Charles James Lever.

Charles O'Malley, the Irish dragon online

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There are times when our sorrows tinge all the coloring of our
thoughts, and one pervading hue of melancholy spreads like a pall
upon what we have of fairest and brightest on earth. So was it now;
I had lost hope and ambition — a sad feeling that my career was
destined to misfortune and mishap gained hourly upon me ; and all
the bright aspirations of a soldier's glory, all my enthusiasm for the
pomp and circumstance of glorious war, fell coldly upon my heart ;
and I looked upon the chivalry of a soldier's life as the empty pa-
geant of a dream.

In this sad frame of mind I avoided all intercourse with my brother
officers ; their gay and joyous spirits only jarred upon my brooding
thoughts, and, feigning illness, I kept almost entirely to my quar-

The inactivity of our present life weighed also heavily upon me.
The stirring events of a campaign — the march, the bivouac, the
picket — call forth a certain physical exertion that never fails to
react upon the torpid mind.

Forgetting all around me, I thought of home ; I thought of those
whose hearts I felt were now turning towards me, and considered
within myself how I could have exchanged home — the days of peace-
ful happiness there — for the life of misery and disappointment I now

A brooding melancholy gained daily more and more upon me. A
wish to return to Ireland, a vague and indistinct feeling that my
career was not destined for aught of great and good, crept upon me,
and I longed to sink into oblivion, forgetting and forgot.

I record this painful feeling here, while it is still a painful mem-
ory, as one of the dark shadows that cross the bright sky of our
happiest days.

Happy, indeed, are they, as we look back to them, and remember
the times we have pronounced ourselves " the most miserable of
mankind." This somehow is a confession we never make later on
in life, when real troubles and true afflictions assail us. Whether


we call in moral philosophy to our aid, or that our senses become
less acute and discerning, I'm sure I know not.

As for me, I confess that by far the greater portion of my sorrows
seemed to come in that budding period of existence when life is ever
fairest and most captivating. Not, perhaps, that the fact was really
so, but the spoiled and humored child, whose caprices were a law,
felt heavily the threatening difficulties of his first voyage ; while, as
he continued to sail over the ocean of life, he braved the storm and
the squall, and felt only gratitude for the favoring breeze that wafted
him upon his course.

What an admirable remedy for misanthropy is the being placed
in a subordinate condition in life ! Had I, at the period of which
I write, been Sir Arthur Wellesley — had I even been Marshal Ber-
esford, to all certainty I'd have played the very devil with his
Majesty's forces. I'd have brought my rascals to where they'd have
been well peppered — that's certain.

But as, luckily for the sake of humanity in general and the well-
being of the service in particular, I was merely Lieutenant O'Malley,
14th Light Dragoons, the case was very different. With what heavy
censure did I condemn the Commander of the Forces in my own
mind for his want of daring and enterprise ! Whole nights did I
pass in endeavoring to account for his inactivity and lethargy. Why
he did not seriatim fall upon Soult, Ney, and Victor, annihilate the
French forces, and sack Madrid, I looked upon as little less than a
riddle ; and yet there we waited, drilling, exercising, and foraging,
as if we were at Hounslow. Now, most fortunately, here again I
was not Sir Arthur.

Something in this frame of mind, I was one evening taking a
solitary ride some miles from the camp. Without noticing the cir-
cumstance, I had entered a little mountain tract, when the ground
being broken and uneven, I dismounted and proceeded afoot, with
the bridle within my arm. I had not gone far when the clatter of a
horse's hoofs came rapidly towards me, and though there was some-
thing startling in the pace over such a piece of road, I never lifted
my eyes as the horseman came up, but continued my slow progress
onward, my head sunk upon my bosom.

" Holloa, sir !" cried a sharp voice, whose tones seemed somehow
not heard for the first time. I looked up, saw a slight figure closely
buttoned up in a blue horseman's cloak, the collar of which almost
entirely hid his features ; he wore a plain cocked hat without a
feather, and was mounted upon a sharp, wiry-looking hack.

" Holloa, sir ! What regiment do you belong to ?"

As I had nothing of the soldier about me, save a blue foraging
cap, to denote my corps, the tone of the demand was little calcu-


lated to elicit a very polished reply ; but preferring, as was most
impertinent, to make no answer, I passed on without speaking.

