THE PART PLAYED BY THE 42ND IN THE CORUNNA CAMPAIGN 1808-1809
Towards the end of 1807 Napoleon's power was at its height. He dominated the landmass of Europe and only Great Britain remained, following her victory at Trafalgar, as his one serious opponent. The Berlin Decrees of 1806 had closed all Continental ports to British ships. But for total victory to be achieved Napoleon had to break British Naval power and this could only be done by closing off all access points to the Mediterranean Sea.
To this end it was going to be necessary to advance through Spain to Gibraltar and the Coast of N. Africa. The plan of action began in August 1807 when Napoleon demanded that Portugal obeyed the Berlin Decrees. Naturally enough the Portuguese protested against this request.
By the secret treaty of Fontainebleau, October 27th 1807, Spain was coerced into agreeing to a joint invasion of Portugal. 30,000 French troops had already crossed into Spain a week earlier under General Junot. Prince John, the Portuguese Regent, fled to Brazil escorted by British warships, and Lisbon was occupied.
Napoleon now sent 90,000 crack troops into Spain commanded by Senior Marshals of his army. Charles IV of Spain was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Ferdinand who was eventually replaced by Napoleon’s brother Joseph.
This sequence of events led to a popular uprising of the Spanish people whose provisional governments appealed in turn to Britain for aid.
On 7th August 1808 a British Army landed in the vicinity of Mondego Bay about 100 miles north of Lisbon. Two days later the army under Sir Arthur Wellesley was on the way to Leiria. However, Sir Arthur had received dispatches, which informed him that the overall command of the expeditionary force was to be in the hands of Sir Hew Dalrymple with Sir Harry Burrard as his deputy.
By August 20th Sir Arthur Wellesley was facing the French in the vicinity of Vimiero. Sir Harry Burrard had arrived in the Maceira Estuary and met Sir Arthur abroad the sloop "Brazen". The latter failed in his attempt to get permission to advance. But the matter was resolved when the French moved forward during the night. The next day their columns were broken on the British lines at Vimiero.
Although Wellesley now wanted to march on Lisbon affairs were bought to a conclusion by the convention of Cintra. Under this treaty the French troops were to be evacuated and taken home in British ships along with all their stores.
The treaty created a furore in Britain and Portugal. Only Sir John Moore who had landed at Mondego Bay on August 21st escaped criticism and became C in C of the Army.
Moore's instructions were to leave a garrison in Portugal and then advance into Spain with 20,000 men. Between 15-17,000 more were being sent out to Corunna under Sir David Baird and Moore would have to effect a junction of the troops at a point in the heart of Spain before engaging the French.
The obvious meeting-point for Moore's infantry, artillery, and Baird's Corps would be Valladolid, Medina de Rio Seco or Benavente.
ARRIVAL OF THE 42ND
The 42nd were garrisoned at Gibraltar and set sail for Lisbon on August 14th 1808. Stewart of Garth puts the strength of the battalion at 626. However, this is probably an underestimate as in Napier the adjutant general’s returns give a figure of 943. Oman reinforces this with his total of 918 for October 1808 and 880 for Dec 13th 1808. Finally the Anonymous Private's Narrative of the 42nd in the Peninsular war states that numbers were around 1000.
He describes the 42nd having set sail from the rock with a good wind which meant that Cadiz was soon sighted. They were then becalmed for about eight days. "We were thence 16 days in going to the mouth of the Tagus. We lay to till next day. Our vessels cruised about for two days and we then got orders to land at Fort Cascaes about two miles from the mouth of the Tagus".
Under article 12 of the Convention of Cintra the forts of St Julian, Bugio and Cascaes, were to be occupied by British Troops. Napier refers to the fact that "A British Flag was flying on the forts at the mouth of the Tagus for the 3rd (Buffs) and 42nd Regiments under the Command of Major General Beresford having landed and taken possession of them in virtue of the convention".
The historian of the British Army, Fortescue, adds: "Accordingly on the 2nd of September the forts on the Tagus were occupied by the Buffs and the 42nd who were landed by Admiral Cotton for that purpose," and Napier records:"On the 2nd of September HQ were established at Oyeras: the right of the army occupied the forts at the mouth of the river, the left rested upon the Heights of Bellas."
Moore in his diary states that the French posts were withdrawn during the night of September 1st/2nd and "yesterday (2nd September) the forts St Julian, Bugio and Cascas (sic) were taken possession of by the 42nd and the Buffs, which regiments, the first from Gibraltar, the other from Madeira, happened to be off Lisbon on their passage to join the Army".
The anonymous private remembers there "was a French regiment and we relieved their guards; our Colonel receiving from the hands of the French Colonel the keys of the place. This Regiment of the enemy marched for Lisbon to join the rest of the French Army."
He further describes the garrison as very strong but in bad condition to hold out for long and a miserable place for soldiers that had lived off the fat of the land in Gibraltar. There were no proper barracks or blankets, which made the beds even harder.
Sir John Moore arrived in Queluz on September 17th where the whole of the British Army was expected to concentrate with the exception of the Lisbon garrison. "Lt Gen. Fraser's Division and mine marched to this camp yesterday (September 17th). It is the intention to assemble the whole army here with the exception of Gen. Hope's division, which remains in Lisbon. Sir H Burrard is to command the camp; it was chosen for no other reason but convenience and discipline."
As the 42nd was to march from Lisbon as a part of Fraser's Division it must have arrived at Queluz either on September 17th or soon after. In the words of the anonymous Private states "in a few weeks we marched from this wretched fort for Queluz where the British Army was encamped. Our stay here was not long. I was delighted with the camp as the weather was fine and we had our provisions served out regularly and good."
