VOLUME II
CHAPTER 49

PRISONERS AND MARTYRS
WOE BETIDE THE VANQUISHED

«PRISONERS OF WAR NO LONGER BELONG
TO THE POWER THEY FOUGHT FOR; THEY
ARE UNDER THE PROTECTION OF THE
HONOUR AND GENEROSITY OF THE
NATION WHICH DISARMED THEM.”
Napoleon

We chose to open our chapter with this picture of Napoleon as it bears all the signs of majesty, serenity and humanity which lie behind the portrait and is perfectly in keeping with the phrase quoted above, probably one of the finest he ever pronounced and one of those which sums him up perfectly.
Upon reading the following chapter one takes the full measure of the difference of views and feelings which separated Napoleon from all those kings or others who at the time and down to the present day seem bent on slandering his memory.


It would be useless to dwell upon Napoleon’s fit of rage when he received the despatch informing him of the capitulation of Baylen, as it can be imagined only too easily. When he received the news he was at the Prefecture of Bordeaux and preparing to visit the departments of the Vendée, in the west of France.

As for what was going on in Madrid, it was quite simply scandalous. In plain terms, Joseph had not simply left his capital on 29 July; he had fled without one minute asking himself whether in doing so he was not dishonouring the illustrious name which was his. We shall return to the subject of his disgraceful departure in another chapter.

We shall not linger on the subject of Dupont’s fate either as he was lucky enough to see France again, even if he was imprisoned in Paris before being released under police supervision. The Emperor was not punishing the inconceivable defeat so much as the serious military and diplomatic consequences which he knew only too well would inevitably follow. In 1812, Dupont would once again be arrested by order of Napoleon who was to have him court-martialled and he was to be discharged and incarcerated in the Fort of Joux in the Jura.

THE FALSE EXCUSE OF CORDOBA

So let us now turn our attention to hapless prisoners.


As we wrote in the previous chapter, the pretext invoked by the populace and the Spanish priests to martyrize those who had been defeated at Baylen was the sacking of Cordoba and particularly of the churches in the town.

And yet the knapsacks of the soldiers who were taken prisoners (the “inspection” of their packs made up article 15 of the convention of capitulation) contained no holy vessel or religious objects of any kind as none of the Spanish reports – and they would certainly not have failed to mention the fact refer to any discovery of this kind. Thus Dupont and his men may not have been paragons, but they were certainly not predators.

So the only possible explanation for the savage cruelty which was going to be inflicted on them was religious fanaticism.

Maurice de Tascher (1786-1813), Empress Josephine’s cousin, was taken prisoner
at Baylen

The clauses which make up the convention of the capitulation are worthy of our interest here.

Thus, article 7 stipulates that “the Spanish army was to assure the passage [of the French troops] against any hostile expedition, and article 14 that “the wounded and the sick would be treated with the utmost care, and transferred to France as soon as they were restored to health”.

As for article 6, it stated precisely that the French troops were to be embarked upon “vessels with Spanish crews, and transported to France to the port of Rochefort.”

Avoiding the large towns, the prisoners were led to Cadiz and during their march they not only endured a temperature which rose to 36°, they suffered martyrdom. They were insulted and spat upon – which was the least of their worries – but woe betide those who weakened by starvation, thirst and exhaustion could no longer follow the miserable prisoners convoy. When blows with rifle butts were no longer enough to “encourage” them to continue, they were abandoned along the way, and soon their howling followed by the cries of joy of their assassins could be heard, indicating that the knife of some religious maniac had just done its job.

COMPLETE ABASEMENT

Here, we are no longer in the field of conventional warfare of the time, when the word “honour” had a special significance. At least for the officers regardless of their nationality. But at the time Spain was a backward country under the sway of sordid fetishism and warfare was in the hands of monks and priests for whom the laws of war were of no account, and who considered them as no more than an obstacle to stupefying the masses and encouraging them to slaughter.

Thus, the Way of the Cross of these captives was sullied by complete abasement. And as always, their ordeal is described with considerable restraint but nevertheless with realism in the souvenirs and memoirs of the veterans of this war which was like no other.

The average Spaniard considered every French soldier was a thief and this was indeed true in some cases, but only some – and they watched any isolated man like a hawk. As one witness reported:

“When a hapless soldier satisfied a call of nature, [the Spanish] as soon as possible set about searching the dejections to seize any gold Napoleons [coins] which our soldiers had swallowed at the moment they were captured in the hope of saving them.”

Another soldier, who was a conscript of 1808, also wrote that the Spanish “imagined that there was gold in all our refuse [!], which they explored with great talent.”

