British Fiction, 18001829

MÄMPEL, Johann C. Adventures of a Young Rifleman (1826)

Contemporary Reviews

La Belle Assemblée, 3rd ser. 3 (Mar 1826): 130.

The Adventures of a Young Rifleman, in the French and English Armies, during the War in Spain and Portugal, from 1806 to 1816, written by Himself,’ comes before us in a volume recommended by the venerable name of Goëthe as its editor. Of the Saxon lad whose adventures are with much naïveté related Goëthe thus speaks:—‘His military career was entered upon without consideration—it was passed through without care; and thus we find the occurrences easily and pleasantly narrated. Want and plenty, good fortune and ill fortune, death and life, flow equally from the pen, and the book makes a very enduring impression.’ This is a brief, but very accurate character of the work.

Monthly Review, n.s. 1 (Mar 1826): 278–91.

[Review is of the following works: The Adventures of a Young Rifleman and The Subaltern Officer, by Captain George Wood. 2nd edn (Longman & Co, 1826); xEN2].

We have chosen to notice these volumes under one head as belonging to the same agreeable and attractive class of personal narrative. They are the productions of two individuals who mingled, and fought, and bled in the animating and adventurous scenes of the gigantic European contest of our times. The very opposition of their station serves to introduce the enquirer into the interior of hostile camps, and their stories may assist in familiarizing him with the habits, feelings, and martial practices of conflicting armies.

Such works, if composed only with simplicity, truth, and common intelligences have an irresistible charm, for they blend all the excitement of romance with the important realities of history. They enchain eager attention to the tale of privation and toil, danger and suffering; they exhibit all the vicissitudes of a soldier’s wandering life, and they claim respect and sympathy for his chequered fortunes, in proportion as the troubled stream of his destiny has separated him from the monotonous flow and even tenor of domestic life. There is appropriate truth in the quaint dictum of Washington Irving, which one of the writers before us has assumed for his motto: ‘A prosperous life passed at home has little incident for narrative; it is only poor devils who are tossed about the world that are true heroes of story.’

The difficulty usually felt by unmilitary readers in determining the measure of credit due to any relation of the kind, is the only circumstance to detract from that interest which must mainly depend upon the assurance of authenticity: but the professional observer will not easily err in deciding on this question, and is entitled to deliver his opinion ex cathedrâ, without the apprehension of misleading. In introducing both the volumes before us to the notice of our readers, we confidently praise the perfect fidelity of the pictures which they offer, and the general accuracy of the narration in which these are intermingled. Captain Wood’s book, indeed, has no pretensions to vie with some other little works of the same class [278/279] on the adventures of the peninsular war. He has neither the natural animation of manner, the correctness and elegance of style, nor the real poetical turn of feeling which distinguish ‘The Subaltern,’ whose narrative, under a title so much like his own, we lately reviewed. Still less can he claim competition with the enthusiastic author of that delightful work, the ‘Recollections of the Peninsula,’ which every one has read; a work that we once heard a great authority declare had recalled to memory the most romantic feelings and the brightest moments of his profession, and which, for the high-minded sentiments and generous spirit that breathe through its pages, might be made the text-book of honourable principle for every young soldier.

In placing Captain Wood’s volume in a secondary rank to these works, we mean no disrespect to a sensible and, we doubt not, a meritorious individual, who has passed through some of the most interesting and memorable scenes of the late war, and related his share in several distinguished actions with modesty, intelligence, and evident accuracy. In one respect only has he left an occasional obscurity about his narrative, by the omission of dates, for which he offers two rather whimsical and amusing reasons; first, that there is ‘a kind of fashion in omitting such particulars;’ and, secondly, that ‘being a widower, not yet sunk into the vale of years, not insensible to the bewitching smile of beauty, nor altogether hopeless of finding favour in her eyes, he, like many others, tries to steal a few years from Father Time, which he should not be so well able to do, did he confine himself strictly to dates.’ We fear, however, that in order to give the reader a precise idea of the period to which the narrator’s adventures refer, we shall be reduced to the necessity of dispelling some part of this obscurity, at the hazard of revealing the dreaded secret —that some twenty years must have flown since he first wrote himself a soldier. He appears to have entered the army about the year 1805 or 1806; and we collect from him, notwithstanding the needless ambiguity in which he has clothed his career, that his service was passed, without intermission, in the 82d regiment of foot.

