We come now to a phase of our story that chiefly concerns two intrepid regiments, whose services were so valuable to the Government—namely, Fraser’s and Montgomery’s Highlanders. The Black Watch was not the only regiment raised during the middle of the eighteenth century. In answer to the appeal of the Government the clansmen followed the lead of their chiefs and enrolled themselves in several battalions, which saw service in America during the war with France, the trouble with the Red Indians, and later against the colonists. Amongst these regiments the best known was Montgomery’s Highlanders (founded in 1757), which, as we have noted, suffered a reverse under Major Grant at Fort Duquesne, and were also associated with the Black Watch under Amherst.
Fraser’s Highlanders, later to be enrolled in the Seaforths, were raised as the 78th Regiment in 1757, and the 71st Regiment in 1775, by the son of Simon, Lord Lovat, the Jacobite rebel. They served at the investment of Louisburg and at Quebec. The 71st Regiment took part in the American War of Independence.
Many other regiments were formed from time to time and either disbanded or absorbed. It was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that the Highland regiments as we know them to-day, apart of course from the Black Watch, came to be formed.
Perhaps the hardest, most dangerous, and most thrilling task that was undertaken by the Highlanders at this period was the forlorn expedition of Montgomery against the Cherokee Indians.
There have been no savages who ever possessed in their cruelty and in their superhuman cunning so great a fascination in story as the Red Indians. Always behind the tools of their trade—the call of an owl, the silent arrow by moonlight, the war dance, the feathers and the paint—there lurked the glamour of the unknown.
Whether as the godlike figures of Fenimore Cooper, or the dreaded Redskins of Manville Fenn and Ballantyne, they have secured for themselves a kind of grim immortality. Other times may bring other tales, stories of submarines and aeroplanes, and the ingenious contrivances that have robbed war of what romance it may once have claimed, but never again will there be the same thrill that the simple snap of a twig in a breathless night could so painfully awaken.
We have noticed how favourably impressed the Indians had been with their first introduction to the Highlander. Like the Sikh and the Gurkha of India, like the Kaffir in Africa, and to some extent the Arab of the East, warlike peoples have always felt some link with the Highlander. But the Red Indian was to suffer some practical experiences of an activity and capacity for taking cover almost equal to his own. The Highlander at this time was skilled by centuries of marauding in the art of concealment, and in taking advantage of rough country. He was long-sighted, keen of hearing, and accustomed to move by night. There is a vivid scene in Stevenson’s Kidnapped where Allan Breck and David Balfour, bound for the sanctuary of Cluny Macpherson’s cave, heard but a rustle in the heather, and in a flash a clansman was at the throat of each of them.
The Highlander was no amateur in war.
In 1760 Colonel Montgomery led his regiment against the Cherokee Indians, who had become an increasing menace to the settlers. It was an undertaking as full of peril as the bravest soldier could have desired. “What may be Montgomery’s fate in the Cherokee country,” wrote one accustomed to the Indian, “I cannot so readily determine. It seems he has made a prosperous beginning, having penetrated into the heart of the country, and he is now advancing his troops in high health and spirits to the relief of Fort Loudon. But let him be wary. He has a crafty, subtle enemy to deal with, that may give him most trouble when he least expects it.”
No truer words could have been passed upon the character of Indian fighting.
When the Highlanders approached the Cherokee town Etchowee they entered a ravine densely wooded, at the foot of which ran a sluggish river. Suddenly the war-whoop resounded from every side, while the dark figures of the Redskins were seen flitting from tree to tree, firing from every quarter. Numbers of the soldiers fell in the first attack, unfortunately several of the wounded being lost in the impenetrable thicket, only to fall into the hands of the Indians.
The Highlanders charged the enemy, driving them up the sides of the ravine, but won no definite advantage. The Indians always preferred guerilla warfare to close conflict, knowing that the farther they enticed the invader into the wilds of their country the less chance would there be that he would win back to safety. Every one is familiar with the cruelty that the Red Indians practised upon their prisoners, and those unfortunate Highlanders who in this instance were carried away by the Cherokees fared exceedingly badly. The following story, as related by General Stewart, will give an idea not only of the treatment accorded to captives, but also of the extreme credulity of the Indians at this time.
“Several soldiers … fell into the hands of the Indians, being taken in an ambush. Allan Macpherson, one of these soldiers, witnessing the miserable fate of several of his fellow-prisoners, who had been tortured to death by the Indians, and seeing them preparing to commence the same operation upon himself, made signs he had something to communicate. An interpreter was brought. Macpherson told them, that provided his life was spared for a few minutes, he would communicate the secret of an extraordinary medicine, which, if applied to the skin, would cause it to resist the strongest blow of a tomahawk or sword, and that, if they would allow him to go to the woods with a guard, to collect the proper plants for this medicine, he would prepare it, and allow the experiment to be tried on his own neck by the strongest and most expert warrior among them. This story easily gained upon the superstitious credulity of the Indians, and the request of the Highlander was instantly complied with. Being sent into the woods, he soon returned with such plants as he chose to pick up. Having boiled these herbs, he rubbed his neck with their juice, and laying his head upon a log of wood, desired the strongest man among them to strike at his neck with his tomahawk, when he would find he could not make the smallest impression. An Indian, levelling a blow with all his might, cut with such force, that the head flew off at a distance of several yards. The Indians were fixed in amazement at their own credulity, and the address with which the prisoner had escaped the lingering death prepared for him; but instead of being enraged at this escape of their victim, they were so pleased with his ingenuity that they refrained from inflicting further cruelties on the remaining prisoners.”
After this affray Colonel Montgomery had no desire for a further acquaintance with the Indians. Employing the simple device of lighting camp-fires, he retreated post-haste before the ruse was suspected, making his way back to Fort George, and from thence to New York, remarking, when warned that he was leaving the unfortunate settlers to the mercies of the victorious Cherokee, that “he could not help the people’s fears.” Whether such an action and such a statement was prudent, or merely timorous, is not for us to say, but to the deserted Fort Loudon it was little better than a death-warrant. Besieged by the triumphant Indians, reduced to starvation point, and with the sure knowledge that further resistance only forestalled a humiliating surrender, the garrison came to terms with the enemy. What these terms amounted to does not greatly matter, for hardly had the unfortunate soldiers evacuated, and begun their retreat, than the Cherokees fell upon them, slaughtering a large number without mercy.
In 1764 the Black Watch and a detachment of Montgomery’s Highlanders set out for the relief of Fort Pitt, at that time besieged by Indians. The expedition was composed of about a thousand men, and was commanded by Colonel Henry Boquet. The whole country was swarming with the enemy, and the British force was compelled to advance through a narrow pass winding between precipitous hills. Many a time had Rob Roy and his Macgregors ambushed their pursuers in a similar spot. In those times, before long-range rifles, artillery, and aeroplanes, such places frequently proved a death-trap to an invading force, particularly soldiers unaccustomed to rough country and unable to get to close quarters with an agile enemy like the Red Indian.
One can picture the Highlanders, ill at ease, cautiously feeling their way up the silent gorge, their pack-horses stumbling along the narrow track, a strong body of the Black Watch ahead, and every man awaiting from one moment to another the attack that never came, while each step towards the centre of the defile magnified the prospect of annihilation. Suddenly, out of the stillness hummed a flight of arrows, while the dreaded Indian war-whoop echoed and re-echoed from every side. Unlike other savages, as the Zulu impi at Rorke’s Drift, or the Dervishes at Omdurman, the Red Indian preferred to kill by stealth, and in those times the ways of the Redskins were not so familiar to the white men as they became in the course of the terrible struggle which was eventually to sweep the Indian off the continent of America. On this occasion, although the Indians had inferior weapons, they possessed enormous superiority in numbers. They were also familiar with every foot of the country.
