Two Subalterns of the 29th Regiment at the Battle of Talavera (1809)
The accounts given below were written soon after the Peninsular War by two officers who took part in the battle as subalterns of the 29th Foot, Lieutenant Charles Leslie and Lieutenant Andrew Leith Hay.
Both subalterns were Scotsmen, and they were personal friends and neighbours in Scotland. The details they give will, be of interest not only in regard to the tactics of the Peninsular period, but also as throwing a vivid light on the medical arrangements (or the lack of them!) in those rough-and-ready but heroic days.
With that much by way of Preface, we will leave the two narratives to speak for themselves.
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NARRATIVE OF LIEUTENANT CHARLES LESLIE
Lieutenant Leslie had joined the Regiment in 1807 and had served throughout the campaign, including the Battles of Rolica, Vimiero, and the Douro. His book describes the operations before Talavera up to the afternoon of the day before the battle, 27th July, 1809, when Stewart's Brigade, of which the 29th Regiment formed part, took up their position as a reserve to the British left flank.
. . . . . . . We now had certain intelligence that the enemy was pressing on in force. Wounded men from our advanced guard began to come in, and the report of cannon announced to us that a battle was in hand. We ordered our dinner to be cooked in all haste, and lost no time in despatching it. We then had our tent and baggage packed. This foresight was well-timed, for shortly afterwards the drums beat to arms, the bugles sounded the alarm, and we got orders to move to our left. The Spanish army began to take up their
positions on the ground we were quitting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Between four and five o'clock in the afternoon our brigade moved off, left in front, between the Spanish lines. The Spaniards appeared very valiant, and cried out, "Rompez los Franceses."
We could now hear smart musketry fire going on between our advanced guard and the enemy. The sound of cannon and small arms seemed approaching us very rapidly. On getting clear of the enclosures and gaining the lower slope of the hill, our brigade, the 29th Regiment, one battalion of detachments (i.e. - a composite battalion of details from various regiments), and one battalion of the 48th Regiment, was drawn up in rear of the front line. We could now see our advanced guard retiring across the plain, closely pursued by the enemy. A portion of the advanced guard moved directly towards us, and passed through our line, and proceeded to the different places in position. During this the French kept up a continued fire against them of shot and shell, which were now falling thick and fast amongst us. While this cannonade continued we were ordered to lie down. As the evening was now closing down, and darkness began to prevail, we could discern the shells and time their course from the moment they left the mouth of the howitzers by their fuzes burning like brilliant stars as they rose in the air, then rapidly descending right down upon us, or breaking over our heads. Many of us made narrow escapes, but on the whole no very serious loss was occasioned. The firing ceased, and all seemed hushed and quiet. We lay on the ground with our arms in hand. The night became very dark and gloomy.
We had continued in this way nearly an hour, when in a moment, about nine o'clock, there opened a tremendous fire on the top of the hill on our left, and which seemed to have been taken up and ran down the first line in our front. It was now evident that the enemy had made a dash at this, the key of our position, and were in possession of the top, as we could, by the blaze of firearms and the flashing of lights, distinguish the faces of the French and those of our town troops returning the fire.
The 29th Regiment was immediately thrown into open column, left in front, and instantly moved up the hill to attack the enemy, directing our march between the fire of both parties. Without halting, our left made a dashing charge, and after a short but desperate struggle drove the French off the summit of the position. We then wheeled into line, advanced obliquely to our left, and opened our fire on the French reserves which were pushing up in support of their discomfited comrades. This decided the affair; the enemy was completely overthrown and fled in confusion, leaving the ground strewed with their dead, dying, and wounded, among whom was the colonel of the 9th French Regiment, and quantities of arms and accoutrements. During this affair, when we formed into line, our right companies were some way down the slope of the hill. We could see the French column moving up across our front, their drums beating the charge, and we could hear their officers giving orders and encouraging their men, calling out, "En avant, Francais! En avant, mes enfants!" But our well-directed volleys and cheers of victory stopped their progress, and their shattered columns returned in dismay. The wounded and the prisoners informed us that they were part of General Ruffin's division. The 29th Regiment took possession of the top of the hill, our colours being planted on the summit.
