
worth its weight in gold to-night. They are twenty to one, but care not
for that! Help is at hand.'
'Get into yer places, lads,' said Sergeant
Duncan Macrone, 'and mind ye ta level low, and gie them ta cauld kail o'
Vittoria het again. Got pless us; but this nicht is cauld eneuch ta freeze
ta fery Ness.'
discharge of forty muskets almost shook the frail block-house to pieces ;
and while those soldiers who had fired withdrew to reload, forty others
took their places; and thus a rapid and constant fire was maintained
against the enemy, blazing around the redoubt, and flashing incessantly
from every loophole. The summit of the hill was enveloped in clouds of
smoke streaked with red fire, and the echoes of the musketry sounded like
peals of thunder, booming through the clear atmosphere and echoing among
the surrounding peaks. Deadly execution was done among the advancing foe,
whose killed and wounded were seen lying prostrate on the frozen snow and
marking the route up the hill by a series of black spots. Nevertheless,
although their numbers were diminishing at every step, the main body
continued to advance with unabated ardour, formed in a wide half-circle at
extended order, returning as well as they could the fire of the
adversaries, upon whose place of concealment their shot came every
instant, tearing away huge splinters or sinking deep into the stockade
with a dull heavy sound ; but only a single bullet, during a hot contest
of two hours, entered the block-house.
It passed through a loophole, and wounded a
Highlander named Allan Warristoun in the neck, passing through his leather
stock, and he sunk on the ground bleeding profusely; but Chisholm
attempted to stanch the blood, by dressing the wound as well as
circumstances would permit. This was the only casualty that occurred
during that Bight's skirmish, but terrible execution was done among the
enemy. They were kept completely at bay, until they became wearied and
disheartened by the slaughter made among them. The light company being
excellent marksmen, every shot they fired told fatally on the assailants,
at whom they could aim unseen with the utmost coolness and precision.
After enduring that sort of work for nearly two hours, they retired with
the utmost expedition on perceiving a strong body of Spanish guerillas
advancing up the mountains from the village of Roncesvalles. A little
farther off was seen the brigade of General Walker, which the noise of the
firing had summoned to arms; but their appearance was needless, as the
conflict was over.
'Here comes Mina,the king of Navarre!' exclaimed Stuart, as the great mob
of guerillas came rushing up the mountains with shouts of ' Viva
Ferdinand!Long live Spain!' etc. 'Cease firing, lads, and let the French
retreat. Poor devils ! we have mauled them sadly. They are lying as thick
as blackberries on the hillside.' In less than half an hour the French had
disappeared, and the block-house was surrounded by the bold guerillas,
their appetite for blood and plunder having been keenly whetted by the
report of the musketry.
'Let those who have watches and any loose
pesetas in their purses, look well to them,' said Chisholm, laughing.
'Here come the honest soldiers of General Mina, who is said to be often a
little upon the picaro
loon will be waur than ony warlock, gin he gets his neive into my sporran
molloch!' said Iverach, clasping the fox's mouth of his Highland purse.
'Or mine,' said Sergeant Macrone. 'Ta will pe
gettin plenty cauld iron, but no a prass podle frae me, Got tarn!'
'The bonnets! the bonnets! Gude guide us, look
at the blue bonnets!' exclaimed the Highlanders, astonished at the
head-dress of the Biscayan guerillas, who wore flat blue caps, like those
of the Scottish peasantry. Daylight had now dawned, and withdrawing the
barricading from the door of the picket-house, Stuart issued forth amidst
the guerillas, who were busy stripping the French; and long practice had
rendered their fingers so nimble, that in ten minutes the numerous bodies
lying strewed around the position were, like those at Maya, denuded of
every article of clothing. Many of the wounded were also stripped, and
perished miserably on the frozen snow. Like all the Spanish peasantry, the
guerillas were stout and handsome men, from Guipuscoa, Alava, and Biscaya.
Nearly all wore the zamarra, or jacket of black sheep-skin, knee breeches,
and abarcas, or shoes of hog-skin tied to the feet like sandals. All wore
the broad Basque cap, and were armed to the teeth with muskets, pistols,
pikes, poniards, and offensive weapons of every kind, which, with their
huge whiskers and moustaches, gave them the appearance of a desperate
horde of banditti. Their language, the Lingua Basconcado, or Bascuence, as
the Spaniards name it, sounded strange to the ear of Ronald, who had been
accustomed to the pure and senorous language of the Castiles. That of the
Basques, according to their own account, existed before the building of
the tower of Babel, and was brought into Spain by Jubal,an assertion
somewhat difficult to prove.