It fell to the Black Watch to drive them out of their position. This the Highlanders accomplished soon enough, and by their agility put the enemy to flight, but the attack was renewed and again renewed. The thickly wooded hill-side rang with the yells of thousands of braves—on every side they rose from amongst the rocks and undergrowth. The 42nd charged them with fixed bayonets, but they might as well have charged the wind. The Indians melted away before them, only to reassemble in another quarter, intent on causing a panic, dividing the British forces, stampeding the pack-horses, and keeping up the action until darkness drew on. Near at hand was a favourable plateau, and here the commanding officer decided to form his camp until the dawn. Through the brief summer night they awaited the assault, but as the expected rarely occurred in Indian warfare, none came. The Indians, confident that lack of water would necessitate an advance and the gradual destruction of the white men, contented themselves with false alarms and all those other time-honoured modes of wearing down the nerves and strength. It is also probable that they were none too ready to encounter more closely the strange men in tartan who played a game hardly less cunning than their own. At the same time it was important for the British to advance, for in their camp were many wounded, who could not hope to keep up with the main body, and who could under no circumstances be left to the fiendish tortures of the Indians.
Boquet was a man of resolute will. The following morning he feigned a retreat, when, with confident recklessness, the Indians rushed headlong upon his little force. Suddenly, out of the dense thicket, two companies of Highlanders appeared upon their flank. At the same time the main body advanced, and in an instant what had seemed to promise a severe disaster was turned into an overwhelming success. The British lost nearly a quarter of their number, but reached Fort Pitt without further danger, where the Black Watch passed the winter.
In the same year they set out on an expedition against the Ohio Indians, and once more the remarkable endurance and activity of the Highlanders was put to the test, with the result that, during an advance through almost impenetrable forests, there was not a single casualty through fatigue.
The war between England and France had concluded on February 10, 1763, with the Treaty of Paris. This Treaty deprived the French of rich territories both in North America and eastward of the Mississippi, but the conquest was in itself little better than a menace to the future peace of England. It was Vergennes, the French Ambassador at Constantinople, who wisely remarked at the time: “England will soon repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They stand no longer in need of her protection. She will call to them to contribute towards supporting the burden they have helped to bring on her, and they will answer by striking off all dependence.”
In a time when we have witnessed the noble patriotism and loyal support of our colonies, such a statement may well appear unduly pessimistic, or even absurd. But unfortunately at this period the spirit of Empire was clouded over by arrogance and insularity. People far away in England were not sufficiently in touch with the new world of America to treat the colonists with tolerance or sympathy. England had squandered much money and many lives in the war with France, and was not prepared to come to an understanding with the settlers, for whose safety it had carried out the campaign. In another chapter we shall see how humiliating the consequences of the War of Independence proved, and the part that the Highlanders took in the struggle.
In the earlier chapters we have dealt with the actions in which the Black Watch, Fraser’s, and Montgomery’s Highlanders were engaged. It is now time that mention was made of the other Highland regiments that were formed about this period, and that were, to some extent, recruited from the troops disbanded shortly before the American War of Independence. It would take too long and be too confusing to enter into any detail concerning the various false starts that many Highland regiments made. The actual date of their respective foundations will be found in the list of regimental battle honours, or in the chapters devoted on occasions to the exploit of a particular battalion.
The various Highland regiments that were raised after the Black Watch were largely the outcome of personal enterprise. The chief of the Macleods, for instance, raised the battalion that afterwards became the 1st Highland Light Infantry. The principal cities in Scotland each contributed towards a regiment, and the great families of Seaforth, Gordon, Argyll, and Macdonald did much in the time succeeding and preceding the American War to foster the military spirit. The regiment created by the Earl of Seaforth ultimately became the 1st Seaforth Highlanders.
There is, I think, only one particular point to note before we continue this narrative. In times of major warfare, such as in the great campaigning of the Napoleonic wars, the Crimea, and South Africa, several Highland regiments, not necessarily all, were banded together under the control of a commander, and called the Highland Brigade. A brigade may consist of three or four or more battalions, each battalion roughly a thousand odd men, and naturally comes into severe fighting.
In the Crimea the Highland Brigade was composed of three regiments, the Black Watch, the Camerons, and the 93rd Sutherlands. It was commanded by the famous Sir Colin Campbell. In the Indian Mutiny no regular brigade was formed. In the Egyptian war in 1882 the Highland Brigade was under the command of Sir Archibald Alison, and included the Black Watch, the Highland Light Infantry, the Gordons, and the Camerons. In the Boer War of 1889-1902 the Highland Brigade was under the command of General Wauchope, and included the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch, the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, the 1st Argyll and Sutherlands, and the 1st Highland Light Infantry. It was these four regiments that met with the severe reverse at Magersfontein.
At the time when the American War of Independence broke out George III. was upon the throne. He was an Englishman born and bred, and, after the earlier Georges, that in itself made a great appeal to the imagination of the English people. He was a man possessed of a great sincerity and a greater obstinacy, who lived as much as possible amongst his tenants in the country or within his own domestic circle. He evidenced, in brief, most of the virtues with many of the weaknesses of the English character. Though he displayed to a large degree the genial spirit that made men call him ‘Farmer George,’ there was also rather too much John Bull in his personality. His were the virtues of an honest, determined, rather stupid Englishman. It might be said that such a nature as this, particularly in the riotous eighteenth century, could achieve nothing but good. Unfortunately he not only ruled his family so harshly that they all turned out extremely badly, but he also tried to carry out the same attitude towards America. He scolded the colonists as though they were naughty children, and the colonists, many of whom had no acquaintance with England, and whose forebears had left the mother-country for the very good reason that they were happier out of it, met this intolerance with a bold and determined front. They naturally resented the autocratic demands of the Government; they could not tolerate the attitude of the English officers, while although they had outgrown Jacobite sympathies, they cherished no loyalty to a Hanoverian king.
In 1761 the Importation Act was passed, an attempt to enforce payment of duty, in consequence of which English ships went far to ruin trade with the West Indies. The end of the French and Indian wars had brought with it a great increase to the National Debt, and it seemed only fair to the Government that, as the conflict had been undertaken principally to guard the interests of the settlers, the cost should be shared by them. To this the colonists retorted that they too had fought, and that Canada was ample compensation to the British for any loss of capital.
In 1765 the Stamp Act was passed, ordering that all documents of every description must be printed on paper purchased from the Government.
On October 1, 1768, seven hundred soldiers marched into Boston and attempted to overawe the residents. To use a familiar catch-phrase, ‘the Government was asking for trouble.’ But the colonists still displayed great patience, and though disaffection simmered, it was not until 1773 that any sign of rebellion was visible. It was then that fifty men, dressed up as Red Indians, flung a cargo of tea into Boston Harbour, and on March 31, 1774, the port was ordered to be closed by the Government. Once started, deeds followed fast upon words, while incident hurried upon incident. Little things acquire an indescribable importance at such times, just as a spark will blow up a magazine. Finally, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the war commenced.
In England the effect of the Declaration was provocative of hardly more alarm than the outbreak of war in South Africa in 1899. In both cases it was exceedingly difficult to estimate the power of the enemy, and hard to believe he could resist a disciplined army. Take, for instance, a typical blusterer of the period. Major James Grant stated in the House of Commons that he knew the Americans very well, and was certain they would not fight,—“that they were not soldiers, and never could be made so, being naturally pusillanimous and incapable of discipline; that a very slight force would be more than sufficient for their complete reduction; and he fortified his statement by repeating their peculiar expressions and ridiculing their religious enthusiasm, manners, and ways of living, greatly to the entertainment of the House.”
