The Naval Officer/Chapter VII
Of battle now began, and rushing sound
Of onset …
'Twixt host and host but narrow space was left.
From the deservedly high character borne by the captain of the frigate which I was ordered to join, he was employed by Lord Collingwood on the most confidential services; and we were sent to assist the Spaniards in their defence of the important fortress of Rosas, in Catalonia. It has already been observed that the French general, St Cyr, had entered that country, and, having taken Figueras and Gerona, was looking with a wistful eye on the castle of Trinity, on the south-east side, the capture of which would be a certain prelude to the fall of Rosas.
My captain determined to defend it, although it had just been abandoned by another British naval officer, as untenable. I volunteered, though a supernumerary, to be one of the party, and was sent: nor can I but acknowledge that the officer who had abandoned the place had shown more than a sound discretion. Every part of the castle was in ruins. Heaps of crumbling stones and rubbish, broken gun-carriages, and split guns, presented to my mind a very unfavourable field of battle. The only advantage we appeared to have over the assailants was that the breach which they had effected in the walls was steep in its ascent, and the loose stones either fell down upon them, or gave way under their feet, while we plied them with every kind of missile: this was our only defence, and all we had to prevent the enemy marching into the works, if works they could be called.
There was another and very serious disadvantage attending our locality. The castle was situated very near the summit of a steep hill, the upper part of which was in possession of the enemy, who were, by this means, nearly on a level with the top of the castle, and, on that eminence, three hundred Swiss sharpshooters had effected a lodgment, and thrown up works within fifty yards of us, keeping up a constant fire at the castle. If a head was seen above the walls, twenty rifle-bullets whizzed at it in a moment, and the same unremitted attention was paid to our boats as they landed.
On another hill, much to the northward, and consequently, further inland, the French had erected a battery of six 24-pounders. This agreeable neighbour was only three hundred yards from us; and, allowing short intervals for the guns to cool, this battery kept up a constant fire upon us from daylight till dark. I never could have supposed, in my boyish days, that the time would arrive when I should envy a cock upon Shrove Tuesday; yet such was my case when in this infernal castle. It was certainly not giving us fair play; we had no chance against such a force; but my captain was a knight-errant, and as I had volunteered, I had no right to complain. Such was the precision of the enemy's fire, that we could tell the stone that would be hit by the next shot, merely from seeing where the last had struck, and our men were frequently wounded by the splinters of granite with which the walls were built, and others picked off like partridges, by the Swiss corps on the hill close to us.
Our force in the castle consisted of a hundred and thirty English seamen and marines, one company of Spanish, and another of Swiss troops in Spanish pay. Never were troops worse paid and fed, or better fired at. We all pigged in together; dirty straw and fleas for our beds; our food on the same scale of luxury; from the captain downwards there was no distinction. Fighting is sometimes a very agreeable pastime, but excess "palls on the sense:" and here we had enough of it, without what I always thought an indispensable accompaniment, namely, a good bellyful; nor did I conceive how a man could perform his duty without it; but here I was forced, with many others, to make the experiment, and when the boats could not land, which was often the case, we piped to dinner pro formâ, as our captain liked regularity, and drank cold water to fill our stomachs.
I have often heard my poor old uncle say that no man knows what he can do till he tries; and the enemy gave us plenty of opportunities of displaying our ingenuity, industry, watchfulness, and abstinence. When poor Penelope wove her web, the poet says—
"The night unravelled what the day began."
With us it was precisely the reverse: the day destroyed all the labours of the night. The hours of darkness were employed by us in filling sand-bags, and laying them in the breach, clearing away rubbish, and preparing to receive the enemy's fire, which was sure to recommence at daylight. These avocations, together with a constant and most vigilant watch against surprise, took up so much of our time that little was left for repose, and our meals required still less.