Coming from amidst his plundering followers,
the celebrated Mina advanced towards Ronald Stuart. His dress was in no
way different from that of. his followers, save that a pair of gay French
epaulettes adorned his sheep-skin jacket, and a black ostrich feather
floated from the band of his sombrero over his left shoulder. Pasted upon
his shoulder-belt was a picture of the Virgin Mary, and a golden image of
the same personage hung round his neck. He was accoutred with sword and
dagger, and carried a short carbine in his hand, the ammunition for which
was in a cartouch-box on his left side, balanced on his right by a copper
bugle, for summoning his followers. He had a fine open countenance, of a
very mild and prepossessing expression, quite different from what Stuart
expected to find in the leader of many thousand guerillas.
The following description (taken from a
journal of the period of which I write) will best illustrate his character
to the reader: 'Espoz y Mina was at this time between twenty and thirty
years old, and his frame, both of body and mind, had received the stamp
which the circumstances of his country required. When he lies down at
night, it is always with his pistols in his girdle ; and on the few nights
that he ever passes under a roof, the door is well secured. Two hours'
sleep is sufficient for him. When his shirt is dirty, he goes to the
nearest house, and changes it with the owner for a clean one. He makes his
own powder in a cave among the mountains, and has his hospital in a
mountain village, which the French have repeatedly attempted to surprise,
but always unsuccessfully, for the hearts of the whole country are with
Mina. He receives intelligence of every movement of the enemy, and on the
first tidings of danger the villagers carry the sick and wounded upon
litters on their shoulders into the fastnesses, where they remain in
perfect security till the baffled enemy retires. The alcaldes of every
village, when they are ordered by the French to make any requisition, must
instantly inform Mina; if they fail in this duty, he goes himself in the
night, seizes them in their beds, and shoots them.'
Although not above five-and-twenty, the hard
service he had seen, in this irregular mode of warfare, made him seem much
older. Mina was the idol of the Spanish people, who styled him the King of
Navarre, and extolled his deeds beyond those of the Cid, or the most
famous knights of Spanish chivalry and romance. Mina was a true patriot,
and the Hoffer of the Spaniards. Although his guerillas were well drilled,
and consisted of ten or twelve battalions, which he ruled with a rod of
iron, he never restrained them from plundering the French. On his
approach, Ronald raised his bonnet in greeting the great guerilla
chief,for though he was originally but a humble farmer of Pampeluna, yet
Francisco . Mina had the heart of a hero and was brave as a lion.
'Senor Capitan, said he, bowing profoundly,
after the most approved Spanish manner, 'we have been somewhat late in
coming to your rescue; but the fire of your soldiers >has told superbly,
and the base ladrones lie here pretty thick. The old proverb should be
changed to"the more French, the more gain for us." However, I never put
my own hands to a man after he is dead; the plunder I leave to my
followers,'tis all their pay, poor fellows ; and Our Lady del Pilar knows
that they earn it hard.' 'A mode of payment I very little admire,' said
Stuart, with a smile. 'But I trust, Senor Francisco, that your people will
see them buried after this unharnessing is over?'
'Satanas seize us if we bury a hair of their
heads!' exclaimed the guerilla vehemently. 'Pho! Senor Cavalier, you
forget yourself. They are only Frenchmen; and what say the priests every
day,"Love all mankind but Frenchmen, who are the spawn of hell!" They lie
under the ban of his holiness the Pope, and with this excuse three hundred
unfrocked friars serve in my band,and brave fellows they are as ever
grasped hilt! But as for the soldiers of the Corsican tyrant, they may
feast the wolves of the mountains or the birds of the air, for aught that
Mina cares about the matter.'
He now unslung a huge leathern flask of
aguardiente from his sash, and after giving Stuart and his subs each a
draught, he handed the rest to Sergeant Macrone, to distribute among the
light company. Macrone gave his best bow, and carried off the flask, with
many a wish that 'Got might pless her honour's ainsel, and gie her lots o'
ta sneeshin and ta gude Ferintosh!' To the good wishes of Macrone, Mina
replied only by a stare, without comprehending a syllable. He next gave
some cigars to each of the officers, saying, at the same time, that it was
no compliment to present them with what cost him nothing, one of his
guerillas having found them in a Frenchman's haversack.
