An eerie sound penetrated the early-morning fog close to the banks of the Coa. One voice would sing out in German, and then a hundred comrades would sing back the next line. It was a manly chorus that might have unnerved some. But the Rifles knew it was the hussars of the German Legion. They had saddled up after a wet, cold night and were reviving their spirits. A song and a smoke was sufficient to restore the German veterans. A big drooping pipe would be lit up and quickly popped beneath a big drooping moustache. With the clumping of hooves and jingle of saddlery, they set off to find a ford across the river.
The Light Division had come up much closer to the frontier, that 3 April, and Wellington issued orders for a large-scale attack on troops of General Reynier’s 2nd Corps, whom he believed to be just across the river. The French occupied a long ridge, with the Coa running alongside it. Where the river eventually turned away from this feature, there was a bridge, and a town, Sabugal, with its old castle. Wellington wanted to use some fords higher up the river to begin a combined movement that would see the Light Division strike the French at the one end of the ridge, followed by attacks in their flank and, further down river through Sabugal, cutting off their line of retreat. Having played a careful game throughout the previous month’s retreat, the British commander wanted to try a combination that might discomfit Reynier.
With Lieutenant Colonel Beckwith at their head, Right Wing of the 95th marched into one of the fords across the river. In an instant, boots and trousers were immersed in the icy water and, soon enough, they were wading up to their waists. There was a tension in the ranks, a sense that something horrible might await them in the dense fog that obscured the far bank. No professional army would leave a ford so close to its bivouac unguarded, and the riflemen wondered whether a salute of canister might blow their leading ranks to kingdom come or whether some squadrons of chasseurs à cheval might burst through the murk and scythe them down.
In the event, the French bonjour took the form of a ragged volley of musketry from a few pickets, who instantly took to their heels. As the sopping soldiers emerged from the Coa, their commander, evidently fearing the possibility of cavalry attack, kept them going forward a while in column of companies. Each one, around thirty men across the front and two deep, marched close to the heels of the company in front. If enemy horse appeared, they could quickly close ranks behind the leading company so that the whole would form a compact mass able to resist a charge.
Behind Right Wing 1st/95th (about three hundred men that morning) were the 43rd, and three companies of the 3rd Cacadores – generally reckoned the best Portuguese troops, schooled as they had been by Lieutenant Colonel George Elder, a Rifles officer. The ground over which they would have to fight consisted of rolling hills dotted with groves of trees, patches of cultivation and little orchards enclosed by stone walls. This landscape, combined with the weather, meant all sorts of unpleasant surprises might be lurking just ahead of them, but fortunately for Beckwith these uncertainties would also afflict the French commanders.
While the 95th felt their way towards the base of the ridge on the eastern bank of the river, Wellington’s carefully drawn plan began to fall apart. The miasma that hung about the Coa that morning led the different British commanders to reach their own personal conclusions about what was required of them. Some of the brigades that were meant to start off before the Light Division, heading for Sabugal itself, had not even moved, their leaders convinced that nothing could be attempted in such a dense fog. General Erskine, meanwhile, had put himself at the head of some cavalry and, almost as soon as the Light Division’s infantry left their bivouac, went off on a different path to the one allocated to him in Wellington’s plan. Even Beckwith, it must be admitted, for nobody was without fault as the march got under way, had put his brigade across the wrong ford – one that was too close to Reynier’s positions. The division was meant to perform a right-angled turn as it crossed by several fords, with Beckwith’s brigade forming the inside of this hinge, closest to the Coa, then the division’s 2nd Brigade (under Colonel Drummond) in the middle, with the cavalry furthest to the right, or east, moving the greatest distance on the outside of the line as it turned. This way the division would line up to hit the head of Reynier’s corps, atop the ridge, with the Coa protecting its left flank and the cavalry its right. Instead of this happening as Wellington wanted, Beckwith’s brigade had gone across the river, on its own, too close to the French.
Erskine, who was condemned by one officer of the 95th as a ‘shortsighted old ass’, was to play no further part in that day’s drama. Another disgusted rifleman recorded, ‘A brigade of dragoons under Sir William Erskine, who were to have covered our right, went the Lord knows where, but certainly not into the fight, although they started at the same time as we did and had the music of our rifles to guide them.’