Pitt replied in memorable words. “The spirit,” he said, “which resists your taxation in America is the same that formerly opposed loans, benevolences, and ship-money in England…. This glorious spirit of Whiggism animates three millions in America, who prefer poverty with liberty to gilded chains and sordid affluence, and who will die in defence of their rights as freemen.”
Throughout England there was the bitterest resentment against the war, with the widest sympathy for the Americans. Many officers handed in their papers, and meetings were held to express the indignation that such a step should have been forced upon a loyal and long-suffering people. Only Scotland, Tory at home and abroad, supported the king against America, while, with pathetic loyalty, the Highlanders, some of whom had fought for Prince Charlie against George II., risked their lives and lost their homes in America for the cause of George III.
The Black Watch and Fraser’s Highlanders sailed from Greenock on April 14, 1776, and disembarked at Staten, where the main body was stationed. Here the Highlanders were drilled in a new form of warfare, to enable them to overcome the resistance of the colonists. Broad-swords and pistols were laid aside, and greater reliance was placed upon marksmanship. After some preliminary fighting at Long Island the Americans, under Washington, secured a masterly retreat. In the month following the British troops took possession of the heights commanding New York. So far England had swept everything before her.
During the cessation that followed this engagement Washington devoted every moment to strengthening his forces. The American troops were no more trained than the Boers in South Africa, but like the latter they could claim in their favour a thorough knowledge of the country with practised marksmanship, derived from years of fighting with the Indians. Their hatred for the English, which burned deeper day by day, was in no degree cooled when they saw amongst the English troops both German mercenaries and Redskins. It is difficult for us to realise how bitterly the Americans abhorred the very sight of an Indian, while on the other hand, an unwritten page in history is the strange alliance that bound many Royalists to their merciless allies, and the brutal instincts such a fellowship aroused in some of the Highlanders, particularly those of the older, wilder generation, the scourings of the ‘45. On one occasion, for instance, a Highlander with the honest name of Donald M’Donald, led a party of Redskins against a block-house called Shell’s Bush. After the siege, which most fortunately ended in favour of the settler, it was discovered that “M’Donald wore a silver-mounted tomahawk, which was taken from him by Shell. It was marked by thirty scalp-notches, showing that few Indians could have been more industrious than himself in gathering that description of military trophies.”
It is also worth mentioning, for few histories have dealt with this point, that the unfortunate Highlanders who had settled in America in the years succeeding Culloden, and who, in their loyalty to the throne, fought against the American settlers, were eventually left in the lurch at the conclusion of hostilities, and forced to trek into Canada. Amongst these hapless people who lost their homes were Flora Macdonald and her husband. Her family divided and her future in jeopardy, she set sail again for Scotland, and there she died at the end of the eighteenth century, in the land where she had befriended Prince Charlie.
The capture of Fort Washington by General Howe was an important achievement, in which the Highland regiment played an honourable part. The Fort was well stationed upon the summit of a high plateau, as difficult of access upon at least one side as, let us say, the flank of Edinburgh or Stirling Castles. But where difficulties are so obvious, caution should always be exercised the more. We have seen how the heights of Quebec were scaled simply by challenging the apparently impossible. In much the same manner the Highlanders cleared the precipice beneath Fort Washington, and last, but certainly not least of them, Major Murray, whose stoutness and valour can only be compared to that of Sir Robert Munro at Fontenoy, was carried to the summit.
“This hill,” says an authority, “was so perpendicular that the ball which wounded Lieutenant Macleod entered the posterior part of his neck, ran down on the middle of his ribs, and lodged in the lower part of his back. One of the pipers who began to play when he reached the point of a rock on the summit, was immediately shot, and tumbled from one piece of rock to another till he reached the bottom. Major Murray, being a large corpulent man, could not attempt this steep ascent without assistance. The soldiers, eager to get to the point of their duty, scrambled up, forgetting the situation of Major Murray, when he, in a melancholy, supplicating tone cried, ‘Oh, soldiers, will you leave me?’ A party leaped down instantly, and brought him up, supporting him from one ledge to another until they got him to the top”—a spectacle not without humour.
The Americans, flying before the Black Watch, were brought face to face with the Hessians, and were compelled to lay down their arms. It is unquestionable that half the success of a victory lies in the manner that the pursuit is carried out, and unfortunately General Howe, instead of pressing hard upon the demoralised Americans, was content to go into winter quarters, thus permitting Washington to employ the succeeding weeks in strengthening his army. The time lost was never recovered. On January 22 the Hessians at Trenton were completely surprised and defeated. It had been touch-and-go for the Americans. Defeat at that moment would have ended the war. Immediately the whole situation was changed, and the future grew dark for the British arms.
Shortly after, the Highlanders in their turn were nearly overcome by a sudden attack while they were seeking some rest after long night-watching. A force of 2000 Americans attempted to rush and take them by surprise. Happily for the Black Watch their outposts were resolved to die rather than retreat, and the delay saved the situation.
About the middle of June General Howe perceiving that Washington was strongly entrenched at Middlebrook, resolved to change the theatre of war. When it is difficult to take a position there are two actions that are open to a commander—one is to mask it, as we have seen fortresses masked in the German War, and the other is simply to go elsewhere. The British forces marched away and sailed for Elk Ferry, from thence advancing on Philadelphia. Washington, hurriedly abandoning Middlebrook, pushed across country to oppose the crossing of the English at Brandy Wine River. Now the fording of a river under the shield of heavy battery fire is no light matter, but in those days, when the protection of artillery was not so adequate as it is to-day, it could only be carried with a terrible loss of life. Instead of a frontal attack Cornwallis determined to carry out a flanking movement upon the American position, so, marching up-stream, he forded the river without opposition and drove back General Sullivan. This enabled General Knyphausen to cross with his division, and at the falling of night the Americans were in retreat. Washington was beaten. On the 26th, Philadelphia fell into the hands of the British. Then followed the greatest blow of the war, and the decisive moment was come. General Burgoyne, marching victorious from Canada to co-operate with General Howe at Saratoga Springs, met with a disaster the importance of which can be estimated by the memorable words of Lord Mahon.
“Even of those great conflicts, in which hundreds of thousands have been engaged and tens of thousands have fallen, none has been more fruitful of results than this surrender of thirty-five hundred fighting men at Saratoga. It not merely changed the relations of England and the feelings of Europe towards these insurgent colonists, but it has modified, for all times to come, the connexion between every colony and every parent state.”
With General Burgoyne was General Simon Fraser, a Highlander of great distinction, who had served on the Continent, in the expedition against Louisburg, and with Wolfe at Quebec, where he was the officer who, deceiving the French sentry, enabled the Highlanders to land unsuspected. It is difficult to say whether the defeat at Saratoga Springs could have been averted, but it is probable that the despatches summoning Howe miscarried. Undoubtedly Burgoyne made a blunder in forcing Fraser to retreat when he was driving the troops of Colonel Morgan back. However that may be, what followed was dismal enough. Burgoyne took up his last position on the Heights of Saratoga, holding on till famine made further resistance impossible.
Saratoga was the turning-point of the war. France no longer hesitated, but threw in her lot with America. The whole character of the struggle was changed, and its wider issues lie outside our story. In 1780 the Black Watch took part in the siege of Charlestown, which surrendered on May 12. In the further history of the 42nd in America there is little more that is worth recording. The capitulation of Cornwallis (with whom were Fraser’s Highlanders) at Yorktown in 1781 practically ended hostilities.
