Yule Logs/A Frenchman's Gratitude
"A FRENCHMAN'S GRATITUDE;"
OR, THE DISASTER OF EL HAMET
By Lieut.-Col. Percy Groves, Royal Guernsey Artillery
(late 27th Inniskillings)
A BIRTHDAY PRESENT—OFF TO THE WARS—AN ADVENTURE AT MESSINA
" TOM, my dear boy," said my father, Colonel Sir John Cotton, K.B., as he entered the breakfast room on the morning of the 18th September, "I wish you many happy returns of to-day. There's a present which will give you genuine pleasure," he went on, handing me a formidable-looking letter; "it is your appointment to an ensigncy in my old regiment, the gallant 35th."
I had that day attained my seventeenth year, and was at home on a short exeat from Eton; but now Eton would know me no more—at least, not as a fifth-form boy—for had I not suddenly blossomed into a subaltern in his Majesty's service? It was a proud moment, and I cannot recall any event in my life that has caused me greater satisfaction.
I received the congratulations of my parents and sisters sisters—I had no brother—with becoming modesty; but the congratulations of the ladies were turned into lamentations when Sir John informed us that I was to embark, to join headquarters in Sicily, in a fortnight's time.
"John!" exclaimed my mother, the tears welling up into her eyes, "are we really to lose the dear boy so soon?"
"What a shame!" chorused my three sisters.
"Nonsense! Tom has not entered the army to dangle about drawing-rooms and exhibit himself in a red coat to all the young ladies of his acquaintance," retorted my father. "The 35th lost a good many men at Maida—egad! I wish I had been there—and a draft is going out to fill up the gaps. Tom will sail with the draft, which is under command of our friend Charles Holroyd, who—Halloa! where has Kate gone?" For my eldest sister had hurriedly left the room.
"How thoughtless of you, John!" said my mother reproachfully.
"Yes, father," chimed in Miss Laura; "have you forgotten that Kate and Captain Holroyd are engaged?"
"And she had no idea that he was going abroad again so soon," added Annie; "he only came home early in August!"
"Tut! tut! I am always putting my foot in it," exclaimed Sir John, looking very guilty. "Poor Katie! she will lose her lover and her brother at the same time."
This unfortunate remark called forth a flood of tears from the ladies, and muttering something about being "a blundering old idiot," my father beat a hasty retreat.
Captain Charles Holroyd—the mention of whose name caused our family circle to break up "i' the most admir'd disorder"—had served in the 35th with my father, with whom he was a great favourite. Holroyd now commanded the light company of the 35th, and was home on sick leave, in consequence of a wound received at the battle of Maida. He had not long been engaged to my sister, who, until Sir John spoke, knew nothing of his approaching departure. Hinc illæ lachrymæ!
The next two weeks were busy ones—uniforms and necessaries had to be ordered, farewell visits to relatives and friends paid, &c.—and they passed all too quickly. It was a wrench to leave the dear ones at home, and both Charles Holroyd and I were in very subdued spirits when we jumped into the post-chaise which was to take us to Gravesend, there to embark on board the Lord Bacon, a battered, wall-sided old collier, whose owners found it more profitable to carry troops to the Mediterranean than coals from Newcastle.
Adverse winds kept us bobbing about in the Downs for several days. Then we met with heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay. Thus it was not until the middle of November that we disembarked at Messina, where the headquarters and flank companies of the 35th were stationed. I received a cordial welcome from my brother officers, and quickly became quite at home amongst them. They all appeared pleased to have the son of their old colonel in the regiment.
At the request of Charles Holroyd, I was posted to the light company; a great honour for a newly-fledged ensign, though one I owed rather to Holroyd's influence, and the respect felt for my father, than to my own merits.
The adjutant and drill-sergeant soon initiated me into the mysteries of drill, guards, &c., and at the end of six weeks I was reported fit for duty.
I have no intention of giving any account of my life during the time I remained at Messina, but will pass at once to an adventure which befell me a few weeks before the departure of the regiment from Sicily.At that time there were in Messina several French officers on parole; amongst them a certain Lieutenant Eugene de Vignes. De Vignes was a gentlemanly, wellbred man of six or seven and twenty, and as he spoke a little English, and seemed to wish to be friendly, Holroyd and I struck up an acquaintance with him. He used to ride and walk with us, and often passed an evening at our quarters; when he would relate his experiences of service, under "Le Petit Caporal" in Italy and Egypt. After a while we began to see less of De Vignes, and his evening
"I immediately ran forward to the scene of action."
"A thousand thanks, m'sieur!" exclaimed the man to whom I had rendered such timely aid; "you have saved my life! That charge of yours was splendid! it——"
"De Vignes!" I cried, recognising his voice.
"Ha! it is you, then, mon ami," he said, wiping the blade of his sword. "I shall never forget this service. Are you alone?"
"Yes. Why did the ruffians attack you?"
"Hope of plunder, I suppose," replied De Vignes, shrugging his shoulders. And stooping down he proceeded to examine his fallen foe.
"Have you killed him?" I asked.
"He still breathes, and might be saved if we could get assistance."
"I am afraid there will be trouble over this business," I remarked, wishing that my friend had not been quite so handy with his sword.
"Bah! these little affairs are common enough in Sicily," De Vignes rejoined. "However, we may as well try to save his life. Will you go for help? There is a house some fifty yards down the road, and I shall want water, rags for bandages, and a little cognac or other spirit."
"Suppose the other ruffians return?" I objected.
"They will not return," he answered impatiently. "Come, mon ami! be quick, I pray you, or this unhappy wretch will bleed to death." Thus exhorted, I started off down the road; but not a sign of any sort of habitation could I discover.
I retraced my steps, and on reaching the spot where the encounter took place, found, to my astonishment, that both De Vignes and the wounded robber had disappeared —not a trace of them was to be seen! I waited about a few minutes, and then hastened to my quarters.
Charles Holroyd had not gone to bed when I returned, and to him I related my adventure.
"It is a queer business," he remarked; "seems to me that our French friend sent you on a fool's errand, with the express intention of getting rid of you."
"I believe he did," I answered. " hall I make an official report of the affair?"
"We will see what the colonel says, Tom," was his reply.
On the following morning there was a terrible hue and cry, for the daughter of Prince T—— was missing from the convent, and one of his Highness's servants had been found dead in a ditch hard by the convent walls, with a sword-thrust through his heart.
