Authors: Robert Brightwell
Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Action
We had already established that Downie could not navigate his way out of a grain sack, but now that the chance of ambush had diminished, I was in no rush. As soon as we found the Spanish I would have to head north and if Wellesley had been beaten I had no wish to meet the French coming the other way. With luck, I thought, when we finally found Alcantara there would be a few sleeping dagoes under a tree with all the news. If Wellesley had won, and I’ll admit I thought that was long odds at the time, then I would head north in safety. If he had lost then we would head south to Seville and the coast beyond, for Soult was likely to follow up a victory with an attack on Lisbon.
So we meandered about the countryside for days. Heading probably south when it was cloudy, based on Downie’s misguided moss principle, and north east when we could see the sun, as even that great booby could use the celestial orb as a guide. I normally had a better idea where we were as I would ask any locals I met when riding ahead as scout, but I only passed the news on to our gallant leader when it suited me. I knew we were getting close when very early one morning we passed an old woman with a scrawny donkey loaded with a bundle of firewood. She was hunched under a load of her own and dressed in black with a matching moustache that would be the pride of any hussar. On enquiry she told us that Alcantara lay just over the hill in front of us. Thinking that we had delayed enough, I passed the news on to Downie. A short while later I realised that we had arrived at exactly the wrong time.
The shooting started when we were halfway up the hill; it was around nine o’clock in the morning. To start with there was the low rumble of cannon, lots of cannon. Then as we neared the top there was a steady crackle of musketry. It sounded as though we had happened across a full pitched battle and Downie was in a fever to get over the summit and
join in. We imagined Cuesta and his entire Spanish army locked against a French force. Given the Spaniard’s recent performance against the French I was keen to ensure that my horse was not completely blown when we got to the top. There was every chance a fast escape might be required. But what we saw when we crested the ridge stopped us in our tracks. It was an astonishing sight and what followed over the next twenty-four hours was one of the most extraordinary episodes in military warfare. Although for reasons that will become clear, it is rarely mentioned in the history books.
The first thing we saw was the French, and by God there were enough of them. The far side of the valley across the river was covered in blue coated troops. There were thousands and thousands of infantry. Some were in the town of Alcantara, which was on their side of the river, and lining the river bank, but more regiments were still marching towards us from the hills beyond. There were squadrons of cavalry too, wheeling around the town while the boom of guns and plumes of smoke told me that there were at least two batteries of cannon firing from the other side in our direction, twelve pounders I judged, from the noise of their discharge.
Between us and the French lay the river Tagus at the bottom of the valley, fast flowing and deep at this time of the year. This was crossed by a stone bridge directly below us that had a triumphal arch over the roadway in the middle of it. Then there was a sight that got my guts churning and had me looking over my shoulder to see the best route back the way we had come. The smooth hillside we could see facing this massive French advance was completely empty. Not a single Spanish regiment was arrayed on it, no guns were firing and not a horseman was in sight.
‘Christ on a stick,’ I shouted to Downie, ‘they will be over that bridge in no time and with Wellesley up north there will be nothing to stop this lot reaching Lisbon.’
‘They must be shooting at someone,’ argued Downie. Then he pointed, ‘Look there are some people on that bluff.’ He pointed to our left where there was a slight prominence overlooking the valley. Men could be seen moving amongst the broken rock that covered the ground. Before I could reply there was the blaring of trumpets as the French launched an attack across the bridge.
From our vantage point high above the battle we watched in fascinated horror as a narrow blue column of men marched from the edge of the town towards the bridge. It must have contained at least a thousand soldiers as it moved forward like a short blue snake across the valley floor. The French guns seemed to go quiet and for the first time I heard the sound that would fill me with fear countless times in the future. The column did not move silently, there was the awful tramp, tramp, tramp sound of two thousand feet, which almost drowned out the beat of the drummer boys. Then on a double beat signal from the drummers a thousand voices would bellow out ‘
’. Even from half a mile away it was enough to send a shiver down your spine, especially when there seemed to be damn all between you and this massive enemy force.
But then there was a series of four sharp cracks from the bluff to our left, and plumes of smoke. It was the sound of cannon of smaller calibre than the French were using, six pounders I guessed. My time sailing with Cochrane had taught me to distinguish between the sounds of cannon fire – the bigger the gun the deeper boom it made. But there were only four guns fired from our side and if they hit the French column they made no discernable impact.
‘When they get across,’ I called, reaching for the telescope in my saddlebag, ‘we had better get out of here.’
‘Yes,’ said Downie. ‘We should ride north to warn Wellesley that this force is behind him. This army and Soult’s could crush Wellesley like a nut.’
I could not have agreed more. In fact I suspected that Wellesley’s nut might already have been crushed by the more experienced Soult without this lot to help. But I had no wish to get caught up in the wreckage, which is why I suggested, ‘That is a good idea, but we also need to warn the Spanish. I have a message from Wellesley to Cuesta, so if you ride north, I will take a few of the men as escort and ride south to Seville.’
We were just agreeing on how we would divide the escort as the French marched onto the far side of the bridge. There had been no more firing from our side and now I had my glass focused on the bridge. The front rank of the French column reached the archway in the centre of the bridge. There for the first time I saw some disorder in the ranks as the width of the arch was narrower than the bridge and the column. As they squeezed though the archway their lines became ragged and uneven but still they came on. I caught the glint of gold in the archway, the imperial eagle standard of the regiment.