The first few pages of his volume have little interest, being occupied only with a picture of his introduction to military life, when he ‘used to drink at the mess as long as he could sit, and enjoy every amusement.’ This is a somewhat coarse, though certainly a correct, representation of the practice of those days, when the manners, like the tactics, of our army were yet in the infancy of that improvement which has raised it to its present state of unrivalled excellence. The reader needs scarcely be told that the degrading habit of intoxication is now as totally unknown in our military circles as in any other coteries of polished society.

Our author was reluctantly prevented from accompanying his regiment to the bombardment of Copenhagen, the first service which occurred after his appointment, by its having fallen to his tour of [279/280] duty to be left in England in charge of the heavy baggage. To avoid this mortifying exclusion from the honours of the impending expedition, had been a point in dispute between himself and a brother officer, in whose favour it was decided. He was afterwards tolerably reconciled to this heavy disappointment, when his comrade, who had enjoyed the triumph of priority, and in whose identical place he would otherwise have stood, bearing the colours of the regiment, received his death-wound at Copenhagen. Such are the chances of war! The young soldier was not fated, however, to sigh long for the active scenes of his profession. His corps had scarcely returned from Copenhagen, when it was ordered to Portsmouth on a secret expedition under General Spencer. The original object of the assembled armament had been the attack of Ceuta; but the fleet had scarcely cleared the channel, when it was dispersed by a tremendous gale. Our author had here a hopeful experience of the joys of a transport and his first visit to the Bay of Biscay was marked by the rude welcome, for which most of our military adventurers have small reason to remember with pleasure that ungentle nook of old ocean. His vessel, however, instead of being driven back to the Channel, like the greater number of the convoy, weathered the gale, and reached Gibraltar; from whence, in the exigency of the moment, the portion of troops that had arrived were suddenly ordered on to Sicily, which was then threatened with invasion by the French. In that island our author passed three months very agreeably, until his detachment was recalled to Cadiz, where General Spencer’s force now re-united.

The noble resistance of the Spanish nation to the iniquitous aggression of Buonaparte had already commenced; and our author was shortly thrown into the midst of the activity and excitement of the peninsular war. With General Spencer’s division he proceeded to join the main army of Portugal on its debarkation in Mondego Bay; and he shared in the glorious days of Roleia and Vimiero. His account of his sensations on going into action for the first time in his life is manly, unaffected, and natural, and will be recognized for its fidelity by every soldier’s experience.

‘ “Being now entirely equipped for the ensuing campaign —having provided bill-hooks, camp-kettles, and mules for carrying them, with baggage-horses and every other convenience, we broke up camp to prosecute our active duties, and continued marching till we came up with the enemy, who had taken an amazingly strong position on the heights of Roleia, from which, after marching four leagues that day, we had to attack and dislodge them. Measures being accordingly taken, by executing such manœuvres as would bring us in contact with the foe—having previously fixed bayonets, primed and loaded, &c. we drew nearer and nearer to the scene of action. It was now that I could have dispensed with the honours of a military life; and had it been as honourable to have gone to the rear as to the front, I should certainly have preferred the former, and that in double quick time; for whatever heroes may say, yet to me I must confess it caused a little imperceptible [280/281] tremor, notwithstanding the brave and manly admonitions of our gallant commanding officer. I was, however, fully convinced of the truth of his assertions; therefore, stifling this sensation, I soon found that spirit which I imbibed from my ancestors to take possession of my heart, and which, thank God never forsook me in the hour of danger.

‘We now began to advance over those who had fallen: among them was my brother Sub, who had been out skirmishing; and we came under what I then thought a pretty hot fire, both of field-pieces and musketry, not having witnessed the like before: but this I found was a mere joke to what I was hereafter to experience. However, it gave me a seasoning—as I was soon after knocked down by a musket-ball striking me on the left groin; and I only attribute escaping a severe wound to having some papers in the pocket of my pantaloons, which prevented its penetrating into the flesh; but it caused a great contusion: I was, however, in a few minutes able to proceed with the regiment, and soon had the pleasure of seeing the French flying before us. We followed them till the lateness of the evening compelled us to halt, when, this being the first field of glory I had the honour of sharing in, I could not help noticing immediately at my feet a fine youth who was shot through some vital part. This poor soldier, when I first observed him, was lying on his back, his head supported by his knapsack: his visage appeared serene and calm, with a very healthy, ruddy colour in his manly cheeks: but every time I looked at him, I perceived his countenance gradually becoming paler, and his fine blue eyes losing their lustre, which I observed soon became fixed in death, without his uttering a groan or a struggle.’