In the American War of Independence there was little honour or glory for the British name or the Highland regiments. Where the cause is unworthy of a great nation success can carry with it nothing but dishonour.
The Highland Light Infantry is the only Highland regiment wearing the trews or tartan trousers. Other regiments of the Highland Brigade have discarded the kilt at one time or another—the Argyll Highlanders at the commencement of the last century, the Gordons at one period, and the Black Watch in Ashanti. The H.L.I. was raised as the 71st Foot in 1777, and was known at one time as Macleod’s Highlanders, when they were a kilted regiment. The second battalion was raised in 1787. The first battalion wore the kilt from 1777 to 1809, and the second battalion (the 74th Foot) until 1847.
The H.L.I. have the proud distinction of more battle honours than any other Highland regiment. Few regiments indeed have such a distinguished roll of honours, or have seen such varied service. It is surrounding their badge ‘The Elephant,’ and their honours of ‘Mysore,’ ‘Hindoostan,’ and ‘Seringapatam’ that the present chapter on the Indian campaign of 1799 is written.
In an earlier chapter an attempt has been made to give some idea of the vast extent of the struggle between England and France during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a struggle that was to reach its zenith at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The French had long been a power in India, though at the foundation of our East India Company they were not by any means established. For one thing, the British were on more friendly terms with the Indian Princes, while the French were kept very busy fighting not only the Dutch but the English as well. The Dutch, in those days a great naval power, beat the French time and again, and it was not until the latter founded Pondicherry that they were able to lay any assured basis of prosperity.
The whole system on which the English power was maintained in India was a very indifferent one. The English possessions were guided and controlled by the East India Company—a commercial body whose chief aim, naturally enough, was to make the best possible profit out of India, leaving international questions to look after themselves. It was with the name of Clive that the first vision of the Indian Empire was seen upon the horizon of time.
It is not within the scope of our story to devote any space to the great career of Clive, save only to remind the reader of Arcot, of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and of Plassey.
In 1786, the year after Warren Hastings’ return to England, Cornwallis was sent to India as Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief. He was not in any way attached to the East India Company, and in this way a new era commenced.
Cornwallis was soon compelled to enter into war with Tippoo Sahib, and at first the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ made things very difficult for him. For a time, however, peace was patched up, and Lord Wellesley, the brother of the future Duke of Wellington, succeeded as Governor-General.
As we shall see elsewhere, Napoleon had set his heart on the conquest of Egypt, with a view to depriving England of her colonies. After Egypt, he had every hope of conquering India, and for this reason Tippoo was a very promising personage with whom to make a secret treaty against the English. Although the French supremacy was a thing of the past, yet many native princes retained French officers to drill their troops, and their influence was not unlike the control that the Germans exercised over the Turks in 1915. When Lord Wellesley arrived, he found himself faced by treacherous Indian rulers, French intrigue, and rebellious natives.
In 1799 war again broke out with Tippoo, when Colonel Arthur Wellesley, the future ‘Iron Duke,’ was one of the British commanders. The Highlanders under Wellesley took an active part in defeating the Indian troops in every engagement, until at last Tippoo was surrounded in his capital Seringapatam.
Some idea of the service of the H.L.I. in India from 1780 onwards until 1806 may be gauged by the fact that no less than five names—Carnatic, Sholinghur, Mysore, Hindoostan, and Seringapatam—were added to the regimental colours.
In the Mysore campaign the 71st H.L.I. took part in all the important battles leading up to the heroic storming of Seringapatam.
Colonel Wellesley, as stated above, discovered that Tippoo Sahib was at the heart of a new French intrigue, and decided that the time had come for action. With this end in view he despatched an army numbering 43,000 men to break his power for ever, and take his stronghold by storm.
But so much time was spent in clearing the ground covering the approaches to the fortress, that on April 14, 1799, it was seen that unless the supplies of the army were to give out the place must be carried at all costs. It was no easy matter. Seringapatam lay between two branches of the river Cavery, while to its front were entrenchments, and behind these the artillery and fortifications of the city itself.
Trench warfare is so familiar to-day that there will be no difficulty in understanding the initial steps in the battle. After some days devoted to undermining the enemy’s trenches—the Highlanders, under Wellesley, rushed the position, driving the Indians into Seringapatam.
Following upon that success the British guns settled down to make a breach in the walls of the city, but by the 2nd of May, when that was accomplished, the supplies of the army had run very low and as Mr. Fortescue has written, “so desperate was the situation that the General fully resolved, if necessary, to throw his entire army into the breach, since success was positively necessary to its existence.”
But the prospect of carrying the breach by assault was sufficient to unnerve the finest troops. There was first a rush over one hundred yards to the river, which must be forded. On the opposite bank of the river was a wall, while between the wall and the breach lay an open ditch some sixty yards in breadth. It was an obstacle-race with death.
Two parties were allotted for the business. With Major-General Baird in one party went the H.L.I. and the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch.
It was agreed that the enemy would least expect such a dangerous and exhausting assault in the height of the heat. In the darkness of the preceding night the storming party marched into the trenches, where they remained throughout the morning of the following day until the moment arrived. “Men,” called Major-General Baird, “are you all ready?”
Ready they had been for twelve hours.
“Then forward, my lads.”
Like a pack of hounds they tore across the open space to the river, and instantly the enemy opened fire. Through the Cavery they splashed, over the wall they poured, across the ditch, then like an angry river, between the ragged walls of the breach. Within six minutes the British flag was hoisted upon the outer wall of Seringapatam.
The rushing of the inner rampart headed by Captain Goodall followed.
In the meantime Dunlop’s column had fought to a standstill when Lieutenant Farquhar of the 74th Highlanders rallied the Grenadiers, falling in his hour of triumph.
The slaughter of the enemy was enormous. Caught between two fires, and thrown into confusion they surrendered all further hope of resistance. By the magnificent gallantry of the H.L.I. in particular the victory was won.
The Highland Light Infantry at Seringapatam
The end of Tippoo Sahib was tragic if only for its obscurity. The British troops, fighting their way through the city, shot a wounded officer supported amidst some native soldiery. It was Tippoo Sahib, who, fearing capture above everything, and fearing death not at all, was killed in a last effort at resistance. He fell unknown beneath the bodies of his followers, while all the time the fight in the streets raged on. When the last round was fired, 10,000 of the enemy had fallen.
All India rejoiced over this exploit of the British arms, bringing the end of an evil dynasty. But peace had not yet dawned for India.
The death of Tippoo had taken place so suddenly that an inspection of his correspondence revealed the fact that he was not the only one desirous of expelling the English. There were communications from the Nawab of the Carnatic, and very shortly afterwards that province was added to the Madras Presidency with another battle honour to the colours of the H.L.I.
We must now turn to the Mahrattas of Central India. The first Mahratta war had been fought in the time of Warren Hastings. The second Mahratta war was conducted by Arthur Wellesley. After some marching back and forth the British, with whom were the H.L.I. under General Wellesley, met the Indian army at Assaye, on the 23rd of September 1803. In this engagement the Highlanders, and in particular the Seaforths and H.L.I., who were both granted the ‘Elephant’ as a special badge, won particular notice. In the course of this action, the Highlanders with their comrades managed to defeat a force of ten times their size. The conflict dragged on, however, a battle against French Sepoy troops was fought in Hindoostan, till finally the French Sepoys were utterly dispersed at Laswari. This practically concluded the work of the H.L.I. in India, and in 1806 they were in action at the Cape of Good Hope.
