Posts Tagged ‘Peninsular War’

I will make the short journey to San Sebastian at the end of August to be there for the commemorative events being held to mark the 200th anniversary of the rebuilding of the town. It’s sad that most British people don’t know the story of the town’s rape and destruction by British and Portuguese troops in 1813. If you don’t too then maybe you might read my previous article (click here). One rather nice website , written by a resident of the town, puts it thus:

In 2013 we commemorate the bicentennial of the decision to rebuild and reestablish the city of San Sebastian, after the burning, looting, assault and destruction of the city by the Anglo-Portuguese troops, in a tragic episode of the Napoleonic Wars, the 31 th August, 1813.

It continues:

In 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, the French troops occupy San Sebastian. They will remain in our city until September 8, 1813. Two years earlier, in 1806, Godoy, favorite of Charles IV, had signed a secret pact with the emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, which allowed the entry of the French army in the Iberian Peninsula, to the joint invasion of Portugal, ally of the British. But Napoleon used this right of way to invade Spain and placed on the throne to his brother Joseph Bonaparte. Spain decided to align with English and Portuguese against the imperialism of France. According to the testimonies of the time, during the five years that the French remained in San Sebastian the treatment to donostiarras was cordial. On 24 June 1813 the French General Emmanuel Rey, newly appointed governor of the place, is informed that his country’s army flees in disarray after his defeat at Vitoria against the Anglo-Portuguese troops led by the Duke of Wellington. Many soldiers took refuge in San Sebastian and, fearing an Allied attack, Rey ordered the evacuation of the population. Some 2,250 people (half the population intramural) left the walled city.

After two assaults, the citizens of San Sebastian went out to meet the allied troops, who were part of the volunteer soldiers from different countries, confident that the suffering had experienced was over. But the testimonies of the time reflected an unusual violence against neighbors, theft, murder, arson and rape for several days. The Allied bombing continued from the batteries of the gap and finally on September 8 the French surrendered after 59 days of siege.

On 8 and 9 September municipal representatives, clergy, merchants, traders and inhabitants of San Sebastian met at Aizpurua solar house, in the neighborhood of Zubieta to decide the future of the city. On September 10, they returned to the city and set up the Town Hall at number 40 in the only street that remained standing, that of the Trinity.

The author is being very restrained here I think, as you can see if you read my earlier article. Dozens of witness statements were taken from survivors of these tragic events. For those of you who can read Spanish I include just a few:

Fragmentos de las declaraciones testificales juradas procedentes de la Información instruida en noviembre de 1813 sobre la conducta observada por las tropas aliadas en el asalto de Donostia (días 31 de agosto y siguientes):

DON PEDRO JOSE DE BELDARRAIN. Regidor del Ayuntamiento constitucional de esta ciudad testigo presentado y jurado siendo examinado al tenor del interrogatorio declaró como sigue: Al primero dixo que a cosa de las dos de la tarde del treinta y uno de Agosto vió entrar a los aliados por su calle quienes al momento dexando de perseguir a los Franceses y hallandose aun estos en el Pueblo empezaron a disparar a todos los Balcones Ventanas y Puertas y habiendo subido a las casas después de beber y comer quanto encontraban en términos que al deponente le bebieron mas de quatrocientas botellas de Vino y licores empezaron a saquear y a pedir dinero a las personas maltratándolas e hiriendolas a culatazos y bayonetazos como sucedio al deponente que habiendo salido a la calle huyendo del mal trato que le daban despues de haber repartido mas de ochenta escudos de oro le agarraron unos Soldados Ingleses y Portugueses le arrancaron el Pañuelo del cuello, chaleco, tirantes y le soltaron los calzones registrandole cuanto cubren estos y ultimamente le derribaron al suelo a culatazos dexandole casi sin sentido de modo que estubo tendido en el suelo un quarto de hora pisado por varios soldados que pasaban por la calle y le dejaban por muerto: que volvió a su casa donde había muchas mugeres refugiadas y despues que saquearon quanto había se echaron sobre ellas, violaron a las mas entre ellas a una anciana de setenta y seis años que la gozaron mas de doce: que el deponente dio ocho duros a ocho Soldados para librar de esta violencia a una muchacha de once años hija de un Vecino suio y aunque logró en aquel momento el librarla habiendo vuelto otra vez algunos de los primeros la violaron por fin. QUE era rara la muger que se libertaba de este insulto a no ser las que se escondieron en los comunes y subian a los texados: que una muchacha con su Madre ambas vecinas del testigo después de haber estado algunas horas en el comun de la casa de la Viuda de Echeverria se presentaron en casa del Deponente llenas de inmundicia hasta el pescuezo y aun en este estado dos Oficiales Ingleses violaron a la muchacha: que la muger e hija del testigo se libertaron subiendo al texado desde donde huyendo del fuego pasaron de texado en texado al quartel de enfrente de la carcel vieja que estaba desocupado y cerrado de modo que quando la mañana siguiente salió el testigo ignoraba el paradero de ellas: que la noche del treinta y uno fué la mas horrorosa que puede explicarse en la que no se oian mas que ayes lastimosos de mugeres que eran violadas y tiros que se disparaban en las mismas Casas como lo hicieron en la del testigo quien salió de la ciudad quando hallo a su muger e hija entre quatro y cinco de la tarde del día primero de septiembre admirado del mal trato que le dieron a los vecinos y de los abrazos y señales de amistad con que recivieron a los Franceses cogidos con las armas en las manos tratandoles de camaradas y dandoles de beber de sus cornetas siendo asi que todo el vecindario a los Ingleses y Portugueses hechos Prisioneros el veinte y cinco de Julio los socorrió con chalecos, camisas, camas, vino, chocolate, Vizcochos con cuya recoleccion corrió el testigo a una con los Individuos del Ayuntamiento y aun se les socorria con limosnas quando les encontraban en la calle empleados en los trabajos en que les ocuparon los Franceses. Al segundo dixo que no es facil averiguar el número de los muertos ya porque muchas personas heridas se abrasaron en las casas ya por la dispersion total de las familias de esta ciudad de las que muchos Individuos van muriendo a resulta de los sustos y mal trato.

DON MANUEL ANGEL DE IRARRAMENDI, vecino de esta ciudad testigo presentado y jurado siendo examinado al tenor del interrogatorio declaro como sigue: Al primero dixo que de la ventana de su casa número 292 vió que a las dos de la tarde del día treinta y uno de Agosto estaban defendiendo los franceses la entrada a la calle de Embeltran y que el General Rey desde la Puerta de la Casa de D. Miguel Joaquin de Lardizabal les exhortaba y animaba a la defensa: que de alli a rato derribaron los aliados la Barriqueria y penetraron en dicha calle siguiendo a los franceses hasta la otra esquina y entrada de la de San Gerónimo: que alli hicieron de seis a siete prisioneros franceses heridos que no podian correr: que el General Rey y la tropa Francesa se dirigieron al castillo por dicha calle de San Gerónimo en donde si los hubieran perseguido los aliados seguramente antes de llegar a la mitad de la calle hubieran hecho Prisionero al General Frances por la pesadez y torpeza con que caminaba pero lejos de hacerlo asi se contentaron con entrar en la primera calle por la parte de la Plaza vieja que es la referida de Embeltran y comenzaron a derribar las Puertas y tiendas de las casas: que el declarante se hallava en la suya perteneciente al Conde de Peñaflorida donde entraron quince soldados ocho Ingleses y siete Portugueses a los quales el declarante lleno de gozo salió a recibirles como a libertadores del yugo Frances pero quando esperaba iguales demostraciones de parte de ellos se halló sorprendido con dos fusiles puestos en arma y apuntandole le digeron “nosotros venimos aquí por dinero y no a otra cosa, venga pronto sino te matamos” y habiendole dicho que no tenia le hicieron en la primera habitacion y rompiendo los Baules y demas piezas donde tenia sus efectos se los robaron todos: que otros once volvieron a luego que salieron aquellos llevaron al testigo a las habitaciones altas de la misma Casa sacudiendole culatazos rompieron en la quarta habitacion dos Baules grandes pertenecientes a D. Xavier Maria Argaiz de donde extrageron muchas piezas de plata labrada y ropas de gran valor: un sargento de cazadores Portugueses dixo a un soldado Ingles que aquella era casa rica y que en ella debia haber mucho dinero y mirando al testigo dixo este indigno lo tiene escondido si no te dice donde lo tiene matalo: que en conseqüencia le agarró el Ingles y sacandole a la escalera le dixo que declarase donde tenia escondido el dinero y respondidole que no había dinero en casa le disparo un tiro a quemarropa de modo que la bala le pasó por entre las Piernas: que pudo libertarse de ellos huyendo a la primera habitación donde a la media hora volvieron a entrar otros cinco de ellos tres Ingleses y dos Portugueses que estubieron la primera vez: estos igualmente comenzaron a hacer las mismas insinuaciones y amenazas: cogieron a la criada Francisca Zubelzu y le arran caron diez y siete duros que tenia: al declarante obligaron a entrar en un quarto donde había tres baules el uno Verde perteneciente a Dª Xaviera de Munibe rompieron y quando vieron había alhajas de oro un soldado le dijo disparandole “bueno bueno tu has escondido muchas cosas sin decir donde estan y tambien tienes el dinero guardado, venga pronto y hasta tanto no sales de este Sitio” que en conseqüencia se colocó haciendo Guardia en la Puerta: que los otros quatro arrimando los Fusiles a la Pared se echaron sobre las alhajas viendo lo qual el declarante dio un rempujon al soldado de la Puerta y pudo escaparse: que le siguieron dos y al tiempo que cogio la calle le dispararon un tiro y la bala le pasó junto a la oreja derecha: que pudo entrar huyendo en la casa núm. 297 que habitaba José Larrañaga de oficio chocolatero hombre bien acomodado y los dos que siguieron al testigo tropezaron con Larrañaga y despues que le sacaron seis onzas en oro y el relox le mataron porque no daba mas.