"There can be no doubt the young woman has gone off with De Vignes," said my captain when we heard the news. "They were probably watched and surprised by the prince's servants. You say you heard a woman scream?"
"I am certain of that."
"Just so," continued Holroyd; "I see the whole thing! She got away, and her lover covered her retreat; then you came to the rescue, and his assailants having fled, De Vignes wanted to rejoin the girl without your knowledge; so he sent you off on pretence of seeking aid for the wounded man, and, as soon as he had got rid of you, bolted himself. Tom, we will hold our tongues about this affair."
That Holroyd was right in his conjectures was pretty evident, for we saw no more of Eugene de Vignes in Messina; though we were destined to meet him again elsewhere.
DEPARTURE FROM MESSINA—LANDING IN EGYPT—FIRST SUCCESSES—REVERSE AT ROSETTA—OCCUPATION OF EL HAMET—SIEGE OF ROSETTA COMMENCED
" 'I thought I heard the general say,
sang, or rather shouted, Lieutenant Patrick Cantillon of the light company, as he burst into our quarters one hot afternoon, a few weeks subsequent to my adventure on the convent road.
"Tom, ye lazy divil! is it sleepin' ye are?" And he caught me a whack on the shoulder that nearly knocked me out of my chair.
"Don't make such a confounded row, Paddy!" I exclaimed irritably; for I had been indulging in a siesta, and this "rude awakening" startled me not a little. "Why the deuce can't you come in quietly?"
"Come in quietly, bedad!—hark to him!" cried my brother sub, capering round the room. "Sure, man, am I not ready to jump out of me skin!"
"Then I wish you'd jump out of it somewhere else," I retorted. "What's the matter with you?"
"Listen while I tell ye, alannah," said Paddy, coming to an anchor on my camp-bed. "May-be ye know that some six years ago we kicked the French out of Egypt, and put the Turks in possession of Alexandria and other towns on the Egyptian coast. Now Boney has humbugged the Sultan to enter into an alliance with France; so our Government—more power to its elbow!—has decided to send an expedition to turn the Turks out of the very places we turned them into; in short, we're goin' to punish the haythins for havin' the impudence to hob-nob and make friends with the French."
"And are we to join this expedition, Paddy?" I asked.
"We are, me son," was the reply.
Paddy Cantillon's news proved to be true. Orders had already been issued for an expedition to be fitted out in Sicily, for the purpose of making a descent on the coast of Egypt, and occupying Alexandria and Rosetta, and the same evening it was officially notified that the 35th would be one of the regiments employed on this service.
The expedition sailed from Sicily on the 6th March. The military force was under Major-General Mackenzie Fraser, and consisted of the 20th Light Dragoons, a detachment of artillery, the 31st, 35th, 78th, and De Rolle's regiments, and the Chasseurs Britanniques. We encountered very bad weather shortly after putting to sea; nineteen sail parted company on the night of the 7th, and it was not until the 15th that we sighted the Arabs' Tower.
Before allowing the transports to approach within sight of the coast, our commodore (Captain Hallowell of the Apollo, 74) ran in-shore to obtain some information. Major Misset, the British resident at Alexandria, advised an immediate landing, assuring the commodore that the inhabitants were favourably disposed towards us, and inimical to the French; accordingly the transports were signalled to stand close in, as soon as the squadron anchored in the western harbour. A summons to surrender was then sent to the Turkish governor, which he promptly declined.
The weather was still very heavy, and a nasty sea was running; nevertheless our leaders decided to land an advanced party at once. This party, which included the light company of the 35th, numbered a thousand men, under command of Colonel John Oswald of the 35th.
We effected a landing without serious opposition, and next morning carried the western lines and forts, driving out the Turks and taking several guns. Meanwhile the castle of Aboukir having surrendered, the remainder of the transports stood in and anchored in the bay. Seeing that we meant business, the Governor of Alexandria capitulated on the 21st March, and we took possession of the city, harbour, and fortresses.
Thus far success had attended our arms; but we were now to meet with the first of those reverses which culminated in the disaster of El Hamet.
Our naval force having been augmented by the arrival of Sir John Duckworth's squadron from the Dardanelles, it was decided to attack Rosetta. On the 26th March, Major-General Wauchope, with the 31st and Chasseurs Britanniques, marched against Rosetta, and occupied the heights of Abourmandour, which command that town. Rosetta is situated some five miles from a branch of the Nile, in a beautiful district covered with date, pomegranate, banana, and other trees. The town is surrounded by a low wall, and its streets are very narrow—in fact, mere lanes and alleys.
On the 28th, Wauchope entered Rosetta at the head of the 31st Regiment. Not a soul was astir, not a sound was heard, as our troops wended their way through the streets towards the market-place in the centre of the town; but they had barely got half-way when the death-like silence was broken by a furious fusillade. From the windows and roof of every house a deadly fire was poured upon them. Cooped up in the narrow streets, unable to return the hidden enemy's fire, our gallant fellows fell fast. Wauchope was shot dead, his second-in-command seriously wounded, and in a short time nearly three hundred officers and men were placed hors de combat. There was no alternative but a retreat, and so the remnants of Wauchope's force returned to Alexandria.
Though not a little disconcerted by this serious and unexpected reverse, Fraser determined to make another attempt on Rosetta; indeed the reduction of that town was necessary to the safe possession of Alexandria, now threatened with famine.
The execution of this second attack was entrusted to Brigadier-General the Hon. William Stewart, with a force consisting of detachments of the 20th Light Dragoons and Royal Artillery, the 35th, 78th Highlanders, De Rolle's Regiment, and two hundred sailors from the fleet.
We quitted Alexandria, in the highest spirits, on the 5th April, and advanced towards Rosetta by way of the village and lake of Edko, where a depôt was established. Before advancing to Abourmandour, Stewart considered it advisable to drive the enemy away from El Hamet—a village up the Nile, some two leagues above Rosetta—and take possession of the place, in order to secure his rear, and an uninterrupted communication with the depôt on Lake Edko. This service was successfully accomplished on the 6th, and El Hamet was occupied by a strong detachment of De Rolle's, under Major Vogelsang.
On the following day the heights and fort of Abourmandour were reoccupied without opposition. A summons to surrender being contemptuously ignored by the Turkish commandant of Rosetta (who had been reinforced by a corps of Albanians), Stewart advanced to the sandhills encircling the town, which he at once proceeded to invest.