About half a mile from the ford, the 95th, leading Beckwith’s brigade, started moving up the hillside, where they expected to find thousands of Frenchmen. The countryside was dotted with walled enclosures and clumps of chestnut trees. The visibility had improved somewhat, and they could now see a couple of hundred yards in front of them. All of this made a surprise by cavalry less likely, and the 95th’s companies began extending up the slope, until the whole of Right Wing formed one long skirmish line.
Among the leading riflemen, feeling their way onto the ridge’s flat top, there was still a feeling of tense anticipation. There had been some more French skirmisher fire, but most of them had run off, and whoever lay behind the enemy pickets had most certainly been given the alarm and would be under arms. The vegetation, enclosures and lie of the land meant, though, that they could still not see far ahead; they moved gingerly across country.
Simmons, leading his company, moved up through the chestnut trees and, as the ground dipped a little in front of them, stopped dead. They had come face to face with a French regiment standing in column not twenty yards in front. The officers who caught sight of the first riflemen sent up a shout of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, which was instantly repeated by hundreds of men in the ranks behind, shaking their muskets at the insolent fools who had just appeared to their front. At moments like this, there was only one drill. Simmons and his riflemen turned tail and started running. They flew back towards their supports and the 43rd, bullets whistling about their ears, smacking into the chestnut trunks as they went. The French drums were thumping now and Simmons’s men knew they were being pursued. Every now and then, a couple of the riflemen would stop, turn around and pick a target, fire, and move on.
Making a little stand, ‘the galling fire of the 95th Rifles at point blank [soon] compelled them to retire,’ wrote one subaltern of the 95th, ‘but rallying with strong supports the wood again became the scene of sharp work and close firing.’ But the French pushed back the Rifles. Beckwith, hearing the firing to his front, deployed the 43rd, ready to receive whatever might appear. As three big French columns arrived in front of them, ‘the 43rd formed line giving their fire, we skirmishers rapidly forming up on their left, opening our fire on the advancing columns.’ The British realised they were heavily outnumbered – perhaps by a factor of four to one. ‘Beckwith, finding himself alone and unsupported, in close action, with only hundreds to oppose the enemy’s thousands, at once saw and felt all the danger of his situation,’ wrote one officer.
At the front of the French division were the 2ème Léger or Light Infantry, 4ème Léger and the 36ème Régiment de Ligne. They advanced, bayonets to the fore, drums beating the pas de charge. Beckwith’s men could not stand in front of this phalanx: they started running backwards.
The colonel understood that at such a crisis his own behaviour had to instil confidence. He was able to halt his men and turn them back again towards the enemy, less than a hundred yards away and now looking down at them from uphill. Beckwith manoeuvred his horse up and down as he ordered his line, a prime target for the enemy’s sharpshooters if ever there was one, steadying his men and directing their volleys. He knew it was going to be a matter of time until Colonel Drummond’s brigade appeared on his right or the attacks by other divisions went in further north – but how long? Another determined French push and they would be fighting with the Coa to their backs. His brigade was about to be crushed.
For some reason, though, the French did not press forward again. Visibility was improving, and even though they could see Beckwith was unsupported, they could not quite believe it. Perhaps the isolated British brigade was trying to gall them into rushing forward into some hideous ambush. However, if the French felt unsure about moving onwards, they knew they could do more to warm the British up a little. Two howitzers were wheeled to their front and started spewing canister – scores of small balls packed into a tin – into the British line. This was bound to make the 43rd suffer and men were soon dropping. An officer of the 95th fell too: Lieutenant Duncan Arbuthnott, his head blown off.
Beckwith could not allow his brigade to be pummelled like this for long. No men, however highly trained, could stand all day under canister from howitzers less than a hundred yards away. Riding forward, he ordered two companies of the 43rd (about 150 or 160 men) to advance behind him, and they set off towards the dark mass of thousands of Frenchmen to their front.