" Did you hear, sir?" cried the same voice, in a still louder key.
" What's your regiment?"

I now turned round, resolved to question the other in turn,
when, to my inexpressible shame and confusion, he had lowered
the collar of his cloak, and I saw the features of Sir Arthur Wel-

"Fourteenth Light Dragoons, sir," said I, blushing as I spoke.

" Have you not read the general order, sir ? Why have you left
the camp ?"

Now I had not read a general order, nor even heard of one, for
above a fortnight. So I stammered out some bungling answer.

" To your quarters, sir, and report yourself under arrest. What's
your name?"

" Lieutenant O'Malley, sir."

" Well, sir, your passion for rambling shall be indulged. You
shall be sent to the rear with despatches ; and as the army is in
advance, probably the lesson may be serviceable." So saying, he
pressed spurs to his horse, and was out of sight in a moment.



HAVING been despatched to the rear with orders for General
Craufurd, I did not reach Talavera till the morning of the
28th. Two days' hard fighting had left the contending
armies still face to face, and without any decided advantage on
either side.

When I arrived upon the battle-field, the combat of the morning
was over. It was then ten o'clock, and the troops were at break-
fast, if the few ounces of wheat sparingly dealt out amongst them
could be dignified by that name. All was, however, life and anima-
tion on every side. The merry laugh, the passing jest, the careless
look, bespoke the free and daring character of the soldiery, as they
sat in groups upon the grass; and except when a fatigue party
passed by, bearing some wounded comrade to the rear, no touch of
seriousness rested upon their hardy features. The morning was in-
deed a glorious one; a sky of unclouded blue stretched above a
landscape unsurpassed in loveliness. Far to the right rolled on in


placid stream the broad Tagus, bathing in its eddies the very walls
of Talavera, the ground from which to our position gently undulated
across a plain of most fertile richness, and terminated on our ex-
treme left in a bold height, protected in front by a ravine, and
flanked by a deep and ragged valley.

The Spaniards occupied the right of the line, connecting with our
troops at a rising ground, upon which a strong redoubt had been
hastily thrown up. The fourth division and the Guards were sta-
tioned here, next to whom came Cameron's brigade and the Ger-
mans. Mackenzie and Hill held the extreme left of all, which
might be called the key of our position. In the valley beneath the
latter were picketed three cavalry regiments, among which I was
not long in detecting my gallant friends of the Twenty-third.

As I rode rapidly past, saluting some old familiar face at each
moment, I could not help feeling struck at the evidence of the des-
perate battle that so lately had raged there. The whole surface of
the hill was one mass of dead and dying, the bearskin of the French
grenadier lying side by side with the tartan of the Highlander.
Deep furrows in the soil showed the track of the furious cannonade,
and the terrible evidences of a bayonet charge were written in the
mangled corpses around.

The fight had been maintained without any intermission from
daybreak till near nine o'clock that morning, and the slaughter on
both sides was dreadful. The mounds of fresh earth on every side
told of the soldier's sepulchre, and the unceasing tramp of the
pioneers struck sadly upon the ear, as the groans of the wounded
blended with the funeral sounds around them.

In front were drawn up the dark legions of France, massive col-
umns of infantry, with dense bodies of artillery alternating along
the line. They, too, occupied a gently rising ground, the valley
between the two armies being crossed halfway by a little rivulet;
and here, during the sultry heat of the morning, the troops on both
sides met and mingled to quench their thirst ere the trumpet again
called them to the slaughter.

In a small ravine, near the centre of our line, was drawn up
Cotton's brigade, of whom the Fusiliers formed a part. Directly in
front of this was Campbell's brigade, to the left of which, upon a
gentle slope, the staff were now assembled. Thither, accordingly, I
bent my steps. As I came up the little scarp, I found myself among
the generals of division, hastily summoned by Sir Arthur to delibe-
rate upon a forward movement. The council lasted scarcely a
quarter of an hour, and when I presented myself to deliver my re-
port, all the dispositions for the battle had been decided upon, and
the Commander of the Forces, seated on the grass at his breakfast,


looked by far the most unconcerned and uninterested man I had
seen that morning.

