The Reckoning

January–March 1812

The sack of Rodrigo lasted one intense night. Brandy flowed in the gutters and troops moved from one house to another, turning everything upside down in their desperate search for plunder. The following day, one private of the 95th recollected, ‘We marched over the bridge dressed in all variety of clothes imaginable. Some had jack-boots on, others wore frock coats, or had epaulettes, and some had monkeys on their shoulders.’ The mood was buoyant: many had gained materially by the victory and the butcher’s bill had not been so high.

For those not hardened to war, of course, the sights and sounds of Rodrigo on 20 January aroused feelings of turmoil. Young James Gairdner told his father, ‘I walked around the ramparts that morning at daybreak and never saw such a shocking sight in my life, there lay Frenchman and Englishman dead and dying in every direction, stript and mangled shockingly.’

In small billets in San Francisco or Santa Cruz, outside the walls, there were men in their death agonies. Neither General Craufurd nor Captain Uniacke was to survive his wounds. Craufurd, to the last, murmured his love for his wife. For Uniacke, unmarried, slow death must have been accompanied by anxiety about how his mother, Eliza, would look after her other children. Both men were laid to rest on 25 January.

Craufurd and Uniacke received the military obsequies appropriate to their rank: a slow march, pall-bearers, soldiers with reversed arms at the graveside. In Craufurd’s case, the ceremony was grander, of course – thousands of men of the 5th Division were paraded to line the route. The general’s coffin was borne by sergeant majors from each of the Light Division’s battalions, and behind it walked his friends, Sir Charles Stewart, the Adjutant General at Headquarters and his aidesde-camp, followed by Lord Wellington and the Army’s other generals and staff. Some soldiers had cut a niche at the foot of the breach in Rodrigo’s walls and it was into this space that Craufurd was to be interred. After the reading of a short funeral service, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, the general’s coffin was lowered. A volley of musketry saluted him, followed by another salvo, much louder, from a battery of cannon on ramparts overlooking the ceremony.

The soldiers dispersed afterwards, some Light Division men marching straight through a great slushy puddle as they went – at least one observer detected a kind of silent tribute to their fallen general in this. Wellington’s words home marked Craufurd’s passing in a correct, formal tone, lamenting him as an ‘ornament to his profession’. In their letters and thoughts, the British staff reflected on the passing of a man whose services they had valued but who had been almost impossible to deal with. ‘He is a man of a very extraordinary temper and disposition, it will be difficult to find a person qualified to replace him in the command of the advance,’ FitzRoy Somerset had written, businesslike, shortly before Craufurd’s death. William Napier, who served under Craufurd as a major in the 43rd, later wrote of his character: ‘At one time he was all fire and intelligence, a master-spirit in war; at another, as if possessed by the demon, he would madly rush from blunder to blunder, raging in folly.’

Uniacke’s farewell, by contrast, was more of a wake. His honour guard was formed of several dozen men of the 3rd Company, and the funeral dirge was played by the band of the 1st Battalion. They marched from their quarters to Gallegos, a nearby Spanish village, where a resting place had been prepared in the little churchyard. Finding a grave in consecrated ground had required Corporal Fairfoot, who’d won his spurs as a fighter in two storms that month, to show a rare kind of tact. At first, the priest at Gallegos had refused to allow the burial, claiming it would be an outrage to inter a heretic in his place. Fairfoot assured the priest that Uniacke was Irish, thereby hinting at his Catholicism. The corporal transmitted his message without exposing the dissimulation required of Uniacke in life, an evasion made necessary by the British laws against Papists holding commissions.

Many of Uniacke’s lads had been boozing ever since the storm. ‘The men, who had obtained plenty of money at Rodrigo, got drinking,’ wrote Costello, ‘and while conveying the body to the grave, they stumbled under the weight of the coffin. The lid had not been nailed down so out rolled the mangled remains of our brave captain.’ This profane incident did not shock men so inured to death. Instead, they slung their officer back into his box, resumed their journey, then buried him, before returning to their camp for many a toast to Uniacke’s memory and much late-night talk of his courage.

Harry Smith, recuperating from his own wounds, remembered the last thing the captain had said to him before the storm on the 19th, a reminder that, as senior lieutenant, Smith would probably be a captain by morning. ‘Little, poor fellow, did he think he was to make the vacancy,’ wrote Smith. That was the essence of their business, a highly risky game in which the advancement the officers craved could often be gained only at the expense of comrades. As for Uniacke’s mother Eliza, her situation became quite miserable, and she ended up petitioning for charity, seeking a Royal Bounty or pension to make up for the lost remittances from her dead son.

For some days after the storm, the British troops made new discoveries of deserters in Rodrigo. There had been around two dozen turncoats serving the French garrison there, sixteen of whom were now prisoners. Some were doubtless killed during the siege or storm, and Almond at least had escaped. One of the five men of the 1st/95th who’d deserted the previous autumn, William MacFarlane, having entered Rodrigo before the others, was apparently able to escape with the last French relief column the previous November and to soldier on as a turncoat. As far as his former messmates knew, though, he might well have been slung into a mass grave with the other dead.

