Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

Battles and Sieges.
From the forgotten journal of Sergeant D. Robertson:

Corunna - The story of a terrible retreat


Chapter 1.
(The March to Burgos)

We continued our march towards Burgos, says Sergt. Robertson in his narrative, and when we came to Toro, we met with a party ot dragoons belonging to the army under the command of Sir David Baird, that had landed at Corunna.

They had, in a skirmish with the French, taken four waggons laden with cotton which were proceeding under a strong escort.

We proceeded on our route till we reached Villada. On a party of sergeants of which I made one entering the place to draw billets for the men, we found that it was occupied by a patrole of French dragoons.

There being about half-a-dozen of us, and not a single firelock amongst us we felt rather nonplussed. We proceeded somewhat warily, however, and discovered the French regaling themselves in a wine-house, having their horses tied at the door.

A thought immediately struck us, that if we could make a seizure of the horses we could easily secure the men. Being market-day in the town there were a great many people in it; but the Spaniards, not knowing whether we were French or not, all was quiet on their part.

All went on smoothly till we reached the tavern door and had the bridles in our hands. The dragoons when too late discharged a few shots at us, but without effect when we rushed in and disarmed them and made them prisoners. The French patrole consisted of a corporal and five privates.

When the Spaniards saw what we had done they seemed frantic with joy, and would have given us anything in the market. One of them, on seeing that I had no gloves, and that my hands were cold went to a merchant and bought me a pair.

The army at length came up to us, very much fatigued on account of the state of the roads, which were very heavy and deeply covered with snow. We were ordered to clean ourselves as we were to halt here for some time; but all of a sudden, on the evening of the same day 24th December, we were ordered to fall in for marching.

By eight o'clock we were all outside the town and formed in columns expecting to be engaged by morning. It was a beautiful moonlight night, but the cold was so severe that we could not sit down so we kept walking about till daybreak.

Every heart beat high with the thought that we were to measure arms with the great Napoleon. The notion entertained by the British army was, that the great victories gained by him had been over raw and undisciplined troops; and we ardently wished to see how a British force would act when opposed to a French one under his command.

Every man felt confident of his own prowess when compared with a French soldier's, and nothing was more earnestly wished than an opportunity of engaging, and an order for battle.

But judge of our surprise and disappointment when, about twelve o'clock at night, a staff officer delivered an order from Sir John Moore that we were to go into cantonment and prepare to proceed to England.

And now the horrors of retreat were depicted before our mind's eye in all their dark colouring; - the weather extremely cold, the roads broken and heavy, and the men badly off for shoes, with a distance of some hundred miles from the nearest place where we could find shipping. All ranks called out to stop and fight and not to run away (as we termed it), which would be a disgrace to the British army.

We commenced our retreat on Christmas forenoon at eleven o'clock, and arrived at Mayerga after nightfall. To add to our mortification the inhabitants had barricaded the doors and windows and would not let any of us in.

At this season of the year, and the ground being covered with snow, we thought this treatment very bad. We then had recourse to another method of effecting an ingress, by breaking down everything that opposed our entrance, and from this circumstance arose all the disasters that subsequently befel us on our retreat; for the news was at the next village before us, and so on all the way.

We came to Valdross, the town appeared to be deserted. We were put into a convent for the night, and sentinels were posted at the entrances to keep the men from going out.

On coming to Bounevento, we were all put into a convent where we had to lie on the stair or any place where we could find room. The following day the army continued their retreat.

I was left behind to try and procure some blankets and shoes for the men; but scarcely had our army cleared the town, when the French appeared on the other side of the river. Our rear and baggage guards turned out and marched to a plain outside the town to receive them.

When they came on, our dragoons showed that, though retreating, it was not from fear.

Having got a supply of shoes, I proceeded after the division and came up to it at the end of the stage. This night we were quartered in a miserable little village and had very bad weather.

Through accident, or from a spirit of wanton mischief on the part of some of our grenadier company a house was set on fire, the flames of which communicating with the other houses, the whole village was burned down not leaving a single building with a roof on it in the place.

As the French were close upon us there was not time to discover the perpetrators of the mischief and bring them to punishment.

The road during this day's march was in a very bad state; and on coming up to some of the divisions that preceded us, we found that they had been obliged to destroy a quantity of the stores among which was a cask of rum, the head having been stove in.

A young man of the name of Bruce belonging to the 92nd, was drowned in it; in consequence of his inebriated state he had fallen in headlong, and before he could be extricated was quite dead.

We arrived this night at a large village of the name of Benbevera and were put into quarters. In almost every house we found some of the Spanish soldiers either dying or dead.

The house in which I was lodged contained four dead bodies which had to be removed to the street before we could get accommodation for sleeping. There were two of our men who died here next morning of a fever; their remains were buried by their comrades in the ruins of an old house.

Upon the first of January 1809, we proceeded towards Villafranca. While on the road, a few Spanish peasants stole some ammunition from the cartridge-boxes of several of the 52nd. When captured they were severely flogged by orders of Marshal Beresford, and made to pay a dollar for every round of cartridge missing.

When we came to Villafranca, all the spare ammunition was thrown into the river and every thing that could be wanted was destroyed. This was truly the most disagreeable new-year's day that I ever spent.

At this time we were enduring all the miseries of retreat; - our clothes were fallinor off our backs and our shoes worn to the welts.

From the officer down to the private, we were overrun with vermin, bearing alike the extremities of hunger and cold, and forming altogether a combination of sufferings sufficient to appal the stoutest heart and break down the strongest constitution.

As we had a good position, we wished to make a stand here; but Sir John Moore did not think it proper to risk an engagement with such a superior enemy.

Here we were put into a large inn, and it was the lot of the 92nd to get the stables, which turned out to be the most comfortable lodgings we had during the campaign, although we had nothing but the soil of the stables for our beds.

Indeed, so comfortably did we find ourselves quartered, that next morning, when called upon to march, it required all the authority of the officers to get the men to move. After all, we were forced to leave two of them behind, who were unable to proceed from fatigue and privation.

This morning our real unmitigated hardships may be said to have begun in earnest, compared with which every thing before was but child's play.

The army had now commenced to ascend the Gallican mountains. Here there had once been a good road but it was so destroyed by the heavy rains, and cut up with the carriages that had gone over it, that we could not go a step without sinking to the knees in mud.

The first who stuck on the road was the Paymaster-General of the army. He had brought his lady with him out to Spain, and had got for her convenience a four-wheeled carriage, which was drawn by two fine English horses.

We often envied them when we saw how easily they moved along; and they were at times somewhat troublesome to us, as we had to open out to the right and left to let them pass - not a pleasant matter for poor fellows worn out with the want of food and clothing.

Here at last, the vehicle stuck fast, all the efforts made to extricate it proving abortive, and it had to be left where it was.

This circumstance may give the readers of this narrative some idea of the state of the roads over which we had to make our way; of it those who have not seen any but the smooth macadamised highways of Britain can form no adequate conception.

The snow was now falling very thick and the cold was intense. Having progressed a little farther, we came up to a brigade of artillery which had to be destroyed and the horses shot, it not having been able to proceed owing to the impassable state of the road.

The next part of the wreck of the army were the carts containing the money which we had to make away with, rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy.

The horses were shot and the casks with the money rolled down the side of the hill, which is very steep and high, having at the bottom a deep and woody ravine.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 11 July, 2011.
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