Chapter III. Small armies and great battles
On their arrival at Dol, the peasants, as we have seen, had dispersed through town, each man guided by his own fancy, as it often happens when “on obéit d’amitié,” as the Vendeans expressed it, – a form of obedience that may produce heroes, but not well-disciplined soldiers. They had stored their artillery, together with the baggage, under the arches of the old market, and feeling weary, when they had eaten and drunk and said their beads, they stretched themselves out in the middle of the principal street, that was encumbered rather than guarded. As night came on most of them fell asleep, pillowing their heads on their knapsacks, some having their wives beside them; for it often happened that the peasant women followed the men. In the Vendée, women about to become mothers frequently acted as spies. It was a mild July night The constellations shone forth against the deep-blue sky. The entire bivouac, which might have been mistaken for the halt of a caravan rather than for a military encampment, gave itself up to quiet slumber. Suddenly by the glimmering twilight those who were still awake perceived three cannon levelled at the entrance of the principal street.
It was Gauvain. He had surprised the guard, had entered the town, and with his division held the entrance of the street.
A peasant started up, crying, “Who goes there?” and fired off his musket. A cannon-shot, followed by a terrific volley of musketry, was the reply. The whole sleeping crowd sprang up with a start. It was a rude shock to be roused by a volley of grape-shot from a peaceful sleep beneath the stars.
The first moment was terrific. There is nothing more tragic than the confusion of a panic-stricken crowd. They snatched their weapons. Many fell as they ran yelling to and fro. Confused by the unexpected assault, the lads lost their heads and fired madly at one another. The townspeople, bewildered by all this confusion, rushed in and out of their houses, shouting to each other as they wandered helplessly about, – a dismal struggle in which women and children played a part. The balls whistling through the air left streaks of light in the darkness behind them. Amid the smoke and tumult a constant firing issued from every dark corner. The entanglement of the baggage-wagons and cannon-carriages was added to the general confusion. The horses, rearing, trampled upon the wounded, whose groans could be heard on every side. Some were horror-stricken, others stupefied. Officers were looking for their men, and soldiers for their officers. In the midst of all this some there were who displayed a stolid indifference. One woman, seated on the fragment of a wall, was nursing her new-born babe, while her husband, with bleeding wounds and a broken leg, leaned against it as he calmly loaded his musket and fired at random in the darkness, killing or not, as it happened. Men lying flat on the ground fired between the spokes of the wagon-wheels. At times there rose a hideous din of clamors, and again the thundering voice of the cannon would overwhelm all. It was frightful, – like the felling of trees when one falls upon the other.
Gauvain from his ambush aimed with precision, and lost but few men. But at last the peasants, intrepid in spite of the disaster, ended by taking the defensive. They fell back on the market, which was like a great dark fortress, with its forest of stone pillars. There they made a stand; anything that resembled a forest inspired them with courage. The Imânus did his best to atone for the absence of Lantenac. They had cannon; but, to the great surprise of Gauvain, they made no use of them. This was due to the fact that the artillery officers had gone with the Marquis to reconnoitre Mont-Dol, and the peasants did not know how to manage the culverins and demi-culverins; but they riddled with balls the Blues who cannonaded them. The peasants answered the grape-shot by a volley of musketry. They now had the advantage of a shelter, having heaped up the drays, the carts, the baggage, and all the small casks that were lying about in the old market, thus improvising a high barricade, with openings through which they could pass their muskets, and from which they opened a deadly fire. So rapidly had they worked, that in a quarter of an hour the market presented an impregnable front.
Matters were beginning to look serious for Gauvain. The sudden transformation of a market into a fortress, and the peasants assembled in a solid mass within, was a condition of affairs which he had not anticipated. He had taken them by surprise, it is true; but he had not succeeded in routing them. He had dismounted, and holding his sword by the hilt, he stood with folded arms, gazing steadfastly into the gloom, his own figure distinctly revealed by the flame of the torch that lighted the battery, – a target for the men of the barricade; of which fact he took no heed, as he stood there lost in thought, while a shower of balls from the barricade fell around him.
