« PrécédentContinuer »
discussing. And we are further compelled to observe, that the discipline and conduct of that corps were such as to make its final dissolution a matter of notorious justice and expediency.
On the merit of Sir Robert Wilson's services in Spain, under Sir Arthur Wellesley, during the year 1809, there can be no dissentient voice. He executed, with very distinguished zeal and activity, the orders which he received; but we beg leave to remind him that some portion at least of the praise of those movements (the inportance of which is allowed in the French dispatches, and by himself so much dwelt on) must belong to him who directed as well as to him who executed them. At all events, it is rather too much for the chief of a single detached corps to ascribe the great results of the campaign to himself and to the limited means which were at his disposal.
It is in this temper that he tells us, (p. 14.) that the movements of his corps, after the battle of Talavera, threw back Victor about thirty miles, kept that officer in ignorance of Soult's advance till the 5th of August, and prevented the reunion of the French armies till the 7th, affording thus sufficient time for Sir A. Wellesley to extricate himself from his unpleasant situation.
Now, Sir Robert Wilson cannot, surely, have read Marshal Jourdan's dispatch, by which it appears that Victor had reported the advance of the enemy, or combined army; for when he (Jourdan) finds that the report of Victor did not announce the march of the combined army, but only of Wilson,' from that moment he seems to have thought nothing more of him, except to say, that “he is surrounded, and that 1500 men will make him prisoner.' And by what process does Sir Robert Wilson suppose that he prevented the junction of the French armies ? He commanded a corps of about 4000 men considerably on their right flank; Sir Arthur Wellesley, with the victorious army of Talavera, was directly between them; and even the least military of Sir Robert Wilson's constituents are qualified to judge which was the most likely cause of their communications being intercepted.
We have now, however, arrived at a period when Sir Robert Wilson, instead of acting under the guidance and superior authority of Sir Arthur Wellesley, was become, to a great extent, a free agent; and the first happy effect which resulted from this situation, was his suffering himself to be totally surrounded. This fact is clear from his own narrative; and this he further confirms by quoting an intercepted letter from Marshal Soult to the governor of Seville. We believe the fact; but Sir Robert is unfortunate in the choice of his corroborative document, since Seville was not occupied by the French for several months afterwards, and since, at the time of which he is speaking, there was not a single Frenchman in Andalusia.
To return, however, to the main fact of Sir Robert Wilson's being surrounded. This might, beyond a doubt, have been unavoidable, and to be classed among the usual incidents of war; but, not content with suffering us to pass on it this construction, he himself informs us that he foresaw the danger, and knowingly permitted the net to be drawn around him. Thus, he tells us, (for we will give his own expressions,) Fortunately, in anticipation of a disaster, I had sent off my guns, when I commenced my retreat, with orders to gain the Bridge of Arzobispo by all possible efforts. -p.15. Now guns, (even the ladies of Southwark must be sensible,) guns have in themselves no further property of defence or offence than so many carts or waggons; and it follows, that Sir R. Wilson, in sending off his guns without an escort, must have conceived the route which he destined for them to be not exceedingly hazardous. Why then, if he believed his guns could effect their passage, did he not take the opportunity of withdrawing the corps under his orders, which, as composed of cavalry and light infantry, might, surely, have passed through the same gate of retreat,' through which unprotected guns were drawn-off in safety? We have heard, however, a somewhat different account of the whole transaction; and, in the case of most officers similarly situated, we should, we confess, have rather supposed that their guns had been separated from them by the unexpected advance of the enemy, than that, having the power to send them away, they should not have taken the same opportunity to save their army.