This does not correspond with a British Army Officer's description of the camp: -"What with the great heat, the cold nights, the eating of fruit and the drinking of young wine, the health of the army became so much impaired that typhus and dysentery broke out and spread rapidly, affecting even the inhabitants of villages lying close to the camp. The pestilential stench of our slaughterhouse refuse also contributed somewhat to the trouble; while, in addition, a huge hospital was installed in one of the wings of the castle, not far behind and below our stores depot, and separated from it only by a long ditch which was used as a latrine by the dysentery patients and was not five hundred yards away. Infection was bound to occur".
Much of the illness was caused by excessive drinking so it was with great relief that Sir John Moore issued a general order on October 9th; "The troops under Lt. Gen. Sir John Moore will hold themselves in readiness to move on the shortest notice. Lt. Gen. Sir John Moore will take an early opportunity of inspecting the several corps of the army".
The Anonymous Private relates that, "I think we were there about three weeks when we got orders to hold ourselves in readiness to march into Spain". This ties into an arrival at Queluz of around September 17th.
THE MARCH TO SALAMANCA
Authorities on the Black Watch give contradicting statements as to which route they took and the regiments they accompanied. Most take Colonel David Stewart as their gospel. He recalls in his "Sketches of the Highlander’s of Scotland" that, "The division of the Hon. Lt/General Hope consisting of the brigade of artillery and 4 regiments of infantry, of which the 42nd was one, marched upon Madrid and Espinar."
Forbes in his Black Watch history follows the Stewart line and Cannon’s history simply states, "In brigade with 4th, 28th under Major General Lord William Bentinck and advanced into Spain with the division under Lt/Gen. Hope."
On the other hand A.G. Wauchope’s 1907 history has it that, "Having advanced with the army under Sir John Moore past Abrantes, Almeida and Salamanca they reached Sahagun on 20th December."
This statement is supported by Sir Charles Oman one of the two giants of Peninsular War history and by Fortescue, historian of the British Army. In the words of Oman, "By Abrantes and Guarda went Bentinck (1/4,1/28,1/42) and 4 Companies of the 5/60th and Hill (1/5,1/32,1/91). This column took with it one battery; it was followed by two isolated regiments 1/6 and 1/50."
Moreover he adds: "Moore took the unhappy step of sending 6 of the 7 batteries of his corps, his only two cavalry regiments and 4 battalions of infantry (2nd, 36th, 71st, 92nd), to act as an escort, by the circuitous high road from Elvas to Madrid."
Notice that the 42nd was not one of the four regiments, which directly contradicts Stewart’s proposition. The two routes were miles apart and in very different directions and we must take Oman as the ultimate authority especially when the anonymous private of the 42nd remarks, "the first town of any note was Abrantes…we continued till we came to Ciudad Rodrigo…our next route was Salamanca".
THE PRECISE ROUTE TAKEN BY THE 42ND
The 42nd was in Bentinck’s Brigade which was a part of Fraser’s Division. The first regiment to leave Queluz was 2/52 which left on October 11th and most were in motion by October 18th.
The route taken was:
Queluz……Santarem……Abrantes……Villa Velha……Castello Branco……Guarda……Almeida……Ciudad Rodrigo……Salamanca.
The 42nd left Guarda on the morning of the 7th November with the 4th Foot. The 28th and 5th were behind them on the road.
Moore and the head of the column reached Salamanca on the 13th November. It took the 42nd about a week to reach Salamanca from Ciudad Rodrigo. The rear of the column could not have come in till several days later.
The total length of the march was around 280 miles.
SIR DAVID BAIRD’S DETACHMENT
Baird arrived at Corunna on October 13/14 1808 with 12298 Infantrymen, 1027 Artillerymen and 3100 Cavalrymen. However, they did not disembark until October 26th and it wasn’t until November 4th that all of the Infantry was ashore. Initially the Junta of Galicia had raised objections to Baird landing, as they didn’t want to make provision for the feeding and transport of a second army.
As they landed the troops were pushed eastwards on the road to Leon. By the 13th November the whole of the cavalry was ashore and on the same day Baird left Corunna to join his infantry at Astorga on November 22nd.
SITUATION ON NOVEMBER 23rd
Moore was at Salamanca with six infantry brigades and one battery. Baird lay at Astorga with four brigades and three batteries, but there were still a few battalions on the march from Galicia. Hope, with Moore’s cavalry and guns, was near the Escurial. Lord Paget with Baird’s cavalry was between Lugo and Astorga.
In general it was a deplorable situation as it was clear that the army would require ten days more to concentrate. Indeed the twelve days from November 23rd to December 4th were wasted by the non-arrival of the cavalry and guns without which Moore could not move forward.
THE DECISION FACING MOORE
Sir John Moore faced a choice. Should he persist in his concentration and then, if successful, take an active part in the campaign, or should he order each fraction of the British forces to retreat at once towards some safe base?
The decision depended upon the movement of French troops in the next few days and upon what Spanish troops existed to co-operate with the army if it should commence active operations.
MOORE’S OVERRIDING PRINCIPLE
Moore was determined to take no unnecessary risk with the forces committed to him. He knew full well that he had the only British field army available and that no such second force existed. Moore also had severe doubts as to the ability of any Spanish army to adequately support his manoeuvres and his men were not there to take on the French as a sole force.