From the great extent of Rosetta, our brigadier saw it would be impossible, with the slender force at his disposal, to invest more than half of the place; so he took up a line from the Nile to the front of the Alexandrian gate, thence retiring towards the plain, where he posted his light dragoons. Rosetta being thus only partially invested, its garrison had a free communication across the Nile to the Delta.
At this time Stewart confidently expected to be reinforced by the Mamelukes, from Upper Egypt, who were known to be inimical to the French, and at loggerheads with Mohammed Ali, but day after day passed without any appearance of these redoubtable warriors. The siege, however, was carried on with great vigour; our gunners hammered away at Rosetta, without doing any great harm to the Turks (whose numbers daily increased), while we of the infantry were constantly employed on piquet and other harassing duties. Our piquets and advanced posts were several times attacked, and on the 19th April a company of De Rolle's was surrounded and cut to pieces by the Turkish horsemen.
EL HAMET—AN UNWELCOME DUTY—CHARLES HOLROYD SPEAKS HIS MIND—THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Before continuing my narrative, I will briefly state the position of El Hamet. From Lake Edko to the Nile is an isthmus about two and a half miles in extent, varying according to the depth of water in the lake. The remains of a deep dry canal with high banks extend from the river nearly two-thirds across the isthmus, the banks commanding the plain on either side; and on the south side of the canal, about half-way across the isthmus, is the village of El Hamet. On the banks of the Nile and at El Hamet are the only regular passes through the banks of the canal.News of the disaster to the company of De Rolle's
"Our gunners hammered away at Rosetta."
Regiment reached General Stewart early on the 2oth April, and he immediately despatched a force, under Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Macleod (commanding the 2nd Battalion 78th), to reinforce Vogelsang. Macleod's force was composed of a piquet of the 20th Light Dragoons, two guns, two companies of the 35th, and five of the 78th.
On the afternoon of the 20th April our company was on duty in one of the batteries. Charles Holroyd, Paddy Cantillon, and I were with the company, none of us feeling particularly amiable. Our artillery had been blazing away all day at Rosetta, while we had little or nothing to do except to listen to the eternal "bang, bang" of the guns; a sort of music that gets monotonous, especially when one wishes to indulge in "forty winks."
"I'm sick of this business!" exclaimed Paddy, as we sat with our backs against the parapet. "Sorra a bit of divarsion do I see in squattin' on me hams in a damp ditch!"
"Take things as they come, Paddy," rejoined Holroyd, who was discussing a piece of salt junk and a ship's biscuit. "Now, I should much prefer to dine off a spatchcock or a devilled kidney, but as I can't get such luxuries, I—Halloa, Harris! what ill wind blows you here?"
"An order for you, Holroyd," replied Harris, our worthy adjutant, who came hurrying up at this moment. "The light company has been detailed as an escort for an ammunition column about to start for El Hamet, and the general desires you to deliver this despatch to Colonel Macleod."
"But we're on piquet, my dear fellow," expostulated Holroyd, not relishing the idea of a long tramp across the desert. "Besides, it is not our turn, you know; we only returned from escort duty last night. Where is James's company?"
"Turning out to relieve you; he'll be here in five minutes," was the reply.
"Then why not send him to El Hamet?" asked Holroyd.
"Because the general's orders are for the light company to go," answered the adjutant; "so I have no choice in the matter."
"Very considerate of the general," growled my captain; "however, 'needs must, when a certain old gentleman drives'!"
Guided by the adjutant, we marched to the spot where the ammunition column was awaiting us, and in half-an-hour we were on our way across the desert to El Hamet.
Every march comes to an end, and it was with a deep sigh of relief that we at length reached El Hamet. Holroyd at once went off to report his arrival and deliver the despatch to Colonel Macleod, while we waited his return, fondly hoping that we should be dismissed to a well-earned rest. We were, however, doomed to disappointment.
Our captain soon rejoined us, and I knew at once, by the expression of his face, that he was thoroughly put out.
"Light company," said he, in short, sharp tones, "there'll be no rest for any of us to-night. Colonel Macleod has desired me to take up a position among the sand-hills in front of El Hamet, and remain there until further orders. You can fall out for a few minutes, and make the best meal you can on what you've got in your haversacks. A ration of cooked beef, biscuit, and rum will be issued to each man shortly after daybreak."
"Faith, this is a pleasant state of affairs!" grumbled Cantillon, as we moved away from the company.
"Does Colonel Macleod expect an attack before daybreak?" I asked.
"I suppose he does," Holroyd replied, "for he said a great deal about the necessity for vigilance; though he neither gave me any idea from what quarter danger is to be chiefly apprehended, nor of his plans in the event of a sudden attack in overwhelming force. I feel sure," he went on, "that Colonel Macleod is wrong in posting us so far in advance of El Hamet, as it will be impossible to keep up communication, except by occasional patrols; thus the company will stand a serious risk of being cut off, and the village, which, I understand, we are supposed to protect, will be placed in jeopardy."
Rather surprised at these critical remarks, I ventured to remind my captain that Generals Fraser and Stewart thought very highly of Colonel Macleod, and that the 78th Highlanders swore by him.
"True, Tom," rejoined Holroyd. "Macleod's character as a regimental commander most deservedly stands high, and a braver man there is not in the British army; nevertheless, judging by what I have heard and observed, I don't think he is the right sort of officer to hold a separate command at an important post. He lacks firmness and promptness of decision, and should an emergency arise, I much doubt if he will be properly prepared to meet it. Anyhow, I intend to use my own judgment in taking up the position assigned to us, and instead of moving the whole company up to the sandhills, I shall leave Cantillon, with the left subdivision, half-way between them and the village. We shall then have a support to fall back on if hard pressed."
"What of the Mamelukes?—have they turned up?" asked Paddy.
"Not that I know of," was the reply. "The ammunition we escorted is intended for them; but my own impression is that Mohammed Ali will make up his differences with their beys, and if we see them at all it will be as enemies, not allies. Let us rejoin the men; it is time we were moving."
Leaving Cantillon, with half the company, under a clump of date-trees, Holroyd led the way to the sandhills, where he posted our men to the best advantage—a sergeant, corporal, and four files being stationed as an outpost on a slight eminence a little to our right front. Having taken up our position, we anxiously waited events, keeping a very sharp look-out.
