The Storming of the Rock

Translated from the French, with an Introduction and Notes
by Grove Koger

Prosper Mérimée’s “L’Enlèvement de la redoute,” usually translated as “The Taking [or Storming] of the Redoubt,” appeared in the Revue Française for September-October 1829. Various sources for this brief tale have been suggested,[1] but, as my discovery in 2009 of an untitled manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale makes clear, we must now reassess the tale’s place in Mérimée’s oeuvre.

We know that Mérimée had become interested in magic and the supernatural as early as 1819, but we now realize that his interests extended as well to the latest advances in science and to the subgenre of science fiction that would come to be known as the “alternate history.”[2] He was also fascinated by hoaxes, and with the help of fellow student J.J. Ampère translated the writings of supposed Gaelic bard “Ossian.” He went on to perpetrate two more hoaxes of his own, Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul (1825) and La Guzla (1827), the latter supposedly translated from the Illyrian and an obvious anagram of Gazul.

Spain held a lifelong fascination for Mérimée. He visited the country five times between 1830 and 1863, on his first trip meeting the Countess of Montijo, the source for the short novel that he would publish fifteen years later as Carmen. There are numerous reasons as well for Mérimée to have been interested in England and its stronghold of Gibraltar. His mother’s family had lived for some time in England, and Mérimée himself would visit England repeatedly. More significantly still, in his guise as translator Joseph L’Estrange, Mérimée claimed to have met Clara Gazul in Gibraltar. It was to this English bastion, a heavily fortified peninsula on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, that Spain laid siege in 1779. She enjoyed the intermittent support of her ally France, and in 1782 the two countries launched a massive assault upon it.

It was at this time, while reading about what is remembered today as the Great Siege,[3] that young inventor Joseph-Michel Montgolfier daydreamed of taking the fortress by air. With the help of his brother Jacques-Étienne, Joseph-Michel would shortly pioneer manned flight by hot air balloon, but by then the siege by Spanish and French forces had been lifted and English control of Gibraltar confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles of 1783. However, fear of just such an attack continued to preoccupy the English for years to come.[4]

As we now realize, Mérimée also envisioned such an attack near the beginning of his literary career. We may conjecture that the many references to Gibraltar in Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul and Carmen are souvenirs of that bracing period.

The Storming of the Rock[5]

A friend of mine, a soldier who succumbed to fever a few years ago in Greece, told me the story of his first military engagement. I was so impressed by his account of the capture of Gibraltar that I wrote it down as follows:

I joined the regiment in the evening of the fourth of September. The colonel was in camp, and received me rather gruffly. However, when he had read my recommendation from General B——, his manner changed and he exchanged a few courteous words with me.

He presented me to my captain, just returned from a reconnaissance. This man, whom I hardly got to know, was tall and dark and cursed with a repellent aspect. His weak voice, which I was later told he owed to a bullet wound at St. Malo,[6] contrasted strongly with his great stature. He had begun as a private and had won his epaulettes and his cross in battle.

Upon being informed that I was fresh from school at Fontainebleau, he remarked wryly, “My lieutenant died yesterday.”

I took his remark to mean: “Would that you were capable of taking his place!”

I would have liked to reply but restrained myself.

The rising moon was large, as it usually is upon rising, but that evening it looked gigantic to me. It bathed the Rock,[7] which lay about four gunshots from our bivouac, in a blood-red glow.

An old veteran standing beside me remarked: “It is very red, a sign that it will cost us dearly to take the Rock!”

Superstitious as I am, the soldier’s remark affected me deeply. As I could not sleep, I walked about for some time, observing the long line of camp-fires arrayed along the Inundation[8] just out of range of the enemy.

When the crisp night air had cooled my blood I returned to camp, wrapped myself in my cloak beside the fire, and tried to sleep. But the blessed state I longed for would not come. My thoughts turned gloomy. I had not, I said to myself, a single friend among the ten thousand men assembled around me. If I were wounded I would be dragged to a hospital and cut up by ignorant surgeons. The terrible stories I had heard of such operations passed through my mind. Instinctively I found myself arranging my handkerchief and wallet, which I kept in my breast pocket, as a cuirass.