DON JOSE MANUEL DE BARACEARTE vecino y del comercio de esta Plaza testigo presentado y jurado siendo examinado al tenor del interrogatorio declaró como sigue: Al primero dixo que el treinta y uno de Agosto a las once de la mañana rompio el fuego para el asalto y a las dos de la tarde se hallavan ya los aliados en la calle del testigo que es la del Puyuelo manteniendose el testigo en su casa con todas las Puertas cerradas: que entraron gritando Urra Urra y luego pidieron a los habitantes vino y agua y todos los vecinos salieron a darles quanto pidieron y despues de haber refrescado se reunieron todos en la Plaza al son de una trompeta y al instante se esparcieron todos a tocar las Puertas y tirar tiros a las ventanas: que tambien tiraron a las del testigo y le gritaron baxase con la llave a abrir la Puerta: que baxó al instante con una mujer y a luego que le sintieron y antes de abrir la Puerta le dispararon varios balazos desde el ahugero de la llave y los resquicios de modo que la mujer que le acompañara fué herida en un pie y atemorizados ambos no se resolvieron a abrir la Puerta pero a poco rato se atrevio el deponente a abrir la del Almacen y a penas le vieron los aliados quando agarrandole entre varios le despojaron de quanto llevava le soltaron los calzones le quitaron los Zapatos arrancandole hasta unas reliquias que trahia colgadas al pecho debaxo de la Camisa dexandole quasi en cueros lo mismo que a su muger: que en seguida le hicieron subir a sus habitaciones y le rompieron escritorios, armarios, arcas y quantos muebles había llevándose quanto en ellos encontraron y habiendo consumido la tarde en este saqueo quedaron muchos de ellos en su Casa a la noche y le mandaron poner cena y en efecto les dio dos perniles dos grandes panes un queso de Holanda todo el vino que tenia en casa y por postre quatro botellas de ron de a seis chiquitos cada una: que quando despacharon esta cena le pidieron mas y como no tenia que darles le quisieron matar poniendole el fusil al pecho con el gatillo levantado varias veces hiriendole gravemente la cabeza de modo que aun conserva las manchas de la Sangre que vertió de ella en el Pañuelo que tenia puesto al cuello. Que luego se echaron sobre toda su familia y sobre otras dos que se refugiaron a casa del deponente y hallandose todas apiñadas en un punto disparó un soldado sobre todos sin que hubiese herido a ninguno por milagro. Que fue tal el terror que causó esto a un vecino suio que se hallaba en casa del testigo con toda su familia que abandonandola huyo azia el comun y levantando la caxa se metio en el. Que a luego intimaron que habían de gozar a todas las mugeres amenazandolas de muerte si no consentian y por evitarla tubieron que sufrir todas esta afrenta públicamente en la sala delante de todos: que luego pretendieron dormir con ellas y lograron tambien por fuerza. Por último llegó hasta tanto el desenfreno y la barbarie que un Portugues obligó al testigo a presenciar con una Vela encendida en la mano el acto Vergonzoso e ignominioso de gozar a todas las mugeres de su casa y de las familias refugiadas en ella como lo hizo en un buen rato y al cabo se retiró y paso a las habitaciones de arriva donde viendo los mismos desordenes y hallando continuos riesgos de perder la vida volvió otra vez a la suia. Que llegó la atrocidad y feroz conducta de estos hombres al increible punto de tomar entre dos a un hijo suio de edad de tres años y quererlo partir en dos piezas, y lo hubieran executado a no haber intercedido otro soldado mas racional que compadecido representó a sus bárbaros camaradas quan blanco y hermoso era el Niño y los desarmó y le dexaron vivo el qual ha quedado tan atemorizado desde entonces que aun en el día viendo a un soldado Inglés o Portugues huye despavorido y se esconde en cualquier rincon. Que toda aquella noche fue la mas horrorosa que puede pintarse asi en casa del testigo como en todas las vecindades en donde no se oian mas que ayes, gritos, lamentos y tiros. Que a la madrugada le dixeron sus feroces huespedes que Grabados de Donostia-San Sebastián. En el superior, vista desde el castillo de la Mota. Obsérvese en primer plano, a izda., la campana para toque de alarma; en el central, vista desde Gros (margen dcha. del río Urumea) en 1838. El puente aparece protegido con dos puertas; en el inferior, vista desde el convento de San Francisco en mayo de 1836. El río se cruza por un puente provisional sobre barcazas. tenían orden de atacar al castillo a las seis de la mañana y oyo trataban entre ellos de matar a todos los de la familia diciendo que se hallaban con orden del General Castaños para pasar a todos a cuchillo y que antes de subir al castillo habían de poner en execucion esta orden. Que temeroso de la muerte huyo a casa de un vecino a donde llegó tambien su muger y alli halló otras varias familias refugiadas al abrigo de un oficial y entre ellas muchos heridos y maltratados y se mantuvieron en aquella casa hasta que se supo por el señor Alcalde Bengoechea que había libertad de Salir fuera de la Plaza como lo executaron todos desarropados en medio de un montón de familias que presentaban el espectáculo mas triste y horroroso. Que al mismo tiempo que se dió este trato tan cruel a los habitantes y vecinos vio dar quartel a los Franceses que fueron cogidos en su calle y tratarlos con la mayor humanidad pues los vió pasearse con los brazos cruzados con los aliados, debiendo esperar mejor trato los vecinos por ser Españoles y por haber tratado a los Prisioneros Ingleses y Portugueses que fueron cogidos en el primer asalto del veinte y cinco de Julio como a hermanos suios, pues asi el Ayuntamiento como todos los particulares les dieron todo genero de auxilios. Al segundo dixo que los muertos que recuerda son el Beneficiado Goycoechea, dos chocolateros cuyos nombres no recuerda. D.ª Xaviera Artola, Jeanora, Vicente Oyanarte, Juan Navarro, D. Martin Altuna, Pedro Cipitria, D. José Miguel de Magra que fué tirado de un Balcon la suegra de Echaniz. una muchacha que fué pasada con dos balas por los pechos y otros muchos que fueron muertos y heridos que no recuerda. Al tercero dixo que no había fuego alguno en la Ciudad quando entraron los aliados ni algunas horas despues que se retiraron los Franceses al castillo ni se notó hasta el anochecer del treinta y uno en que desde la ventana de su casa vió que los aliados pusieron fuego por la tienda a la Casa de la Viuda de Echeverria o Soto con algunos mixtos segun la prontitud con que se esparció el fuego: que temió que desde ella pasarian a dar fuego a la del deponente pero desde la de Soto pasaron a incendiar la de la esquina de enfrente que es propia de D. José Maria de Leizaur cuya Inquilina Bautista de Lecuona ha muerto del susto. Al quarto dixo que se remite a lo que ha contextado al capitulo precedente añadiendo que concluida la quema de la calle mayor incendiaron las casas del Puyuelo y últimamente las de enfrente del muelle ocupandose en esta operación Artilleros Ingleses acompañados de Portugueses y empleando mixtos.

