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Captain Carl Hodenberg, 1st KGL Dragoons, aide de camp to General von Bock

There were ten Hodenbergs, on the roll of the King’s German legion, of whom four died on active service, two killed in battle, two (of whom the writer of these letters of 1812 – 1813 was one) drowned at sea. In all, eighteen members of the family took part in the different campaigns which were waged against Napoleon, for some served in other corps than the legion, and five perished in those wars. Carl, born in 1782 at Grethem, the old family manor, which is said to have been for 700 years in the possession of the Hodenbergs, was one of five brothers who all bore arms for King George, and of whom two died wearing his uniform. The others of the name were his cousins and kinsmen.

In the autumn of 1811 Carl was a captain in the 1st Heavy Dragoons, and aide-de-camp to General von Bock. This gallant old officer commanded the brigade of the two dragoon regiments of the Legion, which had been quartered for the last five years in Ireland and had missed all the early campaigns of the Peninsular War, in which their comrades of the hussar regiments had taken a most distinguished part. To their great joy both regiments were included in the large reinforcement of cavalry which was sent out to Wellington in the autumn of that year. They had a short but stormy passage from Cork, encountered a dreadful gale in the Bay of Biscay, and lost many horses at sea. A few days were allowed them to recruit themselves in Lisbon before starting for the front, and from that city, immediately after the landing of the brigade, begins the series of letters which follows.

Two are addressed to the writer’s comrade, Baron Augustus von Reizenstein; eight to the Baroness, Reizenstein’s wife, an Irish lady, daughter of Arthur Magan of Clonearl, King’s County. While the husband was with the 1st Heavy Dragoons, as he was for the greater part of the time covered by these letters, Hodenberg’s chronicle of the doings of the regiment went to the Baroness, with many details concerning her husband’s health and exploits. Oddly enough, while one of the epistles to the Baron is, as might have been expected, in German, the other is in English a curious medium to be employed by one Hanoverian officer writing to another.

An extract, dated November 1813, gives a good picture of the difficulties of the writer:-

Compared with our infantry, we are living like princes, for we have dry houses (though no windows), and can warm ourselves at a smoky kitchen-fire. I, for my part, am living with my domestics, a large Spanish family (not over-clean), and occasionally some young pigs, in a kitchen which does not quite resemble yours at Clonearl, nor does it produce such good things. Here I write these lines in a corner, my fingers stiff with cold and hardly able to hold the pen, the smoke forcing big drops from my eyes, while at my elbow the rest of the company enjoy their oily dinner, and prattle in an unintelligible language – Basque- which is the universal tongue of Biscay, and may be compared to nothing else but the Wild Irish

He writes of the combat of Garcia Hernandez, the most glorious day for the heavy dragoons of the Legion during their existence as a corps.

The papers, I flatter myself, will tell you how we broke three solid squares of French infantry, in which no cavalry have ever succeeded before. General Bock178 led us in noble style: Decken’s179 squadron was the first, Reizenstein’s180 the second, and to both their unparalleled bravery is in a great measure owing to our great exploit; but indeed every one, without exception, was conspicuous in gallantry, or we could never, never, have succeeded. We dash in like madmen, and our blades carried with them the bloody revenge that we so long owed them. In less than half an hour we had 1500 prisoners, and 200 more

towards evening. The French were formed on a ridge of hills, and we charged up by a hollow way. Our loss – my heart bleeds to tell you – is great, 150 men either dead or so badly wounded that we are burying them every minute. Reizenstein is perfectly well, so are the general and I, and we survivors glory in our achievement.

The second passage, in which one of Hodenberg’s letters is of exceptional value to the historian, is his lively description of the cavalry combat of Venta del Pozo on October 23, 1812, during the retreat from Burgos.

The main body of our army, was continuing to retrograde in perfect good order. During this time all the French cavalry was coming up – a formidable body, Hussars and Chasseurs, Lancers, Gendarmes, and heavy dragoons. The whole British cavalry, with Lord W[ellington] on the retreat from Burgos to Salamanca, consisted only of the three brigades of Generals Bock, Anson181, and Ponsonby182. The last named was covering the march of a column of Spanish infantry considerably to our right. Our own brigade (Bock’s), dwindled to four very weak squadrons, had not much more than 300 men in the field – that of General Anson perhaps double that number, – so that our entire force of cavalry, previous to the action which I am going to describe, did not near amount to 1000 sabres. The enemy, confident of victory, when the immense plain over which we were retreating discovered no more than one insignificant brigade placed to support that of General Anson, which had been fighting and harassed from early dawn till 2 o’clock in the afternoon, pressed forward with such temerity as plainly to show confidence in their overwhelming strength. Beside this, all the heavy cavalry of their Army of the North had never been engaged with the English: they were quite fresh, and thought they had nothing to do but to eat us up. They came on like heavy clouds before a thunderstorm. We had only two advantages, that of the ground and that of having a troop of horse artillery with us: on these and on the tried valour of our little band we rested all our hopes.