How we, the 29th Regiment, who were the right regiment of the brigade, got so gloriously into the fight I could not tell; but this I know, that as we were advancing up to the attack we came upon our next left regiment, the battalion of detachments, who appeared to have got into confusion, and we pushed our way through them to rush at the enemy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As soon as the 29th Regiment had established themselves on the hill, and we had re-formed our line in a proper position, a corporal and three men of each company, under an officer, were thrown out as a picquet in front, and a portion formed a chain of sentries, while our line lay down, each man with his arms in his hands, and all upon the alert. Nor were these precautions unnecessary. The French picquets frequently during the night ducked up at various places, gave loud huzzahs, fired a volley, and then as hastily retired again. Indeed, we were so close that we could hear the French sentries challenging their visiting rounds, and calling out, "Qui vive! On these salutes taking place we always stood instantly to our arms, and when the advanced picquet announced all quiet we lay down on the ground again. In some instances several advanced sentries of some of our regiments, being young soldiers, fired, so that the word" Stand to your arms was frequently passed along the line.
The Spaniards had also their alarm on the right, about midnight, but whether real or imaginary never could be ascertained. It was not confined to one spot, for it spread right and left, and they opened a running fire along their whole line which lasted for some time, until many corps, scared by they knew not what, fled to the rear, and it was only with great difficulty, we were told, that they were brought back into their places in line again.
From our commanding position on the hill we had a grand and sublime view of this midnight scene. The lengthened blaze of the Spanish fire, running up and down the lines, and the flashing of their artillery had a magnificent effect. While looking towards the enemy in our front, we beheld a kind of illumination moving in advance in certain directions. This was caused, no doubt, by a number of flambeaux which they carried at the head of their reserves and artillery to enable them to find their various routes to their proper places in their position.
About one or two o'clock in the morning of the 28th July the moon began to give some light. As it became stronger we could see black patches moving in the plain immediately in front of us, and then became stationary directly opposite to us. This was no other than their columns forming in mass for attack. We could also hear the noise of wheels and the cracking of whips as they brought up their guns to plant them against us. All this was extremely splendid and exciting, but Nature will under all circumstances have her sway. No sooner was any alert over than we sank down and dropped asleep. Although I had no greatcoat or covering of any kind, and only an old tin pot which chance threw in my way for a pillow, yet I got two or three profound naps during the intervals we were allowed to rest.
It may be naturally supposed that we looked most anxiously for morning, and as the day began to break all eyes were strained to discern the disposition of the enemy. As things became more visible a very imposing sight presented itself to our view. The whole disposition of the enemy's force could be clearly distinguished. In the first place, immediately beneath us, was formed a heavy solid column on the brink of the ravine, with reserves in its rear, with field batteries on both flanks, and the guns already pointed towards us, while light troops were thrown out as tirailleurs to cover their front and prepare the way for a grand attack, which was evidently to be directed against us on the hill. At some distance to the right were formed other masses in like manner. Others were also formed in front of our allies the Spaniards. The columns of reserve, cavalry, spare artillery, and baggage extended a long way back in their rear.
As the sky began to redden with the first blush of the morning sun, a gleam of animation was thrown over both armies, which our elevated position enabled us to survey. The picquets in front were withdrawn, and our light company, and others of the brigade were thrown out as skirmishers to cover our front. The still of the morning was broken by no warlike sound. A solemn silence prevailed on both sides. Our view was extensive, and the scene before us was most imposing and sublime. While we were contemplating this, Sir Arthur Wellesley rode up in rear of our regiment, the 29th, and then going to the front seemed to survey the enemy with great earnestness. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All was yet breathless silence, when we perceived the smoke of a gun curling up in the air, and heard the report of a single cannon. This appeared to be the signal for putting the enemy's columns in motion. We were not detained long in suspense. In a moment a tremendous cannonade opened upon us on the hill, and on the regiment stationed on the lower part of the slope to our right. We could then see the French skirmishers dash up and push rapidly on, while the columns immediately in front of us got in motion, advancing towards us. It was now evident that the enemy intended if possible to turn our left, and to storm and seize the hill, the key of our position, which they had taken and lost the night before. General Hill, seeing the overwhelming force that was coming against us, gave orders that the light troops should be recalled, and the buglers sounded accordingly. The skirmishers were closing in and filing to the rear with all the regularity of field-day and parade exercise, which the General observing, called out, " D___ n their filing, let them come in anyhow!