He set his cannon against their rifles; and victory is ever on the side of the cannon-ball. He who has artillery is sure to win the day, and his well-manned battery gave him the advantage.
Suddenly a flash of lightning burst forth from the dark market; there came a report like a peal of thunder, and a bullet went crashing through a house over Gauvain’s head.
The barricade was paying him back in his own coin.
What was going on? This was a new development. The artillery was no longer confined to one side.
A second ball followed the first, embedding itself in the wall close to Gauvain; and a third ball knocked off his hat.
These balls were of a calibre so heavy that they must have been fired from a sixteen-pounder.
“They are aiming at you, commander,” cried the gunners, as they put out the torch; and Gauvain, still absorbed in his reverie, stooped to pick up his hat.
Some one was indeed aiming at Gauvain, and it was Lantenac.
The Marquis had just reached the barricade from the opposite side.
The Imânus hastened to meet him.
“Monseigneur, we have been taken by surprise.”
“I do not know.”
“Is the road to Dinan open?”
“I believe so.”
“We must begin to retreat.”
“We have done so. Many have already fled.”
“I am not speaking of flight, but of retreat. Why did you not use the artillery?”
“The men were beside themselves, and then the officers were absent.”
“I was to be here.”
“Monseigneur, I sent everything I could on to Fougères, – the women, the baggage, and all useless incumbrances; but what is to be done with the three little prisoners?”
“Do you mean the children?”
“They are our hostages. Send them on to the Tourgue.”
So saying, the Marquis started for the barricade, and directly after his arrival things took on another aspect. The barricade was not well constructed for artillery; there was room for but two cannon; the Marquis placed in position the two sixteen-pounders for which embrasures were made. As he was leaning on one of the cannon, watching the enemy’s battery through the embrasure, he caught sight of Gauvain.
“It is he!” he cried.
Then, taking the swab and the ramrod, he loaded the piece, adjusted the sight, and took aim.
Three times he aimed at Gauvain and missed him, but the third shot knocked off his hat.
“Bungler!” murmured Lantenac. “A little lower, and I should have had his head.”
Suddenly the torch went out, and he had only darkness before him.
“Well, let it go,” he said.
And turning to the peasant gunners, he exclaimed:
“Let them have the grape-shot!”
Gauvain for his part was also in deadly earnest. The situation had become a serious one since the development of this new phase of the conflict, and the barricade was now cannonading him. Who could tell how soon it might pass from the defensive to the offensive? The enemy numbered at least five thousand, even allowing for the dead and the fugitives, while he had no more than twelve hundred service-able men at his command. What would happen to the Republicans if the enemy should become aware of their limited number? Their rôles would soon be reversed; from playing the part of assailants, he would become the object of assault. If the barricade were to make a sortie, all would be lost.
What was to be done? It was out of the question to think of attacking the barricade in front; an attempt to capture it by main strength would be folly; twelve hundred men could not dislodge five thousand. Imperative as it was to make an end of it, knowing as he did that delay was fatal, still he realized that to force the enemy’s hand would be impossible. What was he to do?
Gauvain belonged to this neighborhood; he was familiar with the town, and knew that behind the old market, where the Vendeans were intrenched, was a labyrinth of narrow and crooked streets.
He turned to his lieutenant, the brave Captain Guéchamp, who afterwards became famous for clearing the forest of Concise, where Jean Chouan was born, and who prevented the capture of Bourgneuf by cutting the rebels off from the highway that led to the pond of La Chaine.
“Guéchamp,” said Gauvain, “I intrust you with the command. Fire as rapidly as possible. Riddle the barricade with cannon-balls, and keep them busy over yonder.”
“I understand,” said Guéchamp.
“Mass the whole column with their guns loaded, and hold them in readiness for an attack.”
He whispered a few words in Guéchamp’s ear.
“It shall be done,” said the latter.
Gauvain continued, –
“Are all our drummers ready?”
“We have nine. Keep two and give me seven.”
The seven drummers silently ranged themselves in front of Gauvain.