'But they are prime cigars, senores, and from
the manufactory at Guadalaxara, in Mexico,' said he, lighting one adroitly
by means of flashing powder in the pan of one of his pistols. 'Excellent!'
continued he, puffing away with an air of satisfaction which would have
driven the royal author of the 'Counterblaste' to his wits'-end.
'Excellent, indeed, par Diez! And I ought to be a judge, senores, having
smoked some hundred thousands in my time; and though but a poor peasant,
who dug the earth and planted cabbages at Pampeluna, I am descended in a
direct line from the noble cavalier Don Hernandez de Toledo, who, in 1559,
introduced the famous leaf into Europe, from the province of Tabaca, in
Senor Espoz y Mina, your worthy ancestor deserves the gratitude of his
countrymen,' said Chisholm, in a tone of raillery. ' He contrived a very
agreeable amusement for them. From day-dawn to sunset they do little else
than draw smoke into their mouths and watch it curling out again.'
Mina fixed his keen dark eye with a glance of
displeasure upon Chisholm's good-natured countenance, but made no reply to
'Juan de la Roca!'
cried he, in a voice like thunder, while he struck his foot impatiently on
the frozen snow.
'Senor?' answered a childish voice; and a tall Spanish boy about sixteen
years of age stood before him. This mere child fought in the band of Mina.
He was esteemed the bravest among them, and always led their advanced
guard, and his name had been blazoned forth in all the Gacetas of the
country, 'Bring the spy before us.'
The boy, Juan de la Roca, who was armed like
his comrades with pistols and carbine, dragged forward a peasant, whose
arms were bound with cords behind him. The poor wretch trembled violently
when the proud stern eye of Mina fell upon him.
'This is a notorious spy, senores,' said he,
'whom we captured on our way up the mountains. Now, Senor Picaro, what
have you to say that you should not die?'
The spy never raised his eyes, and maintained
a dogged silence.
'Brand him, Juan!' exclaimed Mina. 'Place the mark of Cain upon his
forehead, that every true Spaniard may shun, abhor, and shrink from him!'
The young savage, whom practice had rendered
expert at the operation, unsheathed his dagger, and cut off the ear of the
captive, from whom a deep imprecation escaped. Juan then thrust into the
picket-fire in the block-house, an iron brand, just such as those used for
marking barrels, etc. It bore the words 'Viva Mina!' in letters half an
inch square. Four powerful guerillas grasped the head of the spy, holding
him so that it was impossible he could move. When the brand was red-hot La
Roca pressed it upon his brow, the flesh of which was roasted and
scorched, under the terrible operation, in a moment. The miserable being
writhed and shrieked in agony. He burst from his torturers, and buried his
face in the snow; then starting up with the yell of a fiend he rushed down
the mountains like a madman, and disappeared.
'Now, senores,' said Mina, 'I have inflicted
upon him a punishment worse than death, because those marks can never be
effaced. I mark every traitor thus, that my countrymen may know and
despise them. Those who are thus branded are ashamed to look a Spaniard in
the face, and, being compelled to dwell in solitary places, are often
found dead of want among the mountains. But I must now make my adieus, and
return to Roncesvalles, where my five thousand followers are to be
reviewed today, by Lord Wellington and General Morillo.'
He blew a blast on his horn to collect his
people, and taking farewell of the Capitan de Cazadores (as he named
Stuart), withdrew in the direction of the famous pass of Roncesvalles,
leaving the bodies of the French lying stripped to the skin amidst the
snow. As soon as they had departed, Stuart ordered out the light company
with shovels, to entomb the bodies; but so deep was the snow, that
temporary graves in its frail substance only could be given, as there was
not time to dig down to reach the earth. Many were found on the point of
death, the intense cold finishing what the bullet had begun, and their
gravediggers had to await, shovel in hand, the moment of dissolution;
after which they buried, and heaped the snow hurriedly over them. But a
thaw came a short time before the position on the heights was abandoned,
and the remains of the unfortunates were again exposed, and at a time when
no interment could be given them, as the British forces were on the march
to invade the ' sacred territory' of la belle France.
The success of Sir Thomas Graham at San
Sebastian, which he boldly won by storm on the 31st of August, the fall of
Pampeluna, which, on the 31st of October, surrendered to Don Carlos de
Espana, and the successful passage of the Bidassoa, infused the highest
ardour into the heart of every soldier in the allied army, and every
regiment longed to unfurl its triumphant banners to the winds of France.
