End of the Peninsular War

In 1811 Marc Desboeufs, a lieutenant in the 81st Line, crossed the Spanish border and began his Peninsular War career. His regiment, which had been withdrawn from an easy posting in Illyria, in the Balkans, to support Marshal Massena’s invasion of Portugal, quickly found itself side-tracked to the dirty war against the guerrillas – holding down provinces, garrisoning remote forts, escorting convoys and taking part in anti-guerrilla sweeps. It was a pitiless war which sapped the strength of Desboeufs’ regiment and the manpower of Napoleon’s empire.

General Reille, who governed the province of Navarre, wanted to profit from our arrival by teaching the guerrilla chief Mina a lesson. We left the city at dawn and took the road to Tafalla with 900 men of our regiment, 300 hussars of the 9th Regiment, a cannon and a few wagons loaded with hay and empty chests. These were designed to lure the Spanish into attacking us, as they had a preference for ambushing conscripts escorting convoys. We reached a place called Carrascal and saw a swarm of about 2,000 Spaniards, of which some 200 were cavalry, come sweeping down the mountain to our left. When they reached the foot of the mountain a good number of the Spaniards formed a square, the rest dispersed into a skirmish cloud. A detachment also began to menace our left, threatening our wagons. General Reille quickly made the following dispositions: he pushed four companies of our 1st battalion out to serve as skirmishers, the remaining two companies of that battalion he deployed to fend off the Spanish column threatening the wagons. The 2nd battalion was deployed in line and the hussars were sent off to some trees to the right, just out of range of the Spanish square. Our cannon opened fire, first against the enemy’s skirmishers, then against the Spanish column on our left. When Reille saw that the hussars had reached their designated position and deployed, he ordered our 2nd battalion forward. We drove the enemy skirmishers back, also forcing their column back; our two battalions then formed up together and, when we were no more than 20 paces from the square, we gave a resounding volley and levelled our bayonets. The volley and the disorder caused by the retreating skirmishers, threw the square into confusion; our regiment and the hussars charged together and the Spanish broke. From then on it was no more than a massacre.

Four hundred Spaniards were killed, one hundred were taken and the mountains saved the rest. We lost some thirty men. Among the prisoners, almost all of whom were wounded, we noticed five or six officers dressed just like peasants but wearing jackets sporting an emroidered cockade and the inscription ‘Live and Die for Ferdinand VII’. Some of the prisoners were no more than thirteen or fourteen years old.

Two battalions of the Young Guard, commanded by General Caffarelli, arrived shortly after the battle and set off directly in pursuit. We sent our wagons, prisoners and cannon towards Tafalla and launched ourselves into the mountains in an attempt to cut the enemy’s retreat. Night and a violent storm put an end to our efforts. We returned to Pamplona.

Shortly after, my company received the order to head to Pau to purchase horses and collect our regimental artillery. We arrived at Pau but soon returned to Spain, passing through Bayonne where I saw the Atlantic for the first time. My company was less than a mile from Pamplona when a wheel on one of the wagons broke. I remained by the wagon with eight men, expecting they’d send a replacement wheel. However, before this could be done some sixty Spanish horsemen, who had been shadowing our company all day, bore down upon us. I placed four of my men in the wagon, ordering them to kneel down. The other four I placed under the wagon, telling them to hold their fire until the Spaniards were within ten paces and then to defend themselves with the bayonet if there was no time to reload. I myself climbed onto one of the good wheels, sabre in one hand and pistol in the other. We awaited the enemy. At the sight of our muskets, the leading horsemen reined in and cried out for us to surrender. Luckily, just in time, a part of our company doubled back to rescue us and the Spaniards made off. We entered Pamplona and I resolved to leave the regimental artillery and no longer expose myself to the risk of being hanged or decapitated just because of the loss of a wheel. Fortunately, another officer confessed that he had his eyes on my position; I offered it to him, we went to see the colonel who, succumbing to our pleas, agreed and authorised the change. I joined the fourth company of the second battalion.

