Read CHAPTER LXVI - NIGHT AFTER TALAVERA of Charles O' Malley‚ The Irish Dragoon Volume 1, free online book, by Charles Lever, on

The night which followed the battle was a sad one. Through the darkness, and under a fast-falling rain, the hours were spent in searching for our wounded comrades amidst the heap of slain upon the field; and tho glimmering of the lanterns, as they flickered far and near across the wide plain, bespoke the track of the fatigue parties in their mournful round; while the groans of the wounded rose amidst the silence with an accent of heart-rending anguish; so true was it, as our great commander said, “There is nothing more sad than a victory, except a defeat.”

Around our bivouac fires, the feeling of sorrowful depression was also evident. We had gained a great victory, it was true: we had beaten the far-famed legions of France upon a ground of their own choosing, led by the most celebrated of their marshals and under the eyes of the Emperor’s own brother; but still we felt all the hazardous daring of our position, and had no confidence whatever in the courage or discipline of our allies; and we saw that in the very melee of the battle the efforts of the enemy were directed almost exclusively against our line, so confidently did they undervalue the efforts of the Spanish troops. Morning broke at length, and scarcely was the heavy mist clearing away before the red sunlight, when the sounds of fife and drum were heard from a distant part of the field. The notes swelled or sank as the breeze rose or fell, and many a conjecture was hazarded as to their meaning, for no object was well visible for more than a few hundred yards off; gradually, however, they grew nearer and nearer, and at length, as the air cleared, and the hazy vapor evaporated, the bright scarlet uniform of a British regiment was seen advancing at a quick-step.

As they came nearer, the well-known march of the gallant 43d was recognized by some of our people, and immediately the rumor fled like lightning: “It is Crawfurd’s brigade!” and so it was; the noble fellow had marched his division the unparalleled distance of sixty English miles in twenty-seven hours. Over a burning sandy soil, exposed to a raging sun, without rations, almost without water, these gallant troops pressed on in the unwearied hope of sharing the glory of the battle-field. One tremendous cheer welcomed the head of the column as they marched past, and continued till the last file had deployed before us.

As these splendid regiments moved by we could not help feeling what signal service they might have rendered us but a few hours before. Their soldier-like bearing, their high and effective state of discipline, their well-known reputation, were in every mouth; and I scarcely think that any corps who stood the brunt of the mighty battle were the subject of more encomium than the brave fellows who had just joined us.

The mournful duties of the night were soon forgotten in the gay and buoyant sounds on every side. Congratulations, shaking of hands, kind inquiries, went round; and as we looked to the hilly ground where so lately were drawn up in battle array the dark columns of our enemy, and where not one sentinel now remained, the proud feeling of our victory came home to our hearts with the ever-thrilling thought, “What will they say at home?”

I was standing amidst a group of my brother officers, when I received an order from the colonel to ride down to Talavera for the return of our wounded, as the arrival of the commander-in-chief was momentarily looked for. I threw myself upon my horse, and setting out at a brisk pace, soon reached the gates.

On entering the town, I was obliged to dismount and proceed on foot. The streets were completely filled with people, treading their way among wagons, forage carts, and sick-litters. Here was a booth filled with all imaginable wares for sale; there was a temporary gin-shop established beneath a broken baggage-wagon; here might be seen a merry party throwing dice for a turkey or a kid; there, a wounded man, with bloodless cheek and tottering step, inquiring the road to the hospital. The accents of agony mingled with the drunken chorus, and the sharp crack of the provost-marshal’s whip was heard above the boisterous revelling of the debauchee. All was confusion, bustle, and excitement. The staff officer, with his flowing plume and glittering épaulettes, wended his way on foot, amidst the din and bustle, unnoticed and uncared for; while the little drummer amused an admiring audience of simple country-folk by some wondrous tale of the great victory.

My passage through this dense mass was necessarily a slow one. No one made way for another; discipline for the time was at an end, and with it all respect for rank or position. It was what nothing of mere vicissitude in the fortune of war can equal, the wild orgies of an army the day after a battle.

On turning the corner of a narrow street, my attention was attracted by a crowd which, gathered round a small fountain, seemed, as well as I could perceive, to witness some proceeding with a more than ordinary interest. Exclamations in Portuguese, expressive of surprise and admiration, wore mingled with English oaths and Irish ejaculations, while high above all rose other sounds, the cries of some one in pain and suffering; forcing my way through the dense group, I at length reached the interior of the crowd when, to my astonishment, I perceived a short, fat, punchy-looking man, stripped of his coat and waist-coat, and with his shirt-sleeves rolled up to his shoulder, busily employed in operating upon a wounded soldier. Amputation knives, tourniquets, bandages, and all other imaginable instruments for giving or alleviating torture were strewed about him, and from the arrangement and preparation, it was clear that he had pitched upon this spot as an hospital for his patients. While he continued to perform his functions with a singular speed and dexterity, he never for a moment ceased ’a running fire of small talk, now addressed to the patient in particular, now to the crowd at large, sometimes a soliloquy to himself, and not unfrequently, abstractedly, upon things in general. These little specimens of oratory, delivered in such a place at such a time, and, not least of all, in the richest imaginable Cork accent, were sufficient to arrest my steps, and I stopped for some time to observe him.

The patient, who was a large, powerfully-built fellow, had been wounded in both legs by the explosion of a shell, but yet not so severely as to require amputation.

“Does that plaze you, then?” said the doctor, as he applied some powerful caustic to a wounded vessel; “there’s no satisfying the like of you. Quite warm and comfortable ye’ll be this morning after that. I saw the same shell coming, and I called out to Maurice Blake, ’By your leave, Maurice, let that fellow pass, he’s in a hurry!’ and faith, I said to myself, ’there’s more where you came from, you’re not an only child, and I never liked the family.’ What are ye grinning for, ye brown thieves?” This was addressed to the Portuguese. “There, now, keep the limb quiet and easy. Upon my conscience, if that shell fell into ould Lundy Foot’s shop this morning, there’d be plenty of sneezing in Sacksville Street. Who’s next?” said he, looking round with an expression that seemed to threaten that if no wounded man was ready he was quite prepared to carve out a patient for himself. Not exactly relishing the invitation in the searching that accompanied it, I backed my way through the crowd, and continued my path towards the hospital.

Here the scene which presented itself was shocking beyond belief, frightful and ghastly wounds from shells and cannon-shot were seen on all sides, every imaginable species of suffering that man is capable of was presented to view; while amidst the dead and dying, operations the most painful were proceeding with a haste and bustle that plainly showed how many more waited their turn for similar offices. The stairs were blocked up with fresh arrivals of wounded men, and even upon the corridors and landing-places the sick were strewn on all sides.

I hurried to that part of the building where my own people were, and soon learned that our loss was confined to about fourteen wounded; five of them were officers. But fortunately, we lost not a man of our gallant fellows, and Talavera brought us no mourning for a comrade to damp the exultation we felt in our victory.