AN ALARM—NOT FRIENDS, BUT FOES—AN UNHEEDED REPORT—AN ANXIOUS NIGHT
Shortly after midnight the corporal hurried in from the outpost to report that a djerm (large boat), crowded with men, had been observed dropping down the river.
"Did you see this djerm yourself, Corporal Jones?" asked Holroyd, jumping to his feet.
"Plain as I sees your honour," was the corporal's reply. "We all see it, sir; for the moon's so bright that it's just as clear as day. Sergeant Finnigan says as how he thinks it's them Mammyluks as there's been such talk about."
"The deuce he does!" exclaimed Holroyd. "Whereabouts is this djerm? On our side of the river?"
"Yes, your honour; 'twas nigh that chapel-looking place on the river bank."
"Chapel-looking place! You mean the mosque, I suppose," said Holroyd, smiling. "Come, Tom, we'll go and see for ourselves. Take charge until I return, Sergeant Bullen, and be well on the alert."
We hastened to the outpost, where we found Sergeant Finnigan with his men ready for any emergency. Close to the river bank, within four hundred paces of the outpost, stood a small mosque, its slender crescent-crowned minaret shooting up gracefully from amid the dark foliage by which it was surrounded.
"There's a jham yonder, sorr," said Sergeant Finnigan, a fine old fellow, who had put Charlie Holroyd through his facings when he first joined the 35th, and had been my father's orderly in days of yore. "A jham, your honour, full of Mammyluks, I'm afther thinkin'."
"Very cautiously we made our way down the sand-hills."
"I don't see her, Finnigan," rejoined Holroyd, looking in the direction pointed out. "Where is she?"
"The clump of trees hides her, sorr," answered the sergeant; "but she's there shure enough. Does your honour think they're the Mammyluks?"
"We'll hope so, Finnigan, but I have my doubts," said Holroyd. "Tom," he added, after a moment's hesitation, "let you and I creep down nearer the river, and have a look at this mysterious craft. We must discover whether she's a friend or foe."
Very cautiously we made our way down the sandhills, moving directly towards the mosque for the first hundred yards, then edging away to the left until we had a full view of the river.
This is what we saw. Just below the mosque were some fishermen's huts, and a small wooden pier, or wharf, projecting into the Nile. Within a couple of oars' length of the wharf lay, not one, but two large djerms, both filled with armed men. By the bright light of the moon we could discern them as clearly as in daytime.
My companion had with him a small field-glass, through which he carefully examined the djerms—or rather their occupants.
"Well, are they the Mamelukes?" I whispered impatiently.
"Egad! they're not," was the reply. "They are Albanians, without doubt, and therefore enemies. Look for yourself, and you will see their kilts, or petticoats." I took the glass, and saw at once that Holroyd was right; there was no mistaking the Albanian costume. "There are between two and three hundred of them," said Holroyd, as I returned the telescope. "I must report this at once, Tom."
We hurried back to the piquet, and Corporal Jones was sent off to warn Colonel Macleod of the proximity of a large body of the enemy; while another man took a message to Cantillon to advance nearer to the sand-hills, and be on the qui vive in case of a sudden attack.
"Not that I think they'll trouble us yet awhile," observed Holroyd; "so, with the exception of advancing our support, I shall keep to our present position until I receive further orders."
Corporal Jones made good use of his legs, for scarcely half-an-hour elapsed before he returned to the outpost.
"Please, your honour," said he, saluting his captain, "the answer is 'All right.'"
"All right!" exclaimed Holroyd, his face darkening; "is that all Colonel Macleod said to you?"
"That is all, sir," was the reply. "I gave the colonel your message, just as your honour gave it to me, neither more nor less. ' ell Capt'n Holroyd it's all right,' says he. I saluted, and waited a moment, thinkin' as how he'd say something more, or may-be ask me some questions; but the colonel just waves me away, and says, ' D'ye hear me, corp'ril?—tell your orficer it's all right.' So I comes back as quick as I could, sir."
Holroyd and I stared at one another in astonishment. That Corporal Jones had delivered the report and brought back the reply correctly we did not for a moment doubt; for Jones was a steady, intelligent man, and thoroughly trustworthy, or he would not have been a light company corporal.
"What shall you do, Charlie?" I asked in an undertone. "There must be some mistake."
"A very serious mistake, I should say," he rejoined. Then turning to the corporal, he inquired if Colonel Macleod was in the village.
"No, sir," answered Jones; "the colonel's over yonder—away to our right rear. There's a young orficer with a few men of Rolle's in the village," he added.
Holroyd thought for a few minutes, and then taking me aside, said, "I must let them know in El Hamet the state of affairs, so that they may be prepared in the event of a sudden attack. Do you, Tom, hurry back to the village and warn the senior officer. Tell him that the enemy evidently mean mischief, and that I advise him to look out for squalls. On your way you can inform Cantillon of the situation, and say that he must be ready to support us the moment he hears a shot fired."
I started off on my errand, and warned both Paddy Cantillon and the officer at El Hamet—a young ensign of De Rolle's, Schmidt by name—that they must be prepared for any emergency. On regaining the piquet, I found that several more djerms had dropped down the Nile, and were lying off the little wharf. Holroyd had therefore sent a written report to Colonel Macleod, calling his attention to the gravity of the situation and requesting instructions.
Corporal Jones was again the messenger, and his face was a study when he returned, and reported that the only answer vouchsafed by the colonel was "Very well." "You told him that I awaited instructions?" said Holroyd, looking very incensed.
"I did, sir; but the colonel only said 'Very well'; not another word, good, bad, or indifferent, your honour."
"Tom, this is too grave a contingency to be trifled with," said my captain, taking me aside; "and as Macleod has sent me no orders, I must act on my own responsibility. I fear that our force is so scattered that it would be a dangerous matter to bring it together again; knowing this, Macleod is probably unwilling to try the experiment, and so has contented himself with sending a report to General Stewart of the enemy's proximity. But," he continued, "I am not going to run the risk of being cut off in such an exposed position as this, and therefore I shall warn the officer at El Hamet to put the village into as good a state of defence as time will allow, and we will cover him while so employed. We shall then have something like a post to fall back on, if driven in; for we ought to be able to make a very fair fight of it in the village. Give me a leaf out of your note-book, Tom I suppose that young fellow understands English?"
"He speaks it fairly well," I answered, handing him a pencil and a piece of paper.
