Napoleon inspired such obedience and devotion in his troops they would often perform seeming miracles when ordered.
On this day 205 years ago, the Emperor’s march on Madrid was brought to an abrupt halt at the Somosierra Pass. Spaniards had blocked its narrow track with a series of four gun batteries, one following the other. Sweeping the width of the valley with a deadly and almost impenetrable hail of canister and roundshot, these had defeated the best efforts of Napoleon’s infantry and cavalry to capture them.
An impasse, then.
Until the Emperor ordered forward a single cavalry squadron – Polish Chevaux-Legers (Light Horse) from his Imperial Guard. Commonly known nowadays as ‘Polish Lancers’ (although they weren’t actually issued with lances until 1809) these men forced their way past three batteries until, their numbers reduced to a mere handful, the final gun line was retaken by the Spaniards before French cavalry reinforcements arrived and the enemy were driven from the pass.
If anything the tale is even more incredible than Britain’s disaster in the Crimea almost 50 years later. For this suicidal charge was the result of a direct and calculated order, rather than muddle and mistake. The muddle came later, when a number of French officers claimed credit for leading the charge to glory, one famous general laughed when told of his supposed part in it, and many versions of the event did the rounds.
Facts are still disputed today, but I prefer to believe the Poles’ own version which you can find here:
Somosierra is such a great story that I was determined to use it in Leopardkill. So I wangled one character’s involvement, and here’s the beginning of that chapter:
30th November 1808
Somosierra Pass, Old Castille
A roundshot tore a rent in the fog curtain. With a practiced artilleryman’s eye, still true after years spent away from serving his beloved guns, Bonaparte saw immediately the deadly iron sphere’s fall posed him no danger and raised his telescope once more to peer ahead. Dense mist shrouding the valley was so mixed with gunsmoke the Emperor found it impossible to see more than fifty yards, even from his viewpoint halfway up the steep valley-side. But he caught a hint of movement in the murk. News perhaps, at last, of how the battle progressed.
The roundshot smashed into a rock twenty paces away, exploding stone shards in every direction before ricocheting off to Bonaparte’s right. His pale grey Arabian horse jibbed at the noise, forcing him to steady the animal before he could keep the spyglass still.
Wraiths appeared from the fog: men on foot, then cavalry. A horseman’s silhouette: another to his right, then another. The left-most horse stumbled and fell, pitching its rider headlong. The leading cavalryman was bareheaded, Bonaparte noticed.
Another whistle made the Emperor look up. This time the thin, pencil line the shot seemed to make in the sky was drawn straight at him. Spanish gunners had somehow found his range though they were firing blind. He must move.
Reining his horse to the right, Bonaparte allowed the animal to pick its way at an angle across the scree slope, heading back towards the bulk of his waiting army. He heard the second roundshot fall amongst rocks behind him, crash unnerving his horse so it scuttled downhill, nimbly skipping rocks in its path.
At the foot of the incline the Emperor skidded to a halt amongst a group of officers wearing masks of expectation. “Well?” he demanded.
“There is no news, your majesty.”
“Pah!” Bonaparte erupted, “I can see for myself. Explain to me, Victor, why you cannot move a few peasants?”
“Sire, they have cannon mounted to sweep the pass. My men cannot get through.” Marshal Victor stopped abruptly as all other heads turned towards two approaching horsemen coated with dirt and dust. Staff officers nudged their own mounts aside to allow the pair through the scrum around Bonaparte.
The Emperor nodded as both men saluted. Hatless, the senior officer began to report, “Sire, it is an impossible task!”
Bonaparte shook his head, “Pire, Pire – you should realise by now nothing is impossible, nothing. General Montbrun!”
Montbrun scrubbed at his moustache, “Your majesty?”
The Emperor gave a small smile, “Send in my Poles. And Montbrun…”
“They must force the pass. You know what to tell them.”
As Bonaparte’s general of dragoons turned his horse away from the group, the Emperor spoke directly to Pire’s companion. “Lieutenant Tirenne, I see you are wounded. You should go to the rear.”
Tirenne glanced down at the tear in the left leg of his breeches and a slowly spreading stain blackening the material across his thigh, “A scratch, sire,” he said, tiredly. “I would rejoin my regiment, if your majesty will allow?”