A la una de la madrugada llegaron tres Portugueses diciendo que no trahian otro objeto que el gozar a las muchachas las quales habiendo oído esto se metieron en un rincon de la alcoba muy disimulado y habiendoles dicho que no había en aquella casa mas que las dos viejas y el declarante les quisieron matar sacando a ese fin las Bayonetas a cuyo tiempo llego otro que les disuadio diciendo que aquella tarde habían robado quanto había en aquella Casa y con tanto se fueron: que a las Ves sintió el testigo unos espantosos gritos y chillidos de mugeres en la esquina de la calle de San Geronimo y habiendose asomado a l Ventana quando amanecio vió a una moza amarrada a una Barrica de dicha Esquina que estaba en cueros y toda ella ensangrentada con una Bayoneta que tenia atravesada y metida por la misma oficina de la generacion y que varios Ingleses estaban a su alrededor espectaculo que le llenó de horror y espanto: que a las siete volvio a salir a la ventana y no existia ya entonces el cadaver de dicha muchacha que habiendo visto en aquella hora a los dos Señores Alcaldes y Regidor Armendariz con quienes se incorporó y habiendole dicho el Alcalde Bengoechea que ellos iban a tomar disposiciones para cortar el fuego y que el testigo fuese a consolar a su mujer que se hallaba donde estaba alojado el General Ingles llorando porque le creía muerto paso allí inmediatamente y vió que estaban almorzando los criados del General y habiendole preguntado un sargento Ingles que estaba allí y hablaba bien el castellano qual era el motivo de su afliccion le contestó que ellos lo eran por el saqueo y demas atrocidades que estaban cometiendo, a lo que respondió el Sargento que no tenia culpa la tropa sino quien la autorizaba, a lo qual repuso el testigo que si seguian ese sistema y conducta en España seria la sepultura de ellos y con tanto cesó la conversacion. Que a las diez de la mañana salió el testigo de la ciudad con su familia y otras muchas personas entre las que vió varias heridas que no puede citar por no saber sus nombres y apellidos y solo recuerda de Juana Arzuaga moza soltera de diez y siete años que fué herida en el brazo derecho por una bala de fusil que le disparó un Inglés porque se escapó de casa quando vio le querian matar a su Padre.

Algunos infelices que dieron poco por que no tenían mas fueron maltratados a culatazos pinchadas con las puntas de las bayonetas sin hacerles graves heridas reciviendo este trato de aquellos soldados que se presentaban con aire mas sereno y pacifico pues que otros mas coléricos e inhumanos saludaron con balazos a los que les abrieron las Puertas haciendo lo mismo con los que hallaron en las habitaciones siendo uno de los muertos de este modo Bemardo Campos que cuidaba en la Plaza nueva de una casa correspondiente a D. Manuel de Arambarri que estaba a cargo del deponente habiendo a la muger de dicho Campos atravesado el brazo de un bayonetazo: que al mismo testigo un soldado Portugues le disparó un tiro a quema ropa porque tardo un corto momento en subir desde media escalera a su habitacion a donde le gritaban ocho o diez que le tenían cercado subiese a dar dinero: que algunos Oficiales le sacaron de pronto de este peligro pero luego le dexaron y apenas notaron los soldados la salida de los oficiales volvieron a romper la Puerta en cuyo apuro Salió al Balcon a implorar el auxilío de un oficial y estando hablando con uno que pasaba por la calle le dispararon otro tiro desde el Balcon de enfrente que era la misma casa donde fue muerto el citado Campos cuya muger huyó herida y desde entonces quedaron dueños de la casa algunos soldados Ingleses y Portugueses que a la vista del cadaver de Campos muerto por ellos mismos estaban sentados en la Sala despachando algunas Botellas de aguardiente y disparando tiros desde el Balcon a donde se les antojaba. Que lo mismo que experimentó el testigo sucedia en todas las Vecindades con mas o menos barbarie. Que al anochecer de este día treinta y uno de Agosto tubo que abandonar la casa y, refugiarse a una con su madre hermanas y otras varias familias a otra donde llevaron para su custodia a un oficial joven Hannoveriano sugeto de excelentes sentimientos el qual a pesar de su firmeza estubo a pique de ser muerto por unos Pottugueses en la casa del testigo. Que desde que cayeron las sombras de la noche por momentos fue en aumento el desenfreno de los soldados quienes con la continuacion de hacer mal y beber mucho se transformaron en brutos feroces. En conseqüencia la noche fue horrorosa: no se oian mas que gritos y exclamaciones dolorosas de Varias personas acongojadas que sufrian las mayores crueldades. Que notó en su vecindad por )a parte del Patio que despues de haber sido robada maltratada y violada el ama de la Panaderia llamada Francisca de Bengoechea continuaban a las dos y media de la mañana azotando a la criada muger casada de quarenta y cinco años para que descubriese el dinero escondido o secreto que no había: que en todas las demás casas de la Plaza y sus alrededores se oian lastimosos ayes, lloros y chillidos de mugeres que imploraban el auxilio de los vecinos inmediatos a quienes llamaban con sus nombres para que las libertasen de las manos de los Soldados que las hacian sufrir un martirio continuo hasta el extremo de violarlas golpeandolas enseguida y herido y dado muerte a algunas despues de Zaciar su brutal lascivia como lo hicieron con una muchacha en casa del comerciante Ezeiza y en el Zaguan de la casa de cardon con tres jovenes que fueron arrojadas a la Bodega despues de violadas y en ella han sido consumidas por las llamas. Que la mañana siguiente primero de Septiembre la mayor parte del Vecindario despavorida y fuera de si con las muertes, heridas, saqueo y ultrages que habían sufrido la noche anterior, pidió licencia para salir por medio de los Alcaldes y conseguida salió el deponente con su familia a eso del medio día y con el casi todos los vecinos, todos aturdidos, alelados, muchos descalzos, otros medio desnudos, muchisimos y aun mugeres herida y golpeados, algunas madres a quienes faltaba su hijo e hijos a quienes faltaban sus Padres.

El declarante que vio que los aliados estaban saqueando la casa de Armendariz se encaminó para la suia con un pañuelo blanco en la mano con el objeto de ver si podía libertarla: que en el tránsito observó que estavan no pudiendo abrir las Puertas de los comerciantes Barandiaran y Queheille tirando tiros y mas tiros y que las demás estaban saqueando: que un poco antes de llegar a la suya entraron en ella los aliados rompiendo las Puertas del Almacen y habiendose presentado en el le agarraron inmediatamente entre todos con sables y Bayonetas en las manos diciendole que les diese dinero y que de lo contrario le quitarian la Vida alli mismo; entonces les contexto que no tenia peto que tomasen todo quanto encontrasen en casa: que poco satisfechos con esta respuesta volvieron a reiterarle con la misma amenaza de muerte que les enseñase donde lo tenia enterrado y respondido que en ninguna parte principiaron a maltratarle y le quitaron el relox y dinero que tenia consigo el sombrero, Levita, chaleco, tirantes, Pañuelo del cuello y por ultimo le arrancaron hasta la camisa a pesar de hallarse muy inmediatos dos oficiales Ingleses que estuvieron mirando todo con la mayor indiferencia: que viendo el declarante que iban a despojarle a un del Pantalon hizo un esfuerzo y libertandose de entre las crueles Garras de aquellos Verdugos salió a la calle en la disposiciónindicada: que Segun le contaron despues, dos Soldados Ingleses quisieron dispararle por la espalda mas hallandose una Vecina en el Balcon de su casa acompañada de tres oficiales de la misma Nacion a quienes dixo que era su hermano, entonces fué quando mandaron retirar los fusiles: que declarante todo despavorido y sin saber lo que se hacía entró en el primer Zaguan que vio abierto y habiendo subido a la segunda habitacion le dieron unas mujeres una Camisa gruesa y una chupa vieja: que al instante pasó a refugiarse a la casa referida donde vió a los Oficiales Ingleses quienes habiendo salido afuera se quedó tambien tan expuesto como los demás: que en efecto entraron en ella los Soldados Ingleses y Portugueses en seguimiento de Dn. Alexandro Montel a quien habiendole agarrado en la sala le pedían dinero, diciendole que sino iban a matarle: que el declarante oía desde la Cocina los tristes clamores de los hijos de dicho Montel que gritaban “Ay que van a matar a mi padre” quando en esto sintiendo que se dirigian a donde el estava a fin de salvar su vida que poco antes la vió tan expuesta tubo por único remedio el saltar de la primera habitación al patio y meterse dentro del común donde se mantubo por espacio de tres horas oyendo los lastimosos ayes y tristes suspiros de las infelices mugeres que quedaron en la primera habitacion a quienes dispararon en la sala por cinco veces.