Holroyd wrote his note and despatched it to the village; then we once more took our station with the advanced outpost, in order to observe the first hostile movement that might be made. Towards morning a thick fog came on, completely hiding the mosque and river from our view; indeed we could not see anything fifty yards before us, and had to trust entirely to our ears.
I need hardly add that not one of us closed his eyes that night.
AN UNDESERVED REPROOF—COLONEL MACLEOD CONVINCED—THE ATTACK—EL HAMET EVACUATED
The night passed without any attack being attempted; though once, towards daybreak, we fancied that we heard the sound of marching men approaching our post from the direction of the mosque, but the sound—if it existed save in our heated imaginations—died away, and all again was silent as the grave.
Towards seven o'clock in the morning—the river fog being then as dense as ever—Colonel Macleod, accompanied by a staff officer and an orderly dragoon, visited the piquet. The colonel looked pale and weary, as well he might, and his face wore a peculiar irritable expression; in fact, he had the appearance of a man worn out with anxiety and fatigue.
"You sent me two reports during the night, Captain Holroyd," he began, in querulous tones, barely acknowledging our salute; "pray what do they mean, sir?"
"Mean, colonel!" exclaimed Holroyd, his face flushing with anger. "Exactly what they stated namely, that since midnight the enemy have been gathering in considerable force within gunshot of this spot. When I sent you my second report, sir—a written report—no less than fifteen large djerms, crowded with men, were moored in the river yonder. The thick fog now hides them from your view, but there they were, and there, I doubt not, they are at this moment."
"I don't think so," retorted Colonel Macleod; "were the enemy so close at hand, in such numbers, we should at least hear them. Now, sir, since the fog came on, have you heard any sound that would indicate the proximity of a large body of troops?"
"I cannot say that I have, sir," Holroyd admitted; "though we fancied——"
"Fancied!" interrupted Colonel Macleod. "Just so! It is my firm belief that your own fancies have deceived you, and I must beg that, when on outpost duty, you will take the trouble to make yourself better acquainted with what is near you, and not send in reports of an enemy's advance until you are absolutely certain there is really an enemy within a couple of miles. In this case you have evidently mistaken a few fishermen's boats for a hostile flotilla.
"I had intended to relieve you," continued Macleod; "but now——" He stopped short, and uttered an exclamation of astonishment, for at that moment a strange though perfectly natural thing happened.
The morning sun—as if anxious to prove the truth of Charles Holroyd's statements, and confound the incredulous Highlander—suddenly appeared struggling through the mist, and rapidly dispelling it. Away rolled the fog, disclosing to our gaze a group of horsemen; conspicuous among whom was a little man, pointing with a javelin to the right of our position.
Then arose upon the morning air a confused noise—beating of drums and clashing of cymbals—and as the fog cleared off, there appeared before us the Turkish army, numbering at least 6000 combatants, of whom perhaps one-third were horsemen.
As soon as he recovered from his amazement, Colonel Macleod, like the true Highland gentleman he was, turned to my companion, and extending his hand, said—
"Captain Holroyd, I have done you an injustice! Allow me to recall the remarks I made just now, and to offer an apology to you and the light company of the 35th."
"Say no more, sir, I beg you," rejoined Holroyd, warmly shaking the colonel's hand. "Your remarks are already forgotten."
"As the fog cleared off, there appeared before us the Turkish army."
We afterwards were thankful that we had not parted with the gallant Macleod in anger; for, alas! destiny had willed that ere another sun rose he should be
That my account of what followed may be better understood, I will here state the order in which Colonel Macleod's force was disposed.
The range of low sand-hills stretching from Lake Edko to the Nile—a distance of at least two miles—was everywhere accessible to infantry; but, owing to the steepness of the slope and inequality of the surface, cavalry could only operate against us at two points—namely, along a road passing through El Hamet, and by fording the lake a few hundred yards beyond the southern extremity of the ridge, where the water was extremely shallow. Now, as Macleod's rear was covered by the dry, steep-banked canal, and the road through El Hamet commanded by two six-pounders, his position might have been accounted an excellent one had it been properly manned (two thousand British troops, with a fair proportion of artillery and an ample supply of ammunition, could have held it till doomsday against ten times their number of Turks); but unfortunately Macleod's entire force did not muster eight hundred men, and he had only four six-pounder fieldpieces. This slender corps had to occupy and defend the entire line of sand-hills from one extremity to the other, and it was distributed along that line as follows:—
The force was divided into three bodies: one, numbering some three hundred men, being posted beside the river; a second, of about the same strength, in the centre of the position; while the third, of which we formed part, had to defend El Hamet, watch the road passing through the village, and support the two guns enfilading that road. Thus there was an interval of about three-quarters of a mile between the several divisions; and in order that communications might be kept up, each division had to throw out, right and left, small detachments, which took post, here and there, along the ridge.
It is plain that a position thus held was practically at the mercy of a greatly superior enemy; a couple of hundred resolute men would have been sufficient to break through the scattered line at any point, save at the principal defences, and a breach in the line at any point must necessarily render the whole untenable. That the position must be forced if a determined and well-sustained attack were made, was almost a foregone conclusion; but I do not think any one anticipated the terrible disaster which befell us on that fatal day.
To return to my narrative.
We stood for some minutes gazing at the Turkish force. Their infantry was drawn up in detached bodies, each under its own banner; the horsemen, in a solid mass, formed a second line.
"Look, sir," suddenly exclaimed the staff officer; " their cavalry has separated!"
"I see, Vincent," rejoined Macleod. "The column moving off is evidently ordered to cross the lake and turn our flank."
" While those who remain will no doubt support the infantry in an attack on the village," observed Holroyd. " Shall I defend El Hamet, colonel?"
" Yes," cried Macleod, vaulting into his saddle; "to the last man!" and putting spurs to his charger, he galloped to the rear.
Having re-formed the company, we marched back to El Hamet at a quick step, and on the way were joined by two or three small parties which had been ordered to retire from the sand-hills. On reaching the village, we found that the officer and men of De Rolle's Regiment had made good use of their time: the houses had been loop-holed, windows and doors barricaded; in short, El Hamet was in a fairly defensible state.
"Come, we shall be able to hold out a long time!" exclaimed Holroyd cheerfully. Then pointing to a building of considerable size and height, he said, "Take the right section, Tom, and occupy the roof of that house. Let the men make a parapet of their knapsacks, and open fire the moment the enemy are within range. Don't throw a shot away, my lads."