At the very least, Beckwith wanted to stick the French artillerymen with bayonets, but in leading forward this desperate charge, he hoped also that the French might somehow be intimidated into yielding a little ground, so conceding the eminence that commanded the British position. Reynier’s three regiments were about to receive just two companies, but they were not ideally deployed. When they had set off towards the British, their commanders had formed them up with caution. Having come forward in columns, they could not now deploy into firing lines because the French battalions were packed too close together and the countryside would not admit it. When the 43rd got close, they were therefore able to fire a volley in their faces, with only a small proportion of the French – those in the leading ranks – able to reply. Having given their fire, the little band of the 43rd, menaced by the French columns, was soon heading back down towards their mates.
Beckwith rallied them and went up again. The result was the same. ‘Now my lads, we’ll just go back a little if you please,’ Beckwith boomed above the firing. Some of the men were running: ‘No, no I don’t mean that – we are in no hurry – we’ll just walk quietly back, and you can give them a shot as you go along.’ His voice, though loud, remained utterly calm even when one of the French marksmen finally hit him. The bullet had creased Beckwith’s forehead and blood started running down his face. The colonel’s soldiers looked up anxiously, only to hear him call out, ‘I am no worse; follow me.’ When they were back with the main firing line he told them, ‘Now, my men, this will do – let us show them our teeth again!’
The French, having been stalled for forty-five minutes, could now see the battlefield well enough to want to bring the fight to its conclusion. Some cavalry was ordered up, to move around and take Beckwith’s brigade on its unprotected flank. The infantry columns, meanwhile, stood motionless, their progress checked by the firepower of the 95th, Portuguese and 43rd.
Not for the first time, the riflemen watched enemy officers going out in front of their men, sometimes putting their hats on the ends of their swords, sometimes jumping up and down, waving their arms, exhorting them forward for the honour of their regiment and of France. ‘Their officers are certainly very prodigal of life, often exposing themselves ridiculously,’ wrote one Rifles officer. Beckwith galloped up behind one group of riflemen to point out one of the senior French officers who had come forward on horseback. ‘Shoot that fellow, will you?’ he ordered them, knowing that the French would only move forward again if they were inspired by brave commanders. Several riflemen fired and Beckwith watched both the officer and his horse collapse to the ground. ‘Alas! you were a noble fellow,’ exclaimed the colonel before galloping off. The regiments facing the British brigade in this part of the fight had eighteen officers shot, including two of their three colonels. Another French brigade, consisting of the 17ème Léger and 70ème regiments, was now being fed into the battle.
Colonel Drummond, having heard the firing while one mile to the south-east, had begun marching towards the battle. General Erskine sent him an order to stop and not engage himself, but thankfully Drummond ignored it.
While Beckwith’s fight had progressed to the point where everyone involved was exhausted, the squally weather opened up a little, allowing a brief window through which both Wellington, across on the western bank of the Coa, and Reynier, before it closed in again, had caught a glimpse of what was happening. Wellington’s feelings on seeing that his whole plan had miscarried can easily be imagined. Having observed the mass in front of Beckwith he knew that the pressure on his light troops had to be lessened, so he hastened on the divisions that were meant to cut Reynier’s line of withdrawal.
When Drummond’s men, principally the 52nd, finally appeared to Beckwith’s right, the tide was turned. The two brigades fought their way up the hill to their front. The French rescued one of their howitzers but lost the other to the British charge. The battalions of the 17ème and 70ème faced a furious advance. ‘The Light Division, under the shout of old Beckwith, rushed on with an impetuosity nothing could resist, for, so checked had we been, our bloods were really up, and we paid off the enemy most awfully,’ wrote Harry Smith, adding, ‘such a scene of slaughter as there was on one hill would appal a modern soldier.’
Reynier was now engaged in a general withdrawal. A charge by two squadrons of French cavalry onto Drummond’s flank helped hold the British up for a while, as did another downpour. The dense sheet of rain dampened down the firing and also allowed the 17ème Léger and 70ème to break contact with the British, running back into the gloom.
By the end of the day, Reynier’s men had paid a heavy price – suffering casualties of 61 officers and 689 men, as well as having 186 soldiers taken prisoner. Wellington reacted with the unbridled gratitude of a man who had feared he might be presiding over a fiasco, but discovered that everything had turned out better than he could have hoped. He wrote exultingly to a colleague: ‘our loss is much less than one would have supposed possible, scarcely two hundred men … really these attacks in columns against our lines are very contemptible.’ The disparity between the losses was even more dramatic than he imagined, for the British casualties did not exceed 162, and the 95th, for example, had just two men killed. In short, Beckwith’s men stood against five times their number and inflicted five times as many casualties.