From the hazard, however, which he thus strangely chose to incur, his good fortune was sufficient to extricate him. Nor can any one read without interest the description of his miraculous escape along a mountain path, till then esteemed impracticable and only traversed by shepherds, through peaceful vallies, which now first started at the sound of the bugle. Yet, that even of this track the difficulties were not so great as to prevent its being passed by cavalry, we conclude, since at Baños Sir Robert Wilson was not deprived of this latter description of force, and since, if these bad found a better road, Sir Robert Wilson would not have preferred a worse for his infantry. By this road, however, he drew off his men, and took up a strong position in the pass of Baños, where he was shortly after attacked by the enemy.
This is the occasion on which we erroneously stated, in a former Number, that Sir Robert Wilson claimed a victory. On this particular we have already acknowledged our error, and we again beg leave (as a matter of common justice) to express our concern, and apologize for our unintentional mistatement. But, while we fully acquit him of any thing like express or intentional falsehood, it really appears to us, on his own shewing, that the report which he sent to head-quarters was of a character singularly over-charged,
and what we call almost poetical. To a victory, indeed, he did not lay claim; but it may be observed, that if a sinall corps resists for many hours a vastly superior force--occasioning great loss to the assailants, and itself receiving little injury--impeding the enemy's movements, and effecting its own retreat in good order, so as to be applicable to other purposes—such an action, though modestly not termed a victory, must have, in no small degree, the character and consequences of one.
Now we would ask any unprejudiced person whether Sir Robert Wilson's public report is not calculated to produce such an impression and whether any plain man who reads it would guess that the result of an action so described had been the total dispersion of the corps ?-a rout so total that the general owed his safety to the swiftness of his horse'!
Thus we are told in the dispatch, that the enemy will only have to boast that he has achieved his passage.' But, will Sir Robert Wilson have the goodness to tell us what more an enemy could boast of than the utter dispersion of the corps opposed to him? We ask whether the most decisive battle on record, whether even that of Waterloo itself, had, in a military point of view, any greater results than these? What is it, indeed, which Sir Arthur Wellesley says in those extracts of his letter which Sir Robert Wilson has published:
that he cannot comprehend the matter ; that he does not understand how troops could behave so well as Sir Robert had stated in his public dispatch, and be so utterly routed as he had described them in his private letter; that he had sent the dispatch home to speak for itself, and that he would have sent it back for revision, if the delay might not have been injurious to Sir Robert Wilson.'-p. 23. We do not know that the English language affords terms more expressive of a discrepancy between the public and private letter, the varnished and unvarnished tale, and we beg Sir Robert to consider whether, in this apparent discrepancy, he may not trace the foundation of those injurious reports which have been circulated to his disadvantage, and which have to this hour remained unquestioned (as far as we know) even by those who were least inclined to detract from his reputation.
But what, after all, is the plain truth respecting the action at Baños ? The advanced guard, (we believe under Colonel Grant,) consisting of about 400 men, occupied Aldea Nueva, Sir Robert Wilson remaining, with the rest of the corps, in the position and pass of Baños. The former party skirmished, during the greatest part of the day, with the enemy's piquets, and, being at last driven in, retired upon the position of the main body. The flight and dispersion of the whole corps immediately followed : and here ended the battle of Banos! Sir Robert Wilson, indeed, speaks of a nine hours' resistance; of artillery and musketry; of such a fire as made a longer defence impossible; of a battalion which cut its way through a column of cavalry and a column of infantry. But all the world knows that an action of any sort continued with vigour for nine hours, between 4000 or 5000 men well posted in a strong position and a brave and disciplined corps of 14,000 men attacking it, cannot be fought without very severe loss on both sides. It is a criterion by which the English public are pretty
well accustomed to form their judgments. When, at the battle of Salamanca, it was found that the Spaniards had lost somewhere about three rank and file, every child could determine how much they had contributed to the victory. It were to be wished, then, that Sir Robert Wilson would have the goodness to produce his list of killed and wounded ; that he would tell us whether he lost 300 men? (which is one quarter of what. Marshal Ney talks of.) Whether he lost 100? Whether, in this tremendous battle, he lost 50, or even 20 men? And we might then be enabled to ascertain what manner of action this was and how it was contested.