Our brigade was formed in line on the left of the road, with a little river about 400 yards to our front. This river ran across the whole plain, and crossed the road under a bridge. Upon the road, and on our left flank, was Major Bull’s183 troop of horse artillery, ready to open on the French column when passing the bridge to attack us. General Anson’s brigade was intended, after having retreated over the bridge, to form line on the right of the guns. Unfortunately a mistake was committed somehow or other: they formed In our rear, not on our flank, and when ordered to take up the ground intended for them, they crossed in front of our artillery. This prevented the battery from opening in time, and a considerable body of the French passed over to our side before the guns could commence. When at last they fired they had too much elevation, so that not one single shot was brought to bear. The enemy filed over nineteen squadrons at a gallop, without being hit or put into the slightest confusion! To pass a defile in the face of a battery in position is a formidable and hazardous thing for cavalry to do. The French did it certainly in a bold manner, and when they found our first fire did no execution. It increased their audacity. Scarce over the bridge, they formed a line with incredible celerity – all officers to the front, encouraging the men. They did not mind that the river extended along the whole of their rear – a proof of their confidence, for an overthrow would have been disastrous to them in such a situation. They were hardly in line when they rode up the hill, at the same moment that our charge commenced. Our two squadrons on the right, commanded by Reizenstein and Hattorf184, met them with such vigour that we were in an instant completely mixed,- friend and foe were hardly to be distinguished. The contest, man to man, lasted perhaps a long minute, during which the ground was strewed with French, and our own loss was severe in the extreme. The two squadrons of the 2nd Dragoons did not come up quite so firm and compact as ours, so that their first shock did not so much execution; but they fought well, as their great loss of officers and men sufficiently can prove. Our poor old major, Fischer, was almost cut to pieces, and died a few days after, a prisoner at Burgos, having raved all the time,- his head had

been entirely laid open by sabre wounds. Major Meydell185 and Lieutenants Decken186 and Phibbs187 were slightly wounded; the rest of the officers of the 1st Regiment had the good fortune of escaping unhurt. General Bock, who always charges at the head of his brigade, had a narrow escape: he was at one time surrounded by six French dragoons, all cutting and stabbing at him, but he defended himself well, and got out safe. General Anson’s brigade, whose horses were tired, did not come up level in the charge, and outnumbered and outflanked on all sides, we were obliged to give way, particularly when a second line of French cavalry, composed entirely of heavy dragoons, and still more formidable than the first, was brought up against us. We made several attempts to reform and charge, but being reduced to a mere nothing, – half of our men were put hors de combat, – we were unable to re-establish ourselves, until the enemy’s vigorous advance was checked by the destructive fire of our Light Infantry battalions, who, steadily retiring in square, mocked any attempt of the French cavalry to break them; and to them we are certainly indebted for not being entirely cut to pieces. Lord W[ellington]’s despatch of 26th Oct. in the ‘London Gazette’ calls our charge unsuccessful, without giving us any credit for what we really effected. That hundreds cannot overthrow thousands is well known, and that, therefore, our exertions in the end must prove fruitless was to be seen before.

A more unhappy night than that after the combat I have never spent. Every nerve had been strained during the day: I had fought as hard as any other of my brother officers, and exerted every faculty of mind to keep up the spirits of the men. A total relaxation, mental as well as bodily, was the consequence, which, impressed with our severe misfortunes, produced in me the deepest melancholy. I had, besides, lost all my baggage, servants, and horses, and had literally nothing left, save the clothes that I wore and the horse that I rode. To this was added the total want of food for the last twenty-four hours, and a miserable cold night under the ruins of a house, without even a fire to keep us from shivering.

During the Burgos retreat, Wellington offered battle to Soult on November 15 near the Arapiles, part of his line lay across the ground where the great Battle of Salamanca had taken place on July 22. But what this meant to the troops there placed no one would have guessed without Hodenberg’s ghastly picture.

