An Ordinary British Soldier Recounts the Portuguese Campaign (1810)
This account, probably by Thomas Howell, a soldier of the Highland Light Infantry regiment, offers a firsthand account of the skirmishes between British/Portuguese forces and the French armies. Little is known about Howell except that he was born in 1790 of Methodist parents. His memoir was published shortly after the events described (a second edition dates from 1819).
This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.
There were six companies of 100 men each, embarked in two frigates, 300 in each. I was on board the Melpomene.
During the six days' sail to Lisbon, my thoughts were not the most agreeable. I was on my way to that country in which I had already suffered so much. My health was good but my spirits were very low. I could not yet bring [myself] to associate with the other men, so as to feel pleasure in their amusements. I found it necessary to humor them in many things and be obliging to all. I was still called saucy and courted by my comrades to join them. I had changed my bedfellow more than once; they not liking my dry manner, as they called it.
On the seventh day after leaving Deal we were landed at Blackhorse Square, Lisbon, amidst the shouts of the inhabitants. We were marched to the top of the town and billeted in a convent. A good many were billeted in the town, the convent being not large enough to contain us. I was billeted upon a cook-shop.
Two years before, while encamped before Lisbon, I had often wished to enter the town; now I as ardently wished to leave it. I was sickened every hour of the day with the smell of garlic and oil. Everything there is fried in oil that will fry. Oil and garlic is their universal relish. Cleanliness they have not the least conception of. The town is a dunghill from end to end; their principal squares are not even free from heaps of filth. You may make a shift to walk by the side of streets with clean shoes; but cross one, if you dare. I inquired at one of our regiment, who had been left sick, if they had any scavengers? “Yes,” said he, “they have one.” “He will have a great many under him?” “None.” “What a folly, to have only one to such a city!” “And that one, only when he may please to come.” “You joke with me.” “No, I don't. The rain is their street-cleaner; he will be here soon; there will be clean streets while he remains; then they prepare work for him again.”
We had not been three hours in the town, and were busy cooking, when the alarm sounded. There were nine British and three Portuguese regiments in the town. We were all drawn up and remained under arms, expecting every moment to receive the enemy, whose skirmishers covered Windmill Hill. In about an hour the light companies of all the regiments were ordered out, alongst with the 71st. Colonel Cadogan called to us, at the foot of the hill, “My lads, this is the first affair I have ever been in with you; show me what you can do, now or never.” We gave a hurra and advanced up the hill, driving their advanced skirmishers before us, until about half way up, when we commenced a heavy fire and were as hotly received. In the meantime, the remaining regiments evacuated the town. The enemy pressed so hard upon us we were forced to make the best of our way down the hill and were closely followed by the French, through the town, up Gallows Hill. We got behind a mud wall and kept our ground in spite of their utmost efforts. Here we lay upon our arms all night.
Next morning, by daybreak, there was not a Frenchman to be seen. As soon as the sun was fairly up we advanced into the town and began a search for provisions, which were now become very scarce; and to our great joy found a large store-house full of dry fish, flour, rice and sugar, besides bales of cloth. All now became bustle and mirth; fires were kindled and every man became a cook. Scones were the order of the day. Neither flour nor sugar were wanting and the water was plenty; so I fell to make myself a flour scone. Mine was mixed and laid upon the fire, and I, hungry enough, watching it. Though neither neat nor comely, I was anticipating the moment when it would be eatable. Scarce was it warm ere the bugle sounded to arms. Then was the joy that reigned a moment before turned to execrations. I snatched my scone off the fire, raw as it was, put it into my haversack and formed. We remained under arms until dark and then took up our old quarters upon Gallows Hill, where I ate my raw scone, sweetly seasoned by hunger. In advanced to the town, we were much entertained by some of our men who had got over a wall the day before, when the enemy were in the rear, and now were put to their shifts to get over again and scarce could make it out.
Next morning the French advanced to a mud wall about forty yards in front of the one we lay behind. It rained heavily this day and there was very little firing. During the night we received orders to cover the bugle and tartans of our bonnets with black crape, which had been served out to us during the day, and to put on our great coats. Next morning the French, seeing us thus, thought we had retired and left Portuguese to guard the heights. With dreadful shouts, they leaped over that wall before which they had stood, when guarded by the British. We were scarce able to withstand their fury. To retreat was impossible; all behind being ploughed land, rendered deep by the rain. There was not a moment to hesitate. To it we fell, pell-mell, French and British mixed together. It was a trial of strength in single combat; every man had his opponent, many had two. I got one up to the wall, on the point of my bayonet. He was unhurt. I would have spared him, but he would not spare himself. He cursed and defied me, nor ceased to attack my life, until he fell, pierced by my bayonet. His breath died away, in a curse and menace. This was the work of a moment; I was compelled to this extremity. I was again attacked, but my antagonist fell, pierced by a random shot. We soon forced them to retire over the wall, cursing their mistake. At this moment I stood gasping for breath, not a shoe on my feet; my bonnet had fallen to the ground. Unmindful of my situation, I followed the enemy over the wall. We pursued them about a mile and then fell back to the scene of our struggle. It was covered with dead and wounded, bonnets and shoes trampled and stuck in the mud. I recovered a pair of shoes; whether they had been mine or not I cannot tell; they were good.
Here I first got any plunder. A French soldier lay upon the ground dead; he had fallen backwards; his hat had fallen off his head, which was kept up by his knapsack. I stuck the hat with my foot, and felt it rattle; seized it in a moment and, in the lining, found a gold watch and silver crucifix. I kept them; as I had as good a right to them as any other. Yet they were not valuable in my estimation. At this time, life was held by so uncertain a tenure, and my comforts were so scanty, that I would have given the watch for a good meal and a dry shirt. There was not a dry stitch on my back at the time, nor for the next two days.
Christopher Hibbert, ed., A Soldier of the Seventy-First: The Journal of a Soldier of the Highland Light Infantry, 1806-1815 (London: Leo Cooper, 1975), pp. 48-53.