A la noche se aumentó extraordinariamente el desorden y se emborracharon los soldados en términos que opina el declarante que si los Franceses se hubiesen baxado del castillo los hubieran pasado a cuchillo como lo notó en quatro soldados Ingleses asistentes de un capitan que se alojó en su casa los quales se embriagaron completamente y quisieron forzar a varias muchachas que se refugiaron a casa del testigo por igual causa, y lo hubieran conseguido a no haber subido a los gritos tres oficiales Portugueses que hicieron retirar a dichos soldados: que en aquella noche no se oian más que ayes y lamentos de mugeres que eran violadas y que la mañana siguiente primero de Septiembre viendo que seguia el desorden y desenfreno resolvió salir de la ciudad como lo hizo a las dos de la tarde tan despavorido que ni cuidó de su muger e hijo que salieron sin duda despues.

Ademas de que el testigo habiendo vuelto a entrar en la ciudad el día tres de Septiembre por si podía sacar alguna cosa de su casa vió a unos Ingleses dar fuego a la casa consistorial aplicandole desde la Alhondiga sobre la qual se hallaba el Archivo: que quando se incendió este edificio les vió salir a la Plaza y hacer demostraciones de alegria por lo que veían. Este exemplar y el haber notado el día anterior desde afuera y tambien el siguiente quatro que prendian fuego casas a quienes no se comunicó por las inmediatas ya incendiadas y que aparecia en partes distintas le convencen que toda la parte de la ciudad que se preservó del incendio de Julio fue quemada por los aliados quienes conservaron solamente las casas que ocuparon al pie del Castillo: que en prueba de ello la casa Aduana que habiendose quemado toda la cera de enfrente del muelle se hallaba sana, se la vió arder el cinco o seis de Septiembre. Al quarto dixo que se remite a la contextacion que ha dado al capitulo precedente añadiendo que el mismo vió a los Ingleses que incendiaron la casa de la ciudad y ha oído tambien a otros que se valían de un palo o caña hueca embreada o barnizada con algun mixto la qual teniendola en la mano los Soldados despedia desde el hueco de la punta un fuego vivisimo que se esparcia a los quatro costados del edificio en cuyo centro se colocaban los incendiarios y era tan activo y pegajoso el tal fuego que al instante prendia en todas partes: tambien añade lo que notó la mañana del primero de Septiembre que la manzana de casas que comprenden parte de la calle de Escotilla del Puyuelo de la Carcel y Mayor vino a quemarse por los dos extremos a un mismo tiempo lo que denota que no vino el fuego por comunicación de la que se incendió primero en la calle Mayor sino que a un tiempo mismo se dió fuego por los dos lados.

Source: http://www.euskomedia.org/aunamendi/45908/144169. Also see: http://blogs.diariovasco.com/BICENTENARIO/2

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoIHeit3yOE

 

Atrocities are committed in all wars. Indeed war itself is an atrocity. Some atrocities are remembered, some just disappear from the historical consciousness. The bombing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Condor Legion at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 is remembered, not least because of Picasso’s famous painting Gernika. But an arguably even more horrendous atrocity was committed in 1813 by Wellington’s British and Portuguese troops on the people of the nearby Basque town of San Sebastian. With the exception of a yearly commemoration of the event in the town itself on 31 August, the memory of what happened there over a period of  five days has almost totally disappeared, and even at times been suppressed. In some small way I’d like to rectify this.

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

If you read books or watch television programmes on the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly those touching on the Peninsular War, you will more often than not find descriptions of Wellington’s army’s siege of San Sebastian, which lasted from 7 July 1813 until the capture of the town on 31 August and the final surrender of the French on 8 September. It is a tale of military struggle, of tactics, of suffering, of death and of acts of valour and heroism. But what followed is rarely if ever told.

Just a few words by way of context: For five years the British army had been in the Iberian Peninsula trying to help the Spanish and Portuguese throw out the French occupiers, while also, it has to be said, trying to loosen the grip of the French blockade of Britain. After the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, the French army, first under Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte (who Napoleon had made king of Spain in 1808), and later under Marshal Soult, had retreated to the Pyrenean borderland of France and Spain. Wellington, who commanded all the allied British, German, Portuguese and Spanish forces, didn’t want to move further into France until the threat posed by the French garrison still stationed in San Sebastian had been removed – hence the siege of the town.

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

If you’re interested in the siege itself there are many fine, full and accessible accounts. I will start at the siege’s end. On 31 August 1813, British and Portuguese troops managed to pour through a large breach that had been made in the city’s inner wall. The French garrison retreated to find refuge in the town’s citadel, called Monte Orgullo. As the English and Portuguese were capturing the town there was, to use the words of the most famous early English historian of the War, Sir William Napier, ‘a thunder storm, which came down from the mountains with unbounded fury immediately after the place was carried’. This ‘added to the confusion of the fight’. Napier continued:

This storm seemed to be a signal of hell for the perpetration of villainy which would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity. At Ciudad Rodrigo intoxication and plunder had been the principal object; at Badajoz lust and murder were joined in rapine and drunkenness; but at San Sebastian, the direct, the most revolting cruelty was added to the catalogue of crimes. One atrocity of which a girl of seventeen was the victim, staggers the mind by its enormous, incredible, indescribable barbarity. Some order was at first maintained, but the resolution of the troops to throw off discipline was quickly made manifest. A British staff-officer was pursued with a volley of small-arms and escaped with difficulty from men who mistook him for the provost-martial of the fifth division; a Portuguese adjutant, who endeavoured to prevent some atrocity, was put to death in the market place, not with sudden violence from a single ruffian, but deliberately by a number of English soldiers. Many officers exerted themselves to preserve order, many men were well conducted, but the rapine and violence commenced by villains soon spread, the camp-followers crowded into the place, and disorder continued until the flames following the steps of the plunderer put an end to this ferocity by destroying the whole town.

I have started by quoting from Anglo-Irish Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, because you might otherwise think that what follows is Spanish or French propaganda. It is not.

Immediately after the events Napier described, the ‘town council, cathedral chapter and inhabitants’ of San Sebastian compiled a report or ‘manifesto’ which they sent to the ‘Spanish nation’ describing what happened. Its full title is: Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town. ( Tolosa 1813). They affirm: ‘We take it on our own head as to the exact truth of this relation that we present to you and that we have all signed.’ What follows is my inadequate verbatim translation of some extracts from this report. I have taken it from a book published in France in 1813 which contained a French translation of the Spanish report. I apologize if my rendition of a two hundred year old French version of a Spanish text has lost something in translation, but I think you will be able to get an idea of what happened to the people of this Basque town:

The town of San Sebastian had been set alight by the allied troops who had besieged it, after these troops had unleashed a horrible sack and its inhabitants had experienced a treatment such as one has not had any idea in civilized Europe…

… The patriotism of the loyal inhabitants of San Sebastian, for a long time suppressed by the severity of the enemy (the French), shone out in many ways, as did the joy and the affection with which the allies were welcomed; but these, insensible to this demonstration, as sincere as it was pathetic, responded to it by taking rifle shots at these same crossroads and balconies from where these felicitations came, and on which a large number of inhabitants perished, victims of the expression of their love of country, a terrible presage of what was to follow…

These horrors were only a prelude to many others, even the memory of which makes one quiver. Oh day forever unhappy; Oh cruel night!… At the extremity were found the enemy, cornered at the foot of the chateau, to save themselves from the unprecedented excess that the pen refuses to describe.