THE DECISION TO RETREAT
Moore’s state of mind can be judged from a letter written to Castlereagh on November 27th "Madrid is threatened; the French have destroyed one army (Blake’s), have passed the Ebro and are advancing in superior numbers against another (Castanos) which from its composition must retire or be overwhelmed. No other armed force exists in this country. I perceive no enthusiasm or determined spirit among the people. This is a state of affairs quite different to that conceived by the British Government when they determined to send troops to the assistance of Spain. It was not expected that these were to cope alone with the whole force of France: as auxiliaries they were to aid a people who were believed to be enthusiastic, determined and prepared for resistance. It becomes therefore a question whether the army should remain to be attacked or retire from a country where the contest is become unequal."
The decision to retreat was finalised when on November 28th Moore was brought the news of the defeat of Capstans at Tudela. He didn’t lose a moment in dictating orders of retreat to the whole army.
42nd AT SALAMANCA
According to the anonymous private the 42nd "were thirty two days in Salamanca". Moore had rearranged the brigades in his own force so that on the 1st December the 42nd were a part of Bentinck’s brigade along with 1st/4th and 1st/50th . The 1st/28th had been replaced by the 1st/50th.
Baird received Moore’s instructions on 30th November and immediately began to retire. Leaving the cavalry and light brigade at Astorga to cover his retreat he fell back to Villafranca, fifty miles on the road to Corunna.
Hope also received his letter on 30th November requesting him to make forced marches by Penaranda and Ciudad Rodrigo to join his chief unless French troops blocked his path. Fortunately no such danger occurred. Hope eventually pulled in to Alba de Tormes where he was only fifteen miles from Salamanca. Here, he received orders not to push for Ciudad Rodrigo but to turn north to join the main body of the army.
WHY DID MOORE ABANDON THE RETREAT?
Moore himself did not retreat to Almeida. He still hoped to join up with Hope if the French did not press him. On December 4th the junction was made. Hope also brought news that all French columns were trending south and there was no move to Salamanca. In addition, Moore had received reports of the Madrid populace resolving to defend itself.
Somewhere between 8 pm to midnight on December 5th he made up his mind to countermand the retreat. So on December 6th Sir David Baird was ordered to return to Astorga.
THE NEW PLAN OF OPERATIONS
Despite hearing of the fall of Madrid on December 9th/10th Moore remained committed to moving against French communications in the Valladolid area. Even if he could not save Madrid, Moore could at least distract the enemy from an attempt to push further south, and give the Spanish armies time to rally.
THE INITIAL MOVE FROM SALAMANCA
On December 11th Moore’s infantry began to move forward. That day the reserve division under General E Paget and Beresford’s brigade of Fraser’s division marched for Toro where they found Lord Paget with Baird’s cavalry ready to cover their advance. These troops were to form the left hand column on the advance on Valladolid.
The next day December 12th Hope’s detachment from Alba de Tormes and the brigades of Bentinck (42nd a part), Hill, Fane and Charles Alten from Salamanca which formed the right hand column marched for Alaejos and Tordesillas.
In front of them was Charles Stewart’s cavalry brigade, which on the same evening at Rueda captured a French cavalry patrol, bar one man. Moore came up from Salamanca on December 13th to Alaejos where he overtook the infantry.
THE INTERCEPTED DISPATCH
An intercepted dispatch was brought, on December 14th, to Moore at Alaejos. This gave him Napoleon’s plan of action and evidence of the dislocation of the greater part of his army. Most important of all Moore discovered that his own positions and designs were wholly unsuspected. Napoleon believed him to be retreating to Lisbon.
From the dispatch it seemed that Soult was about to move forward into Leon where he would be isolated on the Carrion and a great distance from his Emperor. His strength was half that of Moore’s and defeat would be almost certain if the British Army moved against him as he advanced.
A severe defeat would ruin all of Napoleon’s plans. Moreover the area where Soult might be looked for – Carrion, Sahagun and Mayorga – was remote from Madrid unlike Valladolid which was the original focus of attack. It would be several days before the French could interfere.
THE CHANGE OF PLAN
Accordingly on December 15th the whole army suddenly changed direction from eastward to northward. The left hand column of infantry crossed the Douro at Zamora, the right column ( 42nd ) at Toro. Baird was directed to move to Benavente.
The cavalry, screening the march of both, went northward from Tordesillas to the banks of the Sequillo pushing its’ advance parties right up to Valladolid capturing 100 dragoons and their colonel. They disrupted the communications between Burgos and Madrid to such effect that Napoleon believed Moore was moving on Valladolid and planned accordingly.
CONCENTRATION OF THE ARMY
Four good marches (December 16th – December 20th) carried Moore’s infantry from Zamora and Toro to Mayorga.
The right hand column (42nd) moved from Toro via Villalapando and the left from Zamora via Valderas.
The weather was bitterly cold and the roads were frozen which paradoxically favoured movement, as the mud was frost hardened. A little snow fell but the troops marched well and there were few sick or stragglers.
At Valderas Baird’s Corps from Benevente joined the main body and by December 20th the entire army for the first time was concentrated at Mayorga.
REARRANGEMENT OF THE ARMY
When the army had concentrated Sir John Moore rearranged all its’ units. He formed it into four divisions and two independent Light Brigades.
The 42nd was a part of Sir David Baird’s Division, still in Bentinck’s Brigade, along with 1st/4th and 1st/50th.
The total number of men for the army as a whole was around 26000.
Whilst at Mayorga Moore discovered Soult hadn’t moved. One division was at Saldana, the other at Carrion. The Light Cavalry Brigade lay in front as a screen, with its HQ at Sahagun, only nine miles from the English Advanced Pickets at the Abbey of Melgar Abaxo.
Lord Paget, Cavalry Commander, surprised the French at Sahagun in what has been described as "The most brilliant exploit of the British Cavalry during the whole six years of the war". A hundred and seventy prisoners were taken whilst many were killed and wounded.