On 12 February the captured deserters were marched into a makeshift military courtroom, a hall in the village of Nava de Haver, a place familiar enough to the Light Division men as it was very near where they’d fought on 5 May the previous year. In a garrison, courts martial might have several members, particularly when hearing a capital case. In the field, though, a major general sat in judgement as the president and a captain, the deputy judge advocate, put the case for the prosecution. The men were entitled to speak in their own defence, but much of the first day was taken up with the lengthy reading of charges detailing when they had deserted and the circumstances of their capture.

For those among the prisoners who still dared to hope, there was the consolation that even serious cases of desertion were only punished in England by transportation for life to some dingy Australian colony. As for killing your fellow soldiers, why, Murphy of the 95th had been sentenced to six months’ incarceration for that just before the siege. On the other hand, there had been evidence aplenty in the execution of the Brunswick deserters and some others during the previous two years that Lord Wellington was determined to make a severe example of any men who deserted in the face of the enemy – and those fellows had not even served the French.

When asked why they had all pleaded not guilty, the soldiers spoke of the privations of the previous autumn. They argued they had been driven to desertion by hunger and suffering.

General Kempt gave his verdict on 13 February, the business having lasted a day and a half from beginning to end. ‘The court having considered the evidence adduced on the prosecution against the prisoners, together with what they have severally offered in their defence, are of opinion that they are guilty of the charge preferred against them,’ the official verdict read, ‘and do thereby sentence them, the prisoners [all named] to be shot to death, at such time and place as his Excellency the Commander of Forces may be pleased to direct. Which sentence has been confirmed by his Excellency the Commander of the Forces.’ It was to become quite evident that Wellington wanted examples made of these men.

Confirmed or not, there was still time for some last intercession by the men’s commanding officers. Miles Hodgson of the 95th was among those saved from the firing squad by his superiors, presumably because of the notion that he had been a good soldier in most respects prior to his desertion. Hearing of this in their bivouac, the injustice was not lost on the riflemen, some of whom blamed Hodgson for persuading McInnes of the Highland Company to desert in the first place.

It was not that the others held McInnes entirely innocent in the matter – rather that they would have preferred to see Hodgson share his punishment. As they discussed the condemned men’s fate around the campfire, everyone was pretty much agreed that they would get what was due to them. Some held that the deserters had fought twice as well as any Frenchers and that they had even called out in English as the storm began, ‘Now here comes the Light Division; let us give it them, the rascals!’

McInnes and nine others were duly taken to a clearing in the upland forest one week after their sentence was passed. In order that the lesson not be lost on their comrades, the Light Division was paraded to witness the punishment, and the firing party made up from contingents of its battalions. Each of the prisoners would be shot by members of his own regiment. ‘They soon after appeared, poor wretches, moving towards the square, with faces pale and wan, and all with the dejection such a situation is calculated to produce,’ one witness remembered. The provost marshal and Lieutenant Harry Smith, as major of brigade, supervised proceedings.

Graves had been dug for the prisoners, each being stopped in front of his own last resting place. They then kneeled with their backs to the grave and facing their old regiments. Blindfolds were fastened and they were ‘left for a few moments to their own reflections or prayers, the Provost Marshal proceeded to the firing party’. At the order, the firing squad levelled its weapons and fired.

The smoke from the volley cleared to reveal two men still upright. One, a rifleman, was wounded. The other, Cameron of the Royal Horse Artillery, was untouched, for in a piece of sad incompetence, the provost marshal had forgotten to include members of his regiment in the firing squad.

Harry Smith recalled what happened next: ‘“Oh, Mr Smith, put me out of my misery,” called the wounded rifleman, and I literally ordered the firing party, when reloaded, to run up and shoot the poor wretches. It was an awful scene.’ The provost marshal walked up and finished off each man with a shot to the head.

The regiments of the Light Division filed away from the execution ground. They had seen plenty of death in battle, but there was something deeply disturbing about what they had just witnessed. Quarter Master William Surtees wrote:

I cannot describe the uncomfortable feelings this spectacle produced in my mind – nay, not only there, but in my body also – for I felt sick at heart; a sort of loathing ensued; and from the recollection of what I then suffered, I could not easily be persuaded to witness such another scene, if I had the option of staying away.

Following the execution of its former members, the Light Division was soon under way again, marching south for an appointment with another siege. Badajoz, the last remaining border fortress still in French hands, was their objective, Wellington having resolved to take it as quickly as possible so that he might press on with the campaign of 1812, deeper into Spain. The 95th and its brother regiments faced a series of marches, down through the Sierra d’Estrella mountains to the plains of Alemtejo (where they had suffered such sickness before) and across the Guadiana into Spain.

