The 95th’s pickets greeted first light, that 24 July, with the heartfelt relief of men who have endured a sleepless and rain-sodden night. Their duty was a difficult one, for they knew that Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps lay just in front of them. The snoozing men behind depended entirely on their outlying sentinels for their safety. For several days, the Light Division had been manoeuvring about the plateau between the Coa and Agueda rivers, often glimpsing the French and firing into their forward scouts. Ney had taken Ciudad Rodrigo by assault and, having secured this fortress, everybody now expected him to move into Portugal.
Craufurd had posted his division so that it might cover the withdrawal of some supplies from Almeida. These wagons would have to be taken from the Portuguese stronghold, which would be Ney’s next target, two and a half miles down the road. Craufurd’s battalions ran from north, just by the walls of the fortress, to south, where they were close to the only line of withdrawal across that difficult obstacle. From top to bottom they went: 43rd, closest to Almeida; 3rd (Portuguese) Cacadores; 1st Cacadores; 52nd. These Portuguese were clad in brown uniforms and had been trained to perform the same skirmishing tactics as the division’s British troops. They were also being equiped with the Baker rifle, although there never proved enough for all of these rangers to have one. Apart from the sprinkling of British officers who led them, the Cacadores were generally stocky, black-haired, olive-skinned and enjoyed their own amusements. In bivouacs they would laugh and halloo into the night, gambling over cards, and they returned the suspicious glances of Craufurd’s British soldiers with interest.
The Rifles covered the front of this line of battalions: the 1st Company manned the outlying picket in the northern half, the 2nd Company (Leach’s) the southern. Behind them, close in to the main resting place, was a second line of lookouts, the inlying picket in the northern part of the line, which was manned by O’Hare’s 3rd Company. The remainder of the battalion was sleeping, but fully clothed as usual, just behind their pickets, ready to act in support. These men slumbered under their greatcoats or blankets in a warren of little enclosures, bounded by stone walls, where the locals grew their grapes, apples and olives.
As the sun began to warm the air, the ground returned a little of the night’s downpour to the atmosphere in a heavy mist that hung thickest in the hollows. Craufurd’s pickets stoked their fires and got going with a morning brew. Some riflemen came around with dry cartridges in case the rain had spoiled those in the sentries’ pouches. In the main part of the Rifles’ bivouac the reveille bugles had sounded, and captains were beginning to form their companies, calling out the muster roll.
All of these telltale sounds travelled through the mist to the French scouts who were working their way across the upland. Marshal Ney had prepared himself for a tough contest. The spearhead of his force was made up of the Tirailleurs de Siège, light infantry picked from several regiments, who had formed into a special battalion weeks before, while Ney was attacking the fortress of Rodrigo. They would move forward with cavalry on their flanks and columns of infantry some distance behind.
With the morning mist burning off, the riflemen on picket began to realise the magnitude of their crisis. One of the 95th’s subalterns noted: ‘As the morning fog cleared away we observed the extensive plains in our front covered with the French Army as far as the eye could reach.’ The alarm was given and roll-call broken off in the main bivouac, as men packed away their gear, took up their arms and began lining the stone walls of the orchards and vineyards where they had slept.
Ney was moving with twenty-five thousand troops on the four thousand or so of Craufurd’s Light Division. The crackling of musketry between the leading voltigeurs and the rifle picket announced that the action was beginning. For weeks, the better-informed men of Wellington’s army had been worrying about the risks of keeping the Light Division east of the Coa. Major Charles Napier, a clever officer attached to Craufurd’s staff, had written in his journal on 2 July: ‘If the enemy was enterprising we should be cut to pieces … we shall be attacked some morning and lose many men.’ On 16 July, disturbed that they had still not withdrawn, he wrote: ‘Why do we not get on the other side of the Coa? … our safety has certainly been owing to the enemy’s ignorance of our true situation.’ Wellington himself had echoed these views, with orders to Craufurd not to risk a battle with the rest of the British Army across the Coa and therefore unable to support him.