“As you wish,” Bonaparte said. He stared at Tirenne as the lieutenant rode after Montbrun. “Marshal Bessieres,” he addressed the commander of the Imperial Guard cavalry once the boy was out of earshot, “I trust you find my recruit satisfactory?”
“He takes much upon himself, sire,” the marshal grumbled. “And he is…”
“Too clever by half.”
“Hah! Too clever for you, you mean,” Bonaparte retorted. If Tirenne had put Bessieres’ nose out of joint in so short a time perhaps he was man enough for the task the Emperor had in mind.
Paul Tirenne’s horse jogged downhill, keen to catch Montbrun’s mount. As the pair drew level the general twisted in the saddle.
“I was sorry to hear of your father’s illness,” Montbrun said. “I remember…” he paused to steer his horse around a boulder, “… he sat you on a remount at barracks: years ago.” He smiled at the memory, “You were tiny.”
“I cannot remember,” Tirenne admitted, “now he would not.” Then he was silent. The tear in his thigh from a Spanish bayonet stung horribly.
They came to a halt in the valley bottom. Montbrun beckoned at the leading squadron of chevaux-legers and Tirenne watched one officer walk his horse forward. Uniform still clean, the tall, square-topped czapska on his head was proudly adorned with Imperial Guard insignia. Stopping in front of Montbrun he gave a brisk salute.
“Officer Kozietulski,” Montbrun announced, “the Emperor commands you take the guns.”
The Pole stared at Montbrun for a second then with a curt nod spun his horse around, heading back to his squadron at a gallop. Tirenne watched him pass along the line of men and horses, while to shouted orders the Polish light horsemen formed themselves into one long column of march, four abreast.
Once he reached the column’s tail Kozietulski turned and trotted back. “Draw swords! Draw swords!” Lieutenants and sergeants raised their voices to echo commands. One hundred and fifty sabres scraped from iron scabbards.
“Walk…march!” The column started forward; an impatient mass of trembling, sweating horseflesh. Saddles creaked, curb chains rattled.
“Trot…march!” Six hundred iron-shod feet drummed the rocky ground. Kozietulski kicked his horse into a canter to pass his men, pulling to a halt ahead of the squadron. There he could watch the fours trot past as they headed up the valley towards dirty grey gloom masking enemy guns. “On, you sons of bitches,” the Pole roared encouragement, “the Emperor is watching you!”
The chevaux-legers disappeared into fog and gunsmoke. General Montbrun returned to Bonaparte’s fold, no doubt to await news of this attack’s success, since it seemed inconceivable the Emperor would accept yet another failure. Tirenne should rejoin his regiment of chasseurs in the melee of horsemen further to the rear but something made him stay. Perhaps he needed to see how the Poles fared in the maelstrom of fire and steel which, minutes earlier, sucked him in before spitting him back out, filthy and bleeding.
He was still lost in thought as another group of Polish horsemen approached, horses sweaty and uniforms dishevelled. A returning patrol, only a half-troop strong.
“Paul!” Lieutenant Andrzej Niegolewski was around Tirenne’s age and they had struck up an easy friendship on their march across Spain. “What’s happening?”
Tirenne was thankful Niegolewski spoke French, for his few words of Polish were barely enough to order a drink in their mess.
“Should we go?” Niegolewski began after Tirenne’s hurried explanation, but a roll of thunder made both turn to look up the valley, into the smoke which had swallowed Kozietulski’s horsemen. “Jesus,” Niegolewski crossed himself. They sat silent on their horses as the rumble reverberated down the valley to be replaced with a fainter crackle of musket fire. Fog-smoke swirled like a living thing, muffling sounds of battle, so when the cannonade finally stopped it was several seconds before they realised.
The two looked at one another and Tirenne spoke their joint, incredulous thought, “They’ve taken the battery!”
“Form in twos!” Niegolewski screamed at his men, “Open order!” He glanced at Tirenne, “Will you join us, lieutenant?”
For an instant, fear twitched Tirenne’s gut but he had found only one way to deal with that feeling: he drew his sabre.
Niegolewski gave a grim smile, “Troop will advance!” He drew his own sword, pointing its curved blade towards the billowing grey wall veiling only God knew what horrors, “Trot…march!”