There was some originality in one of our modes of defence, and which, not being, might have provoked the smile of an engineer. The captain contrived to make a shoot of smooth deal boards, which he received from the ship: these he placed in a slanting direction in the breach, and caused them to be well greased with cook's slush; so that the enemies who wished to come into our hold, must have jumped down upon them, and would in an instant be precipitated into the ditch below, a very considerable depth, where they might either have remained till the doctor came to them, or, if they were able, begin their labours de novo. This was a very good bug-trap; for, at that time, I thought just as little of killing a Frenchman as I did of destroying the filthy little nightly depredator just mentioned.
Besides this slippery trick, which we played them with great success, we served them another. We happened to have on board the frigate a large quantity of fishhooks; these we planted, not only on the greasy boards, but in every part where the intruders were likely to place their hands or feet. The breach itself was mined, and loaded with shells and hand-grenades; masked guns, charged up to the muzzle with musket-balls, enfiladed the spot in every direction. Such were our defences; and, considering that we had been three weeks in the castle, opposed to such mighty odds, it is surprising that we only lost twenty men. The crisis was now approaching.
One morning, very early, I happened to have the look-out. The streak of fog which during the night hangs between the hills in that country, and presses down into the valleys, had just begun to rise, and the stars to grow more dim above our heads, when I was looking over the castle-wall towards the breach. The captain came out and asked me what I was looking at. I told him I hardly knew; but there did appear something unusual in the valley, immediately below the breach. He listened a moment, looked attentively with his night-glass, and exclaimed, in his firm voice, but in an undertoned manner "To arms!—they are coming!"
In three minutes every man was at his post; and though all were quick, there was no time to spare, for by this time the black column of the enemy was distinctly visible curling along the valley like a great centipede; and, with the daring enterprise so common among the troops of Napoleon, had begun in silence to mount the breach. It was an awful and eventful moment; but the coolness and determination of the little garrison was equal to the occasion.
The word was given to take good aim, and a volley from the masked guns and musketry was poured into the thick of them. They paused—deep groans ascended! They retreated a few paces in confusion, then rallied, and again advanced to the attack; and now the fire on both sides was kept up without intermission. The great guns from the hill fort, and the Swiss sharpshooters, still nearer, poured copious volleys upon us, and with loud shouts cheered on their comrades to the assault. As they approached and covered our mine, the train was fired, and up they went in the air, and down they fell buried in the ruins. Groans, screams, confusion, French yells, British hurras rent the sky! The hills resounded with the shouts of victory! We sent them hand-grenades in abundance, and broke their shins in glorious style. I must say that the French behaved nobly, though many a tall grenadier and pioneer fell by the symbol in front of his warlike cap. I cried with rage and excitement; and we all fought like bull-dogs, for we knew there was no quarter to be given.
Ten minutes had elapsed since the firing began, and in that time many a brave fellow had bit the dust. The head of their attacking column had been destroyed by the explosion of our mine. Still they had re-formed, and were again half-way up the breach when the day began to dawn; and we saw a chosen body of one thousand men, led on by their colonel, and advancing over the dead which had just fallen.
The gallant leader appeared to be as cool and composed as if he were at breakfast; with his drawn sword he pointed to the breach, and we heard him exclaim, "Suivez moi!" I felt jealous of this brave fellow—jealous of his being a Frenchman; and I threw a lighted hand-grenade between his feet—he picked it up, and threw it from him to a considerable distance.
"Cool chap enough that," said the captain, who stood close to me; "I'll give him another;" which he did, but this the officer kicked away with equal sang froid and dignity. "Nothing will cure that fellow," resumed the captain, "but an ounce of lead on an empty stomach—it's a pity, too, to kill so fine a fellow—but there is no help for it."
So saying, he took a musket out of my hand, which I had just loaded—aimed, fired—the colonel staggered, clapped his hand to his breast, and fell back into the arms of some of his men, who threw down their muskets, and took him on their shoulders, either unconscious or perfectly regardless of the death-work which was going on around them. The firing redoubled from our musketry on this little group, every man of whom was either killed or wounded. The colonel, again left to himself, tottered a few paces further, till he reached a small bush, not ten yards from the spot where he received his mortal wound. Here he fell; his sword, which he still grasped in his right hand, rested on the boughs, and pointed upwards to the sky, as if directing the road to the spirit of its gallant master.