The scared survivors rode back to give Soult notice that the enemy was upon him and might close in next day. Moore’s Infantry following in the wake of Pagets’ Horse reached Sahagun on the evening of the 21st and it was almost their last step on the advance.
The General allowed one day’s rest to enable rear Divisions to close up to the Van so that all might advance on Saldana and Carrion in a compact mass. He intended to deliver his much-desired blow at Soult upon the 23rd.
However, Moore resolved to give his men 48 hours at Sahagun. The Army was told to rest, as long as daylight lasted on the 23rd, and to march at nightfall so as to appear in front of the bridge at Carrion at dawn on the 24th. Attacked at daybreak Moore hoped that Soult would find no time to organise his retreat and would thus be forced to fight.
The 42nd was quartered in the Great Benedictine Convent at Sahagun. The Anonymous Private records that in the convent "We found a great store of flour concealed". This was used to make cakes.
THE DECISION TO RETREAT
On the afternoon of the 23rd Moore received intelligence that all French forces in the direction of the Escurial were turning north and crossing the Guadarrama. Napoleon had turned north and was hastening across the mountains to overwhelm the British Army.
At nine p.m. Moore countermanded his advance on Carrion when the leading Brigades had already started. Utterly puzzled and much disgusted they returned to Sahagun.
Outside the Benedictine Convent Sir David Baird told the men of the 42nd to hold themselves ready for a retreat at dawn. When he had spoken the Highlanders stood for several moments transfixed and as one of their officer’s wrote afterwards;
"Everything showed that Sir John Moore had adopted the glorious determination to attack the enemy, and no decision could have been more eagerly embraced by his whole army. Everyone seemed animated with the same spirit, and the enthusiasm that glowed in this handful of Britons is perfectly indescribable. We were to move in two columns at 8 o’clock that night and by break of day we should be close to our foes who no doubt from their strong position would give us a warm reception.
At the appointed hour our men were under arms and in the most cheering spirits. The artillery were on the road, the baggage collected, the necessary arrangements made for the wounded in the Convent. All with impatience awaited the moment for attack.
The spirit that ran through our ranks was the most impetuous ever witnessed. Every heart beat high, every breast was buoyant for victory, and every countenance demonstrated the eagerness with which they awaited the order to advance. Our Grenadiers had reached the foot of the Convent stairs when, astonished and struck with dismay, we heard Sir David Baird gives these heart rending orders. "Go back to your Quarters and be ready to march in the morning",
For several moments the men stood transfixed and at length their disappointment broke out into a murmur and every countenance lost its high wrought anxiety. Indeed the effect of this counter order on our soldiers was most extraordinary and from the greatest pitch of exultation and courage at once a solemn gloom prevailed throughout our ranks. Nothing was heard on every side but the clang of firelocks thrown down in despair which before they had guarded as their dearest treasure and from the high order they were in had placed in them implicit confidence. The reasons for abandoning so grand a design, when glory seemed calling on our Commander to obey and receive a victory so decidedly within his reach did not transpire until next morning"
THE START OF THE RETREAT
Black Watch Office 1808
At noon on the 24th Moore started off in two columns. Baird’s Division marched by the northern road to Valencia de Don Juan where the Esla is passable by a ford and ferry. Hope and Fraser took the most southern route by Mayorga and the Bridge of Castro Gonzalo on the way to Benavente. There is some evidence from the Anonymous Private, Sir John Moore’s Diary and Hibbert’s book to suggest that the 42nd started the retreat on the 25th.
The reserve division under E Paget and the two Light Brigades remained at Sahagun for twenty-four hours to cover the retreat. Meanwhile the five Cavalry Regiments were ordered to press in closely on Soult and to keep him, as long as possible, in doubt as to whether he was not himself to be attacked. This worked as the Marshal made no move for two days so the English Columns were unmolested for these vital forty-eight hours.
Again the Anonymous Private records: "The ground was covered with snow. Our first day’s march was to Villamanon a distance of four leagues and a sore day’s march it was in account of the deepness of the roads. We came to a large river two miles from Villamanon when we stopped a few hours till all the baggage was got over in a boat. We forded it thus. There had been a pretty strong flood in the river, which was now from three to four feet deep. At the ford we had to fix our ammunition on the top of our knapsacks to prevent it from getting wet in fording the river: this was very disagreeable work at that inclement season. Though we doffed our hose and sheen and kilted our kilts above our weams all of us did not escape a ducking".
THE RETREAT ON ASTORGA
The crossing of the Esla by Baird’s Division referred to above was made on the 26th December at Valencia de Don Juan. As the river was rising the ford was indeed dangerous and a sudden thaw on the 24th had turned the roads into mud and loosened the snows. However, the guns and baggage crossed without loss, as did some of the infantry with the rest using the two ferryboats.
Fortescue mentions the Division as being halted at Acebes on the 29th and then uniting with Hope and Fraser at Astorga on the same date. Baird’s march was wholly unmolested by the French who were being successfully held back by Moore’s rearguard under the two Pagets and by the Light Brigades under Crawfurd and Alten. These reached Astorga on the 30th December thus effecting a concentration of the whole British and Spanish Armies.
Everyone thought that Moore would make a stand at Astorga. This was because Astorga was the gateway to the mountains of Galicia and there were in addition stockpiles of military equipment that could have been used.
The town itself could not have been defended but the area behind it was ideal country where a position could have been held against the French. Here the steep and forbidding Galician Mountains are traversed by only two passes. The one to the north called the Defile of Manzanal, which was the longer and easier, when compared to the shorter and more rugged pass to the south, called the Defile of Fuencebadan (Foncebadon).