At length the French column of attack, which had pushed vigorously on notwithstanding the well-served fire of our artillery directed against them, began to approach us. We took no notice of them, but allowed them to come up pretty close to us, when our Brigadier-General, Richard Stewart, said, "Now, 29th ! now is your time! We instantly sprang to our feet, gave three tremendous cheers, and immediately opened our fire, giving them several well-directed volleys, which they gallantly returned; but we checked their advance, and they halted to continue the battle with small arms. We then got orders to charge, which was no sooner said than done. In we went, a wall of stout hearts and bristling steel. The French did not fancy such close quarters. The moment we made the rush they began to waver, then went to the right about. The principal portion broke and fled, but some brave fellows occasionally faced about and gave us an irregular fire. We, however, kept dashing on, and drove them all headlong right before us down the hill into their own lines again. We kept following them up, firing, running, and cheering. In the midst of the exultation, about seven o'clock a.m., I received a ball in the side of my thigh, about three inches above the right knee. The sudden and violent concussion made me dance around, and I fell on my back. I immediately put my hand on the wound, which was bleeding profusely, to feel if the bone of my leg was broken, and, to my great satisfaction, I found that it was not. As I found myself unable to rise, I called for assistance, but from the noise and hurry of battle no one seemed to take notice of me. At length my friend Andrew Leith Hay perceived me. He raised me up, and then, taking a musket out of the hand of Corporal Sharp of my company, he directed him to conduct me out of action, and to find out the surgeons. With his assistance, and that of another man, who was wounded in the arm, I limped off. In quitting the field, I passed near Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Commander-in-Chief. He looked at me, seeing the blood streaming down my white trousers (White casimir breeches, worn with black gaiters. Trousers in the modern sense had then hardly come in, and were termed "overalls"), but he said nothing. I then passed through our second line, which, without, of course, being able to take any part in the action, was suffering much from round shot and shells falling amongst them. Indeed, I was nearly knocked over, and I made a narrow escape of being killed even at some distance in the rear. A shell came whizzing close to our heads, and alighted a few feet in front of us, throwing up the earth in our faces, but it fortunately bounded to the left down the slope of the hill, when it exploded. I soon afterwards reached my friend, Dr. Guthrie, who with his assistants were actively employed in amputating legs and arms.
I have collected from the reports of various friends the following account of the continuation of the battle after I was wounded, and obliged to quit the field.
Our regiment, the 29th, and the battalion of detachments pursued the defeated enemy even across the ravine where the reserve was formed. Our troops were recalled, but in retiring up the hill again they were exposed to a destructive fire from the enemy's guns. They re-formed line again a little in rear of the crest of the position, so as to be covered as much as possible from the effects of the cannonade, which still continued along the whole line for upwards of an hour. However, on its ceasing, men from both armies were sent out to collect the wounded. They intermixed in the most friendly terms. Lieutenant Langton, of the 29th Regiment, gave to a French officer two crosses of the Legion of Honour which had belonged to officers killed far up the hill. The destruction we had occasioned in the French ranks was evident to everyone. The whole face of the hill was covered with the dead and dying.
When the enemy made their grand attack on the hill in the morning, our artillery posted on the summit fired over our heads as we advanced to meet the foe. One shot passed so near our Brigadier-General Richard Stewart and Lieutenant Duguid of our regiment that the wind of it carried off both their cocked hats. In the hurry of the engagement the Lieutenant picked up the General's hat and put it on, thinking it all right. But on returning to our position, after driving the enemy down the hill, he, to his surprise, was accosted by an orderly sergeant demanding the General's hat!
When I went to the rear after being wounded and found Dr. Guthrie, our surgeon, he examined my wound and pronounced it to be very severe, but he trusted that it would not prove dangerous. He could not extract the ball, which seemed to have taken an oblique direction downwards. He dressed and then bound up my wound, and recommended me to go to the rear where the baggage had been ordered to rendezvous, and not to go into the town, as everyone seemed to doubt if the Spaniards would stand their ground, and prevent the enemy from forcing its way into it. So leaving him we fell in with a stray horse, which had either broken loose or whose owner had fallen. So I was lifted upon it, but my blood was now getting cool, my leg very stiff, and the pain occasioned by the motion intolerable. I therefore got off, and hobbled along with my two supporters. On my way I came up to Captain Poole of the 52nd Regiment, who belonged to the first battalion of detachments, and our Brigade Commissary, Mr. Brook. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The General's Hat
(an incident in the Battle of Talavera)
drawing by Gilbert Holiday
The Captain accompanied me in search of our baggage. We at length found it at a single house on the high road from Talavera to Oropeza, about two miles from the field. I made my way into this empty house. The batman of the company and some women of the regiment got me some straw, and a blanket being spread upon it, I was laid down. The pain of the wound became very acute, but there was no remedy but to grin and bear it. The poor women were in great distress. All came in to visit me, and made many anxious inquiries about the fate of their husbands. I had the satisfaction of assuring four or five of them that their husbands were safe when I left them, or only slightly wounded, but many others were forlorn widows. They most kindly made some tea for me. But the absurd part was their sympathy with the Captain. They all asked him where he was hit, and trusted that he was not badly wounded. He seemed sadly worried and perplexed what answer to give. He replied in a faint voice that he was extremely ill with fever. In about an hour afterwards, perhaps nine o'clock a.m., Lieutenant Stanus of our Regiment was brought in also severely wounded.