The pillage, the massacre, the rape were pushed to an unbelievable point; and what we discovered for the first time at the fall of night, after the retreat of the French into the Chateau, were limitless scenes of horror. From every quarter we heard the cries of distress of women who were being raped, without regard either to their tender youth or to their respectable age; wives outraged under the eyes of their husbands, girls dishonoured in the presence of their parents; one girl was the victim of the brutality of a soldier which happened on top of her mother’s dead body… Other crimes more horrible yet were committed on this day, and it’s only a sense of ‘modesty’ which prevents us naming them.

Throw a veil over this sad tableau, we’ll put our sights on another, no less deplorable: We have seen innocent victims having their throats cut…. even people of renown. Don Domingo de Govocehea, an old and respectable churchman, and a great many others, who we will not name, were murdered; the ill-fated Joseph de Larramaga was killed while trying to save the lives of a young girl, who had been raped, and her young son, by holding them in his arms.

A huge number of people were dying each day from the bad treatment that they had received. The citizens who were neither killed nor wounded were to suffer in a thousand ways; many of them stripped and left entirely naked.

… Pursued by the soldiers, they envied the fate of the people who had found a momentary asylum on the roofs or in the ‘pigsties’…

These excesses lasted several days after the affair, without anything being done to stop it… They appeared authorized by the commanders, since the goods stolen in the town were sold publically by the English and Portuguese in full view, and right next to, the military head-quarters.

When we thought the spoliation had finished, the allied troops found that the flames weren’t making enough progress; they fed them with a whole mixture of artefacts that they threw into the cauldrons, by which means they propagated the fire with frightening rapidity…

In this manner the town of San Sebastian perished.

Of the six hundred and some houses that were contained within the ramparts, there were only thirty-six left. It is remarkable that those saved were all adjoining the Chateau that the enemy occupied. The two parochial churches have also been conserved, as they served as quarters and hospitals for the victors. All the rest have been delivered to the flames… Fifteen hundred families were without bread and shelter eking out an existence worse than death.

Goods, furniture, merchandize, shops, boutiques, all had fallen prey to rapacity or incendiary… San Sebastian exists no more.

Oh unhappy town! Honour  of Guipuscoa! You who had given such proof of constancy, who had regarded the English as liberators, could you believe that you would be destroyed by the same hands which should have broken your chains! To how many dangers were the inhabitants exposed during the five years that the French occupation had lasted!

When, on 25 July, we saw English and Portuguese prisoners arrive, we wanted to help them; the most delicate women ran to the hospital to lavish them with linen, food and care; the recompense for such fidelity has been the destruction of our town.

San Sebastian today

San Sebastian today

When the survivors came to survey what remained of their town, they found, as was reported, only thirty-six houses and two churches left standing. The houses had been spared because they were being used by British and Portuguese officers when they were attempting to force the surrender of the French holed up in the Chateau – the French capitulated on 8 September. A census of inhabitants showed that before the siege there were about 5,500 people in the town, the massacre had reduced this to 2,600!

San Sebastian had to be rebuilt from scratch. The beautiful city you see today is the result of that rebuilding.

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

We often hear tell that Wellington was a great enforcer of order and military discipline and that he punished any pillaging in the most severe way. After San Sebastian, when his allied army was moving into France, he declared that he had not come to France to inflict pillage on the local people. Supposedly this was in reference to the pillaging and attacks of Spanish troops on the local French (Basque) population. He sent most, though not all, of the Spanish troops under his command back to Spain.

Wellington was not present at the fall and destruction of San Sebastian. The besieging army was under General Thomas Graham. But not only were no measures taken against the British and Portuguese troops who had run wild, but no mention was ever made of what happened in any official letters written by either Graham or Wellington. On 8 September, Graham wrote to Wellington: ‘My Lord, I have the satisfaction to report to your Lordship, that the castle of San Sebastian has surrendered.’ After giving more military details, he adds: ‘Thus, giving your Lordship another great result of the campaign, in the acquisition to the allied armies of this interesting point on the coast, and near the frontier.’ He also enclosed a copy of the terms of surrender agreed with the French.

Wellington sent the news to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, on 11 September: ‘The town of San Sebastian was taken by storm on the 31st August, and the garrison capitulated in the castle on the 8th.’ No mention of any ‘atrocities’. But on the same day Wellington wrote to the Spanish General Freyre: ‘Sir, I shall be very much obliged to you if you will send the civil engineer of Biscay…. in regard to the repairs of the place of San Sebastian.’ He also requested that the civil magistrates sent masons, carpenters and ‘common labourers’ to ‘perform the works necessary’. He was no doubt fully aware of what had happened to the town.

British War Memorial in Sean Sebastian

British War Memorial in San Sebastian

There is in San Sebastian a memorial to the British liberators of the town in 1813. It is located on the slopes of Monte Orgullo (Urgull) and was unveiled by the Spanish Queen on 28th September 1924. The two inscriptions read, in both Spanish and English: ‘England has confided to us her Glorious Dead, Our Gratitude will Watch Over Their Eternal Repose’, and, ‘In memory of the Gallant British Soldiers who gave their lives for the greatness of their own country and for the Independence of Spain’.

Knowing what happened after the British entered the town, reading these words is enough to make one weep.

The state this memorial has been allowed to fall into is deplorable and should no doubt be remedied. But perhaps it is small wonder if the people of San Sebastian do not want to remember their British and Portuguese ‘liberators’. Perhaps they still remember and wish to mourn the atrocity which was perpetrated on their town?

Sources and references:

Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town,  Tolosa, 1813; Sir William Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula, Vol 3, 1835-40; Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Français de 1792 a 1815. Par une société militaries et de lettres, Vol 28, Paris, 1813; Javier Sada, Historia de San Sebastian, 1995; The Dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, Vol 11, London, 1838; Lieutenant Mazars, Les divisions espagnoles de l’armée de Wellington, Revue des Pyrenees, Vol 25, Toulouse, 1913; J. W. Fortescue, History of the British Army, Vol 9, London, 1920.

‘The rain will destroy us if it lasts much longer.’ – Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Saint Jean de Luz, 31 October, 1813

It’s raining today in Itxassou in the Basque region of southwest France. As I look of the window I can see that the River Nive is running high. Two hundred years ago in November 1813 it was also raining and early snow covered the nearby hills. The British and allied army commanded by Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley – the Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington – had just arrived in this part of the world and the troops of his most trusted general, Sir Rowland Hill, were ‘cantoned’ in Itxassou and in the neighbouring villages of Cambo, Espelette, Larressore and Souraide. They were waiting for the weather to improve so they could cross the Nive, on the other bank of which the French army under Marshal Soult had taken up defensive positions all the way from Bayonne on the coast to Saint Jean Pierre de Port. The crossing took place on 9 December, 1813.

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte

Briefly the background to all this is that in 1813  we are seeing the last stages of the long and bloody Peninsular War, which the Spanish rather quaintly call the War of Independence. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte had installed his older brother Joseph on the Spanish throne and the French were in charge of the country. The British had to rescue them. It was a huge, tortuous and brutal effort that took over five years. The decisive victory took place on 21 June 1813 just south of Vitoria – Gastiez (now the capital of Basque Spain) where Wellington’s British, German and Spanish army routed the French.  Joseph Bonaparte and his still huge army started a long and drawn-out fighting retreat over the Pyrenees and back into France. There were many skirmishes and battles and thousands on both sides continued to die.

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

In France the Battle of the Nivelle was fought on 10 November 1813 near the village of Sare on the flanks of the La Rhune.

 Soon after midnight, on the morning of 10 November, the columns of the allies under Wellington wound down the passes of the mountains in silence, lighted by the moon. At earliest dawn the attack was made on the lines of the enemy, and by sunset, in a succession of brilliant charges, the allies had broken the line. Soult had been out-manœuvred and outfought on his own long-prepared ground, and beaten at every point. The French, numbering seventy thousand men, had been placed in carefully selected positions. Strongly entrenched, they knew the roads, and were fighting to protect their native land from invasion; yet they suffered themselves to be dislodged from every point assailed with a lack of spirit that surprised the allies.

