Over the Hills and Far Away

The winter of 1812/1813 saw Wellington’s army encamped back on the Spanish-Portuguese border, around Ciudad Rodrigo. Madrid had been liberated, and the whole of southern Spain had been evacuated by the French, but Wellington’s delay and failure before the fortress city of Burgos, together with a breakdown in the supply situation, had forced him back to his start position. Nevertheless, his army was growing in strength, while that of the enemy was weakening, as reinforcements streamed back to Napoleon in Saxony after the debacle in Russia.

In a brilliant campaign of manoeuvre, Wellington forced back King Joseph’s army to the plains of Vitoria where, on 21st June, he inflicted a crushing defeat upon the French. Joseph lost nearly all his guns and vast quantities of materiel and treasure, as the remnants of his army fled, practically unmolested, back to the Pyrenees and the fortified city of Pamplona. The rest of the year was to be spent by Wellington’s men in seizing and holding the passes of the western Pyrenees, laying siege to Pamplona and San Sebastian, and transferring his line of communication to London through the ports of northern Spain rather than through Lisbon.

The 28th was still with 2nd Division, and the 61st with 6th Division. Both had been reinforced so that at the start of the campaign the 28th had over 800 men and the 61st nearly 600. 2nd Division took part in the battle of Vittoria, and Captain Cadell of the Grenadier Company described the action of the 28th:

“In the glorious battle of Vittoria (where a British army had been victorious centuries ago) we suffered much. one serjeant and eleven rank and file killed; one major, two captains, twelve lieutenants, two ensigns, six serjeants and 165 rank and file, wounded. Four officers died of their wounds, viz. Brevet Lieut.colonel Paterson, (of the Castle Huntley family,) who was an excellent officer, and much regretted; and three fine young men, Lieutenants McDonald, Mitchell and Byrne. Soon after we had taken the village of Sabijana, the regiment formed in close column upon a gentle slope, and the men were ordered to go to the right about and sit down, resting their backs on their packs. We had remained but a few minutes in this situation when the enemy brought two guns to bear upon us. The second or third round struck McDonnell, of Captain Irving’s company, on the back of the head, which it shattered in pieces over the regiment, wounding two other men. The body of poor McDonnell, who was sitting close to Captain Irving, never moved; his firelock rested on his breast between his clasped hands; the fingers dropped, leaving the thumbs supporting it. Soon after this we were sent out by companies, and skirmished the whole day.”

6th Division had been guarding Wellington’s supply route, and after Vittoria were sent to Pamplona to help in the siege. But on the 14th July 6th Division was relieved by Spanish troops, and marched to St Estevan on the River Bidassoa. July 1813 was to see the last serious offensive mounted by the French in the Peninsular, as Marshal Soult, sent by Napoleon from Saxony to take charge of and reorganize the shattered French army, launched a series of attacks on the Allied held passes, with the aim of raising the siege of Pamplona and turning Wellington’s position. In a series of dispersed battles, known collectively as the Battle of the Pyrenees, fought during the weeks of July, both the 28th and the 61st were in action in their respective Divisions. After some hard fighting, the French were repelled at every point and sent tumbling back into France. The 28th were present at the battles and combats of Maya, Sorauren, Beunza and Venta de Urroz, and the 61st were also at Sorauren.

The summer and early autumn were spent in maintaining the sieges of both Pamplona and St Sebastian, although neither 2nd Division or 6th Division were involved in the sieges themselves. Some men found time for romance and dalliances. Lieutenant William Thornton Keep of the 28th wrote to home to his brother Samuel on 17th September:

“… two very pretty girls, about 16 and 18, favoured me with their company – why or wherefore it was impossible to tell – their pretty tongues in the Basque language being quite unintelligible to me – as mine was to them. I was left entirely to guess who or what they were, but my eyes convinced me they were extremely attractive – modest behaved and well dressed. … As we could not speak a single word to each other to be understood, you will wonder how we amused ourselves. There was nothing in the least giggling or silly about them – but it was all serious work in dumb show as far as conversation went. This will remind you of “Drink to me only with thine eyes and I will pledge with mine etc”, but they did more, for they danced and sang to entertain me, having a tambourine for the music. (You must know a chere amie is not unfrequent among us.) Dashing damsels accompanying some officers (one very much like a wife to a Captain of the 28th) came to request a peep at the bullfight at my billett in Vittoria. How this love making is brought about appeared difficult to imagine, until I came here, and found that signs only were required to be interpreted.”

Picture: Fighting in the Pyrenees