THE BATTLE HONOURS OF THE HIGHLAND LIGHT INFANTRY
Carnatic, Sholinghur, Mysore, Hindoostan, Seringapatam; Cape of Good Hope, 1806; Rolica, Vimiera, Corunna, Busaco, Fuentes de Oñoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Albuera, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthez, Toulouse, Peninsula, Waterloo; South Africa, 1851-1853; Sevastopol, Central India; Egypt, 1882; Tel-el-Kebir; South Africa, 1899-1902; Modder River.
It may appear that our last chapter, telling of an action in 1799, has fallen out of place, but there are sufficient reasons why it should come where it does. The trouble with Tippoo Sahib commenced very much sooner, only reaching its climax at Seringapatam, while being at best but an echo of the battle thunder in Europe.
We are now entering upon the first actions in what was to prove a long and terrible war in Europe. For long England had fought France in America and India. From now until 1815 the conflict was to rage ever fiercer nearer home, to break out in Flanders, to spread to Egypt, to drench the Peninsula in blood, and finally to return to the tragic plains of Belgium.
It is important to understand the reasons for this new development.
In the annals of history the French Revolution, that wild outbreak against oppression, stands alone. Coming so swiftly, sweeping from anarchy to anarchy, from one excess to another, passing from bloodshed to bloodshed, from civil war to international strife, from democracy to tyranny, it stunned Europe into a stricken silence. Things were happening which had never happened before. Not only in France, but in many other countries the voice of the people was heard in no uncertain way, while even in Scotland, that country of old causes, a poet, Robert Burns by name, was voicing an altogether new sentiment. The future was as dark and ominous then as it was on that fateful August night in 1914, when, like wind hastening across a dark stretch of country, the word was passed that England was at war with Germany.
Against the dark background of the French Revolution the conflict between England and France had sunk into nothingness. Many are the tales that depict the tragic story of the Reign of Terror, perhaps the most frightful explosion of human anarchy in the history of the world. Innumerable are the instances of heroism, courage, and sacrifice, that have lit up that gloomy period. Were it not for actions so noble and bravery so deathless such a story would be better left untold. Later on, when we come to an equally tragic episode in the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny, it will be seen how cruelty and death called forth as an inspiration to Englishmen throughout eternity the greater and more enduring qualities of self-sacrifice and patriotism. It was that spirit, however tarnished, of tradition that carried the French nobility with unbroken composure to the guillotine. It was this same tradition—but by no means tarnished—that burned like a bright flame in the hearts of Lawrence and John Nicholson. The horrors of war are in themselves of little account when the years have passed. The thing that matters is the spirit with which they are met and conquered.
In the troubles of the French people England desired to take no share unless she was compelled to guard her own interests. The time came soon enough. Passing from arrogance to arrogance, the National Assembly of France at last issued a proclamation offering to assist any nation in Europe against its rulers—or, as it was pleased to call them, its oppressors. Upon that declaration of anarchy the kings and emperors prepared for war. In 1792 the French, defeating the Austrians and Russians in Belgium, swarmed over the frontiers, and the invasion of Holland was planned. But just as England went to war with Germany to avenge the violation of Belgium, so she was prepared to sustain the independence of Holland. So, on February 1st, 1793, war was declared.
To return to the nearer issues of our regimental story, the Black Watch embarked for Flanders in 1793, joined the army under the Duke of York at Menin, and marched to the relief of Nieuport. Some time elapsed before they saw service, but in 1794, having returned in the meantime to England, they landed at Ostend at a somewhat critical moment. The approach of the French forces, coupled with the uncertain attitude of Prussia, placed the division of the Duke of York, then stationed at Malines, at a disadvantage. Lord Moira, who was in command of the Highlanders, determined, if possible, to unite his forces with those of the Duke. The troops were accordingly formed up in the sand-dunes in marching order and advanced towards Ostaker and Alost. While they were stationed there, out of the night, like Uhlans entering Brussels, came 400 French cavalry, whom the Highlanders very naturally mistook for their allies the Hessians. The enemy, trotting through the streets reached the marketplace, but when one of them made an attempt to sabre a Highlander on the way, the trick was discovered. The enraged soldier drawing his bayonet, attacked the horseman. The alarm was given, and the enemy were driven out by the Dragoons. Shortly after, when Lord Moira had been succeeded by Lieutenant-General Ralph Abercromby, the British were beleaguered in Nimeguen. It was deemed politic to evacuate this town, and the Highlanders, with the other troops, began one of the most terrible retreats in our history. So piercing was the cold, although it was only the beginning of November, that the enemy crossed the Waal on the ice, pushing back the English army behind the Leck. The French had taken Tuil, and a few days later General Dundas, with the aid of the Black Watch, drove the enemy back again over the Waal. Again the French advanced, and it fell to the Highlanders as at Fontenoy to cover the British rear. Retreat they must for fear of being outflanked. To make matters worse the swift advance of the French cavalry drove the Light Dragoons backward, resulting in the loss of two guns.
It was at that critical moment that General Dundas appealed to the Black Watch to recover what the Dragoons had lost. Without hesitation, but fired by the honour laid upon them, the Highlanders charged headlong at the French cavalry who fell into disorder. The artillery horses had already fallen, but undismayed the 42nd pulled the precious guns home again.
It was a swift, minor incident, but at the moment when the British army was in the heart of a hostile and frost-bound country it stood out of the dreary story like a splash of gold upon a grey sky. Never have the Black Watch refused the call, and very seldom have they failed.
It is recorded by Archibald Forbes in his admirable History of the Black Watch that on the rescue of the guns General Dundas addressed the Highlanders saying, “Forty-second, the 11th Dragoons shall never wear the red plume on their helmets any more, and I hope the 42nd will carry it so long as they are the Black Watch.” It was this red plume or “hackle” that the gallant 42nd have worn on their feather bonnets to this day, and on June 4, 1795, upon the King’s birthday, it was first distributed.
This was to prove the only bright episode in the retreat on Bremen. The numbers of the enemy increased daily, the British were not only in danger of defeat, but were in imminent peril of starvation, were also ill equipped for a campaign in the depths of winter, and throughout the march endured the tacit hostility of the peasantry on their line of route. “Day after day,” says Mr. Fortescue in his History of the British Army, “the cold steadily increased; and those of the army that woke on the morning of the 17th of January saw about them such a sight as they never forgot. Far as the eye could reach over the whitened plain were scattered gun-limbers, waggons full of baggage, stores, or sick men, sutlers’ carts, and private carriages. Beside them lay the horses, dead; here a straggler who had staggered on to the bivouack and dropped asleep in the arms of the frost; there a group of British and Germans round an empty rum-cask; here forty English Guardsmen huddled together about a plundered waggon…. Had the retreat lasted but three or four days longer, not a man would have escaped; and the catastrophe would have found a place in history side by side with the destruction of the Army of Sennacherib and with the still more terrible disaster of the retreat from Moscow.”
Out of all the army, only the Highlanders endured the rigours of the weather and such awful privation with any success, losing not more than twenty-five dead.
That for the time being concluded the operations of the Highland regiments on the Continent, for in October 1795 the Government decided to launch an attack directed against the ascendancy of the French Republic in the West Indies.
To return to the main centre of operations is to be confronted with the great figure of Napoleon.
