War News and Comments.
Extract from the “St. Leonards Penny Press” Jan. 1855
There is ever something of peculiar interest which attaches to the survivors of great hardships, and innumerable “ perils by flood and field.” Among the narratives of hairbreadth escapes and adventures — of deeds of prowess and heroism, we may have revelled to satiety; but the actual men who figure in such scenes, and of whom such wonders are related, are not so often to be met with — and whether it be curiosity or some higher feeling, there is something exciting in the return home of men with whom events of this kind are connected.
The Himalaya, which arrived not long since at Portsmouth, brought a whole cargo of such freight from the seat of war in the Crimea; and Portsmouth dockyard was the scene of one of those distressing disembarkations, which we may now expect to become frequent, until the horrors of war shall have abated. Here were the men of Alma, of Balaklava, and of Inkerman, of whose deeds all Europe has heard so much. Here were some of those heroic soldiers who had mounted the heights in the face of the Russian batteries—comrades of the brave hearts who —
”in battle stood
’Gainst sixty thousand slaves,
And, in the very jaws of death,
Sought out their glory-graves.”
Here they were, it is true, but scarcely to be recognised as the men who a few months before had left the shores of England in such buoyancy and spirit. Pale, wan, and haggard—many legless, armless, footless, or eyeless—already they—
“Could vouch the sad romance of wars,
And count the dates of battles by their scars.”
The landing of these wounded soldiers was truly one of the most visible examples of the effects of war which the nation has yet beheld. The barren glory which the veterans have reaped — their shattered state — is a type of the annihilating consequences which generally follow to a country engaged in warfare; and though the present war, as a struggle against tyranny and Oppression, must naturally be popular among us, yet it must be remarked that no state in Europe has suffered so deeply as England for her interference in the quarrels of foreign states.
Perhaps in support of this line of conduct motives of policy may be alleged; but it must be admitted that the upholding of the “balance of Europe,” of which so much has been said, has been found to weigh very heavily on England; while the immediate results of our “good offices” have been commonly very unsatisfactory. How have the Greeks rewarded our support; and how unworthy has Spain proved of the blood and treasure which England expended in her cause ?
Britain, however, is proud of her wars and of her victories, and the mention of Spain recalls a campaign which, though disastrous, has been justly distinguished as the most brilliant and glorious episode of the war, we then waged in support of that chimera, Spanish liberty: we refer to the retreat of Sir John Moore, and the battle of Corunna. The unfortunate issue of that campaign is known to most readers, but as the causes of its failure were mainly attributable to the same want of reinforcements and supplies so lately complained of in the Crimea, a few details respecting it will perhaps not be uninteresting :—
Early in December, 1808, the British troops under Sir John Moore entered Spain. On the 11th of that month they had arrived at Ciudad Rodrigo, a fortified city, afterwards celebrated for the siege by Wellington. Moore was met two miles from the place by the governor, with his attendants, and politely invited to his house. Salutes of cannon were fired from the ramparts, and crowds of people cried joyfully, “Success to the English!”
As soon, however, as Bonaparte heard of the advance of the British, he determined at once to proceed with a large army into the country. His arrangements were rapid and decisive, Eighty thousand men were soon raised by conscription; and from the military masses dispersed over Europe, the choicest soldiers were selected, and 200,000 men, accustomed to battle, penetrated the gloomy fastnesses of the western Pyrenees.
Sir John Moore, with an army of only 30,000 men, and these badly equipped and provisioned, soon discovered the necessity of a retreat; to preserve his whole army from annihilation this was his only course. Loth to retire before an enemy, Sir John delayed his flight till the overwhelming masses of Napoleon and Soult were within twelve hours’ march of his little force; then not a moment was to be lost, On Christmas day, 1808, the last detachment of the “leopards” whom Napoleon had sworn to “drive into the sea” abandoned Sahagun, ‘The rain,” wrote an eye-witness, “came down upon us in torrents; men and horses were floundering at every step, the former fairly worn out through fatigue and want of nutrient, the latter sinking under their loads, and dying upon the spot. The shoes of the cavalry horses dropped off, and the animals themselves soon became useless. It was a sad spectacle to behold these fine creatures urged and goaded on till their strength utterly failed them, and then shot, to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. Ammunition waggons, falling one by one to the rear, were destroyed, and the waggons abandoned; and it appeared extremely improbable that one-half of the army would reach the coast.”