As the French brigades marched forward that morning of 24 July, drums beating, Craufurd had one more chance. It would still take time – perhaps even an hour or two – for Ney to bring up the columns of his main force and shake them into their battle line, ready for the assault. All the time the drums sent their repetitive signal – a refrain the riflemen nicknamed ‘Old Trousers’. This could allow the Light Division to get away – for even the 43rd, furthest from the bridge, were not much more than two miles from it. Craufurd decided to stand. He sent his aide-de-camp, Major Napier, around the battalion commanders, telling them they must hold their ground while some wagons of artillery ammunition and other supplies were taken across the bridge.
Seeing hundreds of French skirmishers moving up through the rocky terrain, the outlying pickets began running back towards their supports – some were cut off, the French bagging their first prisoners. O’Hare’s company was formed up, rifles rested on stone walls, ready to give covering fire to the pickets running towards them. As they caught sight of the first Frenchmen, bobbing and ducking among the trees and drystone walls, they started finding their targets, leading them, squeezing the trigger and watching them drop with a yelp or a slap of metal on flesh. But these tirailleurs were no recruits. They moved with a mutual confidence born of years of campaigning, timing their dash from one bit of cover to another during moments when they calculated their enemy would be reloading. Some were good shots too: Lieutenant Coane, falling wounded with a ball in his guts, was sent to the rear.
This contest between light troops had been going on for an hour when the main assault columns closed up and began their evolution into attack formation. Simmons observed: ‘The enemy’s infantry formed line and, with an innumerable multitude of skirmishers, attacked us fiercely; we repulsed them; they came on again, yelling with drums beating, frequently with the drummers leading, often in front of the line, French officers like mountebanks running forward and placing their hats on their swords and capering about like madmen.’
A company or two of Rifles, totalling perhaps 120 men, would stand no hope of defending themselves against whole battalions of French, each one four times their number. Ney’s men had been able to get some of the cannon up too, and they were beginning to belch fire. O’Hare knew that his boys would be slaughtered or overwhelmed if they did not fall back. He ordered half his company, Lieutenant Coane’s platoon (under Simmons now), to move to a new defensive line, while Lieutenant Johnston’s covered them.
Craufurd’s line could defend itself better for as long as its flanks were anchored; the left or northern one on Almeida fortress, with its heavy artillery, the right on the Coa gorge. As the Rifles were pushed back, though, the French commanders could see a gap opening on the British left. Some squadrons of the 3ième Hussards saw their moment and rode around the riflemen, turning the Light Division’s flank.
The moment soldiers realised they had been outflanked, there was every risk of panic. A cry of ‘The French cavalry are upon us!’ went up around O’Hare’s company. They were running now, desperate to save themselves, glancing over their shoulders, gasping for breath as the cantering hussars got closer. The riflemen were trying to reach a line of the 43rd that had formed up, ready to cover them. But with little more than a hundred yards to go, O’Hare’s men lost their unequal contest with horses. The hussars were among them.
A slashing of cavalry sabres had begun, the crunch of metal on bone making itself heard above the general shouting, shooting and jingle of saddlery. ‘A fellow brandished his sword in the air, and was about to bring it down upon my head,’ Simmons wrote. ‘I dropped mine seeing it was useless to make resistance. He saw I was an officer and did not cut me.’ O’Hare’s men were starting to surrender.
The officer commanding the three companies of the 43rd, watching all this, knew he could not easily order a volley. That might kill as many British as it would the enemy hussars. But he decided, after a moment’s agony, that there was nothing to be lost. His men fired – not a bludgeon volley like some line fellows might, but a discharge in which his soldiers tried to put their training to good use and aim carefully at a target.
With balls flying into the mêlée, the hussars were momentarily stunned. Captain Vogt, one of their squadron commanders, fell dead from the saddle. Should they attempt a charge on the 43rd or fall back? Simmons and some of the other riflemen decided they had not surrendered after all, and taking advantage of the confusion, ran for the 43rd’s line. The volley had not altogether discriminated between friend and foe – Private Charity, for example, somehow made it back with Simmons despite two fearsome sabre wounds and one of the 43rd’s balls rattling around in him.
Some Portuguese gunners in the fortress who’d seen the fighting had realised the dangers of Craufurd’s flank being turned and opened up with their heavy guns. They mistook the darkly dressed riflemen for enemy so the balls, alas, killed without discriminating between the French and the 95th.
At its northern end, Craufurd’s line was crumbling. But it was being assaulted at its other extreme too, by none other than General Ferey and his brigade, who gave the 52nd a heavy fight.