Then the guns to our left cracked again and this time there was also the
sound from two howitzers. I saw at least one of the cannonballs slash its way through the packed men and then one of the howitzer shells landed amongst them on this side of the arch. I could not see the shell itself from that distance but I saw men suddenly trying to get away from something in their midst. They were too tightly packed for those closest to escape and when the thing went off it flattened a whole group as though they had been swatted by a giant invisible hand. But the blue coated ranks at the front of the column marched on and behind them the now disordered men followed. Just as they came off the end of the bridge and left the protection of the parapet there was furious crackle of musketry.
Only now did we see infantry on our side of the river. There did not seem many of them and they were not standing in ranks. Instead they were dug well in amongst the stone and rock on the western bank. They had been hard to spot amongst the ground cover which was why we had not seen them before. But now the puffs of smoke from their firing gave away their positions, and not just to us.
The French cannon now opened up again, a dozen heavy iron balls smashed into the ground at our end of the bridge. I saw one demolish a hastily built loose stone wall and, judging from the screams, it destroyed some men standing behind it. Another ball hit an angled face of rock with such force we heard the crack and saw the ball ricochet fifty feet into the air. I looked back at the French. Their front ranks had been destroyed by the early firing and a pile of dead and dying lay across the end of the roadway where the parapet stopped. More French were trying to climb over their comrades to continue the attack but despite the best efforts of the French cannon, a steady fire was continuing from the men on our side of the river. The moment a blue coated soldier reached the end of the bridge he was met by a hail of bullets and none were getting away.
I realised now that there were more soldiers on our side of the bridge than I had first guessed. Not nearly as many as the French army but there could be up to a thousand, I thought, as I watched men furiously reloading muskets and passing them up to those with a better vantage point to shoot.
‘Who are they?’ asked Downie impatiently.
‘Some seem to be riflemen as they have green jackets. Wait though, no, they are firing muskets too.’ I paused trying to make out a common thread in the uniform of the bulk of the men by the river. The green jacketed troops made up no more than a third of the number, the rest were dressed in a myriad of uniforms or seemed to have no uniform at all. There were some with green uniform coats and red facings of the Spanish army, others in uniform coats that must once have been white, and yet more in brown homespun coats. ‘They must be some kind of militia,’ I concluded.
Whoever they were they were making tidy work of the French who seemed unable to get past the bottle neck at the end of the parapet. Some tried to drop over the side but either there was a steep drop or the Spanish had men hiding under the bridge, for none appeared on the shore afterwards. The bridge itself was now a tightly packed mass of men. The cannon on our side fired again and both and the howitzers managed to get their shells amongst the men on the bridge. This time the French were too wedged in to move and when the howitzer bombs exploded there must have been terrible carnage. Seeing that they were unable to go forward and were sitting ducks for the guns on our side, the troops on the bridge now started to edge back the way they had come. Those at the front of the column however gave one final effort and with a cry of ‘
’ they threw themselves forward once more. The French artillery that had managed to reload in time supported them and more balls crashed into the river bank. But it was not enough; a fusillade of musket fire threw the blue coated soldiers back. Now with room to retreat behind them, there was a general movement of the French back the way they had come.
‘Well that was right handy work,’ exclaimed Sergeant Butterworth riding up alongside us. ‘The frogs have lost a fair few men there, sir,’ he pointed down at the bridge. Sure enough as the French pulled back, helping some of their wounded along as they went, they left piles of men behind. You could see where the howitzer shells had landed by the clumps of corpses and badly injured lying together. But at the end of the bridge there was a mound blocking solidly the space between the parapet ends, which must have comprised at least a hundred bodies.
‘Horseman coming, sir,’ called one of the troopers from behind, and looking round we saw a knot of half a dozen men riding towards us from the bluff that held the artillery battery. Two wore the green uniforms I had initially confused for riflemen and the other four wore Spanish cavalry uniforms. Downie and I rode to meet them, leaving the other troopers on the crest of the hill watching the French complete their withdrawal.
‘Our compliments sir, Captains Downie and Flashman of General Wellesley’s staff,’ called out Downie in Spanish by way of introduction to one of the green coated men, who wore the uniform markings of a colonel. ‘That was smartly done, sir,’ he added, gesturing down the hill.
‘I am Colonel Mayne,’ the man replied in English with a slight Yorkshire accent. ‘Your presence may have helped, gentlemen, as doubtless Victor saw a group of redcoats arrive at the crest of the hill and wondered if reinforcements were on hand. I pray to God that you will tell me his suspicions are confirmed, for we are in a desperate situation here.’
‘We have come here looking for General Cuesta,’ explained Downie. ‘Wellesley has gone north to attack Oporto and he thought that Cuesta would be here to guard the crossing.’
‘Aye, so he would if he had a wit of common sense.’ growled Mayne. ‘So are there no other British forces nearby?’ he asked, with a lingering note of hope.
‘I’m sorry sir, it is just us with thirty dragoons,’ replied Downie.
‘Did you say that was Marshal Victor’s army down there?’ I asked, with growing apprehension. This was the commander who had already thrashed Cuesta at Medallin and who had destroyed the army of Galicia the previous year.
‘Aye,’ grunted Mayne with a dour sniff. ‘Judging from the glitter of gold braid I saw through the glass earlier, I think he is up in the church tower this very moment planning what to do next.’
‘But sir,’ exclaimed Downie, ‘Surely General Cuesta is sending you reinforcements, if he knows Victor is here?’