Background information:

Napoleon Bonaparte, had been crowned Emperor in 1804 and was fast becoming master of Europe. His continental victories at Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Auerstadt had horrified people in Britain. Prime Minister William Pitt had been prosecuting the war in his own way, financing coalitions and promoting strong foreign trade. The up and coming young general, Arthur Wellesley, had secured much of India and Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy had acquired control of the high seas with the decisive victory at Trafalgar (1805).

Two small bright spots in the relatively unsuccessful year of 1806 were the capture of Cape Town from the Dutch and the rare land victory over the French at Maida in Italy. Other foreign failures darkened the horizon for Britain – the unsuccessful expeditions to the Rio Plata (1806/7) and Egypt (1807) were added to the unpopular, if necessary, hijacking of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen.

After Pitt’s death, a weak government ironically named the “Ministry of all the Talents” lasted only a short while. Then the ailing 3rd Duke of Portland took over the reins of a Tory government. Frustrated in his attempts to blockade Britain, Bonaparte tried a more rigorous system of strangling our trade by introducing the Continental System, aimed at stifling the flow of goods between Britain and Europe.

Britain’s oldest ally, a continual thorn in Bonaparte’s side, was Portugal. The Portuguese refused to stop trading with Britain, so the emperor decided he would deal with them

With Spanish co-operation, a French force of around 25,000 men under Marshal Junot marched towards the Portuguese capital. Junot’s force arrived at Lisbon, exhausted and depleted, in late autumn of 1807, but just failed to stop the Portuguese Prince Regent and the royal family being carried off to Brazil by the Royal Navy.

The Spanish royal family – Charles IV and his son, the future Ferdinand VII, were then lured out of Spain and placed under house arrest in France. King Joseph Bonaparte (now placed on the throne of Spain by his brother Napoleon) and General Murat provoked violent unrest in Spain. A Spanish victory over the French General Dupont at Baylen and the heroic defence of Zaragossa fired the Spanish resentment of French occupation. But the lack of cohesion among the many Spanish juntas, coupled with the ill-equipped and poorly led Spanish armies, were to become major factors in the difficulties endured by Sir Arthur Wellesley and Sir John Moore in 1808/9.

Pleas for help from civic leaders and the clergy in Portugal moved the British government to send help – this was also an opportunity to get a foothold on mainland Europe by landing on the soil of a committed ally.

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1808 – the involvement begins

A force of 13,500 men, initially under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, landed at Mondego Bay, north of Lisbon, on the 1st August 1808 – British involvement in the war against Bonaparte in the Iberian Peninsula had commenced.

Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple, senior officers sent to keep an eye on young Wellesley, proved overcautious when the talented general gained two victories against the French forces under General Delaborde, pushing the French off their defensive lines on a hilltop at Roliça on the 17th August and sending them reeling from the slopes at Vimeiro on the 25th August.

Unfortunately, Wellesley was not allowed to follow up and push on to Lisbon. A dishonourable armistice was then signed near the town of Cintra, north of Lisbon. Junot’s thoroughly defeated force, with arms and booty, was taken home to France in British warships!

In England the Convention of Cintra caused a great scandal. Burrard, Dalrymple and Wellesley – the latter an unwilling signatory to the treaty – were recalled to Horse Guards to face an enquiry. Wellesley was exonerated and would later return in 1809 to pursue the war in the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, Sir John Moore, an experienced Scots general who had done much to modernise the British army, took command in Portugal. Banking on co-operation from the Spanish, Moore and his army of around 20,000 men planned to join with another force dispatched from Britain of around 14,000 men under another tough, fighting general, Sir David Baird.

Britain’s well trained, if rather small, army would now number around 34,000 bayonets and sabres. Alone, this force would have its work cut out, but with zealous and proficient help from their Spanish allies, they could be more than a match for King Joseph’s armies. Moore was to march to Salamanca from Lisbon while Baird would join him from Corunna. Anticipating poor roads, Moore took a risk and sent his artillery column to march separately from his main force, hoping the whole army could unite before they met the French.

Napoleon had become intensely irritated by the British presence in the Peninsula and by Spain’s resistance to French occupation. He brought a large army of veterans over the Pyrenees to put down the Spanish and deal with the British menace in Portugal.