The 43rd and 95th being driven back, all order was beginning to vanish – men of the two battalions and different companies became mixed as they jogged along. One of the Portuguese battalions started to disintegrate, hundreds of its troops deciding to save themselves by running back to the bridge. As these fugitives reached the defile, they pushed past the last few wagons of ammunition, causing a general jam.
Breathless, their mouths bone-dry through the biting of cartridges and hours of exertion, the riflemen dragged themselves across one stone wall after another. The French followed up determinedly: ‘They sent their light infantry in abundance like swarms of bees and they were regularly relieved by fresh troops so that our poor devils not only laboured under the disadvantage of numbers but fresh men, who hunted us down the mountains like deer.’
The fighting had been going on for hours, as men of the 95th and 43rd stumbled towards the bridge. A couple of knolls stood overlooking the crossing, with the rocky ground sloping steeply down to it. The road from Almeida needed to zigzag to negotiate this last tricky drop down to the span. From this vantage point, Lieutenant Colonel Beckwith could see that the battle had reached a crisis. The bridge was clogged with wagons and men, while the French were just a few hundred yards from it. The 43rd and companies of 95th that were with it were best positioned to hold the heights as these last men crossed, but to his horror, Beckwith realised that the the 52nd was still fighting far out to the front, evidently having received no order to withdraw, and was about to be cut off. Beckwith saw Major Napier nearby and ordered him to get through to the 52nd and tell Colonel Barclay to fall back to the bridge without a moment’s delay.
Private Costello was among those scrambling back towards the bridge when he took a bullet under the right knee. Another rifleman answered his cries for help, picked up Costello and staggered forward with the wounded man piggyback. Crack! Another ball – it smashed its way through the Good Samaritan’s arm and into Costello’s thigh. Both men went down. Costello’s saviour was now unable to carry him, for one arm hung bloody and useless at his side. Both of them staggered on, getting the help of some other riflemen.
With the elements of the Light Division that remained on the eastern bank of the Coa having contracted their line from one a couple of miles long at the start of the business to one of a few hundred yards, the French companies that pursued them began firing to much greater effect. Leach explains it in a letter home: ‘Now the fire began (as you may naturally fancy) to be cursedly hot from the French because the nearer we drew to the bridge, the more we concentrated and from behind every wall and rock they directed their fire at the bridge and its vicinity.’
The French forced back the troops on top of the knolls overlooking the bridge, and once their shooters were lining that vital ground, the predicament of the defenders became truly desperate. Balls were whistling about the ears of the riflemen, ricocheting dementedly off rocks, whining into the air. Every now and then there’d be the slap of a bullet hitting flesh and the cry of another man going down. Two of Leach’s subalterns, brothers called Harry and Tom Smith, sank moments apart, both with leg wounds. Lieutenant Pratt fell, a ball having gone straight through his neck, splashing blood all over the rocks. Many of the riflemen had been firing for hours and could not reply: they had run out of ammunition. If the French wheeled a couple of guns up to the ridge, the British would be massacred.
Sensing the danger, Major Charles MacLeod of the 43rd rode his horse up the steep slope, its hooves somehow planting themselves between the big stones, and called on the men to follow him. About two hundred Green Jackets and redcoats fell in behind, bayonets fixed, determined to drive the French skirmishers off the knolls from which they were doing such slaughter. Second Lieutenant George Simmons was among them, rallying some of the few remaining 3rd Company men with him.
As he was nearing the top of the slope, the men all around him cheering, Simmons felt a hammer blow that sent him crashing into the rocks. ‘I could not collect my ideas, and was feeling about my arms and body for a wound until my eye caught the stream of blood rushing through the hole in my trousers, and my leg and thigh appeared so heavy that I could not move it,’ he would write. A sergeant of the 43rd stooped over him, tightening a tourniquet around the leg, but as he straightened up, a bullet blew off the top of his head. MacLeod’s attack reached its objective, the French driven back for the moment, allowing precious minutes to complete the evacuation. Companies of the 52nd, responding to Major Napier’s urgent message, came pelting back through this position, saving themselves from death or capture.