Various reports began to spread; some that the enemy had made another attack, and had succeeded in forcing a part of our line; others that the enemy had sent troops into the mountains on our left, and had succeeded in turning that flank. Cowardly runaways from the Spanish army continued to pass to the rear in increased numbers, two or three of these fellows frequently on one horse. From seeing this we began to surmise that the enemy might really have defeated part of the Spanish force; and as the baggage began to move off farther to the rear, we determined to get on to a bullock car, and to make the best of our way back to Oropeza, the nearest town in our rear. Our friend the Captain, on the first rumours of adverse reports, without waiting to inquire whether they were likely to prove true or false, started up very nimbly, mounted his pony, and set off in all haste out of harm's way to the rear.
I should think we left the house about one or two o'clock p.m. When we had got about three leagues we met General Robert Crawford hurrying on with the light brigade, consisting of the 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry and the 95th Rifle Corps. He directed the surgeon of the 43rd to give us any advice we might require, and made the most anxious inquiries regarding Sir Arthur Wellesley, and what was going on in front. I gave him a short detail of the principal events. He seemed much annoyed when I mentioned that Talavera was about twelve miles off, and I did not think he could reach it before dark. At this moment Captain Pechell, aide-de-camp to Major-General Tilson, came up. He announced that the enemy had been defeated at all points, and gave orders to the baggage to countermarch and to return in all haste to Talavera. He said to General Crawford, "These gentlemen," meaning me and my friend Stanus, "belong to a corps which has had the distinguished honour of charging and defeating a large force of the enemy both last night and this glorious day."
NARRATIVE OF LIEUTENANT ANDREW LEITH HAY
Lieutenant Leith Hay, junior to his friend, had only just come oat from England. He had landed at Lisbon on the 2nd July, 1809, and together with Captain John Tucker of the Regiment, had travelled up country to join the Battalion.
. . . . . . . . . . . Late at night, after a day's journey of 14 Spanish leagues, we arrived at the city of Plasencia, a large town, in the centre of fertile plains, surrounded by mountains. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The British Army having advanced in the direction of Madrid, the sick alone remained in Plasencia. On the morning of the 20th we proceeded on our journey, crossed the mountains in front of the town, and descended into the valley of the Tietar, from whence, having passed the village of Majadas, the route traverses immense forests of oak, frequently close to the banks of that romantic and beautiful river. We crossed the Tietar by the temporary bridge of Bazagona, arriving at midday near the Casa de las Lloinas, beautifully situated on an eminence in the centre of the forest. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To the left, and in the distance, appeared the lofty range of mountain, separating Estremadura from the Province of Salamanca, surmounted by the Sierra de Gredos, with its summits clad in perpetual snow. A more splendid scene can scarcely be imagined. Nothing could be finer than the bold outline of the mountains, or more magnificent than the broad dark shadow, which, descending from their precipitous and rocky sides, overspread forest scenery on a scale that appeared interminable.
Oropensa we found unoccupied by the allied troops, but we there received information of a slight affair having taken place with the rear of the French army. It, therefore, became important to proceed with the least possible delay; and at two o'clock on the morning of the 23rd, Captain Tucker and myself joined the 29th Regiment in camp, near Talavera de la Reyna. Having dismissed the horses we had brought from Oropesa, Captain Gauntlet's tent afforded us shelter. Wrapped in our cloaks, we reposed until half-past three, when the regiment got under arms.
The immediate vicinity of the enemy rendered it probable that the slightest forward movement would bring us in contact; nor did the orders of the preceding night in any respect remove the impression, that we were likely to be engaged. My travelling companion and myself, therefore, had a good chance of being in fire, before we had time to consider our relative situations in the regiment, where we were posted, or, in short, anything except marching forward. There was a novelty and bustle in the situation that gave it interest; nor had we time to receive those instructions which the etiquette of the service render necessary, until the parade was dismissed, which was soon after the result of its being ascertained that no immediate advance was contemplated. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The 29th Regiment, brigaded with the 48th, and the 1st battalion of detachments, under Br.-General Richard Stewart, formed part of the division of Major-General Hill . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The 29th Regiment, at this time commanded by Colonel White had suffered on many occasions since its arrival in the Peninsula. Reduced in numbers, its colours were still defended by gallant and highly disciplined soldiers. A long-established and excellent regimental system was calculated to outlive the contingencies of frequently changed command, or the blanks occasioned by the fall of old and experienced soldiers. It would have demanded much misapplied energy to have effectually broken down its discipline and appearance . . . . . . . . .