Our brigade was on the right of the British army, near the hill which they call ‘Pakenham’s Hill,’ from the circumstance of that gallant general’s having turned the French left, and decided the fate of the day. Here in July all arms of both sides had come into play – volleys of grape and musquetry had swept down ranks entire, the dragons of Le Marchant had charged the broken infantry, – till finally from this point the routed enemy had rolled themselves up towards their right in precipitate retreat. All the ground on which they had stood or fled was like a great road paved with human skeletons, mixed with broken weapons, caps, and other warlike remnants, which the space of about four months had not been able to demolish. This was our post on the morning of November 15 – classic ground, but awful in the scene of death around us, the greater number of the skeletons being yet in a terrible state of preservation. The sight nevertheless inspired us with an uncommon ardour for the renewal of battle. However, the events of armies change like the scenery of the stage: a sudden movement of the enemy to the flank overthrew our plans and expectations; their immense cavalry – 10,000 or 11,000 men – moved round our right to get between us and our communications; we had to make a corresponding movement, and the giving up of our position was the inevitable consequence.

The horrors of the sack of Badajoz have been told again and again by narrators of varying literary merit and powers of observation. Hodenberg’s description of them, written only two days after the storm, contains a few points which other eyewitnesses have left unmentioned, and has at any rate the merit of being a contemporary impression, recorded before the various legends of that bloody night and dreadful morning had coalesced into the received version which everyone knows.

I was one of the first of the idle spectators who went into the town, when daylight appeared, and the firing had nearly ceased. I closely viewed the breaches, which were no more than part of the exterior wall battered down, which, with the rubbish and some soil of the rampart, had tumbled into the ditch, so as to

make the ascent a little less than perpendicular. I found it difficult to climb up, and was struck with astonishment and admiration at the supernatural bravery and coolness that had been evinced by our men. In some parts they had, when descending into the ditch, found themselves up to the neck in water, which the enemy had let in from the river. This alone, on a dark night, and under a most destructive fire, might have checked less brave soldiers. They had pushed on to the breaches. And forcing their way to the top, found them guarded with chevaux de frise of sharpened sword-blades carefully chained together, so that it required time and unusual effort to remove them. Behind had stood the enemy, twelve deep, keeping up a steady fire until our men had come up to the very muzzles of their muskets. I counted between seven and eight hundred of our dead, among them several friends and acquaintances with whom I had conversed on the previous day, and who had told me with much cheerfulness what part was allotted to each of them in the attack. I regret to say that of the wounded – who had been about 2,000 – many were still lying on the rampart or in the ditch, still without assistance.

Unfortunate Badajoz, after sustaining all the horrors of the siege, met with the usual fate of places taken at the point of the bayonet. In less than an hour after it fell into our possession, it looked as if centuries had gradually completed its devastation. The surviving soldier, after storming a town, considers it as his indisputable property, and thinks himself at liberty to commit any enormity by way of indemnifying himself for the risking of his life. The bloody strife has made his insensible to every better feeling: his lips are parched by the extraordinary exertions that he has made, and from necessity, as well as inclination, his first search is for liquor. This once obtained, every trace of human nature vanishes, and no brutal outrage can be named which he does not commit. The town was not only plundered of every article which the soldiers could carry off, but whatever was useless to them or could not be removed was wantonly destroyed. Wherever an officer appeared in the streets the wretched inhabitants flocked around him with terror and despair, embraced his knees, and supplicated his protection. But it was vain to oppose the soldiers: there were 10,000 of them crowding the streets, the greater part drunk, discharging their pieces in all directions, it was difficult to escape them unhurt.

A couple of hundred of their women from the camp poured into the place, when it was barely taken, to have their share of the plunder. They were, if possible, worse than the men. Gracious God! Such tigresses in the shape of women! I sickened when I saw them coolly step over the dying, indifferent to their cries for a drop of water, and deliberately search the pockets of the dead for money, or even divest them of their bloody coats. But no more of these scenes of horror. I went deliberately into the town to harden myself to the sight of human misery – but I have had enough of it: my blood has been frozen with the outrages I have witnessed. War is a dreadful scourge – may Heaven protect your happy islands from becoming the theatre of such wretchedness.

Another grim picture of war is shown in Hodenberg’s narrative of the surrender of the starving French garrison of Pamplona in October 1813, which is worth giving, because there were few British spectators of the scene, and none of them seems to have left behind any record of it.