We pass over the account of subsequent operations,—of the splendid victory of Vimiero, the convention of Cintra, the evacuation of Portugal by the French, and the advance of the British army into Spain under Sir John Moore. On that march our author was seized with so violent a fit of illness as to endanger his life; and being compelled to remain in the rear of the army, he was not present with his regiment on the retreat to Corunna. Being thus left in Portugal, he remained in that kingdom serving in one of the provisional battalions, formed of detachments which had been cut off by the enemy’s advance from rejoining their regiments. By this means, when a new army had been assembled at Lisbon under our Great Captain, he had the honour to share in the brilliant campaign of 1809. He was present at the passage of the Douro and the recapture of Oporto, in the pursuit of Soult’s army, and on the rapid march of our troops to face a fresh enemy in the south. After this, his account of the remainder of the campaign, including the hard-fought field of Talavera, is spirited, entertaining, and substantially correct; but we cannot linger with him over its details. At the first subsequent pause in active operations, the battalions of detachments were ordered home to be broken up and re-united to their respective corps in England; and our author was once more restored to his home and regiment. But he was not long idle; for those were stirring days of rapid adventure and perpetual excitement, to which, perchance, many a soldier may still in fancy, amidst these languid [281/282] hours of peace, revert with some measure of regret, until he remember that the cause of humanity at least has gained by the change; and if he lack better employment, he may be contented, with this reflection, to betake himself to mine uncle Toby’s occupation, of carrying on the siege of Dendermonde in his own garden.

Our journalist, now familiar with and inured to service, had scarcely been in England six weeks, when he was once more at sea with his regiment, which was dispatched to Gibraltar. In that fortress, a quarter as monotonous, and at times as unhealthy, as a great prison hulk, he remained for some considerable period, with less affliction of ennui than a residence there usually engenders; for the garrison duty was diversified by an occasional change of quarters to Ceuta, and by the contrast—not an agreeable one—of the unlucky landing at Malaga under Lord Blayney. In 1812 his regiment was again ordered to join the grand army in Portugal; and from this period Captain Wood had the good fortune to witness and to share in almost all the memorable operations of the three next campaigns, until they triumphantly closed on the banks of the Garonne.

Through this well-remembered career of glory it is not our intention to follow him; but we shall just take at random our author’s account of the struggle and plunder of the field of Vittoria.

‘We pursued our way, with good roads, good weather, good provisions, and plenty of dust, till we arrived in the environs of Vittoria, in the front of which town the enemy were posted most advantageously, and in great numbers: they certainly made a most imposing appearance as they formed their line of battle, towards which we advanced with a confident step; peals of artillery echoing through the lofty hills, as we descended their trembling slopes to gain the glorious field. We advanced through the tumultuous scene with a battery in our front, dealing out dire destruction; and halting here, as if to defy its greatest efforts, we waited the signal of attack: men and officers fell in every direction; and their wounds were most dreadful, being all inflicted with cannon-balls or shells, except that of our Colonel, who received a musket-shot in his stomach. Our front was exposed to the full range of this redoubt, and had to contend with a French regiment on the right of the battery; but after politely receiving us with a few sharp volleys which we as politely returned, they retreated firing, and bent their course into a thicket. Towards this we advanced firing, and drove them furiously before us, till they were completely routed; and we had the satisfaction of passing over numbers whom we had laid prostrate. It was now that the hurry, bustle, and confusion of a great battle were experienced: such smoke, such noise, such helter-skelter! the cries of the wounded—the groans of the dying—the shouts of the victors –– the dragoons and artillery flying —dust in clouds—caps, muskets, and knapsacks, strewing the ground—baggage, carriages, wagons, and carts, broken down. Such a spectacle might indeed cause the conquering army to exclaim, “Oh! what a glorious thing is battle!” But what must be the situation and feelings of the vanquished?