The French Revolution gave birth to many things, but the greatest force that it created was that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in his meteoric genius embodied the spirit of the age. He rose from a humble position in the army and of poor parentage in Corsica, not only to be the greatest man in France, but one of the greatest men the world has ever seen. He took into his hands the reins of power that were already slipping from the leaders of the Revolution. He organised the Revolutionary armies and led them to victory; he brought out of the smoke of the Reign of Terror a France purged and renewed. Before setting his eyes upon England itself, he determined to seize Egypt, and from there to threaten the English power in India. Apparently Pitt, although he was acquainted with the preparations that were being put forward in the harbours of France, did not fully realise what was in the wind, so Nelson was sent post-haste to the Mediterranean to reconnoitre. But Napoleon gave Nelson the slip time and again, and reached Egypt two days before the English arrived. On August 1, however, Nelson came across a line of thirteen French battleships in Aboukir Bay. The French ships were lying close to the shore while night was already falling. Nelson, having divided his fleet into two divisions, slipped down both flanks of the enemy’s line, suddenly opening a double fire. His victory was complete, only two French ships and two frigates evading his pursuit. This ‘Battle of the Nile,’ as it was called, shut up Napoleon in Egypt. It did more than that, it encouraged Russia, Austria, Turkey, and Naples to unite with England in the Second Coalition.
In 1799 Napoleon, who was not satisfied to remain in a helpless position in Egypt while the Allies did what they liked in Europe, set out across the desert to Palestine, and after engagements at Jaffa and Acre—where he was beaten by Sir Sydney Smith—he returned to Egypt, and evading the English ships in the Mediterranean reached France. Once there he speedily drove the Government out of power, took the control of affairs himself, with the title of First Consul, and commenced his preparations for the conquest of England. England was outwitted, and the Allies, who had been delighted to join a coalition while Napoleon was isolated in Egypt, hastened now to come to terms with France. And so England found herself faced by the masked opposition of Europe and the threatening of a French invasion. Her only hope upon land lay in the Egyptian campaign which we are now going to enter upon.
On December 21, 1800, the fleet conveying the troops sailed in two divisions for Marmorice on the coast of Greece, where the Turks, who at that time were our Allies, were to provide a reinforcement. With Abercromby were the Black Watch, the Camerons, and the Gordons. Shortly afterwards the fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, just where Nelson had won his victory nearly three years before. Unfortunately a violent gale sprang up, making it impossible to carry out the disembarkation of the soldiers. This delay enabled the French to prepare themselves to resist the landing, and had it not been for the remarkable qualities of the commanding officer, Sir Ralph Abercromby, the troops might have been faced with overwhelming disaster. Abercromby was as able as the British Military Secretary, Dundas, was incompetent. Despite every obstacle that the futility of Dundas could place in his path, he succeeded where a catastrophe might have been judged unavoidable. The British troops were kept months upon the sea, reduced to a miserable state of health, and landed in the teeth of a strong force of the enemy, who, like the Turks in the Dardanelles, had had ample warning of the scheme of operations. Well might Abercromby, like many another British general, remark, “There are risks in a British warfare unknown in any other service.”
The enemy, who outnumbered him by two to one, already held all the fortified positions with a well-disciplined and acclimatised army, supported by excellent artillery. Under these circumstances the French could hardly believe that the British would actually attempt to land. Suddenly they saw the boats conveying the soldiers heading for the shore, when without delay they opened a terrific fire from their batteries, also from the castle at Aboukir. At Marmorice Abercromby had practised his troops in the order of the attack. In the teeth of the enemy, the British troops managed to reach the beach, where they drove back the French, and, hastily assembling, began to rush the face of the hill. The enemy, utterly paralysed at the rapidity of the assault, fired without accuracy or discretion, even allowing the Black Watch to form up and send a volley into their midst.
In the meantime, while these hills were being assaulted, Major-General Moore (the future victor of Corunna) had gained possession of the country in his front, though sustaining a heavy loss. Beaten in two quarters, the enemy retired towards Alexandria, leaving the British to complete their occupation of the shore, and the landing of their stores and ammunition.
During the time devoted to this task the French had managed to reinforce, being strongly posted, when, on the morning of the 13th, the British forces advanced to the attack. At the head of the first column was the 90th Regiment with the Gordon Highlanders. Far away behind the French lines could be seen the port of Alexandria buried amidst its immemorial ruins. There was Cleopatra’s Needle, fated eventually to crumble upon the banks of the Thames, Arabian mosques and minarets, and over all that strange and timeless atmosphere, of which centuries of change have never been able to rob the East. As this was the first engagement of the Gordon Highlanders, and as we learn that its ranks were, for the most part, filled with young soldiers unacclimatised to the East, it is of interest to record that it conducted itself with as much distinction as any other battalion in the British Army. “Opposed to a tremendous fire,” wrote Sir R. Wilson, “and suffering severely from the French line, the regiment never receded a foot, but maintained the contest alone until the marines and the rest of the fine came up to its support.”
For some reason or another the action was ineffective. Sir Ralph Abercromby was now faced with the task of reducing Alexandria, and though his force had been so far successful, the advantage had been gained at some cost. To move artillery over a sandy desert requires a large number of horses, in which respect the British were very much inferior to the French. Our sailors, always handy men, lent their assistance to the soldiers to drag the wheels out of the sand, and in this manner the British approached the entrenched position held by the French in front of the city. The position of the British army at this stage had few natural advantages beyond the sea upon the right flank, and Lake Maadieh upon the left. There were also some ruins supposed to have been the ancient Palace of the Ptolemies.
An hour before the dawn on the day of the 21st, the French troops were on the move, but the British were not taken by surprise, and awaited the enemy in absolute silence. The morning was very dark and cloudy. Coming across the sand the tramp of the enemy was almost deadened. The French attack was made simultaneously upon the ruins, the redoubt, and the wing, held by the Black Watch, but was utterly repulsed. Falling back, the enemy sent forward another column with a six-pounder, and so stealthily did they advance that they were between the left of the Black Watch and the right of the Guards before they were seen. Colonel Stewart, who was in command of the Highlanders, acted with promptitude, manœuvring the 42nd so cleverly that the enemy was caught between two fires. The desperate Frenchmen rushed into the ruins, where they were received by a murderous fusillade. Through this predicament the gallant but unfortunate body of ‘Invincibles’ were forced to surrender after a very heavy loss.
Hearing that the French were again attacking, General Abercromby rode up, shouting, “My brave Highlanders, remember your country, remember your forefathers,” at which the Black Watch, raising a cheer, charged the enemy. They cheered too soon, for at that moment the French cavalry cantered forward to cover the retreat of their infantry. Immediately Colonel Stewart sent the order for the Highlanders to fall back, but for some reason or another these directions were not received, and the ragged line of the advancing Black Watch was suddenly confronted by a charge of horse. It was a time when undisciplined troops might well have broken, but the Highlanders stood firm, receiving the shock as coolly as the 93rd awaited the Russian cavalry at Balaclava. The French General, alarmed at the repulse of his troops, hurried forward a column of infantry, but this body also was beaten off by the Highlanders. A second troop of cavalry advanced to meet with no better success, and shortly afterwards General Stuart’s brigade reinforced the 42nd. It was now eight o’clock in the morning and nothing decisive had occurred, although the British had more than held their own. Unfortunately their ammunition had given out, so they had to endure the unceasing cannonade of the French guns without being able to reply. The situation was enough to unman any troops. An eye-witness has recorded: “The army suffered exceedingly from their fire, particularly the Highlanders and the right of General Stuart’s brigade, who were exposed without cover to its full effect, being posted on a level piece of ground, over which the cannon shot rolled after striking the ground, and carried off a file of them at every successive rebound. This was more trying to the courage and discipline of the troops than the former attacks, but the trial was supported with perfect steadiness. Not a man moved from his position, except to close up the opening made by the shot, when his right or left-hand man was struck down … To stand in this manner with perfect firmness, exposed to a galling fire, without any object to engage the attention or occupy the mind, and without the power of making the smallest resistance, was a trial of the character of the British soldier, to which the enemy did full justice.”