Although the French maintained their ancient renown in arms by fighting to
the last, yet they were driven from all their intrenched camps on the
Lower Pyrenees, and combating every rood of ground, retired on the 16th of
November, to the left bank of the Nive, and there encamped, after blowing
up the bridge to prevent the British crossing the river, which at that
time was swollen to thrice its usual size by the melting of the snow on
the hills, and by a long continuance of rain.
The allies encamped on the Spanish side of the
river, and hostilities ceased for a time. The Gordon Highlanders occupied
the French village of Cambo, in the department of the Lower Pyrenees, and
close to the river Nive. Its inhabitants had all fled on the advance of
the allies, crossing to the left bank with the retiring forces of their
emperor. The camps and bivouacs of the French lay close to those of their
enemies, divided only by the narrow space of the river, and the sentries
on each side were but ten or fifteen yards distant from each other. From
dawn until sunset the French sergeants were heard continually drilling
their squads of conscripts, twenty thousand of whom Buonaparte had dragged
away from their quiet homes, and marched to the Nive to be drilled in the
view of that veteran army, which had driven the flower of the soldiers of
France from one end of the Peninsula to the other. Day after day the
French non-commissioned officers were seen, cane in hand, getting the poor
peasant-boys into some state of discipline. The British used to crowd to
the river's edge to view the novel sight of French regiments on their
parade, and beholding them go through the maniement des armes, or manual
exercise, with all the minuteness common to the French,the adjutant
giving, after ever word of command, the continual cautions, 'un, deux,
one part, where the river was very narrow, a soldier of the 3rd Buffs,
when on sentry one day, found himself immediately opposite to a French
grenadier, placed on the same duty on the left bank of the river. The Gaul
was a rough-whiskered fellow, wearing the usual service-like great-coat,
red epaulettes, and high fur-cap of the Imperial Guard. The sentinels had
been staring steadily at each other for some time; and the Buff, who had
begun to imagine the face of the Frenchman was not unknown to him, was
considerably astonished to hear him ask the question: 'Well, Tom, old
fellow! How are the dirty old Buffs coming on? This rogue was a comrade of
his own, who, a year or two before, had deserted to the enemy, and had the
cool impudence to hail his old friend thus from the French side of the
On the evening
of the 8th of November, the weather being remarkably fine, the French
officers sent their bands to the river-side, to play for the entertainment
of the British, and many courtesies were interchanged; flasks of wine and
bunches of fruit were tossed over by the French, who, avoiding military
topics, conversed with soldier-like frankness on other subjects. Ronald
took the opportunity to inquire after his old acquaintance, Captain de
Mesmai, and was informed that his regiment, the 10th Cuirassiers, was
stationed at St. Jean de Luz, near Bayonne. A young officer of chasseurs à
cheval said he hoped the British passed their time pleasantly amid the
gaieties of Cambo, and with the fair dames of that beautiful city. Stuart
replied in the same tone of raillery, that the French ladies had all
retired with their countrymen at the sight of the scarlet coats : an
answer which evidently piqued monsieur.
In exchange for some London newspapers,
containing the despatches of Lord Wellington, detailing the victory of
Vittoria, an old major, wearing a dozen medals on his breast, threw across
the river a bundle of Parisian Moniteurs, containing the false and very
contradictory despatches of King Joseph on the same affair. Some Spanish
journals, the Gaceta de la Regencia and the Gaceta de Valencia, they
refused to receive, and politely returned. Between deadly enemies,
intercourse such as this renders war at once noble and chivalric. By it
the heart of the sternest soldier becomes again humanized, and the
barbarities incident to his profession are lessened and mitigated.
On the same evening, a remarkable circumstance
occurred about a mile above Cambo. A French guard were about to kill a
bullock for their rations; but the animal broke loose, and plunging into
the stream, swam to the British side, and fell among a picket of the
Gordon Highlanders, commanded by Chisholm. By them it was instantly shot,
flayed, and cut up; and all were rejoicing in expectation of a savoury
meal, when a French soldier, with a white handkerchief displayed on the
point of his sword, forded the river; advancing to the picket, he craved,
in the name of his comrades, that the flesh might be divided,adding, that
surely les Ecossais would not deprive brothers of the sword of the only
meal chance had given them for two days. It was impossible to refuse. Two
other soldiers arrived, and they were sent back laden with half the
carcass, and their canteens filled with wine, for which the poor fellows
seemed very grateful; and one returned, presenting the thanks and
compliments of their officer to Chisholm for his kindness. The officers of
each army spent the evening in conversing across the river, laughing and
jesting like old friends; and when it grew dark, with many adieus they
parted, to meet on the next morning with their swords in their hands.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.