I hastened to obey this order, and followed by Sergeant Finnigan and the right section, ascended to the flat roof of the house. The men took off their packs, and placed them against the low parapet, so as to afford extra protection. From this elevated position we could see the Turkish horsemen as they advanced towards the village, brandishing their javelins and scimitars, and uttering loud cries of defiance.
"They're about within range, Misther Cotton," presently observed Sergeant Finnigan. " Won't your honour open fire?" And I was about to answer in the affirmative when I heard Holroyd calling to me.
"Tom!" he shouted, "we're to evacuate El Hamet. The guns are limbered up, so come down at once."
There was nothing for it but to obey; so we quitted the roof, and joined our comrades, who, with the detachment of De Rolle's, were forming up in the narrow street, where the two six-pounders were waiting to start. We soon cleared the village, and went away at a long trot, into the heart of the sandy plain.
"Who ordered the evacuation?" I asked, as I found myself alongside of my captain.
"Macleod," was the reply; "and I fear he has made a fatal mistake. But the pace is too good for talking, Tom. We shall want all our breath before we've done."
THE RETREAT—AT BAY
Hardly were we clear of the village when the Turkish horsemen came sweeping down into the plain, howling ferociously as they galloped here and there. From time to time they made demonstrations of an immediate attack, whereupon Holroyd would call a halt, and order the guns to unlimber; but the moment the enemy saw the six-pounders at "action rear," he retired out of range. Then the gunners limbered up, and we resumed our march. This happened, I think, three or four times.
We had not got very far into the plain when we were joined by a detachment of De Rolle's Regiment, under Major Vogelsang. The major, who as senior officer assumed command, told us that Macleod had ordered him to retire from his position, leaving a strong piquet to cover his retreat, and move obliquely across the plain until he fell in with us. We were then to join forces and wait for further orders.
"Colonel Macleod has ridden off to withdraw the remainder of the force," explained Vogelsang, in his broken English. "The colonel's intention is to concentrate his force and stand on the defensive until Stewart comes to our aid; but I fear the detachments are so scattered that they will be cut off in detail."
"I agree with you, major," said Holroyd. "However, we must await Macleod's arrival, and if attacked, make the best defence we can."
We then formed square with Vogelsang's men, the two field-pieces being placed in the centre, and calmly awaited the arrival of Macleod with the other divisions, or the onslaught of the enemy, whichever should come first. Our combined force numbered about two hundred and fifty bayonets, besides officers and artillerymen.
Although the enemy kept up his threatening attitude, we were not seriously attacked; but it was evident, from the sound of heavy firing on both our flanks, that Macleod, and Vogelsang's party which he had left to cover his retreat, were having a very warm time of it. We became terribly anxious about them, and would have given worlds to know how they fared. Unfortunately we could only hear, not see the fighting; for the country around us was like a sandy sea, broken up, so to speak, into waves, or undulating mounds, not one of which was so sufficiently elevated as to afford a commanding view from its summit over the rest.
In a short time the firing in the direction of the spot where we knew Vogelsang's covering party was battling against terrible odds, began to slacken, then it suddenly ceased. We looked at one another in horror, for no one could doubt that our gallant comrades of De Rolle's must have been overwhelmed.
"My poor fellows!" groaned Major Vogelsang, the tears streaming down his rugged cheeks; "they must have perished to a man. Would that the Highland colonel had permitted me to remain with them!"
Our attention was now attracted by a triumphant shout, and another body of the enemy appeared in sight, racing to join their comrades," as if Ould Nick were at their heels," as Paddy Cantillon observed.
"Steady, flankers of the 35th!" cried Holroyd;" it's our turn now! Meet them firmly, and, if needs must, let us die like British soldiers for the honour of the old regiment!"
"Faith, an' we're ready to do that, your honour!" answered Sergeant Finnigan. "Shure, divil a one of thim howlin' haythins shall—" The gallant old fellow never finished the sentence, for at that moment a score of the bolder horsemen charged up to within pistol-shot of the square, and discharged their carbines at us.
They, I have no doubt, fired at random, but chance shots often do most harm one "bullet found its billet," and lodged in the brain of poor Michael Finnigan.
A cry of rage burst from our men, for the sergeant was a general favourite in the light company, and several of the younger hands returned the fire without orders, emptying half-a-dozen saddles, and sending the bold Turks scampering back.
"Steady, light company!" cried Holroyd angrily.
"What are those men thinking about? Our chance is a poor one if you're going to lose your heads like this! Reload, lads, and don't fire again without orders."
"Good, Captain Holroyd!" said Major Vogelsang. "Steadiness is everything! Ha! they are advancing again—down the front ranks!" Instantly the order was obeyed: down on the knee dropped the front ranks; while the rear ranks came to the "recover," and stood as motionless as if on an inspection parade.
We now beheld three separate columns of horsemen, each equal, in point of numbers, to our little force, moving rapidly towards us, one column leading, the others in rear. As they drew nearer, the rear columns edged off to their right and left, sweeping round so as to threaten the right and left faces of our square.
Major Vogelsang now ordered the artillery to unlimber, and bring their two guns into action, right and left; the centre sections of the right and left faces being warned to fall back, so as to leave an opening for the guns, as soon as the word was given.
On came the enemy until they were within about three hundred yards of the square, when all three columns drew rein, as if to breathe their horses.
Now is your time, lieutenant!" said Vogelsang to the artillery officer. "Fall back the centre sections!"
Quick as lightning our gunners ran up and laid their pieces. "Fire!" shouted their officer, and plump went the six-pound shells into the columns on our right and left, bursting well in the centre, and killing or disabling several men and horses.
We gave a ringing cheer as the gunners coolly sponged out and reloaded the guns, for our foes were thrown into great confusion, and we all thought they would beat a precipitate retreat.
"The guns are loaded, sir," said the artillery subaltern; "shall I give them another dose before they're out of range?"
But the words had hardly been spoken, when the Turkish horsemen wheeled round and charged down upon us, with shrill cries of "La la ha il Allah! Vras! Vras!
Again the six-pounders were fired; then the centre sections closed up, and the moment the Turks got within musket-range, our standing ranks gave them a rattling volley, which knocked over several of them, including one of their boldest leaders. This warm reception damped their ardour, and once more they retired in confusion.