Unaware of each other’s positions or intentions, Moore’s army slogged its way to Salamanca, while Napoleon marched on Madrid. Moore arrived on the 13th November, only to learn that Napoleon was a mere seventy miles away, at Valladolid.

Further Spanish defeats and false assurances of assistance had done little to boost Moore’s enthusiasm for taking the offensive, but he believed honour demanded that he should try to divert Bonaparte from Portugal and southern Spain.

He marched north towards Sahagun, planning to attack Marshal Soult’s isolated force of around 10,000 men, thus persuading Napoleon to come to the marshal’s aid. This would take the pressure off southern Spain. But Napoleon wasn’t master of Europe by accident. With 40,000 men had struggled across the rugged Guadarrama mountain range and was racing towards the British.

Moore had to accept that he could not risk the annihilation of Britain’s one and only field army, and on the 24th December 1808 he decided to march for the ports of Vigo or Corunna and the opportunity to sail for home. The men, anticipating a crack at Soult’s French, were furious – rage rapidly turning to sulky indiscipline. The infamous retreat to Corunna had begun.

The main body of Moore’s army moved 40 miles south west to cross the River Esla near Benavente. As the troops left Sahagun, a successful British cavalry action cheered the men a little. But it was horribly cold, they were hungry, and they were retreating.

Lord Paget’s 10th and 18th Hussars then mounted a further spirited cavalry action across the Esla, witnessed by Napoleon himself. The famous French surgeon, Jean Larrey, complained at the 70 severe sabre slashes he had to treat, inflicted by zealous British horsemen.

By an unhappy chance, 10,000 famished and ragged Spanish soldiers and 25,000 redcoats staggered into Astorga at the same time. Typhus raged and the excesses of demoralised, starving and ill-clad soldiers prevailed.

The famous Light Brigade, under Robert “Black Bob” Craufurd was sent, somewhat controversially, west to Vigo in order to lighten the burden of Moore’s retreat. Soult and Napoleon, now with 70,000 men, began an arduous pursuit. Whenever cornered, the men of the allied rearguard turned and bared their teeth with much spirit, they repeatedly holding their pursuers at bay.

Most villages the retreating army entered were hostile or empty of people, although wine stocks were usually found, causing many men an early death by freezing in a drunken stupor or by being too out of it to prevent being struck down by French troopers. Many women and children, unwisely allowed by officers to accompany their men, suffered horribly on the grim march north and west, dying or faring badly from frostbite, disease and starvation.

Exhortation and punishment failed to maintain order in some battalions and Moore pushed his men too hard. A rearguard action at Caçabellos, where rifleman Plunkett dispatched General Colbert, temporarily raised morale.

The 60 miles from Villafranca to Lugo – the March of Death – was extremely hard; between Astorga and Lugo around 2,000 men were lost. There were no effective base hospitals, so the wounded were often abandoned. About half of Moore’s force had no proper footwear. Suffering the ravages of starvation, typhus and just sheer exhaustion, they finally staggered into the town of Corunna on the 11th January 1809. In the town there were food supplies, ammunition – and shoes!

But there were no ships.

Napoleon, finding better things to do, was long gone to Paris. But Marshal Soult was coming up with the French army. Moore had no choice but to fight. The Battle of Corunna, contested not far outside the town walls, was a victory for the British, knocking back the enemy and allowing them to board their ships and sail home to England – a similar result to Dunkirk in 1940.

But the victory was won at a cost – the gallant Sir John Moore was killed. He was hastily buried in the frozen ground under the ramparts. The ragamuffin redcoats were gone from Spain. The British had been thrown out of the Peninsula, all bar a small force still in Lisbon.

So…

In 1808, two minor but significant victories by the British had impressed the French army. The Convention at Cintra and then the retreat to Corunna and Vigo, however, were far less positive and the Spanish too, having been defeated in several pitched battles, had lost the momentum of Baylen and Zaragossa. There was a long, hard journey ahead for the allies, if they planned to remove the French from the Peninsula.

Peter Youds

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Peter Youds’ is the author of the Ties of Blood series of novels, and his first book was Alone with Glory. For more information go to: http://www.bicorn.co.uk