‘This scene continued, till night put an end to the bloody fray and equally bloody pursuit; when we halted, leaving Vittoria some miles in [282/283] our rear. We had not had a morsel to eat the whole of this day, as we moved off our ground before the supplies had arrived: bread, indeed, we had not received for two days previously; we therefore appeased our hunger by plucking the corn from the ears, as we trampled over the fields of it, with which this fine country abounds, and which was at this moment fit for the sickle. This expedient satisfied our craving wants till the action commenced, when our attention was attracted by other objects. One of my men picked up a French haversack out of which he got a large biscuit, which he began eating most greedily without offering his comrade any part: at this instant a shell burst very near him, a splinter of which broke his leg; he hopped screaming away, and let fall the bread, which his comrade snatched up and ate, observing, that it served the other right for his greediness.

‘At this time we were halted; and were in some measure compensated for the loss of bread, by the plentiful supply we got of water, which, indeed, was a great advantage, after the heat and fatigue of the day.

‘We had now taken up our ground and piled our arms, when some of the men went to the rear under various pretences, but soon returned: some with bread, brandy, fowls, and all kinds of eatables; others with dollars, doubloons, plate, and every article that could be procured from the French baggage, which we had passed, but dared not fall out of our ranks to take possession of at the time, having a more serious duty to perform than attending to plunder—that of first beating the enemy away from it. I certainly must confess I regarded these wagons loaded and broken down with specie, over which we were obliged to drive the foe, with a wishful eye; but honour being with a soldier preferable to riches, I relinquished the latter for the former. We were, however, amply supplied with every thing that was good, by those who had the good fortune to share in the spoil. Indeed, for my own part, I could not complain, having contrived to get a very fine young horse, belonging to the Polish Lancers, which came running in my way without a rider, completely accoutred; and a handsome quilt, which I found very useful at night. Such plenty now prevailed, that I do not suppose there was a man in the field who had not a good meal that night from the stores of the enemy, which were copiously supplied with every comfort, and now came to us so very seasonably; for, although every man had not an opportunity of partaking in the plunder, yet there was so great an abundance of every necessary brought into camp, that they were enabled to share the provision with each other. We also got a most seasonable supply of those valuable articles—good shoes, taken from the French magazines. Our men had been constantly on the tramp for many weeks together, without having time or opportunity to get their old ones mended; indeed several of them had marched for the last few days barefooted. Not getting quite enough to supply all my men (having the charge of a company), I sent the remainder to exchange theirs with the dead men, many of whom were found scattered about the field with much better shoes than their living comrades had on; so that all got completely suited in this respect. We likewise obtained a good supply of salt, an article of great luxury in this part of the country, where it is very dear and scarce; and also tobacco, which could not be obtained previous to this day’s victory—a victory that crowned us with almost every desirable gilt that honour and good fortune could confer. [283/284]

‘To paint the scene that now ensued after the battle, among the troops, would be far beyond my power. Some were carousing over their spoils, others swearing at their ill-luck at not obtaining more; some dancing mad with eau-de-vie, others sharing doubloons, dollars, watches, gold trinkets, and other valuable articles.’— pp. 174–178.

Many of our private men certainly gained a very large booty from the plunder of the French military chest, and the ill-acquired hoards of the French leaders, on that occasion. This booty was in general squandered as recklessly as it had been unexpectedly won, with all the true thoughtless dissipation of the soldier: but one instance at least we know, in which a private had the good luck to secure some five hundred doubloons in gold, and, though an Hibernian, the prudence to commit his spoil to the charge of his commanding officer. Two years afterwards a small part of it was expended in purchasing his discharge, and the residue doubtless served to render him the owner of some mud cabin and potato-garden, and the wealthiest wight of an Irish village.

In the battle of the Pyrennees, which lasted several days, until it terminated victoriously for our arms before Pampeluna, Captain Wood was severely wounded; and he has here afforded an account of the alternate retreat and struggle, which is really very graphic and spirited. But, beyond this period, his narrative will not bear perusal after the journal of the ‘Subaltern;’ and we shall now, therefore, dismiss the remainder of his volume, to turn to the second work before us, the ‘Adventures of a Young Rifleman.’