We young hands thought the day was our own, and rent the air with cheers; some of the men even sprang forward as if to start in pursuit of the retreating horsemen; but the stern voice of the veteran major quickly recalled us to our senses.
Vogelsang now ordered the gunners to load, "to the muzzle," with grape and canister, and the infantry to drop a running ball into their muskets. "We will give them a still warmer welcome, my children!" he exclaimed, with a laugh like the croak of a raven; "but you must be steady, and not break your ranks."
Once again the turbaned warriors advanced to the attack, yelling like a pack of fiends. A well-directed volley of double-shotted musketry greeted them, yet they paused not in their wild career. Then the six-pounders opened on the columns attacking our right and left faces, and their salutation no mortal Turk could have withstood. The havoc produced as the grape and canister tore through the serried ranks was fearful, and with a cry of dismay the assailants of the right and left sides of our square galloped off ventre à terre.The third body of the enemy, however, undismayed by the repulse of their comrades, held on their course, and charged right up to the rear face of the square, where we were posted; almost up to our bayonets' points they
"Our standing ranks gave them a rattling volley."
rode, and discharged their pistols, and launched their javelins at us, killing and wounding several of our men. For a moment I feared the square would be broken; but our rear rank had reloaded, and a second volley sent the enemy to the right-about. Then we glanced around, and saw that seven or eight of our men had been killed or wounded.
DEATH OF COLONEL MACLEOD—APPEARANCE OF THE MAMELUKES—THE LAST STAND—WOUNDED AND A PRISONER—A FRIEND IN NEED—"ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL"
While watching the movements and repelling the attacks of the Turkish horsemen, we had, I fear, given little thought to Macleod's division; but now we had a moment's breathing time, we remembered our comrades, and became doubly anxious as to their fate. Heavy firing was still to be heard to the right, and as we strained our ears it became evident that the sound was drawing nearer.
"Be the powers! they're righting their way towards us," exclaimed Cantillon.
"There's no doubt of it," said Holroyd, after listening intently for a moment.
"I wish we could get a look at them," Major Vogelsang added.
"See yonder mound, major?" said Paddy; "'tis a thrifle higher than the rest. I'm the tallest man among ye, and maybe, if ye'll let me slip out, I could get a peep at them. Sorra a bit of danger, major dear. I'll take Corporal Jones with me;" and without waiting for permission, he called to the corporal to follow him, and slipped out of the square.
The mound was less than a hundred yards distant. On reaching the summit, Cantillon sprang on the corporal's shoulders—Jones was a very powerful, athletic man—and stood upright. From this coign of vantage he gazed intently in the direction of the firing; while we watched him anxiously, fearing lest he should be shot by some lurking foe.
Presently Cantillon gave a shout, and jumping down, ran back at full speed, followed by Corporal Jones.
"They're close at hand," he cried as he came up to the square, "fighting like divils. We must go to their assistance, major, and join forces, if possible."
"Are they broken?" asked Vogelsang.
"Divil a bit, sir," was the reply; "but they're attacked on all sides by ten times their number, and the haythins who have been hammering at us are now having——"
"That's enough," interrupted the major; "it is plain there is no time to lose. Put the wounded on the limbers and waggons, and we will move at once."
We hastened to carry out the major's orders; but closer and closer drew the tide of battle, and ere we could put the square in motion, Macleod's little band of heroes appeared in sight. Alas! a fatal change had occurred. The division was no longer in solid order, as when seen by Cantillon, but broken up into small parties and groups, each fighting desperately against overwhelming numbers of Turkish cavalry and Albanian infantry.
To rush to their rescue was our first impulse; but Vogelsang restrained us, pointing out that we could not possibly render our brave comrades any effectual aid, and that once we broke our formation we should infallibly be cut to pieces. We did what little lay in our power, firing at the enemy whenever we could do so without injury to our own people; and a section of our company sallying out, at a critical moment, under Holroyd and Cantillon, succeeded in bringing Captain Mackay and a few of the 78th into the square.
With the exception of this slender party, Macleod's division was destroyed, not a man escaping. The gallant Macleod fell, as became him, claymore in hand, in the midst of his Highlanders, who, with the devotion of clansmen for their chief, threw themselves in the way of certain destruction in their vain attempts to save him.
While this terrible scene was taking place we were not molested by the enemy; but, the other divisions destroyed, they now combined their forces against us. The Albanian infantry commenced the attack by lining the sand ridges and pouring a furious fusillade upon the square, the horsemen keeping out of range, ready to sweep down upon us when the right moment arrived. The Albanians were expert marksmen, and their fire proved very disastrous to us. Vogelsang, Holroyd, and Cantillon were amongst the first wounded, the latter severely, and many of our men fell to rise no more. We replied with the six-pounders, as well as with musketry; but the Albanians being scattered and well covered, our fire was not very effective. To add to our misfortunes, the sun was now beating down upon us with full force, and we had little water to quench our burning thirst; officers and men were pretty nigh worn out, and we all felt that, unless General Stewart came to our aid, the end must come quickly.
At length, when more than one-third of our number were killed or wounded, there was a cessation of the firing, followed by great commotion amongst the enemy's cavalry. We jumped to the conclusion that, at last, Stewart must have arrived, and our drooping spirits revived. Alas! we were speedily undeceived; for as the smoke cleared away, there appeared in sight a large body of Arab horsemen, advancing in loose, but not disorderly array. That the new-comers were foes, not friends, we could not doubt, for as they advanced across the plain the Turkish host welcomed them with a mighty shout and waving of flags.
Though faint from loss of blood, Major Vogelsang still retained command, and he now mounted a limber-box and examined the advancing troops through his glass.
"They are the Mamelukes!" he exclaimed, "and Mohammed Ali himself is at their head. My men, we have now nothing to do but to sell our lives dearly." "Possibly they have come to our aid," I suggested, hoping against hope. "Are you sure the Vizier is with them?"
Vogelsang shook his head sadly, and replied that he recognised Mohammed Ali, having seen him before; his presence with the Mamelukes was sufficient to prove that they had come, not as allies, but as our most formidable enemies.
We rapidly made preparations for the struggle before us. The wounded—at least those who were totally disabled from taking part in the defence—were placed in a trench hastily made in the sand; the six-pounders were loaded with grape and with musket-balls to the very muzzle; and each soldier dropped over his cartridge, not only a running ball, but three or four slugs.