The columns moving south were commanded under improvised arrangements. Craufurd was dead, Colborne of the 52nd seriously wounded. Others accompanied the column in a state of fragile health, either through wounds or sickness, drifting in and out of their posts as each bout of delirium subsided or rose. Among these officers were: Colonel Beckwith, who had returned from England, in theory to resume command of the 1st Brigade, though in fact he was never well enough to do so; Major General John Vandeleur, the 2nd Brigade chief who now coveted the command of the entire division but had also been wounded at Rodrigo; and Major O’Hare, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Rifles, who had been laid low by a series of fevers. So it was a time of acting commands throughout: lieutenants led companies; Cameron, a brevet major but technically still a captain, commanded the 1st/95th; majors from the 43rd and 52nd ran the brigades; and Lieutenant Colonel Barnard, having arrived less than a year before, was in charge of the entire Light Division.

It was in this atmosphere, in which nobody exactly felt confident of his place, that a grubby prisoner was taken swiftly down the division’s march route and delivered to its provost. Shortly after the previous executions, Joseph Almond had been captured by a patrol of Spanish guerrillas while trying to make his way through to Salamanca. The forests and byways between Rodrigo and that city were intensively patrolled by Don Julian’s men, who were always on the lookout for Spanish collaborators or spies carrying messages. Anyone who seemed out of place soon attracted their attention.

Almond’s former comrades were quickly aware of his capture because he had to join their daily marches, manacled, at the rear of the column. February’s executions had, for many of the men, righted the wrong caused by the deserters’ defection to the French – accounts had been settled. Quite a few of them had been disgusted by the spectacle of the firing squads too. So when it came to Almond, there was a general feeling that they did not want to see another capital trial.

Since the division was marching, it was not possible to convene even the semblance of a general court martial, as had been done the previous month. Instead, the recuperating General Vandeleur would act as president and his staff officer or major of brigade, Harry Smith, would be given the prosecuting role of acting deputy advocate general. The ‘court’ was convened in Castello Branco on 4 March and its proceedings would last but an hour or two. Almond, like the others, pleaded not guilty on the grounds of the sufferings he had faced the previous November.

Smith and Vandeleur did what they believed Headquarters expected of them:

The Court having duly considered the evidence on the part of the prosecution, as well as what the Prisoner has stated in his defence, are of the opinion that he is Guilty of the crime laid to his charge, and do therefore sentence him the Prisoner Joseph Allman [sic] to be shot to death at such time and place as His Excellency the Commander of the Forces may deem fit.

‘The fate of this man excited much commiseration,’ according to Costello. ‘Because of his previous good character, and the fact that he had marched as a prisoner for many days, it was commonly thought he would be pardoned.’ Everybody had learnt the lesson that they were intended to learn from February’s firing squad. Surely someone would step forward and say a few good words for Almond, saving him as Hodgson had been saved – but who? At the time of his desertion, his company had been under the command of George Simmons, a junior lieutenant. As for O’Hare or Cameron, they were hard men all right, but they lacked the connections to feel confident about putting their heads above the parapet in such a situation. Only someone with the stature of a Beckwith could have saved Almond, and he was confined to a sickbed.

On 9 March, the division halted in Castello de Vide, a little hillside spa town in the northern part of Alemtejo Province. Almond’s execution had been fixed by the court martial for the next day. Costello found himself, with several comrades, guarding the prisoner. They were playing cards and chatting among themselves when the provost arrived. There was to be no pardon: the sentence would be carried out the following morning at ten.

Almond sent for the 5th Company pay sergeant and asked for his arrears. Indeed, the prisoner was insistent on the point that the execution could not be carried out until these several pounds had been received. These were made over, one of the guards being sent out to buy some good wine with it. What remained was signed over to Almond’s mother. The prisoner then noticed that one of his keepers had worn-out shoes, so he swapped his own with him, saying, ‘They will last me as long as I shall require them.’

The following morning, 10 March, the Light Division was drawn up as ordered, to witness another execution. A muffled drum was beaten and the band played the Dead March as the prisoner was led out. It was raining a typical, damnable Portuguese winter’s rain, and the grave that had been dug for Almond was soon waterlogged. The prisoner marched up, looked into it and said, ‘Although a watery one, I shall sleep sound enough in it.’ He seemed completely composed, showing no signs of fear either in his step or in the timbre of his voice.

Almond knelt and declined the blindfold with the words, ‘There is no occasion, I shall not flinch.’ The provost, embarrassed, explained that these were the rules. As the firing party made ready, he called out to his guards of the previous night, giving each of them a word and a farewell. ‘As I nodded to him in return,’ wrote Costello, ‘I fancied it was to a dead man. And in two minutes, he was no more. The intrepid and cool manner in which he met his fate drew forth a general feeling of admiration.’ The blindfold went on at last, rifles were presented at their mark, and the damp stillness was shattered by a volley. Almond tipped back into his grave and sploshed into the muddy water like a sack of butcher’s scraps.

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