On the 31st ultimo the garrison of Pampeluna capitulated: I was present at their laying down their arms before Don Carlos de Espãna and the 16,000 Spanish troops of the blockading corps, drawn up in line on the Tolosa road. Three thousand two hundred men, the flower of the French army, marched out, with all military honours and with their General Cassan188 at their head. After filing past the Spaniards, who occupied a league of ground, they piled their arms, delivered over their colours and eagles, and proceeded as prisoners of war to Passages, there to embark for England. The garrison, for which there was originally only forty day’s provisions, held out four months and six days; and although they procured some food from the inhabitants whom they forced to quit the place, and likewise succeeded in some of their frequent sorties to get what lay under the guns of the fortress, yet after eating all the horses of two squadrons of gendarmes, they subsisted during the last fortnight on two ounces of flour a-day, eked out with all the dogs, cats, and rats that they could get. Full one-third of those who marched out bore the mark of famine in their faces. Several were so weak that they fell by the roadside within the first two or three hours of march, certain victims to a miserable fate, you know well the fashions of the Spaniards on these occasions. The day, to add to the misfortune of these wretches, was terrible, – snow, rain, sleet, and hailstorms, with the most piercing cold, left me nearly senseless. A great many of the prisoners dropt down, and were murdered and mostly stript naked before night. How often did the poor devils exclaim against their governor for not having led them out to

die cutting their way through the enemy, rather than perish in this ignominious manner! The officers asked me how we could be so inhuman as to suffer them to be escorted by Spaniards. I endeavoured to make them sensible that first and foremost intrusion on to Spanish soil authorised the Spaniards to see them out of it, when opportunity offered. Secondly, they had been blockaded by Spaniards, and it was to Spaniards only that they had surrendered, so they must now submit to being escorted by them. Lastly, I gave them the comfort that it was by no means owing to our ill-will that we did not care of them; but that it was absolutely out of our power, the whole British army being now in France, and actually before Bayonne. This last news seemed to petrify them. The tops of all the surrounding mountains have been clad in snow this fortnight back. Below in the valleys sleet, snow, and torrents of rain continue to succeed each other. Every mountain stream is gushing down the rocks in a thundering cataract. – This last extract comes not, like the others, from one of the letters to Baroness Reizenstein, but from the English one addressed to her husband on sick-leave in Ireland.

He was also a witness the following anecdote, regarding the captured camp of King Joseph at Vittoria, where so many Spanish ladies, attached by bonds sometimes legal, but more often not, to French officers, were found by the visitors weeping by the wrecks of their plundered carriages on the roadside.

They assure us that upwards of four thousand of these beauties resigned their country on the final retreat of the French. Is it not shocking? I am sure that not four women in all of the British Empire would be induced to follow the fortunes of an invading army. But wherever a French garrison has been stationary for some time, their officers were sure to ingratiate themselves with the fair sex. I am inclined to think that (extravagant as the idea may at first appear) the successes which the French have for years enjoyed this country, from a political point of view, were in a great measure connected with the influence they exercised over the hearts of the Spanish ladies.

On the victorious advance of the British army after the triumph of Salamanca, the Dragoons of the Legion were quartered for three days at Valladolid. The city received Wellington’s troops with all manner of fireworks and public rejoicings, but it was pretty well known that the Afrancesados, or the ‘Frenchified party’, as Hodenberg calls them, were strong there. The writer’s own billet was on an ancient palace, where the young and beautiful countess appeared at first rather glum, but was ultimately induced to bring her party to the state ball which the municipality offered to Wellington. After this the ice was broken, all was smiles and gaiety, and the visitor was ‘querido Carlos’ by the third day of his stay, and on taking an affectionate leave was warmly pressed to come back. The return visit, however, was not destined to be a success.

Late in October our ill stars led us back to Valladolid, this time not as proud conquerors, yet I could not help stealing into the town to see Doña Ludovica. Our army was retreating by the left bank of the Pisuerga, while Lord Dalhousie with the 7th Division was keeping the bridge, of which the French were endeavouring to gain possession under a heavy fire of artillery. The whole town was in terror and confusion, and I reached with some difficulty the house of my fair acquaintance, when the entry of the French was every moment expected. My dress at that moment had nothing to signalise me as an English officer: I wore a plain blue greatcoat, with the sash underneath it – so I was actually taken for, and announced as, a French officer when I appeared at the door.

The consequence was disastrous. Dona Ludovica had evidently a friend in the pursuing army, whose prompt arrival expected when the Allies should have been driven out of Valladolid.

Judge of my mortification when the lady of the house, under the impression that I was someone else, hurried onto the room and threw herself nearly into my arms, almost frantic with joy.

Then came a recognition and an awkward pause –

Conscious shame fixed her speechless to the spot, while I had to force a smile on to my countenance, and with a very low bow to retire instantly. To cut short this long story, which I only mention to give you an idea of the partiality of the Spanish fair for their invaders, you will not be surprised to hear that on our

third entry into Valladolid I found that Doña Ludovica and two handsome cousins whom I had met in her house had all three eloped with the French – following the example of about one in three, as we were told, of the pretty women in Valladolid.

