Woman at WorkCampaigns of Captain Marcel

Chapter 5

Translation in Progress

This translation is nowhere near complete or authoritative. Sections or words where I am unclear of the meaning are in red, and enclosed in square brackets and with a leading question mark. My comments on archaic terms are in green and enclosed in curly brackts.

Entry into Portugal - Bussaco - Sergeant Roussel - The pillage of Coimbra - Torres Vedras - retreat - the fate of the [?camp followers] - Rugeaud - The saviours of the Army of Portugal - the eagle of the 39th - the surprise of Rivinha - Fuentes de Onoro - Tillet the chasseur - the comet - the march to Badajoz - the sufferings of soldiers - the 69th in good heart - Town of the storks - Town of the [?necks] - the soldiers bid farewell to Colonel Fririon - general "au Quart" - a terrible epidemic - a good remedy against the fever - news of great sadness

After the taking of Almeida, we rested for fifteen days and were more than occupied in assembling the provisions for the third expedition to Portugal. On the 14th September there was a review just outside Almeida: to see our army there was to be made aware of the quality of our regiments; despite five months of bivouacking and hard labour, the contentment, the ardour and the love of glory was clear in the face of every soldier: the youngest had three years of service; there never were men to equal them!

The army, 60,000 bayonets and 12,000 sabres strong, took to the road on the 15th September, the 6th and 8th Corps by Celorico and Viseu, the 2nd Corps by Guarda. We travelled at first through superb valleys and magnificent villages but we were unable to see a single inhabitant. This was explained by the finding of proclamations from the King of Portugal on the walls enjoining all the citizans and peasants to evacuate the towns and villages, on pain of death. The English army retired successively as we advanced and despite this, at the end of seven days march, we halted for five days: I was never able to understand the reason for this delay. Our soldiers profited by stuffing their knapsacks with cobs of corn and by resting a bit. On the 24th September we [?resumed] our march and, on the 26th, our cavalry exchanged the first carbine shots with the English rearguard: we were aware that the Anglo-Portuguese army had moved to a chain of mountains called Mount Busaco because we had seen them. The next day, the 27th September, we hadn't made a league {i.e. 4 kilometres} before we found the English picquets and saw the enemy army arrayed on the heights; we stopped and Marshal Ney went to within fifty paces of their picquets to reconnoitre the English position (1). On his return, he stopped near my voltigeurs {i.e. light troops} already skirmishing in the undergrowth and said to one of his aides de camp "Go inform the Prince of Essling that the enemy army has taken a position and appears to want to oppose our advance; tell him that my intention will be to attack as soon as the troops arrive." However the rest of the day passed without a shot being fired; we bivouacked, but the commisariat was lost and many of our men went to sleep without having anything to eat except some crushed grains of maize.

The next day we stood to arms at dawn and, at 6 o'clock, we marched against the enemy, hungry, as cheerful as if we were going out to a good meal. Massena said to the soldiers who filed before him "Don't use your cartridges, go in with the bayonet!". He was obeyed and we attacked with the utmost vigour (2). The brigade had to scale steep rocks and push through the prickly, near impenetratable furze which covered the mountain, under the fire of the English quietly installed on the summit: The two regiments marched up the same hill and a competition begain between the soldiers of the 69th and those of the 6th Leger as to who would reach the top first. We quickly arrived in front of the mass of the enemy and were stopped by a rolling fire which was very uncomfortable {this was the rifle fire from the 95th and the Portuguese Cacadores}; despite their losses, my voltigeurs, hot and angry, called to the English "Hey! You Goddams, wait a while for us before starting the buffet!" But, the unbelievable, we perceived at that moment that the brigade wasn't supporting us; I saw at once the attack had failed: on our right Simon's division of the 8th Corps, who had already reached the summit of the mountain and was equally unsupported, fell back down the slopes under a terrible artillery barrage and before the attack of an English column four times superior; this same column briskly reached us, and it was our turn to be overthrown. This didn't happen without resistance and the English didn't go far because we fired all our cartridges at them. Sergeant Roussel (3) of the fusilier company, found himself alone, badly wounded and surrounded by Scotsmen who wanted to take him prisoner: he felled two of them with blows from his musket butt and put the rest to flight.

On our left, general Reynier managed three times to take possession of the ridge and was chased by the same column which had overthrown us and which the English, with freedom of movement, moved from the right to the left to repulse our scrappy attacks.

This bloody affair cost the army of Portugal 10 000 men; the 69th lost 60 men killed and 500 wounded including 26 officers (4). Nevertheless the official report of the commander in chief made this deadly day out to be a simple affair of skirmishers, designed to amuse the English while our army turned the position on the right: I blush to say that vile flatterers have dared to pretend that it was one of the more sagacious manoeuvres of Massena.