At last the French, thoroughly disheartened with the morning’s encounter, retreated back to their position before Alexandria, and the action was over. At the same moment Sir Ralph Abercromby, being mortally wounded, retired from the field. He was carried on board the Foudroyant, where he lay for some days, dying on the morning of the 28th. As a contemporary paper wrote of him, “his life was honourable, so his death was glorious. His memory will be recorded in the annals of his country, will be sacred to every British soldier and embalmed in the memory of a grateful posterity.”
The action had been a severe test of the endurance of the Highlanders, and there were many who were buried in the desert sand never to see Lochaber or the Highland glens again. Those of the Black Watch who survived the fierce engagement prided themselves upon the standard of the French Invincibles and upon the word ‘Egypt’ added for all time to their regimental honours. The Camerons and Gordons for conspicuous distinction also added ‘The Sphinx’ to their regimental colours.
The command now fell upon General Hutchinson, who remained for some time before Alexandria, but very shortly proceeded to Cairo, taking up his position four miles from that city on June 16. Opposed to him was a force of 13,000 Frenchmen. But the French commander was only too anxious to surrender, on condition that his army was sent to France with their arms, baggage, and effects. It is probable that he had received instructions that his force would prove of more service in Europe.
Only the fall of Alexandria now remained to complete the conquest of Egypt. The French, finding themselves surrounded on two sides by a British army of some 14,000 men, cut off from the sea, and unable to retire on the south, capitulated on September 2. The collapse of hostilities, as swift as it was decisive, terminated the service of the Highland regiments in Egypt.
During the years that the Highland regiments were on home service many eventful things took place. By the Peace of Amiens, England had surrendered almost all her conquests to Napoleon. She had promised to give up Malta and various places in the Mediterranean; she retained no territory in Africa. In the West Indies, which had cost the British army so many lives, she owned only Trinidad. She had also relinquished the claims of the Bourbons, which she had formerly supported, and she—no matter how grudgingly—recognised the authority of the Emperor. But it was obvious to everybody that the renewal of hostilities was only a question of time. Napoleon—just as much as the Kaiser at a later date—had set his heart on the downfall of England. His spies were everywhere, his network of information was immense, and he was determined, if he could not overwhelm her in arms, to strangle her in trade. He plotted to cause trouble in India—and here again it would seem unnecessary to provide a parallel. He attempted to reconquer Egypt. It therefore seemed politic to England, since bloodshed was inevitable, to enter upon a conflict before Napoleon was supreme upon the Continent, and by refusing to leave Malta (according to the agreement of Amiens), war broke out again in May 1803.
For the next two years our country was fated to fight France single-handed, and, until the battle of Trafalgar ensured our supremacy upon the sea, there was above everything else one scheme very close to the heart of Napoleon, and that the invasion of England. An army of at least 150,000 men was assembled at Boulogne, while, for their transport many hundreds of flat-bottomed boats were built, and just as the German fleet watched every opportunity to emerge and hold, even for a short time, the Channel and the North Sea, so the ships of Napoleon rode at anchor in the French ports, ever ready to dart out should the opportunity arise. Once the control of the Channel was gained they would be able to protect the transport of soldiers to English shores. It is interesting to see what our forefathers did to counteract this danger. All along the coast they built little watch-towers—many of which can still be seen—called Martello Towers. These were manned by small parties of soldiers, and provided with artillery. The Thames was fortified, and great bodies of volunteers were enrolled for the defence of the coast. Hardly a man but was in uniform, and the thoughts of every Briton were devoted to the safety of our country. Fortunately the British Navy shut the French ships within their own ports. Cornwallis, with a portion of the English fleet, locked up a French squadron at Brest. Nelson, with another detachment, enclosed the enemy at Toulon, whilst two other English admirals kept close watch at other points of danger.
In those days, when sailing ships could ill withstand stormy weather, but when, on the other hand, the dangers of submarines and mines did not exist, the vigil was not only wearisome, but also critical; for it must be remembered that if a great storm had swept the Channel, the coast of England might in a few hours have been left open to the invader.
So the weeks passed on, and it was borne in upon Napoleon that he would never gain the cliffs of Kent. He was the last man to waste his time with vain regrets, and postponing the humiliation of England he gave the order for his troops to march into Germany. But we were far from humiliation, for on October 21, 1805, was celebrated the crushing naval victory of Trafalgar.
Too often has victory been bought with a great national loss, and just as the conquest of Quebec brought with it the pathetic end of Wolfe, the success in Egypt the loss of Sir Ralph Abercromby, Corunna the tragedy of Sir John Moore, so this glorious victory carried with it that greatest of all calamities, the death of Nelson. But Trafalgar was the last supreme event in the naval struggle between Napoleon and England; henceforth he must confine his conquests and his hopes to the army and the Continent.
In the same year as Trafalgar was fought and won, and Austria, Russia, and England were again united in a coalition, Napoleon gained the victory of Ulm, and very shortly afterwards was again triumphant at Austerlitz. Before the end of 1805 Austria, never very reliable at such times, appealed for peace. The Coalition was staggering under one blow after another. Well might Pitt, on his death-bed at the beginning of 1806, breathe out his despairing spirit with the words, “My country, how I leave my country!”
The grasp that Napoleon was laying about the kingdoms of Europe was strengthened from year to year. He made his brother Joseph King of Naples, his brother Louis ruler of Holland, and Jerome King of Westphalia. In 1807 he came to terms with the Czar of Russia, forcing him to agree, together with Portugal, Sweden, and Denmark, to a coalition against England. And in the meantime he started what has been called his Continental System—an attempt to beat England to her knees by destroying her commerce. He forbade, in other words, the importation of English trade into any country over which he had established his control. In this way one port after another shut its doors to English ships. By this means it seemed likely that England, growing less wealthy, would be weakened, and in course of time—and he had many years of promise before him—he would finally force her to capitulate at his own terms. Unfortunately for Napoleon’s schemes, a blockade is useless unless it is universal. It was therefore essential to conquer those remaining countries that were not prepared to surrender their trade with Great Britain.
Principally owing to this policy the Spanish War broke out, a war that was to add not merely to the prestige of the British arms, but to the ultimate undermining of French supremacy.
It is with the Peninsular War that we shall be immediately interested, but it is necessary, before following out its story, to realise the infinite importance that lay in its success. Times of stress have a way of providing their own remedy, and even while the British nation, mourning the death of Nelson, was thinking how dark the future looked, Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington, was waiting for the hour of his destiny to strike.
In Spain, Napoleon, having compelled the king to abdicate, had placed the power in the hands of his brother Joseph, formerly king of Naples. This arrogant action irritated the Spanish nation to the point of insurrection. England, swift to seize such a chance, despatched a fleet and an army to assist the rebels, and Wellesley, who had already made his name in India, was placed in command of the British troops.
Acting with his amazing rapidity, Napoleon hastened to Spain, pouring his victorious armies to the very outskirts of Madrid. It seemed for a moment as though the cause of Spain was already lost. There was no force strong enough to challenge Napoleon. But there was a man with the genius to outwit him. That was Sir John Moore. With him were the Black Watch, the Gordons, and the Camerons, under the command of Sir John Hope. Moore attempted to unite his forces with those of Sir David Baird, but, failing to effect this, he resolved upon the desperate expedient of threatening Napoleon’s lines of communication and enticing him from his advance.
The French general Soult was near a place called Saldana, where, after some deliberation, Moore decided that it would be unwise to attack him, as he had apparently received large reinforcements. Napoleon was marching inland from Madrid with 40,000 infantry and cavalry, while other French generals with their divisions were on the move towards the north of Spain. For Moore to take the offensive would have been madness. To retreat and go on retreating was a stroke of military genius.