Tired as I was, I was aroused again and again by my own sinister thoughts. Yet when they beat reveille the next morning I had been fast asleep. Our lines were drawn up, the roll was called, and we stacked our arms. The sun stood in a clear sky on the horizon. We appeared to have a quiet day before us.

But an aide-de-camp appeared shortly afterward with orders, and we gathered up our arms again. After confirming that the Devil’s Tower[9] on our left flank was deserted, our skirmishers spread out before the lagoon. We followed them slowly, and after a few minutes saw the English prepare to fire from behind their earthworks.

It was at this point that friend and foe alike became aware of a remarkable armada behind us. Three strangely rigged ships floated in the air like falcons hovering over their quarry. Our commander quickly reassured us, explaining that these ships’ sails were buoyed by Montgolfier gas[10] and that they would put down our men behind the English lines. And indeed they were not hovering after all but soon passed high above us, strangely silent but for the faint cheers of our men as they leaned over the gunwales. The enemy was as awestruck as we were, and after a few poorly aimed shots at the air ships began to fall back.

My captain scrutinized me closely, at which I ran my hand over my budding mustache nonchalantly. I was not at all frightened, but concerned that I would appear to be. I was to be under fire at last, but I realized that I was at ease. Gazing upward again at the strange ships, I thought of the pleasure I would have at describing the engagement in the salons.

As he passed by, the colonel said to me, “You are about to see some remarkable action.”

As if in response to his words, an English shell knocked off my shako and struck a man nearby, killing him.

“Congratulation!” said my captain, as I replaced my shako. “You are safe for the rest of the day.”

I knew the military superstition that holds that the axiom, Non bis in idem,[11] applies as regularly on the battlefield as it does in the courts.

“What a rude way to force one to raise one’s hat!” I said as lightly as I could. Wretched as it was, this witticism was received all round with enthusiasm.

“You will get nothing worse,” prophesied the captain. “And you will lead a company before the day is out, for I sense that my command is near its end. Every time I have been wounded the officer below me was grazed by a spent ball. And all their names,” he lowered his voice at this point, “all their names began with M.”[12]

I was profoundly impressed by these words, but could think of no good response. As a conscript I knew that I dare not confide my feelings to anyone.

In the meantime nearly a dozen more air ships had passed over us and the English had nearly ceased firing. Behind us four guns were being hauled into position. Thereupon we quit our sheltered position to march upon the great Rock.

There were three battalions in our regiment. The first was ordered to advance along the narrow track past the Inundation, while the other two were to fire steadily upon the English forces. I was in the second.

The English seemed to have rallied, and we drew several volleys of musketry, which did little damage to our ranks. Surprised by the whistle of the bullets, I kept turning my head. My comrades were more familiar with that sound than I, and they made several jokes at my expense.

“All in all,” I said to myself, “a battle isn’t such a terrible thing!”

We were then approaching the foot of the Rock, and as I raised my eyes, an unforgettable spectacle presented itself. The smoke of the enemy’s guns hung like a canopy over the ground. Above it, however, the Rock was perfectly visible as it rose dramatically into the morning sky.

Several of our flying ships had sailed past the Lion’s head,[13] but another three dozen or so had lowered their sails and anchored on the Rock’s upper slopes.[14] I watched our men climb down the hulls and begin to fire. Although I could see the tiny puffs of smoke from their guns, the distance was so great that I could not hear them.

A glance across the water told me that the ships of our naval fleet were now loading troops in longboats, but they were not firing their cannon for fear of hitting our men on the Rock.

“The dance is about to begin!” cried my captain excitedly, likewise absorbed in the double spectacle.

Those were his last words.

As I turned to my left, I saw a man standing beside a cannon and holding a fuse.

Closing my eyes, I heard an appalling crash, then shrieks and groans. I opened my eyes, surprised to find myself alive. I was surrounded by dead and dying. My captain lay at my feet, his head shattered by a cannon ball. His blood saturated my uniform. Of my company only six men and I remained standing.