He turned his head rapidly as I came up, and, before the aide-de-
camp could announce me, called out, —

" Well, sir, what news of the reinforcements ?"
" They cannot reach Talavera before to-morrow, sir."
" Then, before that time we shall not want them. That will do,

So saying, he resumed his breakfast, and I retired, more than
ever struck with the surprising coolness of the man upon whom no
disappointment seemed to have the slightest influence.

I had scarcely rejoined my regiment, and was giving an account
to my brother officers of my journey, when an aide-de-camp came
galloping at full speed down the line, and communicated with the
several commanding officers as he passed.

What might be the nature of the orders we could not guess at,
for no word to fall in followed, and yet it was evident that some-
thing of importance was at hand. Upon the hill where the staff
were assembled, no unusual bustle appeared, and we could see the
bay cob of Sir Arthur still being led up and down by the groom,
with a dragoon's mantle thrown over him. The soldiers, completely
overcome by the heat and fatigue of the morning, lay stretched
around upon the grass, and everthing bespoke a period of rest and

" We are going to advance, depend upon it !" said a young officer
beside me ; " the repulse of this morning has been a smart lesson to
the French, and Sir Arthur won't leave them without impressing it
upon them."

"Hark! what's that ?" cried Baker ; "listen."
As he spoke, a strain of most delicious music came wafted across
the plain. It was from the band of a French regiment, and, mel-
lowed by the distance, it seemed, in the calm stillness of the morn-
ing air, like something less of earth than heaven. As we listened,
the notes swelled upward yet fuller, and one by one the different
bands seemed to join, till at last the whole air seemed full of the
rich flood of melody.

We could now perceive that the stragglers were rapidly falling
back, while high above all other sounds the clanging notes of the
trumpet were heard along the line. The hoarse drum now beat to
arms, and soon after a brilliant staff rode slowly from between two
dense bodies of infantry, and advancing some distance into the
plain, seemed to reconnoitre us. A cloud of Polish cavalry, distin-
guished by their long lances and floating banners, loitered in their


We had not time for further observation, when the drums on our
side beat to arms, and the hoarse cry, " Fall in— fall in there, lads !"
resounded along the line.

It was now one o'clock, and before half an hour the troops had
resumed the position of the morning, and stood silent and anxious
spectators of the scene before them.

Upon the table land to the rear of the French position we could
descry the gorgeous tent of King Joseph, around which a large and
splendidly-accoutred staff were seen standing. Here, too, the bustle
and excitement seemed considerable, for to this point the dark
masses of the infantry seemed converging from the extreme right ;
and here we could perceive the royal guards and the reserve now
forming in column of attack.

From the crest of the hill down to the very valley, the dark,
dense ranks extended, the flanks protected by a powerful artillery
and deep masses of heavy cavalry. It was evident that the attack
was not to commence on our side, and the greatest and most intense
anxiety pervaded us as to what part of our line was first to be

Meanwhile, Sir Arthur Wel'lesley, who from the height had been
patiently observing the field of battle, despatched an aide-de-camp
at full gallop towards Campbell's brigade, posted directly in advance
of us. As he passed swiftly along, he called out, " You're in for it,
Fourteenth ; you'll have to open the ball to-day."

Scarcely were the words spoken, when a signal gun from the
French boomed heavily through the still air. The last echo was
growing fainter, and the heavy smoke breaking into mist, when the
most deafening thunder ever my ears heard came pealing around
us; eighty pieces of artillery had opened upon us, sending a very
tempest of balls upon our line, while midst the smoke and dust we
could see the light troops advancing at a run, followed by the broad
and massive columns in all the terror and majesty of war.

" What a splendid attack I How gallantly they come on !" cried
an old veteran officer beside me, forgetting all rivalry in his noble
admiration of our enemy.

The intervening space was soon passed, and the tirailleurs falling
back as the columns came on, the towering masses bore down u-pon
Campbell's division with a loud cry of defiance. Silently and stead-
ily the English infantry awaited the attack, and returning the fire
with one withering volley, were ordered to charge. Scarcely were
the bayonets lowered, when the head of the advancing column broke
and fled, while Mackenzie's brigade, overlapping the flank, pushed
boldly forward, and a* scene of frightful carnage followed. For a
moment a hand-to-hand combat was sustained, but the unbroken


files and impregnable bayonets of the English conquered, and the
French fled, leaving six guns behind them.