But the gallant officer has brought forward a dispatch of Marshal Ney's in confirmation of his own report: nor is any
further proof required of the haste and confusion in which he has collected the present details, inasmuch as a very slight degree of attention would have convinced him that the evidence of Marshal Ney, if it be worth any thing, proves vastly too much, and is, in fact, at complete variance with a great part of his own narrative. We feel, indeed, some little surprize that Sir Robert Wilson should have thought it advisable to quote a French dispatch in proof of any thing. He must have seen too much of the armies of Napoleon to be ignorant of the mechanism of their bulletins. He must know how often those bulletins were falsified on principle, to answer a particular purpose ; how often the dispatches of generals were altered or suppressed in Paris, and others fabricated in their room more advantageously suited to the occasion; nor can he avoid, we think, perceiving on further reflection, how evidently the object in the present instance was to obtain a set-off to the defeat of Talavera, and (pour égayer la bonne ville') somewhere and somehow to eke out something like a victory.
But let us see how far this evidence, such as it is, can be said to agree with that of Sir Robert Wilson. Our gallant countryman says that, on his arrival, he occupied those ‘ posts which the exigency of the time permitted.' His friend, Marshal Ney, tells us that these posts were fortified with abbatis, ditches, and masses of rock,'precautions which, it is well known, are not the work of a moment. Marshal Ney states that the English general left 1200 men on the field. His gallant antagonist only says that he had many missing, and that the enemy would have little to boast of. Yet surely be would not have passed over in silence a loss any thing like so considerable as this would have been,-a loss little short of one third of the whole
mder his orders? But let us try Marshal Ney's account by the same test of loss which we have applied to that of Sir Robert Wilson. He paints the battle in more tremendous colours than even his opponent has employed on it. He talks of an obstinate defence of a position supposed impregnable; of troops three times rallied; of charges with the bayonet; of all which can be done or suffered in an ably conducted contest, on a scale of the first magnitude. But what, after all, was his loss? In all the late battles, not that of Baños only, out of a corps of 14,000 men,
his loss did not amount to 180 in killed and wounded! (p. 28.) Really if the Marshal were to be believed in his account of the battle, he would have had something more to boast of than Sir Robert would be willing to allow; but his dispatches being, as they plainly are, a tissue of empty boastings, we can only repeat our surprize that the gallant author should have thought fit to quote them as authority.
We have yet one more observation to make on Sir Robert's account of the affair at Baños. In enumerating the reasons which led him to defend that position, he tells us that a corps of 14,000 men, within a few hours march on the right, might have moved to attack the enemy in flank while he was opposing him in front; but that, under all the circumstances of the campaign, this step was not thought expedient.-p. 20.
Sir Robert does not like 'insidious allusions. Now, really, we cannot conceive a more flagrant one against an officer of the highest rank, than that a great practicable service was left unfulfilled, and a British general, with 4000 troops, abandoned, without aid, (when aid might have been supplied,) to struggle with overwhelming numbers. Bat has not Sir Robert, in this passage, even more than usual, given the reins to his imagination, and risked assertions which his soberer judgment and collected memory would have effectually prevented? We put' expediency' out of the question; and categorically demand whether it be possible that Sir R. Wilson ever could have expected the co-operation of that corps, inasmuch as he must have known that such co-operation was physically impossible? The corps which he appears to have considered as a sort of auxiliary to his Legion, was commanded by one of the most distinguished generals in our service: it was acting, we presume, in direct combination with, and under the immediate orders of the commander of the forces; and (as we bave been assured) instead of being at the distance of a few hours march from Sir Robert Wilson's right, was at Moralejos, fifteen Spanish leagues (equivalent to sixty English miles, or two days forced marches) from Sir Robert's position at Baños. The gallant author tells us that he himself arrived at Baños on the 11th of August, and he confesses that, until he was informed of the march of the enemy, he had no intention of fighting there. 114