With the life of the colonel ended the hopes of the French for that day. The officers, we could perceive, did their duty—cheered, encouraged, and drove on their men, but all in vain! We saw them pass their swords through the bodies of the fugitives; but the men did not even mind that—they would only be killed in their own way—they had had fighting enough for one breakfast. The first impulse, the fiery onset, had been checked by the fall of their brave leader, and sauve qui peut, whether coming from the officers or drummers, no matter which, terminated the affair, and we were left a little time to breathe, and to count the number of our dead.
The moment the French perceived from their batteries that the attempt had failed, and that the leader of the enterprise was dead, they poured in an angry fire upon us. I stuck my hat on the bayonet of my musket, and just showed it above the wall. A dozen bullets were through it in a minute: very fortunately my head was not in it.
The fire of the batteries having ceased, which it generally did at stated periods, we had an opportunity of examining the point of attack. Scaling-ladders, and dead bodies lay in profusion. All the wounded had been removed, but what magnificent "food for powder" were the bodies which lay before us!—all, it would seem, picked men; not one less than six feet, and some more: they were clad in their grey capots, to render their appearance more sombre, and less discernible in the twilight of the morning: and as the weather was cold during the nights, I secretly determined to have one of those great coats as a chère amie to keep me warm in night-watches. I also resolved to have the colonel's sword to present to my captain; and as soon as it was dark I walked down the breach, brought up one of the scaling-ladders, which I deposited in the castle; and having done so much for the king, I set out to do something for myself.
It was pitch dark. I stumbled on: the wind blew a hurricane, and the dust and mortar almost blinded me; but I knew my way pretty well. Yet there was something very-like, in wandering about among dead bodies in the night-time, and I really felt a horror at my situation. There was a dreadful stillness between the blasts, which the pitch darkness made peculiarly awful to an unfortified mind. It is for this reason that I would ever discourage night-attacks, unless you can rely on your men. They generally fail: because the man of common bravery, who would acquit himself fairly in broad daylight, will hang back during the night. Fear and Darkness have always been firm allies; and are inseparably playing into each other's hands. Darkness conceals Fear, and therefore Fear loves Darkness, because it saves the coward from shame; and when the fear of shame is the only stimulus to fight, daylight is essentially necessary.
I crept cautiously along, feeling for the dead bodies. The first I laid my hand on, made my blood curdle. It was the lacerated thigh of a grenadier, whose flesh had been torn off by a hand-grenade. "Friend," said I, "if I may judge from the nature of your wound, your great coat is not worth having." The next subject I handled, had been better killed. A musket-ball through his head had settled all his tradesmen's bills; and I hesitated not in becoming residuary legatee, as I was sure the assets would more than discharge the undertaker's bill; but the body was cold and stiff, and did not readily yield its garment.
I, however, succeeded in obtaining my object; in which I arrayed myself, and went on in search of the colonel's sword; but here I had been anticipated by a Frenchman. The colonel, indeed, lay there, stiff enough, but his sword was gone. I was preparing to return, when I encountered, not a dead, but a living enemy.
"Qui vive?" said a low voice.
"Anglois, bête!" answered I, in a low tone: and added, "mais les corsairs ne se battent pas."
"Cest vrai," said he; and growling, "bon soir" he was soon out of sight. I scrambled back to the castle, gave the countersign to the sentinel, and showed my new great coat with a vast deal of glee and satisfaction; some of my comrades went on the same sort of expedition, and were rewarded with more or less success.
In a few days the dead bodies on the breach were nearly denuded by nightly visitors; but that of the colonel lay respected and untouched. The heat of the day had blackened it, and it was now deprived of all its manly beauty, and nothing remained but a loathsome corpse. The rules of war, as well as of humanity, demanded the honourable interment of the remains of this hero; and our captain, who was the very flower of chivalry, desired me to stick a white handkerchief on a pike, as a flag of truce, and bury the bodies, if the enemy would permit us I went out accordingly, with a spade and a pick-axe; but the tirailleurs on the hill began with their rifles, and wounded one of my men. I looked at the captain, as much as to say, "Am I to proceed?" He motioned with his hand to go on, and I then began digging a hole by the side of a dead body, and the enemy, seeing my intention, desisted from firing. I had buried several, when the captain came out and joined me, with a view of reconnoitring the position of the enemy. He was seen from the fort, and recognized; and his intention pretty accurately guessed at.