After numerous expeditions against the guerrillas, whom we hunted around Estella and Losarcos, our battalion spent a number of days at Puente dela Reyna. We found Marshal Suchet at Segorbe where General Severoli’s Italian division was expected any day. The next day, as we reached the top of a chain of hills, we saw spread out before the luscious plain of Valencia covered in orange and mulberry trees. The towns, and most of the villages, were surrounded by lush foliage and only their bell towers protruded above the trees. The marshal attacked the enemy at dawn on the 26th December 1811. We were marching between rows of trees, listening to the musketry and cannon-fire when the marshal, arriving at the gallop, cried out to our colonel: ‘Victory is ours! The enemy retreats on Valencia!’ ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ cheered the regiment and we threw ourselves forwards. We headed for Torrente, from which the Spanish cavalry was threatening our right, and we charged into the town. The inhabitants, believing all the assurances of the Spanish troops, hadn’t fled.

The four centre companies of our battalion were in the trenches before Valencia on the night of the 2nd January 1812, only some two hundred metres from the town walls, and were set the task of building two batteries under enemy fire. Braving roundshot, canister and shell we made such progress that an engineer officer praised us to the marshal and he, in turn, cited us as model soldiers in an order of the day. He also ordered that we receive a double ration of brandy whenever we were on trench duty.

The next day we again found ourselves under fire, this time when we were sent to occupy some sheds. Unfortunately, some enemy shells sent the sheds alight that night and, making good use of the light thrown out by the flames, the Spanish were able to bombard us as we attempted to save our belongings, our men ducking down each time a shell came over.

We were in the trenches on two further occasions; on the 9th when we were ordered to manhandle cannon forward through the Madrid suburb. As the cannon set themselves up in their new position, we opened fire on the ramparts which, it seemed, were largely defended by monks. These monks scorned our fire and some even lifted young children and babies aloft in their arms and cried out ‘Kill, Frenchmen! Kill!’. That evening we returned to camp, seeing our way by the light of shells passing overhead. More than 3,000 had been fired into the city. Finally, on the 10th, just as we were about to unmask the full force of all our batteries and assault the place it was announced that the city had surrendered and that 18,000 soldiers and twenty generals had been taken prisoner. An hour later the regiment marched along some of the trenches and formed up just by the Murviedro suburb. There we learnt that the brigade was to escort 6,000 prisoners to France along the road we had come down just a short time before. Despite the rain we put ourselves in order so that we could honour the vanquished and soon General Blake, followed by a number of generals and other superior officers, filed past us at the head of the Spanish army. The whole road was clogged with prisoners and our brigade only moved out quite late in the day. We camped six miles from Valencia in a water-logged field near which no wood could be found for the campfires. The soldiers, shaking with cold and denied fuel couldn’t lie down and spent the night leaning on their weapons for support. The bad weather also meant that we were unable to stop 1,500 Spanish prisoners escaping that very night. All the villages we passed through were deserted and it was almost impossible to find food. As we left Sagunto a number of prisoners suddenly broke ranks and darted for some nearby woods. Our voltigeurs caught two and brought them back where General Pannetier, our commander, had them shot as an example. Two days later twenty-eight prisoners were discovered hiding in a church as we moved out. The general, attempting to show some humanity as well as rigorously exercising his duties, ordered the prisoners to draw lots. Those that drew a white card rejoined the column, the other fourteen were shot and thrown into an open grave by the side of the road. Our lack of food was becoming increasingly desperate. A trail of corpses marked our route. At the break of each day the dying prisoners implored an end to their suffering, begging that our soldiers shoot them. Some refused to march and even hung onto our soldiers’ greatcoats until they performed this odious duty. The inhabitants of Teruel, forewarned of our approach, had prepared food for our arrival. From Teruel we marched to Longares where a detachment relieved us of this escort duty.