Not a drum or a bugle-note cheered their march, and the cracking of whips as the drivers lashed their horses, or a smothered imprecation as horses, and men, and cannon rolled down a declivity in the mire together, here and there rose above the tramp of that retreating force. Multitudes of soldiers, sick and wounded, unable to keep up with the rest of the army, sat down by the roadside worn out with exhaustion; or uttering a low moan or shriek of despair, they fell to the earth, and were trampled over by the advancing columns, Cheered by the expectation that death or victory would soon terminate sufferings no longer to be endured, many a feeble wretch struggled on with his hardier comrades to Lugo, where a halt was made, But even here the hopes of a sanguinary battle-field was denied them, Moore judged that to storm the heights on which the French were posted, would have been leading his men to destruction; and to continue at Lugo was impossible, as there only remained bread for another day.
On the 12th, therefore, the British army moved down upon Corunna; but the fleet had not arrived, and a position around the village of Elvina was selected for that battle-field which was now seen to be inevitable. It was fortunate that Soult delayed his attack till the 15th, for in the meantime the expected fleet was seen in the bay, and Sir John had happily succeeded in effecting the embarkation of the sick and wounded, with the women and children. Now, however, under cover of a heavy fire from guns in battery on the left, and the whole of his field artillery, Soult came forward with his infantry formed in three solid columns. A desperate conflict ensued, and worn out and exhausted as their retreat had rendered them, the British yet repulsed with great slaughter the attack of the French.
Sir David Baird lost an arm in this struggle, and Sir John Moore was struck to the ground by a cannon-ball. Raising himself to a sitting posture, he for a few moments followed with his eyes the progress of the troops, who were moving forward rapidly. “Then,” says Napier, “was seen the dreadful nature of his hurt; the shoulder was shattered to pieces, the arm was hanging by a piece of skin, the ribs over the heart broken and bared of flesh, and the muscles of the breast torn into long strips, which were interlaced by the recoil from the dragging of the shot.” The command now devolved upon Sir John Hope, and all went gallantly on. Soult’s defeat was complete, the foe retreated, and night saved him from a more signal discomfiture.
Never was victory alloyed so heavily ba an individual calamity as that of Corunna by the fall of Sir John Moore. His last moments, however, were cheered by the consciousness of victory. He frequently desired the soldiers who bore him from the fray in a blanket to stop, that he might ascertain the progress of the battle; and as the firing became fainter, indicating the retreat of the French, he expressed his satisfaction. To Colonel Anderson he said, ”You know I have always wished to die in this way.” He asked of every officer who came in—“ Are the French beaten?” Upon receiving the assurance that the field was won, he said, “I hope the people of England will be satisfied! Anderson, you will see my friends as soon as you can. Say to my mother—” and here the dying son’s voice failed him, for he had a venerable mother whom he loved much, and by whom he was much beloved. A few minutes more he lay with his hand feebly pressing Colonel Anderson’s; and then his head dropping back, he expired. In accordance with his wish he was buried on the ramparts of Corunna, The burial service was read by torchlight, and wrapped in a cloak and blanket, his remains were interred. Moore’s death was truly that of a soldier, and his burial on the “field of his fame,” was particularly appropriate to his warlike career—
”No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.”
Like the wounded soldiers from the Crimea, the shattered relics of Moore's army returned to the shores of England. The scenes were too nearly alike for an age advanced a half century in enlightenment and humanity. Other troops departed to the Peninsular, however—the seekers of the “bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth,” were not extinct—and victory, certain and secure, was purchased at last.