We were near the body of the colonel, which we were going to inter; when the captain, observing a diamond ring on the finger of the corpse, said to one of the sailors, "You may just as well take that off: it can be of no use to him now." The man tried to get it off, but the rigidity of the muscle after death prevented his moving it. "He won't feel your knife, poor fellow," said the captain; "and a finger more or less is no great matter to him now: off with it."
The sailor began to saw the finger-joint with his knife, when down came a twenty-four pound shot, and with such a good direction that it took the shoe off the man's foot, and the shovel out of the hand of another man. "In with him, and cover him up!" said the captain.
We did so; when another shot not quite so well directed as the first, threw the dirt in our faces, and ploughed the ground at our feet. The captain then ordered his men to run into the castle, which they instantly obeyed; while he himself walked leisurely along through a shower of musket-balls from those cursed Swiss dogs, whom I most fervently wished at the devil, because, as an aide-de-camp, I felt bound in honour as well as duty to walk by the side of my captain, fully expecting every moment that a rifle-ball would have hit me where I should have been ashamed to show the scar. I thought this funeral pace, after the funeral was over, confounded nonsense; but my fire-eating captain never had run away from a Frenchman, and did not intend to begin then.
I was behind him, making these reflections, and as the shot began to fly very thick, I stepped up alongside of him, and, by degrees, brought him between me and the fire. "Sir," said I, "as I am only a midshipman, I don't care so much about honour as you do; and, therefore, if it makes no difference to you, I'll take the liberty of getting under your lee." He laughed, and said, "I did not know you were here, for I meant you should have gone with the others: but, since you are out of your station, Mr Mildmay, I will make that use of you which you so ingeniously proposed to make of me. My life may be of some importance here; but yours very little, and another midshipman can be had from the ship only for asking: so just drop astern, if you please, and do duty as a breastwork for me!"
"Certainly, sir," said I, "by all means;" and I took my station accordingly.
"Now," said the captain, "if you are 'doubled up,' I will take you on my shoulders!"
I expressed myself exceedingly obliged, not only for the honour he had conferred on me, but also for that which he intended; but hoped I should have no occasion to trouble him.
Whether the enemy took pity on my youth and innocence, or whether they purposely missed us, I cannot say: I only know I was very happy when I found myself inside the castle with a whole skin, and should very readily have reconciled myself to any measure which would have restored me even to the comforts and conveniences of a man-of-war's cockpit. All human enjoyment is comparative, and nothing ever convinced me of it so much and so forcibly as what took place at this memorable siege.
Fortune, and the well known cowardice of the Spaniards, released me from this jeopardy; they surrendered the citadel, after which the castle was of no use, and we ran down to our boats as fast as we could; and notwithstanding the very assiduous fire of the watchful tirailleurs on the hill, we all got on board without accident.
There was one very singular feature in this affair. The Swiss mercenaries in the French and Spanish services, opposed to each other, behaved with the greatest bravery, and did their duty with unexceeded fidelity; but being posted so near, and coming so often in contact with each other, they would cry truce for a quarter of an hour, while they made inquiries after their mutual friends; often recognizing each other as fathers and sons, brothers and near relatives, fighting on opposite sides. They would laugh and joke with each other, declare the truce at an end, then load their muskets, and take aim, with the same indifference, as regarded the object, as if they had been perfect strangers; but, as I before observed, fighting is a trade.