Under cover of night Soult withdrew and concentrated his forces in front of Bayonne. Wellington took up a position within two miles of the enemy, his left resting on the sea and his right on Cambo. As the weather was stormy and wet, all operations ceased. The roads were execrable, the crossroads a quagmire. It was not possible at that time of the year to move artillery over the sodden ground, and even communication between the wings was difficult.

The losing French army retreated again to the north side of the River Nive, which they believed they could defend and prevent the British from crossing.

After the Battle of the Nivelle, Wellington had wanted to immediately attempt a crossing of the Nive but the appalling weather made it impossible. The ‘roads’ had turned into muddy bogs and the river was so high that the available fords were impassable. As the rains continued to pore down, on the 16th November Wellington sent orders to ‘canton’ the army.

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

General Sir Rowland Hill’s division was ordered to canton Itxassou, Larressore, Cambo, Espelette and Souraide. Sir Rowland was Wellington’s must steady, reliable and trusted general. He was so loved for his care that his troops nick-named him ‘Daddy Hill’. And one of Hill’s soldiers was the famous Levi Grisdale. Grisdale had captured French General Lefebvre at the  Battle of Benavente in Spain in December 1808, had fought at the Battle of Vitoria in June and would go on to personally lead the Prussians of Marshal Blucher onto the field of Waterloo in 1815. But for now Levi was with his elite cavalry regiment, the 10th King’s Own Hussars, waiting to cross the Nive. Levi was more likely to have been billeted in Larressore than in Itxassou, but it’s nice to think that one of my family also looked through the rain on the River Nive two hundred years ago!

The 10th Hussars were at this moment commanded by Colonel Richard Hussey Vivian. Vivian had found himself some very salubrious quarters in the Chateau of Saint Martin in Larressore, from where he wrote to his wife on December 2:

Here I am, my dearest Eliza, in the midst of my brigade —in the midst of the enemy! Out of the very window of the room from whence I now write this I can almost converse with the French sentries! Nothing but a narrow river (the Nive) separates us; and it is fordable in many places; but they are very quiet, harmless neighbours. We have agreed not to fire at each other; and they are too much afraid of an attack from us to make it at all probable that they will molest us in our quarters. If they chose it would not be a very difficult matter to walk into my bedroom any night. There is, however, a brigade of infantry in the village, under General Pringle, and they would hold them. We could do nothing, for it is nothing but hill and dale!

You can have no conception of anything more magnificently beautiful than the situation of my chateau, which is on the point of a hill overlooking a beautiful mountain river, and looking up a most delightful valley, through which runs the river, the hills rising from the valley on either side crowned with timber; villages in abundance, bordering on the river.  But it is to the eye only that it is now delightful. The ravages of war have depopulated these otherwise charming residences ; few, if any, of the inhabitants remain, and what few do remain are almost starving from having been eaten out of house and home by the soldiery, with whom their houses are literally crammed.

General Hill’s division, of which I command the cavalry, is posted in the villages of Cambo, Espelette, Souraide, and Larressore — altogether about 12,000 men within a space of three miles of each other. On our left, at Ustarits (sic), is the 6th Division, Sir H. Clinton, about a mile off. I am just going there to dine and sleep at General Pack’s.

They talk of an advance soon, but I do not think it possible; for the roads are in such a dreadful state from the constant rain we have had that it is perfectly impossible for troops to move.

The next day he wrote to his mother:

I am now here in the midst of my brigade, on the banks of the Nive, and the enemy is quietly opposite me; so near that I can certainly make them hear out of the room where I now write; bat they are in a great fright that we should advance, and we are really very good friends, and they do not molest me, or prevent me sleeping in perfect safety and comfort. I have a capital chateau, delightfully situated… I only wish it were in England. I could sell about £10,000 worth of timber without doing any harm…  They talk of an advance very soon. I hope so, for we are terribly off for forage, and we shall get that in front.

‘Whilst the British were in position on the banks of the Nive, in November, 1813, the French used to meet the English officers at a narrow part of the river, and chat over the campaign. One of the latter, in order to convince them of the reverses of Napoleon in Germany (the Battle of Leipzig), rolled a stone up in the Star newspaper, and endeavoured to throw it across the stream. The stone, unfortunately, went through it, which made it fall into the water. The French officer thereupon remarked, in pretty fair English, “Your good news is very soon damped.”’

General Rowland 'Daddy' Hill

General Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill

This pleasant, though wet, interlude was not to last. On the 8th December issued his orders for ‘forcing the passage of the Nive’ the next day. The task was entrusted to Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill. He ‘was instructed to cross the river by fords near Cambo at daybreak of the 9th, re-establish the bridge, and assemble on the right bank the Second Division, the Portuguese Division attached to it, Vivian’s and Victor Alten’s brigades of cavalry, and Ross’s troop of horse-artillery. With these he was to advance along the road from St. Jean Pied de Port to Bayonne, and take up a position in the vicinity of Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre’.

Other divisions were to cross the river at Ustaritz and Arrauntz. Spanish General Morillo was ordered to cross the river at Itxassou in order to protect Hill’s rear from any attack by General Paris, who lay at Louhossoa, some four miles up the river from Cambo.

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

I leave the description of what followed to J. W. Fortescue, in his monumental  A History of the British Army:

Meanwhile Wellington’s orders were punctually followed. Beresford successfully laid his pontoon-bridges to an island in the river during the night; and on the morning of the 9th a beacon kindled on the height above Cambo gave the signal for attack.

The Sixth Division at once advanced upon Ustarits, drove the French sentries from the right bank of the river, and enabled the engineers not only to complete the pontoon -bridge but to repair another wooden bridge which had been partly destroyed by the French. They then crossed the water, Gruardet’s brigade of Darmagnac’s division falling back before them upon Villefranque, with little fear of being caught, for the marshy meadows were so heavy that the British could make but slow progress on their way to the road.

Hill simultaneously threw his corps across the river in three columns, one of them above Cambo, the others at Larressore and at Halsou, which was accomplished with only the loss of a few men drowned, though the water was so high that the men slung their cartridge-boxes round their necks to keep them dry. Foy’s division, which guarded this part of the stream, thereupon withdrew slowly, contesting every foot of ground. Fririon’s brigade retired upon Petit Mouguerre and Vieux Mouguerre, where Abbe’s division had been brought forward to support them ; while Berlier’s brigade, being cut off from the road by the advance of Clinton, was forced to retreat due east to the moorlands of Hasparren, and did not rejoin Foy until the afternoon. Paris also was compelled to retire before Morillo eastward upon Hilette (Helette) towards the shelter of Pierre Soult’s cavalry.

Nevertheless Hill’s advance had been so much retarded by the saturated soil that it was one o’clock before the head of his columns reached the heights of Loursinthoa on the road to Bayonne, where he took up a position with the Sixth Division on his left, the Third remaining to cover the bridge at Ustarits. Here he halted for two hours to let the tail of his columns come up; and during this interval d’Erlon deployed the whole of his troops between Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre, where Soult had already since noon taken up his own station. None the less the Marshal did not venture to assail Hill, and at last at three o’clock the Portuguese of Clinton’s division came down to attack Villefranque, and after one repulse succeeded in driving from it one of Darmagnac’s brigades.

A thick fog coming on before dark brought the combat to an end.

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The British and allied army had crossed the Nive, Levi Grisdale among them. But things were not over yet. Marshal Soult counter attacked on the 13th December near Saint Pierre d’Irube, near Bayonne, but Sir Rowland Hill defeated the French without Wellington’s help at the so-called Battle of the Nive. Wellington and his army trundled on across southern France, eventually to take the French surrender at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. But he, and Levi Grisdale, had to come back the next year, when Napoleon had escaped from exile, raised a new army and met the British and Prussians at Waterloo!

9 December 1813: Just another wet day in the Pays Basque.

Did a Cumbrian soldier “save England and Europe” from Napoleon?

In the mid-nineteenth century in the small Cumbrian market town of Penrith there was a public house called the ‘General Lefebvre’. Locals jokingly referred to it as the ‘General Grisdale’, after its publican, an old ex-Sergeant Major called Levi Grisdale. It seems that Levi was quite a character, and we might well imagine how on cold Cumbrian winter nights he would regale his quests with tales of his exploits as a Hussar during the Napoleonic Wars. How he had captured the French General Lefebvre in Spain, as the British army were retreating towards Corunna, or even telling of how it was he, at the Battle of Waterloo, who had led the Prussians onto the field; a decisive event that had turned the course of the battle and, it is usually argued, led to Napoleon’s final defeat.