It must not be thought that this retreat was entirely uneventful; indeed it was lit up by some of the most daring and brilliant actions in our history. Hot upon the trail of the British rearguard came the advance guard of the French army, but on no single occasion did our soldiers suffer a reverse. And yet it was a hazardous undertaking.
Moore’s army was in hourly peril. He realised only too well that “it must glide along the edge of a precipice; must cross a gulf on a rotten plank; but he also knew the martial quality of his soldiers, felt the pulsation of his own genius, and, the object being worthy the deed, he dared essay it even against Napoleon.” The pursuit by Napoleon was only less wonderful than the retreat of Moore. It was the heart of winter and the hills were choked with snow, yet Napoleon drove his forces over the mountain peaks and transported 50,000 men from Madrid to Astorga in a shorter period of time than would have taken a traveller to cover the same distance. At Astorga the French Emperor halted to read despatches, new come from the French capital. Napier tells us that when he received the despatches he dismounted from his horse, and ordering a fire to be lighted, threw himself down beside it. The snow was falling and it was bitterly cold, but he remained calm and unaffected, reading words that were to send him post-haste to Paris. News had come that Austria was again in arms against France. Leaving Soult and Ney with 60,000 men, Napoleon took to horse, and, accompanied by his Imperial Guard, made off at a gallop towards the Pyrenees, and so to Paris. It was left to Soult to continue the pursuit of Moore, and learn a lesson in war from the English general. In that immortal retreat the English forces lost not one gun, nor allowed their rearguard to be routed.
At the same time we must not under-estimate the tragic character of the march, nor the superb endurance of the soldiers, especially the Highlanders. Dr. Fitchett has, in his Fights for the Flag, printed portions of the memoirs of an English soldier who took part in the Peninsular campaign, and this man—Harris by name—throws sidelights of vivid colour upon incidental experiences. “A sergeant of the 92nd Highlanders,” he records, “just about this time fell dead with fatigue, and no one stopped as we passed to offer him any assistance. Night came down upon us without our having tasted food or halted, and all night long we continued this dreadful march. Men began to look into each other’s faces and ask the question, ‘Are we ever to be halted again?’ and many of the weaker sort were now seen to stagger, make a few desperate efforts, and then fall, perhaps to rise no more. Most of us had devoured all we carried in our haversacks and endeavoured to catch up anything we could snatch from hut or cottage in our route…. ‘Where are you taking us to?’ the Rifleman asked his officer. ‘To England,’ was the answer, ‘if we get there!’ At that ‘the men began to murmur at not being permitted to turn and stand at bay, cursing the French and swearing they would rather die ten thousand deaths with their rifles in their hands in opposition, than endure the present toil.’”
It is our purpose in this book to follow the fortunes of the Highland regiments, but that in itself would make a distorted picture if we were not prepared to remember that other regiments bore as gallant a share during the various campaigns. Amongst these regiments the Rifles took a particularly glorious part in the Peninsular, and especially in the retreat to Corunna. They were commanded by General Craufurd, of whom Harris has written: “The Rifles being always at his heels, he seemed to think them his familiars. If he stopped his horse, and halted to deliver one of his stern reprimands, you would see half a dozen lean, unshaven, shoeless, and savage Riflemen, standing for the moment leaning upon their weapons, and scowling up in his face as he scolded; and when he dashed the spurs into his reeking horse, they would throw up their rifles upon their shoulders and hobble after him again.”
Few generals have ever enjoyed the confidence and respect that Moore inspired in the hearts of his men. His influence upon the officers under him was so exceptional that hardly one who came under his spell but lived to achieve distinction in the years to come.
At last Moore with his ragged army entered Corunna, and the retreat was accomplished. Now had the ships been at anchor, as they should have been, the army could have embarked without further delay, and when the French came up might have been in safety. But as there was no sign of the transports, Moore decided to fortify the town and prepare to resist an attack. On the 14th of January several transports were sighted, and immediately the sick, the cavalry, and part of the artillery were placed on board. On the 16th the situation became very critical, and an assault was imminent. The division of General Hope held the left of the British line of battle, and included, amongst others, the Gordon Highlanders, while on the right, under General Baird, were the Black Watch, and to the right again, under Sir David Baird, were the Cameron Highlanders. The enemy opened the attack, and under the direction of their artillery advanced in four columns, reserving a fifth in support. General Moore, approaching the Black Watch, cried out, “Highlanders, remember Egypt!” Visions of Alexandria sprang up in the minds of the Highlanders, and under the inspiration of such words they advanced at a run, and flung back the French at the point of the bayonet. Meanwhile Paget’s counter-attack was launched.
After this spirited encounter the 42nd began to retire, discovering that their ammunition threatened to give out, at which Moore addressed them again, crying, “My brave 42nd, join your comrades; ammunition is coming, and you have your bayonets.” Immediately after this a ball struck the British general, bringing him to the ground. For a time he supported himself, still regarding with an intense expression the engagement in which the Highlanders were taking so remarkable a part. Captain Hardinge leapt from his horse and came to his assistance, but observing that he was distressed about the action, reassured him that the Black Watch were advancing, upon which he was immediately cheered up.
Captain Hardinge has given an account of this event. “The violence of the shock,” he wrote, “threw him off his horse on his back. Not a muscle of his face altered, nor did a sigh betray the least sensation of pain. I dismounted, and taking his hand, he pressed me forcibly, casting his eyes very anxiously towards the 42nd Regiment which was hotly engaged, and his countenance expressed satisfaction when I informed him that the regiment was advancing. Assisted by a soldier of the 42nd, he was removed a few yards behind the shelter of a wall. He consented to be taken to the rear, and was put into a blanket for that purpose…. He was borne by six soldiers of the 42nd and Guardsmen, my sash supporting him in an easy manner. I caught at the hope that I might be mistaken in my fear that the wound was mortal, and I remarked that I trusted that when the surgeon had dressed his wound he might recover. He turned his head, and looking steadfastly at the wound for a few moments, said, ‘No, Hardinge, I feel that to be impossible.’”
In this sad fashion, borne by a sergeant of the Black Watch and two files of Highlanders, Sir John Moore was carried into Corunna. Throughout the journey he persisted on stopping at intervals in order to learn how the action proceeded, expressing his satisfaction when the noise of firing appeared to be dying away in the distance as an indication that the French were in retreat.
“Thus ended,” writes Napier so finely, “the career of Sir John Moore, a man whose uncommon capacity was sustained by the purest virtue, and governed by a disinterested patriotism more in keeping with the primitive than the luxurious age of a great nation. His tall, graceful person, his dark searching eyes, strongly defined forehead, and singularly expressive mouth indicated a noble disposition and a refined understanding. The lofty sentiments of honour habitual to his mind, adorned by a subtle playful wit, gave him in conversation an ascendancy that he always preserved by the decisive vigour of his actions. He maintained the right with a vehemence bordering upon fierceness, and every important transaction in which he was engaged increased his reputation for talent, and confirmed his character as a stern enemy to vice, a steadfast friend to merit, a just and faithful servant of his country. The honest loved him, the dishonest feared him; for while he lived he scorned and spurned the base, who, with characteristic propriety, spurned at him when he was dead.”
After this melancholy event there was nothing further to prevent the army embarking in their transports and sailing for England. One division, in which the Black Watch was included, landed at Portsmouth, and the other at Plymouth.
Throughout the campaign the Highland regiments, particularly the Black Watch and the Camerons, were never more worthy of the growing reputation of the Highland soldiers—a reputation that was to shine still brighter at Fuentes de Onoro, Quatre Bras, and Waterloo.