The next day we rested in the same position we had bivouacked on the 27th; we had scarcely enough beasts of burden to carry our wounded and we were obiged to leave the amputees when, on the 30th September, we effected the movement on Sardao (5). It's in moments like these that one realises what a scourge war is and how it hardens one's heart: on a dark night, amid the heather, far from all habitation, without a sip of water to refresh lips parched by fever, these poor amputees, missing one or two limbs, implored us in heart-rending tones (it seems to me that I can still hear them) "Comrades, don't abandon us alive! Give us arms so we may end our sufferings. What is to become of us? Ar we destined to become prey for the vultures and eagles which soar above this place?" I plugged my ears so I wouldn't hear the voices of those of my voltigeurs who called me in the darkness. How heart-rending for an officer! Very happily we found much later with joy that they were collected two days later by the monks from a convent located in the middle of a forest, behind the English position, and they were so well looked after that many were able to rejoin the army.

As I just said, on the 30th we effected this famous movement, and we took possession of the road to Coimbra by turning the flank of the heights of Busaco which terminated two leagues {8 km} to our right and where, as it was afterwards recognised, it would have been possible to surprise the enemy from behind and cut off the retreat of his artillery by distracting him by feint attacks in his front while the bulk of the army filed past the right. But Massena was totally occupied by his mistress.

We arrived, on the 2nd October, at Coimbra - a town of 40 000 inhabitants but a little deserted at the moment; there only remained the elderly who were unable to march. I have never seen a location more enchanting than that of this town, situated on the right bank of the Mondego, in the midst of orange groves, fig trees, palm trees, pomegranate trees and [?rose-laurels]. All the shops and houses were closed; but our soldiers, who were camped in the vicinity and who had been without bread for many days, invaded the town en masse; They had suffered greatly, bled prodigiously, and there was never the suggestion that any officer would oppose their pillaging (6). All the doors were promptly forced and the encampment filled with objects of great value, with furniture, fine cloth, rare liqueurs; silverware was as abundant as pottery, but there was not a single sack of flour found. I couldn't count how much was looted from the inhabitants of Coimbra this day: they would have done better to have stayed home and given us provisions! But such was the politics of the Cabinet of St James. {ie. the British Government}

We needed outpace the English and to arrive at the defences of Lisbon before them: as a result, to disencumber us as much as possible, the colonels received orders to leave all the wounded in the hospitals of the town. Happy the ones who were able to march and to follow us! Two days after, a Portuguese division, commanded by an English general {ie. Trant's Portuguese Militia}, arrived at Oporto and captured the 7 000 men who had been abandoned without succour and without the slightest attempt at defence (7). A Sergeant-major of the regiment, by name Depontailler, now retired at Loches-en-Touraine, was amongst these wounded; he has since told me, that on the arrival of the enemy all those who had a useable arm were armed, that they barricaded the doors of the hospitals and that each officer and soldier swore to fight to the death if the English general didn't grant them an honourable capitulation and defend them from the brutal Portuguese who wanted to slit all their throats. Many soldiers, who had had one or both legs amputated, had their beds carried near to the doors and windows, where they were propped in a sitting position and prepared to fire like madmen. The English general refused the requests of the Portuguese brutes and granted the capitulation demanded. But what can one think of the conduct of a commander-in-chief who abandoned thus these heroes, amongst whom were at least 3 000 who could have returned to service if they had been guarded or if they had followed us, because they didn't have serious injuries. None of this prevented the English from arriving at Lisbon before us; they crossed the plain of Villafranca where Massena believed he could catch them and occupied such heavily entrenched, very strong positions that it was no longer possible to consider an attack on them.

On the 18th October, the 69th and the 6th Leger moved to occupy the village of Villanueva where we stayed an month vegetating; The wine was abundant but the bread was so rare that, like many others, I went seventeen days without seeing any. We made a little bad bread from maize, but these resources were quickly exhausted. At the same time it was impossible to attack the enemy who had covered the two leagues which separated us from the capital of Portugal with redoubts and entrenched forts; The steep mountains occupied by the English met on one side the sea and on the other the Tage {the Tagus}, which, swollen by the rains, was nearly three leagues wide; it was impossible to try to turn the position. It was necessary to make a retrograde move in order to survive, and our Corps d'Armee {Ney's 6th Corps} occupied Torres-Nova, Ourem and Aldea de Cruz, where we made out pretty well. There were no inhabitants, but we had the pleasure of finding real houses, large French libraries and the joys of the hunt and fishing. At Aldea de Cruz where the regiment was cantonned, I found a young boy of ten years whose distinctive face interested me: he brought me each day a cress salad for which I paid with a morcel of maize bread; since he seemed intelligent to me, I asked him if he would like to stay with me, and he readily accepted. I found him clothes, and after a few days he was unrecognizable. He procured me a pretty little housemaid whom he went to find in the mountains and who served me well; as you might think, I carefully hid such a rare and precious bird, but many officers of the regiment, deprived of women for seven months and not knowing moreover how [?to repair] their linen and coats, would [?leap at] the chance I had. At their pleading, my young Portugese returned to the countryside and many young girls came back, knowing they would be well treated.

