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FIGHTS FOR THE FLAG.
BY THE REV. W. H. FITCHETT,
AUTHOR OF 'DEEDS THAT WON THE EMPIRE.'
What is the flag of England ? Winds of the world declare !– KIPLING.
THE SIEGE OF SAN SEBASTIAN.
1813. The siege of San Sebastian, a third-rate fortress, garrisoned only by 3,000 men, hastily got together during the tumult of defeat which succeeded the battle of Vittoria, cost the allied army 3,800 men, 2,500 of whom, including 1,716 British, were struck down in the final assault, and it detained the army sixtythree days, of which thirty were with open trenches and thirty-three blockade. ... It must be admitted that a stronger proof can hardly be imagined of the vital consequences of fortresses in war, or of the decisive effect which the courageous defence even of an inconsiderable stronghold often has upon the fortunes of a campaign, or the fate of a monarchy.'- ALISON.
A RUGGED breach in a long line of parapetted wall, at whose base a river creeps sluggishly to the sea. The breach is black with drifting smoke, and crowded with red-coated soldiers. Many lie dead under the feet of their comrades ; many have crept, with streaming wounds, to either flank. The faces of the soldiers yet on the breach are black with powder, fierce with the passion of battle. From the walls above them, from a line of higher parapets that sweeps round at right angles, and commands the breach, a hundred streams of fire converge on the swaying mass of red
Copyright by the Rev. W. H. Fitchett. All rights reserved. VOL. V. -NO. 27, N.S.
coated soldiers. They are dying in hundreds. Suddenly, from beyond the stream, and from the iron lips of fifty great guns, a tempest of shot roars above the heads of the British soldiers, and sweeps the edge of the wall where the fiercely triumphant Frenchmen have defied for two separate hours the utmost valour of the British. For twenty minutes the British guns maintain that overwhelming fire above the heads of their own troops—the most brilliant bit of artillery practice on record. The French parapets are swept as with a besom of flame, the traverses are wrecked, the lines of steadfast infantry are rent to fragments. Then, with a flame of passion scarcely less fierce than the flame of the bellowing guns, the British stormers sweep in one red wave over the blackened parapets, and San Sebastian is won! This is the scene which, through the long afternoon of August 31, 1813, makes the siege of San Sebastian one of the most picturesque in military history.
Three great sieges—those of Ciudad Rodrigo, of Badajos, and of San Sebastian-stand out like flaming beacons in the stern landscape of the Peninsular war. Each siege has its special characteristic. That of Ciudad Rodrigo was a swift and brilliant stroke of arms; it resembles, indeed, nothing so much as the flash of a glittering blade in the hands of a great swordsman. That of Badajos is notable for the masterful and furious daring with which the great breach was carried. The capture of San Sebastian is not marked by the swift brilliancy of Ciudad Rodrigo, nor yet by the tempestuous and half scornful valour of Badajos. Its characteristic consists of the sullen daring, with a note of wrath running through it, which marked the temper of the soldiers. It is the most bloody and tragical of all the Peninsular sieges. Wellington's sieges in the Peninsula, it may be added, are not shining examples of scientific warfare. In each of them he was short of guns, of warlike material, and, above all, of time. In each he had to make the blood of his soldiers compensate for the blunders of his engineers, and the well-nigh incredible neglect, or equally incredible folly, of the War Office authorities in England. It was, perhaps, the sullen consciousness on the part of the private soldiers, that they had to pay in life and limb for stupidity, or neglect, in the administration of the war, which explains the exasperated temper in the ranks with which the siege of San Sebastian was conducted, and the blast of licence and cruelty with which it was closed.
San Sebastian, while the French held Central Spain, was a neglected third-rate fortress, with foul wells, dismantled batteries, and practically no garrison. But the great defeat of Vittoria made this sandy peninsula, with its steep rocky tip, a place of the first importance to both armies. The French clung to it, as it would be a thorn in Wellington's flank if he advanced through the passes of the Pyrenees. Wellington coveted it, as its harbour would be a new base of supply for him, and he dared not leave unsubdued what might be easily turned into a strong place of arms, as he pushed on the track of the defeated French through the wild mountain defiles which led to France.
San Sebastian resembles a lion's head thrust out from the coast of the Bay of Biscay, just where the spurs of the Pyrenees run down to the sea. The neck' of the lion is a flat sandy isthmus, some 350 yards wide; the lion's head looks to the north, the bay is under its chin to the west ; on the east flows into the sea in a wide shallow tidal channel the river Urumea.
The seaward tip of the lion's head is a rocky cone, some 400 feet high, called Monte Orgullo, crowned by the castle of La Mota. Across the sandy isthmus ran a high solid curtain with a huge hornwork, shaped like the point of an arrow, at its centre. Betwixt this wall and the base of Monte Orgullo stretched the town, having a population of something like 10,000 people. A line of ramparts ran along the eastern face of the town, betwixt the curtain across the neck of the isthmus and Monte Orgullo. The Urumea washed the foot of this rampart, and the frowning heights of Monte Orgullo commanded with their batteries the whole town.