This book, from the station, the habits, and the character of the writer, forms an amusing contrast to the journal of the British officer. The volume is the production of a German, who having served both in the French and the English army, appears to have finally settled in his native town of Weimar. The original, of which we have here a very passable fluent translation, was prepared for the press, as we understand, by Goethe; but although we have looked with rather a suspicious eye through its pages, we have not been able to discover the traces of any master-hand, nor is there reason to believe that the celebrated editor has disguised the rude simplicity of a soldier’s tale under any of the embellishments of his sentimental and poetical mind. The relator himself is an intelligent, lively fellow, who tells us his adventures with an air of amusing naïveté and apparent truth; and the whole story bears a stamp of authenticity which it is impossible to mistake. In fact, it is full of those peculiarities and minutiæ belonging to military low life, with which no one but a private soldier could by possibility have become sufficiently familiarized to sustain the character. It is evidently what it professes to be, and no more.

The narrative is ushered in by a preface and introduction from the pen of Goethe, written, perhaps, in a manner too pompous for the occasion; but sketching off the character of the hero very happily in a few passing touches. The preface is in itself a [284/285] review of the adventurer and his book. Our young soldier, as it justly remarks, appears, in his narrative, ‘obedient, brave, hardy, good-tempered, and honest,—with the exception of a slight propensity to plundering, which, however, he always manages to palliate under the plea of pressing necessity;’ and we may add that, saving in this slight propensity, he seldom shows the want of a moral sense, and never fails to exhibit a natural horror of the atrocities which he witnessed. But the narrative is interesting, less from the character and personal fortunes of the writer, than from the really curious picture which it offers of the interior of the French camp, of the habits and spirit of the French soldiery under the military despotism of Napoleon, and of the composition and discipline of the legions which once, with conquest, terror, and rapine in their track, overran the great continent of Europe.

The rifleman was the orphan son of a poor but upright country clergyman, and was brought up at Weimar to the trade of a barber-surgeon. His dislike to this vocation induced him to abscond from his place, at the period when the French armies occupied Prussia after the battle of Jena; and he was soon inveigled, whet, scarcely fifteen years of age, to enlist in a German regiment, in the service of Napoleon. The commencement of his military career gives us some insight into the mixture of art and violence by which the ranks of the French armies were swelled with men of all the continental nations. The regiment to which he belonged had been originally formed out of the wreck of the Prussian army; and it was no sooner complete in numbers, than it was removed within the northern frontier of France. Next, under pretence of being selected to form the Westphalian guard of Jerome Buonaparte, it was drawn in to the interior of France, as if to receive its colours at Paris; and then, desertion into Germany having become no longer practicable, it was at once hurried off to its real destination,—Spain.

Our adventurer thus crossed the Pyrennees in the beginning of the year 1808, and was in the first French army which entered Madrid under Murat. Here he describes well and naturally the growth of the just exasperation in the Spanish mind, which produced the tremendous explosion of popular fury in that capital on the 2d of May, 1808. In the contest and massacre of that memorable day, he was an actor; and he had his share in the subsequent plunder of the city. We find him soon after engaged in the division under Marshal Moncey, which was dispatched from the capital to disperse the Spanish troops and peasantry, now in arms in all quarters. He gives us a very animated description of the successful advance of the invaders to Valencia, of their sanguinary defeat by the heroism of the undisciplined Spaniards in the assault of that city, and of their precipitate and disastrous retreat to Madrid. In the narrative of this expedition, we have, as might be expected, some revolting pictures of the wanton rapine of the [285/286] invaders, and the fearful retaliation of the natives. He asserts, indeed, that the ferocious spirit in which the hostilities were conducted originated with the Spaniards, who mangled and tortured their prisoners; and that ‘Frenchmen were found with their hands and feet not merely chopped off, but separated at the joints with knives,—others with their tongues cut out,—others who had been hung up to trees by the feet, and roasted to death, —and others, again, mutilated in a manner too horrible to describe.’ He says that ‘these spectacles inflamed the rage of the French soldiery, who, thinking themselves justified, and even bound, to retaliate, atrocities increased on both sides.’ He adds, however, that forbearance on the part of the invaders might have tended to humanize their opponents; and he has the candour to admit that it was the oppression of the French which originally provoked these shocking scenes.

At first it appears that the French commanders did really endeavour to check the excesses of their troops by severe examples; and we hear from our adventurer frequently of marauders being shot by their orders, without even the formality of a trial. Upon one occasion, when the palace of the Inquisition had been wantonly burnt down by our soldier’s company,—the lightest, perhaps, of their crimes,—the whole body were disarmed, and compelled, by the old military usage of decimation, to draw lots for their lives. But both leaders and soldiery had been bred in too licentious and blood-thirsty a school for these examples to produce due effect: pillage and atrocity were habitual in that service; and before the end of the first campaign the French Generals abandoned the politic severity, if, indeed, they still retained the power, of restraining their ferocious followers. A thousand scenes, in Portugal especially, which must be fresh in the recollection of every man who served in the country, will remain as decisive evidence of the abominable guilt of the invading army.