The gallant enemy were troops of tried and proved courage, and
scarcely had they retreated when they again formed, but just as they
prepared to come forward, a tremendous shower of grape opened upon
them from our batteries, while a cloud of Spanish horse assailed
them in flank, and nearly cut them in pieces.

While this was passing on the right, a tremendous attack menaced
the hill upon which our left was posted. Two powerful columns of
French infantry, supported by some regiments of light cavalry, came
steadily forward to the attack ; Anson's brigade were ordered to

Away they went at top speed, but had not gone above a hundred
yards when they were suddenly arrested by a deep chasm ; here the
German hussars pulled short up, but the 23d dashing impetuously
forward, a scene of terrible carnage ensued, men and horses rolled
indiscriminately together under a withering fire from the French
squares. Even here, however, British valor quailed not, for Major
Francis Ponsonby, forming all who came up, rode boldly upon a
brigade of French chasseurs in the rear. Victor, who from the first
had watched the movement, at once despatched a lancer regiment
against them, and then these brave fellows were absolutely cut to
atoms, the few who escaped having passed through the French col-
umns and reached Bassecour's Spanish division on the far right.

During this time the hill was again assailed, and even more des-
perately than before, while Victor himself led on the fourth corps to
an attack upon our right and centre.

The Guards waited without flinching the impetuous rush of the
advancing columns, and when at length within a short distance,
dashed forward with the bayonet, driving everything before them.
The French fell back upon their sustaining masses, but, rallying in
an instant, again came forward, supported uf a tremendous fire from
their batteries. The Guards drew back, and the German Legion,
suddenly thrown into confusion, began to retire in disorder. This
was the most critical moment of the day, for although successful
upon the extreme right and left of our line, our centre was absolutely
broken. Just at this moment Gordon rode up to our brigade ; his
face was pale and his look hurried and excited.

"The Forty-eighth are coming; here they are — support them,

These words were all he spoke ; and the next moment the meas-
ured tread of a column was heard behind us. On they came like
one man, their compact and dense formation looking like some mas-
sive wall ; wheeling by companies, they suffered the Guards and


Germans to retire behind them, and then re-forming into line, they
rushed forward with the bayonet. Our artillery opened with a deaf-
ening thunder behind them, and then we were ordered to charge.

We came on at a trot. The Guards, who had now recovered their
formation, cheered us as we proceeded. The smoke of the cannon-
ade obscured everything until we had advanced some distance, but
just as we emerged beyond the line of the gallant Forty-eighth, the
splendid panorama of the battle-field broke suddenly upon us.

" Charge ! forward !" cried the hoarse voice of our Colonel ; and
we were upon them. The French infantry, already broken by the
withering musketry of our people, gave way before us, and, unable
to form a square, retired fighting, but in confusion, and with tre-
mendous loss, to their position. One glorious cheer from left to
right of our line proclaimed the victory, while a deafening discharge
of artillery from the French replied to this defiance, and the battle
was over. Had the Spanish army been capable of a forward move-
ment, our successes at this moment would have been much more
considerable ; but they did not dare to change their position, and
the repulse of our enemy was destined to be all our glory. The
French, however, suffered much more severely than we did. Retir-
ing during the night, they fell back behind the Alberche, leaving us
the victory and the battle-field.







THE night which followed the battle was a sad one. Through
the darkness, and under a fast-falling rain, the hours were
spent searching for our wounded comrades amid the heap of
slain upon the field ; and the glimmering of the lanterns, as they
flickered far and near across the wide plain, bespoke the track of
the fatigue parties in their mournful round ; while the groans of the
wounded rose amid the silence with an accent of heartrending an-
guish ; so true was it, as our great commander said, "there is nothing
more sad than a victory except a defeat !"