(After Valencia, Desboeufs’ regiment was relegated to various garrison duties in Aragon in eastern Spain. He commanded at Fuentes but, in November 1812, he was moved to Huesca with orders to hold the town against the guerrillas of that remarkable insurgent leader, Mina.)

In November 1812 I was sent to garrison Huesca along with 100 men of our regiment and an old staff captain who was to act as commandant and oversee the administrative side of things. Two days later, I arrived at Huesca and we established ourselves in an old convent thirty yards away from the town. The convent was walled and square, it had two gates – one which opened onto the main road and one at the back – and it was surrounded by a dry ditch. I posted my troops throughout the building and took all the necessary precautions. I posted twenty men in the town itself and a further four soldiers in the tallest of the town’s bell-towers. These four were supplied with food and ammunition and had instructions to fire on any enemy troops they caught sight of – both to worry the enemy and sound the alarm. Both outposts came back to the convent at nightfall.

Early on the morning of the 27th November musket shots from the bell-tower heralded the arrival of Spanish troops in the town. A peasant whom the commandant sent off to General Paris in Saragossa came back shortly afterwards with one of his ears cut off; a punishment the Spanish metted out the first time they caught someone carrying our correspondence. They shot re-offenders. The Spanish soon surrounded the convent with pickets. I resolved to attempt a sortie aimed at discovering the enemy’s intentions and causing enough tumult in the town that word might get to Saragossa. I waited until ten in the morning. Then I made my dispositions. I would take thirty men with me and placed a further twenty under the command of Lejeune; I split the remainder of the garrison between the commandant and Keroulas, who formed his troops up in front of the convent. These two detachments would protect my rear and could rely on each other for mutual protection. I would go before Lejeune’s troops and he would then take a left at the first turning whilst I would take a right, down a street which came out onto the main road which split Huesca down the middle; we would then advance towards each other, killing or taking prisoner we came across on our way. As we would meet around the centre of the town, I thought that we might even run across the enemy commanders and perhaps even their artillery. We were ready.

Our troops issued from the convent, a handful of skirmishers going first to push back the enemy pickets, which they managed to do without firing. Then, things moved more quickly. We came to the junction and Lejeune and I went our separate ways. Lejeune, coming out onto the main street was surprised to find himself up against a large body of Spaniards. Not understanding the power of surprise he opened fire and, ignoring orders to the contrary, took to skirmishing whilst steadily falling back to the convent. As I turned into the main street I found that there wasn’t a soul in the direction from which Lejeune was supposed to come but, on the other hand, there were some two hundred enemy troops in the other direction. Some of these were carrying their weapons, others had leaned them up against the walls of the houses. I shouted ‘Present! Fire! Forwards with the bayonet!’ and we threw ourselves at them. Two Spaniards fell dead and a good number were wounded; the rest fled, leaving a horse and mule harnessed to a cannon. I ran in amongst the fugitives, slashing to left and right with my sabre but we soon found ourselves opposed by four or five hundred men and were reduced to sheltering behind some church steps and corners of houses as we exchanged fire with this mass. In those days I felt calm, even when a battalion was firing at me, whilst now, as a father and head of family, a single musket shot sends shudders through me. The enemy advanced and I gave the order to retreat; a sentry, posted in the rear, shouted that those troops, which had forced Lejeune to withdrew, were now also coming against us. We turned into a side street and these troops ran after us. As they turned the corner, both sides fired at once. Not one of my soldiers was wounded by the discharge, as the enemy, perhaps because of their haste, perhaps because they were aiming too high, failed to fire properly. We were now falling back along the way we came; at each corner myself and some dozen men would await the enemy, open fire as soon as a suitable target presented itself, and then fell back to the next corner. I had to do this as the streets were quite wide and the enemy could have wounded a number of my men if we had not protected the rear in this manner. The Spanish too were firing and, as I peeked out from behind the corner of a house to observe them, I was hit in the hand and dropped my sword. Another ball hit me near the shoulder and a third ball tore my clothes and bruised my elbow. Fortunately, we were near the convent; I picked up my sword and re-entered the building with all my soldiers, only three of whom were wounded. I was told that the cannon had had to be abandoned when the mule harnessed to it had been wounded and we were unable to drag the piece away. The surgeon tended my wounds. The ball near the shoulder had grazed the bone; any closer and I would have had to have my arm amputated. Quite possibly that would have killed me.