Our adventurer, of course, shared in the retreat of the main French army from Madrid in August, 1808; and he declares that in their disorderly march they now resembled a band of robbers rather than disciplined troops. We here learn from him a single circumstance, which speaks volumes on the loss of the invaders in this short campaign. His regiment had crossed the Pyrennees 1100 strong: when they now retired behind the Ebro, they could muster only 300 men! But continual supplies of recruits from France fed the consumption of human life; and the entrance of Napoleon himself into Spain, at the head of a numerous army, again turned the balance of the sanguinary contest.

After the second occupation of Madrid, and almost all Spain, by the invaders, our adventurer continued to serve for three years in various parts of the Peninsula. His busy story is filled with many interesting circumstances; but as we cannot pretend to accompany him regularly through them, we shall use his narrative [286/287] only for the sake of a few comments which it suggests. His picture of the general indiscipline, the wanton pillage, the insubordination, and the cruelties of his comrades, pervades the whole period without relief or intermission. One story may illustrate the terms of degrading familiarity, as totally unknown as it would proudly be repelled in our service, on which the French officer lived with his soldiery. A man of the rifleman’s company had broken into the cellar of a Spaniard and stolen his wine, but lost the pompon or ornament of his cap in the place. Fearing detection, he induced several of his comrades to throw away their pompons also, that his individual loss might not convict him. The owner of the cellar brought the pompon with a complaint to the captain of the company: but the artifice of the marauder had baffled discovery.

‘On the fourth day we went on again. During the march, the captain, who had no dislike to wine, called to his servant to bring him some. The man brought it, telling him, at the same time, that his whole store consisted in that single glass. The captain regretted this, and blamed the servant for his want of attention. Upon this, Thiele, who was very near, presented himself before the captain, and offered him a glass of his wine.

‘ “Let us see, my lad, is it good?”

‘ “Taste it, and convince yourself, captain.”

‘After he had drank, he asked him where he had got the wine.

‘ “At Villa Alba,” was the answer.

‘ “I was not able to get such a good glass of wine there. Did you buy it?”

‘ “Yes,” said Thiele, “and I was very near paying a high price for it.”

‘ “Well, give me another glass; I will recompense you for it.”

‘ “A bargain,” said Thiele; “you can do this immediately, if you will.”

‘ “How so?” said the captain.

‘ “Oh, give me my pompon back again; that will be a sufficient recompense.”

‘ “Rascal!” said the captain, “I thought, at the time, that you, and no one else, was the wine stealer. Here it is,” added he, taking it out of his hostler; “but had I known this in Villa Alba, you should have paid for it, by fifteen days’ arrest upon bread and water.”

‘ “I took good care of that,” said Thiele.” ’—pp. 170–171.

This amusing dialogue is perfectly characteristic of the license of the French Imperial service; in which it is notorious that no line of separation between the officer and soldier was ever drawn by the nice distinction of gentleman-like feeling. The relation between the English officer and his men is one of protection and obedience only: in the French armies, connivance and familiarity were the substitutes for these principles of discipline.

Our adventurer’s account of the Guerillas will be read with interest; and we give the following extract, not only for its evidence of the cold blooded cruelty of the French, but as communicating [287/288] a fact not generally known, that these bands were composed in a great measure of French deserters as well as Spaniards.