A less trying but not less ludicrous experience fell to Hodenberg during the Lisbon Carnival of 1812, concerning which he writes –

I am tired of this great and dirty city, and rejoice in the certainty of leaving it in a few days, tho’ I must say that we have been very well treated all the time, being out at dinners, balls, or suppers nearly every night. The Carneval, which was about a fortnight ago, is an uninterrupted scene of festivity for about three days, and the more tricks one can play another, the greater the rejoicing. During the daytime every young lady sits in the balcony of her window, pelting the passengers below with oranges, or pouring water on the head of any one who comes within reach. English officers in particular seemed the objects of this amiable amusement, especially such as were new arrivals, and did not know anything of their danger till they were wet to the skin, or had some part of their uniform ruined – which was always the signal for a shout of joy down the whole street. I had my share of it on the first day, and was likely to meet with a serious injury. Riding down a steep street, very badly paved, I received a shower of oranges, thrown with less delicacy than one would expect from the fair hands from whence they came. My horse, on whose head several descended with great force, got frightened, set off downhill at full speed, and soon fell with me, before I knew where I was. Parties were given everywhere these three nights, for the mere pleasure of playing tricks on the unaware, of whom I was one. Tho’ badly treated, I can’t help laughing.

It is clear that he, like most other contemporary observers, had no conception of the disaster that was to follow: and even after the news of the Moscow retreat came to hand in January 1813, he writes to warn his correspondent that one must not think the Emperor ruined.

The resources of France are not yet exhausted: the tributary powers, Poland, Saxony, Bavaria, and my own devoted country, are not yet drained of their blood and treasure, and from the obstinacy and pride of the tyrant we must conclude that he will set every spring of the Continental system in motion, to repair his wounded fame, and soon pour another army, equally formidable with the last, into the Russian Empire. At the same time I am ready to admit that our prospects begin to brighten, and that another series of successes, equal to those which the annals of 1812 proudly hand down to posterity, may bring about the downfall of the French Empire which we only dream about at present.

It was only as 1813 wore on that real hope began to dawn upon the exiled German officers. The first revival of confidence came from the extraordinary and unexpected success of Wellington’s Vitoria campaign. After that great victory Hodenberg writes –

On looking over your last letter, dated now six months back, I find you expressing a wish that we may drive the 175,000 French in Spain ‘far beyond the Pyrenees.’ Surely neither you nor any mortal living had the right to expect such an event. Our most sanguine hopes did not carry us beyond the line of the Ebro during the course of the present campaign. But your illustrious countryman, Lord W., and his brave army have outshone themselves in glory. We have marched in the space of a month through the whole extent of Spain, driving before us all the time an immense army, an army proud of their late successes, and better equipt and more efficient than any that France ever brought into the field. This army, far superior in numbers to our British and Portuguese (who alone need be counted when we speak of ‘the Allied Army’) at last faced us at Vittoria, to complete its disgrace. Never since Rossbach have Frenchmen been so completely defeated, or so shamefully fled in confusion, leaving everything behind. What a difference between the operations of this and last year! Then we never had a moment’s rest from the opening of them in March till November, – constant and fatiguing marches, hardships and privations without end, engagements as regular as the sun rose and set. This year a month’s accelerated movements, in a bird’s line across a whole empire, have brought the army to that gentle ridge of hills which alone separates us from the dominions of France.

Certain officers from the Peninsula were ordered to return to England at once, in order to take up commands in the projected expedition. Among them was Brigadier-general von Bock, and, as his aide-de-camp, Hodenberg accompanied his chief. With every glad prospect before them – for the news of Leipzig and of Napoleon’s retreat to the Rhine had filled every heart with confidence – they rode down to Passages, and took ship for Portsmouth on the transport Bellona, just after the new year 1814 arrived. After a stormy and prolonged passage across the Bay of Biscay, the Bellona, hugging the coast of Brittany too close, went ashore on the rocks of Tulbest, near Ploubian, on January 21. The vessel was battered to pieces, and every soul on board perished.

His two correspondents, the Reizensteins, survived for the happier times that were to come. The baron obtained his coveted majority in 1814; was present at Waterloo, where he was severely wounded; and died at Celle on the 6th of November 1830, as a colonel in the cavalry of the Royal Guard. His Irish spouse, to whom the majority of Hodenberg’s letters are addressed, outlived him thirty years and died in 1863.

 

Blackwood’s Magazine No. MCLXIX March 1913 Vol. CXC111

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