Read CHAPTER XV of The Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence, free online book, by William Lawrence, on

We lay quite inactive in our cantonments until May, when preparations for the ensuing campaign commenced in good earnest; and about the middle of that month we left Portugal, bidding adieu to that kingdom for ever, for we now hoped that the enemy would very soon be compelled to quit the two shattered countries of the Peninsula, where we had done so much, and of late done it with such success. Much more yet, however, we found had to be accomplished before that hope could be fulfilled, as I am now about to relate to the best of my ability.

We first commenced our march in a northerly direction, crossing the River Douro in Portugal; and after about a fortnight’s procedure through almost insurmountable difficulties we arrived at Zamora, a town in Spain, situated not more than twenty miles from the Portuguese frontier on the north bank of the said river. The enemy had been occupying it lately, but had abandoned it on our approach, so from Zamora we followed them to a place called Valladolid, about seventy to eighty miles off, and thence to Vittoria, a still longer march of at least a hundred and sixty miles, during which some slight skirmishing took place between the retreating and pursuing armies.

On nearing Vittoria we came up with the main body of the French posted on some admirable heights, which they had made great use of to prepare for a stubborn resistance: they not only having the advantage of the heights, but we the attacking party having to cross a river below by means of only narrow bridges, which was a great impediment to our progress.

We arrived and encamped here on the 20th of June. On reconnoitring the enemy’s strong position much doubt was entertained as to our success, our army being much fatigued after its tedious march and likewise being very short of provisions. This latter circumstance caused many to set off that night in search of something to eat; but the only thing I with several comrades could find was some broad beans, and those we had to gather for ourselves: we got a good many, but we were certainly not out for them more than an hour altogether, as nearly the whole of my party had to go on duty that night, and as it happened at the general’s own quarters, which were in a house which had been deserted by its inhabitants. We occupied a kind of outhouse adjoining, and having lit a fire in the centre and found a kettle belonging to the house, we set to work and cooked a quantity of wheat that we found stowed away there, and on that made a very good night’s meal. I likewise preserved a quantity and put it into my knapsack for a favourite comrade who had been left in camp in charge of our beans; but when I returned I found I need not have done that, for he had had just as good a meal off the greater part of the beans as we had off the wheat.

Next morning orders came to fall in under arms ready to advance and attack the enemy’s strong position. Our division, together with the Third and Seventh, was ordered to advance against the centre of their lines, so we had to bundle the remainder of our beans into our knapsacks, for to use my comrade’s expression, “it went hard to have to leave any tommy behind in such times as these.” Before we could get at the enemy we had to cross a narrow bridge, which gave us some trouble owing to the enemy’s cannon, which played pretty sharply on us: and a shell pitching into one of our ammunition waggons, it immediately blew up, carrying with it two horses and the unfortunate driver. But once on the other side of the river and formed into line we were up and at them in spite of a murderous fire which they kept up from their cannon. We soon neared them, fired, and then charged, and succeeded in driving the centre over the hill. A column of their body still appeared on our right, and we immediately received orders to wheel in that direction; but the sight of us, together with the play of our artillery on them, was quite sufficient to make them follow their centre over the hill, whither we pursued them, but were unable to come up with them.

I came across a poor wounded Frenchman crying to us English not to leave him, as he was afraid of the bloodthirsty Spaniards: the poor fellow could not at most live more than two hours, as a cannon-ball had completely carried off both thighs. He entreated me to stay with him, but I only did so as long as I found it convenient: I saw, too, that he could not last long, and very little sympathy could be expected from me then; so I ransacked his pockets and knapsack, and found a piece of pork ready cooked and three or four pounds of bread, which I thought would be very acceptable. The poor fellow asked me to leave him a portion, so I cut off a piece of bread and meat and emptied the beans out of my haversack, which with the bread and meat I left by his side. I then asked him if he had any money, to which he replied no, but not feeling quite satisfied at that, I again went through his pockets. I found ten rounds of ball cartridge which I threw away, and likewise a clothes-brush and a roll of gold and silver lace, but those I would not give carriage to. However, I found his purse at last, which contained seven Spanish dollars and seven shillings, all of which I put into my pocket except one shilling, which I returned to the poor dying man, and continued on my way up the hill.