But the cost of these “victories,” notwithstanding all we have seen, is but imperfectly known, or they are overlooked in the glitter of successful arms. The horrors attendant upon the art of war have been often described, but have not yet been appreciated in such a manner as to lead to a general abandonment of its pursuit. An incident related in the Journal of an officer who served in the Peninsular War, which we extract, will furnish some idea of the sanguinary nature of that contest :—
“I shall endeavour to give some idea of a scene I witnessed at Mirando do Cervo. I entered the town about dusk; and just as I was passing the Great Cross in the principal street, I met an haggard-looking woman, who told me that I should find comfortable accommodation in an old convent that stood at some distance, pointing to it at the same time, and giving a sort of hysterical laugh. ”You will find,” said she, ”nobody there to disturb you.” followed her advice with a kind of superstitious acquiescence, and walked up to the convent. I had ascended a flight of steps, when I saw something that I could not, in the first moments of my amazement and horror, very distinctly comprehend. Above a hundred dead bodies lay and sat before my eyes, all of them apparently in the very attitude or posture in which they had died. I looked at them for at least a minute before I knew that they were all corpses. The bodies were mostly clothed in mats, and rugs, and tattered great coats, some of them merely wrapped round about with girdles of straw, and two or three perfectly naked. Every face had a different expression, but all painful, horrid, agonized, bloodless; many glazed eyes were wide open, and perhaps this was the most shocking thing in the whole spectacle. So many eyes that saw not, all seemingly fixed upon different objects—some cast up to heaven, some looking straight forward, and some with the white orbs turned round and deep sunk in the sockets.
It was a sort of hospital. These wretched beings were all desperately or mortally wounded, and after having been stripped they had been left there dead or to die.
Have these ghastly things parents, sisters, lovers? thought I — were they once all happy in peaceful homes? Yes — distant though they might be, there were those who loved and cared for them — who looked anxiously for their return, and to whom the knowledge of so fearful a death would be grievous even to madness. It was now almost dark, and the night was setting in stormier than the day. A loud squall of wind came round about the building, and an old window casement gave way and fell in with a shivering crash upon the floor. I had instinctively moved backwards towards the door, and in a state of stupefaction, I found myself in the open air. A bugle was playing, and the light infantry company of my own regiment was entering the village with loud shouts and huzzas.”
The dread paraphernalia of war is little modified or ameliorated, it would seem, by time or place. The horrid scene described b: the Peninsular officer at Mirando de Cervo, may be witnessed accompanied with few less terrors, in the British hospital at Scutari. The Hon. and Rev. S. G. Osborne, who has just arrived from the latter place, thus writes—“ I have looked for hours on these wounded, sick, weak, and dying. Would you learn to hate war? Would you feel the prayer forced upon you, that they who speak lightly of it should know more of what it is? Go to that scene—those miles of ward and corridor—thickly covered with war's work, written in all possible defacement of man, once in God’s image. I never could have dreamt of what the serious business of the soldier’s life were until I had entered that valley of the shadow of death, and witnessed the last moments of so many of war’s victims.”
Such are the fearful scenes which the ambition and enmity of man produce. And so it has ever been. The poet, Alfred Knott, has well written—
“Since guilty Cain first darken’d earth,
With his red-handed crime,
Rough rampant Might o'er Feebleness
Has trampled through all time;
‘The spirit that then nerved his hand
To deal that foul death blow,
Though it assume ten thousand shapes,
Is still the same we know,
And since that time, all sword-made lords,
All conqu’rors world renown’d,
Have by the demon hand of War
Been rob’d, and thron’d, and crown’d,
From the Assyrian kings who bowed
‘The nations ’neath their sway,
To him who struck falr Poland down,
And curses us this day.”
England flourishes by peace and amity—she needs no fresh war-glories to inscribe on the scroll of her immortal fame, and she had once—alas, too fondly—hoped that she should never more witness the return of her sons shattered and wounded in her defence; but yet, if we would keep the honour-place among the foremost nations of men, we must not be deaf to the brazen trumpet’s call to arms—from whatever region it sounds, and however highly the antagonist’s strength may be vaunted.
The next extract is from a letter recived(sic) by Mrs. Harkness, of Ore, from her son Lieut. Harkness, of the 55th Regt.
“Camp before Sebastopol, 9th March, 1855.
“You will be glad to hear the weather here has completely changed. Apparently it has been much more severe in England this winter than with us. During January and February it has not been anything like what under home circumstances we should call extraordinarily severe weather; it has only the constant exposure to it by day and by night, and the want of sufficient shelter from it during our short intervals of rest, that have made it so trying to bear. If we had had, all throughout good houses, food and clothes, and less hard work, I should say that we had passed a mild winter. During February it was very changeable, with frost and snow predominating, but for the last week, we have had fine, settled weather, often oppressively warm during the day, with bright sunshine. Today, the thermometer in the tent stood some hours at 68, and it is frequently 60 by day and 50 by night. Not ten days ago it was 6 or 8 degrees below freezing. I hope we have now got rid-