Another Firsthand View of the Fighting in Portugal
This account by British Private William Wheeler of the 51st Regiment gives a vivid account of the hand–to–hand fighting in Portugal. Wheeler’s letters home were saved by the family and form the basis of their publication in 1949.
This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.
No. 59. General Hospital, St. Jean de Luz.
21st. Nov. 1813.
On the top of the hill they had a reserve, these came forward and gave us a crack. Now a brisk fire was kept up on both sides, as I was in the act of pulling my trigger I received a wound in both legs, the ball glanced or scraped the skin just above the outside ankle of the left foot and passed through the gristle behind the ankle of the right just missing the bone, down I fell. I endeavoured to rise but found I could not stand and that my shoe was full of blood. “The Devil's luck to ye” said Ned Eagan, “For a fool, now can't ye be easey and lay quiet for a minute or so til we give them another charge, and send them in double quick over the hill.” At this moment Hooker came to me and said “I hope Bill you are not much hurt, take some of this rum.” “Arrah Tom” says Eagen “now you would be the best fellow alive and so you would if you would just be after letting me wet my trottle with a drop of the crature.” Hooker gave him his canteen saying “you are welcome Ned.” Ned wetted his “trottle,” gave Tom the canteen shouting “Och my jewels, then bad luck to me if one of ye don't get this ledden pill through ye, then you may say that old Eagan's son is the biggest liar in all Ireland.” So saying he put in the cartridge. Hooker was employed in empting some of the rum into my canteen, and Eagan was busy in sending down the charge, when down he came on top of us. They did not give him time to fulfill his promise, he was shot through the body and in a moment was a corpse. Hooker shook my hand saying, “Cover yourself behind Ned, I must set to work, can I do anything for you.” On leaving me he said “I know I shall not see this day out, as soon as you get intelligence of my fate write to my Mother.”
Now the battle raged with double fury, fresh troops poured up to reinforce each side and soon our men moved forward, but it was not many paces before our buglers sounded the retreat and the enemy advanced, but was soon driven back. My comrades this time nearly gained the top of the hill, but there they found the enemy had been reinforced, and was again obliged to retire. I soon became in rear of the enemy's line and exposed to the fire of our men. This was not of long duration, for ours drove them back to their old ground. I observed fresh troops pouring down to join the enemy, who again advanced and passed me some distance. Now the fire was very hot and our balls passed and dropped about like hail. A French soldier came and took what money I had in my pockets, and was in the act of taking my knapsack when our men cheered and charged. I caught fire at the noise and as soon as the enemy has passed me I put my hand on poor Ned's forelock, for my own was not loaded. I had not taken my eye off the fellow who had robbed me, I took a deadly aim at him and down he fell. I was so overjoyed at seeing the rascal fall, and so animated was the moment, at the thought of being released from so perilous a situation, that forgotting the danger I exposed myself to, I sat up with my cap on the muzzle of my forelock and cheered my comrades as they passed me. Hooker was in the throng, he smiled and said something to me as he rushed by, but I could not catch the words. Our Adjutant rode up to me and said “Corporal W___ I hope your wound is not severe, I shall remember your conduct, and recommend you for promotion.”
This time the hill was taken. I looked around me, the combatants had disappeared, nothing was to be seen now but the killed and wounded. I crawled to the fellow that had robbed me, got my own and more money in to the bargain, he was shot in the small of the back just under his knapsack. I had been long enough in this place so I managed to get down the hill to the hedge, here I found Dr. Fitzpatrick, got my wounds dressed.
While the action was in its hottest fury I was several times struck with admiration at the heroic bravery of the officers and noncommissioned officers of the enemy. I shall select one out of many instances of zeal and self devotion displayed by these brave soldiers. A young officer about twenty was in front of his men leading them on. The men were several times stopped by our fire yet this brave young fellow kept in their front, waving his sword, calling and intreating them to come on. At length he returned to his men and with the flat of his sword drove them or rather some of them on, but his men had lost all confidence. Finding he could not prevail on them to advance, he ran towards us some distance and halted, here he continued to wave his sword in hopes to inspire them with courage, when one of our men shot him through the body and he fell dead.
B. H. Liddell Hart, ed., The Letters of Private Wheeler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952), pp. 156-158