Virtually everyone who has any interest in British history is aware of the military career of the Duke of Wellington. He is recorded as being the finest military commander produced by Britain and the books written regarding his military successes, his private life and his political career are numerous.
Throughout the Peninsular War (1808-1814), his most trusted General was Rowland Hill, later Lord Hill, a brilliant military tactician and battlefield commander in his own right. Overshadowed by the genius of Wellington, there is little record of Hill’s achievements and contributions towards the final success of the Allied armies in Spain and Portugal.
Born at Prees Hall in Shropshire, in 1772, Hill joined the army as an Ensign (Second Lieutenant) in 1790. Following service in Ireland and taking part in various military expeditions against the French in Europe and the Mediterranean, by 1808 he held the rank of Major General.
He first met Wellington in 1805 and the two men immediately became firm friends. On embarking for the Peninsular in 1808, Wellington wrote to him: “My dear Hill, I rejoice extremely at the prospect I have before me of serving again with you, and I hope we shall have more to do than we had on the last occasion on which we were together”. Wellington entrusted Hill with his own independent command of an army, despite there being more senior officers than him in the Peninsular. Wellington chose Hill for this task because he had shown himself to be a consistent and efficient commander. His leadership and control in the actions at the Douro and at the battle of Talavera were calm and effective, and his ability to adapt quickly to changing battle situations was very apparent. His other qualities as a commander emerged during these actions. He did not waste his troops and always had their well being at heart. He could utilise his resources carefully to achieve the maximum effectiveness in battle.
In 1809 Hill was promoted to Lieutenant General and his only period of absence from the campaign in the Peninsular was in 1811, when he returned to England to convalesce for a period of six months, after contracting a fever.
Hill’s singular victory at Arroyo des Molinos in 1811, where he surprised the army of the French General Girard causing the virtual annihilation of the French troops with very few Allied casualties, earned him the award of the Order of the Bath. In 1812 he attacked and captured the vital bridge and fortifications at Almaraz, destroying the bridge, the dockyard, two forts and all the French armaments and supplies in the vicinity. As a result of this action, communications between French armies were destroyed, again with minimum Allied losses.
At the end of 1812, after withdrawing from Madrid, Hill took command of the entire Allied army in the Peninsular. At this time Wellington had gone to Cadiz to discuss with the Spanish Cortes its offer to place all the Spanish forces under Wellington’s command. In 1813 the combined armies of Wellington and Hill advanced for the final efforts against the French which would drive them out of Spain.
Hill’s military skills at the battle of Vittoria were exemplary. He skilfully manoeuvred his troops to oppose the French attacks and maintained the initiative throughout the battle. 1814 saw his troops in the vanguard of the Allied army, pushing French the back through the Pyrenees into their own country. Crossing the River Nive, his Division of 14,000 troops faced Marshal Soult’s French force of 35,000 at St. Pierre. Behind Hill, the temporary bridge forming his communication with the main Allied army was swept away leaving him completely isolated. Seeing his army to be over twice the size of Hill’s force, Soult attacked at once. The two armies fought all morning, Hill moving his outnumbered force as on a chess board, covering and repulsing numerous attacks, often personally leading his men towards the enemy.
Seeing his centre near to collapse against overwhelming odds, Hill made the decisive move of the battle. Propping up his centre with every available man that could be spared, he smashed through the mass of Frenchmen, causing the well formed lines of troops to buckle and finally disintegrate and retreat in disorder. The author Fortescue wrote of Hill at St Pierre, “The British General, though his name is unknown outside the British Isles, was a commander indeed; while the French Marshal, though his fame is deservedly world wide, was no more than an admirable Chief of Staff”.
Hill fought on through the final battles of the Peninsular War until the Convention of Toulouse, 18th April 1814, which finally brought hostilities to an end. He then took command of the Allied army whilst Wellington was called to Paris.
Elevated to the peerage, Hill became Baron of Almaraz and Hawkstone (the family seat). Having returned home to Shropshire, it was not long before he was recalled to his duties once more. Napoleon had escaped from exile, landed in France and was once again threatening the peace. Hill arrived in Brussels in April 1815 where Wellington was organising an Allied army against the threat of the French invading the Low Countries. Hill was entrusted with the command of the 1st Allied Corps of around 10,00 men and at the ensuing and decisive battle of Waterloo, he was placed on Wellington’s important right flank, protecting the only route to safety for the Allied army to the northern ports, should Napoleon be victorious. At Waterloo, Hill’s three brothers were also present, acting in various operational roles.
In 1828, Hill was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, a position he held until August 1842 when he resigned due to ill health. He was elevated to the rank of Viscount, returning to his home where he died on 10th December 1842.
Teffeteller wrote of him, “writers frequently ignored his acceptance of broad responsibilities; his ability to marshal meagre resources to achieve major results; his development and execution of intricate operations which required vision, secrecy and rapid movement; his sangfroid under fire; and his ability to develop esprit de corps under depressing circumstances”.
Hill remains to this day one of the most distinguished field commanders in British military history.