Scouts of the 10th Hussars During the Peninsular War – W B Wollen 1905

Numerous individual stories survive from these wars, written by participants from all sides: French, British, German and Spanish. Yet a great number of these come from the ‘officer classes’. Levi was not an officer and, as far as is known, he never wrote his own story. Be that as it may, using a variety of sources (not just from the British side) plus some detailed research in the archives, undertaken by myself and others, it is possible to reconstruct something his life. Levi spent 22 years in the army, fought in 32 engagements, including at the Battle of Waterloo, rose to be a Sergeant Major and was highly decorated. There is even an anonymous essay in the Hussars’ Regimental museum entitled: How Trooper Grisdale, 10th Hussars, Saved England and Europe! This suggested, possibly with a degree of hyperbole, that it was Levi who caused Napoleon to leave the Spanish Peninsular in disgust! But the events of the Peninsular War were decisive. Many years later Napoleon wrote:

That unfortunate war destroyed me … all my disasters are bound up in that knot.

I greatly enjoyed discovering a little about Levi. What follows is my version of this Cumbrian’s life and deeds. I hope you will enjoy it too!

Levi Grisdale was born in 1783, near Penrith in Cumberland’s Lake District. He came from a long line of small yeomen farmers. His father, Solomon, and his grandfather, Jonathon, had both been farmers. They were born in the nearby small hill village of Matterdale; where the Grisdale family had lived for hundreds of years. Although obviously a country boy, Levi somehow found his way to London, where on 26th March 1803, aged just 20, he enlisted for “unlimited service” as a private or ‘trooper’ in the 10th Light Dragoons, later to become ‘Hussars’ – an elite British cavalry regiment. How and why he enlisted in the army we do not know. His older brother Thomas was probably already a soldier based at the cavalry barracks on the outskirts of Canterbury, and maybe this contributed to Levi’s decision. We know nothing of Levi’s first years in the army; but in October 1808 he, with the 10th Hussars, embarked at Portsmouth for Spain.

A Charge of the 10th Hussars under Lord Paget

The regiment, having passed through Corunna, joined up with the now retreating British army, under its Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore, at Zamora on December 9, 1808. Under Sir John Slade, they became part of the army’s defensive rear-guard. They arrived at Sahagun in Spain on the 21st December – just in time to take part in the tail end of a successful action known as the Battle of Sahagun. Before the battle, Levi had been made a ‘coverer’ – a sort of bodyguard or ‘minder’ – for the fourteen year old Earl George Augustus Frederick Fitz-Clarence. It wasn’t unusual for wealthy and well-connected young men to become British officers at such a tender age, and Fitz-Clarence was certainly well-connected. He was the bastard son of the future King William IV and nephew of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV – who was the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief.

During the battle Levi was wounded in the left ankle by a musket ball. It can’t have been too serious a wound because only a few days later he was to take part in another engagement. His exploits there were, in large part, responsible for us being able to reconstruct Levi’s story today. I will take some pains to explain what happened. The account I will present is based on numerous sources and on several eyewitness accounts; not just British, but also German, French and Spanish. There are some inconsistencies but when taken together they provide a coherent enough picture.

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

Despite the victory at Sahagun, the British army had continued its retreat towards Astorga and Corunna. But Napoleon had heard that the British were intent on a crossing of the River Esla, two miles from the Spanish town of Benavente. He sent his elite cavalry, the Chasseurs à cheval, commanded by one of his favourites, General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, to cut them off and prevent the crossing. But due to dreadful weather they had been slowed down and they arrived just too late. Sir John Moore had already crossed the river on the 24th and departed with the bulk of the British army. He had, however, left a strong cavalry rearguard in the town of Benavente, and a small detachment was watching the river fords. Early on the morning of 29th December, British engineers destroyed the bridge at Castrogonzalo. When Lefebvre and his force of about 500 – 600 cavalry arrived, we are told that this was at nine in the morning, there seemed no way to cross, because the river “was swollen with rain.”

Lefebvre could see that “outlying pickets of the British cavalry were stationed along the Western bank of the River Esla.” He thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the few scouts to be seen were all that remained of the British at Benavente. Eventually he managed to find one place to ford the river and, according to one report, first sent across “a peasant mounted on a mare” to see find out what response there would be. Seeing there was none, Lefebvre crossed the river “with three strong squadrons of his Chasseurs and a small detachment of Mamelukes” – though not without great difficulty.

One account, drawing on a number of sources, nicely sums up what ensued:

The French forced the outlying pickets of the British cavalry back onto the inlaying picket commanded by Loftus Otway (18th Hussars). Otway charged, despite heavy odds, but was driven back for 2 miles towards the town of Benavente. In an area where their flanks were covered by walls, the British, now reinforced by a troop or squadron of the 3rd Hussars King’s German Legion, and commanded by Brigadier-General Stewart, counter-attacked and a confused mêlée ensued. The French, though temporarily driven back, had superior numbers and forced the British hussars to retreat once more, almost back to Benavente. Stewart knew he was drawing the French towards Paget and substantial numbers of British reserves. The French had gained the upper hand in the fight and were preparing to deliver a final charge when Lord Paget made a decisive intervention. He led the 10th Hussars with squadrons of the 18th in support, around the southern outskirts of Benavente. Paget managed to conceal his squadrons from French view until he could fall on their left flank. The British swords, often dulled by their iron scabbards, were very sharp on this occasion. An eyewitness stated that he saw the arms of French troopers cut off cleanly “like Berlin sausages.” Other French soldiers were killed by blows to the head, blows which divided the head down to the chin.

The French fought their way back to the River Esla and started to cross to its eastern bank – swimming with their horses. But many were caught by the pursuing British cavalry, and either killed or made prisoner. General Lefebvre, however, did not escape. His horse had been wounded and when it entered the river it refused to cross. He and some of his men were surrounded by the British cavalry under Lord Paget, which consisted of the 18th Hussars and half of the 3rd Hussars, King’s German Legion. During this encounter Lefebvre was wounded and taken prisoner, along with about seventy of his Chasseurs.

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

So who was it that captured General Lefebvre? Some British sources claim simply that it was Private Grisdale. In Levi’s own regimental book we read that Lefebvre was pursued by the “Hussars” and “refusing to stop when overtaken, was cut across the head and made prisoner by Private Levi Grisdall (sic).” Other witnesses suggest that it was in fact a German 3rd Hussar, called Private Johann Bergmann, who captured the General, and that it was he who subsequently handed over his captive to Grisdale.

Any continuing mystery, however, seems to be cleared away by later witness statements made by Private Bergmann himself. His statement is corroborated by several other German Hussars who had taken part in the action, and by letters written by some German officers who were also present. Bergmann’s extensive testimony, taken at Osterholz in 1830 , is recorded in the third person. It states that there were:

three charges that day… at the third charge, or in reality the pursuit, he came upon the officer whom he made prisoner. He was one of the first in the pursuit, and as he came up with this officer, who rode close in the rear of the enemy, the officer made a thrust at him with a long straight sword. After, however, he had parried the thrust, the officer called out ‘pardon.’ He did not trouble himself further about the man, but continued the pursuit; an English Hussar, however, who had come up to the officer at the same time with him, led the officer back.

Bergmann went on to say that he hadn’t known that the officer was Lefebvre until after the action, when he was told he should “have held fast the man.” He added that he was young and “did not trouble” himself about the matter.  All he remembered was that the officer “wore a dark green frock, a hat with a feather, and a long straight sword.”

All the other German witnesses and letters confirm Bergmann’s story, but we also learn that the General had fired a pistol at Bergmann “which failing in its aim, he offered him his sword and made known his wish to be taken to General Stewart.” But Bergmann “didn’t know General Stewart personally, and while he was enquiring where the general was to be found, a Hussar of the tenth English joined him, and led away the prisoner.”

So this it seems is the truth of the matter: Lefebvre was surrounded by a German troop and captured by Private Johann Bergmann. Levi Grisdale, with the 10th Hussars, might have arrived at the scene at the same time as Bergmann or very slightly after, opinions differ. Lefebvre asked to be taken to General Stewart and so Bergmann, “not knowing General Stewart personally”, handed him over to Private Grisdale who “led the prisoner away.”