‘During our stay in Valladolid, several Guerilla prisoners were brought in and executed. These undisciplined bands had originated in various ways. After the insurrection in Madrid, and our advance upon Valencia, all the scum of the country had turned out against us. These did little service to the nation, as the leaders were usually rogues, who only sought to enrich themselves; they levied contributions every where, drove off the cattle, and robbed the poor peasants of every thing the French had left them; on which account they were in many places as much dreaded as the French themselves. Afterwards, several bands were formed under Mina, El Empecinado, Jayme, and others, which did us much mischief; they rendered the roads so unsafe, that no convoy could pass without a strong escort. They threw themselves headlong upon the strongest detachments, and not unfrequently gained material advantages and considerable booty. These Guerillas consisted chiefly of French deserters, and but few natives were to be found among them. There were, at least, thirty men belonging to our regiment, in the band of El Empecinado, who carried on their operations in the neighbourhood of Villa Delpando, Benevente, and Toro. These troops were mostly composed of badly mounted cavalry, who had equipped themselves in a most singular manner, with the clothing taken from the French; many a trooper wore gaiters, had a long cuirassier’s sabre, a blanket in the place of a cloak, a cora, or cloth cap on the head, and a long musket hung behind, on his lean, worn-out steed. Whenever a French horseman pursued one of these knights of the rueful countenance, he usually looked round, placed his hand upon a part of his body which shall be nameless, put his horse into a gallop, and disappeared in an instant. The infantry were just as ridiculously equipped: it often afforded us much amusement to see them stalking about in large boots, a dragoon’s helmet upon their head; and a long sword by their sides.

‘They were once surprised by the 10th and 11th regiments of dragoons, and a number of prisoners made, who were all shot, strangled, or hanged by the French as brigands. At an execution of this kind, there were once eighty men strangled; the whole garrison was present, and our battalion kept guard. In the centre of the square a large scaffold was erected, upon which were several upright posts to which boards were fixed as seats for the criminals. As soon as they were seated, the executioner placed an iron collar round their necks, which had a screw behind; this being screwed up, broke the neck and choked the wind-pipe at the same time.’ —pp. 135–137.

The total absence of all humanity which characterized the French service was not evinced only towards the Spaniards. We are not told merely in this volume of the shooting of wounded prisoners and of the strangling and the drowning of those not disabled: their own sick, and wounded soldiery fared not much better from the hands of their hospital attendants. We hear repeatedly of the fear which the author and his comrades entertained of betraying in the general hospitals that they possessed any money, lest the inheritance of their little property should prove, an inducement to these [288/289] hardened wretches to put them out of their misery. One passage is too remarkable to be omitted.

‘We were four days on the road, without our wounds being dressed. On our arrival at Salamanca, we found, owing to this want of care, that maggots had generated in the wounds, and occasioned a stench which was almost intolerable. We were taken to the hospital of Real, which was already so full of sick and wounded that we could scarcely find any accommodation.

‘While I was lying here, sick and wounded were constantly being brought in from the army, and I had an opportunity of observing how many lives were lost through the barbarity of the attendants. A soldier of the 39th regiment of the line, who was brought in very ill, had a bed directly opposite to me, and we often conversed together. He told me that he had got some money about him, and that he would willingly pay the attendants if they would nurse him properly. I dissuaded him from this, and warned him by the relation of several occurrences I had witnessed during my stay; but, in spite of my advice, he trusted to the medical attendants, and allowed his purse of money to be seen. He got every day worse; and one night the medical attendant and his worthy colleagues, who had become impatient that he did not depart in peace, and leave them in possession of his property, filled his mouth with water, and held it close until he was suffocated. The next morning he was found dead, and was carried out to be buried, along with several others, who had either died a natural death or had been murdered in the same way. Although I had witnessed the perpetration of this cruel deed, I remained silent for some days, until I received my certificate of health, and was thus safe from the revenge of these inhuman murderers of the sick. Upon the surgeon-major coming to visit me, I related to him the whole occurrence in the presence of the murderers. They denied it steadily, at first; but my word was taken in preference to their’s, and they were brought before a court-martial. They then confessed their crime, and were shot without mercy. In this manner numbers of soldiers lost their lives. In the breast of these wretches every feeling of humanity was extinct; they were actuated only by a thirst of gain; and without reflecting that they deprived their country of a protector, aged parents of a support, or infant children of a father, they murdered every one whom they knew was possessed of money, and was too weak to oppose them.’— pp. 213–215.

Towards the close of the year 1810, our adventurer was for the first time opposed to the British troops; and he has given a very fair and correct account of the battle of Busaco, in which his regiment formed part of the brigade of General Simon, who was wounded and taken. The rifleman was, therefore, in the main column of attack, and he describes the slaughter as immense. We can believe him: for Busaco was, with our men, one of the few occasions in which their fury endured beyond the moment of the enemy’s flight. Pursuing the routed column down the heights, they made unsparing use of the bayonet, even until they reached the foot of the mountain. Some time after this action, our rifleman observes, with whimsical simplicity, that ‘the English had now learned to fight, and looked their hereditary enemies the French steadfastly in [289/290] the face!’ This is just an example of that belief in the inferiority of our troops which the French commanders studiously instilled into their soldiery, and generally with success, until the first moment of their coming into contact with the reality. If our rifleman had been present at the routs of Roleia and Vimiero, he might have discovered, perchance, by the taste of British steel, that the islanders ‘had learned to fight’ some two years earlier.