Many of those crossing the bridge were now the walking wounded, or were carried by mates, as Costello had been. A defensive line had been prepared on the western side, anticipating the withdrawal of the last couple of hundred men. Captain Alexander Cameron’s men of the 7th or Highland Company of the 95th were crouching behind rocks, ready for anything. Behind them were several rallied companies of the 43rd and some cannon.
As the soldiers carrying the wounded Simmons rushed up the British-held side of the gorge, trying to find a surgeon, they ran into Craufurd instead. He ordered them to put the officer down on the hillside and go back. Simmons believed that Craufurd’s prejudice against him, stemming from the loss of his personal wagon on the march to Campo Maior, had come into play, and that his brigadier cared not a jot if he bled to death on this godforsaken spot. But the Green Jackets ignored the order, one shouting at Black Bob, ‘This is an officer of ours, and we must see him in safety before we leave him.’
With almost everyone across, remnants of the last few companies began scrambling down the rocks, trying to make it down to the bridge in the moments it would take for the French to seize their opportunity, retake the knolls, and start shooting down on them again. ‘The French in a second occupied the hill which we left, blazed away at us in crossing and as we ascended the opposite heights made damnable work amongst us,’ one of the last across wrote in a letter home.
To his consternation, Captain Leach found a lone artillery officer on the bridge with a tumbril full of ammunition, pleading for help. The riflemen helped push the wagon across to the western side and with that, the Light Division was finally over.
Ferey’s men, however, did not intend to leave the matter there, for they had driven their enemy from the field, and success in war demanded that they exploit such an advantage to the full. The voltigeurs had worked away throughout the first part of the day in skirmishing; it was now time to employ men of the other elite company in each battalion, the grenadiers. Colonel Jean-Pierre Bechaud called out to the grenadiers of his 66ème Régiment to rally around him, gathering others from the grenadier company of the 82ème. Just as the light companies had their role in the scheme of war – to skirmish up ahead of the regiment – so the grenadiers were those you sent for when some desperate feat, a storming, was required.
A cheer and a fusillade went up from the French covering party, as the grenadiers pelted down the rutted road to the Coa bridge. The 95th watched them coming, many of them choosing a target and leading him slowly with their rifle. It was vital, though, not to let fly too soon. As the first Frenchmen made it onto the bridge, muskets held out in front, bayonets fixed, their red grenadiers’ epaulettes bouncing up and down on their shoulders, the crackling of rifle fire at last began.
Captain Leach fixed on Captain Ninon, commander of the 82ème’s grenadier company, tracked him with his rifle as he came onto the bridge, and squeezed the trigger. ‘I fired at him myself with my little rifle (which still stands my friend) and cursed my stupidity for missing him, but a running person is not easily hit.’
Each storm had its moment of decision, one at which the moral strength of one side would overcome the other. If the grenadiers kept moving forward, many British troops would run. If the attack faltered under heavy fire, the French officers would have trouble urging any more men to go to a certain death or capture.
Leach fired again and dropped one of the grenadiers. But most of those who’d been engaged that morning had weapons that had become too hot and fouled to fire. Cameron’s Scots, though, were fresh, and they kept up a lethal barrage of aimed shots at the head of the French column.
It was the turn of the French grenadiers now to cower behind cover. Colonel Bechaud, shouting, trying to urge them on, made an obvious target for one of the British marksmen: he fired and put a bullet in the Frenchman’s chest. Captain Ninon, surrounded by wounded and dying men on the bridge, was unscathed by the hail of balls around him – but he did what even the bravest man must do when he sees the situation is hopeless, and doubled back to his own side of the bridge.
By 4 p.m. the fire was dying down. Everybody knew that the French would not be able to force the crossing. It was not long before an officer appeared with a white flag of truce, calling out to the British side for their agreement to rescue the wounded. Both sides sent down parties to carry off the groaning men who lay mixed up on the bridge and its eastern side. In a few cases, words were exchanged between the two sides as they worked.
The Rifles fell back some way from the bridge and made their bivouac. Many had been fighting for nine hours without interruption and were completely knocked up. Officers and soldiers with barely the energy to speak asked after friends. Half of 3rd Company were on the other side of the Coa, captured, as were quite a few men of the 1st Company. Some soldiers of the 52nd realised that they too had left dozens of men on the wrong side: in their case the result was happier, the men lay low and found their way back west later.