The attack was not long delayed, and opened with a renewal of the musketry fire by the Albanians. This lasted for the best part of an hour, and wrought us great mischief. Suddenly it ceased, and the Albanians leisurely retired. Then, with lightning speed, the Mamelukes bore down on our sadly-diminished square.
"Keep steady, men," cried Vogelsang, "and reserve your fire until your foes are within forty yards. Then give them a volley, and load again."
The Mamelukes came on in somewhat loose order, their line extending to, perhaps, twice the width of the square. We let them approach to within thirty yards; then both guns and muskets opened on them with terrible effect. The charge was arrested; and before they could retire out of range, we gave them a second volley only less destructive than the first. Then they galloped away in confusion. Before we had time to congratulate ourselves, the Albanians again came to the front, and annoyed us with their fire.
After a while the Mamelukes made a second attempt to break our square, only to retire discomfited. Three times did our slender band repulse these magnificent horsemen, inflicting heavy punishment on each occasion; but after each repulse the Albanians renewed their galling fire, doing us, in proportion, more harm than we did to the Mamelukes.
"I dropped senseless to the ground."
After the third attack, and while the Albanians were firing at us, the artillery officer reported that only one charge per gun was left.
"We must break up a cask of small-arm ammunition, and make the best use we can of that," replied Major Vogelsang. "You, sir," he added, turning to me, "take a couple of men, and collect the rounds from the cartouch-boxes of the slain."
I was about to execute this gruesome order, when a bullet, glancing from one of the guns, struck me on the head, and I dropped senseless to the ground.
When consciousness returned I found myself lying in the arms of Corporal Jones, who was bathing my head with muddy water. All sound of strife had ceased, and our men were sitting or standing around, disarmed. Several Mamelukes were stalking about with a triumphant air, and in the distance was assembled the Vizier's army. I asked the corporal what had happened.
"We're prisoners, Mr. Cotton, the few of us that's left," he replied. "We hadn't a blessed cartridge left, when a Turkish officer came up with a flag of truce, and told the captain as how our lives should be spared if we surrendered."
"Do you mean Captain Holroyd?"
"Yes, sir. The furrin major was knocked over just after you was, and, though badly hurt, our captain took command. There he is yonder, talking to the officer to whom we surrendered. The rum thing is," continued Corporal Jones, "that the Turkish orficer aint a Turk at all, but a Frenchman. D'you remember, sir, the French leftenant as used to come so often to; your quarters when we lay at Messina?"
"Not M'sieur de Vignes?" I exclaimed.
"That's the name, sir. Well, he's the orficer I'm tellin' you about—and here he comes!"
I looked up and saw a Mameluke approaching, whose rich attire bespoke him an officer of rank. Leaning on his arm was Charlie Holroyd, his head and shoulder bandaged.
"Tom," said Holroyd, in a faint voice, "here is an old friend one who has indeed proved a friend in need. It is to M'sieur de Vignes we owe our lives."
"Pouf!" cried the Mameluke, whom I at once recognised as my former acquaintance; "I have but repaid the debt I owed you, mon ami. When last we met I played you a scurvy trick, and happy am I to be able to make some reparation." And with that he embraced me, much to the horror of Corporal Jones.
Holroyd then told me how, struck with admiration at our heroic defence, M. Drovetti, the French consul-general at Cairo (who had accompanied the Turkish army), had induced the Vizier to offer us quarter. De Vignes was selected to bear the flag of truce, and recognising Holroyd, persuaded him to surrender. In spite of our surrender, the Mamelukes, furious at the losses they had sustained, attempted to massacre the survivors of our force, and were only prevented by the exertions of Eugene de Vignes, who saved our lives at the risk of his own. As it was, several of our wounded were butchered; amongst others, poor Paddy Cantillon.
Naturally I was curious to learn how the French lieutenant had been transformed into an officer of Mamelukes, and that evening I asked him to tell me his story.
"Mais certainement, mon cher," he replied. "At Messina I met, and fell in love with, the lady who is now my wife. Her father, Prince T——, objecting to my attentions, sent his daughter to the convent. By bribing one of the lay-sisters, I obtained an interview, and persuaded Beatrice to elope with me. To return to France would have been difficult, if not impossible, so I determined to fly to Egypt, where my mother's brother, M'sieur Drovetti, was consul-general. I hired a small coasting-vessel, and made all arrangements for our flight. On the appointed night I repaired to the convent. With the assistance of the lay-sister, Beatrice effected her escape from the building, and joined me outside the walls. But somehow her father had got wind of the affair—I believe the lay-sister betrayed us—and while making off, we were attacked by four of his servants. I had just time to tell Beatrice to fly up the road, conceal herself, and await events, whilst I covered her retreat. Happily my assailants—probably acting on their master's orders—were so intent upon killing me, that they did not attempt to follow her. You, mon ami, came to my aid, and the fellows ran off, leaving one of their number with my sword through his heart. To get rid of you, I pretended the rascal was only wounded, and sent you off for assistance. The moment you had gone, I picked the dead body up, carried it a few yards, and threw it in a ditch. Then I rejoined Beatrice, and we hastened to the boat which was awaiting us. In the end we got safely to Cairo, and were married by my good uncle's chaplain. Through my uncle's influence, I was appointed an officer in the Vizier's service, and am now in high favour. Voila tout!"
My story is finished. We were carried prisoners to Cairo, but, thanks to the influence of M. Drovetti, were allowed to take up our quarters with Eugene de Vignes and his charming wife; thus escaping the hardships and indignities which, as we afterwards learned, many of our fellow-prisoners suffered.
In due course we were exchanged, and rejoined our regiment. Many years have passed since then. My brother-in-law, Charles Holroyd, is a general and a K.C.B.; I have long ago left the army, and settled down to a country life; but we still retain a vivid recollection of the "Disaster of El Hamet," and tell our children the story of "a Frenchman's Gratitude."
- The 20th Light Dragoons—raised as the Jamaica Light Horse in 1791, styled the 20th Light Dragoons in 1794, and disbanded in 1817.
- De Rolle's Regiment and the Chasseurs Britanniques—foreign corps in British pay. Both were disbanded or absorbed in 1814-15.
- This 2nd Battalion of the 78th (Ross-shire Buffs) Highlanders was raised in 1804. Patrick Macleod was its first commanding officer. The battalion distinguished itself at the battle of Maida, and subsequently in the Netherlands. It was reduced in 1816-17.
- "There is no god but God! Kill! Kill!"