Something much more subtle than the bludgeon fire of the British line had been demonstrated at Sabugal. Of the five French colonels who led their regiments against the Light Division, two were killed and two were seriously wounded, only one remaining unscathed. There had been heavy casualties among company officers too – all evidence of carefully aimed fire. The British battalions had been handled with the utmost tactical flexibility: at times much of the 43rd had been skirmishing, at others the 95th had formed a firing line on their flank. Beckwith had deployed his shooters in a variety of combinations with the 43rd fighting and manoeuvring in small sub-divisions. His leadership, considered inspirational by everyone who had witnessed it, had shown that soldiers led by an officer who was both expert and humane would follow him to triumph, even in an apparently hopeless situation requiring the greatest steadiness.
On the day of Sabugal, Brigadier Craufurd had been walking the streets of Lisbon. He had just returned from England and had heard rumours of his division’s battles in March. He wrote to his wife, insisting he was unrepentant about having taken leave: ‘If anything brilliant has been done, it will be to a certain degree mortifying, but I am prepared for it … the happiness of having seen you and our dear little ones, after so long a separation, continues, and will continue giving me renewed energy and strength of mind.’
Craufurd’s ability to put a brave face on the events of his absence began to crumble when reports started flying about after Sabugal, having taken some days to reach the Portuguese capital. It became obvious that the action had caused considerable éclat, the Light Division and Beckwith having gained a fame from it which March’s skirmishing did not provide.
A few days later, when Wellington came to write his official dispatch, a document that would be published in the newspapers, he reflected further on the events at Sabugal. He was certainly not a man given to hyperbole, but it was to be one of the most effusive dispatches he ever composed: ‘I consider the action that was fought by the Light Division, by Col. Beckwith’s brigade principally, with the whole of the 2d Corps, to be one of the most glorious that British troops were ever engaged in.’ As for the leader of the division’s Right Brigade, who still technically only held the post of commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 95th, Wellington wrote, ‘It was impossible for any officer to conduct himself with more ability and gallantry than Col. Beckwith.’
This was a bitter pill indeed for Craufurd, for neither he personally, nor the division whilst under his command was ever to receive such words from Wellington. Craufurd could not contain his feelings when he finally admitted to his beloved wife and most intimate confidante that ‘it would be stupid to pretend to persuade you that I did not feel any regret that the events, which have taken place in my absence, had not taken place until after my return.’
The Light Division’s fame combined with its losses to enhance the prospects for the advancement of its officers. Beckwith was raised from lieutenant colonel to colonel, a step that would eventually remove him from the command of his battalion. On 11 April, Peter O’Hare was also given an in-field promotion, or brevet, to the rank of major. This meant higher pay, and priority in promotion to a major’s post once one was vacant. Indeed, the death of Major Stewart in March had created such a gap: the only way that O’Hare could have been thwarted would have been if some officer already in possession of a major’s commission (for example, in the 2nd or 3rd Battalion of the 95th) had outmanoeuvred him. But Beckwith appears to have observed a rule that the promotions, wherever possible, should be made within the battalion and on the basis of gallantry or seniority (both in O’Hare’s case), rather than allowing an outsider to come in, by purchase or otherwise. This took account of the proud and prickly nature of his battalion’s officers and the difficulty that any non-veteran might experience in commanding their loyalty.
Sabugal was O’Hare’s last battle at the head of the 3rd Company. He would now serve as a major, commanding one of the two wings into which the battalion had been divided. Had the position been sold, it would have cost someone almost £3,000. But O’Hare had achieved the step through serving his time, hard fighting and being lucky enough to stay alive. In making this promotion, he had managed something so difficult – for the average battalion carried five captains for each major – that even many of the better-connected officers in the Peninsular Army had trouble achieving it.