There I saw a French officer come out of a low copse close by, and instantly fired at him, but without doing him any mischief. He made his way up the hill as quickly as possible, using his sword as a walking-stick, but a German rifleman who had been on the look-out cut off his communication and succeeded in taking him prisoner. I did not take any further notice of him, therefore, but proceeded along with my company still in pursuit of the French, who were retreating in all directions in a very disorderly state.

We might have taken hundreds of them prisoners had it not been for our officers, who in their flurry had mistaken them for Spaniards; for Lord Wellington had previously ordered the Spaniards to wear a piece of white substance round their left arm to make some distinction between the French dress and theirs, which was very similar; but the French had got knowledge of this, and a great number of them, who were obliged in their hurried retreat and on account of the difficulties of the road to pass near our lines, had adopted the Spanish white band. Still we fired at them both with muskets and artillery; but when the officers perceived the white on their arms, without bestowing any more consideration as to whether they were the enemy or the Spaniards, they immediately stopped us from doing so. As soon as the French in passing observed this, they sunk into the valley and piled arms as if they were allies; and directly an opportunity afforded itself, they again took up their muskets and fired right into our lines, doing terrible mischief.

I never in all the days of the campaign saw men in such a rage as ours were with the officers. I really thought that some serious consequences would ensue, but as it was, all fortunately passed off as well as could be expected after such a mistake. For if this trick had before been observed, we might have taken the whole body prisoners by a direct movement of our right flank, as no other way lay open to their retreat without their encountering great difficulties; but the chance was now thrown away, and repairs could not be made of the damage done; many in our line having lost their irrecoverable lives, and others being more or less injured. We had only to make what consolation we could from beholding the almost express pace of the party as it retreated from where lay our comrades, either as groaning, wounded, or shattered corpses.

After their signal defeat at Vittoria, scarcely anything was left open to the French but to cross the Pyrénées into their own territory on the other side. Numberless quantities of warlike instruments were captured, such as cannons, muskets, cartridges, and all kinds of ammunition, besides supplies for the army, food, clothing, and the like, which were considering our need at the time of great benefit to the Allies.

I myself had my feet new rigged after this affair, and it was certainly not before I wanted a covering for them; there was certainly a part of the upper leathers of my old pair of boots left, but the chief part of the sole was my own natural one belonging to my foot. I had some little difficulty in procuring them, however; I happened to see a shoe-wagon that had been captured from the enemy and was being fast emptied by a number of our men, so I asked the captain to let me fall out, as my shoes wanted replenishing. He only answered, “No, not until the enemy is fairly away, and then you may do as you please;” so I had to disobey orders again, and on the next halt step off to the wagon to see what I could find. There were, however, such a number on the same errand that I began to despair of getting any boots, but at length I succeeded in getting into the wagon, and I hove out a hundred pairs or so to the mob, while I took up six or seven pairs for myself, or rather some likewise for some of my comrades, in hopes of making off with them quietly.

My hopes, however, were far from being fulfilled, for no sooner was I off the wagon, than I was completely smothered with parties that wanted and craved for boots equally with myself; so I had to let all my lot go, finding that I could not get clear, and got back into the wagon. Then I threw out another stock to the barefooted mob, and replenished my own lot, this time, however, only getting five pairs, and of these I did not succeed in getting off with more than three after all.

I made back to my company thinking to be unobserved, but in that I was again mistaken, for the captain himself seeing me called out, “You will disobey orders then, will you? and what are you going to do with all those shoes?” I told him I was going to put on a pair as soon as possible, to which he replied, “Very well, sir, mind you give the rest to your comrades;” which I did, as that had been my intention from the first; if not, I should not have troubled to get more than one pair, as on such marches as ours it was not likely that any man would care to carry a change in boots, or of anything else but food, which, though seldom denied to us, was more seldom obtained.