During the 25th we heard nothing of the Spanish Army, but on the following day the report of artillery announced its return, not unaccompanied. The cannonade was distant, but eventually becoming less so. Runaways and stragglers passed, to the rear; the weather was very fine; from the vicinity of Santa Olalla road we derived great amusement; it was covered by a succession of groups, habited in various costumes.
On the morning of the 27th we learnt that part of General Cuesta's army had passed to the rear; while battalion after battalion formed a continuous line of march in the same direction. From amidst clouds of dust, disorderly chattering assemblages of half-clad, half-armed men, became occasionally visible; again, regiments marching in perfect order, cavalry, staff officers, bands of musicians, flocks of sheep, and bullocks; artillery, cars, carriages, and waggons, varied and animated, confused, and singular scene on which we gazed, forgetting for the time that all this was intimately connected with our very existence. The Spanish Army, notwithstanding this confusion, had not the appearance of being pressed by the enemy in its retreat; nor did the scene we now witnessed differ much from that it would have presented, under more favourable circumstances. The battalions marched in their best order; but with all this qualification, it was still a Spanish army, ill commanded, ill appointed, moderately disciplined, and in most respects inefficient . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
After the Spanish Army had ceased to march past us, we returned to the quiet of the olive grove. Cannon and musketry were heard at intervals, but no order to move had yet arrived. Several officers of the 29th were assembled, when the Spanish General ()Donahue rode up from the direction of the Alberche. He appeared in a state of considerable excitement, stating we probably were not aware of the enemy having crossed the river, and that he would be upon us without delay. This information was received in a manner little according with his own apparent feelings on the occasion. We merely thanked him, adding that when it was necessary to get under arms, orders to that effect would, of course, be communicated. Another hour elapsed, when the firing became so close and constant, that we began to consider it extraordinary that orders were not received. At last, however, the brigade got under arms, and marched to the left, passing both Spanish and British troops in line, who already occupied the position defended by them on the following day. As we moved left in front, the 29th, being the senior regiment, was in rear of the column—the 48th leading. In this formation we advanced about halfway between the town of Talavera and the eminence then unoccupied, but which was evidently, from its locality and importance, destined to become the left, as also the strongest part of the position . . . . . . . . . .
It was now nearly dark. We were approaching the base of the hill, when a sharp fire issued from the leading regiment, which, although assailed in its progress, continued to advance.
The 29th was formed in column of companies, at quarter distance. The 48th and battalion of detachments met with a formidable resistance, and were driven back at this critical moment, upon which the safety of the Army depended. The 29th was ordered to advance at double quick time. The leading company crowned the summit previously to receiving the enemy's fire. A considerable body of French were now in possession of the height. Their numbers rapidly increasing, the drums beat the pas de charge; while at intervals voices were heard, some calling out they were the German Legion, others not to fire. It was so dark that the blaze of musketry alone displayed the forms of the assailants. The leading company of the 29th poured in a volley when close to the bayonets of the enemy. The glorious cheer of British infantry accompanied the charge, which succeeded. The rest of the regiment arrived in quick succession, forming on the summit a close column, which speedily drove everything before it. The enemy was pushed down the hill, abandoning the level ground on its top, thickly strewed with dead bodies or wounded men. No second attempt was for some time made to carry this most important point. The 29th remained in possession of the ground, lying on their arms in the midst of fallen enemies. The furred schako of a dead French soldier became my pillow for the night.
The heavy fire of musketry, the darkness, the apparently obstinate nature of the dispute for the possession of the hill, the uncertainty of the result, all occasioned great anxiety at headquarters. Sir Arthur Wellesley himself rode to the spot, to which he immediately ordered up artillery; and the early part of the night was employed in drawing cannon to the height. After they had been placed in battery, a stillness for some time prevailed. About midnight this was suddenly interrupted by firing towards Talavera; not the straggling, desultory, yet distinct reports of light troops, but a roll of musketry that illuminated the whole extent of the Spanish line. It was one discharge; but of such a nature that I have never heard it equalled. It appeared not to be returned, nor was it repeated. All again became silent. A false alarm had occasioned this tremendous volley; but we were too distant to ascertain what had produced the violent irruption, or how many of our allies had thrown away their arms, and fled, after having delivered a fire sufficiently formidable to have shaken the best and bravest troops.