What was clear to everyone, though, was that the Light Division had suffered hundreds of casualties: 333 to be precise. The 95th had accounted for 129 of them, including 12 killed and 54 missing, presumed captured. Among subalterns there had been a shocking toll of wounded – eight were on their way to the rear, where God knows what fate awaited them. O’Hare and Fairfoot had come through unscathed, as had William Brotherwood – one of those men in Leach’s company who had slogged all the way back from the outlying picket. The Light Division had at least exacted a heavy price from the enemy, inflicting around five hundred casualties.
On the evening of the 24th and in the days that followed there was deep, hard anger. One subaltern mourned that ‘all this blood was shed for no purpose whatsoever’. As they talked it over, they found comfort in the heroism of MacLeod, leading his charge up the hill, or in the cool presence of Beckwith issuing orders when their divisional commander had been absent from the hot side of the Coa. One young officer was adamant: ‘But for Colonel Beckwith our whole force would have been sacrificed.’ In all of this, they sought to find something redeeming in the defeat of their division by Ney, for a defeat it most certainly was.
The French were delighted with the day’s work. General Loison, whose division had struck the main blow, wrote in his official report to Ney, ‘The Combat of the 24th proves to [the British] there is no position the French infantry cannot take and to our soldiers that the English Army is not even as hard to beat as the Spanish and Portuguese.’
Charles Napier, who had delivered several key orders, felt ‘the bloody business closed with as much honour for the officers and men as disgrace for Craufurd’s generalship’. Napier noted bitterly that Craufurd had almost repeated his feat of Buenos Aires, in having to surrender a British brigade. Others spoke of their close escape from Verdun, the huge French prison where so many British captives languished.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, those who reacted most bitterly were the officers who had already formed a deep dislike of Craufurd, with his floggings and tantrums. Jonathan Leach wrote home:
He is a damned tyrant and a great blackguard and has proved himself totally unfit to command a company, much less a division … I am fully confident that any sergeant in the Army would have brought off the Division in better order, God be praised. If we had not all done something like our duty, I know not but that the Division might have been now on its march to Verdun.
Word of mouth and vitriolic letters like Leach’s flew to the four corners of Wellington’s Army, and to various quarters in England. The angry young officers of the 95th had no way of knowing it, but Craufurd’s harsh regime during the Talavera campaign had already excited adverse comment at the highest levels in London. Wellington had received a letter from Horse Guards, early in 1810, expressing the Commander in Chief’s concerns, ‘that a very unusual degree of severity is exercised towards the soldiers in the brigades under the command of Brigadier General R. Craufurd’. Among those around Wellington, the dislike of Craufurd was very evident in the days after what became known as the Combat of the Coa. One staff officer hissed, ‘I never thought any good was to be expected from any thing of which General R. Craufurd had the direction.’
The Commander of Forces was alive to these views, but he declined to send Craufurd home in disgrace. Wellington reasoned, ‘If I am to be hanged for it, I cannot accuse a man who I think has meant well, and whose error is one of judgement, and not of intention.’ The choice to keep Craufurd must indeed have been a lonely one. But he reasoned that Craufurd had fire in his belly and knew his profession, whereas most of his generals were timid, and ignoramuses to boot.
Many of those sitting in the comfort of Horse Guards found Wellington’s decision incomprehensible. Colonel Torrens, who as Military Secretary was a key figure in the management of senior officers’ careers, told his representative in Portugal:
The command of your advanced guard appears to be founded in more ignorance and incapacity than I could possibly have supposed any officer capable of … I had a very favourable opinion of Craufurd’s talents. But he appears to me to allow the violence of his passions and the impetuosity of his disposition to overthrow the exercise of his judgement.
Craufurd’s soldiers did not know about this hair’s-breadth escape from ignominy, but they guessed at it in their own way. In the days after the Coa, reports flew about that Craufurd would any moment be replaced by another general. As night fell on 24 July, too many of Craufurd’s men were lying caked in blood in field hospitals, or bouncing along in the backs of rough Portuguese ox carts, their lives in the balance. Simmons and Costello were among those unfortunates, beginning their journey into the netherworld of what passed for the Army’s system of care for the battlefield wounded.