The two Defiles could have been fortified and held against superior numbers. To turn out the British Troops would have been a very difficult task. The only other way into Galicia was by Puebla de Sanabria but it was far away and almost impassable at mid winter due to the poor roads and deep snow.
WHY DIDN’T MOORE DEFEND ASTORGA?
MOORE ORDERS THE RETREAT
Therefore, Sir John Moore proposed to fall back at once to the coast, as fast as he could, and trusted that the French would not be able to follow further than Villafranca, due to a lack of food. This retreat was ordered on the 30th December and the Divisions of Baird, Hope and Fraser pushed on towards Villafranca.
The main body of Moore’s army had left by the 31st following the road to Manzanal with the exception of the Light Brigades of Crawfurd and Alten who were sent towards Orense and Vigo via Fuencebadon in order to cover the left flank. Four hundred sick were left behind in Astorga along with a pile of equipment. The French did not enter Astorga until January 1st – thirty six hours after Moore had left.
THE BREAKDOWN IN DISCIPLINE
From the moment the retreat began the discipline in many Battalions ceased altogether and the evacuation of Astorga was carried out in a great state of disorder.
The news of further retreat exasperated the men and thousands got loose in the streets breaking into houses, maltreating inhabitants and pillaging stores. Rum was a great attraction and many were left behind dead drunk.
The terrible rain of the last week was turning into snow as the column began its long uphill climb across the ridge of the Monte Teleno (Toleno) towards the uplands of the Vierzo.
ASTORGA TO VILLAFRANCA
On leaving Astorga on December 30th the 42nd along with the rest of Baird’s Division faced a long twelve mile pull up a serpentine ascent through the Manzanal Pass across the ridge of Monte Teleno, and then a seven miles drop down to the valley of the Vierzo.
The rain had given way to the snow and conditions were appalling. The road was knee deep in slush and fatal to wagons and draught animals. The route through the villages of Combarros, Manzanal and Bembibre was soon littered with derelict baggage, wagons and amongst them the exhausted stragglers dying from cold and dysentery.
Retreat in these conditions tested the Regiment to the utmost and in Regiments where the officers were weak and incompetent discipline broke down. There were according to Oman about a dozen regiments, which behaved thoroughly well and came through the retreat with insignificant losses. The 42nd was one of these.
However, it wasn’t all good news. As the Anonymous Private reports at one point "There were a great many of the 42nd who got drunk and some of them lagged behind in the line of march and became prisoners to the French. When our day’s march was over there was a drumhead Court Martial held, and twenty-four tried and flogged. But our Colonel was enraged on account of being severely reprimanded that day by Sir John Moore on the line of March".
The Division containing the 42nd reached Bembibre which was the first place beyond the Manzanal Pass on December 31st and it was here that the serious indiscipline began. The village was a large local depot for wine and many hundreds made their way to the vaults and cellars.
As the anonymous Private recollects: "About five o’clock we reached a few miserable dwellings inhabited by horror struck and famished peasantry. Close to them we halted and piled our arms in the snow. There appeared neither wood nor water near us to cook our scanty morsel. Impatient to satisfy the urgent demands of nature the men pulled down doors, carried away chairs, carts etc from the isolated houses of the helpless natives."
When the Divisions marched off next morning the place resembled a battlefield with nearly one thousand men women and children lying dead drunk in the main street. Although the rearguard tried to rouse as many as they could, many were left.
French Dragoons entered Bembibre around two o’clock on 1st January 1809. Many were massacred as the Dragoons set about the drunks with their sabres. Those that did escape and caught up with the rearguard were in a horribly mutilated condition, and served as a timely reminder as to what could happen when indiscipline strikes.
The 42nd reached Villafranca on January 1st and scenes almost as bad were about to occur. Villafranca was Moore’s most important depot. It contained fourteen days rations of biscuits for the whole army, an immense amount of salt beef and pork and some hundreds of barrels of rum.
The Private of the 42nd records: "My shoes at this time were torn in pieces by the roads; but I had contrived to lash them to my feet with strings stripped from parts of my dress. Two days biscuits and three days of salt beef and pork were served out to us man by man; but there was no time for shoes and spirits to be given us though there was plenty of both in the store."
As there was no transport to move the stores Moore ordered most of it to be destroyed by burning. The troops however, broke into magazines and looted.
Again our Private provides us with a description; "There were a great many of the men who got shoes, but it was by forcing their way into the store and breaking the casks in which the shoes were packed up. When I saw this I endeavoured to get a pair; but the crowd was so great, I could not get near the entrance, and I could not tarry for the bugle was sounding the fall in. The Provost then came with his Guard of Horse and cleared the store. In a short time, notwithstanding our wretchedness, and wants, and bleeding feet, all that was in the store was destroyed."
On the morning of January 3rd at Villafranca Moore paraded the army and had one man shot before them for plundering a house in broad daylight and striking an officer. The troops were then marched past the corpse before marching on towards La Herrerias.
Again many were left behind after getting at the rum barrels and when the rearguard passed through on the night of 3rd/4th January they found the road before them strewn with one continuous line of wreckage.
VILLAFRANCA TO LUGO
Beyond Villafranca the Corunna road went through the defile of Piedrafita by which it reached the head waters of the Nava River and then climbed the spurs of Monte Cebrero to come out onto the bleak upland plain of Lugo.
These fifty miles contained the most difficult and desolate country in the whole of Moore’s march and was the scene of more helpless and undeserved misery than any other section of the retreat.
It was not merely drunkards and marauders who now began to fall to the rear, but steady old soldiers who could not face the cold, the semi-starvation and the forced marches. Moore hurried his troops forward at a pace that, over such roads, could only be kept up by the strongest men.