And as for cruelty!

Woe betide any man who left the others in search of some water. The peasants fell upon them and to amuse their wives and children they tortured them with appalling cruelty: they drove scissors into their eyes and some even saw mule-drivers mix the blood of their victims with the wine in their flasks!

VESSELS OF DEGRADATION

As for their repatriation to the French port of Rochefort, the prisoners were interned on prison-ships off Cadiz. But we must, however, point out here that General Castaños had no share of responsibility in this breach of honour. The disgrace of this violation of the capitulation falls upon the junta of Seville, and on the [English] Admiralty whose repeated efforts were to prevent the French captives from returning home.

Upon their arrival at Puerto de Santa Maria, near Cadiz, the prisoners were attacked with such savage cruelty that the Spanish soldiers who escorted them had to open fire on their fellow countrymen. Otherwise not a single prisoner would have survived the murderous fury of the populace.

The prison-ships!

Moored offshore or on a river these ships of shame and misery which had once been warships and were now dismasted with iron grates covering the portholes cannot be dissociated from the two countries which used them to perfection thereby dishonouring themselves for ever: Spain and England.

This sinister alignment shows the hulks at Cadiz where thousands of French prisoners-of-war rotted aboard under absolutely appalling conditions. Among them were the men who had been captured at Baylen

Up to 1,800 men were sometimes crammed together aboard these floating dumps where they wallowed in filth for months and sometimes years (in this case, until 1814 for some of them), in the hulls of these foul maritime goals which were damp, without any sanitation, and almost without food. And the so-called food consisted only of a ration of bread and a bowl of rice or beans which the shortage of water which sometimes lasted for up to five days prevented them from cooking!

Aboard the “Horca”, which was anchored off Cadiz, the memoirs left by some of the survivors report that the prisoners were reduced to such a state of misery that they took to cannibalism – which was easy as mortality was high – and even worse that they had considered killing the weakest amongst them who had no hope of surviving anyway to nourish themselves.

This picture illustrates the successful escape from the prison-ship, “The Vieille Castille”, by a handful of French sailors who were led by Captain Grivel, whose portrait is shown in the inset

 

 

 

Only the act of compassion of one of the English admirals who was touched by their indescribable suffering and who had a longboat full of provisions sent to them aboard the ship saved them from committing this abominable act.

PRISONERS MASSACRED BY CANNON-SHOT

The “Argonaute” was another old hulk which had been transformed into a hospital prison-ship in other words a place where the men were just left to die – and which a doctor who volunteered to serve on board called, “the valley of tears”, which speaks volumes. One of those despicable monks who was more of an assassin than an ecclesiastic came aboard to visit every day. Under his rough homespun garments he carried a knife and, one day in 1811, this “wicked scoundrel” (and we quote) stabbed a military pharmacist as he was attempting to escape from his misfortune and suffering.

When the hapless passengers of the “Argonaute” who had endured the extremities of suffering, finally cut the moorings in an attempt to drift towards the coast, the captain of an English vessel ordered a cannonade without even concerning himself with the wounded or the sick. One witness reported:

“We could not walk a step without stepping in blood or upon the scattered limbs of the prisoners who had been mangled by the cannon fire…Struck by mortal shots, the victims fell and their bodies were then torn to shreds by more cannon balls which ploughed through the piles of bodies…”

THE ISLET OF DESTITUTION



Some of the men who were victims of the treachery of the junta of Seville were transferred from the prison-ships to an arid barren rock lying south in the archipelago of the Balearic Islands: Cabrera (see left and far south). The first to arrive here were the defeated men of Baylen, and within a few months they were little more than walking corpses, naked and burnt by the torrid sun from which there was no shelter and nothing with which to build anything and, wrote one survivor, they were decimated, “by diseases which were unknown and baffled the doctors and thus made any form of treatment useless.”

Supplies arrived by dinghy, but very often the Spanish authorities “forgot” the guests at Cabrera, and this forgetfulness sometimes lasted for up to two weeks, as in February 1809. The prisoners had to resort to eating lizards which they dried and then used to make a soup and as one table-companion later reported “the sight of this and the smell made your stomach heave”.

The “welcoming” Island of Cabrera where some
soldiers were left to stagnate until 1814. Among
them was a vélite in the Imperial Guard,
François-Fréderic Billon (1784-1865)

But in order to give an idea of the extremity of distress which was endured on Cabrera, we must quote this anecdote which was reported by one of the deported men who was a corporal in the grenadiers.