As for the more privileged class, they had come to look beyond the regiment for their advancement. Duncan Arbuthnott, killed at Sabugal, had been almost the only aristocrat to defy this pattern – for he had continued to serve with his company and had lost his life in doing so, whereas others among the handful of landed types who had sailed with the battalion soon concluded that a staff appointment was a more certain route to promotion. Such a post would locate them closer to men of influence and a little further from the bullets. Lieutenant Harry Smith (from a landed but not titled family) became ‘brigade major’ or principal staff officer to the commander of the Light Division’s Left Brigade at about this time. Captain, the Honourable James Stewart, while technically remaining in command of the 1st Company, actually served in a series of staff appointments after arriving in Portugal. Dudley St Leger Hill had left the 95th in August 1810, gaining two steps in rapid succession by going via the West Indian Rangers to the Portuguese Cacadores.
Captain Hercules Pakenham, of the influential Anglo-Irish Longford clan, adopted all of the black arts used by moneyed families to advance an Army career. During his first seven years in the Army, he had changed commission six times in order to boost his rank as quickly as possible. His brother was Colonel Edward Pakenham, the Deputy Adjutant General at Headquarters and, as such, had Wellington’s ear. Young Hercules was appointed Assistant Adjutant General, serving in the 3rd Division not long after the 1809 campaign started.
In August 1810 he made the jump to major by buying a commision in the 7th West Indian Regiment. Of course, he never intended to present himself in that poxy, pestilential, Caribbean hellhole where they served. The usual form among richer officers was to buy a step in the West Indian, African or some other garrison regiment, and progress to a more salubrious corps during the one to two years after purchase, before a failure to appear in front of one’s commanding officer was deemed bad form. Although Hercules had served several years in the 95th, and was well liked by many of its soldiers, his loyalties were only to himself: he wrote home to his father that April that ‘supposing I got into the most desirable Regt. in the service, I should be happy to leave it the moment I could get a step.’
It was possible to buy commissions in the 95th, but the regiment had long harboured a prejudice against such advancement, preferring the principle of seniority. This had led one ambitious officer to abandon it several years earlier with the words: ‘As to remaining an English full pay lieutenant for ten or twelve years! not for the universe! … rather let me command Esquimauxs [sic] than be a subaltern of Rifles forty years old.’ Battle losses since the arrival in Portugal two years earlier created more vacancies and therefore promised more rapid advancement, as George Simmons constantly reassured his parents. At the same time, they hardened regimental officers against accepting newcomers and convinced aristocrats that a safer route to advancement could be found elsewhere.
As for the possible consequences of buying rank in the 95th and throwing one’s weight around, one need not have looked further than the case of Lieutenant Jonathan Layton. He had sailed with the others in 1809 and served in Leach’s company. In Leach’s absence, Harry Smith had commanded the company at Pombal and Redinha. On Smith’s appointment to the staff, Layton took over, even commanding 2nd Company at Sabugal. Beckwith trusted him to handle the company because Layton was a very tough man, a real ‘soldier of fortune’. Layton had no difficulty killing: in fact, he had killed a captain in his own regiment.
When the battalion was about to depart on foreign service in 1808, Layton had argued violently with Captain Brodie Grant, a wealthy officer just twenty-one years old. Layton’s company had marched to Harwich the next day to embark, but Grant caught them up. Layton and Grant argued until, pistols being produced, they determined to fight a duel in a nearby field. Grant was killed and Layton went on trial at Chelmsford Assizes, charged with manslaughter. He was eventually acquitted through lack of evidence.
It cannot be said that society knew its own mind on the subject of duelling. The Duke of York tried to use his influence, while at the head of the Army, to stamp it out. A contest of this kind had caused one officer of the 95th to leave the regiment. In Layton’s case, however, Colonel Beckwith had turned a blind eye, considering Grant the more blameworthy of the two parties. But Layton’s fate was to serve on without the possibility of promotion.
Not long after Sabugal, Captain Jonathan Leach, restored to health, came back to his company and Layton once again resumed his subaltern’s duties. The command of 3rd Company, however, had been left vacant by O’Hare’s promotion.
By early May, the French were back at the frontier, with the Light Division assuming its old positions on the Beira uplands. An enemy garrison had been left behind the new British lines in Almeida, the Portuguese fortress captured by Masséna the previous year, and Wellington placed himself ready to block any attempt by the marshal to relieve it. The armies were ready to do battle again, and the 95th were once more destined to be centre stage.