Fortune gave to the French, in the person of General Rey, a commander for San Sebastian with a singular genius for defensive war. Rey, indeed, in personal appearance was quite unheroic. Frazer, who was second in command of the British artillery at the siege, met Rey after the surrender, and describes him as.' a great fat man,' in appearance resembling rather a pacific and heavyfooted Dutch burgher, than one of the most brilliant soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. Rey was not present at Vittoria ; he left the day before the battle in command of a great convoy. The convoy passed on to France, but Rey, with its escort, entered San Sebastian, and set himself with stern energy, and the genius of a fine soldier, to prepare for the siege which he knew to be inevitable. Part of the wreck of Vittoria a few days afterwards flowed in wild tumult and confusion into the town; but Rey,
with great resolution, swept the town of non-combatants, armed all his batteries, cleared out his trenches and wells, turned the convent of San Bartolomeo, some 600 yards in advance of the curtain crossing the isthmus, into a strong place of arms; and, with all the art of a veteran soldier, set himself to hold San Sebastian against all comers. He had a garrison of some 3,000 men; and 10,000 British and Spanish troops, under Sir Thomas Graham, the hero of Barossa,' one of Wellington's most trusted lieutenants, were moving down the slope of the Pyrenees to besiege him.
The Frenchman, however, had many things in his favour. San Sebastian lent itself easily to a stubborn defence. San Bartolomeo formed a strong out-work to the south ; behind this, on the main road which crossed the narrow neck of the isthmus rose a great circular redoubt, formed of casks, and flanked by ruined houses, strongly held. These in turn were covered by the strong rampart which crossed the isthmus, with a powerful hornwork rising high in its centre. Thus, no less than three lines of defence had to be broken through before the town was reached. The town itself must be carried by obstinate street-fighting, while Monte Orgullo, with the stroke of its batteries, covered the whole field of combat, and could be held independently after the town itself had been carried.
The happiest feature for the French was the fact that they had practically an open sea base, and were in daily communication with France. It is an amazing fact that, eight years after Trafalgar, and while Great Britain was absolutely mistress of the sea, Wellington could not secure any adequate naval assistance in the siege of San Sebastian. A single British frigate, the 'Surveillante,' represented all the naval help the Admiralty could afford. Wellington's transports were captured almost daily by French privateers. The French garrison was perpetually fed by supplies sent directly from France. Vainly Wellington appealed to the Admiralty for ships. Since Great Britain had been a naval power,' he wrote bitterly, 'a British army had never before been left in such a situation at a most important moment.' Wellington's genius, however, was essentially practical. “If the navy of Great Britain,' he wrote to Lord Bathurst, cannot afford more than one frigate and a few brigs and cutters, fit, and used only, to carry despatches, to co-operate with this army in the siege of a maritime place, the possession of which before the bad
season commences is important to the army as well as to the navy, I must be satisfied, and do the best I can without such assistance.' • We have been obliged,' he says in the same despatch, “to use the harbour boats of Passages, navigated by women, in landing the ordnance and stores, because there was no naval force to supply us with the assistance we require in boats.' Wellington, in brief, in this siege of a hostile port, had to leave the aid of British ships out of his calculation.
But the aid the French derived from the open sea was simply past calculation. Boats came nightly to the garrison from Bayonne, bringing engineers, artillerymen, supplies of every kind, with news from the outside world, promises from Soult of immediate relief, and decorations, badges of honour, and crosses of the Legion of Honour in profusion to the soldiers who, from day to day, distinguished themselves in the siege. In this way the imagination of the besieged French was fed, as well as their material wants supplied. And the sense that a way of escape to the rear was open, that France was watching their defence, and that every act of valour brought an immediate reward in the shape of some 'decoration,' or of promotion, bred such a spirit of daring and enthusiasm in the garrison that, says Maxwell—who was actually a prisoner in San Sebastian—'I believe the garrison, individually or collectively, would not have hesitated attempting any enterprise, however difficult or dangerous.'
The principles of war are changeless, and Wellington's engineers adopted the very plan of attack employed by the Duke of Berwick who besieged San Sebastian in 1719. Strong batteries were erected on the Chofres sandhills, to smite with their fire the comparatively weak eastern wall across the stream of the Urumea. Approaches were simultaneously to be pushed along the isthmus, so as to take in flank the wall which the breaching batteries were smiting in front, and to smash the defences by which the breach, when made, would be guarded. The plan was able, and if it had been carried out the siege would never have attained what Napier calls its 'mournful celebrity. Wellington, however, was guarding the passes against Soult, and left the conduct of the siege to Graham ; and Graham allowed the eager spirits about him to over-ride what their impatience regarded as the too formal approaches of the engineers. They inverted, in a word, Vauban's well-known maxim, 'Never attempt to carry anything at a siege by open force which may be gained by art and labour.' The British