From Rosas we proceeded to join the admiral off Toulon; and being informed that a battery of six brass guns, in the port of Silva, would be in possession of the French in a few hours, we ran in, and anchored within pistol-shot of it. We lashed blocks to our lower mast-heads, rove hawsers through them, sent the ends on shore, made them fast to the guns, and hove off three of them, one after another, by the capstan; and had the end of the hawser on shore, ready for the others, when our marine videttes were surprised by the French, driven in, and retreated to the beach with the loss of one man taken prisoner.
Not having sufficient force on shore to resist them, we re-embarked our party, and the French, taking up a position behind the rocks, commenced a heavy fire of musketry upon us. We answered it with the same; and now and then gave them a great gun; but they had the advantage of position, and wounded ten or eleven of our men from their elevated stations behind the rocks. At sunset this ceased, when a boat came off from the shore, pulled by one Spaniard; he brought a letter for the captain, from the officer commanding the French detachment. It presented the French captain's compliments to ours; regretted the little interruption he had given to our occupation; remarked that the weather was cold, and as he had been ordered off in a hurry, he had not had time to provide himself; and as there was always a proper feeling among braves gens, requested a few gallons of rum for himself and followers.
This request was answered with a polite note, and the spirits required. The British captain hoped the commandant and his party would make themselves comfortable, and have a bon repos. The captain, however, intended the Frenchman should pay for the spirits, though not in money, and sent in the bill about one o'clock in the morning.
All at that hour was as still as death; the French guard had refreshed themselves, and were enjoying the full extent of our captain's benefaction, when he observed to us that it was a pity to lose the boat which was left on shore, as well as the other brass guns, and proposed making the attempt to bring off both. Five or six of us stripped, and lowering ourselves into the water, very gently swam ashore, in a breathless kind of silence, that would have done honour to a Pawnee Loup Indian. The water was very cold, and at first almost took away my respiration. We landed under the battery, and having first secured our boat without noise, we crept softly up to where the end of the hawsers lay by the side of the guns, to which we instantly made them fast. About a dozen French soldiers were lying near, keeping watch, fast asleep.
We might easily have killed them all; but as we considered they were under the influence of our rum, we abhorred such a violation of hospitality. We helped ourselves, however, to most of the muskets that were near us, and very quietly getting into the boat, put off and rowed with two oars to the ship. The noise of the oars woke some of the soldiers, who, jumping up, fired at us with all the arms they had left; and I believe soon got a reinforcement, for they fired both quick and well; and, as it was starlight and we were naked, our bodies were easily seen, so that the shot came very thick about us.
"Diving," said I, "is not running away;" so over we all went, except two. I was down like a porpoise never rising till my head touched the ship's copper. I swam round the stern, and was taken in on the side opposite the enemy. My captain, I daresay, would have disdained such a compromise; but though I was as proud as he was, I always thought, with Falstaff, that "discretion was the better part of valour," especially in a midshipman.
The men left in the boat got safe on board with her. The hands were all ready, and the moment our oars splashed in the water, they hove round cheerfully, and the guns came galloping down the rocks like young kangaroos. They were soon under water, and long before the Frenchmen could get a cut at the hawsers. They then fired at them with their muskets, in hopes of stranding the rope, but they failed in that also. We secured the guns on board, and before daylight got under weigh, and made sail for the fleet, which we joined shortly afterwards.
I here learned that my own ship had fought a gallant action with an enemy's frigate, had taken her opponent, but had suffered so much that she was ordered home for repairs, and had sailed for England from Gibraltar.
I had letters of introduction to the rear-admiral, who was second in command; and I thought, under these circumstances the best thing I could do would be to "clean myself," as the phrase used to be in those days, and go on board and present them. I went accordingly, and saw the flag-captain, who took my letters in to the admiral, and brought out a verbal, and not a very civil message, saying, I might join the ship, if I pleased, until my own returned to the station. As it happened to suit my convenience, I did please; and the manner in which the favour was conferred disburdened my mind of any incumbrance of gratitude. The reception was not such as I might have expected: had the letters not been from people of distinction, and friends of the rear-admiral, I should much have preferred remaining in the frigate, whose captain also wished it, but that was not allowed.
