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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Erich Raspe (1736–1794)

The Siege of Gibraltar

From “Adventures of Baron Münchausen”

DURING the late siege of Gibraltar I went with a provision fleet, under Lord Rodney’s command, to see my old friend General Elliot, who has, by his distinguished defense of that place, won laurels that can never fade. After the usual joy which generally attends the meeting of old friends had subsided, I went to examine the state of the garrison and view the operations of the enemy, for which purpose the general accompanied me. I had brought a most excellent refracting telescope with me from London, purchased of Dollond, by the help of which I found the enemy were going to discharge a thirty-six-pounder at the spot where we stood. I told the general what they were about. He looked through the glass also, and found my conjectures right. I immediately, by his permission, ordered a forty-eight-pounder to be brought from a neighboring battery, which I placed with so much exactness (having long studied the art of gunnery) that I was sure of my mark.

I continued watching the enemy till I saw the match placed at the touch-hole of their piece. At that very instant I gave the signal for our gun to be fired also.

About midway between the two pieces of cannon the balls struck each other with amazing force, and the effect was astonishing! The enemy’s ball recoiled back with such violence as to kill the man who had discharged it, by carrying his head fairly off, with sixteen others which it met with in its progress to the Barbary coast, where its force, after passing through three masts of vessels that then lay in a line behind each other in the harbor, was so much spent, that it only broke its way through the roof of a poor laborer’s hut about two hundred yards inland, and destroyed a few teeth an old woman had left, who lay asleep on her back with her mouth open. The ball lodged in her throat. Her husband soon after came home and endeavored to extract it; but finding that impracticable, by the assistance of a rammer he forced it into her stomach. Our ball did excellent service; for it not only repelled the other in the manner just described, but, proceeding as I intended it should, it dismounted the very piece of cannon that had just been employed against us, and forced it into the hold of the ship, where it fell with so much force as to break its way through the bottom. The ship immediately filled and sank, with above a thousand Spanish sailors on board, besides a considerable number of soldiers. This, to be sure, was a most extraordinary exploit. I will not, however, take the whole merit to myself; my judgment was the principal engine, but chance assisted me a little; for I afterward found that the man who charged our forty-eight-pounder put in, by mistake, a double quantity of powder, else we could never have succeeded so much beyond all expectation, especially in repelling the enemy’s ball.

General Elliot would have given me a commission for this singular piece of service; but I declined everything, except his thanks, which I received at a crowded table of officers at supper on the evening of that very day.

As I am very partial to the English, who are beyond all doubt a brave people, I determined not to take my leave of the garrison till I had rendered them another piece of service, and in about three weeks an opportunity presented itself. I dressed myself in the habit of a Romish priest, and at about one o’clock in the morning stole out of the garrison, passed the enemy’s lines, and arrived in the middle of their camp, where I entered the tent in which the Prince d’Artois was, with the commander-in-chief and several other officers, in deep council, concerting a plan to storm the fortress next morning. My disguise was my protection. I was allowed to remain there, hearing everything that passed, till they went to their several beds. When I found the whole camp, and even the sentinels, were wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, I began my work, which was that of dismounting all their cannon (above three hundred pieces), from forty-eight- to twenty-four-pounders, and throwing them three leagues into the sea. Having no assistance, I found this the hardest task I ever undertook, except swimming to the opposite shore with the famous Turkish piece of ordnance described by Baron de Tott in his Memoirs. I then piled all the carriages together in the center of the camp, which, to prevent the noise of the wheels being heard, I carried in pairs under my arms; and a noble appearance they made, as high at least as the rock of Gibraltar. I then produced a spark by striking a flint stone, situated twenty feet from the ground (in an old wall built by the Moors when they invaded Spain), with the breech of an iron eight-and-forty-pounder, and so set fire to the whole pile. I forgot to inform you that I threw all their ammunition wagons upon the top.

Before I applied the lighted match I had laid the combustibles at the bottom so judiciously, that the whole was in a blaze in a moment. To prevent suspicion, I was one of the first to express my surprise. The whole camp was, as you may imagine, petrified with astonishment. The general conclusion was that the sentinels had been bribed, and that seven or eight regiments of the garrison had been employed in this horrid destruction of their artillery. Mr. Drinkwater, in his account of this famous siege, mentions the enemy sustaining a great loss by a fire which happened in their camp, but never knew the cause. How should he? I never divulged it before (though I alone saved Gibraltar by this night’s business), not even to General Elliot. The Count d’Artois and all his attendants ran away in their fright, and never stopped on the road till they reached Paris, which they did in about a fortnight. This dreadful conflagration had such an effect upon them that they were incapable of taking the least refreshment for three months after, but, chameleon-like, lived upon air.

If any gentleman says he doubts the truth of this story, I will fine him a gallon of brandy, and make him drink it at one draft.