Around our bivouac fires the feeling of sorrowful depression was
also evident. We had gained a great victory, it was true ; we had
beaten the far-famed legions of France upon a ground of their own
choosing, led by the most celebrated of their Marshals, and under
the eyes of the Emperor's own brother ; but still we felt all the haz-
ardous danger of our position, and had no confidence whatever in
the courage or discipline of our allies ; and we saw that in the very
meUe of the battle the efforts of the enemy were directed almost
exclusively against our line, so confidently did they undervalue the
efforts of the Spanish troops. Morning broke at length, and scarcely
was the heavy mist clearing away before the red sunlight, when the
sounds of fife and drum were heard from a distant part of the field.
The notes swelled or sank as the breeze rose or fell, and many a con-
jecture was hazarded as to their meaning, for no object was well visible
for more than a few hundred yards off; gradually, however, they
grew nearer and nearer, and at length, as the air cleared, and the
hazy vapor evaporated, the bright scarlet uniform of a British regi-
ment was seen advancing at a quick step.



As they came nearer, the well-known march of the gallant Forty-
third was recognized by some of our people, and immediately the
rumor flew like lightning, — " It is Craufurd's brigade !" and so it
was ; the noble fellow had marched his division the unparalleled
distance of sixty English miles in twenty-seven hours. Over a
burning soil, exposed to a raging sun, without rations, almost with-
out water, these gallant troops pressed on in the unwearied hope of
sharing the glory of the battle-field. One tremendous cheer wel-
comed the head of the column as they marched past, and continued
till the last file had deployed before us.

As these splendid regiments moved by, we could not help feeling
what signal service they might have rendered us but a few hours
before ; their soldier-like bearing, their high and effective state of
discipline, their well-known reputation, were in every mouth ; and
I scarcely think that any corps who stood the brunt of the mighty
battle were the subject of more encomiums than the brave fellows
who had just joined us.

The mournful duties of the night were soon forgotten in the gay
and buoyant sounds on every side. Congratulations, shaking of
hands, kind inquiries, went round; and, as we looked to the hilly
ground where so lately were drawn up in battle array the dark
columns of our enemy, and where not one sentinel now remained,
the proud feeling of our victory came home to our hearts with the
ever-thrilling thought, "What will they say at home?"

I was standing amid a group of my brother officers, when I received
an order from the Colonel to ride down to Talavera for the return of
our wounded, as the arrival of the Commander-in-Chief was momen-
tarily looked for. I threw myself upon my horse, and setting out at
a brisk pace, soon reached the gates.

On entering the town, I was obliged to dismount and proceed on
foot. The streets were completely filled with people, treading their
way among wagons, forage-carts, and sick-litters. Here was a booth
filled with all imaginable wares for sale ; there a temporary gin-shop
established beneath a broken baggage-wagon ; here might be seen a
merry party throwing dice for a turkey or a kid — there, a wounded
man, with bloodless cheek and tottering step, inquiring the road to
the hospital ; the accents of agony mingled with the drunken chorus,
and the sharp crack of the Provost-Marshal's whip was heard above
the boisterous revelling of the debauchee. All was confusion, bustle,
and excitement. The staff-officer, with his flowing plume and glit-
tering epaulettes, wended his way on foot amid the din and bustle,
unnoticed and uncared for ; while the little drummer amused an ad-
miring audience of simple country-folk by some wondrous tale of
the great victory.


My passage through this dense mass was necessarily a slow one.
No one made way for another ; discipline for the time was at an
end, and with it all respect for rank or position. It was what nothing
of mere vicissitude in the fortune of war can equal — the wild orgies
of an army the day after a battle.

On turning the corner of a narrow street, my attention was
attracted by a crowd which, gathered round a small fountain,
seemed, as well as I could perceive, to witness some proceeding with
more than ordinary interest. Exclamations in Portuguese, expres-
sive of surprise and admiration, were mingled with English oaths
and Irish ejaculations, while high above all rose other sounds — the
cries of some one in pain and suffering. Forcing my way through
the dense group, I at length reached the interior of the crowd, when,
to my astonishment, I perceived a short, fat, punchy-looking man,
stripped of his coat and waistcoat, and with his shirt sleeves rolled
up to his shoulders, busily employed in operating upon a wounded

Online LibraryCharles James LeverCharles O'Malley, the Irish dragon → online text (page 39 of 80)