To the flag-ship, therefore, I came, and why I was brought here, I never could discover, unless it was for the purpose of completing a menagerie, for I found between sixty and seventy midshipmen already assembled. They were mostly youngsters, followers of the rear-admiral, and had seen very little, if any, service, and I had seen a great deal for the time I had been afloat. Listening eagerly to my "yarns," the youthful ardour of these striplings kindled, and they longed to emulate my deeds. The consequence was numerous applications from the midshipmen to be allowed to join the frigates on the station; not one was contented in the flag-ship; and the captain having discovered that I was the tarantula which had bitten them, hated me accordingly, and not a jot more than I hated him.
The captain was a very large, ill-made, broad-shouldered man, with a lack-lustre eye, a pair of thick lips, and a very unmeaning countenance. He wore a large pair of epaulettes; he was irritable in his temper; and when roused, which was frequent, was always violent and overbearing. His voice was like thunder, and when he launched out on the poor midshipmen, they reminded me of the trembling bird which, when fascinated by the eye of the snake, loses its powers, and falls at once into the jaws of the monster. When much excited, he had a custom of shaking his shoulders up and down; and his epaulettes, on these occasions, flapped like the huge ears of a trotting elephant. At the most distant view of his person or sound of his voice, every midshipman, not obliged to remain, fled, like the land-crabs on a West India beach. He was incessantly taunting me, was sure to find some fault or other with me, and sneeringly called me "one of your frigate midshipmen."
Irritated by this unjust treatment, I one day answered that I was a frigate midshipman, and hoped I could do my duty as well as any line-of-battle midshipman, of my own standing, in the service. For this injudicious and rather impertinent remark, I was ordered aft on the quarter-deck, and the captain went in to the admiral, and asked permission to flog me; but the admiral refused, observing, that he did not admire the system of flogging young gentlemen: and, moreover, that in the present instance he saw no reason for it. So I escaped; but I led a sad life of it, and often did I pray for the return of my own ship.
Among other exercises of the fleet, we used always to reef topsails at sunset, and this was usually done by all the ships at the same moment, waiting the signal from the admiral to begin; in this exercise there was much foolish rivalry, and very serious accidents, as well as numerous punishments, took place, in consequence of one ship trying to excel another. On these occasions our captain would bellow and foam at the mouth like a mad bull, up and down the quarter-deck.
One fine evening the signal was made, the topsails lowered and the men laying out on the yards, when a poor fellow from the main-topsail yard fell, in his trying to lay out; and, striking his shoulder against the main channels, broke his arm. I saw he was disabled, and could not swim: and, perceiving him sinking, I darted overboard, and held him until a boat came and picked us up; as the water was smooth, and there was little wind, and the ship not going more than two miles an hour, I incurred little risk.
When I came on deck I found the captain fit for Bedlam, because the accident had delayed the topsails going to the mast-head quite as quick as the rest of the fleet. He threatened to flog the man for falling overboard, and ordered me off the quarter-deck. This was great injustice to both of us. Of all the characters I ever met with, holding so high a rank in the service, this man was the most unpleasant.
Shortly after, we were ordered to Minorca to refit; here, to my great joy, I found my own ship, and I "shook the dust off my feet," and quitted the flag with a light heart. During the time I had been on board, the admiral had never said, "How do ye do?" to me—nor did he say, "Good-bye," when I quitted. Indeed, I should have left the ship without ever having been honoured with his notice, if it had not happened, that a favourite pointer of his was a shipmate of mine. I recollect hearing of a man who boasted that the king had spoken to him; and when it was asked what he had said, replied, "He desired me to get out of his way."
My intercourse with the admiral was about as friendly and flattering. Pompey and I were on the poop. I presented him with a piece of hide to gnaw, by way of pastime. The admiral came on the poop, and seeing Pompey thus employed, asked who gave him that piece of hide? The yeoman of the signals said it was me. The admiral shook his long spy-glass at me, and said, "By G——, sir, if ever you give Pompey a bit of hide again, I will flog you."
This is all I have to say of the admiral, and all the admiral ever said to me.