Lefebvre was delivered to the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore. Moore, who, we are told, treated the General, who had suffered a superficial head wound, “kindly” and “entertained him at his table.” He also gave him his own sword to replace the one taken when he surrendered. “Speaking to him in French”, General Moore, “provided some of his own clothes; for Lefebvre was drenched and bleeding.” He then “sent a message to the French, requesting Lefebvre’s baggage, which was promptly sent.”

Napoleon, who had viewed the action from a height overlooking the river, didn’t seem too put out by the losses of what he called his “Cherished Children.” But he was very upset when he heard of Lefebvre’s capture. He wrote to Josephine (my translation):

Lefebvre has been taken. He made a skirmish for me with 300 Chasseurs; these show-offs crossed the river by swimming, and threw themselves into the middle of the English cavalry. They killed many of them; but, returning, Lefebvre’s horse was wounded: he was drowning; the current led him to the bank where the English were; he has been taken. Console his wife.

In the aftermath of the battle, a Spanish report from the town of Benavente itself, tells us that on:

The night of the 29th they (the British) used the striking pines growing on the high ground behind the hospitals as lights, at every step coming under the fire of French artillery from the other side of the river, answered feebly by the English, whose force disappeared totally by the morning, to be replaced by a dreadful silence and solitude….

The British cavalry had slipped away and, with the rest of the army, continued its horrendous winter retreat to Corunna. Levi Grisdale and the 10th Hussars were with them.

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

General Lefebvre himself was later sent as a prisoner to England, and housed at Cheltenham where he lived for three years. As was the custom, he gave his word or “parole” as a French officer and gentleman that he would not try to escape. He was even allowed to be joined by his wife Stephanie. It seems that the couple: “were in demand socially and attended social events around the district.” Other reports tell us that General Lefebvre was in possession of a “fine signet ring of considerable value which had been given him years earlier by his Emperor Napoleon. Lefebvre used this ring as a bribe to get escape and was thus able to escape back to France, where he rejoined his Division.” This was, says one commentator, “an unpardonable sin according to English public opinion.” So much for a gentleman’s word!  The Emperor reinstated him as commander of the Chasseurs and he would go on to fight in all Napoleon’s subsequent campaigns, right up to Waterloo – where he would share the field once again with Levi Grisdale.

I have kept us a little too long in Spain. This is, after all, not the story of the retreat to Corunna, much less a history of the first Spanish chapter of the Peninsular War. After the so-called March of Death and the Battle of Corunna, Levi Grisdale was evacuated back to England by the Royal Navy – with what was left of the 10th Hussars. Here his fame started to spread. The Hampshire Telegraph of 18th February 1809 announced that Grisdale was back in Brighton with his regiment and described him as: “tall, well-made, well looking, ruddy and expressive.” He was promoted to Corporal and awarded a special silver medal by the regiment, which was inscribed:

Corporal Grisdale greatly distinguished himself on the 1st day of January 1809 (sic). This is adjudged to him by officers of the regiment.

The years passed. The regiment moved from Brighton to Romford in Essex, but was once again back in Brighton in 1812. Of this time we know little; only a few events in Levi’s life. Soon after his arrival back in England, he somehow arranged to get away to Bath, where on 29 March 1809, he married Ann Robinson in St James’ Church. Their only son, also called Levi, was born and baptized at Arundel on 12 March 1811 – sadly he was to die young. On 17 February 1813, he “was found guilty of being drunk and absent from barracks.” But, it seems, he was neither reduced to the ranks nor flogged. Other evidence suggests that the whole regiment was “undisciplined and tended to drunkenness.” Whether the leniency of his treatment was due to his record at Benavente we will probably never know.

But by February 1813, Levi, by this time a Sergeant, was back in the Iberian Peninsula, serving in a coalition army under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, who was later to become the Duke of Wellington. With the 10th Hussars, he fought his way through Portugal, Spain and France and, so  his regiment’s records tell us, was actively engaged at the Battles of Morales, Vitoria, Orthes and, finally, at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. Here the British and their allies were badly mauled. But news soon reached the French Marshall Soult that Napoleon had abdicated and Soult agreed to an armistice.

And that should really have been that as far as Levi Grisdale’s military campaigning days was concerned. Yet one more chapter lay ahead. A chapter that would no doubt later provide Levi with another great story to tell in his Penrith public house. Napoleon, we might recall, was to escape from his exile on the Island of Elba in February 1815. He retook the leadership of France, regathered his army, and was only definitively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815. It has often been said that the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo “hung in the balance” until the arrival of the Prussian army under Prince von Blücher. One writer puts it thus:

Blücher’s army intervened with decisive and crushing effect, his vanguard drawing off Napoleon’s badly needed reserves, and his main body being instrumental in crushing French resistance. This victory led the way to a decisive victory through the relentless pursuit of the French by the Prussians.

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher's Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher’s Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

And here it is that we last hear of Levi’s active military exploits. According to his obituary, published in the Cumberland and Westmoreland Advertiser on 20 November 1855, Levi had been posted on the road where the Prussians were expected to arrive, and he led them onto the field of battle! We are also told that during the battle “his horse was shot from under him and he was wounded in the right calf by a splinter from a shell.” Finally, according to a letter written by Captain Thomas Taylor of the 10th Hussars, written to General Sir Vivian Hussey in 1829, Levi, who was a by now a Sergeant in No1 troop under Captain John Gurwood, and “who was one of the captors of Lefebvre … conducted the vedettes in withdrawing from French cavalry during the battle.

Of course, Levi Grisdale certainly did not “save England and Europe” from Napoleon. But, along with thousands of other common soldiers, he played his part and, unlike countless others on all sides, he survived to tell his tales in his pub.

What became of Levi? After he returned to England, he was promoted to Sergeant Major and remained another nine years with the 10th Hussars. When he left the army in 1825, aged only 42 but with twenty-two years of active service and thirty-two engagements behind him, his discharge papers said that he was suffering from chronic rheumatism and was “worn out by service.” Hardly surprising we might think. The army gave him a pension of 1s 10d a day. His papers also state that his intended place of residence was Bristol. He was as good as his word as and he was to become the landlord of the Stag and Star public house in Barr Street, Bristol.

Christ Church, Penrith – where Levi Grisdale is buried

Yet by 1832 Levi and his family had moved back to his native Penrith. His wife Ann died there in July of that year. It seems that Levi was not one to mourn for too long. Within about two weeks he had married again. This time a woman called Mary Western – with whom he had four children. He continued his life as a publican and, as I have mentioned, christened his pub the General Lefebvre; he even hung a large picture of the General over the entrance. During his last years, Levi Grisdale gave up his pub and worked as a gardener. He died of ‘dropsy’ on 17 November 1855 in Penrith, aged 72, his occupation being given as “Chelsea pensioner.” He was buried in the graveyard of Christ Church in Penrith.

Despite what we know about Levi’s life, we will never know what was most important to him – his family, his comrades? Nor will we know what he thought of the ruling ‘officer class’? What he thought of the social and political system that had led him to fight so many battles against adversaries he knew little about? Nor whose side he was really on? We will never know these things, though we can imagine!

As General Macarthur once said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” ‘General’ Levi Grisdale certainly died but, thankfully, his memory has not yet faded away.

Sources

Mary Grisdale. Levi Grisdale. Unpublished research 2006; David Fallowfield. Levi Grisdale 1783-1855, Unpublished article. Penrith; Philip J. Haythornthwaite. Corunna 1809: Sir John Moore’s Fighting Retreat. London: Osprey Publishing 2001; Lettres de Napoléon à Joséphine, Tome Second, Paris 1833, Firman Didot Freres; Christopher Hibbert. Corunna, Batsford 1961; Michael Clover. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. Penguin Books 2003; North Ludlow Beamish. History of the King’s German Legion, Harvard 1832; Christopher Summerville. The March of Death: Sir John Moore’s Retreat to Corunna. Greenhill books 2006; Brime, D. Fernando Fernandez. Historical Notes of the Town of Benavente and its Environs.  Valladolid 1881; Wikipedia.  Battle of Benavente. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Benavente.; The Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars. http://www.horsepowermuseum.co.uk/index.html .