The Spanish occupied all the houses near the convent and were at work inside the houses throughout the night. The next morning they unmasked a battery of three cannon and a mortar. The guns opened up at once. At around four in the afternoon, a Spanish officer stepped forward and read out a summons in the name of Mina. This general said that there was a practicable breach and, in addition, two mines which could be detonated that night. Nevertheless, he admired such brave men as us sufficiently to offer us honourable terms – we would be allowed to depart for Saragossa with our arms and baggage. The commandant, listening to my advice, announced that we preferred death to dishonour and that we calmly awaited their next move. There was no more firing that night and, early in the morning, there was considerable surprise when the four men from the bell-tower appeared at the gate and announced that the enemy had retreated as they had been warned that a relief column from Saragossa was on its way. At around nine three hundred hussars, a battalion of our regiment and one of the 10th, all commanded by Colonel Colbert, arrived at Huesca and were pleasantly surprised to find us still holding out. Our flag had been shot down during the fighting.

(Events were turning against the French in Spain and by the summer of 1813 Napoleon’s commanders were in full retreat. Field armies withdrew, to deliver a punishing series of counter-attacks later in the year, but most French garrisons were left to fend for themselves against the rising tide of Spanish and allied success. Desboeufs found himself in just such a situation.)

From that time on the forces available to our enemies grew and grew. We had running fights in the streets and alarms every night as groups of Spanish guerrillas darted into town to steal everything from books from the library to lead from the church roof so that they could manufacture cartridges. As it would have been sufficient for the Spanish to overcome a sentry or bribe one to massacre every last one of us we officers had to make our rounds every quarter of an hour and I personally visited my sentries four or five times a night. During the day I placed myself at the key points of the defence and oversaw everything with my own eyes.

On the 30th June Chapalongara, at the head of 4,000 infantry and 500 cavalry from Mina’s division swept into the town and announced that in less than a week there would no longer be any French in Aragon. He occupied a house close by our fortified convent, in which we were now trapped. Convinced that we couldn’t escape, the Spanish were prepared to blockade us rather than storm the place as this would have cost them lives. We were deprived of news from Saragossa and a number of peasants whom I sent off with orders to make their way their either disappeared without trace of came back with their ears missing. Finally I managed to convince a man, whose father we were holding hostage in the convent, to agree to go. He had two brothers in the ranks of the insurgents and was a known patriot; thus, he had no difficulty in making it to Saragossa and, on the 8th July, returned to us. He showed a letter to our commandant; the commandant changed colour and ushered me into his room, closing the door behind us. General Paris had had to evacuate Saragossa, had pulled in all his other garrisons and attempted, on three occasions, to get an order to us to abandon Huesca. He was now ordering us to do as we awe fit under the circumstances. ‘What do you think?’ asked the commandant. ‘We must leave tonight’, I replied, ‘I’d prefer to die with my weapons in my hands in open country than surrender’.

I let my soldiers sleep and the sentries did their rounds with a complete semblance of normality. At ten I called in my sergeants and gave them my orders. They were surprised to learn that we intended to make our escape and head for France. For too long they had had no indication of what was going on outside Huesca. I ordered one of them to collect those wounded capable of following us and had the others wake the soldiers one by one and to make signs that they should not talk. The soldiers were to wear sandals, form up in the courtyard and fill their knapsacks with cartridges and biscuits taken out of the magazines by those on duty. I asked that the sergeants guaranteed complete silence, something possible with soldiers who, like mine, were accustomed to sorties during the night.

No sooner had the detachment formed up than I gave the order to observe silence and to use the bayonet alone if it came to a fight. We left a drunken soldier behind along with ten sick soldiers. These I bade shut the gate after we had gone and left a letter with them addressed to the Spanish commander and asking him to treat these men with humanity, just as we had treated the Spanish sick at Barbastro and other places.