On the morning of the 4th January Baird’s Division was at Nogales preparing to move at dawn towards Santa Maria de Constantin. Sir David Baird was still in bed when George Napier an Aide de Camp of Moore arrived with orders from the General to halt at Lugo and assemble there.
Sir John had received reports, at around 3 a.m. on January 4th, from his Engineers which determined that Corunna was to be his port of embarkation. The transports were ordered from Vigo to Corunna and in the meantime the army would be halted at Lugo, rested, and discipline restored and if necessary battle offered to the enemy.
Baird now committed a cardinal sin in allowing the orders to go forward to Fraser by a Dragoon who got drunk and lost the dispatch. This led to Fraser’s troops continuing towards St Jago de Compostelia and then having to return to Lugo at the cost of four hundred stragglers.
On January 5th Moore compelled the whole army to execute a forced march of 36 continuous hours. It was as if Moore now doubted the discipline of the army and wanted to reach the sea as quickly as possible.
It was on Monte Cebrero that the wagons containing the sick and wounded were left. It was here that the many women and children accompanying the army suffered terribly. The French treated those women who survived abominably.
As the men gained the highest point the red uniforms of those soldiers, who lay dying from fatigue and cold, picked out the road below. The great part of the baggage train was lost between Villafranca and Lugo, as was the military chest, containing twenty five thousand pounds, when it was thrown over a precipice.
As the reserve drew towards Lugo as dawn approached on January 6th it fell in with Hope’s and Baird’s Divisions. The main body of the army was drawn up on the bleak uplands east of the town.
LUGO TO CORUNNA
Black Watch Soldier 1808
The Lugo position was very strong. On the right it touched the unfordable river Minho whilst on the left it rested on rocky and inaccessible hills. All along the front there was a line of low stone walls forming the boundaries of fields and vineyards. Below it there was a gentle down slope of a mile, up which the enemy would have to march to attack.
Sir John Moore hoped that Marshall Soult would fight as he felt that there could only be one outcome. However, Soult was far too canny to move against such a formidable line. Between January 6th to 8th he considered himself too weak and was content to wait for reinforcements.
Moore now knew that the retreat had to be pursued to the finish, as to wait or attack were no longer options. So the evening of the 8th January was spent in destroying stores and preparing for retreat. Five hundred exhausted and injured Cavalry and Artillery horses were shot, a number of Caissons knocked to pieces and the remainder of stores of food destroyed.
Bivouac fires were to be left burning to mislead the enemy that the army was still present and the men were to slip quietly away along routes carefully marked with sheaves of corn and where guides would be placed so as to ensure the troops reached the Corunna road in sequence.
Unfortunately, just as the evacuation was taking place a violent rain and sleet storm began. This blew away the markers and left the guides in total darkness. As a result several Battalions spent the night wandering round and round to such an extent that in the morning they found themselves still close to Lugo.
The Anonymous Private provides a description of what happened to the 42nd. "We stopped on this ground on which we offered the French battle all day. About 8 o’clock at night we received orders to put on large fires to make the enemy believe we were still encamped. At 9 we commenced our retreat again and marched all night and next day till 2 o’clock. We then halted at a small village wherein there were some stores of rum and blankets. We had a great deal of rain and sleet that day."
The village referred to above was that of a dirty, miserable looking place called Guitiriz (Guitoriez). The 42nd here experienced a particularly severe and violent storm. Sir David Baird the Divisional Commander had taken shelter in the Inn and had given permission for the men to break up and take shelter. This was a fatal error, as the men could not be got together again when the time to start had arrived. Bentinck’s Brigade to which the 42nd belonged left an enormous proportion of their men behind. The main body of Moore’s army moved as a disorderly mob between Lugo and Betanzos. There was more dispersion, disorder and marauding in this march than in any other during the whole retreat. The fatiguing retreat was continued through part of the night January 9th to 10th, and on the following morning all of the regiments reached Betanzos. The reserve, which had not lost its bearings, halted a mile or two east of the town to cover the arrival of hundreds and thousands of stragglers.
Again the Private of the 42nd describes the Regiment’s progress; "We tarried here till about 9 at night and then took the road again. This was a constant march and on this day I was reduced to my bare feet. I cared not if I fell into the hands of the French. I was harassed out of my very life. Still I continued on the line of the march with the Regiment for four hours.
I would be marching and sleeping, literally walking asleep. I often thought that if I could get a convenient place I would lie down and take a nap and let the consequences be what they might.
By this time there were not three hundred men with the Regiment out of the one thousand that entered Spain. Many had fallen a sacrifice to the hardships of fatigue, hunger and disease on the line of march and many more had been taken or massacred by the French who pursued us.
We continued our march until 11a.m the next day (January 10th) when we reached Betanzos. All that came of our Regiment to this town was one hundred and fifty. We had not an officer to carry the colours as all had fallen behind but while a man was left the 42nd’s colours would be safe."
Oman quotes another Regiment from Manningham’s Brigade of Baird’s Division arriving at Betanzos with only nine officers, three sergeants and three privates.
The army rested and fed itself on the 10th and resumed the march on the 11th. The weather was mild and dry and the coastland climate a pleasant change from the mountains. More stores were destroyed at Betanzos.
The 42nd Private states: "The army left Betanzos at 9 a.m. However, I stayed as part of the guard detailed to assist in destroying stores. All were thrown in the river. We arrived in Corunna by the afternoon."
Moore was there to watch the army come into Corunna, which they began to do in failing light at 3 p.m. He had reached Corunna but his troubles were not over. The transports had not arrived from Vigo, by the 13th, due to contrary winds. Therefore, the army commander ordered the landward front of Corunna to be fortified and the seaward batteries to be disarmed.