There was a moment of stupefaction. The colonel, raising his hat on the point of his sword, was the first to scale the earthworks, shouting “Vive le Roi!”[15] We followed him instantly.

What happened next I remember only dimly. We fought our way through the scrub that covered the slopes, amid smoke so dense that we could not see each other. I must have struck, for my sabre was bloody. At last I heard shouts of “Victory!” As the wind blew the smoke out to sea, I saw that the ground around me was littered with corpses. The English guns were covered with them. The sound of intermittent firing reached us from the settlement far below,[16] while clusters of our men stood about before me, some loading their muskets, others wiping their sabres. Among them several hundred English prisoners huddled despondently. More of our men were approaching us from the upper slopes, but the wind whipped away the sound of their voices.

Covered with blood, the colonel lay on a shattered caisson above the ravine. Soldiers bustled around him as I approached.

“Where is the senior captain?” I heard him ask a sergeant. In turn the sergeant shrugged his shoulders expressively.

“And the senior lieutenant?”

Turning to me, the sergeant answered matter-of-factly, “This gentleman here, who arrived last night.”

The colonel smiled bitterly.

“Monsieur,” he addressed me, “the command is yours. Put the men to order.”

“Colonel,” I said, hesitating. “Are you badly wounded?”

“Finished, my boy, finished! But the Rock is ours!”[17]

Previously published in Scareship no. 8 (Dec. 2012) and Mulberry Fork Review 3.2 (July 2015).

[1] The standard explanation has been that the work is based on an account of the capture of the Russian redoubt of Chevardino by Napoleon’s forces in 1812. 

[2] See, e.g., Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Reconfiguring Historical Time (Kent: Kent State UP, 2001).

[3] For details of the actual series of events, see James Falkner, Fire over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-1783 (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military, 2009).

[4] In 1784, for example, a caricature entitled “Montgolfier in the Clouds, Constructing Air Balloons for the Grande Monarque” appeared in England and was circulated widely.

[5] I have taken the liberty of assigning the MS this title. Aside from references to the material dealing specifically with Gibraltar and its environs, Mérimée’s wording in the opening pages of the tale is similar, but not identical, to that of “L’Enlèvement de la redoute.”

[6] The English launched a largely unsuccessful amphibious attack near St. Malo in 1758.

[7] That is, the Rock of Gibraltar.

[8] A lagoon dug in 1704 and later widened and deepened. It left only a narrow path of flat land by which the peninsula could be approached.

[9] An aged watch tower, since destroyed.

[10] The Montgolfier brothers believed that they had discovered a new gas, but of course the gas in question was heated air, as would eventually be determined by scientists.

[11] Literally, “Not twice for the same.”

[12] Mérimée is presumably thinking of himself in the narrator’s role.

[13] Due to its distinctive profile, Gibraltar was known among the English as the Lion Couchant. The latter term is common in heraldry and means “lying down with the head raised.”

[14] Mérimée was either ignorant of the actual workings of a hot air balloon, or, more likely, is describing the events as they would have been interpreted by an individual of the late eighteenth century.

[15] Presumably Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792).

[16] Gibraltar’s houses and garrison stretch along the base of the Rock close to the level of the sea.

[17] Thus concludes my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale. Professor A.-M. le Deluge of the Université de Paris has raised several objections to the manuscript’s authenticity, suggesting that it was planted in the Bibliothèque nationale by an errant scholar, or “érudit errant” to use his colorful phrase, as part of a modern hoax akin to those in which Mérimée himself once indulged. I will dispose handily of these objections in a forthcoming issue of Yale French Studies, and will further provide evidence that Jules Verne’s chance discovery of the manuscript in 1861 may have inspired him to write his first novel, Cinq semaines en ballon (1863). Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Prosper Mérimée was a French Romantic author most famous for the novella Carmen.

Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure (Scarecrow Press, 2002) and Assistant Editor of Art Patron Magazine and Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal. He blogs at