Just as we were preparing to leave, firing broke out in one of the suburbs. The commandant was all for abandoning our plan, convinced we had been discovered. He wanted to delay our departure until the next day. I persuaded him that we our project would be discovered and so he placed himself at the head of our detachment and I brought up the rear. They lowered our little drawbridge and we went out of the secondary gate. Only twenty yards from the convent, one of our mules attempted to mount a mare carrying a sick hussar. This hussar, crushed by the mule’s weight began screaming and we were forced to finish off the mule by bayoneting it in the throat. Just then we heard more firing in Huesca and the alarm was sounded by the vigorous beating of drums. We marched along the Ayerbe road for an hour and then turned off the road sharply to the right. We now had to pass through a village in order to climb into the mountains. I went ahead with five or six men. At the entrance to the village a man shouted ‘Who goes there?’. We grabbed him and I demanded to know whether or not there were guerrillas in the village. At first he swore there weren’t; then, as I threatened him, he admitted that there were about 100 irregulars in the village. I placed him between four soldiers and told him that he would guide us to Bribiesca, avoiding all contact with enemy cantonments; I gave him my word of honour that, if we arrived safely at our destination, he would be able to return safe and sound. However, at the slightest hint of treachery, we would run him through with the bayonet. For extra security we held on tightly to his coat tails.

The commandant, fully aware that we needed to be in the mountains before dawn, marched on rapidly. This made it difficult for the tail of the column to keep up and despite my efforts to keep the ranks together a few soldiers found it impossible to keep up. It was because of these stragglers whom I allowed to throw away their knapsacks and even their muskets, that I myself lost touch with the main column. I found myself staggering through fields, the night was pitch black and I was tormented by the fear that each step I took carried me further from my comrades. However brave one might be, it is impossible to avoid emotions like that in such circumstances. Finally, I ran into a straggler who had just dropped out from the main column; he directed me towards it and I ran to the head of the column. The commandant had the column halt and allowed some time for order to be re-established in the ranks.

At dawn we heard firing break out behind us but, passing through some woods, we discovered that the Pyrenees were only some two miles away. We came across a track leading to a village in the foothills and I sent two sergeants and forty of my least tired soldiers on ahead towards the village in order to secure the way forward. The occupation of the heights would decide our fate. As I myself gained the top of the height I turned and awaited some stragglers. Just then the enemy cavalry arrived at the gallop, swept through the stragglers and cut them down. The plain below us seemed to be covered in swarms of troops in an instant, their arms glittering in the sunlight. We pushed on up the mountain, towards the summit, and came across a little lake where various tracks converged. My soldiers, literally worn out by fatigue and believing that their luck had run out, threw themselves to the ground and begged that I allow them to rest awhile. As I was sure that the slightest delay would have the most fatal consequences, I forced the fittest forward to occupy a neighbouring height and had the rest follow them. Just as we were gaining the height, about two hundred guerrillas swept over the place we had formerly occupied. They fired a volley, killed two of my men and wounded seven. I hurried my detachment on, keeping back a handful of men to contain the Spanish. We skirmished and they killed another one of my men and wounded two more. Seeing that the difficult terrain made it impossible for them to cut our retreat, and realising that they were losing more men, the Spanish, after following us some distance, finally decided to call off their pursuit.

We still weren’t out of danger. Those Spaniards who had occupied Ayerbe could still push through the mountains and block our retreat; we could only prevent them from doing this by reaching the village of Bribiesca and putting the river Gallego between us. We reached the village at midnight and I placed myself at the bridge. We pulled up all the planks and left only one, which the stragglers could use to reach safety. At dawn we inspected the detachment. We had 121 men of our regiment, twenty-eight of the 10th Line, six Neapolitans and four hussars. Of the garrisons of the ten French forts in Aragon, ours was the only one to attempt to regain France.