1809 - On the arrival of the cavalry at Camberas, about midnight, the reserve immediately moved on, and arrived next morning, 1st January 1809, at Bembibre, just as the other division was marching off to Villa Franca. The scene of drunkeness that here presented itself was truly shameful. The stragglers from the preceding division, so crowded every house, that there was hardly a place to be had for the wearied reserve. Crowds of half-naked and unfortunate peseants of Romana's army, added to the confusion. On the 2nd, when Sir John Moore left Bembibre with the reserve and the cavalry, that excellent regiment, the 20th, and a detachment of hussars, to cover the town, while officers were employed in endeavouring to collect the stragglers. A few were got away, but many were so tired and lame from sore feet, that they did not care of the French sabres and bayonets were at their breasts, so completely did most of them give themselves up to despair. The rearguard was at length forced to retire, and leave those unfortunate people to their fate. Some of those poor fellows, who had thought better of it, and were endeavouring to overtake their countrymen, were unmercifully sabred by the French cavalry, many of them in a defenceless state.
One of the handsomest men in the grenadier company, of the name of M'Gee, was coming along the road, lame from an accident, his firelock and pack having been taken by his messmates, to enable him to keep up; he was, however, overtaken by two French dragoons, and although unarmed and helpless, was inhumanly cut to pieces almost within our sight; the exasperation of the grenadier company was terrible; they longed to have an opportunity to revenge the death of their comrade. The French were at last repulsed by the reserve at Cacabellos, about 3 miles from Villa Franca, where we remained all night, and took the duty of the rear-guard from the cavalry, who retired to Villa Franca, leaving a strong picquet in our front.
The village of Cacabellos is situated on a small rivulet with vineyards, and a commanding height in the rear. The river is passed by a bridge in the centre of the village, the banks being rugged but assailable. January 3d. The following occurrence had more effect in establishing the good conduct of the reserve than anything that had yet been done. We were formed in close column, on the Bembibre side of the river, when our gallant chief, General Paget, in an excellent address, called the attention of the soldiers to the dreadful and disgraceful scene of yesterday, and the merciless conduct the enemy's cavalry had shown to many of the stragglers. He told the men that they had become the rearguard of the army; and upon their sober, steady, and good conduct, the safety of the whole depended. Just as the General had finished his admirable and soldier-like address, after all the orders had been given, and the necessary examples that had been made, 2 men of the reserve were found in the very act of shamefully plundering a house in the village, and ill-treating the inhabitants. The report was made, and the culprits were brought out - the General being determined that an example should be made. They were ordered to be hanged upon a tree close to the village. Every thing being prepared, the awful sentence was about to be carried into execution; the unfortunate men were in the act of being lifted up to the fatal branch, when an officer of the hussars rode into the square, and reported that the enemy were at that moment advancing. The General said he did not care if the whole French cavalry were coming up; that he would hang those men , who had been guilty of so shameful an outrage. At the instant a few distant shots were heard, and a second officer arrived at full speed with another report. The General then stopped the execution, and turning round to the reserve, said, "Soldiers! if you promise to behave well for the future, I will forgive those men - say yes, in an instant." "Yes!" was said by every one. "Say it again" said the General. "Yes, yes!" was again exclaimed by all. "Say it a third time." "Yes! yes! yes!" and a cheer followed. The men were forgiven; the square was reduced; and the men of the 52d regiment, under Colonel Barclay, went through the village in double-quick time, and in the most beautiful manner took possession of the vineyards on the opposite side of the river; while the remainder of the reserve crossed the bridge under cover of the 95th, and formed on the hill behind the 52d. By this time the enemy were very close upon us, and attacked the 95th in great force, the cavalry joining in the onset. They were terribly galled by the rifles, as they advanced through the village. The 95th then retired up the road to the right and left, the French being at the same time exposed to a murderous fire from the 52d, in the vineyards, which completely checked them. The 52d then retired up the road, when the enemy were again most gallantly repulsed.
The French in this affair lost the general officer commanding the advanced guard, and many men. A column of them was so severely handled by Captain Carthew's guns, and stopped descending the hill on the other side of the river. This kept them quiet until the afternoon of the 5th of January. Our gallant Commander-in-Chief was present during this affair; and where-ever there was a shot fired, he was always to be found. This was the first time the infantry had met the enemy. In the evening the reserve retired to Villa Franca, where we expected to obtain provisions; but to our great disappoitment, everything had been plundered by the stragglers of the preceding divisions. Major Browne was the only person who succeeded in getting anything. He procured a piece of salt pork, which he tied to his holsters; but it was very soon cut away, for we were marching in the dark.
The enemy being very near, at 10 o'clock at night we moved on, and made a night-march to Herrerias, where we arrived at midnight, and after a few hours rest proceeded towards Nogales. We had not advanced far, when we fell in with a large convoy of waggons, with supplies for the Spaniards, crossing from one part of the country to the other, which looked very suspicious, just as the French were advancing. It was fortunate our haversacks were empty; and as it was impossible to take the waggons with us, the shoes, bad as they were, and the trousers, were hastily served out to those who wanted and would carry them. They were a most reasonable supply, as the very heavy falls of snow that had taken place rendered the roads in such a dreadful state, that our shoes were almost all worn out. Several officers and men were actually without.
On our way to Nogales, and passing over a mountain covered with snow, on the top of it we witnesses a dreadful scene. Two Spanish waggons had been upset, under which lay the bodies of 2 men, and a woman with a babe at her breast, all frozen to death. ........
We reached Nogales in the afternoon, and found it full of stragglers from the Spanish army, with nobody to direct them. Of course, after these people and the divisions that preceded us, very little was left for the reserve. I must not omit an excellent action of a soldier of our regiment - private Shea, of No.8 company. He had been sent forward on the commissariat guard, and when everything had been expended, he was left at Nogales to rejoin the regiment. He by accident discovered a quantity of very fine potatoes; and having procured a boiler, by the time he thought the regiment would arrive, had a large quantity ready boiled; and as we passed the house he was in, served them out 2 or 3 to each officer and man, nobly making no distinction, as he knew we all had suffered alike. This was indeed a most seasonable and unlooked-for relief. Our hands were completely benumed, having marched over a mountain covered with snow, with a shower of sleet in our faces. ........
On the morning of the 5th, the reserve left Nogales. We were detained at a bridge a little way on the road, covering our engineers, who were endeavouring to destroy it, but they did not succeed. The 28th Regiment was now the rear-guard of the reserve; and the flank companies, with a company of the 95th, formed the rear-guard of the regiment. The whole distance was a continued skirmish. About noon we came up with 2 cars laden with dollars; but the bullocks that drew them being competely exhausted, it was impossible to save the treasure. Under these circumstance, Sir John Moore decided that the whole should be thrown down the mountain, most judiciously considering that if the casks were broken, the men would make a rush for the money, which would have caused great confusion, and might have cost the lives of many. The rear-guard, therefore, was halted; Lieutenant Bennet, of the light company, 28th Regiment, was placed over the money, with strict orders from Sir John Moore to shoot the first person who attempted to touch it. It was then rolled over the precipice; the casks were soon broken by the rugged rocks, and the dollars falling out, rolled over the height, a sparkling cascade of silver. The French advanced guard coming up shortly after to the spot, were detained for a time picking up the few dollars that had been scattered on the road.