For hours nothing seemed to interfere with the stillness of the night, until the rattling of gun carriages in our front bespoke preparation for renewed hostility at daybreak. It was evident from the sound that cannon were placing in position, at no great distance, and immediately opposite to the height we occupied. Whether occasioned by the noise of this operation, from officers reconnoitring, or cavalry patrols advancing near to our posts, is uncertain, some straggling shots were fired, occasioning a momentary alerts; but no enemy appearing, the cause of alarm was speedily explained and forgotten.
Just before daybreak was an anxious moment; and when the first glimmering light appeared, the attention of all was naturally riveted upon the enemy's position, to ascertain what troops were opposed, where his cannon were placed, and to what extent we were to be assailed. Twenty-two pieces of artillery had their mouths directed towards us. They were posted upon elevated ground, but by no means of equal height to that on which we stood, having, however, the whole face and summit of the hill well within range. To the right of the French cannon were perceived columns of infantry. A renewed battle for the hill became certain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When it became perfectly light, a signal gun put the enemy's columns in motion, the whole of his artillery opening almost immediately after. The incessant and violent description of cannonade prevented the British infantry from interrupting the progress of the French columns; nor did they sustain any loss whatever in the early part of their advance, coming on with a resolute and rapid pace. The 29th had been ordered to lie down a short distance behind the brow of the hill, which the soldiers did with arms in their hands, ready to start up at a moment's warning. By this judicious arrangement, the regiment suffered little from the cannonade, although the enemy's practice appeared excellent, every shot either striking the ground immediately in front, or passing close over our heads.
There is at all times something grand, imposing, and terrific, in the sound of a cannonade. Here we had the astounding noise, with time to contemplate what was passing over us, without the attention being abstracted by great personal danger, or immediate effort at extrication. The effect was consequently very impressive. An old Scotch sergeant, crouching close to me, permitted his head to attain a very slight elevation, and, with a groan, said, "Good God, sir, this is dreadfu' !" Without discussing the merits of our situation, I merely advised him to keep down his head, a hint instantly adopted, without any apparent reluctance, on his part, and at the close of the affair I was happy to find it was still upon his shoulders. At this period we had the battle entirely to ourselves, no other part of the Army being engaged.
When the French columns had mounted the ascent, and were so near as to become endangered from the fire of their own artillery, a scene of great animation was exhibited. The summit, which had appeared deserted, now supported a regular line of infantry. Near the colours of the 29th stood Sir Arthur Wellesley, directing and animating the troops.
General Ruffin had nearly surmounted all the difficulties of the ground, when a fire burst forth that checked his advance. His troops wavered. Sir Arthur ordered a charge. With one tremendous shout, the right wing of the 29th, and entire battalion of the 48th, rushed like a torrent down, bayoneting and sweeping back the enemy to the brink of an insignificent muddy stream, nearly equidistant in the ravine which separated the two armies. In the pursuit all order was speedily lost. The men advanced in small parties, destroying those of the enemy who had not ensured their safety by flight. At this moment, when the whole valley was filled with troops, in all the confusion attending the eagerness of pursuit, a column of French infantry appeared close upon our right flank, facing towards the irregular mass. It became necessary to collect the pursuers, to form a front, and to charge these fresh assailants. This was, by great exertion, accomplished. Broken as they were, an irresistible impetus had been given, and the enemy's column followed the example of those who had mounted the hill at the pas de charge. So completely were these attacks repelled, that the British infantry were quietly collected in the ravine, and marched back to the height, without being seriously assailed. The enemy now threw out light troops in front of his defeated 1st Corps. Artillery continued to fire at intervals; but for a time nothing like serious fighting succeeded the Duke of Belluno's failure in the morning.
To the left of the British position at Talavera is a flat, extending in breadth about a mile, bounded to the north by a ridge of high rocky mountains, terminating the prospect. Upon these heights the enemy placed a number of light troops, which were, during the day, effectually kept in check by a division of General Cuesta's army. The tiraillade was incessant, probably little destructive; but it had the desired effect, no jealousy being created by the progress of the war in the quarter. In this valley to our left, but somewhat in rear of the infantry, was placed General Anson's brigade of light cavalry, consisting of the 1st Hussars of the German Legion, and 23rd Dragoons. These regiments were in line, dismounted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
After the repulse of the 1st Corps, great indecision seemed to prevail in the enemy's army. His columns remained for hours immovable. During this cessation of hostilities, the troops of General Hill's division descended in parties to the stream in our front, for the purpose of procuring water, which was only obtained in small quantities, of a description that, under other circumstances, would have produced loathing; but the excessive heat of the weather, added to exertion, occasioned a burning thirst, demanding to be quenched by any possible means. This temporary calm was only the prelude to more serious conflict. Early in the afternoon, appearances again indicated renewed attack on the part of the enemy. His whole line stood to their arms. Clouds of dust marked the advance of troops against the centre and right of the British position; while the 1st Corps d'Armée, supported by a large body of cavalry, formed for another effort to force the left . . . . . . . . . .