At the time of our withdrawal, the English believed that we were beginning the evacuation of Portugal: they despatched a division after us which our rear-guard roughed up near Santarem when they attempted an ambush; I was only a bystander at this affair. We should have done well to attract the English army into this good plain, but they wouldn't be drawn from their entrenchments and we left them in peace until the moment came for the actual retreat. A boatyard was established where all the tradesmen of the army went to build boats; the intention was to cross the Tagus at low tide and to go to Lisbon via the province of Alemtejo, but this project was abandoned. Because we hadn't received any news from France, a brigade escorted general Foy as far as Spain and from there he took himself to Paris.

With the year 1811 began our subsistence problems: the foragers were continually looking for provisions and soon they had to go more than 40 leagues to the rear to find anything; the troops at the front line were just about eating their donkeys (8). Finally the difficulties of provisioning became so great that the detachment commanders received orders to take the first peasant that they came across and threaten them with torture to get directions to the food caches of the neighbouring villages. There was a small success and we were able to reprovision ourselves a little: each company managed to procure a months provisions.

In February the division moved to occupy Thomar, a pretty little town on the Torre; we were no longer feeling the blows of winter, the trees were flowering like the month of May and we ate quantities of asparagus which was growing wild in the [?fields].

We soon perceived that the obstinacy of Massena had ended, because on the 4th of March 1811, we bagain the general retreat of the army of Portugal; the 6th Corps formed the rearguard (9). We got as far as Pombal before the enemy appeared to worry us; we made a stand and that day a lively fight took place between the Anglo-portuguese vanguard and our advance posts, supported by the division. A bayonet charge decisively repulsed the enemy (10).

It was at Pombal that I offered to my little servant, "my rapasse", because that was what we called the young boys in Portugal, the opportunity to go back, describing to him the trials which awaited him; this child asnwered that, having neither father or mother, he would never leave me so long as I was happy with his work, and I have never subsequently had anything but praise for his fidelity.

It was curious to see the quantity of donkeys which each company had for the transport of their provisions and baggage; property they had picked up elsewhere, for, when we went to enter the mountains, and take narrow, difficult tracks, Marshal Ney began to make a fire of the wagons and those of Massena, preserving only the necessities; the [?camp-followers] were consequently obliged to destroy their vehicles, and the gold and silver were then at the mercy of the soldiers. While the soldiers siezed the beautiful silver plate services, the [?camp-followers] were in despair at seeing the fruits of such a good campaign lost in an instant.

Marshal Ney directed this retreat with as much care as he had put into that of Gutstadt. The least position which appeared to offer any advantage was occupied, the enemy forced to pause or count the cost; we only took to the road at the Marshal's direction and we didn't evacuate defiles until the enemy had outflanked us by 10 or 12 leagues; [? drawn by the crack of a musket at 5 am, the Marshal found himself close to an outpost where there was a sentry who had fired the shot; he had wounded a man of the voltigeur company of the rear-guard, he stayed until the man had finally passed away so he wouldn't feel as if he'd been abandonned. "With the Redhead, we are content," said the soldiers. He was with us all the way to Almeida, during the 64 leagues we covered in 32 days, and I believe that you could say that this was done without pressuring us] (11).

On the 26th March, arriving at the bridges over the Ceira we found them broken. The river was fordable, but so [?steep were its banks] that the artillery could only pass over it by bridge; it was necessary to repair them, which required plenty of time. While we were waiting the order arrived fo get rid of all our donkeys and to deliver them to two companies of the battalion of sailors, ordered to cut their hocks and [?pole-axe] them (12). It was with deep pain that we watched the massacre of these poor beasts, because these unfortunate donkeys had been our saviours; nothing was more truthful than the caricature which had made the rounds of the bivouac which showed a wounded soldier, with a wretched demeanour, mounted on a donkey which carried the inscription "the saviour of the army of Portugal."

That day the 39th was the rear-guard. After the repair of the bridge and while the army was crossing we heard some musket shots; [?now we were still on the wrong side of the Ceira and dispersed in bivouacs, a violent fusilade started towards the bridgehead we were going to quit]. The enemy, who, apparently, had noticed the hold-up in our crossing, decided to be more hasty than usual; they briskly attacked the 39th who, having panicked and fled, threw two other battalions into confusion (13). The Anglo-Portuguese division which had attacked made good progress; the bridge was at once blocked. It was just as well that all the wagons had passed and many soldiers, falling in the water, drowned. Marshal Ney ordered Colonel Fririon to immediately send Commander Duthoya with his battalion to re-establish order. In an instant our batallion was under arms and beat the charge. The 27th of the line, in the fight,


(1) On the 27th September all the enemy army was well established on the summit of Alcoba Mountain. This very high and steeply scarped mountain was defended at many points by deep ravines. The two roads to Coimbra which climb it by a steep gradient were cut and defended by a numerous artillery. (Mémoires militaires du maréchal JOURDAN, p 324-325.)

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