This anecdote which cannot be described as anything but repulsive, throws a real and cruel light on the way in which the Spanish (and as we shall see further on, the English) took pleasure in degrading those who had fallen into their hands as a result of the fortunes of war.

One day an English ship called into the port of Cabrera.

The crew went ashore to have the pleasure of looking at some of Napoleon’s soldiers who had finally been defeated. Among the passengers there was a civilian who had obviously had such a copious meal on board that he…

Let us read the rest:

“His Lordship… who was either suffocating from the fresh air or else had gorged himself with too much meat and strong drink, threw up a large quantity of food before us and the smell was enough to make your stomach heave. Well, the wretched prisoner fell upon this like a lion on its prey and he ate everything down to the very last scrap which his lordship had brought up.”

“THE SHAME OF ENGLAND”

Not unexpectedly, our English “friends” of the time had no reason to envy their Spanish allies.

One of the “resorts” French soldiers were assigned to was Portsmouth and the port was full of these disgraceful hulks. Taken prisoner in 1806, one naval officer and future admiral called Bonnefoux remained locked up there for five years.

When he wrote his memoirs in 1835, he was still haunted by “the memory of these abominable establishments which were the shame of England.”


As in Cadiz, the English prison hulks in Portsmouth were aligned.
The climate made the life of the captives aboard even harder.

To forget their misery the prisoners made many objects of fine craftsmanship during their captivity on board the hulks. This ship is an example and can be found on website www.geocities.com/prisonhulk/pontons1/html

The only real difference between an English hulk and its equivalent in Cadiz was the climate. Here, the men were freezing cold all day from the icy cold, damp draughts. At night the portholes were closed, and it was the same in summer. Thus, in the morning when the English sailors opened the trap-door which closed the prisoners’ goal, Bonnefoux relates that he saw some of them literally fall over backwards from shock at the stench which escaped from the trap.

Those who attempted to escape were punished by ten days of black hole, an expression which described a sort of cell down in the hold of the ship which measured six feet (high, wide and long).

When they were released, they were exhausted, crawling with vermin and no more than walking corpses. Our witness, Bonnefoux, made the following comment:

“On this subject we may well ask ourselves whether England has not lowered herself below the level of the cruellest nations which have dishonoured humanity.”

A good question.

AND FRANCE UNDER NAPOLEON?

When one of the French survivors of the prison-ships in Cadiz was finally set free and returned to France, he saw a great many Spanish prisoners-of-war living well and enjoying a meal at an inn as he passed through the town of Angoulême. For him, who had experienced the “sordid cruelty of the populace” and of the “monastic leprosy” it was a vision which understandably filled him with legitimate disgust, which he described very well in the following extract from his memoirs:

“What a contrast there was between the chorus of praise and blessings that these prisoners addressed France and the screams of pain and death, the howls of despair which rose from the hulks in Cadiz! In our country, Spanish captives were treated with great consideration; our compatriots showed them the interest which was due to their misfortune. Free in our towns, the soldiers worked in our workshops, in our manufactories, the officers translated the masterpieces of our literature to enrich their native country which had been delivered from the yoke of the Inquisition. The monks who had ended up in France were regarded as martyrs by the mothers of those whom they had had assassinated at Valencia, at Lebrija, at Trujillo…

And this survivor does not, of course, forget England:

Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783-1857), adventurer, sailor (who served under the famous French privateer, Surcouf), painter and writer. He was taken prisoner in 1806 while serving on the frigate, “La Belle Poule”. He remained a captive on English prison-ships for nine years and later wrote a book on his sinister experience entitled, Mes Pontons, Souvenirs d’une captivité de neuf années en Angleterre (“My prison-ships, Souvenirs of nine years of captivity in England”). The book gives an equitable idea of the ignominy of the English towards French soldiers at the time which only reinforces our disgust and anger when we see how they keep portraying the Emperor. The picture of Portsmouth reproduced higher up is one of Garneray’s many paintings. His work included 141 paintings, 176 etchings and 22 water-colours.

“But don’t imagine that these frightful maltreatments which are enough to make human nature shudder are only encountered in countries which are half savage like Spain and Portugal.

The English, our neighbours, our rivals in civilisation and industry, have in this respect achieved a degree of perfection that the Spanish have only endeavoured to imitate with little ability. The hulks in Plymouth were places of torture, tombs which were a hundred times more dangerous than the floating prisons in Cadiz of which I have given an appalling but honest description. I thought I had endured the extremities of human suffering, my comrades in England suffered much more than I did.”


Finally, to end our chapter we invite you to reread and to meditate on Napoleon’s phrase which we quoted at the beginning of this chapter and which is an epithet of this good, upright man.

To be continued…