The scene from the hill was now of a grand description. A fire of cannon and musketry to the whole extent of the British centre and left, was of the most serious description. To those who, elevated as we were, saw every movement, this was the most anxious moment of the whole battle. Heavy columns of French infantry seemed following in succession to press upon the weakest part of the line; nor did it appear within the reach of probability that the centre could successfully resist this overwhelming force . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
General Sherbrooke was now vigorously attacked. His division was assailed, both in front and on its left flank, by a fire of artillery; while columns of infantry rushed up to the bayonets of the British Guards. They were instantaneously borne back in confusion. In the heat of pursuit, the Guards, as is the case with troops in all parts of the world in every similar situation, fell into disorder. Who has ever seen an unbroken line preserved in following up a successful bayonet charge? As they advanced, the enemy's artillery fire became, of course, closer and more deadly. Fresh, and regularly formed troops, met the pursuers, and drove them back. If they were in confusion when advancing, this state of matters was not calculated to restore their formation. The Guards were driven back across their former ground, and the line seemed pierced. The German Legion on their left also vigorously attacked, and, suffering severely from the cannonade, gave way. There was no reserve of infantry. One single file of Germans had stood between us and destruction. This had now disappeared. It was an awful moment; promptitude, and the inertness of the Duke of Belluno, alone saved the army.
Sir Arthur Wellesley, who, from the height, surveyed the progress of the battle, directed the 29th to go down; and the regiment was in the act of moving, when, considering probably its weakness in numbers, he ordered the 48th to proceed, and check the enemy's progress in the centre. That excellent regiment marched with the utmost rapidity, and compelled the enemy to desist from the pursuit. The Guards rallied, cheering their readiness to again press forward, the Germans recovered their formation, and the battle was restored.
During this great struggle, the troops upon the hill had remained comparatively disengaged; a fire of artillery and light troops, producing slight effect, alone disturbing the regiment, and the numerous staff, upon its summit. The favourable termination of the battle in the centre had created a great excitement. The cheer, which had been re-echoed from the height, had scarcely died away, when a scene of another character was in preparation, again to call forth its invigorating influence.
The movements of the divisions Ruffin and Villatte had, during the contest just described, been vacillating and uncertain. Formed to all appearance determined again to attack the height, they had even advanced some distance towards its base. Their light troops skirmished closely and seriously; but nothing like the attack of the morning was again attempted. Still the right of the French army had a very imposing appearance. In columns of attack, and supported by numerous cavalry, a serious effort was every moment to be expected. Sir Arthur Wellesley crossed with rapid step from the right of the 29th to the part of the hill looking directly down upon General Anson's brigade of cavalry, which mounted on the instant. It was immediately known that a charge would take place.
The ground upon which this brigade was in line is perfectly level; nor did any visible obstruction appear between it and the columns opposed. The grass was long, dry, and waving, concealing the fatal chasm that intervened. One of General Villatte's columns stood at some distance to the right of the building formerly mentioned. These troops were directly in front of the 23rd Light Dragoons. Another was formed rather to the rear, and more in front of the German Hussars, on the left of the line. Such were the immediate objects of the charge.
For some time the brigade advanced at a rapid pace, without-receiving any obstruction from the enemy's fire. The line cheered. It was answered from the hill with the greatest enthusiasm; never was anything more exhilarating or more beautiful than the commencement of this advance. Several lengths in front, mounted on a grey horse, consequently very conspicuous, rode Colonel Elley. Thus placed, he, of course, first arrived at the brink of a ravine, which, varying in width, extended along the whole front of the line. Going half speed at the time, no alternative was left him. To have checked his horse and given timely warning became impossible. With some difficulty he cleared it at a bound, and on gaining the opposite bank, endeavoured by gesture to warn the 23rd of the dangerous ground they had to pass; but advancing with such velocity, the line was on the verge of the stream before his signs could be either understood or attended to. Under any circumstances this must have been a serious occurrence in a cavalry charge; but when it is considered that four or five hundred dragoons were assailing two divisions of infantry unbroken, and fully prepared for the onset, to have persevered at all was highly honourable to the regiment.