The rifleman continued to serve against the British in Massena’s army during the French advance through Portugal, until the stupendous lines of Torres Vedras arrested their march, and famine at last compelled them, notwithstanding their great numerical superiority, to make a precipitate, though, certainly, a masterly retreat. On reaching the frontiers of Portugal again, our author, with part of his regiment, and other corps, was thrown into Almeida; and that fortress was immediately blockaded by a division of our army. In this place he relates a characteristic little anecdote of the dogged resolution of our men. In a sortie the French took a few of our wounded; and these poor fellows were immediately hurried into the fortress, and ‘strictly interrogated respecting the strength and condition of the blockading force.’ However, adds the rifleman, they would confess nothing.

When the garrison of Almeida were driven by hunger evacuate the place, they blew up the works, and stole a passage through the blockading corps with a celerity and adroitness that did honour to their soldiership. They were, however, closely pursued, overwhelmed, and in the dispersion which followed, our rifleman was made prisoner. A sturdy Scotchman seized him by the collar, and an hussar flourished his sabre over his head; but when, they perceived that he made no opposition they desisted from hostilities. ‘These two gentlemen,’ says he, ‘without farther, ceremony, took possession of my small stock of money, and my knapsack, out of which they selected what they pleased. I was obliged to look patiently on, as, had I made the least opposition, I should only have experienced worse treatment. I was now a prisoner, and, with many others, was driven off like a drove of cattle by the English; a good pair of shoes which I had on I lost by the way; an English soldier exchanged them for his, which I could not wear.’ This rough and unceremonious treatment will excite little surprise in the practised campaigner: for your soldier of any service is seldom burthened with scruples touching these trifles, and is, to say the truth, but a hardened being. In his rude nature the exasperation and excitement of action do not immediately subside into humanity. Our men were very rarely ferocious; but many an officer will remember how often his interference has saved the prisoner from the same lot as our friend the rifleman.

To return to his adventures: he was now carried, with other prisoners under an escort to Lisbon, and placed in the general [290/291] depôt, where those of the number, not Frenchmen by birth, were permitted to volunteer into the foreign regiments in the British service. It is singular that, enslaved as their countries had been under the iron yoke of the French, these people should not have seized with alacrity the first occasion of turning their arms against the oppressors of Europe; but if we may believe our adventurer, it was only to escape the evils of imprisonment that some hundreds of them, Germans, Netherlanders, and Poles, reluctantly offered themselves for our service.

Our rifleman was among these volunteers, who were immediately shipped off for England, and there enrolled in the King’s German Legion. With this change of fortune, the peculiar interest of the narrative before us may be said to terminate. Under his new engagement, our author served in Sicily and on the eastern coast of Spain in 1812 and 1813; and, finally, in the short campaign of 1815, at the landing in Italy, the occupation of Naples, Genoa, &c. Here he is no longer the same agreeable companion as before, for he can no longer usher us unto the midst of French camps. Yet one point, at least, in this last part of his narrative is worthy of notice. It is amusing to find him, notwithstanding the unwillingness with which he embraced the English service, afterwards extolling it as the best in Europe: continually eulogizing the comparative happiness of his new condition, the abundance which he enjoyed, and the easiness of his servitude. After the horrors which he had witnessed and endured in the French army, he appears to have found the contrast a very Elysium. His testimony alone would lead us to judge, if we possessed no better experience, that our own army is the only one in Europe, in which the COMFORT of the soldier is an established object of solicitude with his superiors. The rifleman and his compatriots experienced the continuance of the liberal system beyond the period when their services were no longer required. They were conveyed to the shores of Germany and there disbanded; and when our hero and his comrades ended their military career, they were not dismissed, as he tells us, to their homes before they had received a present of clothing, a sum to cover their travelling expenses, and their arrears of pay to the last farthing: ‘every man having five or six louis d’or in his pocket and not the slightest cause of complaint against the English government.’

Notes: Format: 8vo. pp. 414; price 9s. 6d. Publisher: Colburn.

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