At Vittoria, too, Buonaparte’s carriage was captured with some ladies in it. The French army had retreated to Pampeluna, so Lord Wellington sent a sergeant and twelve men under a flag of truce to escort these ladies into the French camp at that place, in return for which Buonaparte behaved very well, for he gave the sergeant a doubloon and each of the men one-half of that sum, and had them escorted out of his lines by a French officer.

Our army meanwhile pursued the enemy until night put an end to our proceedings, when we encamped two or three miles west of Vittoria, there remaining two nights and one day busily engaged on the forage for ourselves. Happily thousands of sheep were found, that the enemy had been obliged to abandon on their retreat. I had been fortunate enough to get one and bring it into camp, and was proceeding to kill it by putting my bayonet through the neck, when Lieutenant Kelly of our company happening to pass, “Hullo, Lawrence,” he said, “you seem a capital butcher.” I said, “Would you like a piece of it?” “I certainly should very much,” he answered, “for I am devilish hungry;” so I took out my knife and cut off one of the quarters just as it was, without even skinning it, and gave it to him, saying, “There, sir, you must skin it yourself.” He thanked me and said, “Never mind the skin, I will manage that.”

Not only myself, but several of my comrades had likewise managed to get a share of these sheep, so that night a general cooking ceremony commenced: our first movement being to go round and gather all the odd sticks we could lay our hands upon, including gates, doors, chairs, tables, even some of the window-frames being knocked out of the many deserted houses and gathered together in one heap for this great purpose; and in a very short time both roast and boiled mutton were seen cutting about in all directions. Nor had we altogether forgotten our former experience of the beans which were growing plentifully at that time and place, and we found that night’s meal as good a one as we had tasted for some weeks past. After it was over we lay down for the night, a body picket having previously been sent out to guard against any surprise from the enemy; but we lay very comfortable without being disturbed the whole night, and as our fires did not cease burning we kept very warm as well.

Next day was likewise chiefly spent by those off duty in search of food, some returning with one or more of such articles as wheat flour, cabbages, turnips, carrots, and beans. A fellow-corporal of mine seeing this, and neither of us having been out, said, “Lawrence, I’ll go and try my luck too, and if the drums should beat for orders, you go and get them for me, and then we can share the profits of my search.” I consented, and he soon went, and was gone for at least two hours before he returned loaded with his findings, having taken his shirt off and tied the sleeves and collar up, and then filled his impromptu sack quite full. He had evidently carried his burden no small distance, for on his return the perspiration was running down as big as peas. “Tare an’ ’ounds,” poor Paddy said, for he was an Irishman, “I’ve got a fine lot of flour, but am as tired as a dog, and as hungry as a hunter.” “Well done, Burke,” said I, for that was his name, “we will soon have a blow out of dough-boys and mutton.”

I accordingly got a tin dish which I took from a Frenchman at Vittoria, and having filled it with our supposed flour, I poured some water on it, intending to make some balls of dough for the pot; when I suddenly found Paddy had been making a great mistake and that it was nothing more or less than lime that he had brought instead of flour. I said, “I’ll be bothered if you haven’t brought home lime for flour;” but Paddy would not believe it, saying it was the best white flour, till I told him to come and see it boiling and smoking in the pot, which quite confounded him, and taking up the remainder in his shirt he hove it out, saying, “Well I’m blessed, comrade, if I ain’t off again, and I’ll take good care not to come back again this time till I have some good flour.”

He had been gone about an hour when he returned with at least half his shirt full, for he had got on the same scent as a great many who had been before him and were now fast returning already loaded. I then commenced making the dough-boys by mixing a little salt and water with the flour, and put them into a kettle swung over a fire on two sticks placed perpendicularly on each side with a cross-bar on the top, gipsy fashion, and by night our supper was hot and well done. As is perhaps well known, dough-boys cannot be very greasy without fat or suet of any kind, but they were quite passable in the hungry state we were then in, and as we had no bread, we used some more of the mutton to help them down. Our fires were then made up the same as the night before, and at the proper time we again retired to rest comfortably and were soon lost in a profound slumber.