The 42nd were quartered in a convent in the town.
THE BATTLE OF CORUNNA
The ground to the south of Corunna rose in a succession of parallel ranges which ran from east to west, being bounded on the east by the estuary of El Burgo.
The first of these was Monte Mero, which lay about two miles from Corunna. Its’ maximum height was 400 feet and declined in altitude from east to west along a front of 1½ miles.
A mile to the south of Monte Mero were the heights of Palavea and Penasquedo with an average height of 600 feet stretching from east to west for about two miles and was prolonged to the north west by Monte de Mesoiro.
Monte Mero and the heights of Penasquedo were covered with rocks and large patches of gorse, which made the ground both difficult and blind. The private of the 42nd noted that," the ground on which both the French and British were to fight was very bad for making an engagement being very rocky and full of ditches."
On the western side the two ranges were connected by a low neck about 150 feet high and here stood the village of Elvina. Elvina contained a cluster of scattered houses each surrounded by dry stone garden walls thus forming a labyrinth of narrow ways.
The British Position
Sir John Moore did not have enough men to occupy the heights of Penasquedo so he fell back on Monte Mero. His left flank was protected by the estuary of El Burgo though on the right the ground was open and easy for a turning movement which if successful would cut him off from Corunna. In addition the greater height of the ridge of Penasquedo allowed the enemy to dominate Monte Mero through long-range artillery fire.
Moore’s first line from Elvina to the estuary along the slopes of Monte Mero consisted of the Divisions of Hope (ten battalions) and Baird (eight battalions) each with two brigades in line and one in reserve.
Bentinck’s Brigade (42nd, 50th, 4th) of Baird’s Division rested its right on Elvina and extended eastward where the line was continued by Manningham’s Brigade (3rd Battalion Royals, 26th, 2nd/81st) with the Guards under Warde in the rear.
Leith’s Brigade was deployed on the west of the road to Corunna to the left of Manningham and the line was then prolonged further by Hill’s Brigade (Queens, 14th, 32nd) which was stationed between that road and the estuary. Crawfurd’s Brigade (36th, 71st, 92nd) concealed in the rear of Hill’s Brigade between Eiris and the tidal water completed the distribution of Hope’s Division.
Sir John Moore’s weak point was his right flank. Accordingly Paget’s reserve (20th, 28th, 52nd, 91st, Rifle Corps) was massed further north about the village of Oza to the right rear of Baird; and Fraser’s Division, made up of Fane’s Brigade (36th, 79th, 82nd) and Beresford’s Brigade (6th, 9th, 23rd, 2/43rd), was drawn up still further to the right rear on the heights of Santa Margarita. Six out of the nine guns were on Monte Mero.
The troops were brought up to their fighting ground on the 15th January although preparations had begun on the 14th for the inevitable battle. The Private of the 42nd states that on the afternoon that the fleet came into harbour (14th January) "we were busied in erecting huts".
The French Position
When the French stragglers had arrived by the 15th they moved forward and seized the heights of Palavea and Penasquedo overlooking the British position.
Soult decided to attempt the manoeuvre that Sir John Moore expected, which was to assault the western end of the line where the Heights were least formidable and at the same moment to turn the Monte Mero by a movement round its extreme right through the open ground.
Because Baird’s Division was within cannon shot Soult ordered ten guns to be dragged up to the western most crest of the French position and to be placed above the village of Elvina facing Bentinck’s Brigade.
Soult’s force was superior to Moore’s. His plan was to contain the British left and centre with Delaborde’s and Merle’s Divisions while Mermet and the baulk of the cavalry attacked Moore’s right seizing the western end of the Monte Mero and pushing in between Baird’s flank and Corunna. If this movement succeeded the British retreat would be compromised. Delaborde and Merle could then assail Hope and prevent him from going to the rear and two thirds of Moore’s army would be captured.
The Part Played By the 42nd
The battle began around 1.30 to 2 p.m. on the 16th January 1809. The 42nd were under the command of Battalion Colonel James Stirling in Bentinck’s Brigade and was probably around eight hundred strong. The Anonymous Private refers to the fact that: "On the morning of the 16th of January we could see the French getting into very large columns. About 10 a.m. they advanced with a few cannon in front of the Brigade to which I belonged. Our men did not mind this till about 12 o’clock when a few shots were fired from the enemy’s battery. Some of their balls fell among our huts and we were then soon under arms. Five minutes sufficed. We had two field pieces at the right of our Brigade."
At about 2 p.m. Soult gave the order to attack. The battery opposite Elvina began to play upon Baird’s Division. Mermet was to carry Elvina and turn the British right; Merle was to support him by attacking the British centre; and far away on the British left Delaborde was to take Piedralonga.
Mermet’s Division was in motion and five hundred Voltigeurs swarmed forward to assault Elvina. At their head was General Jardon "a crabbed, foul mouthed, hard drinking old soldier who talked the French of the canteen and could hardly write his name". Bentinck’s Brigade was ready for them with the 4th on the right, 50th in the centre and the 42nd on the left.
Thus Bentinck’s Brigade was at once seriously assailed. Not only did the balls of Soult’s main battery sweep its lines but also a heavy infantry attack was in progress. The 42nd suffered heavily from this bombardment – "a few of the 42nd were killed and some were wounded by the grapeshot. We had then not moved one inch in advance or retreat".
In many accounts of the battle there is a reference to a soldier of the 42nd being hit by an artillery shot. This comes from the "Life of Sir Charles Napier" by Sir W. Napier – "Meanwhile a second shot had torn off the leg of a 42nd man, who screamed horribly and rolled about so as to excite agitation and alarm with others. The General said, "This is nothing, my lads; keep your ranks; take that man away; my good fellow don’t make such a noise, we must bear these things better". He spoke sharply but it had a good effect for this man’s cries had made an opening in the ranks".