At this moment the enemy, formed in squares, opened his tremendous fire. A change immediately took place. Horses rolled on the earth; others were seen flying back dragging their unhorsed riders with them. The German hussars coolly reined up; the line of the 23rd was broken. Still the regiment galloped forward. The confusion was increased; but no hesitation took place in the individuals of this gallant corps. The survivors rushed forward with, if possible, accelerated pace, passing between the flank of the square, now one general blaze of fire, and the building on its left.
Colonel Elley and Major Frederick Ponsonby—officers not to be easily checked—headed the part of the regiment that had penetrated thus far; and, as if enraged at not having been enabled to make a sabre stroke at the infantry, rode forward against the cavalry drawn up in line to the rear. These chasseurs, either impressed with the extraordinary nature of the attack, or from some inexplicable cause, gave way before these broken, but gallant horsemen.
The situation of the 23rd was now very critical. To return directly from whence the regiment had advanced, was impracticable. By doing so, the surviving soldiers must have again sustained a close and deadly fire from the French squares; and although the chasseurs had given way, another line of cavalry was in their front. To their right was the whole French army; to their left, and in rear of the enemy's infantry, was the only possible line of escape. This was adopted. In small parties, or singly, they again regained the valley, re-forming in rear of General Fane's brigade, the advance of which had been countermanded, after the unsuccessful result of the first charge was ascertained. Fortunately for the First Corps d' Armée, no further attempt was made to carry the hill. The same repulse would probably again have attended the effort, while 6,000 cavalry were in the immediate vicinity, and could have instantaneously fallen upon the broken ranks.
Eighty pieces of French cannon now thundered along the extent of the line; and as the infantry attacks failed, the circumstance appeared but to give renewed vigour to the cannonade, which was incessant and destructive. Towards evening the long grass in the valley to our left, and in front of the height, took fire; burning with great violence, and extending with rapidity. The whole surface of the flat, over which the 23rd had advanced, and the face of the hill up which General Ruffin's division attacked in the morning, became one close continuous mass of fire and smoke. The French artillery and voltigeurs still fired upon the height; nor had the infantry columns of the Duke of Belluno been withdrawn. It being of importance to ascertain that no more serious attack was imperceptibly permitted to take place, I was directed by Colonel Bathurst, the military secretary, to station myself near the cannon on the summit, and report the enemy's motions. These guns were now silent, and the 29th Regiment a short distance to their rear, removed from the effects of the enemy's fire.
The grass being excessively dry, burnt with astonishing rapidity—the whole face of the country over which the conflagration extended soon forming one black scorched mass, studded with bodies of the dead or wounded. After serious attack had ceased on all parts of the line, and even the light troops had become more distant, Sir Arthur Wellesley was seated, with some officers of his staff, upon the south-eastern ridge of the hill, observing the retiring columns of the enemy, when a musket ball struck him on the breast with sufficient force to give a severe and painful blow, without penetrating. It would be idle to descant upon the destinies depending on the degree of impetus possessed by this small portion of lead!
Worn down with long exertion and fatigue—exhausted from want of food,—oppressed by heat,—tired by the duration of a struggle that appeared interminable,—the approach of night was not unwelcome. The enemy had been repulsed at all points, but no pursuit to any extent had been attempted; and when darkness closed upon the armies, it was uncertain that the following day would not produce a renewed effort on the part of the enemy. The fire of cannon had not yet ceased, nor was it until the close of twilight, that the dull sluggish sound of the artillery, when heard alone at intervals, or at a distance, seemed to knell the close of this sanguinary but most interesting battle.
The 29th Regiment, reduced by the fall of one hundred and eighty-six officers and soldiers, bivouac'd for the night on the same spot as the preceding . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A cold damp night succeeded to this excessively warm and fatiguing day. The troops remained in position without covering of any description, and without food. Never did a British army attach less importance to such privations. Events had succeeded each other so rapidly, the whole scene was so impressive, that all else appeared forgotten; for the last thirty-six hours, a morsel of bread, with some pure water, would have been considered luxurious fare upon the hill at Talavera.
At daybreak, it became evident that the main body of the enemy had retired from view. A corps, estimated at 10,000 men, occupied the heights of Salinas, on the left bank of the Alberche; but no other part of the enemy's army was in any direction discernible. It was no longer necessary to detain the troops in position. At nine o'clock the 29th Regiment marched from the height, to encamp in the olive-grove at its base. There was something noble in the waving colours of the British regiments, as they slowly descended from that eminence where, two days previously, they had been planted, not to be shaken by any assault, however firmly made, and which they now left covered with dead bodies, broken arms, shattered tumbrils, and the fragments of shells.