“Step forward, battalion of the Bonnet-Rouge!” exclaimed Gauvain.
Twelve soldiers, one of whom was a sergeant, stepped from the ranks.
“I called for the whole battalion,” said Gauvain.
“Here it is,” replied the sergeant.
“Are there but twelve?”
“Only twelve of us left.”
“Very well,” said Gauvain.
This sergeant was that very Radoub, the rough and kindly soldier who in the name of the battalion had adopted the three children found in the forest of La Saudraie.
It will be remarked that only half that battalion was massacred at Herbe-en-Pail, and Radoub, by good luck, was not among them.
A forage-wagon was standing near, and Gauvain pointed it out to the sergeant.
“Let your men weave ropes of straw and bind them around their muskets to deaden the noise when they clash against each other.”
A minute went by; the order was silently executed in the darkness.
“It is done,” said the sergeant.
“Take off your shoes, soldiers,” continued Gauvain.
“We have none,” replied the sergeant.
Including the drummers, they numbered nineteen men; Gauvain was the twentieth.
“Follow me, in single file!” cried Gauvain. “Let the drummers go before the battalion. You will command the battalion, sergeant!”
He placed himself at the head of this column, and while the cannonading still continued on both sides, these twenty men glided along like shadows and plunged into the deserted lanes.
Thus they proceeded for some time, skirting along the fronts of the houses. It seemed as though the whole town were dead; the citizens had taken refuge in their cellars. Every door was barred and every shutter closed. Not a light was to be seen anywhere.
But through this silence they still heard the awful din on the principal street: the cannonading went on; the Republican battery and the Royal barricade spit out their grape-shot with unabated fury.
After marching twenty minutes, winding in and out, Gauvain, who had led the way unerringly through this darkness, reached the end of a lane that led into the principal street; they were now, however, on the other side of the market.
The position was changed. On that side there was no intrenchment, – a common mistake of barricade builders; the market was open, and one could walk in under the pillars, where several baggage-wagons stood ready to leave. Gauvain and his nineteen men were in the presence of the five thousand Vendeans as before, only instead of facing them they found themselves in their rear.
Gauvain whispered to the sergeant; the straw was unwound from the muskets, and the twelve grenadiers ranged themselves in a line behind the corner of the lane, while the seven drummers, with uplifted drumstick, waited for the signal.
The artillery firing was intermittent, when suddenly, during the interval between two discharges, Gauvain raised his sword, and in a voice that rang out like a clarion upon the silence, exclaimed, –
“Two hundred men to the right, two hundred to the left, the rest in the centre.”
The drums beat and the twelve musket-shots were fired.
Then Gauvain uttered the formidable battle-cry of the Blues, –
The effect was wonderful.
All this crowd of peasants finding themselves assailed in the rear, imagined that another army had come up from behind. At the same time, on hearing the beating of the drums, the column which held the upper part of the street and was commanded by Guéchamp began to move, sounding the charge in its turn, and starting on the run, attacked the barricade; the peasants saw themselves between two fires. A panic magnifies, and at such moments a pistol-shot sounds like the report of a cannon; imagination distorts every sound, and the barking of a dog seems like the roar of a lion. Let us add, moreover, that the peasant takes fright as easily as a thatch catches fire, and as quickly as a burning thatch becomes a conflagration, a panic among peasants grows into a rout; and on this occasion the flight was beyond description.
In a few moments the market was deserted; the terrified lads scattered in all directions, and the officers were helpless. The Imânus killed two or three of the fugitives, but it was of no avail. Nothing could be heard save the cry, “Sauve qui peut,” and with the rapidity of a cloud driven onward by a hurricane, the entire army scattered through the streets as through the meshes of a sieve and vanished into the country.
Some fled towards Châteauneuf, some towards Plerguer, and others in the direction of Antrain.
The Marquis de Lantenac, who was the last man to leave the scene, spiked the guns with his own hands, and then quietly and calmly took his departure, saying as he went, –
“It is evident that the peasants cannot be depended upon to stand their ground. We need the English.”