The French 31st Brigade on coming before Elvina parted into two columns, the left of which went through the village while the right rounding its eastern side advancedup the hill against the 42nd.
The Highlanders had so far been engaged in a confused fight with the swarming skirmishers of Mermet with both sides taking advantage of the shelter of the enclosures. "The French columns soon formed their line and advanced driving the picquets and flankers before them while their artillery kept up a close cannonade on our line with grape and round shot."
All the stress of the first fighting fell on the three battalions of Bentincks Brigade on the hill above Elvina. However, the time was now coming for more serious fighting and with Baird the Divisional Commander having been disabled by a cannon shot the army commander Sir John Moore was on the spot to direct it.
There is probably a degree of poetical licence in the various words ascribed to Sir John Moore at this time. The Anonymous Private records that Sir John came in front of the 42nd and said "There is no use in making a long speech, but 42nd I hope that you will do as you have done before".
Sir John Moore then rode off the ground in front of the 42nd. "Sir John did not mention Egypt but we understood Egypt was the meaning of his expressions as Bonaparte’s Invincibles were the last the 42nd were engaged with. Sir John was thirty yards in front of the regiment when he addressed us. I heard him distinctly. Our Colonel gave orders for us to lie on the ground at the back of the Height our position was on; whenever the French were within a few yards of us we were to start up and fire our muskets and then give them the bayonet.
They came up the hill cheering ", with their normal cries of En Avant! En Avant! Tuez! Tuez!, "as if there were none to oppose them we being out of their sight. When they came up to the top of the hill all the word of command that was given was "42nd , Charge!""
Private Gunn of the 42nd recalled that "On standing up a strange sight met one’s gaze; close to us was advancing a line of sturdy Frenchmen, too close in fact for our volley to have full effect. Both sides were, I think, taken by surprise, but our opponents more so, for all that were able to do so went to the right about, pursued by us down the hill."
The Anonymous Private similarly provides a description of that instance. "In one moment every man was up with a cheer and the sound of his musket, and every shot did execution. They were so close upon us that we gave them the bayonet the instance we fired.
We followed them down to the valley and stopped not for general or commanding officer. When we had driven them in upon their other columns we ourselves retreated, but not pursued, and took advantage of a ditch that was in the valley from which we kept up a constant fire on the enemy to dark. All the time I was in that ditch I was up to the knee in mud."
Fortescue summarises the action as follows "The Highlanders strove forward, poured in one volley and charged with the bayonet. There was a short but desperate conflict between the two regiments and then the French gave way and ran down to the foot of the hill, cruelly maltreated, while the Highlanders halted behind the wall."
The Elvina position was vital. As the French reinforcements came up they pushed the 42nd back to the edge of the village but there the 42nd took up a strong position behind walls and ditches from which they could not be removed. As the French fought to break the 42nd’s hold on the position Napier commanding the 50th waited impatiently on the ridge above. At last he decided to take the advice of his second in command," You cannot be wrong to follow the 42nd". The 50th also came to a halt besides the 42nd at the edge of the village. Moore now brought up the guards to replace the 42nd and 50th. It is said that when they appeared the 42nd’s Light Company whose ammunition was spent began to retire thinking they were to be relieved. Moore sent them forward again saying "My brave 42nd, join your comrades ammunition is coming you have your bayonets".
However, Forbes in his history of the regiment quotes a letter from Major General James Stirling written in 1830. "As soon as the Regiment had given their fire and driven the enemy with the bayonet to the bottom of the ravine, Sir John directed me to halt the corps and defend that position; and turning myself round to him when he gave the order, I saw him, at the moment struck to the ground from off his horse and I immediately sent a party to carry him from the field. The Grenadiers and 1st company not hearing my word of command to halt continued the charge a little in advance as did the Light Company also; when I was ordered by Lord William Bentinck commanding the Brigade to recall them and form them in line with the Regiment; and in that position, as directed by Sir John Moore the Corps continued in close action with the enemy till night put an end to the contest."
Sir John Moore
Shortly after Moore had rallied the Highlanders, as indicated above, he was struck by a round shot on the left breast and shoulder. The shock hurled him from his horse. Sir John raised himself into a sitting position with his uninjured arm and continued to follow, with his eyes, the 42nd in action. He was borne back to Corunna in a blanket by six men of the Guards and 42nd where he later died and was buried.
In this part of the field both sides had had more than enough. The losses of both had been very severe and the survivors thought more of keeping themselves under cover than of fighting. The Battle of Elvina was at an end and as night fell both parties withdrew from the village by mutual consent.
The 42nd’s Private concludes "We stopped in the ditch till about 8 p.m. when we retreated to our old position where we stayed till 11 p.m. when we received orders to retreat to Corunna and embark. We left behind two men of a company to keep up large fires that we had kindled to deceive the enemy."
LOSSES OF THE 42nd.
Fortescue: 6 officers and 144 men (150 total).
Oman: 39 rank and file killed, 111 wounded including 6 officers (150).
Keltie: 36 rank and file killed, 1 sergeant killed, 6 officers wounded (Captains Duncan Campbell, John Fraser, Maxwell Grant, Lts Alexander Anderson, William Middleton, Thomas MacInnes) 1 sergeant and 104 rank and file wounded (148).
Linklater: 35 killed, 111 wounded (146).
The retreat was more deadly as ninety nine men were marked "missing".
The 42nd embarked on 17th January 1809 for Plymouth and Portsmouth.